Posts by Jonathan Solus

An Avid NFL Fan Goes To . . . A Rugby Game?

Before the first week of the NFL regular season, the first Saturday of the college football season, and all of the hoopla that is the ongoing Deflategate saga, I ventured to Soldier Field for an exhibition rugby game that pitted the U.S.A. Eagles against the Australian Wallabies.

What in God's Earth is a wallaby, you ask?

Before the first week of the NFL regular season, the first Saturday of the college football season, and all of the hoopla that is the ongoing Deflategate saga, I ventured to Soldier Field for an exhibition rugby game that pitted the U.S.A. Eagles against the Australian Wallabies.

What in God’s Earth is a wallaby, you ask? Well, of course, it’s a member of the kangaroo clan. We are talking about Australia here. Now that we’ve sorted that out, we can begin my journey into what is largely uncharted territory for the majority of American sports fans, including myself.

Now, I could have humored you with talk about scrums and rucks, but that would have been awfully insulting to rugby faithfuls who actually know what the hell they’re talking about. Yes, I am a rugby virgin. But I’m finally ready to grab the keys and explore the world of rugby. My only sense of the game of rugby is probably typical to that many of you reading this right now: you know it as that sport people use as a punchline because they don’t really understand it.

This avid NFL fan is searching for what rugby has to offer the American football community, past those typical uninformed punchlines.

So I hopped on I-94 on a hot, Chicago afternoon with a clear mind and a full heart for some rugby. Incidentally, I was also losing my Uber virginity on this Saturday afternoon; boy, was that a crazy weekend. I had some thoughtful conversations with a fellow Chicagoan about a variety of topics that included, but were not limited to: Kanye West (because this is Chicago we’re talking about), Donald Trump, and racism in America. 

I was finally dropped off on the outskirts of Soldier Field where I was greeted by a crowd that Eagles captain Chris Wyles would later describe as “electric” in his post-game press conference. All 23,112 of them were about as enthusiastic for an exhibition game as humanly possible.

The crowd was buzzing before the game began and I was greeted by a familiar voice during the national anthem. If you haven’t seen Jim Cornelison perform the national anthem at the United Center, you’re missing out. This guy is a local legend.

After a breathtaking national anthem rendition, the game began, and immediately I had no idea what was going on. But as the game wore on I began to get the gist. Rugby is a game a lot like football with aggression and explosive plays, but without as many stoppages. The game is like one long kickoff return, filled with the jukes, laterals, trucks and the explosive plays that NFL fans love. 

A player getting discombobulated by his opponent doesn’t stop the action; the game keeps moving. At one point, I thought I was watching a WWE match, while unprotected bodies were slammed onto the unforgiving Soldier Field.

It almost seems a little insane what these players are accomplishing without pads or a nice little breather now and then. But the game looked like a whole lot of fun to play and it was definitely an enjoyable experience, one I would definitely like to continue in the future.

If you’re one of those fans who thinks the NFL has gotten too soft, rugby is the game for you. It’s filled with jarring hits, explosive play and fast-paced action that would leave me on the floor helplessly waiting for medical attention. Now, it’s easy to be dismissive over things we don’t understand, but rugby definitely has something to offer the American sports fan. 

So when you inevitably get sick of all the melodrama that is the NFL, change that channel to a rugby game, or go outside! Start a scrum! (or something). And have some fun because life’s too short to argue about Deflategate with an Uber driver until your face turns blue.

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Who Is The Best Wide Receiver Duo Heading Into 2015?

The amount of talented wide receivers in the NFL right now is unprecedented. When you have this many players capable of terrorizing defenses on a consistent basis, you're bound to get an influx of talented wide receivers on the same team, duos that will really keep defensive coordinators up at night.

The amount of talented wide receivers in the NFL right now is unprecedented. When you have this many players capable of terrorizing defenses on a consistent basis, you’re bound to get an influx of talented wide receivers on the same team, duos that will really keep defensive coordinators up at night.

And this leads us to everyone’s favorite type of analysis: rankings! So with a plentiful array of dynamic wide receivers in the NFL today, which team has the best duo? Let’s find out.

Full Disclosure: The Green Bay Packers’ pairing of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb would have challenged for the number one spot on this list before the devastating news of Nelson’s injury.

3. Antonio Brown & Martavis Bryant

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Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, so right off the bat this one is a little complicated since Bryant isn’t technically a starter at this point. But it’s hard to keep Bryant off this list, given the potential we saw from him last season. If there was one thing synonymous with Bryant’s rookie season, it was big plays. Bryant hauled in seven passes of 20 yards or more last season, and he missed the first six games of the season, and wasn’t even getting starter snaps the rest of the way.

At 6’4″ and with a 4.42 40 yard dash, Bryant is approaching Calvin Johnson-type measurables. And that’s freakish territory to be put in. What Bryant needs to improve on in his sophomore season is his route running and hands. Bryant dropped four passes last season, and with only 31 receptions to boot; that’s way too many drops.

Bryant still needs some refinement in his receiving abilities, but he has a distinct advantage over his peers: god-given talent. If Bryant comes close to reaching his potential this year through a full season’s worth of production, this tandem will be number one on this list.

Martavis Bryant Rookie Highlights

Bryant’s 5’11” counterpart in this Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense plays more like a receiver his size. Brown is exactly how you want a receiver to play the ball, with aggression that makes him a bully on the field. Brown is one of those rare receivers who makes throwing him the ball when he isn’t open is a good play.

Antonio Brown Highlights 2014 Part 1

Brown’s ability to haul in a football is arguably the best in the league, and that’s part of the reason quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was so comfortable throwing him the ball 178 times last season. What’s the other reason, you ask? Brown knows how to get open with his savvy route running ability, which is arguably the best in the league.

Statistically and on tape, Brown was the most dominant wide-receiver in the NFL last season.

2. Demaryius Thomas & Emmanuel Sanders

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Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Along with Dez Bryant, Thomas was just handsomely rewarded with a five-year, $70 million contract this offseason and for good reason; Thomas is a match-up nightmare for defenses and the scary part is he is not even a finished product at this point.

His route running could still use refining, but when he improves this facet of his game, he could be the most dominant wide receiver in the NFL. At 6’3″ and 229 lbs, Thomas is one of the most athletic players at his position, and uses his strength and explosiveness to blow past defenses. 

2012 Demaryius

Needless to say, Brock Osweiler will have one hell of a safety net when Peyton Manning eventually hangs it up.

On the inside of Thomas, we have Sanders. Sanders was a free agent addition for the Denver Broncos last offseason and is now one of the biggest bargains in the NFL. The fact that the Broncos are only paying him $5 million (per year) should be criminal.

Sanders has great hands and is able to make even the most difficult catches; he only dropped two passes last season and proved to be a more than reliable target for Manning, amassing 101 receptions with 1,409 yards.

Sanders is explosive and knows how to make defenders look silly on a consistent basis.

Emmanuel Sanders | 2015 Highlights | HD

With the type of production Sanders is expected to have this season, the Broncos better find a way to move some money to the side for him because there is no way he will settle for his contract much longer.

1. Calvin Johnson & Golden TateImage title

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

We head to Detroit for the number one spot on our ranking. Let’s start with Tate. Tate was that free agent addition last offseason that opposing general managers are kicking themselves right now for not signing. During Johnson’s struggles with injuries last season, Tate proved himself capable of being the number one option on a receiving group. Tate garnered 1,331 yards on 99 receptions last season, premier production for an NFL wide receiver.

The most exceptional part of Tate’s game is his ability to stop and change directions in a flash.

Golden Tate Highlights HD 2014 - 2015

Tate’s lethal combination of agility, vision, and strength makes him a threat to break a play wide open whenever he has the ball in his hands. Add to this great route running, solid hands and good speed, and you have one of the most dangerous slot-receivers in the NFL on your hands.

Outside Tate at wide receiver is Johnson. Much has been made about Johnson’s injury-riddled season last year. For the first time in his career, Johnson is being underrated by pundits who claim he is in decline. But guess who was Pro Football Focussecond highest graded wide receiver the last five games of the regular season? That’s right: everyone’s favorite Transformer, Megatron.

The skepticism toward Johnson is confusing. Sure, he missed the most games he’s every missed in his career last year (three), but he will only be turning 30 this upcoming season. In today’s NFL wide receivers don’t take nearly the amount of punishment they did in years past. Johnson is still in his prime and ready to make a mockery out of defensive backs this season.

One thing is clear: no player can match Johnson’s size, speed, athleticism and polish as a wide receiver. And that’s why he’s still the NFL’s best wide receiver, and one half of the NFL’s best wide receiver duo.

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Kevin White’s Injury: The Problem With The Chicago Bears’ Wide Receivers

For a team that appears to be in transition, 1st-Round pick Kevin White was a source of excitement and hope for Chicago Bears' fans needing it badly. Now, that excitement is dwindling due to injury.

General Manager Ryan Pace announced that White will undergo surgery

For a team that appears to be in transition, 1st-Round pick Kevin White was a source of excitement and hope for Chicago Bears’ fans needing it badly. Now, that excitement is dwindling due to injury.

General Manager Ryan Pace announced that White will undergo surgery to repair a shin injury and will start the regular season on the physically unable to perform list, which means he will miss at least the first six games. Pace also added, “Honestly, is there a chance that he misses the season? That’s a possibility.”

How significant is this loss for the Bears, regardless of how long White is actually out? Apart from an extraordinary rookie wide receiving class last season, wide outs don’t typically produce superstar numbers their first year in the NFL. Many have speculated as to whether last season was the start of a trend, but we’ll have to wait and see to find out.

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Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

White’s injury does leave the Bears in a similar situation they struggled with last season; they’re slow. Chicago’s receiving corps last season lacked the speed to take the top off a defense. While their skill was obvious, with two big, talented wide receives in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, they needed a burner to stretch defenses and create space underneath.  

White has that elite speed the Bears were missing last season, posting a 4.35 40 at the NFL’s scouting combine. What White leaves in the aftermath of his injury is a skill position team that is still one of the more talented groups in the league, but is severely lacking in the speed department.  

You might be asking, ‘Well what about free agent addition Eddie Royal? Didn’t he run a 4.39 40 at the scouting combine?’  Yes he did . . . seven years ago.  Judging from Royal’s tape last season, it’s safe to say he has lost a step or two in this department. Royal still has good speed, but not nearly enough to keep safeties honest.

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Who will fill in for White during his time off from injury? The clear candidate is third-year wide out Marquess Wilson, another tall (6’4″) receiving weapon for the Bears, albeit with far less talent and promise than White. Bears fans will be familiar with White from the amount of hype he was generating during training camp last season before he fractured his clavicle, causing him to miss the first nine games of the regular season.

What can we expect from Wilson this season? Wilson is, by all accounts, still a very raw receiver. At the age of 20, he was drafted in the 7th-Round by the Bears (Wilson is actually younger than White). According to Pro Football Focus, Wilson only has played 462 snaps in his NFL career, which equates to about half a season worth of snaps for a starter at wide-receiver.

Wilson did not look impressive in his 462 NFL snaps. He has a small frame for a receiver his size and will struggle against physicality. He has good speed, but doesn’t have much explosiveness to break plays open. His route-running is very raw at this point too, but the most troubling part of Wilson’s play this far into his career is his hands. He only had 17 receptions last season, but managed to accumulate three drops.

Again, Wilson is still a very raw receiver and doesn’t even have a full season worth of snaps under his belt at this point. This season will speak volumes to the type of player he can be in the future. But it’s hard to expect much from him, given what he’s shown thus far.

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Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Versatility is important for a receiving group and we could have reasonably expected White to at least be a deep threat for the Bears this season, if not more. There’s still hope that White could come back sometime this season, but it’s hard to expect much from a rookie wide receiver coming back from injury.

With the loss of White, the Bears are missing valuable speed at the wide receiver position. White’s injury has left them in the dark.

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Why The 2015 Minnesota Vikings’ Defense Could Be Dominant

This offseason the Minnesota Vikings have emerged as everyone's favorite surprise playoff team, and for good reason.  

The Vikings have everything you want in a team on the rise, including: a promising young quarterback coming off a solid rookie year in Teddy Bridgewater; the return of one

This offseason the Minnesota Vikings have emerged as everyone’s favorite surprise playoff team, and for good reason.  

The Vikings have everything you want in a team on the rise, including: a promising young quarterback coming off a solid rookie year in Teddy Bridgewater; the return of one of the most exciting players in the NFL in superstar running-back Adrian Peterson; and most importantly, a young defense filled with loads of potential.

This Vikings’ defense could be primed for a dominating season, backed by the efforts of some of their emerging players.

Harrison Smith

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Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

2012 first-round pick Harrison Smith is easily one of the most underrated players in the NFL. At the age of 26, Smith is already one of the NFL’s premier safeties. Smith is one of the rare safeties in the NFL who can cover one side of the field as a deep-safety, drop down in the box as a run-defender or pass-rusher and be effective in man-coverage.

This type of versatility is only found in the NFL’s elite safeties (Earl Thomas, Eric Weddle). And that’s what Smith is, elite. Smith is highly athletic and versatile, as evidenced by the wide-ranging things he is asked to do in Mike Zimmer’s scheme.  

Smith is one of the NFL’s best open-field tacklers, which is essential because safeties are typically the last line of defense to prevent a big play. Smith isn’t one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the NFL, but his awareness and ability to take perfect angles to ball-carriers is what sets him apart. Rarely is Smith out of position on a play and that is a testament to his intelligence on the field.

Smith’s proficiency as a pass-rusher is also an interesting facet of his game. Smith rushed the passer 38 times last season, accumulating two sacks, three hits and five hurries in the process. This type of production as a pass-rusher is impressive and could lead the Vikings to increasing Smith’s snaps as a pass-rusher this season.

Smith was Pro Football Focus‘ second-highest graded safety last season mostly as a result of his effectiveness against the run. If Smith repeats his performance from last season, it will be hard for people to continue to strip him of the recognition he deserves.

Xavier Rhodes

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Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

2013 first-round pick Xavier Rhodes has quietly become one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. Rhodes has the prototypical build of an NFL cornerback and has the physicality to operate in press-coverage, something he is typically asked to do.

Rhodes’ play was a little uneven in the beginning of the season, but he seemed to switch a gear towards the season’s midpoint.

Rhodes produced a four-game stretch last season, in which he was matched up against the likes of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Jordy Nelson, where he was arguably playing like the best corner-back in the NFL. Over that period he was thrown at 22 times, allowed only seven receptions for 54 yards, while notching seven pass breakups and one interception. Quarterbacks targeting Rhodes over that time had a passer rating of just 22.2.

Those are Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman numbers Rhodes was putting up during that stretch and that is high company to be placed in. This is not to say that four games is a sufficient sample size to elevate a player to the NFL’s elite, but what it does say is that Rhodes is capable of producing at that level.

The most important thing for Rhodes is for him to be able to produce at this level throughout the season.  A true shut-down corner can revolutionize a defense, the same way Revis did for the New England Patriots last season.

If Rhodes emerges as an elite cornerback, coupled with Smith at safety, this secondary could be one of the NFL’s best.

Anthony Barr

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Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

2014 first-round pick (sensing a theme here?) Anthony Barr was emerging as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate last year before his season was cut short because of injury. Much of his “rookie of the year buzz” had to do with Barr’s explosiveness on the field. This was especially prominent when Barr was used as a pass-rusher, garnering four sacks in limited pass-rushing snaps.

Barr was aggressive against the run, displaying the burst and power that proved why he was a first-round talent in the first place. His aggressiveness sometimes worked against him though, as he would typically over-pursue ball-carries, explaining his 22 missed tackles (most out of 4-3 outside-linebackers).

Barr is by all accounts still a raw player in the NFL, but if his game shows signs of maturing on the field this season, he could be very dangerous. Barr’s talent could propel him to be one of the most feared defenders in the NFL, but that will only happen if he improves his awareness and angles to the ball-carrier.


Everson Griffen

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Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

2010 fourth-round pick Everson Griffen was, to a surprise to many, awarded last offseason with a five-year extension worth $42.4 million. This extension, in terms of yearly averages, put Griffen up there with the best 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL. While Griffen showed flashes of being a promising pass-rusher in a rotational role, his contract didn’t come close to matching his actual production on the field throughout his time in Minnesota.

Flash forward one offseason later and the Vikings are looking pretty smart for locking up Griffen; he broke out last season as a full-time starter, becoming one of the most productive pass-rushers in the NFL. Griffen was tied for the fifth-most total pressures out of 4-3 defensive-ends last season with 64 in total.

That type of pass-rush production alone is worthy of the $42.4 million extension Griffen was signed to last offseason, but Griffen also awarded the Vikings with stoutness in run defense. Griffen used his power and length to leverage defenders and make plays against ball-carries consistently last season.

Conclusion

The defensive talent on the Vikings’ roster doesn’t just stop after these four players. Former 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd has emerged as one of the most stout run-defenders in the NFL. Next to Floyd is the massive nose-tackle Linval Joseph, forming one of the best interior duos in the NFL.

The Vikings also added a pair of top draft picks to this defense in cornerback Trae Waynes and linebacker Eric Kendricks that figure to be apart of the equation this coming season.

In terms of talent, this defense is loaded. If these players come close to reaching their full potential this season, the Vikings’ defense could be leading this team to the playoffs.

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The 2015 Chicago Bears: A Team In Transition

Last season was the epitome of the dread that has plagued Bears' fans for the past decade: high expectations that end up kicking you in the groin, leaving you in the fetal position as Green Bay Packers' fans laugh watching you gasp for air. Of course, that's only hyperbole (kind of).

This upcoming Bears' season leaves a different flavor

Last season was the epitome of the dread that has plagued Bears’ fans for the past decade: high expectations that end up kicking you in the groin, leaving you in the fetal position as Green Bay Packers’ fans laugh watching you gasp for air. Of course, that’s only hyperbole (kind of).

This upcoming Bears’ season leaves a different flavor in your mouth than most. Quarterback Jay Cutler has gone from savior to most despised figure in Chicago sports; the Bears’ vaunted defense, that was led by the likes of Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, is a shell of its former self; and gone is popular wide-receiver Brandon Marshall, now with the New York Jets.

Even the most optimistic Bears’ fans are finding trouble believing in this club this upcoming season. With a new head coach and general manager, the Bears seem to be in Year One of a transitional process that will leave this team looking drastically different in the coming years. No player is safe, evidenced by franchise stalwarts in Tillman and Briggs being asked to close the door on their way out this offseason.

Even though the Bears appear to be a team in transition, they definitely don’t lack for some interesting story lines to watch this upcoming season.  There’s a couple of players and coaches whose performance will change the Bears’ identity this season and in the future.Image title

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Cutler

Expecting more out of Cutler than what he’s shown thus far in his career is just nonsensical. Cutler is not a quarterback that is going to make other players around him better; he needs to operate in an offensive system that will hide his weaknesses and mitigate the disastrous mistakes that have plagued his career.

Cutler enters this season on the shortest leash he’s ever been on. Rumors of the Bears moving up to grab quarterback Marcus Mariota in the draft prove just how expendable he is to this front office. If not for his unmovable contract situation the Bears were faced with this offseason, he probably wouldn’t even be on this roster.

Next offseason is a different story though. There’s still a huge amount of dead money the Bears would have to incur ($13 million) to release Cutler, but there are actual cap savings ($4 million) if they choose to do so. There’s a possibility that the Bears could cut their losses with Cutler next offseason and start over by drafting a young quarterback in the draft.

One thing is evident: if Cutler wants to be on this roster next season, he has to improve substantially from his dreadful 2014 campaign. So just how likely is Cutler to improve next season? Well, even with the loss of Marshall, Cutler is in a much better situation than he was last season.

This has to do with the reported toxic environment that existed in the Bears’ locker room last season and a coaching staff that seemed under-qualified to deal with these issues.

Now Cutler enters a situation with a proven commodity in head coach John Fox, and possibly the best offensive coordinator he’s ever had in Adam Gase.

Cutler has produced better seasons than the one he produced last year, and if this coaching staff could minimize his disastrous weaknesses, he could have a bounce back season. If he doesn’t, he will be another team’s problem.Image title

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Forte

Since Forte started his career with the Bears, he has been the model of consistency through many tumultuous seasons. With an expiring contract situation on the horizon, his time in Chicago could come to an end next offseason.

Former Bears’ Director of College Scouting Greg Gabriel had this to say about Forte heading into the 2015 season, via National Football Post

            “He is one of the most consistent and underrated backs in the NFL. Few have the                overall game that Forte brings to the table. He is a consistent runner inside and                    out and is one of the best receiving backs in the NFL. The only negative is his age,          and with that, brings the question of how much is left in the tank?”

And this is the question the Bears will try to answer when deciding whether to offer Forte a competitive contract extension next offseason. So how much does Forte really have left? Well, his 3.9 yards per carry last season was tied for the second lowest of his seven year career, but he did post career highs in receptions and receiving yards.

Forte’s career has been mostly absent of the hard hits from defenders that decimate running-backs’ careers over the long haul, but Forte did just pass 1,800 rushing attempts last season; this is significant because running-backs’ production will usually fall off a cliff the season after they reach this milestone.

Pace did invest a fourth-round pick in running-back Jeremy Langford in the 2015 NFL Draft, but it’s hard to tell if this really means anything about Forte’s future with the Bears.

Could Pace be preparing for life after Forte by drafting a possible replacement in the speedy Langford, or could he just be adding depth to a running-back position that needed it badly last season? It’s more likely the latter as Langford’s draft profile doesn’t peg him to be a future starter one day in his career, evidenced by him again being a fourth-round pick.

So how much will Forte’s production this year matter, when the Bears are assessing his future with the team next offseason?

Well, if he produces another consistent year full of positive production, Pace might think Forte will be way out of the price range he’s willing to invest in a 30-year-old running-back approaching 2,000 rushing attempts. 

If Forte declines this season and shows signs of slowing down, Pace might think it would be better to invest his money in another draft pick at running-back or give Langford a shot at the starting position, depending on his production in 2015.

It seems more likely than not that Forte will play his last down in a Bears’ uniform this season, pending a significant hometown discount.Image title

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Alshon Jeffery

Jeffery enters this season in a precarious situation, unlike his first three seasons in the NFL. With Marshall gone, Jeffery is the clear top wide-receiver on this roster. 

Last season was a little snapshot of Jeffery’s ability to be a No. 1 wide-receiver in this league, with Marshall slowed down by injuries, but the results were disappointing.

Last season’s production pushed Jeffery outside the top-10 wide-receivers in the NFL, rather than the previous season where he was producing elite-like numbers.

Much of this could be explained by Marshall struggling with those injuries last season. Marshall consistently forced defenses to pay close attention to him when he was healthy, opening up passing lanes for Jeffery to take advantage of.

When Marshall started getting hampered by injuries, Jeffery became the de facto No. 1 wide-receiver on this roster, despite him proving that he was not quite ready to take on this responsibility.

Jeffery has the talent to be one of the upper echelon wide-receivers in the NFL, but right now he doesn’t belong in that discussion. Entering the last season of his rookie deal, Jeffery is in position to cash-out on the big extensions earned by two of those upper echelon wide-receivers, Dez Bryant and Demaryious Thomas.

If Jeffery takes another step in his development and emerges as an elite wide-receiver, he’ll have the opportunity to be paid like one of these upper echelon players.

If he remains stagnant and produces a season like the one he did last year, the Bears would be left in a precarious situation and would more than likely end up franchise tagging the promising wide-receiver.

The smart thing for the Bears to do would be to extend Jeffery before or during the regular-season. Coming off an unspectacular season, the Bears could save future cap space by extending Jeffery now. Jeffery has flashed the talent to be a No. 1 wide-receiver, and if he puts it all together this season he could command a Bryant/Thomas-like ransom.

Pending some unforeseen outcome, Jeffery will be on this roster next season, but at what price?Image title

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Gase & Vic Fangio

Fox’s ability to obtain elite coordinators was on full display after arriving in Chicago. Obtaining Gase as his offensive coordinator and Fangio as his defensive coordinator, arguably the two most desirable coordinators at their respected sides of the football this offseason, puts the Bears in a great position to improve on a horrid campaign last season.

The interesting dilemma for the Bears next offseason is that if both sides of the ball improve substantially this season, one or both of these coordinators could be headed for head-coaching positions.

In the case of offensive coordinator Gase, he would have likely landed the San Francisco 49ers’ head coaching job if he would have agreed to hire Jim Tomsula as his defensive coordinator. Gase refused and is in now leading the Bears’ offense with Cutler at the helm.

Gase was a hot commidity this offseason for a head coaching gig and if he can make Cutler look even respectable this season, he’ll put himself over the top for a head coaching position.

Fangio was interviewed for that same 49ers’ head coaching position, but was passed over by his defensive line coach Tomsula. Fangio has been a respected coordinator in the NFL for a long time, and if he can take one of the worst defenses in the NFL and turn them respectable or better, it could propel him into a head coaching job next offseason.

The MMQB made a ranking of the next 32 head coaches, in order of likelihood for the 2016 season and beyond. Gase and Fangio, unsurpringly, finished ranked first and 18th on that list.

It will be interesting to see if one or both of these units improve this season and if they do, Fox will add to his growing coaching tree.

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Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Jared Allen

Paired with the signing of defensive lineman Lamar Houston, Allen was a part of the Bears’ blockbuster haul in the 2014 offseason that garnered Super Bowl predictions far and wide. To no avail, Allen didn’t come close to delivering the production his contract promised.

In retrospect, Allen put together a pretty average season, but it’s hard to garner a lot of sympathy for a player who is currently on the books to count $12.5 million against the Bears’ cap this season.

Just like Cutler, Allen was a player the Bears’ front office would have probably loved to release considering his massive cap hit, but doing so would have produced no cap savings and $12.5 million in dead money.

One thing former General Manager Phil Emery did right was front-loading guarantees on contract extensions. Allen’s $15.5 million in guarantees is comprised of his 2014 and 2015 seasons, so the Bears can relinquish themselves from his $8.5 million cap hit next season with no dead money incurred upon his release.

At the age of 33, Allen would have to have a spectacular season for him to remain on the Bears’ roster next season.

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Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

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The Super Bowl-Bound 2015 Baltimore Ravens

Last season was a heartbreaking one for the Baltimore Ravens.  

The difference between them appearing in the AFC Championship game, against the Indianapolis Colts, and a Divisional Round exit was a gift interception to the New England Patriots with only 36 yards away from victory.

With last season now in the books, it

Last season was a heartbreaking one for the Baltimore Ravens.  

The difference between them appearing in the AFC Championship game, against the Indianapolis Colts, and a Divisional Round exit was a gift interception to the New England Patriots with only 36 yards away from victory.

With last season now in the books, it should come as no surprise that heading into this season the Ravens seem primed to make another deep playoff run.

Since John Harbaugh took over head coaching duties in 2008, the Ravens have consistently made deep playoffs runs, as shown in the table below.

How the Ravens have finished under head coach John Harbaugh
Year Result
2008 Lost to Pittsburgh Steelers in AFC Championship Game
2009 Lost to Colts in AFC Divisional Game
2010 Lost to Steelers in AFC Divisional Game
2011 Lost to New England Patriots in AFC Championship Game
2012 Super Bowl XLVII Champions
2013 Missed Playoffs
2014 Lost to Patriots in AFC Divisional Game

In terms of sheer performance, Harbaugh is one of the NFL’s best head coaches; the Ravens’ 10 playoff victories under Harbaugh (since 2008) rank as the NFL’s most.

Led by consistency at the head-coaching position, there are a lot of things to like about the Ravens coming into this season and with a muddy AFC race on the horizon, the Ravens stand out.

Offense

As a whole the Ravens’ offense was highly efficient last season, posting a 9.4% DVOA, according to Pro Football Outsiders.

Under Gary Kubiak‘s offense Joe Flacco flourished; he had arguably his best regular season as a quarterback, evidenced by the table shown below.

Year Pass TDs INTs CMP% Yards Pro Football Focus Grade Pro Football Outsiders’ DVOA ESPN’s Total QBR
2014 27 12 62.1 3,986 7.1 15.5% 67.0


His statistical performance showed on tape too, as Flacco seemed to have a better understanding of the field and cut down on the mistakes that plagued his 2013 campaign. Quarterback is the most important position in the NFL, and Flacco has proven that he can lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl victory.

Under new offensive coordinator Marc Trestman, the Ravens figure to be a more vertical offense and this should help first round pick Breshad Perriman flourish.

Perriman posted a 4.24 40 yard dash at his pro-day, and will help mitigate the loss of now-San Francisco 49ers’ wide-receiver Torrey Smith.

Perriman compares similarly to T. Smith (top-flight speed, good size, inconsistent hands); if he can keep defenses honest with his speed, this offense shouldn’t miss a beat.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens might have lost one Smith at wide-receiver this offseason, but the ageless Steve Smith remains. S. Smith is still as aggressive as they come at wide-receiver and is a nice reliable option for Flacco.

At tight end, there is some uncertainty for the Ravens heading into the 2015 season with Dennis Pitta expected to remain on the physically unable to perform list to start the season.

It’ll be interesting to see how snaps are divided between 2015 second round pick Maxx Williams and 2014 third round pick Crockett Gilmore. Trestman normally operates out of 11 personnel (one running-back, one tight-end), so you will rarely see them on the field at the same time.

Justin Forsett was one of the most productive running backs in the NFL last season, but seemed to be more of a product of a spectacular run blocking offensive line. Forsett has great vision and rarely misses the hole, but doesn’t have enough power or agility to consistently shake off defenders. If this offensive line can stay healthy, he could possibly replicate his 2014 season anyway.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The strength of this offense comes in the form of their spectacular offensive line where there don’t seem to be many, if any, weaknesses.

Usually stout in pass protection, left-tackle Eugene Monroe was bullied on occasion last season; much of this could be explained by Monroe struggling with knee and ankle injuries. Monroe has proven to be a really good left-tackle in his career, so it should be expected for him to improve this season.

Opposite Monroe, Ricky Wagner starts at right-tackle for this offensive line. Wagner, a 2013 fifth round pick, surprisingly emerged last season and put together a solid 2014 campaign.

According to Pro Football Focus, Wagner only gave up 23 total pressures last season, which was tied for the sixth-least out of offensive tackles.

At center we have the fairly solid Jeremy Zuttah. Zuttah is probably the worst among this group, but is still a good player in his own regard.

Now we come to the strength of this offensive line with Marshal Yanda and Kelechi Osemele, who form the best guard duo in football; Yanda was Pro Football Focus’ highest graded guard last season by a wide margin, and Osemele finished ranked sixth.

Altogether this offensive line does a great job of keeping Flacco clean in the pocket, and opening huge running lanes for Forsett. 

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

The Ravens’ defense will be the heart and soul of this team, and for very good reason; this defense has talent at all levels, and combined with a great run defense and improved passing defense, should consistently terrorize offenses this season.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Ravens quietly have the best front seven in football that figures to be even better in 2015.

This front seven is littered with seasoned veterans (Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Daryl Smith), and young emerging stars (C.J. Mosley, Timmy Jernigan).

We start at inside-linebacker with this defense where Mosley is entering the second season of his NFL career, and should already be considered one of the best players at his position.

If Mosley isn’t already the best player on this talented defense, he will be by the end of this season. Mosley showed rare instincts for a rookie and had a tremendous ability to find the ball.  

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Next to Mosley, we have the very underrated D. Smith; D. Smith is a very well rounded defensive player, who is good in coverage and against the run.  

D. Smith was Pro Football Focus’ seventh highest graded inside-linebacker in 2014 and, combined with Mosley, forms one of the best inside-linebacker duos in the NFL.

Speaking of great line-backing duos, Suggs and Dumervil form a lethal combination on the outside of this defense. Suggs and Dumervil know how to get after the quarterback and create chaos for offensive coordinators.

The loss of Pernell McPhee to the Chicago Bears broke up one of the most productive trios of outside-linebackers in the NFL, but the Ravens are consistently replacing departing defensive free agents with draft picks successfully.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Upfront, the Ravens’ defensive line last season helped produce the third-3rd lowest rushing yards per attempt in the NFL.

This group will lose a mainstay in Haloti Ngata, who was traded to the Detroit Lions this offseason. 

Despite the loss of one of their defensive leaders, the Ravens shouldn’t be too worried without him.

This has to do with the emergence of Jernigan, who was Ngata’s replacement during his four-game suspension for performance-enhancing substances at the end of the season.

Jernigan in limited snaps flashed rare pass rushing ability for a 3-4 defensive lineman, and amassed four sacks in the process.

If Jernigan can stay healthy, he could have a big season for this defense.  Other members of this defensive line include the underrated run-stuffing-defensive-tackle Brandon Williams and the solid Chris Canty.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

We head to the secondary, where this unit was a significant weakness for this Ravens team last season. Some players returning from injury and some free agent additions should see this group improve.

This secondary is led by corner-back Jimmy Smith. J. Smith was playing like one of the best corner-backs in football last season before he had his season cut short because of injury.

J. Smith is an aggressive corner who loves to get his hands on wide-receivers; his return should be a real boost to this unit.

Opposite J. Smith is corner-back Lardarius Webb. Webb has battled through injuries, last season and throughout his career, but has proven that when healthy, he can produce some really good seasons at corner-back.

Adding Kyle Arrington at nickel-back will also be beneficial to this corner-backing group, who saw some bad performances last season at this position.

Will Hill and Kendrick Lewis figure to be the starting safeties this season, and both are solid players at their respected positions.

If the Ravens’ secondary can keep the mediocre Matt Elam off the field because of injury or performance, this group should actually be pretty solid this season.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Conclusion

The AFC figures to be a muddy race this season, but the Ravens seem to be the team that shares one key difference between all of these contenders: the Ravens don’t have glaring weaknesses.

The Patriots have glaring holes in their secondary; the Denver Broncos have concerns about Peyton Manning‘s health; the Colts have Andrew Luck, and not much else; and the Steelers have a huge question mark on defense.

Talent is the true determining factor of the NFL Playoffs, and the Ravens seem poised to be playing in February this season.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

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