In this week’s roundtable, the writers of Full Press AFC North will answer questions regarding each of the four teams in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 NFL regular season. These writers include:
1.) Regarding Marvin Lewis – he’ll be keeping his position as head coach in Cincinnati, but the situation was handled rather poorly. What do you think should’ve happened to him, and how/when do you think he’ll ultimately end his tenure?
Hammel: If we’d avoided the whole circus surrounding Lewis’ job security, maybe I’d be more open to his returning. As is, everyone but Lewis himself had the man pegged as already out the door weeks ago. It’s hard to believe that was simply based on unsubstantiated rumors. Who was the guy Mike Brown wanted but wasn’t able to get? Was he actually sold on the two game stretch Lewis ended the season on? Did Lewis simply have a change of heart and decide he had unfinished business that he required a sixteenth season to attend to? Are any of those explanations, by themselves, good enough to excuse the terrible production that this sideshow ended up being?
I don’t know when Lewis ultimately leaves Cincinnati. He clearly leads a magical existence, insulated from the consequences of his actions in a way that other coaches aren’t. Perhaps that’s a good thing, at least to an extent. I have a hard time believing, given another ten years, that Lewis can’t win a playoff game eventually. I do have a hard time believing he’ll stay that long regardless. Sixteen years in one place is one thing, but at some point the man’s actually going to want to do something else.
Sysak: The news that broke regarding Lewis was certainly shocking. It seems that Mike Brown was impressed with the way the team finished the season and had a change of heart regarding the coach. The Bengals won their last two games, eliminating Detroit and Baltimore from postseason contention in back-to-back weeks. While it was nice to see the team rally and finish strong, the decision to keep Lewis was wrong.
This was the best time for both parties to move on: Lewis could leave the team with his pride and do whatever he liked, while the Bengals could find someone to instill a new culture with the team. Instead, the mediocre union will remain for at least two more seasons. Perhaps Lewis can rally the troops back to the success he enjoyed earlier this decade.
Justik: I feel that it was time for the Bengals to move on from Lewis. The organization needs a new leader – Lewis hasn’t been able to accomplish anything with this roster. The Bengals need to rebuild, and someone aside from Lewis should be in charge of it.
I don’t think Mike Brown wants to stray too far from the organization to find their next coach, which is why they ultimately had to extend Lewis. With Hue Jackson being retained in Cleveland and Jay Gruden being retained in Washington, Brown didn’t have a choice.
Andrew: I don’t think the Bengals should’ve kept Lewis, he’s made them a laughingstock to a certain degree. He’s only been had an above .500 record in half his years as their head coach. He racks up an abundance of penalties every year, and he hasn’t won a playoff game. Ultimately, I don’t think his tenure will end on good terms.
Hurley: He probably should’ve stepped down. Yes, Lewis brought the Bengals from being Browns-tier bad to a team that contended and made the playoffs regularly. That is an impressive feat, and his head coaching tenure should be seen as a success in that regard. It would’ve been seen as a success all-around had he moved on a few years ago.
The Bengals lost coordinators to head coaching jobs elsewhere multiple times – another feather in Lewis’ cap. With some of them, such as Mike Zimmer, you wonder if promoting them to head coach and moving Lewis to the front office would’ve helped them take the next step. A similar situation could’ve happened with Paul Guenther – who is being discussed as an coordinator in Gruden’s Oakland cabinet. Perhaps promoting Guenther could’ve been the small, safe move to shake things up. Instead, the Bengals are staring at a first-round exit ceiling and 7-9 floor until Lewis retires. Could be worse. Definitely could be better.
2.) Take the Bengals’ front office structure (or lack of one, more accurately) and their roster as currently constructed. If you’re a prospective coach, and Cincinnati had an opening, would it be an appealing job? Why or why not?
Hammel: Absolutely – Cincinnati presents a blend of rare job security, roster control, and readiness to compete that openings in the NFL usually don’t have. Take a high-profile assistant coach like Josh McDaniels, Matt Patricia, Jim Schwartz or Pat Shurmur. Give them A.J. Green, a pseudo-elite receiver, and Joe Mixon, allegedly the next Le’Veon Bell. Add on a stable of scheme-versatile defensive front players, from Carlos Dunlap to Geno Atkins to Vontaze Burfict. Add on a defensive backfield with two clear starting safeties, three clear starting corners, and enough depth to go around. Finally, throw in Andy Dalton, on a manageable contract today, presumably around past then unless the coach desires otherwise.
For a coach that has any degree of confidence in themselves as a motivator or schemer, that looks like playoffs. That’s wins in the bank.
Sysak: I think Cincinnati would be an appealing job for a prospective coach. Their roster is more complete than any team looking for a coach this year, aside from maybe the Lions. The Bengals have a franchise quarterback in his prime, an elite wide receiver, a good young running back duo and a solid defense. It would be an intriguing fit for an offensive coach like Josh McDaniels or Pat Shurmur.
The only drawback that the Bengals would have is the odd front office structure. Mike Brown is the only other owner in the league (aside from Jerry Jones) to also serve as his team’s general manager, and would have more say in personnel than any coach he brought in.
Justik: As a place where they’d be able to have control over their roster, Cincinnati would be very attractive for a coach. They’d be able to bring in their own players, only having to clear moves with Brown first. Whether that’s a smart organizational structure is a different debate, but a coach would have to be intrigued with the position. And Brown has shown that he is willing to stick with a coach for a long period of time.
Andrew: I mean, if you look at the Bengals’ situation with Lewis, never having fired him after multiple talks like this, you could take it as a blank check to fail without losing the job. That being said, if I was an up-and-coming coach, I wouldn’t want to be associated with the Bengals’ organization due to how they’re run. If I were to get fired, I don’t think there’s a chance another team would want me. I’d look for another job – better to be safe than sorry.
Hurley: There’s two ways to look at this idea. On one side, the job is as appealing as any could be. With Geno Atkins, A.J. Green, and Carlos Dunlap, there’s blue-chip talent already in place. With Joe Mixon, Carl Lawson, and Nick Vigil, there’s young reinforcements on the way. Andy Dalton is playing on an extremely manageable contract, and attempting to upgrade from him would be easy. A lot about this job is enticing.
On the other side, there’s a reason Lewis has hung around so long. The ownership of the Bengals is frivolous. Any discussion of Lewis’ job security is accompanied by the assertion that he’s doing his best with what he has. The team is cheap. They drafted two tackles in back to back rounds to prepare for Andrew Whitworth leaving two years before he did. They hardly ever extend their own players. Going to a situation where winning isn’t seen as the number one priority has to be a huge turn-off.
3.) The Browns own twelve picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, including five in the first two rounds. The highest of these are their own pick at first overall and Houston’s pick at fourth overall. If you’re the GM of the Browns, how do you spend these two picks? Is John Dorsey a GM that you’d trust to make those picks for your favorite team?
Hammel: If I’m in the GM seat for Cleveland, I’m conscious of the sheer quantity of picks I have. I have twelve picks in the entire 2018 draft, including six in the first three rounds. I also realize that my roster – while better than 0-16 would indicate – isn’t loaded. I’m not drafting around the team I have, I’ll draft the best and build around them. At first and fourth overall, one of those picks is Saquon Barkley. I’ll take DeShone Kizer and Barkley over Josh Rosen and Isaiah Crowell. If taking Barkley first means a king’s ransom from another team for a quarterback at four, so much the better. The value is far better a couple steps down for receiver, offensive line, and cornerback.
Do I think that’s what happens? No – and that’s alright, I imagine John Dorsey knows how to build a football team better than I do. If the new GM can’t get his own head coach – even if he likes Hue Jackson – he’ll get a quarterback. That’s how these guys work. If it all works out to Cleveland’s gain, then the process is vindicated. Dorsey is a guy I’m inclined to trust the process with.
Sysak: Not only do the Browns have the first and fourth overall picks, their 65th overall pick at the top of the third round is their sixth pick of the draft. If I were in John Dorsey’s shoes, my first overall pick would be Josh Rosen. Without any obvious non-quarterback to take with the first overall spot, Rosen makes sense regardless of the Browns’ opinion of DeShone Kizer. Regardless, if reports of Rosen not wanting to play in Cleveland are accurate, my second choice there would be Baker Mayfield.
At fourth overall, I’d take the best defensive player available. By my estimation, that would be Bradley Chubb or Minkah Fitzpatrick. Both could be vital pieces in establishing a strong Browns defense.
As for Dorsey? During his runs as the Scouting Director in Green Bay and General Manager in Kansas City, those rosters looked solid. I expect him to have similar success in Cleveland, especially given the opportunity he has in this draft.
Justik: The Browns have a couple of good options at the top of the draft with the first and fourth picks. At 1, the pick should definitely be quarterback, the question is just which one. It’ll most likely come down the Los Angeles quarterbacks, Rosen and Darnold – and if the Browns believe he’ll play for them, Rosen should be the pick.
At 4, it’ll come down to Saquon Barkley or Minkah Fitzpatrick, with Barkley taking priority if both are available. Barkley adds a dynamic component to the offense that’ll help a rookie quarterback in his transition to the NFL. Fitzpatrick gives the Browns a player capable of being an all-time great at either safety or cornerback.
Andrew: Obviously, I’d go with a quarterback and then possibly a defensive back. Two centerpieces to build the franchise around, one on each side of the field. It’d be great for the Browns, who’ve had struggles filling those two positions. As far as John Dorsey is concerned, I think he can be trusted. He has experience as a scout as well as having been a former player, which is an interesting background in regards to drafting.
Hurley: Looking at Dorsey and his history in Kansas City, it’s been hit-or-miss. There are other GM’s I’d prefer, but Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Dee Ford, Chris Jones, and Marcus Peters are on the Chiefs by his doing. He’s a huge reason that Kansas City is on a playoff run. There’s worse guys out there.
The Browns should be looking for a deep-cover free safety on defense, and anyone that can make a play on offense. Saquon Barkley should be one of their first two picks.
4.) What are the futures of DeShone Kizer and Hue Jackson, the two most embattled remaining figures from Cleveland’s 0-16 finish? Jackson, by all accounts, will coach the 2018 season. How does that go for him, and will it be enough for him to keep his job for another year? What role does Kizer play in that season, with the Browns ostensibly picking another quarterback in the top five picks?
Hammel: Kizer’s a guy I’d like to see get another chance – given any other organization in any other situation, I think he would. He’s a second-round pick who wasn’t an abject disaster despite being actively undermined by his head coach. That being said, I think keeping him around if the management decides to draft another guy would be horribly awkward. On one hand, having too many quarterbacks is a problem Cleveland would welcome with open arms. On the other, with Jackson’s horrid approach with starting Kizer last year, how is that situation anything less than toxic?
In a trade situation, everyone benefits – Kizer, Cleveland, and a team searching for a future starting quarterback. It’s hard to peg landing spots with coaching staffs still up in the air, but ideally somewhere with a veteran. Los Angeles behind Philip Rivers is an option. New England behind Tom Brady is a thought. If they weren’t within the division, Pittsburgh would be high on the list. It’ll depend on Dorsey’s relationships around the league in relation to his view of Kizer, which has yet to form.
As for Jackson? Anyone’s guess. Giving up on him a year after a ringing endorsement from the owner and GM, after an 0-16 season, seems silly. But it’s the NFL, and the Browns, and we’ve seen sillier things happen.
Sysak: Jackson is on a short list of coaches to be retained after not winning in a season – the others being John McKay and Tom Landry. Jimmy Haslam seems content with Jackson around, and having a good relationship with an owner has been enough to keep some coaches past their expiration date (see: Marvin Lewis). As long as Haslam is happy with the Browns’ results, I expect Jackson’s job to be safe.
As for Kizer, his situation is almost tragic. When he was drafted last season, many experts saw him as an NFL-ready quarterback and expected him to win the job in Cleveland. He did, and was the only rookie quarterback to start in Week 1 in 2017. As rookies do, Kizer shone in moments and floundered in others. This isn’t uncommon for rookies, but it didn’t save Kizer from the public criticism of his coach. Kizer wasn’t just beaten physically on the field in 2017, he was beaten mentally throughout the year by his own coach.
The best thing for Kizer would be to get traded to a team that wants to draft a quarterback, such as the Cardinals, Chargers or Saints. However, I expect he’ll be stuck in Cleveland in 2018.
Justik: Haslam seems locked in with Jackson, believing that the coach didn’t have a chance to win with the roster given to him. With a change in the front office and John Dorsey in charge, 2018 will be do-or-die for Jackson in Cleveland. If he can’t win with Dorsey’s roster, the new GM will look for his own coach in 2019.
I can see the Browns using Kizer as a developmental quarterback behind a highly-drafted rookie, keeping him on as a backup. But I could also see the Browns moving him to a team needing a young quarterback, like the Cardinals. It wouldn’t cost the Cardinals much, and the potential for a future starter would be more than worth it.
Andrew: Fixing the Browns won’t happen overnight, and with Jackson’s recent failures I think it’s safe to say that his time with the Browns will come to an end if they have another horrid season. I don’t see Kizer having a big role at all. Take a look at the Browns’ previous picks at quarterback, starting with Cody Kessler in 2016. How much time did he see in 2017? One game, with the rest spent primarily spend as the third-stringer. Before him? Johnny Manziel – don’t even get me started.
Hurley: It looks as though Jackson wants a new quarterback with his top pick. With that said, having Kizer, Cody Kessler, and Kevin Hogan to round out the quarterback room wouldn’t help that pick. Kizer would bring the most competition, but there has to be a veteran in place. Mark Sanchez is probably a good option. Of the three quarterbacks on the roster, Kizer has the most value. But they might just want to trade him for a fourth and wipe their hands clean.
For Jackson, it seems as though the issue isn’t him, or past coaches or managers, but an organizational failure beginning with Jimmy Haslam. He seems to expect big results in a short amount of time. Sashi Brown took the fall this year, and Jackson will fall next year unless he does something spectacular. Someone else will have to take the fall the year after that.
5.) Alex Collins – who began the season as a surprise cut from Seattle’s preseason roster – was a huge piece in the Ravens’ backfield down the stretch. The Ravens have cycled through several names as possible lead backs since, from Justin Forsett to Kenneth Dixon to Terrance West. Is Collins’ position at the top of the backfield pecking order stable, or will the Ravens find a replacement? If so, from where?
Hammel: Assuming Kenneth Dixon isn’t a revelation, and the Ravens don’t incidentally draft someone who is, this is Collins’ job. He was a one-cut slasher coming out of Arkansas, and the Ravens would love him if he were nothing else. That’s what Justin Forsett was for them in his great year succeeding Ray Rice. In the low-investment world of the Ravens’ offensive skill positions, Collins is a cornerstone piece.
That being said, while his roster spot is secure, he’s likely an injury away from the bottom of the rotation. The Ravens will still have Dixon, likely a rookie, and some combination of Terrance West, Buck Allen, and Danny Woodhead. The margin that separates these guys, skill-wise, probably isn’t as big as the Collins hype train implies. Do I want Collins to succeed, personally? Absolutely, he’s got as interesting of a persona as any player out there. Would I be surprised if he fell off the radar? Not remotely.
Sysak: Collins was certainly a surprise in 2017. He showed a lot of promise at Arkansas, but was never able to carve out a place for himself in Seattle after being drafted there. He excelled in Baltimore after being signed to partially fill the void left by an injured Kenneth Dixon and Danny Woodhead.
It’s possible that he’s challenged by the returning Dixon or another back taken in the draft, but if Collins keeps his current pace then the lead job in Baltimore will remain his.
Ep 103: Tom Brady Retires, Sean Payton To Broncos, Super Bowl Primer
by Full Press Coverage on February 5, 2023 at 3:49 pm
Justik: I can see Collins remaining the Ravens’ main running back, and them continuing to use him and Javorius Allen in different ways. Collins is young, doesn’t have a lot of mileage on his legs, and showed that he could excel in the Ravens’ offense. But with the deep selection of running backs available in the draft, it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Ravens taking a flier on one. Still, I don’t think the Ravens force the issue in replacing Collins, as he wasn’t one of the problems for them last year.
Andrew: Collins played so tremendously this year that I could hardly see the Ravens looking for a replacement. Out of all the running backs of the past few years, Collins has definitely played the best and made the biggest impact.
Hurley: The Ravens should understand that if one thing on their offense is sound heading into the offseason, it’s their running game. Their ground attack turned an anemic offense into one competent enough to contend for the playoffs. Late in the season, the team was able to bring Danny Woodhead back from a torn hamstring. With an offseason to mesh Collins and Woodhead as a power/receiving duo, they’ll be fine. The Ravens should focus on other offensive skill positions.
6.) Had the Ravens beaten the Bengals this past Sunday, they’d hold the fifth seed in the AFC playoff bracket. What would you have expected from them in Arrowhead this coming Sunday? At their best, how deep into the playoffs do you think they could’ve gone?
Hammel: I’ll say that the Ravens would’ve been a better opponent for the Chiefs than the Titans were, for what that’s worth. The Bills, at least, are a colossal underdog with a feel-good story behind them. The Titans are just a mediocre football team that bumbled their way into what will probably be an unwatchable slaughter. But, I digress.
I’d have liked to see Baltimore’s defense, fully healthy, against Kansas City’s offense. In it’s current depleted state, the matchup is less enticing, but it’s still winnable for Baltimore. On offense, they’d have been fine. The game plan after removing the receiver that Marcus Peters is covering would look like the game plan in any other week. Scheme around the pressure, get the tight ends and backs against the Chiefs’ linebackers, and make Joe Flacco hit them. That could’ve been enough to get them through at least one round. Past that? There’s a chance, but I wouldn’t have bet on them.
Sysak: Baltimore’s defense would have been an interesting match against Kansas City’s offense, and I think it would’ve been a tightly contested game. That being said, I don’t there’s a way they could beat the Patriots in New England in the next phase anyway.
Justik: Kansas City would’ve been a very, very difficult matchup for the Ravens. They’re a playoff-tested team that underachieved during the regular season. Although they have a lackluster defense that caused them major problems, they have the pass rushers to get after Joe Flacco.
Andy Reid and Alex Smith are veterans who know what winning in the postseason takes, and they have other dynamic players on offense. And Arrowhead Stadium is one of the toughest places to play in the NFL, if not the toughest. I don’t think the Ravens would’ve gotten past the wildcard round.
Andrew: Fan bias aside, I think the Ravens come out on top in Arrowhead, perhaps even making a run to the AFC Championship game. Anything would be possible if Joe Flacco became hot in the playoffs again, as he has before.
Hurley: It wouldn’t have been shocking to see the Ravens to into Arrowhead and win. They’re a well-coached team with a running game and good special teams. They can take that identity anywhere and compete with anyone on any given day.
With that said, this team had an expiration date. Injuries piled up from the preseason on, and the Jimmy Smith injury appeared to be a dagger for them. A win in Kansas City would’ve been an upset. Even if they pushed Pittsburgh or New England to the limit in the divisional round, they likely would’ve lost ultimately.
7.) Speaking of playoffs – the Steelers are in. What do you expect from them in their next game? Who do you think they play against? How do you like their odds in each of the three possible matchups?
Hammel: The Steelers go as far as their best players take them – antithetical to the Patriots, even the Jaguars, in ways. If Antonio Brown isn’t healthy, that’s a loss. I don’t care who the matchup is against, but it’d especially be a loss against the Jacksonville. There’s a team in the playoffs that intercepted Roethlisberger five times at Heinz Field. How that’s somehow overlooked heading into a possible rematch is lost on me. Don’t take Jacksonville turning off the jets in a game that meant nothing to them in Week 17 as an indication of anything.
As for Kansas City and Tennessee? Slaughter and slaughter. One because it always happens between these teams, the other because anyone would do it. No, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about that. I don’t think I have to.
Sysak: I project the Steelers to play the Jaguars, whom I see beating the Bills handily. This would be the worst possible matchup for the Steelers, as the Jaguars already beat them once this year in a very convincing fashion, and they could still be without Antonio Brown for that game. If they don’t end up playing the Jaguars and get to face the Titans or Chiefs instead, I’d peg them as favorites to advance to the AFC Championship.
Justik: I imagine the Chiefs and Jaguars will win this Sunday, which would put the Jaguars against the Steelers in Pittsburgh. The Jaguars have a dynamic defense that could cause issues for the Steelers. Their pass rush is arguably the best in the league, and wouldn’t let Big Ben have any easy throws. Even if he escapes the pressure, the Jacksonville secondary is a turnover machine. It would be a very good, very close game.
The Titans would be a good matchup for the Steelers, as they don’t have the presence on offense or defense to pose a threat. Their biggest concern would be stopping Mariota from extending plays as a runner. The Chiefs have an exploitable defense and the Steelers would win, as they did in Week 6.
Andrew: I think the Steelers will face the Jaguars, which I don’t think will be easy for them. If you remember, these two teams clashed in the regular season, and the Jaguars won 30-9 at Heinz Field. If Pittsburgh does win, I find it hard to believe they’ll beat New England in the championship, who’ve been historically great against them in the playoffs.
Hurley: If the favorites win, the Steelers will take on the Jaguars – which should be the expected match. The defense presents matchup issues for the Steelers, but the maturity of the Jaguars overall and having to play Blake Bortles at Heinz Field seems like too much for Jacksonville to overcome. All eyes are on the Steelers at New England, which seems like the AFC Championship favorite. I said last season that I wouldn’t pick the Steelers to beat a team led by Tom Brady again until I saw it happen. I stand by this statement, but they match up well and if Antonio Brown is healthy then they have no excuse for losing.
8.) Realistically, had Antonio Brown finished the season healthy, do you think he’d have a chance to win the 2017 MVP award? If so, how do you think he’d stack up against Tom Brady, Todd Gurley, and other candidates? Brown finished the season with 101 catches for 1,533 yards and 9 touchdowns in 14 games.
Hammel: If Brown somehow combined for 20-30 catches, 400-500 yards, and 4-5 touchdowns in what remained of his season? This would be a different conversation entirely. The numbers, as much as they could be for a receiver, would be there. The recency bias would be in full force and the effect would be astronomical. As is, with the injury, everyone agrees Brown’s MVP bid is shot. If his last performances were anything less than transcendent, they’d have been moot regardless.
Putting aside that the entire bid seemed like something the media spoke into existence – numbers matter. At the end of the year, when live football is over, voters have memories and numbers. Memories also matter, but the numbers have to support them and precede them. Tom Brady’s candidacy isn’t based on him doing anything special – at least for Tom Brady, from what we most people see. It’s based on him having a statistically transcendent year, by his own standards as well as the league’s. Todd Gurley’s distant second bid is based on having a solid scrimmage yardage total in a much-ballyhooed Rams offense.
Brown’s bid is based on him being a typical elite receiver who rises up when he has to in order to save the Steelers from their own nagging underachievement. That merits a team reward, but the league owes him nothing.
Sysak: Brown had an excellent campaign and was certainly a viable MVP candidate. He had an extreme impact on the Steelers’ offense, often giving them a highlight play in the exact moment they needed one – something I think would’ve helped him in the race. When he suffered a calf injury in Week 15, the MVP conversation was thrown out the window. Had he stayed healthy and maintained his pace, I think he’d have had a very strong case for the voters to consider.
Justik: Although Brown would’ve been a top-five finalist, I wouldn’t have expected him to have a realistic shot at the MVP award. Gurley and Brady had incredible seasons, and Brown would’ve had a hard time competing with them. Even if he’d played a full sixteen games, it’s unlikely he would’ve posted the raw numbers necessary to put him on top.
Andrew: Brown would’ve had a legitimate case to be MVP, but that doesn’t mean he would’ve gotten it. A wide receiver has never won the MVP award – Calvin Johnson didn’t even win it when he broke the record for single-season receiving yards. I think he would’ve been the best candidate, but I doubt voters would’ve given him what he deserved.
Hurley: Brown likely would’ve had to go over 2,000 yards on the year, which would’ve required an unrealistic stretch of performances. Quarterback is just that important, especially in the eyes of the media, several of whom are also voters. It will likely be shown this year in a thorough victory by Brady over Gurley. If Brown were healthy, he’d have likely finished somewhere between the two. Without him, Brady and Gurley are the clear one and two – in that order.
9.) Who from your team would you consider the most valuable, yet least-recognized player of 2017? Why didn’t they receive the credit from national media that you think they deserved?
Hammel: In the interest of not duplicating Brandon – who nailed it with Jackson III – I’ll throw Carl Lawson out there. Lawson had an explosive start to the season, and finished with the highest sack total of all rookies at 8.5. If the Bengals were marginally more successful, and Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White didn’t exist, he’d be up for DROY. As a ‘linebacker’ that almost exclusively lined up as a rusher, he has a skill and is building out. There’s scheme-versatility to him – it’ll be interesting to see how the coaches can get him on the field more frequently.
Sysak: I’d nominate William Jackson III for the Bengals. He was a first-round pick out of Houston in 2016, but spent his rookie season on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. Jackson was an afterthought heading into the year, with the fans that had talked him up in 2016 onto newer and better things. Despite that, he had an impact this season, starting five games and recording 19 tackles, 13 pass deflections, a pick-six, a sack, and a fumble recovery. Jackson seems like an up-and-coming player that’ll be a full-time starter going forward.
Justik: I believe the most valuable player for the Browns this year was Joe Schobert. He changed positions to middle linebacker in the offseason and finished with 144 tackles, tied for most in the NFL. Being able to change positions and find the amount of success he had is promising for a young Browns defense. He was named a Pro Bowl alternate, but hasn’t gotten the attention he deserved, probably due to the Browns’ record.
Andrew: For the Ravens, I think that’d be Matthew Judon. He finished fifth in tackles for the Ravens while racking up eight sacks on the season. The culprit for him not getting attention is being overshadowed at outside linebacker by Terrell Suggs. Many thought that 2017 was Suggs’ last year, so people wanted the spotlight on him to send him off properly. He ended up earning that spotlight with a terrific age-35 season.
Hurley: I make a point to call out Mike Hilton every chance available as an underrated, valuable complimentary player that the Steelers were looking for. He came out of nowhere. An undrafted free agent from New England’s practice squad, he beat out Senquez Golson for the slot cornerback job and became an impact player from the first week of the preseason through the end of the regular season. He’s 5’9″, but attacks off the edge like Tyrann Mathieu, and has 54 tackles and 4 sacks from the slot.
10.) Looking ahead to 2018, who’s a player you’re excited about based on what they showed in the 2017 season? If not a rookie, or otherwise an already-established player, what has prevented them from making the leap thus far? What are your expectations for them, and where would you place their ceiling?
Hammel: Originally I had Lawson here and Jackson III above – we’ll go with John Ross. Ross hardly gets the worst rap of the 2017 rookie receivers, but his performance was legitimately the most lacking. Corey Davis finished the season with 375 yards on 34 catches. Mike Williams finished with 95 yards on 11 catches. John Ross finished with one 12-yard run that ended in a lost fumble.
The Bengals didn’t take Ross 9th overall with that in mind for his first year – certainly not for his second. He has some concerns with refinement, but he’ll have ample time to work on that before the Bengals play again. He doesn’t have an issue with separation – his speed affords him plenty of that. The Bengals have enough receivers that Ross won’t be forced into unfavorable situations. They don’t have so many as to reasonably keep him on the sideline barring injury. He may not blow up the stat sheet, but his speed will affect the way the Bengals attack games.
Josh Doctson finished 2017 with 35 catches, 502 yards, and 6 touchdowns. That sounds like a fair estimate for 2018 Ross.
Sysak: The player I’m most excited about is Joe Mixon. The rookie finished the year with 626 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on 178 carries, as well as 30 catches for 287 receiving yards. While he didn’t lock up the workhorse role that people projected him as, he flashed the ability to earn that role and hold it for a long time.
One limiting factor for Mixon was Giovani Bernard. Bernard, expected to be phased out as Mixon was introduced, had huge moments when Mixon was injured or otherwise off the field. While the backfield in 2018 should feature both, to the team’s benefit, I expect Mixon to become a star. I wouldn’t be surprised if he showed the league why he was compared to Le’Veon Bell coming out of college, and maintained that level of play for years.
Justik: The player I’m most excited about heading into 2018 is Josh Gordon. He has the talent to be an elite receiver, and he’s gotten out of his own way off the field. He showed his ability this season, catching 18 passes for 335 yards and a touchdown in five games. This came after not having played since 2014. It’ll be exciting to see what he can do with full preparation in 2018.
Andrew: I’m looking forward to seeing Alex Collins, based on how well he played in 2017. I blame his lack of success in past years on lack of opportunities with the Seahawks and them giving up on him too quickly. I think his impact for the Ravens in 2018 will be huge.
Hurley: JuJu Smith-Schuster. That he is 21 years old, missed two games and almost hit 1,000 yards in an offense with Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant is unfathomable. It’s extremely clear that his ceiling is higher than anyone gave him credit for. His progression with an offseason to work with Antonio Brown is going to be something to see.
For a player who has yet to make the leap: Bud Dupree. His first offseason was spend behind James Harrison and learning his third defensive scheme in as many seasons. Year 2 second saw him injured in training camp and sent to Injured Reserve. Year 3 saw him on the Physically Unable to Perform list and out for Week 1. Dupree’s fourth year is make-or-break for him. If he can put in a full offseason and stay healthy for sixteen games, 10 sacks isn’t a crazy estimate.
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