2019 Free Agency

With the first and second waves of free agency (mostly) over, all 32 teams across the league appear to have survived the annual trolly dash that will inevitably lead to relative league wide mediocrity. However, whilst one team stands out as having benefited the most from said free agency; here we take a look at who has improved over the last couple of weeks and who continues to struggle heading into the draft.

Winners

Cleveland Browns

Star wideout Odell Beckham Jr. heads to Cleveland in a blockbuster trade

0-16 feels like a long time ago now. The Browns turned the NFL on its head when they bagged Odell Beckham Jr., bringing a generational star wide receiver back to the AFC North just as another departed. The trade means that Cleveland won’t be on the clock until the 49th pick in April; a stark change for a franchise that seemingly always has a top 5 pick. Whilst the trade for Beckham Jr. will get all the headlines, don’t underestimate the other moves made by the Browns. Kareem Hunt is a steal, and look for 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson and former 3rd round pick Olivier Vernon to strengthen a potentially lethal defensive line. Whilst they may still be behind the Pats and the Chiefs, the Browns are loaded, and might just be the 3rd best team in the AFC; something that was unthinkable for the Dawg Pound before John Dorsey took the reins in 2017.

Tennessee Titans

The Titans narrowly missed out on consecutive playoff appearance seasons (9-7), but their additions in free agency certainly show they intend to get back to their first Super Bowl in 20 years. Many people will disagree, but the trade for Ryan Tannehill might well be Tennessee’s most important move with Marcus Mariota fast becoming the NFL’s equivalent of Mickey Mantle (injuries not talent). Whilst Tannehill won’t light up the scoreboard in Nashville, he is a better option at the backup QB position when compared to Blaine Gabbert, and could propel this Titans team into the 10-11 win bracket when called upon. And how about stealing Adam Humphries from under the noses of the defending champs? Humphries will fill a huge need at a team crying out for a wide receiver. Nevertheless, one potential roadblock for Tennessee could be what is now looking like a loaded AFC South. Time will indeed reveal all as to whether Tennessee can challenge in 2019, but their free agency additions certainly have done them no harm.

Oakland Raiders

There may not be a plan in Oakland, but expect them to be fun to watch

Whenever a team acquires arguably one of the league’s best players for just a third and fifth rounder, they are onto a winner. Whilst the trade for Antonio Brown in itself was not surprising, the value (or lack of) that Oakland had to give up to acquire him was. It gave the impression the Steelers were so desperate to ship Brown they were willing to trade him anywhere outside of New England, including a fellow AFC powerhouse franchise for peanuts. Unbelievably the Raiders are still sitting pretty with three first round picks in the upcoming draft. Brown wasn’t the only big name to head to the Bay Area, though. Super Bowl winning offensive linesmen Trent Brown will offer Derek Carr some much needed protection (the Raiders were 27th in sacks allowed in 2018), whilst LaMarcus Joyner (formerly of the NFC Champion L.A Rams), and Vontaze Burfict (who has had multiple run ins with Antonio Brown), will certainly sure up Oakland’s sieve like defense. All in all, expect the Raiders final season in Oakland to be considerably better.

Losers

New York Giants

Yikes. The free agency period went about as badly as you could imagine for the G-Men. Along with Jabrill Peppers and two draft picks, the Browns seemed to have also sent the accolade of ‘basement team’ to the Giants. For a team that doesn’t score an awful lot (23.1 PPG in 2018), trading your star receiver isn’t going to help. The 2019 Giants offense will consist of Saquon Barkley and… not a lot else. Not a lot includes the signing of Golden Tate (now 31 years old) to a 4 year, $37.5m deal, but his best days are behind him, and worryingly for New York, Tate will be the best wideout on their roster. Additionally, the departure of Landon Collins for the division rival Redskins leaves a big hole in the safety position on an already flaky defence that gave up 25.8 PPG in 2018. The positives are hard to find for fans of the Giants, aside from the fact they could draft the successor to Eli Manning in April. Bold prediction: the Giants will hold the first overall pick in 2020.

Kansas City Chiefs

No, this is not me saying this because I am Chiefs fan, but I genuinely cannot see how the Chiefs have improved during free agency. Providing Patrick Mahomes and the rest of the offense light it up again in 2019, the Chiefs are a reliable defense away from winning a championship. KC ranked #31 in total defense in 2018, and Andy Reid literally gave away their best defensive players in the form of its league leading pass rush duo of Dee Ford and Justin Houston, and its defensive leader and fan favourite Eric Berry. Whilst these departures freed up a lot of cap space, the most recognizable name on the Chiefs defense is Tyrann Mathieu; who has a lot to prove going into to the 2019 season. The problem for the Chiefs is they are in win now territory; after all they were a coin toss away from a first Super Bowl appearance in 49 years last season. In an offseason where the defence just needs to be improved from the league’s worst to an improved status of simply ‘mediocre’, they will once again be exposed when it most matters, unless they have one hell of a draft.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers will look a lot different next season. No Brown. No Bell. Simply put, Pittsburgh has imploded ever since the end of the 2017 season and that implosion carried on throughout 2018 and free agency. Letting Jesse James leave is a strange move, but it has ultimately been overshadowed by the departures of the double B’s. James would be a starting TE on most teams and now leaves a Pittsburgh offense looking remarkably thin. Sure they still have Big Ben, Juju Smith-Schuster and breakout RB James Conner, but does their offensive firepower really compare to the Browns? Probably not. Consequently, Pittsburgh’s season will be heavily influenced by the performance of their division rivals in Baltimore and Cleveland, but it is very difficult to see whether the Steelers are any better than third best in the AFC North at present. Certainly worrying times for fans in the Steel City. B

Gronked

The Greatest TE in modern NFL history calls time on his career

The ‘Gronk spike’ will be sorely missed in NE

Alas the rumours were true. After 9 seasons in the league Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement from professional football via his official Instagram account today. A giant of the game (quite literally), ‘Gronk’, as he came to be known; was unquestionably one of the most dominant skill position players in modern NFL history. Although plagued by injuries, the former second round draft pick would go on to break single season season records in both total yards (1,327) and touchdowns (17) in just his second season as an NFL starter, whilst hoisting the Lombardi trophy on three occasions. Often targeted by Tom Brady in critical moments, Gronkowski will undoubtedly leave a huge void in the Patriots locker room; one that Bill Belichick will likely have to address in the upcoming draft. In truth it may take multiple players to replace him, as there are only a handful of college TE’s that have demonstrated the ability to be able to create separation in the pass game as well as run block when required. Nevertheless, we at Benny Given Sunday are not only going to miss his ability to regularly maul linebackers/safeties, but we will miss his goofy, often childish like spirit as well. Happy retirement Gronk, you more than earned it. J

The ‘Robert Kraft’ dilemma

The NFL may have an image problem

Robert Kraft and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

When analysing the high profile cases of Aaron Hernandez, Jim Irsay, Ray Rice and the accusation of league wide collusion against Colin Kaepernick after the national anthem protest controversy, one could argue the NFL is no longer viewed as it once was. Said examples, coupled with the number of former players coming forward to claim damages under the NFL’s concussion settlement, have unquestionably hurt ‘America’s Game’, and brought the league into disrepute (at least in the eyes of the casual fan). Although the NFL has made a habit of surviving controversy it has done so without it ever effecting the league’s bottom line. Though viewing figures recovered in 2018, they were at a historical low in 2017 , and it is the NBA, not the NFL, that is the fastest growing professional sports league in North America; with the former projected to surpass the latter in revenue by 2029 (fortune.com).

But are said controversies really to blame?

Sharing is caring, or words to that effect. Yet in the NFL, which operates a hard cap, players are rarely able to achieve the goals that are set in their heavily incentivised contracts. Because of this, and the growing perception of the sport being too violent (high profile figures such as Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman, and Brett Favre have all been vocal in not allowing their kids to play football), those chasing guaranteed dollars are rarely criticised for lacking ambition, or indeed loyalty by both the fans and media alike. After all, why put you or your child’s body through such punishment in the hope of playing for an annual salary of just $860,000 for 3.3 years (the NFL’s median salary in 2018 and league career average respectively), when Boston University found evidence of CTE in 99% of former NFL Players? The short answer is……..you wouldn’t. If you were chasing future sports stardom both the NBA and MLB are more attractive propositions and far better positioned to appeal to kids and their families for all of the above reasons.

Then there is the issue of cultural perception, race and representation. The fallout from the national anthem protests and the ensuing legal fight between Kaepernick and the NFL not only divided the football community, but America as a whole. Consequently, the league has come to mirror the current administration in the hearts and minds of so many, and said fallout has unquestionably hurt the NFL attract, and indeed retain, the type of fan who is perceived to be ‘socially conscious’ and against Trump’s presidency. Indeed, outside of middle America the symbolic nature of the sport as it relates to representing America is still very much of the ‘Friday Night Lights’ variety and a far cry from reality. In 2014 players from Black, Asian/Pacific Islander and non-white Hispanic communities accounted for 72% of all active roster spots, and that figure is unlikely to have changed in 2019. Yet does this figure reflect the number of non-white coaches, general managers and owners? Unfortunately, we all know the answer to that particular question; with the latter acting as a perfect segue to the looming problem of one Robert K. Kraft.

Traumatic brain injury, domestic violence and racial inequality? Yes. But prostitution and human trafficking are two terms the NFL has yet had the pleasure of being associated with. Nevertheless, on the 22nd February one of the more bizarre and shocking stories was about to emerge; the much loved owner of the most successful NFL franchise in recent memory was to face misdemenour charges for ‘soliciting another to commit prostitution’, a charge that stemmed from a human trafficking investigation in South Florida. This from a man known for his class and vast acts of kindness; reflected in his charity work, and campaign for social justice reform in recent months, is not what Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s Executive Vice President of communications and public affairs, was employed to tackle. Amidst facing the type of high profile issues mentioned in this article the league is likely to come down hard on Mr. Kraft (no pun intended). After all, Roger Goodell is no stranger to punishing the Boston native, fining the Patriots and stripping them of draft picks for their role in 2007’s ‘spy gate’ scandal, and later fighting them all the way to court to uphold Tom Brady’s ban for his perceived role in 2014’s ‘deflate gate’ controversy.

So just what will the NFL do with Mr.Kraft to appease public opinion and help restore trust? He will almost certainly face a lengthy ban and fine. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was banned for six games and fined $500,000 in 2014 when he plead guilty to driving whilst intoxicated. Thus, expect at the very least, the same punishment, though in reality the NFL are likely to be far less forgiving; irrespective of whether Mr. Kraft is found guilty in a court of law. One question that has to be asked is whether he will be forced into selling the Patriots. The NBA was commended for forcing Donald Sterling into selling the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014 for making racist comments, and the NFL similarly ‘guided’ former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson into selling the franchise when allegations of sexual misconduct at the work place surfaced in 2017. However, as much as the NFL would love to force Mr. Kraft out of the league to gain much needed moral cachet, it is unlikely to do so due to his case coming under the leagues’s Personal Conduct Policy. In reality, expect a season long ban, a record fine and the Patriots to be stripped of opening the NFL season on Thursday Night Football. J


Ready to launch

In late 2018 and after much deliberation, B and I both finally decided to share our respective passion for American Football with the world, or at least anyone willing to listen. In truth we had been going back and forth on the idea for quite some time but something was almost always holding us back. We asked ourselves several questions: what if it isn’t a ‘success’ (whatever that means), what will happen if we become too busy to keep on top of our pet project, or better yet what if what we have to share just simply isn’t interesting enough for our fellow gridiron fans? However, over time we began to realise the reason why we decided to go ahead and put ourselves out there for the world to see was two fold. First, B will soon leave home to study Journalism and this site will ultimately serve as a portfolio of sorts for him. Yet more importantly we believe it to be a challenge that we both hope to have fun with.

With regards to my own experience I was first exposed to the game as a teen in 1999 when I had visited family in New Orleans, and all I could think about was the freakish athletic ability of Ricky Williams. I was in awe, yet utterly confused as to why anyone would want to put their body through the level of punishment I had just witnessed. I remember immediately harassing mum to buy me the latest Madden and soon adopted the Patriots as my team because it had ‘England’ in the name (we are both originally from London). B on the other hand had to wait for his big bro to move back into the family home having graduated from university before he was truly exposed to the game. We would religiously watch the Sunday night SKY coverage hosted by ‘my man’, the late and great Kevin Cadle. Coincidentally, B would also choose a team based on a completely irrational observation and would end up a Chief as they play in ‘Arsenal’ red (we are both long suffering Gooners). Although they have had some gut wrenching playoff defeats, having observed Pat Mahomes shred everyone last year I think its safe to say he ultimately chose well.

Talking about ‘Pats’ I was fortunate enough to fulfil a lifelong dream late last year by travelling to Boston to see New England play the Jets and thankfully it was everything I had hoped it would be. From the 10am rally bus full of inebriated Bostonians, to the tailgate like atmosphere in the stadium coupled with the freezing temperatures, it was truly an experience like no other and helped confirm to me why the international series at Wembley, albeit great in its own right, simply cannot replicate that overwhelming home support atmosphere. Nevertheless, with that I leave by saying I hope this is the first of many posts from us and hope you enjoy some of my favourite photos taken from the above trip to Foxborough. J

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