issa-sbf-white-logo.png
ssflogo2.png

Denver Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco is ready for a fresh start.

The 34-year-old, who was sent from the Baltimore Ravens to the Broncos in a trade this offseason, participated in his first training camp practice with his new team on Thursday.

"There is an energy about coming here and an excitement that I feel about coming to this new team and getting another chance to be a starting quarterback in this league," Flacco said.

"I don't think you can ever take for granted how awesome it is to get to do what I’m doing and what we are all doing, so I'm definitely excited about it and ready to go. I feel like a little kid."

The Ravens originally selected Flacco out of Delaware with the number 18 pick in the 2008 draft and he led the team to a win in Super Bowl XLVII.

But, he was replaced by then-rookie Lamar Jackson as Baltimore's starter last season.

"I feel like I've got a lot left in the tank," Flacco said. "I feel like I can do a lot more than what I've shown over the course of my 11-year career, so I'm excited that I'm going to have the opportunity here to do that."

The Broncos picked Drew Lock in the second round and also have Kevin Hogan and Brett Rypien on their roster.

Denver president of football operations John Elway, however, said there will not be a quarterback competition.

"[Quarterback] is a hard position to fill," Elway told ESPN earlier this week. "We tried to shake all these trees around here the last four years and the quarterbacks didn't fall out. So, it's difficult. We've taken a lot of shots, we've tried a lot of different situations ... Hopefully with Joe we've got it solidified with Drew [Lock] working under him.

"When the football team has confidence with the guy at that position, it makes your football team better. Joe proved, he showed everybody on our football team he's that guy. Our team responded to him well ... He's ready to take that spot over."

The Broncos finished 2018 with a 6-10 record and missed the playoffs for a third straight season. They fired Vance Joseph in late December and hired Vic Fangio to replace him.

Chris Paul did not get what he wanted, but he is apparently not too mad about it.

In the meantime in MLB, batters really need to start watching their heads.

And in the NHL a ton is happening, and yet, nothing actually is.

 

1. Paul staying with Thunder

The Oklahoma City Thunder had hoped to move Paul quickly after acquiring him in a package for Russell Westbrook last week, but that is apparently not going to happen.

Paul is likely to start the season in Oklahoma City, according to ESPN, and could play out a good portion of the campaign, or even longer, there.

Oklahoma City reportedly tried to move Paul to the Heat, but their proposals were not to the liking of Miami, so Paul, and his three years and more than $100million left on his contract, will stay with the Thunder.

Fortunately, both Paul and the Thunder reportedly see value in him sticking around, so it is not a total loss for either party.

2. Plunk wars

It is that time of year. Baseball players are throwing at each other again and two pitchers were suspended for their actions on Wednesday after throwing at the heads of opponents a day earlier.

Philadelphia Phillies reliever Hector Neris was mad at himself so he threw at David Freese.

Then, Los Angeles Angels reliever Noe Ramirez threw at Jake Marisnick for breaking his catcher's nose and giving him a concussion.

Both players were suspended for three games. Both men will appeal.

 

3. NHL has oddly eventful week

For some reason there was a lot going on in the NHL this week. There were several signings and a somewhat notable trade.

- The Chicago Blackhawks traded Artem Anisimov to the Ottawa Senators for Zack Smith.
- Minnesota Wild re-signed Ryan Donato to a two-year deal after he excelled following his trade there for Charlie Coyle at the deadline.
- The Washington Capitals re-signed Jakub Vrana to a two-year deal.
- Colorado Avalanche signed J.T. Compher to a four-year deal but still have not given Mikko Rantanen an offer.

Rantanen remains unsigned as do other restricted free agent stars such as Patrick Laine (Winnipeg Jets), Matthew Tkachuk (Calgary Flames), Brayden Point (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Mitch Marner (Toronto Maple Leafs).

All of these men face holdouts if they do not get the deals they want, but with all of the contracts already handed out teams simply might not have enough money to give especially with a lower salary cap than many anticipated. There could be a lot of disappointed young players this offseason.

 

4. Falcons, Deion Jones agree to four-year, $57m deal

This is how much Deion Jones means to the Atlanta Falcons defense.

After going down early in the season to injury, Jones was still given a four-year, $57m deal on Wednesday. Jones played in just six games in 2018, but Atlanta clearly have no concern about his long-term health and locked him up accordingly.

The Falcons are due for a bounce-back season if they are healthy and Jones will be a big part of it.

Jimmy Garoppolo is grateful to have learned from one of the best quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL, New England Patriots superstar Tom Brady.

San Francisco 49ers QB Garoppolo was poised for a breakout NFL season in 2018 after escaping Tom Brady's shadow in New England, but a knee injury four weeks into the season halted those plans.

Now preparing for his comeback, Garoppolo still credits the Patriots star and six-time Super Bowl champion for helping him develop and ultimately be able to bounce back after studying under him for the first three years of his NFL career.

"The preparation as a whole was tremendous just to see it, to be in the same room as it, to learn from it," Garoppolo told The Ringer's Kevin Clark.

"To be a rookie and see that, it was invaluable. I can barely put it into words. What you learn is playing the game within the game, that's a big part of Tom.

"I don't even know if he told me that [directly], but he would always talk about the game within the game. He would talk about the snap count, and he'd say, 'You're going to go on two on this play' and he'd have a specific reason."

Garoppolo signed the biggest contract in NFL history at the time last season, a five-year deal worth $137.5million that carried a salary cap hit of $37m, though he went down with the season-ending injury against the Kansas City Chiefs on September 23 and had surgery October 3. 

The 27-year-old threw for 718 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions before being sidelined.

Now healthy again with some new targets after the Niners added Tevin Coleman, Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd this offseason, Garoppolo is feeling optimistic about the future.

"The rehab has been great. The whole process, the training staff, and all the coaches put together a great plan. It really went well," Garoppolo said.

"To participate in [offseason training activities] the way I did and, hopefully, being full-go for training camp, I couldn't ask for much more coming off an ACL. Knock on wood; we'll keep it going and stay in a good place."

Deion Jones has signed a new four-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons, the NFL franchise announced on Wednesday.

Jones' contract is worth $57million, with $34m of that guaranteed, the 2017 Pro Bowler's agent told ESPN.

Atlanta's announcement comes two days after the team agreed to terms with Grady Jarrett, who had the franchise tag placed on him.

Falcons defensive tackle Jarrett agreed to a four-year deal worth a reported $68m.

Jones was selected in the second round of the 2016 draft by Atlanta. He missed 10 games last season due to a foot injury but was able to return for the latter part of the year.

In three seasons in the NFL, Jones has 297 tackles, 27 pass defenses, 15 tackles for a loss, eight interceptions and three touchdowns. He would have been a free agent in 2020.

Atlanta are also working on a contract extension with the team's top wideout Julio Jones

It has been reported that both sides are trying to come to an agreement before training camp starts next week.

 

How do you overcome a Super Bowl hangover in a division likely to be one of the toughest in the NFL in 2019?

That is the conundrum the Los Angeles Rams face as they try to put their February disappointment against the New England Patriots behind them.

Aiming to derail their challenge will be a Seattle Seahawks team that will remain competitive as long as Russell Wilson is under center, while the San Francisco 49ers should be in the mix if their quarterback can stay healthy and return to his 2017 form.

The combination of Kyler Murray and Kliff Kingsbury could be an explosive one for the Arizona Cardinals and should that prove the case then this division may be the most fascinating in football.

Here's the outlook for the NFC West heading into training camp:

 

TEAM ON THE RISE:

San Francisco 49ers

Many predicted the Niners to challenge for the playoffs last year. The loss of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to injury in September put that to bed, but with Garoppolo back under center, the Niners appear better poised for a push in 2019.

The pass rush should go from a weakness to a strength after the arrivals of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa, who join DeForest Buckner on a stacked defensive front, which will hope to force considerably more turnovers than the record low of seven the 49ers produced last year.

With Kyle Shanahan calling the plays for Garoppolo, an offense featuring star tight end George Kittle and a talented cast of young skill-position players, San Francisco's attack should be prolific enough to keep the Niners in every game.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE:

Seattle Seahawks

It would be easy to predict a slide for the Rams after their Super Bowl heartache. However, beyond the departures of Lamarcus Joyner, Rodger Saffold and Ndamukong Suh, they have kept largely intact the roster that fell a win short of claiming the Lombardi Trophy and found a quality replacement for Joyner in Eric Weddle.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, continue to embrace a youth movement on both sides of the ball having seen wide receiver Doug Baldwin retire and safety Earl Thomas depart.

There will be significant pressure on D.K. Metcalf to perform as a rookie and take the pressure off top receiver Tyler Lockett, but that is a lot to ask of a wideout who displayed limited agility as a route-runner in college.

However, the bigger problem is on defense, where the trade of star pass rusher Frank Clark has left Seattle relying on first-round pick L.J. Collier, injury-prone Ziggy Ansah and retread Cassius Marsh to pressure the quarterback. The Seahawks should still compete for the playoffs, but their lack of an adequate replacement for Clark could see them on the outside looking in.

ROOKIES TO WATCH:

Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals: The story of the draft could become the story of the season if Murray lives up to the billing and sets the league afire as a rookie. To do so he will likely have to mitigate the impact of an offensive line that was one of the NFL's worst in 2018 with his running ability. Every practice and preseason snap he takes until Week 1 will be intensely scrutinised as the Cardinals' gamble is continually evaluated.

Nick Bosa, DE, 49ers: Bosa could have been a Cardinal had Arizona opted to stick with Josh Rosen. Instead he will be hunting down Murray twice a season and the pass-rusher, along with trade acquisition Ford, will be crucial to San Francisco's defense reaching a new level. If Bosa is to have an impact similar to older brother Joey, he will have to put the injury bug behind him. He missed almost all of his final year at Ohio State with a core muscle injury and a hamstring issue left him sidelined for the 49ers' minicamp.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: 

Jared Goff

Though Goff does not have to prove anything in camp, he can expect to be under even greater scrutiny in 2019 after crumbling under the bright lights of the Super Bowl.

Goff never looked comfortable with the stage or his opposition as the Patriots' defense strangled the life out of the Rams offense in Atlanta, and his upcoming fourth year will be one in which he will have to rise to the challenge of dissecting opponents that will be out to emulate New England's success. It's largely on Goff to ensure that Los Angeles don't suffer a Super Bowl hangover in a difficult division.

KEY INJURY:

Jimmy Garoppolo, knee: The word is the Niners' quarterback is "good to go" for training camp after tearing his ACL in Week 3 last season, but how he progresses in his return to padded practices should be closely monitored, as it his performances that are most likely to determine whether the West becomes a three-horse race in 2019.

For all the good work Nick Mullens did last year, the Niners will go as far as Garoppolo does in a crucial third year for Shanahan and GM John Lynch. For them to have a chance of winning the division or just reaching the postseason, they need Garoppolo firing on all cylinders as soon as possible.

The NFC South had its fair share of issues and controversies last season, which could be the chips on shoulders to drive teams to fight for a Super Bowl this time around.

Clearly, the New Orleans Saints are still stinging from that no-call against the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Championship. But also, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lacked discipline, the Carolina Panthers imploded in the middle of the season and the Atlanta Falcons' litany of injuries caused them to finish the year as average as a dry toast.

However, it's a new campaign and NFC South teams have the talent to get far in the playoffs. Drew Brees looks as healthy as ever at 40 and has a steady offense under him in New Orleans, while the Bucs have a new coach in Bruce Arians to freshen things up.

The Falcons have to be healthier this year and can count on the return of safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, while the Panthers' receiving corps should be solid with a refreshed Greg Olsen and free agent acquisition Chris Hogan.

Here is what to expect from the NFC South in 2019:

 

TEAM ON THE RISE:

Atlanta Falcons

Last season was a disaster for the Falcons. The team was plagued by injuries, especially along the offensive line, which made quarterback Matt Ryan an easy target (he was sacked a whopping 42 times).

This season, most of the injured starters are back, and if the team can remain healthy, they can match the pace the Saints have set in the division.

On the defensive side of the ball, Grady Jarrett just came to terms on a new deal and Deion Jones has returned from a foot injury. The Falcons also re-signed Adrian Clayborn, who sacked Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott six times in 2017 but spent last season with the New England Patriots.

Barring any injury setbacks, a healthy Falcons team could get back to their 2016 level, when they won the NFC.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Yeah, yeah. This one seems too easy. Despite getting an elite coach in Arians, there are still some issues with the Bucs that are too much to overlook.

Quarterback Jameis Winston is a key factor – the 25-year-old has been plagued with off-field issues and inconsistent play that saw him benched last season for Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Many think Arians can fix Winston, but Winston has barely improved during his time in the league.

Combined with poor defensive play and subpar safeties, Arians might need a couple of years to rebuild this team.

ROOKIES TO WATCH:

Erik McCoy, C, Saints: New Orleans traded up to get McCoy in the second round of the draft, with the team wanting to bolster an offensive line that was top-tier last season. Unless McCoy struggles in training camp and preseason or gets injured, he's expected to be a starter and make an immediate impact. He's already impressed at OTAs and received a lot of first-team reps. He could anchor a line that will make it difficult for any defense to get to Brees.

Devin White, LB, Buccaneers: White was selected with the fifth overall pick, and the Bucs hope he can help begin to solve their defensive woes (27th overall in 2018). White has speed and agility, evidenced during his time at LSU. Could he hold the key to making the Bucs a formidable defense? He will work under Todd Bowles, who joined Tampa Bay as the defensive coordinator and is known for his love of blitzing. The Buccaneers will likely hit the ground running with White and use his talents starting in Week 1.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT:

Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey impressed in his second NFL season (1,098 yards rushing, 867 yards receiving, 13 TDs), and there's no reason he won't be poised for success again this year. He has also become the team's primary back, with Cameron Artis-Payne and Elijah Hood being re-signed as cover and the team drafting Jordan Scarlett and signing the undrafted Elijah Holyfield. McCaffrey will need his backups' help to ensure his health, but expect him to surpass 2,000 combined yards this season.

KEY INJURIES:

Cam Newton, shoulder: The Panthers quarterback was shut down at the end of last year because of a nagging shoulder injury and underwent surgery in the offseason. He's altered how he throws to keep his shoulder healthy and hasn't participated in minicamps as he continues rehab. Will Newton look like his old self by the end of training camp, when the regular season rolls around?

Marcus Davenport, toe: The Saints defensive end's rookie season was derailed by a toe injury, and he later admitted he never fully recovered. Flash forward to 2019. Davenport is expected to complement Cam Jordan in the Saints' pass-rush scheme. He's had a full offseason for his toe to recover from a procedure and the heat is on for him to help turn the Saints defense, 14th overall in 2018, into something more formidable.

The NFC North might just be the strongest division in the NFL.

It was the Chicago Bears who surprisingly took the division title in 2018 as the league's stingiest defense helped first-time head coach Matt Nagy make an immediate impact.

The Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers took steps back but, given the wealth of talent on the two teams, it would not be surprising if either or both made deep playoff runs this time around, while most of Chicago's roster remains intact.

Here is the outlook for the NFC North heading into training camp:

TEAM ON THE RISE

Green Bay Packers

Surely the only way is up for a Packers team coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1992? Aaron Rodgers will have extra motivation to prove it was former coach Mike McCarthy and not the quarterback that was the problem in Titletown. The defense already had a fine young core in Jaire Alexander, Blake Martinez and Kenny Clark. Throw in first-round picks Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage, and free-agency acquisitions Za'Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos, and Mike Pettine's unit has top-10 potential.

That, coupled with some typical Rodgers magic, should be enough for the Pack to get back on track under new coach Matt LaFleur.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Detroit Lions

The other NFC North teams enter the 2019 season all with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations, leaving the Lions as the odd ones out. Detroit finished 6-10 in Matt Patricia's debut campaign — losing seven of nine before a meaningless Week 17 clash with Green Bay — and the dip may get sharper in 2019. 

Patricia's old-school methods reportedly rubbed some the wrong way and the murmurs of discontent will only grow louder if Detroit cannot get off to a good start, with the Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Kansas City Chiefs, Packers and Vikings all on the schedule in a tricky opening six-game stretch. Then there is quarterback Matthew Stafford, who threw for a paltry 3,777 yards across 16 starts in 2018. At 31, he is running out of time to prove he can take the next step.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

T.J. Hockenson, TE, Lions: Former Patriots defensive coordinator Patricia saw in New England how a do-it-all tight end can transform an offense and Detroit drafted Hockenson eighth overall in the hope he could have a Rob Gronkowski-like impact in the Motor City. Only one Lions receiver — Kenny Golladay (1,063 yards) — accrued more than 517 receiving yards in 2018 and Levine Toilolo (263 yards) led all tight ends so Hockenson should provide an immediate upgrade.

David Montgomery, RB, Bears: Having traded Jordan Howard to the Eagles before the draft, Chicago moved up in the third round to pick Montgomery, an elusive back seemingly more suited to Nagy's offense. Tarik Cohen will once again provide the pizzazz outside the tackles but Montgomery can do plenty of damage inside for a team that had the sixth-most rushing attempts in 2018. If Kyler Murray doesn't live up to the hype, Montgomery might walk, or run, away with the Rookie of the Year prize for a Bears team likely to lean on the rush again given Mitchell Trubisky's limitations.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Kirk Cousins

He was supposed to be the man to push the Vikings over the hump but Minnesota missed the playoffs in 2018 after reaching the NFC championship game in the campaign before. Cousins begins the second season of a three-year, $84million, fully guaranteed contract desperate to prove he can be spectacular, and not just steady, and Minnesota has to find a way to better protect a QB who was sacked 40 times in 2018. In Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, Cousins has arguably the best wide receiver tandem in the NFL. If the offensive line can hold up, he has no excuses.

KEY INJURIES

Dalvin Cook, knee and hamstring: Cousins' life will become a lot easier if Minnesota's star running back can stay healthy. Cook has missed 17 games over his first two seasons in the league but has flashed plenty of ability in his time on the field. The Vikings brought in Gary Kubiak to aid their offense this season and Cook figures to thrive in his zone-blocking scheme if he can put his injury troubles behind him.

Kerryon Johnson, knee: Rookie Johnson snapped Detroit's 70-game streak of not having a 100-yard rusher, and he might have become their first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush in 2013 had a knee injury not ended his campaign prematurely. Heading into his second season, the Lions need Johnson to pick up where he left off as he will be the focus of the ground attack in an offense that might be one of the more run-oriented in the entire NFL.

The NFC East has seen a lot of movement during the offseason, including huge contract news at the defending division champions the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants losing Odell Beckham Jr.

Let's not forget the murkiness surrounding the Washington Redskins' quarterback situation, and whether Carson Wentz will manage to stay healthy throughout the season for the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Cowboys play a more difficult first-place schedule in 2019, while the Eagles look to return to the form that made them Super Bowl champions two seasons ago.

Here's the outlook for the NFC East heading into training camp:

 

TEAM ON THE RISE:

Dallas Cowboys

Are the Cowboys back? They went 10-6 last season to win the division as wide receiver Amari Cooper burst onto the scene in Dallas after he was acquired from the Oakland Raiders. The Cowboys went on to win a playoff game for the first time in four years.

But after a wild-card win over the Seattle Seahawks, they lost in the divisional round to the Los Angeles Rams, keeping the relative heat on coach Jason Garrett.

Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence – who has 34 sacks in five NFL seasons – was signed to a massive five-year, $105million deal, and the team has promised quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott new contracts. How that plays out could affect the season, on the field and off it. 

The team also promoted Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator after a successful season as the team's quarterbacks coach. All the pieces are there for success – the Cowboys simply need to execute.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE:

New York Giants

The Giants have been on the slide, and this year isn't going to be any different.

As previously noted, they ended up trading Beckham to the Cleveland Browns after their relationship soured and included defensive end Olivier Vernon in that deal. Also, Landon Collins left for the Redskins. 

The Giants also pained their fan base when they drafted a quarterback in Daniel Jones with the No. 6 pick in this year's draft but said they still plan on using the ageing Eli Manning, 38.

Essentially, the Giants will have a lot to prove because of their offseason decisions, and in a competitive division, there is no room for error.

ROOKIES TO WATCH:

Dwayne Haskins, QB, Redskins: The team's quarterback situation was in crisis mode last season – Alex Smith suffered a horrifying leg injury that might have derailed his career, and backup Colt McCoy went out a short time later with a broken leg. The Redskins were smart in drafting Haskins out of Ohio State, and apparently he's impressed in offseason work. Technically Case Keenum, who was traded to Washington, is slated to be the starter, but if he flounders in his first couple of starts, the job could belong to Haskins.

Daniel Jones, QB, Giants: How will the Giants use Jones? Many were perplexed over why he was taken so early in the draft, even though the Giants said they planned to use Manning for at least another season. If the Giants are subpar for the first few games, will Jones be subbed in? Or will he sit the entire season as Manning, whose QB rating has dipped the past three seasons, tries to recapture his Super Bowl touch? How the Giants handle their QB situation will be worth watching.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT:

Jordan Howard

The Eagles struggled running the ball last season, finishing 28th in the league, after Jay Ajayi was injured and had to rely heavily on the receiving corps to get things done. That looks to change this season, with the team getting Howard from the Chicago Bears. Before last year, Howard was part of an explosive ground attack in Chicago, running for more than 1,000 yards in 2016 and 2017, but last season new Bears coach Matt Nagy's offensive scheme didn't use him as frequently. Given the need to give Wentz a break and protect him from further injuries, Howard will need to step up and prove to be a productive and reliable back.

KEY INJURIES:

Derrius Guice, knee: The Redskins running back didn't even get a chance to play last year after he tore his ACL in preseason, and a reported hamstring injury causes questions as training camp rolls around. Guice downplayed the hamstring tweak, but the real test will be when he takes the field for his first game. Will he be able to blaze through defenses like he did at LSU?

Carson Wentz, back: The Eagles quarterback said he was almost 100 per cent before June's minicamp after he went down late last season with a fracture in his back, but it marks the second season in a row that Wentz has missed the playoffs due to injury. The question remains if Wentz can remain healthy for an entire season. Without safety net Nick Foles as backup, Wentz will need to be the one to lead the Eagles to the playoffs.

Mike Vrabel said the Tennessee Titans are looking at a quarterback to lead the way for the "next 7-10 years" as he discussed Marcus Mariota's future.

Tennessee picked up the fifth-year option on Mariota's rookie contract, but the sides have yet to agree to a new deal.

The Titans originally selected Mariota out of Oregon with the second pick in the 2015 draft. However, the 25-year-old has registered just a 27-28 record as a starter over his four NFL seasons.

Titans head coach Vrabel was asked about the future of Mariota and he hold MMQB: "I think everybody has a contract, and we're very aware of players who are in the last year of the deal.

"Marcus is obviously one of those. When you make a commitment to the QB you want to make sure that this is going to be your guy for the next 7-10 years when you look at the percentage of the cap quarterbacks are driving."

Mariota completed 68.9 per cent of his passes and threw for 11 touchdowns, along with eight interceptions, in 14 games for Tennessee last season. He also added two scores on the ground.

The Titans finished with a 9-7 record and missed the playoffs.

"Nobody is prouder of what Marcus has done in the offseason than me," Vrabel said. "He's come back stronger, bigger, with greater understanding of what we're doing offensively, being able to communicate it to players [on] the field.

"I don't look at the lack of a long-term extension as a negative, though that's what people try to make it."

"I know Marcus's demeanour and that won't change whether he's on a 10-year contract or it's up after the season," Vrabel added. "He's that type of person. So, I know it'll work because of how he is."

The Titans are set to begin training camp next week.

The AFC North has been dominated by the Cincinnati Bengals, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers for years, but this finally could be the year of the Cleveland Browns.

It is a division that has a new look all around, as the Browns and Ravens made some big offseason signings, the Bengals added a new head coach for the first time in 17 years and the Steelers moved on from two thirds of their 'Killer B' trio.

Here's the outlook for the AFC North heading into training camp:

Team on the rise

Cleveland Browns

The Browns had nowhere to go but up in 2018 after posting a winless record the previous season, but after going 7-8-1 last time out they could really take off in 2019.

One of the biggest stories this offseason was Cleveland's acquisition of wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. from the New York Giants. But the Browns didn't stop there and made a controversial decision to sign running back Kareem Hunt following his release from the Kansas City Chiefs after the emergence of a video appearing to show him in a violent altercation with a woman. Hunt is suspended for the first eight games of the 2019 campaign following an NFL investigation.

Among those returning for the Browns after helping turn around the team last season are Baker Mayfield, Jarvis Landry, Antonio Callaway and Nick Chubb, making the Browns not only the most intriguing team in the AFC North but also one of the most interesting ones in the entire NFL.

Team on the decline

Cincinnati Bengals

It's a new era in Cincinnati, which means the Bengals could be looking up from the bottom of the division for a year or two as they find their footing.

The team brought in first-time head coach Zac Taylor after parting ways with long-time coach Marvin Lewis, and the 36-year-old will face the tall task of helping the team rebound from their first last-place finish in the division since 2010 after the Browns held the position from 2011-17.

However, much of the team's turnaround will depend on the recovery of their offense after the Bengals lost quarterback Andy Dalton (thumb), wide receiver A.J. Green (toe) and tight end Tyler Eifert (ankle) to injuries last season.

Rookies to watch

Devin Bush, LB, Steelers: The Steel Curtain has been far from impenetrable since the team lost Ryan Shazier to a spine injury, so Pittsburgh traded up to take Michigan standout Bush 10th overall and he quickly made an impression on his team-mates during OTAs. Bush, who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the combine, had 172 tackles, 18.5 tackles for losses, 10 sacks and an interception in 32 games in his three seasons with the Wolverines.

Marquise Brown, WR, Ravens: The Ravens surprised many taking Brown with the 25th pick of the first round. The team doesn't have the best history drafting receivers, and Lamar Jackson carried much of the offensive load last season as he ranked 30th in rushing yards, joining Cam Newton (49th) as the only quarterbacks in the top 50. Still, Brown proved to be a valuable — and speedy — weapon as Kyler Murray's top target at Oklahoma, posting 75 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

Player spotlight

Earl Thomas

After spending the first nine seasons of his career in Seattle, ex-Seahawk Thomas is in for an adjustment in 2019 with the Ravens, but that doesn't mean he isn't up for the challenge.

A key member of the "Legion of Boom" secondary and Seahawks defense that was among the NFL's stingiest for almost a decade, Thomas brings a level of intensity, determination and leadership that the Ravens defense has arguably lacked since Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed's retirement.

Imagine what Thomas brings to a defense that ranked first in yards allowed in 2018. His fire was only fuelled after he broke his leg last season, and he famously didn't hide his feelings from the Seahawks...

Expect to see that ferocity throughout this season, beginning Week 1 when he finally makes his return to the field.

Key injuries

James Conner, ankle: The Steelers running back broke out last season as he took on a larger role in the absence of Le'Veon Bell during his contract holdout, but an ankle injury limited Conner to just 13 games. With Bell gone, expect Conner's duties to be expanded - if he can stay healthy - as he looks to build on the 973 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns he had in 2018.

Andy Dalton, thumb: The Bengals quarterback went down with a thumb injury late in the season, landing on injured reserve on November 26, but threw for 2,566 yards and 21 touchdowns with 11 interceptions before being sidelined. Pairing his return to the field with Green and Tyler Eifert's comebacks will certainly give Cincinnati a boost.

Year after year, the AFC East is New England's to lose - and 2019 will be no different.

But the competition is growing and beginning to even across the division, with the Patriots more vulnerable than they have been in recent seasons, due in large part to the retirement of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Still, quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick are a lethal duo that should not be underestimated, especially when they can keep on playing the "people are doubting us" card.

Here's the outlook for the AFC East heading into training camp:

TEAM ON THE RISE

New York Jets

The Jets posted a division-worst 4-12 record in 2018 and missed the playoffs for an eighth straight season, so things can only get better this year, right?

The team has reason to be optimistic considering New York added talent on both sides of the ball by signing running back Le'Veon Bell and linebacker C.J. Mosley. But second-year quarterback Sam Darnold also will have a lot to prove after an inconsistent rookie season in which he threw 15 interceptions compared to 17 touchdowns as he dealt with injuries. Can new coach Adam Gase help him get the job done?

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Miami Dolphins

Miami may have been the only team in the division to beat New England last season, but new head coach Brian Flores (arriving from the Patriots) will have his work cut out for him as he looks to speed up the rebuild in South Florida.

The Dolphins fired coach Gase and also lost Cameron Wake, Frank Gore and Danny Amendola. But the team did trade for quarterback Josh Rosen and sign cornerback Xavien Howard to a hefty contract extension, so there is hope for a decent season. On the other hand, a high draft pick in 2020 would greatly benefit Miami.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

Quinnen Williams, DT, Jets: Despite having just one year as a starter at Alabama, Williams has the Jets' hopes high, though he and the team will need to be cautious. A calf injury limited him earlier this offseason, but he managed to close out OTAs with some first-team reps. He finished last season in the top five in the SEC in both tackles for loss (second – 19.5) and sacks (fifth – 8.0).

Ed Oliver, DT, Bills: The University of Houston standout has big shoes to fill as he prepares to replace Kyle Williams, who retired in December after 13 seasons, but should still bolster a Bills defense that ranked second in average yards allowed per game (294.1) last season. He had 13.5 sacks and 53 tackles for losses in 32 games with the Cougars.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Julian Edelman

The veteran receiver had a terrific season in 2018 despite coming off a torn ACL suffered the year before and then serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drugs policy.

He had 74 receptions for 850 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games during the regular season but saved the best for last as he had 26 catches for a career-best 388 yards en route to earning Super Bowl 53 MVP honors in New England's win over the Rams. With Gronkowski enjoying retired life, expect Edelman, 33, to have even more targets from Brady as the team tries to secure its fourth championship in six years.

KEY INJURIES

Albert Wilson, hip: The wide receiver signed a three-year, $24million deal with the Dolphins last offseason and his stint in Miami got off to a strong start before he suffered a season-ending hip injury in October. He was on a pace for a breakout year in 2018 and is primed to do it again this season now he is healthy, as he anticipates being ready to go for Week 1.

The Chiefs were the stars of the NFL last year as Patrick Mahomes threw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns, winning the MVP as Kansas City were arguably one coin flip from a Super Bowl berth.

But in 2019, the Los Angeles Chargers are once again very good, the Denver Broncos have added two quarterbacks and the Oakland Raiders actually did some good things this offseason.

All of that leads to a belief that the AFC West could be very competitive, much more so than it was last year when Oakland were a laughingstock and Denver underachieved. Still, everyone will be chasing the Chiefs as Mahomes looks to once again excel in Andy Reid's offense.

Here's the outlook for the AFC West heading into training camp:

TEAM ON THE RISE

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders added Antonio Brown and that alone would be enough to turn some heads. But they also picked up Trent Brown in free agency plus drafted some very good players with all of the first-round picks acquired in trades for Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. It is undeniable this team looks on paper like it is on the upswing, but it is up to coach Jon Gruden to make all the puzzle pieces fit on the field.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Denver Broncos

The Denver defense is great, and new coach Vic Fangio should make its ability to stop opponents even better, but the offense has serious questions.

As much as adding one-time Super Bowl MVP and first-round pick Joe Flacco gives the team hope, it is a move that very well could blow up in Denver's face.

Flacco has been mediocre over the last few seasons. He was injured and lost the Ravens starting job to rookie Lamar Jackson in 2018 after he fell from seventh in the league in passing yardage in 2016 to 21st in 2017. It appears he really does not offer much more than Case Keenum did last year for the Broncos.

One key difference: Flacco's ability to throw the deep ball could change the offense some, but the Broncos do not have many receivers who can stretch the field so Flacco's arm-strength might be rendered moot.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

Clelin Ferrell, DE, Raiders: The Raiders were last in the NFL in sacks last season, and Ferrell's calling card really is not sacking the quarterback. But the number four overall pick is a good all-around player who is a solid foundational piece for the Oakland defense. He should help the defense as a whole, but it remains to be seen if he boosts the team's pass rush, where they absolutely need to improve.  

Drew Lock, QB, Broncos: Lock was drafted to be Denver's quarterback of the future, but Jackson was drafted to be the same thing in Baltimore. Flacco got hurt and Jackson became the team's QB of the present. If Flacco gets hurt or underachieves with the Broncos, the Lock era could be begin very soon.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Tyreek Hill

Hill is the most explosive playmaker in football, but he has a lot hanging over him going into the 2019 season, given he has a legal issue surrounding an incident with his fiancee and their son.

If he is suspended for any portion of the season, the Chiefs offense will suffer. Mecole Hardman could be good as a rookie, but to expect him to match Hill's production - 1,479 yards last season - is not fair. Keep an eye on what happens with Hill leading up to the season.

KEY INJURIES

Travis Kelce, ankle: The Chiefs tight end underwent an ankle procedure earlier this year that was described as a "cleanup." He has missed a good portion of the offseason program, and it is unclear if that will affect him going forward, at least in the near term. 

Odds are it will not be a big deal. He has excelled in the Chiefs offense for years, so missing practice reps should not hurt. However, if he has any lingering effects with the ankle going into the season, that could affect his output.

The Houston Texans won the AFC South last season, but this division might be as competitive as it has been in a long time in 2019.

Andrew Luck is back to his old self, the Jacksonville Jaguars added a quarterback who can throw the ball and the Tennessee Titans seemed to find an identity in the running game last year.

All that leads to speculation that this division is up for grabs, and while there may not be a 13-win team in it in 2019, there may not be a team worse than .500 when all is said and done.

Here's the outlook for the AFC South heading into training camp:

 

TEAM ON THE RISE

Jacksonville Jaguars

Calling the Jaguars a team on the rise two seasons after they made the AFC Championship feels wrong, but there is no denying it's right. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and it appears Jacksonville finally have a quarterback. Super Bowl winner Nick Foles signed a four-year, $88million deal this offseason and will replace the much-maligned Blake Bortles. Simply having a QB who can protect the ball will go a long way for the team's defense and for getting Leonard Fournette some room to run.

TEAM ON THE DECLINE

Houston Texans

There are several ways the Texans are on the rise. They added a couple of offensive linemen early in the draft, which should help the team protect quarterback Deshaun Watson. The young QB has another year under his belt, and younger defenders like Justin Reid should be primed to improve this season.

But the team is in the middle of a contract disagreement with Jadeveon Clowney that might lead to a holdout. The drafted offensive linemen are a long way from being great, plus the team let shutdown cornerback Tyrann Mathieu go for virtually nothing and they'll go through the 2019 season without a general manager having fired Brian Gaine after just one year.

Oh yeah, and Bill O'Brien still has issues with simple clock and game management. That's a team that could easily decline.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

Josh Allen, LB, Jaguars: As if the Jaguars didn't already have enough pass-rushing talent, the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants passed on Allen, who might have been the best player in college football with Kentucky last year. He's going to make an already scary front seven for the Jaguars even more terrifying. 

Kahale Warring, TE, Texans: A former water polo player who really came into his own at San Diego State last year, Warring gives Watson a tight end who can finally scare a defense with his pass-catching and could be an intriguing part of the offense for the next several years.

PLAYER SPOTLIGHT

Darius Leonard

Leonard completely changed the feel of the Colts defense as a rookie in 2018. He finished the season with 163 tackles, four forced fumbles and two interceptions and turned Indianapolis' defense from one to be laughed at into one to be cautious about. His performance in 2019 could go a long way toward continuing to make the team's defense better – or letting it regress. If he is what he was last year, then the Colts should continue to get better. If he's not, then Luck will be pressing again on offense.

KEY INJURIES

Andrew Luck, calf: The Colts quarterback, who'll be 30 in September, was forced to miss all of the team's offseason workouts because of a lingering calf injury, but the team doesn't seem too concerned about his long-term outlook. However, the Colts weren't concerned about his shoulder either when he missed all of 2017. This could be something of a concern – or it might not be. It's just another part of the long-running worries about Luck's health that always seem to plague his career.

The San Francisco 49ers have signed kicker Robbie Gould to a four-year contract extension through the 2022 season.

Having placed the franchise tag on Gould in February, the Niners faced the prospect of the 36-year-old holding out after he refused to sign the $4.9million tender and requested a trade having opted not to attend San Francisco's mandatory minicamp.

But they have now avoided such a scenario by inking Gould to a deal said to be the second-richest contract in the league for a kicker.

"Over the years, Robbie has established himself as one of the best at his position in the NFL, which is precisely why we were so committed to working out a new contract with him," Niners general manager John Lynch said in a statement.

"I would like to thank everyone who worked so hard to make this deal come to fruition. We are very happy to start off the year on the right foot with this agreement in place so that Robbie can get back with his team-mates and focus on making the most out of the upcoming season."

Gould spent the first 11 seasons of his NFL career in Chicago, but was released by the Bears just before the start of the regular season in 2016. He signed a two-year deal worth $4m with the Niners on the first day of free agency in 2017.

He made 33 of 34 field-goal attempts and 27 of 29 extra points during the 2018 season. He is 72-for-75 on field-goal attempts and 55-for-59 on extra points the past two seasons.

The Falcons and Grady Jarrett agreed to a four-year deal before Monday's franchise tag deadline, ensuring a key piece of Atlanta's defensive front remains in place going forward.

Atlanta confirmed they had agreed to terms with the defensive tackle, with ESPN reporting the deal will pay Jarrett up to $68million. He is guaranteed $42.5m, according to NFL Media.

Jarrett had a franchise tag worth $15.2m placed on him in March to prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent.

Despite initial suggestions the Falcons would keep the franchise tag on Jarrett, reports soon emerged that there were hopes of striking a long-term agreement before the deadline to sign him to a longer deal.

And they now have him tied down until 2023, with Jarrett rewarded for a 2018 season that marked the best of his career.

The Atlanta-area native had 52 tackles, six sacks, 16 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and eight tackles for a loss last season.

 

Page 1 of 86
© 2018 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.