Early Expectations For The Miami Dolphins WRs in 2021

By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @Cmolla1)

The Miami Dolphins are set to be competitive in 2021 after a 10-6 season last year, an offseason focused on setting up young quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for success and retaining the core of a top defense in the NFL last year. The success of the Dolphins really will depend on the growth in Tua from his rookie year to now. A big reason that a giant step for the Dolphins can be made is the weapons are in place for Tua. Even though Tua had a 6-3 record last year his numbers were not great and the personnel on the field was sub-par by NFL standards. With the addition of Fuller and Waddle to the receiving corps and Hunter Long as a threat, the weapons at Tuas disposal are no longer an excuse.

Who are these weapons? As it is early in the offseason process the Dolphins receiving room is very crowded at the moment. DeVante Parker, Will Fuller V, and Jaylen Waddle are the only true guarantees to be on the final 53 man roster. NFL teams normally carry six wide receivers on the final 53. This leaves Preston Williams, Lynn Bowden Jr., Jakeem Grant, Malcolm Perry, Albert Wilson, Allen Hurns, Robert Foster, and Mack Hollins as the top candidates for the final three wide receiver spots. There is a likelihood more than three make it due to special teams roles and the versatility of Bowden and Perry to play all offensive skill positions.

The Dolphins have a depth at the position and will wait as long as possible to make cuts trades and decisions with this group. Of course, injuries will happen and this will make decisions a bit easier but these aren’t just camp bodies and these veterans know what it takes and means to be on the roster come opening day.

Given perfect health, my picks for the six guys that will be on the active roster for the majority of the season are Parker, Fuller V, Waddle, Williams, Bowden Jr., and Foster.

Allen Hurns and Albert Wilson were both part of the 2019 Dolphins and opted out in 2020. Wilson made plays in 2019 before injuring his hip. Early reports say Wilson is back in good health and looking like a speedy guy who can make guys miss in space. However, the Dolphins save $2.9 million if he is cut and $3.9 million if traded. Hurns enjoyed a hometown return in 2019 however the Dolphins have better options moving into 2021 and will also save just over a million with his departure. Jakeem Grant has been a pro bowl returner and brings excellent speed however his unreliable hands and inconsistent offensive play make him a cut candidate. Dolphins save $4 million trading or cutting Jakeem. Speed needy teams will surely be in the market for Grant. Hollins is also a causality of the talented receiver room after keeping the Fins season alive late in 2020 with heroic catches.

Malcolm Perry’s versatility allows him to make the roster but I believe he will split his time with the running back group. He surely will play both spots and if not on the 53 man roster is a practice squad candidate.

Tuas sophomore season is poised for a breakout. I believe Tua will throw for just over 4000 yards and nearly 30 touchdowns. 12 quarterbacks threw for over 4000 yards in the NFL last year. Tua was drafted to be a top quarterback and being amongst the top in passing yards is not out of reality. Tua racked up 1800 yards in nine starts last year. As we know he wasn’t in the entire game for those starts. With 17 games on the NFL schedule, we will see Tua eclipse the 4000-yard mark.

The leading receiver for the Miami Dolphins will be DeVante Parker. Parker is entering his seventh NFL season. He broke out in 2019 with 72 catches, 1202 yards, and 9 touchdowns. Last year he caught 63 passes for 793 yards and four touchdowns. “Unc” as he is known, has the ability to be the main option in an offense. At 6’3 Parker can jump and win contested 50/50 passes. He is a crafty route runner who can use his frame to get inside on slants and excel on the mid-level routes. Parkers biggest issue in his career has been health. A plethora of lower-body injuries have forced him to play hurt and significantly hurt his production and miss games entirely. When Parker is fully healthy, he is tough to cover and can put up big numbers!

As a Dolphins fan when watching the game it’s easy to tell when he’s healthy and when he is hurt. A prime example of what healthy Parker can do is the final regular season game of 2019. A matchup versus the New England Patriots pit Parker with 2019 Defensive Player of the year Stephon Gilmore. Parker torched Gilmore that game and posted eight catches for 137 yards on 11 targets.

With Tua last year the chemistry wasn’t quite there. A whole offseason of work and preparation will help this connection. More weapons in the offense takes less focus off Parker and will give him more one on one matchups in which he excels. I think Parker will eclipse the 1000 yard mark for the second time in his career and finish with 7 touchdowns.

An entirely healthy season for Parker is unlikely. He played through injuries for the first time last year and I expect he will play in 15 games this year. Parker will catch 83 passes for 1,100 and 7 touchdowns.

In terms of fantasy football, Parker will be a solid number two receiver who can be had at a decent value. Many people will likely pass on him thinking Fuller V and Waddle will be the flashier picks. Parker also somewhat burned fantasy players last year after his big year so recency bias will be a factor as well.

The new free agent splash for the Miami Dolphins is Will Fuller V. The Dolphins signed Fuller to a one year $10.6 million contract. Fuller was a first round pick back in 2016. Spent his first five NFL seasons with the Houston Texans.

Fuller is coming off a career year in 2020. Before being suspended for PEDs Fuller totaled 53 catches, 879 yards, and 8 touchdowns. Playing only in 11 games Fuller tallied career highs in catches, yards, and touchdowns. Fuller was handed a six game suspension. It will carry over into 2021 for the opening week.

Fuller is a big play threat with big time speed. The knock on Fuller is injuries. Never having played a full seasons schedule in his career he signed this contract looking to prove 2020 wasn’t a fluke. He wants to prove his health and production to the rest of the NFL.

Fuller can truly stretch the field as he had the sixth-best yards per reception last year at 16.6. Until last year Fuller played alongside one of the NFL’s best receivers in De’Andre Hopkins. Sans Hopkins, Fuller proved he can be a lead option in the passing game and produce. Combined with Parker, Fuller will see one on one options and be open for homerun plays.

Many people have questioned Tua’s ability to throw the deep ball. This article by Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald breaks down some of those questions. Some things to highlight are that Tua was hurt by the highest percentage of deep ball drops across the league. I always think of the Jakeem Grant drop of a 90 yard touchdown vs the Bengals.

Barry also points out the Dolphins inability to create separation which was the worst in the NFL as well. The addition of speed with Fuller and Waddle will allow Tua to hit on more deep throws, which he was successful with at Alabama. The success on throws at Alabama can be credited to the skill of players being among the best in the country but Tua was able to be accurate which he was also in his NFL rookie year.

With Fullers one game suspension he is set to play 16 games. I don’t think he will be fully healthy for all of them. I think Fuller will improve his career numbers but by a slim margin. Fuller playing 14-15 games will catch 80 passes for 900 yards and 6 touchdowns. Fuller and Parker will be a solid duo and complementary to one another. Fuller stretches the field while Parker takes up the intermediate.

The other big addition to this Dolphins offense is top pick in 2021, Jaylen Waddle. Waddle is another playmaker with elite speed. Scouts have given the Tyreek Hill comp. Others have linked him to Tyler Lockett. Both productive speedy playmakers in the NFL.

Waddle is set to see lots of snaps as a rookie. He can play inside and outside. Despite missing a lot of his final collegiate season due to injury Waddle was selected sixth overall. Waddle showed his elite speed and playmaking ability over his career at Alabama.

Waddle will have familiarity with his quarterback as both were Crimson Tide contributors in 2019. This familiarity is sure to allow for success and has expectations for Waddle immediately in his NFL career. In a trio with Fuller and Parker, Waddle if left as an afterthought will cause problems for defenses.

Waddle’s ability is legit. He could ultimately be the most talented receiver on the roster with his ability to score from anywhere on the field, outrun the defense, play physical and play make. Waddle comes from a group of receivers including Jeudy, Ruggs, and Smith from Alabama. Some think he is the fastest out of all of them. The point is the talent is true and the upside is very intriguing.

I think Waddle will be used in a variety of roles his rookie year including receiver, return man, and wildcat option. In terms of receiving numbers, I see 700 yards on 60 catches and four touchdowns for Waddle in his rookie year. With health a concern for Parker and Fuller Waddle could see a lot more playing time and feature as the main pass catcher. I think Waddle will have a slow start to the season but be a valuable option from the midseason point on.

In terms of fantasy football, Waddle is a flex and wide receiver three until proven otherwise for redraft leagues. If Waddle does have the slow start don’t panic if you drafted him. If you didn’t draft him and someone is antsy to move him, acquire him if you need help and he could be a difference maker. In dynasty leagues, if you have Waddle you are holding all the way through this rookie season and hoping he turns into a Tyreek Hill.

The fourth receiver for the Dolphins will be Preston Williams. I love Preston Williams as a fan. The third year receiver stands at 6’5 218 lbs. He hasn’t played past week 8 in his short career due to injuries. Theme for Dolphins receivers. But, Preston has the ability to make plays and produce in his role. Williams biggest concern outside of health is consistency catching the ball. Williams easily could have a handful more touchdowns to his career numbers but has just dropped passes. His athleticism coming into 2021 following his injuries has yet to be seen but Williams is a Brandon Marshall type of player.

Getting injured on a touchdown grab versus the Cardinals last year ended Williams season. 2020 saw Preston average 16 yards per catch with totals of 18 catches, 288 yards, and four touchdowns. The lack of ability at the receiver position put Williams as the wide receiver two heading into 2020. Before getting hurt he showed the most chemistry with Tua. He will likely serve as a reserve to an outside receiver position moving forward.

This means a season high in snap count Week 1 if healthy due to Fullers suspension. As a primary substitute for the outside Williams should catch 40 balls for 450 yards and 3 touchdowns. Preston could see a few goal line fades given his size. But he needs to show he can catch the ball much more consistently to earn snaps in this offense. The depth of the position is greater and moving into his third year will need to bring that chemistry he had with Tua from 2020 to a higher level to see a starter’s role.

The fifth receiver that will contribute to the offense is Lynn Bowden Jr. Bowden a former college quarterback out of necessity at the University of Kentucky showed some juice in his rookie year with the Miami Dolphins. Drafted 80th overall in 2020 by the Raiders, Bowden was traded to Miami where he led the team in receiving for a few games down the stretch.

Bowden can make guys miss and can play all over the field. He had 28 catches for 211 yards in 2020. He caught over five passes in three of the final four games last season including a team high 82 yards versus the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 14, where the Dolphins lost by six.

Bowden is likely to be a gadget player who is used in the slot and wildcat on offense. His production will be limited but it will be slightly greater than his rookie year. Not sure if it all comes in the receiving game but he should catch 25 passes for 250 yards or so. I expect more touches to come via reverses and sweeps. Maybe he converts some touch passes for big gains or even scores. Bowden shouldn’t be a fantasy option unless injuries pile up and he is needed like last season.

The final receiver on the roster is a sleeper pick to make the roster. Robert Foster will be more of a special teams player than an offensive choice. Foster has produced as a receiver in the NFL though. In his rookie season in 2018, he caught 27 passes for 541 yards and three touchdowns. With a yards per catch of 20 yards, Foster was able to use his 4.1 speed to cash in on big plays. Since then Foster has just five catches for over 100 yards.

The reason he makes the team is his speed and his Alabama connection. Foster was a senior at Alabama during Tuas freshman year. Foster was not a feature receiver at ‘Bama and often worked with the second team offense. Do you know who else worked with the second team offense? Tua! Splitting time with Hurts, Tua threw balls to Foster and that connection will pay off as Foster gets the final receiver spot for 2021. Minimal production from Foster but he could catch a handful of passes and see some deep ball targets with his speed.

The Dolphins have significantly improved the receiving options. We didn’t include the tight ends in this piece but it should be noted Gesicki will see a lot of targets and yards along with Hunter Long. Both are big pass catchers who can mismatch with linebackers and win underneath as the speed takes the top off the defense.

Expect Parker, Fuller V, and Waddle to see the bulk of passes and have very good seasons as Tua eclipses 4000 yards and completes over 350 passes. These three guys should be fantasy football options every week when healthy. If these guys have injuries the secondary receivers could be in line for spot starts as flex players and produce. We’ve seen Tua have success with Bowden and Williams in limited options.  

A full off season, a greater understanding of the playbook, and momentum from 2020 with no question of relief from Fitzpatrick sets Tua and the Dolphins offense up to become a successful passing attack and one to watch heading into 2021.

How the Dolphins can get the Top Seed in the AFC

By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @cmolla1)

Believe it or not, the NFL regular season is 15 weeks away. There is still a lot of roster movement to be expected but the key players are likely on their 2021 teams. With the draft behind us and the schedule released many have tossed their hat into the ring on upcoming predictions. As we all know “Any Given Sunday” is real and predicting the NFL season is chaos. Look back at the 2020 season when the Jaguars won the opening week of the season vs the Colts as proof.

One of the 2020 breakout teams was the Miami Dolphins. Could they emerge as a top AFC contender this year? Under Brian Flores in his second year, the Dolphins improved greatly from 5-11 to 10-6 and barely missing the playoffs. Many will remember the season for the QB swapping in game of then rookie Tua Tagovailoa and Ryan Fitzpatrick. Ryan Fitzpatrick would close out games late in the season and bring the Dolphins back in deficits and or close games out offensively. The game that sticks out the most is Week 16, 26-25 win against the Raiders where Fitzpatrick threw up a prayer to Mack Hollins while getting his facemask pulled. Patrick Mahomes called it “the greatest no look pass of all time”.

The Dolphins started the season 1-3 and brought Tua in to start after six games where he was a year removed of a career threatening hip injury and saw limited work in OTAs and the offseason due to injury and Covid. Flores showed he can lead the team and behind solid defensive play and the Dolphins found themselves on the door of the playoffs. The Dolphins made improvements to the offense this offseason and kept a strong core on defense.

This is a strong foundation moving into 2021. The Miami Dolphins will look to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016 and be a contender in the AFC. Could they even earn a one seed heading into the NFL playoffs? Most sportsbooks currently have the Dolphins from +1400 to +1600 to win the AFC. Which is currently tied with the Patriots for the fifth best odds. For comparison, the AFC favorites are the Chiefs around +250 and the AFC East rival Bills at +600. The oddsmakers do see the Fins as potential dark horse candidates to top the AFC.

Why should you bet the Dolphins to do so? They have a leader in Brian Flores. Flores won four super bowls in his time with New England. Combined with Chris Grier, the GM the Dolphins have built a roster in a “Patriots style”. Meaning players that can play multiple positions defensively. Guys that play their role. Not too flashy and guys that play football.

The changes in offensive coaching will help this offense improve as well. Chan Gailey is no longer the OC and instead, there will be a tandem at OC between George Godsey and Eric Studesville. Both have much NFL coaching experience and will look to excel in new roles. Dolphins also have a new QB coach in Charlie Frye. Frye has a good connection with Tua and was his coach and mentor back when Tua attended the Elite 11 Quarterback camp. These moves will help Tua and the Dolphins offensive development as a whole.

It’s no secret the offensive success hinges on the quarterback. There are expectations for Tua this year going into his second year. He won his first three starts in the NFL and finished his first year 6-3 overall. As mentioned before that was with little prep preseason and a lack of knowledge of the playbook. Last week in OTAs, Tua mentioned the play calling last year and the situation from the huddle to the line of scrimmage pre play last year. As a Dolphins fan, it was clear the play calls were basic when he was in the game. Tua explains why here, in this piece from Adam Beasley.

The Dolphins off season was focused on building around Tua. The added a speedy deep threat in Will Fuller via free agency. Fuller bolsters the receiving core and adds a playmaker which they lacked last year. The Dolphins added some veterans to their offensive line in free agency as well. Adding Matt Skura who has played guard and center for the Ravens, as well as tackle DJ Fluker who played for Baltimore in 2020. Other offensive free agents include running back Malcolm Brown for depth and Jacoby Brissett who is a seasoned veteran backup quarterback. Losing Fitzpatrick Brissett is a solid addition. He has shown the ability to win games when given the opportunity. He also will have familiarity with the coaching staff from his early days in New England.

The offensive additions continued in the NFL Draft. With the sixth overall pick, Miami reunited former Crimson Tide teammate of Tua with wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Waddle missed most of his last season at Bama after suffering an ankle injury. Over his college career, he caught 106 passes for 1999 yards and 17 touchdowns. Waddle is an explosive impact player. He has sub 4.4 40 speed. He can play inside and outside, his hands and physicality allow him to win 50-50 balls even at 5’10 180 pounds.

The Dolphins also used one of their early round picks on a tackle. Liam Eichenberg out of Notre Dame is better in the run game than pass protection but will likely see reps throughout his rookie season. The Dolphins also drafted a tackle in the seventh round in Larnel Coleman. Coleman is going to need to be coached up but will likely spend a majority of his rookie year developing.

Other skill players drafted include TE Hunter Long. Mike Gesicki brokeout last year but the Dolphins added another offensive threat at the tight end position. I told you “Patriots like roster” We all know the dominance of Gronkowski and Hernandez together could we see a new TE duo run the AFC? The Dolphins finally addressed the running back position with Gerrid Doaks in the seventh round. Doaks is a big back, bruiser running style from Cincinnati. Doaks also showed some good things in pass protection last year as Cincinnati was one of the better group of five schools last year.

What is returning offensively for the Dolphins? The offensive line returns its young core which played average at best in their best games and below average in a lot of spots. They were inconsistent but that is expected from a lot of rookies who got valuable experience with Fitzpatrick and from a double digit win season. The three rookies in 2020 Hunt, Jackson, and Kindley all flashed. They will be counted upon this year in combination with Skura as the main core upfront. The line play should improve from last season and needs to be average at worst to win the top seed in the AFC.

We know Tua is playing quarterback when healthy. Tua will protect the ball and deliver it with accuracy. To be the best in the AFC that’s going to require Tua to connect on deep passes, continue to use his mobility to extend plays and convert third downs and just bring confidence to the offense each play.

2020 finished with Myles Gaskin as the lead back in the Dolphins offense. That role is still his as we move into 2021. Gaskin beat out veterans early last year and earned his role. In 10 games last year Gaskin averaged 97 yards from scrimmage. He missed time with a knee issue and Covid. When Gaskin was out Salvon Ahmed stepped up in his role. Ahmed was efficient in his first two games and earned touches throughout the close of the season. Ahmed even eclipsed the 100-yard rush mark to be the first Dolphin to do so in two years in a win versus the Patriots last year.  

The bottom line is the Dolphins see the running back position by committee. Again taking a Patriots approach in using guys in the best role. The additions of Doaks and Brown will likely see the goal line work as bigger backs. The duo of Gaskin and Ahmed will move the ball between the 20s and they can each catch the ball and make guys miss in space. Gaskin will lead the committee and should see the bulk of the work overall. These guys don’t stand out as stars but they are capable of getting the job done. They proved it in 2020.

DeVante Parker broke out in 2019. 2020 was a bit disappointing for Parker who struggled with injuries in the lower extremities as always. Parker has the potential to be a game changer when healthy. Over his career, he’s produced greatly when healthy. He beat 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, Gilmore consistently when healthy. He finished 2020 with 63 catches and nearly 800 yards. His dip in production is also attributed to Tua. Tua didn’t give him the 50-50 balls Fitzpatrick did. Tua also wasn’t aggressive in targeting down the field where Parker ran many of his routes. The familiarity with the playbook and one another will improve Parkers production this year. Paired with Fuller, Waddle, and Gesicki the defense can’t solely focus on DVP. Parker is primed for his best year as a pro if healthy.

Mike Gesicki will be the other focus player as a pass catcher this season. He’s coming off a career year in which he caught 53 passes for 703 yards and six touchdowns. Gesicki is a miss match for Linebackers and safeties with his size. He’s able to box out and win the jump balls and has a massive catch radius. He consistently caught many bad passes and kept drives going. He would have much better touchdown numbers but the Dolphins used a multiple TE look in the red zone and as a unit between Gesicki, Smythe, and Shaheen they caught 11 touchdowns.

The Dolphins offense is set to produce and be better then 2020. The highlighted guys in combination with Malcolm Perry, Jakeem Grant, Lynn Bowden, and Preston Williams can be tough to defend. Perry and Bowden can play any position on offense including quarterback! They will surely get gadget plays that can strike for homeruns at any time. Grant is a speed threat who can get into space and outrun everyone as we’ve seen on special teams. Preston Williams is a sneaky fourth or fifth option on offense. Williams built up chemistry with Tua until he was injured and out for the year. If healthy Preston has the size and speed to be a Brandon Marshall type of player unfortunately inconsistent hands and injuries have plagued him.

To cap of the offense, the Dolphins have an all pro caliber kicker in Jason Sanders. Sanders was truly one of the best kickers in the league last season and it wasn’t a fluke. “$anders” was 8/9 from 50 yards or more last year and didn’t miss an extra point all year.

Moving to the defensive side of the ball the Dolphins had a top 10 defense all around last year. The Dolphins had a Defensive Player of the Year candidate at CB in Xavien Howard. The Dolphins were successful in limiting opponents scoring. They were the sixth-best scoring defense last year averaging 21.1 points allowed. This includes giving up 56 to the Bills in Week 17. The Dolphins standout defensive play started in the secondary. Howard grabbed 10 interceptions, new addition Byron Jones played CB 2, and veterans Eric Rowe, Bobby McCain and rookie Brandon Jones contributed with playmaking in the secondary. The linebackers played the run very well with Elandon Roberts playing inside with Jerome Baker.

Baker struggled at times in coverage and covering gaps in the run but it was passable play. The edge rushers didn’t get home at an elite rate but when they did convert their pressures into sacks turnovers where created. The combination of Van Ginkel, Ogbah, Van Noy, and Lawson forced nine fumbles on 25 sacks. The other key defensive stat was Miami was the best third-down team on defense allowing just over 31% conversions.

Miami spent two top picks on the defense. They used their own first round pick on edge rusher Jaelan Phillips. Phillips is a disruptive, explosive player from the University of Miami. Phillips gave up football in 2018 but he returned to “The U” and rebuilt himself. He has a high motor and the Dolphins need his pass rush and disruptiveness to succeed again.

The other high pick on the defensive side of the ball is safety Jevon Holland from the University of Oregon. Holland will replace McCain likely who was released. Holland plays aggressive and attacks. His versatility is also a plus and something Flores likes in his defense. Holland can play in the box and play the run as well as contest catches and cover.

The Dolphins also traded Shaq Lawson and in return received Bernardrick McKinney. McKinney missed a lot of last season with a shoulder injury but has proven his ability to play inside linebacker as a pro bowler in 2018. McKinney shores up the inside linebacker position and his versatility will replace the loss of Van Noy and Lawson.

If Miami can keep up the solid third down defense, limit the big plays which they were among the leagues worst in in 2020, and increase the pressure on quarterbacks the league’s best defense is attainable. This all starts with creating pressure. Wilkins and Davis on the interior line played well. Davis played the run well but didn’t create many pressures. Wilkins was the opposite, creating pressure but lacking in run defense. A better balance and consistency from these two will anchor the defense.

A player that will play a key role in returning the Dolphins to a top defense will be second year corner Noah Igbinoghene. He saw limited play as the third corner last year. He has elite speed and can play a physical in your face style of coverage but just lacked a feel for corner last year. Still, in transition from a receiver and good athlete to a true corner, this year is a big step in his development. He is playing behind one of the top corner duos in the league and will need to play the slot. The Slot corner position was also addressed in free agency with former Seahawk Justin Coleman.

Another key defender will be rookie Jaelen Phillips. The pass rush is the key to keeping this defense strong. They can cover! The coverage will get even better as the pass rush improves and the secondary can get more turnovers on rushed passes and attack the ball if they are covering for three to four seconds rather than five to six per play.

It takes more than a talented roster to win the AFC. You have to win your games. The schedule currently for the Dolphins doesn’t look greatly difficult by 2020 results. The schedule features the NFC South including defending super bowl champs and the Saints sans Drew Brees. The tough nondivision games inside the AFC will be the Ravens and Colts. For the Dolphins to get the top seed in the AFC they will have to win all those games including a 4-2 at minimum record within the division. I predict the top seed in the AFC will have to win 14 games minimum.

With good health first and foremost the top seed is achievable. A repeat performance from the defense in terms of scoring and efficiency is needed and is achievable with the additions. The key to it all is Tua and the offense. If Tua develops into the superstar quarterback we all thought pre hip injury the weapons are there to put up big numbers and rival the Bills and Chiefs success.

Realistically I don’t see the Dolphins winning the AFCs top seed. However, they will be good and they should improve on their 10 wins from last year and make the playoffs. I’m a lifelong Dolphins fan of 25 years and willing to bet I’ve watched more Dolphins football than 99.5% of the people my age. The Dolphins are close to being the best team in the AFC. If it is this year that will surprise me but not be out of reality. Betting on them is not the Ludacris bet it was barely a year ago. Flores and Grier have the team headed in the right direction. Staying healthy and “Any Given Sunday” you never know. Nonetheless, the Dolphins are poised to be a sleeper to earn the top seed heading into the 2021 playoffs.

How Kevin King can bounce back from a poor 2020

By: Cody Molla (Twitter:@Cmolla1)

Anyone who watched the NFC Championship last year can remember the poor play of Packers cornerback Kevin King. After that performance it was largely assumed by many King had played his final game for the Packers. However, late in March, the Packers and King reached a one year deal. The deal costs the Packers just under two million against the cap but is worth up to six million dollars in incentives and bonuses for King.

The Packers may not have had much of a choice in resigning King when we look into their salary cap situation. They were relatively priced out of grabbing any corners in free agency and a resigning of King was low risk with plans to address the position in the draft. The Packers did take cornerback Eric Stokes with their first round pick.

What can we expect from Kevin King in 2021? He can’t be worse than the last time we saw him on the field right? Right! King is better than that last performance and moving forward he will have a role with the Packers defense as we head into OTAs. The Packers front office has prioritized keeping homegrown talent and believing in these guys to get to the super bowl. King is truly on a prove-it contract this year as he advertises for the future of his career in the NFL.

With the belief of the front office, King has shown when healthy he is a good number two corner. The Packers have a true superstar corner in Jaire Alexander. Alexander is one of if not the best corner in the league.

In 2020, Kings numbers dropped all across the board, games played, pass deflections, and interceptions. He started 11 games for a top ten pass defense last year. Even though the numbers may not pop he was successful within the Packers scheme. In 2019 he played in 15 games and was tied for third in interceptions with five and had 15 pass deflections. King has showed when healthy he can be productive. This will be the first key to having success in 2021.

As a result of his injuries his tackling has suffered, his ball skills suffered and his athleticism suffered. Getting healthy will improve all of these. Not only does health physically show it will help mentally. When you know your body is healthy you play with much more confidence. The ability to play confidently can lead to aggressive play-making. Some of which King will need moving forward. If King can play confident and aggressive his playmaking will appear much more effective in tackling, challenging contested passes, and allow him to be a better athlete. This will all hopefully allow him to return to his average to above average form we saw in his best career season in 2019.

Kevin King will return with familiarity in the defense and perhaps a new game plan and role for him will help him succeed. We know Jaire Alexander will lockdown his side on defense. This leaves King with the opposing teams secondary receivers. King will provide stability at the position for the Packers and comfortability within the scheme will allow King to play without as much thinking. If he went to a new team he’d have to learn all new scheme signals and play style. King may even be tasked with some slot work with the addition of Stokes and given his performance pre-season.

Kevin King is a serviceable cornerback in the NFL. His success is directly related to his health. He’s only played just over 60% of career games since being drafted. He had a good season in 2019 when healthy. In a duo with one of the best corners in the game, King can have success on a good team with a good scheme. King can prove his ability this year and set up the rest of his NFL career.

Who is the NFC North favorite if Rodgers leaves?

By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @Cmolla1)

The Chicago Bears are a storied franchise and have a long history as one of the founding teams in the NFL in 1920. The Bears have accumulated the most wins in NFL history slightly ahead of rival Green Bay Packers founded a year later. These two teams are longtime rivals and have had many battles in the “Black and Blue Division” better known now as the NFC North.

The NFC North as we know it today began in 2002. Since then the Chicago Bears have been named division champions four times, most recently in 2018. Their rival Green Bay Packers have won the North 11 times in that same span. Largely because of superior quarterback play from Favre and Rodgers. Since 2008 when Rodgers became the starter the Packers have really dominated this division including winning the title the last two years.

The Packers NFC North run is now in “Jeopardy!” in relation to the Aaron Rodgers saga. As many know Rodgers has drawn a line in the sand with management and wants things to change. If Rodgers leaves the Packers what does that mean for the NFC North? Do the Bears rise as the frontrunners for this division in the immediate future?

Respectfully we can rule out the Lions. They are in serious rebuild mode and now have downgraded significantly at quarterback going from Stafford to Goff.

The Vikings are in an interesting position. They are projected to win 8.5 games by Vegas oddsmakers. With an extra game in the upcoming season, this means they will be around .500 or so. The offense will be conducted through Kirk Cousins still. Who, if Rodgers leaves, is the best veteran quarterback in the division. Cousins has one playoff appearance and is not the guy the Vikings are paying him to be. Cousins received a massive contract from the Vikings in 2018 and is under contract for two more years. Cousins is 25-21-1 for Minnesota in his career.

Defensively the Vikings were pretty bad last year across all metrics. However, they had some big injuries and a few COVID-19 opt-outs that hampered the defense. With the addition of Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, and Mackensie Alexander the secondary will be better. The front gets Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Michael Pierce back with the addition of Dalvin Tomlinson. The Vikings defense is poised for a bounce back and this will really help their team.

Windy City fans were not pleased with the Bears early in the offseason. Losing out in the faux Russel Wilson sweepstakes and signing Andy Dalton to lead the Bears offensively. Dalton will still likely start a bit of games in 2021 but the Bears offseason improved greatly via the NFL draft. With the steal of the first round and one of the best value picks of the night the Bears drafted Justin Fields at 11 overall after trading up.

The Bears will have two veterans in Dalton and Foles for Fields to learn from. We could see Fields after the Bears Week 10 bye in the newly released NFL schedule. Fields seems like the perfect fit for what Nagy wants to do on offense. Fields has the potential to be the best or second best quarterback in this class. He’s got all the tools and can be coached up to excel with the surrounding cast immediately.

Allen Robinson will be the top receiver for whoever is playing quarterback. Robinson is elite. The rest of the pass catchers include Darnell Mooney who broke out a little bit last year, Anthony Miller, Damiere Byrd, Jimmy Graham, Cole Kmet, and rookie Dazz Newsome. The running back room is very intriguing to me. Montgomery flashed and carried this offense to a playoff run late last year. He will look to prove he is the guy and follow up with a big season. Tarik Cohen will return after injury and the Bears have added Damien Williams who opted out of 2020. Williams’ last game was one in which he could’ve been named super bowl MVP with the Chiefs and he has familiarity with both Nagy (Kansas City 2017) and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor (Miami Dolphins 2014). The Bears also added two rookie backs who produced in college in Khalil Herbert from Virginia Tech and CJ Marable from Coastal Carolina.

The offense has guys to make plays. With one true superstar in Allen Robinson, the rest of the guys will need to step up and make plays when given the opportunity. Quarterback play could be rough with Dalton at times but he is capable of spreading the ball and putting points on the board. The offensive line is the weakest link on the offense and will be a problem.

When you think of the Bears you think of good defense. The Monsters of the Midway dominated the early 1940s, again in 1985, in 2006 the defense lead them to a Super Bowl appearance, and recently in 2018. The Bears defense will take a step back this year. Chuck Pagano retired following the 2020 season. The new defensive coordinator for the Bears is Sean Desai. Desai has been with the Bears on the defensive side of the ball since 2013. A familiar face in the building looks to carry over great schemes from Fangio and Pagano.

After starting 5-1 last year the defense regressed to a top 15 defense. This is likely where the Bears will finish this year as well. They will suffer a major loss at cornerback with the loss of Kyle Fuller. Veteran Desmond Trufant is tasked with filling Fullers’ shoes. Trufant is a former pro bowler back in 2015 and hasn’t played a full season since 2018. Eddie Jackson will be the best secondary player for the Bears, a former All-Pro in 2018. Jackson has 10 interceptions and six fumble recoveries in his career along with six touchdowns. Jackson has shown the ability to make game changing plays but had zero interceptions last year.

The defensive front is still in good hands. Roquan Smith patrols the middle of the field with veteran Trevathan. Mario Edwards and Robert Quinn can create pressure off the edge along with Khalil Mack. When healthy Akiem Hicks is a great Dalvin Cook stopper.

So what does this mean for the Bears in 2021 if Rodgers is not a Packer? Looking at their schedule the Bears have some tough games early combined with some winnable ones. Week 1 the Bears go on the road to play the first game in SoFi Stadium with fans vs the Rams. They play the Browns Week 3 as part of their tour versus the AFC North, and the Bucs in Week 7 both on the road. Those games look to be the testers early in the year. If they can get to the Week 10 bye at 5-5 with Fields ready to start the playoffs could be in reach. The final five games close with a meeting with the Pack at the frozen tundra and two games with Minnesota. If Rodgers is gone I see a 4-2 division record possible for the Bears, splitting with Green Bay and Minnesota while sweeping the Lions. Finding a way to 10 total wins gives them a chance at the playoffs and the division win with the expanded schedule.

The weakest spots will be the offensive line and cornerback. The offense should be better with the quarterbacks looking ahead. If not Nagy and crew will be fired. The defense can make plays and stay solid up front. If the corners step up and push the defense to a higher level the Bears will win the NFC North. A playoff return is in the cards for the Chicago Bears, bearing they play them right.

Why The Falcons should sign RB Le’Veon Bell

By: Cody Molla

There are a few big name free agents left unsigned after the 2021 NFL Draft. Teams will be looking to add veterans to their team moving forward. One of those big names is Le’Veon Bell. Bell is a few years removed from posting elite numbers which made him the best back in the league from 2013-2017.

The Atlanta Falcons will need to replace 89% of their running back touches from the 2020 season. After being ranked 27th in rushing yards per game last year with nearly 96 yards per game and only 13 rushing touchdowns the Falcons are letting go of Todd Gurley, Ito Smith, and Brian Hill.

An addition of Bell to the Falcons would help the running back group currently with the Falcons as well as give Bell a chance to prove he’s still got the talent to make plays and be productive.

At age 29 Bell is likely not the feature back he once was. As the NFL has moved to a multi-back system this is beneficial for Bell. He can be productive as a compliment. Bell has only played 26 games since 2017. He’s eclipsed over 1000 rushing yards in that span with five rushing touchdowns and chipped in a touchdown on 600 yards receiving.

Bell signed with the Chiefs midway through the season last year. At the time the Chiefs were Super Bowl favorites and the addition of Bell sent the league into fury. Bell struggled in his nine games as a Chief. It is with this recent play that leaves the jury undecided on his NFL future.

Earlier this week Falcons running back coach Desmond Kitchings reported that it’s an open competition for snaps going into the off season workouts. Kitchings is making his NFL coaching debut this season. He is joining the staff of new head coach Arthur Smith after coaching in the NCAA ranks since 2004.

Kitchings has been a running backs coach for most of his career. When coaching at NC State from 2016-2018 he had three straight 1000 yard rushers. One of those being Nyheim Hines who has been productive in his NFL career thus far. Earlier in his career, he worked with Zac Stacy at Vanderbilt. Stacy nearly rushed for 1000 yards in a season in his rookie year at the NFL level. Kitchings also lead a heavy run attack at Air Force in 2011, which averaged over 300 rushing yards per game.

Arthur Smith is coming from a team with a heavy run game led by bulldozer Derrick Henry. Smith is likely going to want to establish the run to set up plays for Matt Ryan and a talented group of pass catchers including Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and top draft pick Kyle Pitts.

The Falcons current running back situation is not glamorous. They added Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson via free agency. After not drafting a running back in the draft they signed undrafted players Javien Hawkins and Caleb Huntley. They also added Tony Brooks-James who has bounced around practice squads since 2019. The only returning Falcon in the running back room is Qadree Ollison who played 13 snaps in 2020.

Mike Davis is the favorite to be lead back in the offense. Davis is coming off a career year in which he filled in for McCaffrey for most of the season. Davis excelled in 2020. Davis surpassed 1000 all-purpose yards last season. Watching Davis last year the thing that stood out to me was the ability to extend plays and run through tackles. Davis can catch passes and make plays versus linebackers in the receiving game too. Even though Davis is likely to be the lead back he is not a feature back in the NFL.

The pairing of Bell and Davis could be a solid group for the Falcons. Both have similar abilities. This would add depth to the position and allow for the offense to be run all the time with no predictability pending the personnel.

The addition of Cordarrelle Patterson doesn’t impress or really add a true running back to the offense. Adding Bell would make him the lead complement back. Pattersons role is likely to be a return guy and see a handful of plays designed for him throughout the game. Patterson is still working on his transition from receiver to running back. Patterson has unique talent with size and speed that can produce homerun plays.

The other guys in the room will likely be on the outside looking in. The Falcons hope one can emerge similar to James Robinson for the Jaguars last year. A sleeper player and dark horse candidate to get offensive touches in the backfield is Avery Williams. Williams is a rookie CB drafted out of Boise St. Unknown to many Williams tied the NCAA record for return touchdowns in a career last season, with nine total. Six of those have come via punt including the record tying one.

The Falcons running back situation isn’t ideal and there is a need for another back. There is no way the Falcons go into the season with Patterson being the ideal running back two. Le’Veon Bell is a bit of a wildcard right now but his history has proven he is capable to be a playmaker and boost an offense. The ability to be patient and make guys miss in tight windows combined with his receiving skills makes him a fit for the Atlanta Falcons.

It would be wise for Bell to join the falcons as they have a lot of talent on offense. Teams will have a lot to cover and scheme for against a talented offense that can provide an opportunity to produce. The open competition means Bell could also win a starting job and see ample touches as the lead in a multi-back system. These opportunities combined with a staff that has shown the ability to generate a run game with many different players is a good fit for Bell. He can be acquired for a team friendly price and if he proves he still has it can set up the later part of his career in the NFL.  

Why Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson are the top two picks

By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @ Cmolla1)

Draft day is just over a day away and the anticipation of what each NFL franchise will do has all fans excited! The first round of the NFL draft goes live at 8:00 PM ET from Cleveland. The draft is back in person after a remote and virtual draft last year. The commissioner will be back on stage greeting and shaking hands with the future stars of the NFL.

The Jaguars have been on the clock for months. They hold the first pick of this year’s draft and it is all but done in the eyes of everyone. Could they shock the world and really shake things up? Maybe but it is unlikely! The prospect everyone penciled in for Jacksonville and the number one overall pick of this year’s draft is Trevor Lawrence, from Clemson.

For the first time in franchise history, the Jaguars will have the number one pick. This is pivotal for the franchise and the future of their newly signed head coach Urban Meyer. Meyer is testing his luck in the NFL for the first time after winning multiple NCAA Football Championships and coming out of retirement. Meyer won National Championships at both Florida and Ohio State in the past. He has plenty of championship pedigree in the college ranks. Meyer has tallied 187 wins in 17 NCAA seasons as a head coach. Meyer will start off his NFL tenure with a high caliber QB in Trevor Lawrence.

Why Lawrence is a sure fire number one pick can be seen in his football career dating back to high school. Lawrence broke the Georgia high school record for yards and touchdowns in his senior year, records previously held by Deshaun Watson. He broke these records while competing versus another high profile quarterback in this class in Justin Fields, who grew up 20 miles away from Lawrence. Lawrence followed Watson to the University of Clemson. In his freshman season, he led the Tigers to a National Championship. Lawrence led the Tigers in a route over Alabama. The next season Lawrence made it to the College Football Championship again but lost to Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers. His junior year Clemson lost to Ohio State in the semifinals.

Lawrence’s college career is full of gaudy numbers. In three seasons as a starter, he tallied a record of 34-2. Lawrence completed 66.6% of his passes for 10,098 total yards. He has a career passer rating of 164.3 with 90 career passing touchdowns to 17 interceptions. He wasn’t just a pure passer he has the ability to run and make big plays with his legs outside the pocket. Lawrence rushed for 943 yards for an average of 4.1 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns. We all saw his running ability in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl where he broke off a 67 yard touchdown run.

Of course, with all the numbers come awards and accolades. Lawrence has plenty of All-Honors from all of his seasons. He finished second in Heisman voting last year as well as a finalist for the Maxwell, O’Brien, and Camp Player of the Year Awards.

Lawrence is regarded as the ultimate NFL prototype in today’s game. With rare size, mobility, speed, awareness, arm strength, and accuracy Lawrence is set to play a huge role in the Jaguars future. Mel Kiper graded Lawrence as his fourth highest quarterback ever and the highest since Andrew Luck. The experts say Lawrence is an Elway, Luck, Manning type of player.

Lawrence is a smooth operator in the pocket, his awareness and athleticism allow him to move in the pocket and he uses his eyes and arm talent to make plays. He works well under pressure and can beat you outside the pocket. His experience in big games vs high quality competition gives NFL teams a clear view of his ability on the field.

Off the field, Lawrence doesn’t raise any red flags. Last year he missed a few games with a positive covid test. He was on the sideline engaged in the game and helping his teammates and team in whatever fashion he was able to. He showed another phase of his toughness and football spirit by having his pro day on February 12th. He was scheduled for labrum surgery on his non-throwing shoulder on February 16th. He’s expected to make a full recovery before camp and get ready for his rookie season.

Lawrence will make it four straight years a quarterback is picked number one overall. The Jaguars are rebuilding a team and former pro bowl receiver DJ Chark will be excited with his new signal caller. Of course, there are no guarantees of becoming a superstar in the NFL but Lawrence is an insanely talented prospect and one of great value for the Jaguars.

The second overall pick belongs to the New York Jets. A team that also is looking for a future leader at the quarterback position and one with a new first time NFL head coach. Robert Saleh was signed as the Jets new head coach back in January. Saleh has been an NFL coach on the defensive side of the ball since 2005. Most recently he was the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers starting in 2017. With a new defensive coach and at the time a young quarterback the Jets were looking at prospects in the playmaking and defensive side of the ball. However, a lot has changed since January.

The Jets traded away Sam Darnold to the Panthers earlier this month. Darnold was supposed to be the savior of the Jets after being drafted third overall in 2018. Without a quarterback, the Jets are expected to draft Zach Wilson with the second overall pick.

The Jets have been linked to Wilson since his pro day at BYU. Wilson made some high level throws including a viral throw that may have started a trend in the following pro days. Wilson is a gunslinging quarterback prospect with the talent to make big explosive plays off schedule. Wilson broke out in his final season at BYU with many plays of this type. Wilson led BYU to an 11-1 in his junior season. He threw for 3692 yards, 33 touchdowns to 3 interceptions while completing 73.5% of his passes. The completion percentage ranked second in FBS last year and he broke Steve Young’s BYU record. He also used his rushing ability for 235 yards and 10 scores. Surprisingly to some Wilson does have Hawaiian ancestry and was named a co-recipient of the 2020 Polynesian College Football Player of the Year.

What the experts like about Wilsons 2020 tape is a vast improvement in play from previous years combined with explosive plays and the ability to execute tight window throws on and off schedule. Some of those tight window throws come with a lot of risks although only three went as turnovers scouts would like a higher level of decision making in the next level. His mobility kept defenders honest, he’s able to slide in the pocket and make accurate throws deep as well as good decisions while scrambling. His deep ball accuracy was over 50% and he gave big receivers plenty of opportunities to win 50-50 balls.  

Although BYU didn’t face elite completion Wilson was able to deliver the goods to show he’s an NFL caliber player. In the cougars lone loss vs Coastal Carolina another group of five school that was ranked Wilson played well but showed some holes in decision making and accuracy. He’s got the tools and ability to overcome those struggles and the Jets are likely to make him the second overall pick.

Even though Wilson will go after Lawrence some think Wilson will be the better NFL quarterback. Crediting his accuracy and playmaking. Gang Green get ready to welcome Zach Wilson after booing the commissioner.

The top two picks are nearly 100% locked in by all. The draft really starts at number three with the 49ers. Thursday night will be highly entertaining and the anticipation and excitement will grow more till your team is officially on the clock.

Three Biggest Obstacles for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021

By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @Cmolla1)

The 2021 NFL league year has already started and we are quickly approaching a circled date on the league calendar. The NFL draft is just over a week away and the future of the team is directly impacted by decisions on draft day. With the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers changed the future of the franchise for the next 17 years and counting. The pick of Ben Roethlisberger led to 22 playoff games, two super bowl wins in three attempts, and 396 passing touchdowns later. Decisions like this are quickly approaching for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Steelers ended the 2020 season sourly. After a perfect 11-0 start they lost four of the last five and got beat by division rival Cleveland Browns in the wild card round. The 2020 season showed a few weaknesses in the Steelers. Despite Ben returning and playing the Steelers identity remained on defense. When injuries mounted up on the defensive side of the ball the Steelers really struggled winning football games. Traditionally known for their steel curtain defense, the defense looks poised to be solid again in 2021.

A lot of the Steelers questions going into the draft and further in the future lie on the offensive side of the ball. Which obstacles will be the biggest hurdle and achievable going forward?

Finding Big Bens Successor

Big Ben is returning for the 2021 season. Ben returned in 2020 after playing 2 games in 2019. However, now at age 39 the Steelers post Big Ben era is near and approaching. In 2020 Ben threw for 3803 yards, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions while completing over 65% of passes. The number of passes tied the second-highest mark in his career with 608. Watching Ben in 2020 it was clear age was a factor and the new scheme focused on quick reads and short and intermediate passes were the Steelers game plan. We also saw some classic Roethlisberger plays, in which he extended the play and took a big shot while delivering a pass on the money in clutch situations.   

The current choices in the quarterback room to replace Ben are Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, and Josh Dobbs. They were in the process of upgrading this room but missed out on the Sam Darnold sweepstakes and didn’t bring any veterans in during the off season. This leaves the NFL draft as the likely point to add a future signal caller.

The Steelers will have the 24th pick in this years’ draft. They will likely not get any high profile quarterback with the current NFL landscape and draft conditions. They also have other team needs where they can improve the team and chase a championship. The Steelers will likely use a middle to late round pick to bring a quarterback in and let him develop.

Potential names that fit are Kellen Mond, Kyle Trask, Sam Elingher, and Jamie Newman. The Steelers will likely let the board fall to them and see if they need trade up on day two or three for a guy or wait.

Drafting a quarterback and allowing them to learn and develop the entire rookie year is the scenario I see for the Steelers. If they retain Rudolph, heading into next year the future quarterback of the Steelers will come down to a young guy in year two and Mason Rudolph. Regardless of who the Steelers see as this fit this obstacle of replacing Ben will loom over them for the entirety of the 2021 league year.

Finding a Run Game

The struggles of the Pittsburgh Steelers offense can be focused on the one dimensional offense. The Steelers run game was nearly non-existent last year. The Steelers were the worst rushing team in 2020.  Last year’s starting running back James Connor is no longer a Steeler. The need for a running back is evident and prominent. In 2020 across the NFL, the average yards per game was 118.9, and per carry, it was 4.4, and total touchdowns were 16.6. The black and yellow averaged a league low 84.4 yards per game on the ground last season with 3.6 yards per carry and only 12 rush touchdowns.

The lack of rush ability offensively via offensive line injuries and running back inefficiency severely hindered the Steelers offensive promise. The inability to run forced an aging Ben to throw upwards of 50 times a game and forced the offense in tough down and distance situations down the stretch.

The other two running backs that the Steelers tried to get going were Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland.  Snell had a few efficient games including 115 yards in the season opener and a good outing in Week 15 with 84 yards and a score. McFarland a rookie in 2020 showed some burst but never got anything going and will continue developing as we head into 2021.

The run game struggles go back a few years. With three seasons as offensive coordinator, the Steelers highest rank in run yards per game is 29th the NFL, in 2019. The road to success in the run game won’t be easy this year. The Steelers lost longtime center Pouncey to retirement and left tackle, Villanueva.

Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, Kalen Ballage, and Jaylen Samuels currently make up the running backs of the Steelers. Without a doubt, a player will be drafted at the running back position. A first round pick could potentially be used.

If the board falls right and the Steelers see it worth drafting a running back the top choices by most accounts are Najee Harris from Alabama and Travis Etienne from Clemson. Mel Kiper has a high likely hood both guys will be available for the pick currently. If the Steelers don’t choose one of these top picks there are other good running back prospects to be picked later. Trey Sermon is a big back with explosiveness out of Ohio State. Other intriguing prospects include Chuba Hubbard, Jaret Patterson, and Elijah Mitchell.

Fixing the run game goes beyond a talented running back. It relies on the scheme and the guys up front creating lanes more times than not. The Steelers should look to draft an offensive lineman or two to build the line for the future quarterback and running back. You can never have too many good offensive linemen. Injuries happen all the time at that position and finding a core of guys who can play together will be huge for the Steelers offensive success in 2021.

A run game will take the pressure off of Ben, make the Steelers less predictable, and lead to greater success over the season and into the playoffs.

2021 Scheduled Opponents

My final tough obstacle for the black and gold in 2021 is their opponents. The Steelers win total prop recently came out as 8.5. With a newly expanded regular season to 17 games eight or nine wins likely isn’t playoff worthy. The Steelers will face eight teams from the 2020 NFL playoffs across 10 games in 2021.

The AFC North sent three teams to the playoffs last year, including the Steelers, Browns, and Ravens. The division games will surely be tough and the Bengals will be improving with Joe Burrow returning from injury.

Non-divisional games include the Buffalo Bills who are coming off an AFC Championship appearance. The Steelers wills also play the NFC North teams including Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. If these two opposing quarterbacks don’t scare you add Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to the schedule too. The Steelers will need to be ready to defend and in a spot to put up points to not just keep pace but outpace these teams.  

2021 holds a lot of weight for this franchise. Could it be Bens last season? The Steelers need to have a plan if so and find an answer quickly. The run game needs an overhaul and become a factor to balance the offense and be a contender in December and January. The offensive improvements will play a key role versus a tough schedule in 2021. The NFL draft is the next step for a playoff return and the future.

CB Draft Targets for the Pittsburgh Steelers

By: Cody Molla (Twitter:@Cmolla1 )

The Pittsburgh Steelers set the league on fire with an 11-0 start last year. With Big Ben back things were looking like a super bowl return for the yellow and black. However, injuries piled up, and the Steelers faltered down the stretch and finished with a 1-4 record in the last five and wound up losing to the Browns in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.

Heading into the offseason the Steelers had aging players to decide on. However, to the surprise of many, the Steelers ended up losing two starting corners during the free agency period. Starting corner Steven Nelson was released and slot corner Mike Hilton signed with the division rival Cincinnati Bengals.

That leaves the Steelers with holes to fill in the secondary. Minkah Fitzpatrick at safety combined with Terrell Edmunds helps out these corners play a lot. Joe Haden remains on the roster and will be the number one corner moving forward. Haden has had a resurgence in his career since joining Pittsburgh. Haden has totaled 10 interceptions in 56 games over four seasons with the Steelers including a pro bowl nod in 2019. Other corners currently on the roster are Cam Sutton who will have a large role moving forward as a versatile player and two young outside players in Justin Layne and James Pierre. The two youngsters have produced on special teams thus far but the 2019 draft products look to compete for a starting role in 2021.

With a lack of depth at cornerback, the Steelers will look to address that need in the draft. Along with the cornerback need the Steelers do need offensive line additions, running back, and an edge rusher with Dupree leaving. With the Steelers having the 24th pick overall they will let the board fall to them. Some high ranked corner prospects that could make it to them in round one but if not the Steelers have pick 55 in the second round and pick 87 in the third round.

Who will the Steelers have their eye on at cornerback? If you’ve been keeping up with the draft and following prospects the two at the top of the cornerback lists are Jaycee Horn and Patrick Surtain II.

Jaycee Horn

Horn played seven games in 2020 and was voted second-team all-SEC. The 6’1 205 pounder from South Carolina is possibly the best cornerback in the draft. Horn has NFL pedigree. The son of former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn.

Horn had a very impressive pro day that allowed him to jump up as the best corner to some. He was clocked at a 4.39 40 yard dash and 41.5 vertical. Horns measurable showed on top this year too. He played quite well against the talented players at Florida as well as shut down Seth Williams in the Auburn game. Evaluators like the edge Horn plays with and how he competes in coverage.

Patrick Surtain II

Another son of a former NFL player, Surtain II is a well-regarded prospect. At 6’2, 203 pounds Surtain II took home the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award. Surtain II is a big playmaking corner that lacks elite speed. He is a top pick in this draft and a player who can be the most productive defender in this class.

Surtain II held matchups to under 25 total yards in 10 of his 13 games. Surtain II plays well in press coverage and uses his leverage to jam receivers. He also has good ball skills and the length to break up passes.

After these guys, the next best player is Caleb Farley.

Caleb Farley

Farley is likely to be a first round pick. Some have graded him above the two guys above and think he could be the best of the group. Farley has injury concerns. Farley skipped the 2020 season with concerns for his health and family and to get ready for his NFL career. Undergoing back surgery on March 23 of this year Farley didn’t have a pro day.

Farleys injury history dates back to his first practice as a collegiate athlete. As a receiver, Farley suffered a knee injury. He flipped positions to cornerback and had a knack for playmaking. In 2019 he earned First Team All ACC Honors with four interceptions in 11 games. Farleys speed and size will allow him to run and compete athletically with anybody. As he gets coached up his instincts and talent will make him a great player.

It is likely all three of these guys are gone before the Steelers pick. If they do fall the Steelers will have to prioritize who is left on the board. However, I think it is most likely the Steelers end up with a player in this next group of cornerbacks in the middle rounds of the draft.

Greg Newsome II

Newsome II is graded as a late first by some and solid second round pick. Newsome II was productive for Northwestern in his career the only mark on him is the durability concern. He only played in 21 games as in his college career. Last year he was playing at his best before suffering a groin injury in the Big Ten championship. He sat out the bowl game and declared for the draft.

Before competing in his last game Newsome II only allowed 11 catches on 34 attempts. None were completed for touchdowns nor third down conversions. He was named Third Team All-AP and First Team All-Big ten last year. Playing a multitude of coverages in his collegiate career many see him developing as a starter early in his NFL career.

Aaron Robinson

Robinson has a second round grade on him with the  potential of sneaking into the first round. Robinson played his senior season at UCF but originally started his college career at Alabama. Robinson stood out to me at the Senior Bowl this year.

Primarily played in the slot and showed great press coverage skills. In the Senior Bowl, his tackling was crisp, and was able to defend well in the run game. Scouts have expressed some concern about his coverage skills as he loses the ball and his size creates openings at times. I think Robinson is a solid day two pick and a good slot fill for the Steelers in 2021.

Asante Samuel Jr.

There seems to be a theme with corners this year. His father was a four time pro bowl corner and the skills translated. Samuel Jr played well at Florida St. Despite the team being horrible Samuel Jr. made plays in coverage and was excellent in the run game.

He has been labeled as undersized at 5’10 and 184 pounds. In his last full season of games, 2019 he was named Third-Team All ACC. He opted out midway last year but led the team in interceptions with three. Samuel is seen by most fitting a zone heavy scheme but he has the athleticism and skills to play man and develop as a quality corner. Likely a slot player in his rookie year Samuel Jr. is one to watch.

Ifeatu Melifonwu

Ifeatu is an intriguing prospect. Standing 6’3 and 313 pounds, his frame combined with athleticism allow him to cover all receivers. Was named to the Third-Team All ACC last season and accepted an invite to the Senior Bowl.

His size, athleticism, and footwork allow him to be disruptive at the line of scrimmage. This is his biggest asset right now as his coverage skills improve. When he lines up off man he is often allowing too much space for plays to be made and can get tricked on double moves.

Melifonwus’ older brother Obi was a second round pick back in 2017. Ifeatu has an interesting skillset that will intrigue teams. If corner doesn’t work out his skill set suits well for the safety position. He is a solid mid round prospect.

Tyson Campbell

Another SEC player, from the University of Georgia, Campbell put some production on tape in 2020. A likely day two prospect he struggled last season among the best in this class in Kyle Pitts. Campbell was able to stay healthy in 2020 and was clocked with a 4.34 40 yard dash.

Campbell only totaled one interception in college. His press coverage skills are a plus but teams will likely use him in a zone scheme. Campbell is a player that needs development but has the ability to produce at the NFL level.

Honorable Mention

Eric Stokes, Georgia

Shaun Wade, Ohio St.

Jevon Holland, Safety, Oregon

Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky

Rodarius Williams, Oklahoma St.

The Steelers will have their choice of cornerback. I think they use their first round pick on a bigger need on offense. The mid rounds will be prime for selecting a corner back. Any of these guys would fit the Steelers scheme and learning from Haden will be a huge help. Having talented safeties to help in coverage the young corner will be in a position for success in the NFL.

Top 1st Round Draft Targets for the Carolina Panthers

By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @Cmolla1)

The NFL draft is rapidly approaching as the days go by. The Carolina Panthers made the latest move that will impact the draft order. Earlier this week the Panthers made a big move in acquiring Sam Darnold from the New York Jets. Neither team swapped first round picks in this year’s draft, meaning the Jets will more than likely be selecting a quarterback at number two overall, leaving the Panthers with options at eighth overall. The Panthers were in the hunt for a quarterback and seem to have their guy moving forward.

With the acquisition of Darnold while maintaining their high selection the Panthers are in a spot to seriously upgrade their team and bring a star to Carolina. The Darnold acquisition should eliminate all the quarterback prospects. There is a possibility a quarterback needy team looks to trade with the Panthers now that their signal caller has been acquired. The Panthers could also look to jump up to an earlier spot if they feel like a target may be taken ahead of them as well. I think a trade could be possible if it offers the right value but moving ahead we will take a look at prospects that should be on the Panthers radar and likely selections for the Panthers at eighth overall.

Kyle Pitts TE

Pitts is regarded as one of the elite offensive skill players in this class and to some, one of the best prospects entirely. After his pro day with measurable of 6’6 and 246 pounds, Pitts drew comparisons to Calvin Johnson by some. Pitts is an uber-athletic pass catcher who can be an x-factor in any offense. Pitts ran a 4.44 40 yard dash at his pro day, fifth best ever by a tight end. The best time recorded is 4.42 by Evan Engram. Other freakish measurable included his wingspan which is the longest ever at the position as well.

Not only does he have the tools to be elite he’s proved it. At Florida, the offense essentially ran through him. In eight games last year versus SEC competition, Pitts totaled 770 yards on 43 receptions with no drops and scored 12 touchdowns.

Calling Pitts a tight end is a bit misleading. He can do it all. He is too fast for a linebacker and too big for defensive backs. He can run any route, win 50/50 balls, and has shown improvement in blocking last year.

Adding Pitts to an offense with McCaffery, DJ Moore, and speedster Robbie Anderson will help Darnold greatly. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady will be able to scheme up plays to score and move the ball downfield with talented guys in the offense.

Pitts is likely a top five talent and to get him at eight overall would be great for the Panthers. They may have to move up to get him but Pitts is target number one for the Panthers moving forward.

If the Panthers are unable to draft Pitts their next positions of need would be offensive tackle and cornerback.

Penei Sewell OT

This is a relatively talented class for offensive tackle but Sewell has been touted as the best in the class. The 6’6 330 pounder from Oregon opted out of the 2020 season but was a first-team All-American in 2019 and took home plenty of hardware for his dominating season.

Sewell is a great athlete whose blocks pop on tape. The edge setting ability Sewell brings will allow runs to get the tough yards outside and sets the edge for game breaking runs to go the distance.

The Panthers offensive line isn’t very good. Darnold has struggled behind a bad offensive line his whole career and it would be smart to grab a player who can protect the quarterback and be trusted on an island to get the job done. Cam Erving is the projected starter at left tackle for the Panthers and the former Browns first rounder hasn’t played up to expectations. The interior linemen also struggled a lot last year leaving the Panthers with a need at offensive line.

Although having an all world running back and other playmakers would be ideal if you cannot protect the quarterback and block in the run game the offense does nothing. Referencing the most recent super bowl will show the importance of offensive line play.

Sewell is a highly regarded prospect. He can likely be picked well ahead of Carolina but if he falls, the Panthers would be wise to attack a need and get a potential future all pro.

Rashawn Slater OT

The Northwestern product is measured to be 6’4 and 304 pounds. He too opted out of the 2020 season but was a three year starter and is regarded as another great offensive line talent.

In his three years at Northwestern, Slater played both left and right tackle. Scouted as a blocker who can make impact blocks in the second level with great athleticism, strength, and speed. Slater has put competitive reps on tape against Chase Young in college that has impressed scouts. This competition will be what he sees on a snap to snap basis and good impressions from 2019 are a strong block to build upon.

Jaycee Horn CB

Horn played seven games in 2020 and was voted second-team all-SEC. The 6’1 205 pounder from South Carolina is possibly the best cornerback in the draft. Horn has NFL pedigree. The son of former Saints wide receiver Joe Horn.

Horn had a very impressive pro day that allowed him to jump up as the best corner to some. He was clocked at a 4.39 40 yard dash and 41.5 vertical. Horns measurable showed on top this year too. He played quite well against the talented players at Florida as well as shut down Seth Williams in the Auburn game. Evaluators like the edge Horn plays with and how he competes in coverage.

The Panthers need for a corner is quite high. Donta Jackson is the best player rostered. Eli Apple missed time with hamstring issues and other guys were forced to step up. Corn Elder and Rasul Douglas were forced to play a lot in the 2020 season while other young players developed.

The NFC South is full of big talented receivers. The Panthers need to cover the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Michael Thomas, Julio Jones, and Calvin Ridley.

The Panthers are building a young defense. The front seven played well at times but with an improved secondary the defense can take that next jump and Horn is a player with the potential to contribute strong play.

Patrick Surtain II CB

Another son of a former NFL player, Surtain II is a well-regarded prospect. At 6’2, 203 pounds Surtain II took home the 2020 SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award. Surtain II is a big playmaking corner that lacks elite speed. He is a top pick in this draft and a player who can be the most productive defender in this class.

Surtain II held matchups to under 25 total yards in 10 of his 13 games. Surtain II plays well in press coverage and use his leverage to jam receivers. He also has good ball skills and the length to break up passes.

Again, the Panthers need at corner is evident and Surtain II to some is the best corner in the draft. If the lack of speed doesn’t scare the Panthers off he is a target that could very well be picked at eighth overall.

If all these players were available to the Panthers at their selection I would choose Pitts. Following Pitts, I would rank the players based on need and fit for the team as Sewell, Horn, Surtain II, and Slater.

I think protecting Darnold is a huge priority but there is depth in this class. I like both corners a lot in this draft and think they might both be picked in the top 15. I think Horn may be the better player and fit for the Panthers but getting Surtain II would be a thrill for all involved.  

Honorable Mention

Christian Darrisaw OT

Jaylen Waddle WR

Devonta Smith WR

Caleb Farley CB

3 WRs to Sell Post Free Agency

By: Cody Molla (Twitter: @Cmolla1)

NFL free agency was full of action and big names signing across the NFL landscape. However, one position was a little late to the party. The wide receivers seemed to be the last position group to choose their next NFL home. We saw some surprising deals in the AFC East kick off this group with the signings of Nelson Agholor to the Patriots and Corey Davis to the Jets. The biggest free agent at this position, Kenny Golladay, inked a deal for four years and $72 million with the New York Giants.

With all these players in new offenses and some resigning, we all want to know what that means for production this year and the future. Every deal has implications in terms of football on the field and for fantasy football players. Here are some wide receivers to sell based on free agency and trades we know thus far.

Sammy Watkins

Sammy Watkins signed a one-year $5 million guaranteed contract with the Baltimore Ravens. Watkins was the fourth overall pick back in 2014 by the Buffalo Bills. The Ravens will be his fourth team as he enters his eighth year as a pro.

Watkins is a speed threat outside and has a knack for explosive and big plays. Unfortunately, injuries have gotten to Watkins almost every year as a pro. He’s missed 14 games over the last three seasons. Last season he played in nine games due to a concussion and hamstring issues. His 2020 numbers included a career-low in yards with 421 and tied a career-low in touchdowns with 2.

The signing with the Ravens is interesting. It fills a need for a receiver for the Ravens. This offense was lacking pass catchers and weapons in the passing game. With Lamar Jackson and a very run-heavy offensive scheme, Watkins can open up the field and strike for big plays.

The pairing with the Ravens also reunites Watkins with Greg Roman. Roman was the offensive coordinator in Buffalo when Watkins had his best season as a pro in 2015. Watkins had 60 catches over 1000 yards and nine touchdowns across 13 games. Those numbers made him a borderline WR 1 that year for fantasy football.

We are far removed from that Sammy Watkins. Injuries have plagued him. Foot injuries, hamstring, groin, and other lower body issues will continue for Watkins who will be 28 when football is played in 2021. On top of the injury concerns, the scheme of the Ravens hurts Watkins value.

Watkins is going from the Kansas City Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes throwing the ball to the run-heavy Ravens and Lamar Jackson at quarterback. The passing ability of Lamar Jackson has been much discussed and although it is slowly improving it’s not at the elite level like Mahomes.

Watkins will go to an offense where he is arguably the most talented receiver. This may be enticing but the fit and the offense as it is built right now Watkins isn’t able to produce as a solid number two overall receiver for fantasy football. I am selling Watkins in fantasy football right now based on his injury history and the current offensive scheme of the Baltimore Ravens.

Sterling Shepard

Shepard is likely to be negatively affected by the signing of Golladay and the return of Saquon Barkley to the offense. Shepard finished 2020 with strong weeks to close out the season. Totaling over 50 points to close the year Shepard finished as wide receiver 43 overall in PPR leagues averaging out to 13.5 points per week in PPR scoring. Shepard only played in 12 games last year as well.

A lot of Sterling Shepards’ value and points as a fantasy option came due to volume. With Golladay assuming the role of the lead passing threat Shepard will lose targets. Saquon will also get his 15-25 touches a game which will take away from the receivers in the passing game a little bit as well. Barkley had 91 catches in 2018 and 52 in 2019. The emergence of Darius Slayton is sure to continue as he is a deep play threat sure to see targets throughout the season along with Evan Engram who saw a team-high 109 last year.

Shepard has missed ten games in the last two seasons. He is turning 28 years old this season and has only played a full season twice in his first five years. Sterling Shepard is a sell heading into the 2021 season. The Giants’ addition of talent to both sides of the ball will make them a better team. They won’t need to be throwing so much and if they do they have a lot of options pending health and Shepards’ volume of targets is sure to be reduced.

Preston Williams

Preston Williams is an intriguing young player. Not a household name but a player who can produce when given the chance. Williams was a four-star prospect out of high school and went to Tennessee for his first two seasons. Williams eventually transferred in his senior season at Colorado State had 96 receptions for 1345 yards in 14 touchdowns in 2018.

Unfortunately, Williams has had both his first two seasons end due to season-ending injuries. His rookie season in 2019, ended with a torn ACL. Before the injury, he was emerging as a big playmaker in the offense and a player who looked like he would be able to be a viable wide receiver two in an NFL offense. His size and ability to get 50/50 balls transferred to 32 catches for over 400 yards and three touchdowns. Last year in 2020 he began to emerge as one of Tua’s favorite targets. He left in Week 8 in a game he had four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown early in the game. A foot injury led to surgery and missing the rest of the year.  

Fantasy players were likely looking for his chemistry with Tua to transfer into 2021 and have a potential bargain wide receiver 3 this year. However, I would sell Williams. The Dolphins added Will Fuller V to the offense. DeVante Parker is still on the team and he’s been the team’s leading receiver the past couple of seasons. Tight End Mike Gesicki broke out last season and will get more targets this year as well.

The Dolphins are also likely to add a pass catcher in the first round of this years draft. Whether it’s Kyle Pitts or one of the top receivers that guy is going to get looks in the offense as well.

I do love Preston Williams as a Dolphins fan. His talent has been compared to the likes of Brandon Marshall however the mouths to feed is multiplying in Miami and Preston may be the odd man out.

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