Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston

Whether they like it or not, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston will be compared and contrasted extensively between now and April 30th, 2015 – Day 1 of the NFL draft.

Both players look like they could have been dreamt up by NFL general managers and manifested in physical form. Mariota stands 6-4 and is a wiry but solid 219 pounds. Winston clocks in at 6-4 and a stout 225 pounds. It’s safe to say that neither of these guys will have the same height and size concerns as Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel in 2014.

Many fans know the backstory on both of these guys but for those that don’t, let’s recap the current narratives on both quarterbacks:

Mariota – Superbly athletic player who runs a sub-4.5 forty-yard dash and displays a good arm and… wait for it… “can make all the throws.” The statistics say that Mariota is a good passer – 68.3 completion percentage, 38 touchdowns, and only 2 interceptions in 2014. The question marks for Mariota lie in the offense that he functions in. It’s the high-volume, fast-paced Oregon spread offense that is “QB friendly” and could potentially make him appear a better quarterback than he really is because he’s throwing to mostly wide open receivers. Mariota also throws a lot of screens and smoke routes off of the read option. Might be a “system QB.”

Winston – Big time player at a big time school. Winston has performed well and is 27-0 when starting at quarterback for the Florida State Seminoles. Winston is a big body, strong-armed, multi-sport athlete. Winston appears to have everything it takes on the field. As good as Winston has been on the field, if all the reports are true, he’s exponentially worse off of it. From crustacean larceny, standing on tables and yelling vulgar internet memes, to the severely disturbing and distressing sexual assault charges that were eventually dismissed by the courts and the school during a code of conduct hearing.

Note that these are the current narratives. The point of this study is to cut through the preconceived notions on both players and look at the on-field play to extract traits and elements of these guys’ play that can be translated to the NFL. By doing this it allows a clearer vision of each player and a more accurate prediction of each player’s future as a professional quarterback.

It should be noted that this will not include any off-field observations. This has nothing to do with tabloid reports or inferences of “leadership qualities” or lack thereof from media reports. I have not met either player or spoken to either player and therefore have no basis for judging that portion of their game here. I’ll leave that up to the teams, psychologists, and talking heads.

The Traits of Successful NFL Quarterbacks

Before jumping into the film study of these two quarterbacks, it’s critical to know what exactly makes a signal caller successful at the NFL level. In my experience, there are certain traits that stand out above others that can project from college to the NFL pretty accurately. Because some will agree with what I find important and others won’t, it’s important to point out all of the traits and characteristics that are evident on film and let each person decide for themselves how they perceive each trait, and in the end, each player.

Decision Making

Ask any NFL scout his top three traits he evaluates in quarterbacks and decision-making will be near the top of his list. Decision-making encompasses a lot of variables but is most often spoken of in terms of an overall mindset of a player – game manager or gunslinger. The essential idea to take away here is that most quarterbacks can be categorized as conservative or aggressive in their decision-making. Few college quarterbacks will toe the line between the two categories by making smart throws but with anticipation and accuracy into tight windows. These are the guys we want.

It’s important to evaluate the process and not the result. Results can vary but if the decision-making process is consistently sound then so is the outcome. The problem is that sometimes the decision can be good and the execution poor and the result tells the wrong story. For example, if a quarterback makes the correct read of the defense and throws to an open receiver but overthrows him right into a safety’s hands, that’s a good decision with a bad throw/execution. Most fans will see the play and exclaim, “But that’s an interception!” Of course, it is, but it wasn’t the decision that caused the pick, it was the throw. It’s vital to be able to separate the decision and the decision-making process from the end result.

This trait not only covers the ability to make good decisions but also the efficiency in making them. It doesn’t help to make the right decision if it takes too long to make it. Geno Smith actually made good decisions in college but the problem was that he couldn’t come off of his first read fast enough and it affected his ability to get to his 2nd and 3rd receivers in the progression. Instead of finding the next guy open, Smith would face undue pressure that rarely resulted in a good outcome. It’s now easy to see how that translated to the NFL.

Pocket Presence (including pocket tolerance)

This trait is one that separates the good from the best. Good quarterbacks can work in timing and rhythm in the offense but struggle when that is disrupted by pressure or other factors. Good quarterbacks will escape the pocket at the first sign of pressure to buy time but by doing so, i.e. rolling to his right or his left, the quarterback will limit the amount of field he has to work with.

The absolute best in the game (Brady, Manning, Brees, Rodgers) move inside the pocket in subtle ways that create space or cause a defender to miss. It can be stepping up in the pocket and “climbing the ladder” to leave edge rushers behind him, or it can be a single step left or right to let a rusher up the middle pass by. This is moving within the pocket and is vastly different than sensing pressure and escaping the pocket.

The difference in the two is that moving within the pocket is a natural and instinctive motion that allows the quarterback to keep his eye level up and on the receivers, while leaving the pocket often forces the quarterback’s eyes down to the oncoming pressure. When a quarterback drops his eyes to the pressure he loses sight of the coverage and his receivers and it takes him longer to get his eyes back up, find his target, and deliver the football. In the latter situation, bad things tend to happen unless a quarterback is mobile enough or buys enough time to reset his eyes and make a good decision.

Quarterbacks who have a history of running as much as they throw tend to want to escape the pocket sooner, while guys like Manning and Brady will remain in the pocket as long as possible and only use their legs when absolutely necessary. This is pocket tolerance – the ability to remain in a collapsing or muddy pocket as it closes in and still be able to deliver the football. “Running” quarterbacks tend to lack this element in their game simply because it’s always been a better option for them to escape and run and gain the first down with their feet.

Pocket tolerance is important because remaining in the pocket while avoiding pressure extends the play allowing receivers extra time to get open but keeps the entire field available for the quarterback to throw to. This is opposed to a quarterback who escapes the pocket and rolls to his right and essentially takes away his ability to throw to the left side of the field. By condensing the field, the quarterback has lessened his ability to exploit the defense through the use of larger spaces. He’s confined his playing space.

This is the same reason why offenses will use max protection (two or three extra men in pass blocking) while the receivers run deep routes. The extra protection allows the quarterback to stay in the pocket while allowing the longer routes to develop and still keeping the entire field open because he’s not scrambling one way or another. This is a way that teams will try to create big plays.

Accuracy (including ball placement)

One of the most important attributes to a quarterback’s game is his ability to locate the football. It’s important the he hit the open receivers when they’re available, but it’s also important to locate the ball in a good position for the receiver to have the best chance possible of making the catch, and taking it a step further, potentially making a run after the catch.

The quarterback must be consistent with his accuracy and not scattershot. Being precise and consistent in this aspect may be one of the toughest traits to find at this position.

Anticipation and Arm Strength

These seemingly unrelated traits are lumped together because they are complementary to each other. There must be a combination of these two traits that reaches a certain baseline to be a successful NFL quarterback. Throw in accuracy and this is the trifecta of being able to throw the ball with location and timing so that it ends up in the receiver’s hands and not in the hands of the other team.

Arm strength is one of the most debated traits of the quarterback position. While it’s a sexy trait to have because it’s fun to watch, if there is a lack of arm strength it can be made up with good anticipation.

Most offenses in this era of the NFL function on rhythm and timing between the quarterback and his receivers. The passer must be able to deliver the ball on time and on target to his receiver or he risks a deflection by a defender, or worse, an interception. If a quarterback is late delivering the ball to a spot because he recognized the pattern late, he can make up for it by zipping the ball into the spot with a strong throw. If a quarterback has good anticipation, even if he loops a ball into the target, if he recognized it early enough and delivered it early enough, the lack of arm strength is negated by the anticipation.

Of course it’s best if a quarterback has both of these characteristics in exceptional levels but not all do. It just should be noted that these two traits have a very strong relationship in terms of projecting a quarterback prospect to NFL success.

Information Processing

This trait aligns closely with decision-making but deserves it’s own category. Much like a computer with a more powerful processor can churn through data faster and more efficiently, the best quarterbacks are able to do so in multiple phases.

Peyton Manning may be the best in the history of the NFL at pre-snap and post-snap recognition. This is due to his ability to process information extremely efficiently. He can see how the defense aligns, adjust his offense to fit what he thinks is going to happen post-snap, snaps the ball, validates or in-validates what he thinks he’s supposed to see, determines the correct throw, and then makes it. This all happens in less time than it took you to read that sequence.

One Final Disclaimer

It’s important to try to remove all bias when evaluating players and to try to remain as objective as possible. It’s tough to do this with prospects who have a significant amount of hype surrounding them. While the hype over this year’s quarterbacks isn’t at the Manziel-ian or Tebow-ian level, there is still a major buzz surrounding both of these guys.

It’s necessary to point out that under the necessary traits to be successful that are listed above, mobility or running ability wasn’t listed. There are many who will disagree and believe that the NFL is moving to that style of quarterback play. While it may be, it’s not there yet. The quarterback position is still played from the pocket and is still a predominantly passing position. If you disagree with that, you’ll probably disagree with my evaluations simply because we place different levels of importance on different aspects of play in the position. This is normal and it’s perfectly fine to disagree – it’s actually a good thing because it can start conversations that lead to more clarity of both the prospects and also what to look for when evaluating the position.

With that said, there are specific benefits to having speed and athleticism at the position as it can help manage other flaws. Mobile quarterbacks tend to lack a strong ability to read through a progression because they’ve simply never had to do so. In college and high school, these types of quarterbacks were better off checking their first read and if he wasn’t open, tuck the ball and run for fifteen yards. Unfortunately, in the NFL, everyone is faster than the quarterback and defensive coordinators are much smarter and have specific ways to take away this ability (for the most part).

However, having the ability to run can create larger holes in the defense because of the ways that defenses will scheme to keep a quarterback from collecting yards on the ground. It can slow down the pass rush and spread out defensive lines who are playing contain to keep the quarterback from scrambling outside of the pocket. The ability to run can also cause a defense to place a “spy” in the middle of the field, taking him out of rushing the passer or coverage, which leaves larger holes in both elements. Running quarterbacks can also force defenses to play more zone to keep the linebackers and secondary’s eyes in the backfield for better support in case the quarterback tries to take off.

While these are all very valuable byproducts of having a quarterback who runs better than he passes, there simply must be a baseline passing competency for a quarterback to be consistently successful over the long term. Most running quarterbacks don’t have the passing ability to meet that baseline. Essentially, a quarterback must be a passer who can run and not a runner who can throw. Running is an ancillary bonus trait for the quarterback position and doesn’t lead to any long-term success.

Many will point to Steve Young’s success as a “running quarterback” to refute this argument. The fact that Young is the only applicable contradiction is, in itself, an affirmation of this theory. But even using Young as an example, he was still a passer before a runner and was coached that way. Running was a last resort option and it took sitting behind Joe Montana and being coached by maybe the greatest offensive mind in Bill Walsh, to get him to play the position the way it has to be played.

The quarterback position in the NFL is played as a passer from the pocket. Those are the traits that indicate long-term success in the NFL and those are the traits that must be examined while making note of any ancillary characteristics, like the ability to run the football as a quarterback.

The Prospects

While Winston and Mariota will never be on the field at the same time in a game, they will indirectly be competing against each other in this week’s Rose Bowl. Now that Tampa Bay has secured the number one overall pick in the draft and are in desperate need of a quarterback, they are going to have to figure out which quarterback gives them the best chance for long-term success.

While the Buccaneers must take into account all of the off-the-field aspects of each player such as discipline, leadership, and (most importantly) the ability to stay out of trouble, we’re just looking at the on-field play here.

Marcus Mariota – Oregon

6-4, 219lbs.

2014 Season: 68.3% comp, 3,783 yards, 10.2 Y/A, 38 TDs, 2 INTs, 186.3 rating

Marcus Mariota is a bit of an enigma to project. He is obviously helped by a very friendly offense that gives him wide gaps in coverage to throw into. The Orgeon scheme creates space for receivers and running backs to work and it helps a quarterback tremendously. In the NFL, those elements are almost the complete opposite – tight windows to throw into, must throw guys open, quarterbacks must operate from a tight and muddy pocket and throw from compromised positions because of it. This means that Mariota is more of a projection of skills – as opposed to a translation of skills – than just about any quarterback I’ve ever watched.

Essentially, Mariota has a lot of very good traits that are rolled up like a ball of clay, waiting to be molded into an NFL quarterback. Instead of being a well-formed QB, Mariota is a prospect that will need coaching and development to become great. It’s very important that Mariota lands in the right situation, and with the right coaches, because he has some terrific tools to work with but he also has a long way to go to become an NFL-ready passer.

I’m not saying that Mariota is a “system QB.” His system helps him, sure, but he plays the quarterback position well and probably could play well in many other college schemes. His numbers are inflated because of the system he operates in but not his skill set.

The first thing that jumps off the screen when watching Mariota play is his athleticism and speed. He’s quick and slippery as a runner, has a high top-end speed, and gets to it quickly. He is a vertical threat with his legs. Oregon uses him in multiple packages where he has the option to run and he’s just as much of a threat running the ball as any of the Oregon running backs.

When operating from the pocket, and it’s very clear Mariota prefers to operate from the pocket first, he displays good mobility within the pocket and an ability to manipulate the pocket with his feet to buy time. He’s not totally comfortable in this aspect as his movement is elaborate and not as subtle as I’d like. Instead of a slide step left, right, or forward, Mariota moves more in a frenetic fashion. It’s a small difference but in tighter NFL pockets it can become an issue. This is something Mariota can refine with practice.

One other concern about Mariota’s in-pocket movement is that he voluntarily moves himself off “the spot.” In the NFL, protection centers around offensive linemen knowing where the quarterback is supposed to be in the pocket. Whether it’s a three-step, five-step, or seven-step drop, the offensive linemen know that the quarterback is going to be at that spot, directly behind center. Mariota tends to move himself off of that spot on his own too often. This can help create undue pressure because a linemen is blocking to keep a defender away from that spot, except that’s not where the quarterback is. This is another small issue that can create problems in the NFL but is a fairly easy fix with enough coaching and reps.

In the pocket, Mariota shows a strong ability to work through a full-progression though not as efficiently as I’d like. There’s a difference in his 2013 and 2014 film where in ’14, Mariota tends to hold onto the ball longer in the pocket, which allows a better evaluation of his ability to get through progressions. The issue that it also uncovers is one of my most serious concerns with Mariota: the ability to pull the trigger and make throws into tight windows. This is a critical trait in the NFL and Mariota lacks it. He will have to re-learn what he believes an open wide receiver is in the NFL. There are many times on tape where Mariota looks at his primary read, who is open by NFL standards, and passes up a normal NFL throw to look for another receiver.

I can’t stress how important this aspect is for Mariota to learn. He must pull the trigger on tighter throws or he’ll be very inconsistent as a passer. His lack of interceptions is a direct result of this. It’s good that Mariota doesn’t take chances with the football but it’s very important for him to grow into the ability to makes tough throws or else he’ll always be very dependent on the talent around him and his receivers to get exceptional separation for him to feel comfortable enough to make a throw. If he doesn’t learn this ability, then he basically becomes a bizarre form of Alex Smith because he won’t take chances with the football.

He has a good base for expanding this element of his game because he does a good job of moving his feet with his eyes as he goes through his progressions. This allows Mariota to get the ball out quickly when he sees a receiver open. He can also throw from compromised body positions and arm angles well.

Mariota has a good arm and throws the ball with great zip to the intermediate areas of the field. He has a mechanical flaw where he doesn’t use his front side of his body enough to generate torque. He’s learned to compensate by using more of his arm but this is actually a good thing as it’s an easy fix that will generate even more velocity and arm strength when corrected. Mariota’s arm is good and should get better.

One of the most disappointing aspects of Mariota’s game on film was his mediocre accuracy. He is fairly erratic with both his overall accuracy and his ball placement. At times he’ll hit a receiver directly in stride but too often he will throw it in front or behind a crossing receiver or will miss a spot altogether. Sometimes he’ll miss high because he doesn’t fully step into his throw. This is a slight concern because he does it too often without pressure, which means he’s anticipating pressure before it actually manifests. Mariota’s pocket tolerance improved vastly from 2012 to 2014 so it’s easy to think that this is something that he’ll continue to get more comfortable with and can be eliminated from his play with the right coaching.

Mariota prefers velocity throws on a line as opposed to putting touch on throws but can do both. His deep ball could use some work as too often he doesn’t give the receiver a chance to make a play and will overthrow them. One of his strongest throws is the “hole shot” throw to the sidelines behind the cornerback and in front of the safety in cover 2. He also loves throwing to his tight end in the middle of the field.

One other concerning feature of Mariota’s game is that he has mediocre anticipation. It’s decent but for a high-level quarterback in the NFL this is a very important trait. I think this can get better because right now Mariota seems to be lacking in recognition in his pre-snap reads. If he can improve his pre-snap reads, he’ll get better at being able to recognize what a defense is doing post-snap. Stanford preyed on this by mixing up pressure packages and showing blitz and dropping linebackers into coverage. Add in a lack of awareness of linebackers lurking in underneath coverage and it’s a recipe for an interception or two.

Overall, Mariota is a terrific prospect that has an extremely high ceiling. A staff looking at Mariota needs to understand what he is right now (a big ball of clay) and what he can be in the future (a top five quarterback who can attack in both the run and the pass game), and work to get him there.

The team that drafts Mariota will have a choice to make in how they route his development. They can either choose to adapt their system to his strengths early on to allow him to play and be productive (think Kyle Shannahan with Robert Griffin III), or they can force him to work on the pro-style aspects of his game which will inhibit his production early on, but is almost assuredly the best long-term option (think Steve Young).

I have some concerns about Mariota’s game. He has to improve his accuracy, anticipation, and he must learn to throw the ball into tighter windows. These are two traits that take time, effort, coaching, and reps to internalize so that they’re an automatic reaction and not a laboring decision. If he can learn and improve these aspects of his game, Mariota has the ceiling to be great.

Jameis Winston – Florida State

6-4, 230lbs.

2014 Season: 65.4% comp., 3,559 yards, 8.4 Y/A, 24 TDs, 17 INTs, 147.0 rating

When evaluating both Mariota and Jameis Winston, I found it useful to go back to multiple seasons of film. Both players progressed in different ways and it helps to get a feel for how they might develop as players in the NFL. The problem with Winston is that his numbers dropped in 2014.

Don’t let the numbers fool you. Winston is one of the best NFL quarterback prospects I’ve ever evaluated on the field.

Winston has a body-type similar to Cam Newton. He’s tall, solid, powerful, and hard to bring down. He possesses good mobility, especially for his size, and sheds would-be tacklers in the pocket as well as Ben Roethlisberger.

One of Winston’s faults is his elongated delivery that he gets from a baseball background (I think everyone is aware he is also a pitcher on FSU’s baseball team). It’s not Byron Leftwich bad, but it’s something that Jameis will need to correct to mitigate any extra chances that cornerbacks have to break on the throw.

Winston only runs when called (not that often, maybe once or twice a game depending on the opponent) or when it’s his only option left. He’s a passer who happens to be able to run the ball.

When operating from the pocket, Winston maintains good eye-level in the face of pressure. He’ll take a hit and deliver a throw without flinching. He can be forced into extremely poor decisions when under duress as evidenced by his high interception rate. Florida State has had issues at center this season and the A-gap pressure it creates is making it harder for Winston to do his job but he’s performed admirably.

Winston’s throwing mechanics are sloppy. And that’s putting it nicely. His feet are sloppy which causes his entire lower body to be sloppy and also his entire upper body. He gets away with this because he has such a strong arm and is still consistently accurate. With some discipline in his mechanics, Winston could become an even better thrower and more consistently accurate with the football. When Winston misses he misses high, especially to his right. He has a tendency to drop his throwing elbow when throwing to his right and causes a lot of his balls to sail because his hand dips below the football at the release instead of staying “on top” of it. This happens less when he throws to the left because the motion of throwing to the left naturally slots his elbow in the right position and he’s less likely to let it sail.

Under pressure, Winston’s mechanics get even sloppier. He does a good job of moving within the pocket but it takes considerable effort to move his big frame around and he’s not as precise or subtle in his movements as he should be. Winston shows a strong ability to handle edge pressure, it’s just the pressure up the middle that tends to cause his decision making to implode.

The scheme that Winston plays in is a pro-style scheme and he does a terrific job of managing all the aspects of it. He operates within the framework of the offense when at all possible but is also great when he has to break outside that structure and become a playmaker.

The most exciting part of Winston’s game is his incredibly high football IQ. Winston manages protections, checks, hot reads, and he does it all with a brilliant efficiency. He is incredibly efficient and accurate in both his pre-snap and post-snap recognition even when defenses try to disguise and trick him. He almost always makes the right decision when not facing direct pressure up the middle. Winston tries to do too much at times and that’s when he begins to make negative plays.

Winston has no problem throwing the ball into tight windows and is actually a little too lenient with what he considers open. His very good anticipation, accuracy, and velocity on the football allow him to get away with a lot of throws. Instead of read and react, Jameis takes more of a read and attack approach. He likes throwing deep and intermediate routes but will take the check down whenever necessary.

Because he has fantastic anticipation, Winston consistently throws before receivers are out of their breaks and throws to the proper spot to avoid allowing the defender to make the play. He loves throwing the deep dig to the middle of the field and will hit his receiver in stride to allow him to run after the catch. Winston displays high-level ball placement all over the field. One of the things I love about Winston’s game is that when throwing deep he always gives his receiver a chance to make a play. He rarely overthrows a receiver streaking down the middle of the field or spots the ball out of bounds on deep sideline throws.

Winston can and often reads through a full progression and does so with good efficiency. He can determine his first read and come off it quickly if the defense shifts. He’s always aware of where his receivers should be and does a good job of moving his feet with his eyes so that he can pull the trigger and deliver the ball with quickness and accuracy. Despite all of that, Winston actually has the same issue with underneath linebackers that Mariota has. Sometimes he’ll be so focused on the routes that his receivers are running that a linebacker from across the field can sneak under a throw. This is something he has to improve on.

One of the knocks on Winston this year is that he and the Florida State offense has started slowly, only to come on late and win the game in the second half. I believe this is a product of Winston’s ability to get a feel for the game. As he processes information throughout the game he seems to get better in his ability to decipher what the defense is trying to do and then compensating for it with accurate reads and throws. It’s possible that more film study leading up to a game could help him in this aspect – something he’ll have vs. Oregon, and something he’ll get the opportunity to do in the NFL.

Overall, Winston has every necessary on-field trait that NFL teams want in a quarterback, and he has it in spades. If not for all of the personality or off-field concerns for Winston, he would be the undisputed choice for the number one overall pick. Instead, we’re left to debate whether he’s even worthy of being drafted because he can’t be a good quarterback if he is suspended all the time.

The Verdict

It’s pretty simple. Jameis Winston displays all the traits that NFL teams want on the field and could probably start week 1 for whatever NFL team drafts him (provided he hasn’t done anything stupid off the field to prevent that). Marcus Mariota will have a good amount of necessary development of his skills to make himself a quality NFL starter but his ceiling is tremendous.

Ignoring the off-field concerns (which NFL general managers don’t have the luxury of doing), Winston is on a completely different level than Mariota. His skill set is more of a translation as opposed to the projection of Mariota’s skill set to the NFL. Winston’s skill set may just make him worth the risk with the first overall selection anyway.

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2014 NFL Season Preview: AFC East

New England Patriots

Additions: DE Will Smith, OLB James Anderson, CB Darrelle Revis, CB Brandon Browner.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.  Pick# Pos.    Player                         College
1           29        DT       Dominique Easley     Florida
2          62         QB       Jimmy Garoppolo     Eastern Illinois
4          105       C          Bryan Stork                Florida State
4          130       RB       James White              Wisconsin
4          140       OT       Cameron Fleming      Stanford
6          179        G         Jon Halapio                Florida
6          198        DE       Zach Moore               Concordia (St. Paul)
6          206        S         Jemea Thomas           Georgia Tech
7          244        WR     Jeremy Gallon           Michigan

RB LeGarrette Blount, NT Isaac Sopoaga, ILB Brandon Spikes, ILB Dane Fletcher, CB Aqib Talib, S Steve Gregory, S Adrian Wilson.


This is the most talented team that Bill Belichick has had in a long time. Probably since the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl to the Giants. The addition of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner adds an element that Belichick hasn’t had with a shutdown corner plus another one who is good enough to handle his own if put on an island. I can see a few more zero-blitzes from the Pats this year.

Dominique Easley is potentially a penetrating force upfront next to Vince Wilfork. Rob Ninkovich is a savvy pass rusher and Chandler Jones can be dominant when he decides to use his length and power and not the hesitation move he loves so much. Jamie Collins, Jerod Mayo, and Donta Hightower are athletic and superbly smart players. Collins really came on at the end of 2013 and could make a name for himself as a full-time starter this season.

The secondary will use Alfonzo Dennard as the #2 CB while Browner serves his suspension but then Dennard will move to the nickel back position and that’s a very deep rotation. Devin McCourty was phenomenal last season and if he plays that same way, this is going to be a defense that creates a ton of short fields for its offense.

Tom Brady hasn’t been as sharp as the Brady you might expect the last couple of years. He’s missed some throws he usually makes in his sleep. Hopefully with another year with these receivers those become completions. Kenbrell Thompkins reminds me of Chad Johnson in how he’s so smooth and quick with his feet. He’ll consistently get open for Brady. Danny Amendola will try to stay healthy and provide a game piece for Belichick to play chess with. Rob Gronkowski returns. If he’s anything like he was before his injury, this offense becomes a monster in the red zone. There are some other legitimate deep threats in TE Tim Wright, Aaron Dobson, and potential sleeper Brandon LaFell.

The offensive line has some major question marks. Losing Mankins hurts the run game. Josh Kline steps into the LG role next to Nate Solder at LT. Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, and Sebastian Vollmer round out the rest of the line. Any injury means that Marcus Cannon likely hits the field and that’s bad news for the Patriots. Cannon was awful in preseason at the tackle position and the word is that the Pats think he doesn’t have the quick reaction time to handle the guard position where things happen faster than on the outside.

Stevan Ridley didn’t look terrific in preseason. If he continues to fumble, the Pats may render him obsolete and go with a mix of Shane Vereen (more of a receiver and 3rd down back), Brandon Bolden, and rookie James White who looked very good in the preseason. It’s interesting to note that the Patriots kept 5 running backs, including James Develin who operates as a fullback.

This is a supremely talented team and Belichick is going to scheme teams to death with it. It’s such a versatile roster and Belichick can identify and attack opposing team’s weaknesses with precision. It’s going to be a good year for the Patriots. Perhaps even a Super year.

New York Jets

RB Chris Johnson, WR Eric Decker, WR/KR Jacoby Ford, OT Breno Giacomini, CB Dimitri Patterson.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.  Pick# Pos.     Player                         College
1          18         S           Calvin Pryor               Louisville
2          49        TE         Jace Amaro                Texas Tech
3          80        CB        Dexter McDougle      Maryland
4          104      WR       Jalen Saunders          Oklahoma
4          115       WR       Shaq Evans                 UCLA
4          137       G          Dakota Dozier            Furman
5          154       LB        Jeremiah George        Iowa State
6          195       CB        Brandon Dixon           Northwest Missouri State
6          209      WR      Quincy Enunwa          Nebraska
6          210       DE       IK Enemkpali             Louisiana Tech
6          213       QB       Tajh Boyd                    Clemson
7          233       LB       Trevor Reilly               Utah

QB Mark Sanchez, WR Santonio Holmes, OT Austin Howard, G Vladimir Ducasse, CB Antonio Cromartie.


I love the addition of Calvin Pryor to the Jets. He’s such a Jets-type of player. He flies all over the field and lays the wood to anyone that even thinks about touching the football. He’s not currently listed as the starter but he’s going to play early and often. He’ll be a good fit next to Dawaan Landry. Dee Milliner, Leon McFadden, and Kyle Wilson round out the big players in the secondary. Milliner is injured and that really eats into what little depth the Jets had. Look for Darin Walls to get some snaps early on as he looked very good in the preseason and the Jets may want to see if he can handle playing when it really counts.

Up front, the Jets have 2 phenomenal players in Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. They’re the guys that make everything go because they either create penetration or eat up a ton of blockers allowing other guys like Quinton Coples or Calvin Pace to get to the QB. Coples looked better this preseason than he did last season and the hope is that as he continues to progress, he can become a dominant pass rusher. David Harris is still the leader of this defense at ILB. Also look for new addition Jason Babin to get some snaps in pass rush situations which is his specialty.

On offense, Geno Smith really came along well towards the end of the season last year. He seems to still have issues getting through his reads but really the jump in Smith’s play came from his willingness to take off and run more later in the season. Before he held onto the ball too long and then eventually tried to make a play under duress and it didn’t turn out well. When he became more willing to run before the defense was closing in on him the offense opened up because it made defenses respect his running. That helps to create larger throwing lanes and less reading for Geno in the pocket.

The offensive line has to be better. Brian Winters was terrible last season. Really, the only bright spot was Nick Mangold. Willie Colon was decent at RG but inconsistent. New York dumped Vladimir Ducasse and added Brent Giacomini which is an upgrade. D’Brickishaw Ferguson was a decent pass blocker but has to get better in the run game this year if that’s the type of offense the Jets want to run.

I like the addition of rookie TE Jace Amaro but there are still limited weapons for Geno to throw to. Eric Decker should help but Jeremy Kerley needs to take a big leap forward and show he’s worthy of being a #2 receiver. Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson make for an interesting pair of tailbacks. One runs violently into contact and one runs away from it. Johnson still shows flashes but it appears that his vision has eroded recently. He has to have everything blocked perfectly or he doesn’t see the hole. Look for Ivory to be the more efficient and more productive back.

The Jets went 8-8 in what was a very good coaching season for Rex Ryan. Not often do 8-8 seasons solicit coach of the year consideration but that performance probably should have. Ryan dealt with a rookie QB, injuries, and an overall lack of weapons and fought through a period when the organization was in transition. Rex and his staff deserve a ton of credit for the season they had in 2013 and now they look to continue to build on it.

Miami Dolphins

RB Knowshon Moreno, WR Damian Williams, OT Branden Albert, OT Jason Fox, G Daryn Colledge, NT Earl Mitchell, CB Cortland Finnegan, CB R.J. Stanford, S Louis Delmas.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd. Pick# Pos.    Player                 College
1          19        OT       Ja’Wuan James   Tennessee
2         63        WR      Jarvis Landry      LSU
3         67        OT       Billy Turner         North Dakota State
4         125      CB       Walt Aikens          Liberty
5         155       TE       Arthur Lynch       Georgia
5         171       LB        Jordan Tripp       Montana
6         190      WR      Matt Hazel          Coastal Carolina
7         234      DE       Terrence Fede     Marist

OT Jonathan Martin, G Richie Incognito, G John Jerry, NT Paul Soliai, CB Dimitri Patterson, CB Nolan Carroll, S Chris Clemons.


At first I was a believer in Joe Philbin but my faith is starting to wane. I probably should have known better considering that he hired Mike Sherman as his offensive coordinator as one of his first moves as a head coach. Then there was the Incognito/Martin incident. The Dolphins actually rallied after that to post a respectable 8-8 season.

New OC Bill Lazor should be able to point this offense in the right direction. They added Branden Albert and drafted Ja’Wuan James to help shore up the tackle position. James probably isn’t ready for full-time duty but he’s the best option at RT at this point. Basically this is still a suspect OL, especially if Mike Pouncey is out for any extended period of time.

Ryan Tannehill started seeing ghosts last year and that’s never good for a young QB. Hopefully his internal clock isn’t sped up because he has been under so much pressure since coming into the league. It will also help that Lazor will likely use Tannehill’s athleticism more and move him around a bit and move the pocket to help eliminate some of the pressure he typically sees.

Lamar Miller is listed as the starter at RB. Knowshon Moreno may end up taking that job from him early on. Miller is still dynamic and shows burst but is much like Chris Johnson in that if he’s running up the middle he needs the play to be blocked perfectly to spring it. I’d expect Lazor to get Miller to the edge more while letting Moreno handle the downhill runs and 3rd down duties because he’s such a good pass blocker. At WR, Mike Wallace provides a deep threat and Brian Hartline is Mr. Dependable. Brandon Gibson was terrific as the 3rd receiver last season and filling in for when Harline was injured.

The offense actually isn’t my main concern. Now it’s the defense. They let some important pieces walk – Soliai, Carroll, Clemons – and replaced them with Earl Mitchell and Louis Delmas. Delmas is a talented player that can’t stay on the field due to injury and Mitchell wasn’t very good in Arizona last year. Courtland Finnegan played poorly before injury last season in St. Louis so he’s a bit of a wild card as he’s shown he can be a terrific defender.

The defense is still led by Cameron Wake, easily one of the league’s best pass rushers. The defensive line is solid, aside from Mitchell, with Jared Odrick and Randy Starks. Starks has a great season last year. The unfortunate part is the the linebackers behind them aren’t very good. Dannell Ellerbe was bad last year. The hope is that Dion Jordan will finally live up to his expectations and take over one of the linebacker spots. Koa Misi wasn’t awful last year.

This is a Dolphins team with too many holes in the roster and still trying to find it’s way. It doesn’t really have an identity at this point.

Buffalo Bills

RB Anthony Dixon, WR Mike Williams, G Chris Williams, OLB Keith Rivers, ILB Brandon Spikes, CB/S Corey Graham.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd.  Pick# Pos.     Player                         College
1           4          WR       Sammy Watkins         Clemson
2          44        OT        Cyrus Kouandjio         Alabama
3          73        LB         Preston Brown            Louisville
4          109      CB         Ross Cockrell              Duke
5          153       G           Cyril Richardson        Baylor
7          221       LB        Randell Johnson         Florida Atlantic
7          237       OT       Seantrel Henderson   Miami

QB Kevin Kolb, WR Stevie Johnson, DE/DT Alex Carrington, S Jairus Byrd.


The roster says this should be a 10-win team. The QB plays says it’s a 3-win team. EJ Manuel brings this team down that much. He can’t read a defense and when he does he’s highly inaccurate. It’s such a shame as the skill positions are loaded – Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Mike Williams, CJ Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, Marqise Goodwin, and Scott Chandler.

Some of the blame has to fall on the coaching staff. There is too much talent to let it go to waste. The offensive line can share some of that blame as last season only Cordy Glenn was good at his job. Oddly enough, Kraig Urbik wasn’t awful at his job and he goes from starter to bench with the addition of Chris Williams who starts at center.

On defense, the big blow was the loss of lightning rod LB Kiko Alonso going down with an injury. The addition of Keith Rivers and Brandon Spikes should help soften the blow but neither are the same type of player. Jerry Hughes was terrific as a pass rusher last year. Let’s hope the loss of Mike Pettine doesn’t inhibit his production this year. The front line is kind of unfair. Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, and Marcel Dareus are powerful players and free up the linebackers to make big plays. Dareus in particular was a beast in preseason and was pancaking offensive linemen with consistency.

The loss of Jairus Byrd is going to hurt the secondary. Da’Norris Searcy is a decent player but not near the level of Byrd. Stephon Gilmore is a terrific young CB but is dealing with an injury right now. Leodis McKelvin and Corey Graham are solid 2nd and 3rd options at CB but not really great functioning as #1 and #2 CBs.

The Bills have a ton of talent and it’s all going to waste.

Overall AFC East Outlook

New England Patriots (13-3)

New England may not be better than Seattle overall, but I think they matchup well and will beat them in the Super Bowl.

New York Jets (9-7)

The Jets are better but a lack of offensive weapons makes it hard to project them to 10-wins though they might push for the playoffs in the AFC.

Miami Dolphins (6-10)

Miami seems lost as a franchise. Hopefully new GM Dennis Hickey can get it fixed after this season.

Buffalo Bills (3-13)

Kyle Orton takes this team from a 3 win team to a 5-win team. I think the loss of Mike Pettine hurts more than people realize.

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2014 NFL Season Preview: NFC South

New Orleans Saints

Additions: FB Erik Lorig, C Jonathan Goodwin, CB Champ Bailey, S Jairus Byrd.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd Pick# Pos.    Player                          College
1          20         WR       Brandin Cooks                    Oregon State
2          58         CB         Stanley Jean-Baptiste      Nebraska
4          126       LB         Khairi Fortt                          California
5          167        S           Vinnie Sunseri                      Alabama
5          169       OLB      Ronald Powell                      Florida
6          202      OT        Tavon Rooks                         Kansas State

Losses: RB Darren Sproles, FB Jed Collins, WR Lance Moore, OT Charles Brown, C Brian De La Puente, DE Will Smith, DT Tom Johnson, ILB Will Herring, CB Jabari Greer, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Roman Harper.


Shh, Mark Ingram looks like a legitimate running back. Ingram has teased in the past with flashes of ability that scouts all thought he was capable of. He looked good at the end of the season in 2013 and looked even better in the preseason. The exit of Darren Sproles opens up a lot of opportunity in this offense.

As long as Drew Brees is healthy, this offense will be productive. Brandin Cooks is a good addition to a still-loaded receiving corps. Jimmy Graham is still the biggest weapon but a healthy Marques Colston and more progression for Kenny Stills means this offense still has plenty of options.

Brees faced too much pressure in his face last season. Terron Armstead takes over at LT full time and he looked up to the task in the preseason. If he’s good, this offense could keep up with Peyton Manning’s Broncos. Health is the biggest concern as the OL isn’t as deep as the Saints would like. If they have to get into 2nd stringers much, Brees will have to compensate too much.

Jairus Byrd adds a new dynamic to this defense. Rob Ryan is going to have a field day with Byrd patrolling deep centerfield and allowing him to move Kenny Vaccaro all over the place. Vaccaro is a swiss army knife that can cover, blitz, and hit. He’s a perfect fit for Ryan’s defense.

Cam Jordan and Akiem Hicks are tough for any offensive line to handle and with the weak lines in the NFC South, they’re going to have a fun year. Add in a healthy Junior Gallette and Ryan won’t have to try to scheme pressure as much as he did a year ago. They’ll need pressure to help protect a CB group that has some question marks. Patrick Robinson could get supplanted by rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste but I’m not really confident in either until we can see more of them in the regular season.

The Saints should run through this division. My biggest concern is if teams can figure out how to stop Jimmy Graham (a few teams did last year) then it affects the whole offense and it seems to grind to a halt.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Additions: QB Josh McCown, TE Brandon Myers, OT Anthony Collins, G/OT Oniel Cousins, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, DE Michael Johnson, DT Clinton McDonald, ILB Dane Fletcher, CB Alterraun Verner, CB Mike Jenkins, S Major Wright.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          7          WR       Mike Evans                 Texas A&M
2          38       TE       Austin Seferian-Jenkins Washington
3          69       RB       Charles Sims             West Virginia
5          143     G         Kadeem Edwards        Tennessee State
5          149     OT       Kevin Pamphile          Purdue
6          185     WR       Robert Herron                         Wyoming

Losses: QB Dan Orlovsky, FB Erik Lorig, WR Mike Williams, OT Donald Penn, G Davin Joseph, G Gabe Carimi, C Jeremy Zuttah, C Ted Larsen, OLB Dekoda Watson, OLB Adam Hayward, CB Darrelle Revis.


I’m still confused on what the Bucs are doing with the roster but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. It’s just not how I envisioned it and I’m not sure I see the big picture of it but that should become clearer after the first couple of weeks. The offensive personnel mirrors Lovie’s setup in Chicago with big receivers, a suspect offensive line, and even his former Bears QB Josh McCown. What doesn’t make sense is that the roster was built to fit his offense in Chicago but new OC Jeff Tedford indicates he’s running a different system. Basically, there seems to be a disconnect in what the personnel is built for and what the scheme is. That rarely leads to good results.

The offensive line was atrocious in the preseason. Big free agent signing Anthony Collins looked more suspect than like a wall on the left side. He’s likely going to be streaky all year long with some very good games and some bad games. The trade for Logan Mankins helps solidify the interior but there is still zero depth. The right guard spot is questionable at best and I’m still not sold on Evan Dietrich-Smith as a good center. Demar Dotson is the holdover from last year that looked really good on the right side in the preseason. He could end up being the best OL on the team by year’s end.

Vincent Jackson is a more versatile receiver than he gets credit for. He’s not just a jump-ball winner. He runs solid routes and displays strong hands. Opposite him, rookie Mike Evans seems like a carbon copy that hasn’t developed to VJax’s level yet. Evans will show big time flashes of talent and will likely run some wrong routes early in the season as he’s still learning a new offense. The trade of Tim Wright takes a receiving threat away but allows Brandon Myers to step up to the plate. Lookout for rookie Austin Sefarian-Jenkins to take over the main role very early if he doesn’t start there. He’s extremely raw but the ceiling is sky high once he gets a feel for the NFL.

The defense is going to be dominant. There is potential to be a top 3 defense in the league. Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David are going to love playing in this defense and McCoy is going to look all-world in the ways that Lovie is going to use him. It’s finally time for the NFL to see how good McCoy can really be. New free agent signing is going to have pressure on him to get pressure on the QB. This defense needs pressure off the edge. Out of all the free agent signings, Clinton McDonald is going to be the most significant. His presence on the inside allows Lovie to mix it up a little more. He’s strong at the point of attack and teams can’t double team both he and McCoy. Adrian Clayborn needs to take a leap forward in his pass rushing this year. He’s stout against the run but now it’s time for him to start getting upfield and let the LBs behind him clean up any runs that get past him.

Lavonte David is an All-Pro linebacker and deservedly slow. Mason Foster is incredibly intelligent and a thumper between the tackles but lacks good speed to get sideline to sideline. That’s not his game so it will be interesting to see how Lovie keeps him from having to do that. Jonathan Casillas is listed as the SLB but he’s the first guy to come off the field when the Bucs go into their nickel packages which will be more than 50% of the time. The Bucs even have a coach specifically devoted to nickel backs.

It would have been fun to see Darrelle Revis play for this defense but his exit clears room for Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks to show what they’re made of. Banks is long and lanky and really improved as the season progressed in 2013. Verner looked phenomenal in Tennessee last season but he didn’t play much in the preseason due to injury. Mike Jenkins is the nickel back with Leonard Johnson as the 4th CB. Johnson is the type of guy that can get a pick six on any play or blow a coverage and give up a big touchdown.

Mark Barron is going to be great to watch this year as Lovie will let him roam a little. He’s much better in the box than as a deep coverage type of player. Dashon Goldson has to be more disciplined in this defense. The safeties play a big role in keeping plays from being big gainers and Goldson’s aggression could work against him in that regard. I think the Major Wright signing might have been a safeguard for that as well as to help communicate the intricacies of Lovie’s defense to this team.

Tampa Bay feels like they could vastly underachieve this year because they can’t get the offense going or they could push for the playoffs based on a run game and a dominant defense.


Atlanta Falcons

Additions: QB T.J. Yates, TE Beat Pascoe, G Jon Asamoah, G Gabe Carimi, DE/DT Tyson Jackson, NT Paul Soliai, CB Josh Wilson, CB/KR Javier Arenas, S Dwight Lowery, KR Devin Hester.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          6          OT       Jake Matthews                       Texas A&M
2          37       DT       Ra’Shede Hageman    Minnesota
3          68       S          Dezmen Southward    Wisconsin
4          103     RB       Devonta Freeman       Florida State
4          139     LB        Prince Shembo                       Notre Dame
5          147     CB       Ricardo Allen             Purdue
5          168     LB        Marquis Spruill                       Syracuse
7          253     LB        Yawin Smallwood        Connecticut
7          255     LB        Tyler Starr                  South Dakota

Losses: RB Jason Snelling, FB Bradie Ewing, TE Tony Gonzalez, G Garrett Reynolds, OLB Stephen Nicholas, ILB Akeem Dent, CB Asante Samuel, S Thomas DeCoud.


Atlanta addressed the offensive line issue by drafting Jake Matthews sixth overall in the 2014 draft. The plan was to let him get his reps in at RT before sliding over to protect Matt Ryan’s blindside, but an injury to LT Sam Baker forced the hand of the Falcons. The Falcons might be better off because of it. Of course they’d love to have Sam Baker to stick in at RT but Matthews looks like the real deal. Atlanta also added Jon Asomoah from Kansas City and that should also help a putrid OL from 2013. Though it’s still a weak spot, Ryan will be under less pressure than he was last year.

Roddy White returns from injury and is still one of the sharpest route runners in the league. Julio Jones is a monster receiver that’s incredibly tough to defend. Harry Douglas played well as the Falcons’ number 2 receiver last year and is pushed back to the 3rd WR which is really where he fits best. Levine Toilolo is more of a blocker than a receiver at TE and he’s stiff. It’s really surprising that the Falcons didn’t make more of an effort to grab a more athletic option at an important position in this offense.

The defensive isn’t overhauled but it’s essentially all new starters with last year’s starters being relegated to reserve duties. Kroy Biermann was out last year with injuries, Jonathan Babineaux returns but probably won’t be starting for long. Osi Umeniyora provides some veteran leadership and athleticism on the edge. Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai take over on the interior.

Atlanta lists 2 starting LBs – Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu – and 3 starting CBs, Robert Alford, Desmond Trufant, and Josh Wilson. Look for reserve LB Prince Shembo to be starting by season’s end. The young corners played extremely well considering they had no pass rush in front of them last year and they should look even better this year. William Moore is a solid player at safety but is a little nosey towards the line of scrimmage when he’s supposed to be in coverage. Dwight Lowery comes over from San Francisco to take over at FS.

The Falcons are one of the much improved teams from last year but I’m still not sure how I feel about their coaching. It’s not that they’re poorly coached, it’s just that they’re not well coached. The offense survives on good play from Matt Ryan who covers up some flaws and the defense just isn’t very physical.


Carolina Panthers

Additions: WR Jerricho Cotchery, WR Jason Avant, WR Tiquan Underwood, WR/QB Joe Webb, TE Ed Dickson, TE Mike McNeill, CB Antoine Cason, S Roman Harper, S Thomas DeCoud.

Draft Picks: 
Rnd      Pick#  Pos.     Player                         College
1          28       WR       Kelvin Benjamin         Florida State
2          60       DE       Kony Ealy                   Missouri
3          92       G         Trai Turner                 LSU
4          128     S          Tre Boston                  North Carolina
5          148     CB       Bené Benwikere          San Jose State
6          204     RB       Tyler Gaffney             Stanford

Losses: WR Steve Smith, WR Brandon LaFell, WR/KR Ted Ginn, WR Domenik Hixon, OT Jordan Gross, OT Bruce Campbell, G Geoff Hangartner, G Travelle Wharton, G Jeff Byers, OLB Jordan Senn, CB Captain Munnerlyn, S Michael Mitchell, S Quintin Mikell.


Carolina is a team I missed big time on last year. I didn’t anticipate their defense to be so dominant. Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson was the most dominant pass rush duo in the league and Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short were also terrifying on the interior. Behind them Luke Kuechly looked like the best linebacker in the league and Thomas Davis wasn’t far behind him. This year they have the choice of Chase Blackburn or AJ Klein at the other linebacker spot and it’s kind of scary that Short is now listed as a reserve behind Colin Cole who comes over from San Francisco. Short played terrifically last season so if Cole is better than he is, offenses are in trouble again.

I like the addition of Antoine Cason in the secondary after losing Captain Munnerlyn, who admittedly played much better than I ever thought he could last year. It certainly helps when QBs have no time to throw because of a dominant front line. Melvin White and Charles Godfrey aren’t ideal at the cornerback spot but they’ll be good enough. Thomas Decoud provides some decent speed at the safety position and Roman Harper provides some veteran leadership even if he has lost a step.

The offense revolves around Cam Newton. It has to. There’s nothing else to revolve around. Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin are the only true weapons other than Newton. But Carolina’s brass made sure not to make it too easy for Cam by not providing him with good weapons to throw to, they made sure to let his entire offensive line go and not replenish it with good players. Now not only does Cam not have anyone to throw to, he won’t have any time to throw to those nobodies. I’m normally critical of Cam because he has such high potential and hasn’t fully reached it yet, but this year he deserves a pass if he can’t get it done.

Overall NFC South Outlook

New Orleans Saints (12-4)

The Saints are stacked and can compete with anyone in the league. This should be a cake walk in the division for them.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-9)

I have no idea what this offensive scheme is going to look like, but I do know they’ll have trouble blocking people and keeping McCown off his back. The defense is the reason they win 7 games.

Carolina Panthers (7-9)

The Panthers overachieved last year so they’re due for a regression but that defense is still the same defense.

Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

Offensive line woes and a lack of pressure from the defense means the Falcons are in for another long season.


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