NFL UK launches ‘NFL Academy’

Could NFL UK’s ‘NFL Academy’ be the next step towards a potential future London franchise?

In news that shocked absolutely no one — today the NFL launched its first dedicated academy outside of North America. Starting in September 2019 student athletes aged between 16-18 will be given the opportunity to hone their skills as well as their athletic abilities with the chance of playing for NCAA college football scholarships. Of course the official line from the NFL is a little more inspiring:

The NFL Academy is a unique programme that gives aspiring young American football players and outstanding athletes the chance to develop their skills and knowledge of the game.​ Alongside elite coaching, athletes will study courses of their choice at Barnet and Southgate College.​ There will also be a character development programme for students to give them all the tools to be successful in whatever pathway they take following the NFL Academy. Athletes will be given access to elite sports training facilities, kit and equipment, as well as an opportunity to learn from players and coaches from the NFL. They will be involved in outreach projects in the local community and be given a pathway for apprenticeships and higher education opportunities (in the UK and US). This life-changing opportunity is available for up to 80 students per year, aged 16-18. Selection for the NFL Academy programme will be based on athletic ability, as well as educational and character assessment.

The high school level programme has been a priority for the NFL ever since it partnered with Tottenham Hotspur, with their state of the art NFL purpose built stadium residing less than 5 miles from Barnet and Southgate College. Yet don’t be fooled by key words such as ‘higher education’ and ‘apprenticeships’. Many have long suspected the move, ourselves included, with the NFL likely setting the foundations for a future franchise based in London. To facilitate the long term success of said potential franchise, Roger Goodell believes it is imperative for a market as large and important as the UK to have home grown talent. Consequently, with several British players having varying degrees of success over the past 10-15 years, due in part to the NFL’s International Player Pathway scheme, the NFL has once again decided to show its hand with where it believes future expansion to be. J

Post NFL Draft Power Rankings

Who will be the team to beat in 2019?

So the NFL’s annual ‘next generation’ showcase has closed for yet another year. In the salary cap era the draft is supposed to be the great ‘eraser’ where GM’s across the league earn their money. Yet despite all the pre draft hype surrounding a number of players your uncle Jimmy had taken in his mock draft basement party, it’s easy to forget most of these rookies likely won’t contribute this year — despite an NFL record 40 draft day trades reflecting the immediate needs of a number of teams. Like every draft there were a number of surprises too; Daniel Jones going to the Giants for the 6th pick was a shocker, and several players with legitimate 1st round talent weren’t taken until day 3. Once again the draft proved one thing — no one outside of those respective war rooms knows a damn thing or what to truly expect, ourselves included. Nevertheless, due to said draft, free agency, veteran experience, strength of coaching and schedule, here are our initial power rankings for the 2019 NFL season. J

1. New England Patriots

2. New Orleans Saints

3. Los Angeles Rams

4. Los Angeles Chargers

5. Chicago Bears

6. Kansas City Chiefs

7. Philadelphia Eagles

8. Atlanta Falcons

9. Dallas Cowboys

10. Pittsburgh Steelers

11. Indianapolis Colts

12. Minnesotta Vikings

13. Green Bay Packers

14. Cleveland Browns

15. Seattle Seahawks

16. Jacksonville Jaguars

17. Baltimore Ravens

18. Tennessee Titans

19. Houston Texans

20. Carolina Panthers

21. San Francisco 49ers

22. Denver Broncos

23. Oakland Raiders

24. New York Jets

25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Detroit Lions

27. Washingtion Redskins

28. Buffalo Bills

29. Miami Dolphins

30. Cincinnati Bengals

31. New York Giants

32. Arizona Cardinals

Final 2019 NFL Draft predictions

The NFL Draft is finally upon us. Tonight 32 college players will have their lives forever changed. Following our original draft predictions, not only have several moves been made (Frank Clark being one), but insider whispers have a number of players rising at the last minute. There will undoubtedly be a number of draft day trades, with teams wishing to move up and down the board. Nevertheless, on the assumption that there will be no trades here are our final first round draft predictions. J

1. Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals)

2. Nick Bosa (San Francisco 49ers)

3. Ed Oliver (New York Jets)

4. Devin White (Oakland Raiders)

5. Josh Allen (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

6. Quinnen Williams (New York Giants)

7. Jawaan Taylor (Jacksonville Jaguars)

8. Clelin Ferrell (Detroit Lions)

9. D.K. Metcalf (Buffalo Bills)

10. Drew Lock (Denver Broncos)

11. Marquise Brown (Cincinnati Bengals)

12. T.J. Hockenson (Green Bay Packers)

13. Dwayne Haskins (Miami Dolphins)

14. Christian Wilkins (Atlanta Falcons)

15. Greedy Williams (Washington Redskins)

16. Andre Dillard (Carolina Panthers)

17. Daniel Jones (New York Giants)

18. Cody Ford (Minnesota Vikings)

19. Jeffery Simmons (Tennessee Titans)

20. Byron Murphy (Pittsburgh Steelers)

21. Rashan Gary (Seattle Seahawks)

22. N’Keal Harry (Baltimore Ravens)

23. Greg Little (Houston Texans)

24. Noah Fant (Oakland Raiders)

25. Johnathan Abram (Philadelphia Eagles)

26. Dexter Lawrence (Indianapolis Colts)

27. Montez Sweat (Oakland Raiders)

28. Rock Ya-Sin (Los Angeles Chargers)

29. Devin Bush (Seattle Seahawks)

30. Jonah Williams (Green Bay Packers)

31. Garrett Bradbury (Los Angeles Rams)

32. Dalton Risner (New England Patriots)

The ‘Russell Wilson’ dilemma

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was drafted in the third round in 2012

So just where are those former players and execs that still refuse to acknowledge the shift in player power this morning? After Antonio Brown was granted everything under the sun by the Raiders, it now appears that if you are a franchise QB you can impose a contract deadline and get a record setting deal in return. After weeks of rumours regarding a potential trade/end of season free agency move to the New York Giants (often a negotiating tactic by the agent representing the player), the Seahawks starting QB got what he ultimately wanted. In the early hours of this morning he signed a 4 year contract worth a reported $140m, that now makes him the highest paid player, per season, in NFL history. With such a huge contract and the current trend of big name players getting what they want, here we take a quick look at how this could impact the NFL moving forward.

As has been the trend over the last 4 to 5 seasons, NFL QB’s are getting paid. First it was Andrew Luck, then Jimmy G, then Kirk Cousins, and then Matt Ryan, until Aaron Rodgers blew all of their respective contracts out of the water in 2018. Yet each contract was expected, largely due to how the NFL’s current labor deal is structured. Signed as part of the collective bargaining agreement in 2011, it has allowed players to command more and more each year due to ever increasing NFL revenue. Nevertheless, although said agreement runs to 2021, with several premier QB’s now under contract and players like Dak Prescott likely to secure at least $25m per year sooner rather than later, don’t expect the market to spiral completely out of control for at least another 2 years, when we will see Patrick Mahomes receive the next record setting deal.

Yet when these contracts are agreed who wins? Is it good for the players? Absolutely. Is it good for the teams? Well that is a little harder to answer. Russell Wilson got paid his current market value, and in return the Seahawks secured their franchise QB for what should be the best years of his relatively young career. Yet look at the immediate impact such a large contract had on the Packers, the Falcons, the Vikings and the Colts. Teams often appear to struggle to secure both their young stars, as well as the occasional marquee talent that might just push them over the top towards a championship. So unless a team has an unprecedented run in the draft (like the Seahawk’s had with Wagner, Sherman, Chancellor, Wilson et al), or players are playing lights out in a contract year, history has shown that it becomes increasingly harder to remain competitive, at least in the short term. In reality only Bill Belichick has been able to successfully turn over a roster year after year and still remain a force. Yet the Patriots have had relative financial flexibility over the years due to the discount Tom Brady gives the organisation. Once he retires the Patriots will likely find themselves in a similar position — having to pay whatever the market rate is for their future franchise QB.

And this leads me to one final observation. How much do these players want to win a championship? There can be little doubt regarding their respective talents, and both Rodgers and Wilson will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But have they done absolutely everything that is necessary to win? Is it even their responsibility to do so? Ask yourself whether you would take a pay cut to ensure a better working environment? If the answer is no how can anyone expect a professional athlete to? Nevertheless, no team has ever won a Super Bowl whilst having a player account for over 13% in total cap space, and for the time being at least, this trend will likely continue. Finally, could we see a future trend where teams regularly draft new (cheaper) QB’s like they do with other skill positions? Could blockbuster QB trades be the future to ensure teams can spread the wealth? Or perhaps more QB’s will risk playing under the franchise tag, as Kirk Cousins did when he was with the Redskins, if teams become reluctant to hand over more guaranteed dollars? Yet whilst QB’s are making more money than ever before, we will likely have to wait for the next collective bargaining agreement to answer those questions. J

The NFL’s big move

With the opening of the NFL’s first purpose built stadium outside of the United States; here we take an in depth look at how we got here, and what this represents for American Football moving forward.

The NFL’s first international purpose built stadium

NFL expansion. Back in the United States these are words that are traditionally welcomed by owners and fanbases alike. Traditionally believed to assist the growth of the game, the most recent wave came between 1995-2002 when 5 additional teams were created (if you count the revived Cleveland Browns of course). The teams? Carolina, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Houston. Outside of the latter, one may believe these to be relatively small markets, yet they were all strategic, calculated moves, made by a relatively conservative ownership group. So why expand and add competition to a successful product they all have equal share of? As always the answer is related to dollars. After all, it’s the sole reason why the Rams and Chargers were moved to Los Angeles, and why the Oakland Raiders received permission to move to Las Vegas despite being a market long feared by the NFL due to the potential pitfalls of legalised sports betting. Nevertheless, the world of professional sports rarely stands still, and with all of the above, just what is the NFL’s next ‘big’ move?

For those old enough to remember, the NFL’s first attempt at testing the popularity of the sport on an international stage was with the introduction of the World League of American Football, later rebranded NFL Europe. From its inaugural season in 1991, to its end in 2008, NFL teams used the league to supplement their rosters with young, unproven talent, whilst giving them an opportunity to gain experience through additional playing time and coaching. Audiences on the other hand got to see emerging talent such as Jake Delhomme, Adam Vinatieri, James Harrison and one Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner. However, the overall benefit to European audiences was unclear, and the stop start nature of the sport was believed to be too contrived amongst the fans of more free flowing sports without seeing the very best stars the sport had to offer. Thus, with dwindling attendances and the league operating at an annual loss, NFL Europe ceased to exist, with the NFL seeking to replace it with a more focused approach, dedicated to bringing the real thing to audiences around the world. Subsequently, in 2007 the league launched the International Series, and by doing so the NFL set out a 10 year plan to right the wrongs of their annual European ‘spring league’.

As previously alluded to, the first phase was to bring regular season games to audiences outside of the US, with said games almost exclusively being held in London at Wembley Stadium, England’s historic national Football (Soccer) home. To the NFL’s surprise, each year the game sold out within hours, due in part because the NFL ensured each game had one, or a combination of, either a genuine Super Bowl contender, or a historic franchise that had an existing fan base outside of the US. With record attendances each year, and some incredibly encouraging broadcasting figures, the NFL doubled down in 2013 and announced a second game was to be held each year, with the Jacksonville Jaguars (more on this later) announcing a partnership with the NFL to bring one home game to London until the 2020 season. Later, Mexico’s Estadio Azteca, and England’s national Rugby stadium, Twickenham, were added as additional venues in 2016 and 2017 respectively, with both the Rams, Chargers and Raiders all joining the Jaguars as part of their respective deals for relocation.

So this brings us to 2019, where there will be FIVE regular season games played outside of the US, which in 2007 was scarcely believable to the average American Football fan. Yet here we are. Speaking from personal experience and as someone who has attended games each year since 2007, you can sense a shift in both knowledge and energy each year. Not only do we no longer have to endure mid game explanations of some very basic Football concepts (hallelujah), due in part to the exceptional domestic coverage the game receives from British American football personalities such as Neil Reynolds and former New York Giant and Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora, but a number of unofficial tailgates are springing up as well, both sure signs of the sport’s growth and ability to mobilise fans.

In truth, said growth should not be underestimated. In late 2018 NFL research reported there being in excess of 13 million fans in the UK, with 5.7 million describing themselves to be ‘avid’ followers of the league. Consequently, with a population of just 66 million, 19.7% have some form of affinity towards the sport. Globally, this figure is even higher, with globalwebindex’s 2015 ‘GWI audience report’ finding 38% of adults to be fans. Naturally these figures are higher in the US, with 65% of adults saying they follow a combination of the NFL and CFB. Yet in a world that is so in love with the other ‘beautiful game’, these figures show just how far the sport has come. Indeed participation at grass roots levels in the UK is also at an unprecedented high, due in part to several NFL funded programme’s, with 81 universities now competing against one another under the British Universities and College Sport umbrella. Consequently, with said International Series and a significant commitment to grass roots participation, the next step in the NFL’s grand plan has now come to fruition, partnering with the EPL’s Tottenham Hotspur to fund the first purpose built professional American football stadium outside of North America.

So just what does the NFL want heading into this unofficial ‘second phase’ of international expansion? The simple answer to that question is a potential franchise in London. However, one suspects the move to not be as easy a sell as was the previous expansions of the mid to late 90’s. For example, does the NFL intend to create a new franchise, creating potential havoc with current scheduling, or do they intend to relocate an existing team, which would of course still create a number of issues? Reading between the lines the most likely team to make the move would be the Jacksonville Jaguars, who as previously mentioned, play one home game per year in London. Additionally, Shahid Khan, Jacksonville’s owner, came within a whisker of purchasing Wembley in 2018, only for the deal to fall through due to the English Football Association (the current owner), succumbing to public pressure not to sell. For all of Mr. Khan’s denials of moving the team from Florida, and read of that what you will, in reality the move by the NFL to invest in Tottenham stadium likely showed his hand far earlier than he would have initially wanted.

Yet, for all of the hyperbole surrounding a potential move, one would imagine the NFL would likely want more time, and games, to see how the UK continues to respond to the sport, before moving an existing franchise away from the US. One reason for this is the inevitable domestic backlash that such a groundbreaking move would undoubtedly have. Yes Jacksonville rarely sells out when playing in Florida, but the image of the league will likely suffer in the short term, at least in the States. We could also see games in Brazil, South Korea and Germany before any franchise is moved to London, with said markets perceived to be even stronger than that of the UK with regards to game day viewership, as well as the sale of team merchandise. Nevertheless, in one of our previous articles, the ‘Robert Kraft’ dilemma, we outlined several issues both the league and sport currently face. Yet one thing is clear — the game outside of North America has never been stronger, and a team being based outside of the US is now almost inevitable. Subsequently, with all things being considered, not only do we believe the Jaguars will move to London by 2024, but each team will play one game outside of the US each season by 2030 as well. J

2019 NFL schedule: locks and shocks

The NFL Schedule will be released at 8PM ET (or 1am here in the UK) on the 17th/18th April. Here we take a look at what is almost always guaranteed and how the schedule organizers might spring a surprise.

Lock: Cowboys vs Giants on SNF

The NFL stunned the football world a year ago when they didn’t schedule Dallas against New York for Week 1 Sunday Night Football, opting for Week 2 instead. The NFL loves to have two of its biggest markets in the spotlight even when they’re both terrible. So even though the Giants are expected to be one of, if not the worst team in the NFL this season, expect them to host Dallas early this autumn.

Shock: more of the Jets

Speaking of New York and prime time games, don’t be surprised to see the green half of the Big Apple appearing under the lights more times in 2019. The Jets had two prime time games last year; in Detroit and in Baker Mayfield’s debut in Cleveland. Whilst they probably won’t threaten the playoffs, offseason acquisitions such as Le’veon Bell and CJ Mosely certainly make New York a more watchable team. Couple that with a second year QB and terrible new uniforms and they’re a dead cert for some prime time action.

Lock: Patriots have favourable bye week position

Now, I’m not suggesting that the Patriots ask the NFL to schedule their bye week between weeks 9-11, typically seen as the best time to have a bye as it is half way through the season, but four of the last five Patriots bye weeks have been in weeks 9-11. Expect nothing different in 2019.

Shock: Patriots play the Chiefs late into the season

Now many people think this is a lock for the opening Sunday Night Football (banner night for New England) as the NFL will want a marquee game to bring in a ratings boost early. However, this will certainly be a game that will have playoff implications and therefore to me seems nonsensical to have so early on the season. KC @ NE was week 1 in 2017 and week 6 in 2018, expect the two meet weeks 12-16 this time around.

Lock: one prime time game for ARI, MIA and TB

I mean, you could make an argument for the Arizona Cardinals to have more than one game under the lights simply because of the league consensus that they will draft Kyler Murray at #1, but other than that they are terrible and won’t threaten the playoffs. The Dolphins are equally terrible and just aren’t entertaining enough to be playing in prime time. Bucs games are more exciting due to their electric offense and woeful defence, but that won’t be enough to force more than a single divisional prime time game.

Shock: Baltimore and Pittsburgh meet in Week 17

For whatever reason, since the NFL introduced the rule that all Week 17 games would be divisional games, one of them has never been Baltimore vs Pittsburgh. Maybe it has been seen as too big a game for the final week with too much at stake, but these two are no longer the best in the AFC North. That title now belongs to the Browns, so it would be fun to see these two battle it out for the AFC’s sixth seed on the final day. Will it happen? Probably not, but it’d still be fun. B

2019 NFL Draft predictions

The 2019 NFL draft is fast approaching. Here are 5 bold predictions based on team needs, projected trades and multiple college pro day performances.

The 2019 NFL draft will be held in Nashville

1. Ed Oliver > Quinnen Williams

The 2019 NFL combine confirmed one thing — Quinnen Williams will be a superstar once drafted. Although the former Alabama DT declined to participate in several combine events, he would run a 4.83 in the 40 yard dash. To put that in perspective one has to understand just how much he weighs, and at over 300 pounds he is a monster. In fact only 3 men at that size have ever run quicker, and as his tape shows he is as dominant a tackle as you will find in any draft. However, with all future draft prospects there are concerns — he lacks length, and at times can be relatively ineffective against the run when double teamed. Another DT who absolutely dominated his college pro day was Ed Oliver. Like Williams he lacks length, and was largely overlooked by the media due to an injury sustained at the end of the 2018 College Football season. However, GM’s across the league know just how explosive he was whilst playing for the University of Houston, with many analysts comparing him to Aaron Donald. Although both are sure fire hits and are expected to be drafted early, we suspect a team will take Oliver ahead of Williams to provide the first shock of the evening.

2. Dwayne Haskins falls to the Dolphins

Dwayne Haskins

The Cardinals, Redskins and Giants are just three teams looking to reload at QB. With the Cardinals widely expected to draft Kyler Murray with the 1st overall pick, this likely leaves Josh Rosen looking for a new home. We expect the Redskins to be the team most likely to swoop in, with the Cardinals prepared to ship him by exchanging the 33rd overall pick for the 15th, and for one of Washington’s third rounders as well. The Giants on the other hand have shown very little interest (at least publicly), in drafting the successor to Eli Manning. Most draft analysts have them taking Dwayne Haskins at 6, but we believe his future to be in South Florida. Miami are desperately in need of a franchise QB, and will offer the Giants a future second to swap first round picks. The ‘G-Men’ might well be passing on the most complete pocket passer in this years draft, but they will do so in the hope of having a shot at Tua next year.

3. The Raiders trade back

If you’re a Raider fan the last 2 years must have felt like a nightmare. First, the team announced it was moving to Las Vegas, and followed that by rehiring Jon Gruden on a 10 year contract. His first move? To trade the most explosive player in the NFL — Khalil Mack, to the Bears. Later, he would trade Amari Cooper to the Cowboys, and then hire his best pal and former NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, to be his GM. Yet fear not Raider fans, after what appeared to be a bunch of bone headed moves, there appears to be a plan after all. After trading a 3rd and 5th rounder for Antonio Brown, and securing the services of Tom Brady’s former blindside in Trent Brown, the Raiders will likely use all three first round draft picks on elite level talent. Expect them to offload the 4th overall pick to gain a late first rounder and two threes, especially if Arizona fail to take Murray where teams will be desperate to move up. Consequently, we believe they will make a run for Montez Sweat, Devin White and Noah Fant, three players that could transform the Raiders into a playoff contender in their final season at the County Coliseum. However, if the Cardinals trade down, don’t rule out a move for Kyler Murray if they can ship Carr to either the Dolphins or Redskins.

4. The Packers draft the next Rob Gronkowski

Iowa tight end T.J. Hockenson

Aaron Rodgers needs help. Not often something you hear regarding arguably the most gifted QB of all time. Nevertheless, with the departure of Randall Cobb to Dallas, and with Jimmy Graham struggling to justify the 3 year deal he signed last year, expect Green Bay to go all out for some offensive firepower to compliment stud receiver Davante Adams. Enter T.J. Hockenson. The Iowa Hawkeye TE could very well be the closest thing the league has seen to Rob Gronkoswki. A great run blocker, and elusive route runner, Hockenson has every tool to become Rodgers’ safety blanket for the next 5 years, something he hasn’t had since Jordy Nelson. Although comparisons to ‘Gronk’ may be a little premature and indeed unfair, he has the potential to be the most dominant TE in the league, and Green Bay would be an excellent fit.

5. New England draft offensive fire power

Irv Smith Jr.

Although impossible to predict, we fully expect at least one organisation to be dumb enough to give the Patriots both a second and third rounder in exchange for the 32nd overall pick. Even harder to predict is how Bill Belichick would plan to use three potential second rounders. Last year he took an OT and RB in the first round, something he has done only a handful of times in 20 years as the Patriots de facto GM. Could he move up to draft a QB? Sure. But post Jimmy Garoppolo gate (if it was ever real to begin with), something tells us he is going to ride it out with Tom Brady, but to do this they need an injection of talent at several offensive skill positions. Traditionally, older QB’s are given help from the inside out to negate having to throw the ball 40 times per game. Its something we have seen with the Saints in recent years, and with the addition of Sony Michel it worked a treat for New England last season. However, with Rob Gronkowski retiring, the Patriots will become more predictable during the pre-snap. Our final prediction? In a bid to secure their 7th Super Bowl, Bill Belichick will use three second to third rounders on offensive weapons in the form of Irv Smith Jr., Riley Ridley and Jace Sternberger. J