Welcome to NFL hype week

Welcome to NFL hype week

NFL fans need something to get excited about in July. We are here to help.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Good day, fellow football enthusiasts. I am here to share something with you: excitement. You can’t see it because I am expressing these feelings with the written word, a dying form of communication as the world turns to 90-second videos that you’ll only watch 20 seconds of before clicking on something else.

But if I can have your attention for just a little bit here I’d like you, dear media consumer, to join me in getting excited about a very select group players who will make the 2017 NFL season worth watching.

It’s hype week.

What exactly is this loosely conceived theme that obviously escaped the attention of the company’s burgeoning ranks of senior management? All this week, our network of 32 team sites and the NFL staff here at SB Nation dot com will feature a series of about an amazing collection of players who are going to dazzle us this year on and off the field.

You can find all of these posts collected here. Keep checking back, because we’ll be adding more as the week continues.

Marshawn Lynch could be the best version of Beast Mode thanks to Oakland

Marshawn Lynch could be the best version of Beast Mode thanks to Oakland

Being at home is all the motivation Lynch is going to need to succeed.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Marshawn Lynch’s tenure in Seattle was one that every NFL fan could enjoy, even if they weren’t a fan of the Seahawks. He played as if his life was on the line, and he had to make it to the end zone every time he got the ball. The kicker was that he had fun while doing it, and he wasn’t going to change for anybody.

The NFL players we’re most excited about this year

It’s NFL Hype Week here at SB Nation. The network’s 32 NFL team sites and the staff at SB Nation dot com are all contributing to a little offseason excitement with training camp right around the corner with a closer look at the players we’re most excited about this year. Check it out!

But now he’s in the Bay Area — which is already riding high. The Golden State Warriors just won their second NBA title in three years and won’t be stopped anytime soon. Despite the Raiders’ inevitable departure, Oakland has its native son trying to help it win one last Super Bowl before leaving.

There’s no question that Lynch is going to do everything in his power to make that happen. He’s also going to have a damn good time while trying, just as he did in Seattle. Whether it was stuffing his face with Skittles, grabbing his crotch, or just keeping it real.

The only difference this time around is he’s got an entire city on his back.

Oakland will provide another level of comfort

Lynch was already going to be himself — that’s how he’s programmed. But he’s found more inspiration being back in Oakland.

NFL fans will get the expected crotch grabs, repeated answers at press conferences, and consumption of Skittles. But the stakes have been raised.

His first press conference with the team proved that. The awkward yet comfortable way he was standing at the podium was an indicator that he really does not give a damn what anybody thinks. This is his element, and he’s going to bask in it.

Marshawn Lynch is speaking with the media in Oakland. Look at that stance. pic.twitter.com/Adoc2pBMOx

— James Palmer (@JamesPalmerTV) June 6, 2017

Once in his comfort zone, Lynch let his sweet prose fly.

“Every home game that I get to come to this motherfucker, I’m probably going to be riding with this whole town,” Lynch said with a confidence you could only have at home. “This is actually born and raised and bred pissing in them hallways and running down them alleyways. I really did that, right here and now I get an opportunity to play here.”

That’s more than what Lynch offers at a normal presser. If he’s going to speak at that length each week, NFL fans will have plenty to enjoy all season. It’s possible that we’ll learn even more about him because of it — and that’s a reason to be excited. Because we already love what’s been shown to us.

That bruising running style is back with more motivation

Lynch is the first player in NFL history to have a play he made named after a natural disaster — and he’s done it twice.

There was the original BeastQuake, where Lynch went on a run that you’d call B.S. if you ever saw it in a movie. It was that good.

He did it again four years later in 2015 with BeastQuake 2.0 — shoving one of the best cornerbacks in the game in Patrick Peterson, and throwing Rashad Johnson to the sideline on his way to the end zone.

The crotch grab at the end of both runs is the perfect touch. Not because it’s disrespectful and an indicator of how he just destroyed the opposition’s morale. It’s because there’s no other player in the league who would do it.

It would be unrealistic to ask Lynch to have a third BeastQuake. The first one was enough of a gift, and NFL fans were blessed with a second one that nobody saw coming.

But Lynch will be playing after having a year off to recover. He’s also got a new motivation by playing in his hometown. It would be irresponsible to just assume he couldn’t do it again, because he’ll be running with more purpose than ever.

The off-the-field opportunities are endless

His on-the-field talents are a solid base to being a fan favorite, but his personality off it keeps fans coming back for more. He’s gotten Skittles endorsements because of his love for the candy. A love so well-known that it’s been thrown at him on the field after some of his punishing touchdown runs.

He could really sell anything. During his rookie season in Buffalo, he made going to Applebee’s and balling out at Dave and Buster’s look like the two best things in the world with Kenny Mayne.

Lynch being in Oakland could bring even more of those opportunities. The rap scene in the Bay Area is a strong one that many hold close to their hearts. Draymond Green recreated E-40’s “Tell Me When To Go” music video for a Beats by Dre commercial in 2016.

Something similar would be even better if Lynch were to do it, and he’s already got some experience making music videos.

He starred in Train’s video for “Drink Up” with Ken Jeong, George Lopez, and Jim Breuer. I don’t think guys like E-40 or Too $hort would say no to Lynch — they’ll probably be on the sidelines on Sundays. That could also make for some fun celebration possibilities, even if he will get fined.


Movie sequels are usually trash. Marshawn Lynch’s career was one of those multi-Oscar winning films. It was great, fans loved it while it was going on, and while it was sad to see it end, it wasn’t all too surprising.

Now he’s back and playing in his hometown of Oakland, with the Raiders as AFC contenders. He and the Raiders will be hoping he can be sent off with one last injury-cart joyride.

That would be a sequel fans would watch and enjoy.

Jordan Howard will be the best thing about the Bears in 2017

Jordan Howard will be the best thing about the Bears in 2017

Chicago has a stud tailback who will be the target of each opposing team’s defense this fall.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Howard knows about playing for losers. He started his college career at Alabama-Birmingham, a team the university president deemed so hopeless he briefly shut down the program from 2015 to 2016. He finished it at Indiana, a program historically known as one of the Big Ten’s gridiron bottom-feeders.

The NFL players we’re most excited about this year

It’s NFL Hype Week here at SB Nation. The network’s 32 NFL team sites and the staff at SB Nation dot com are all contributing to a little offseason excitement with training camp right around the corner with a closer look at the players we’re most excited about this year. Check it out!

His biggest challenge, however, may come in his second season as a pro. Howard will be the Bears’ lone offensive threat in what promises to be a trying season in Chicago. His quarterback will be either 6’6 scarecrow Mike Glennon or rookie Mitchell Trubisky, who has started exactly one post-high school season in his career. His starting receivers look like some combination of Cameron Meredith, Kevin White, and Markus Wheaton. There’s a good chance his starting tight end is Adam Shaheen, a rookie who spent 2016 playing for Division II Ashland.

As a result, Howard’s fight against the sophomore slump will be harder than any other second-year player’s. Opposing defenses will have a clear No. 1 on their to-do list each time they face a languid Chicago offense. Linebackers and safeties will creep closer and closer to the line of scrimmage unless the Bears’ passing attack finds a way to surprise in 2017. Shutting down the dynamic young back would mean the team has to beat you with players like Glennon and Meredith — not exactly intimidating forces.

But betting against Howard is a fool’s errand. He has preternatural vision and anticipation from the backfield, allowing him to see holes that haven’t even begun to open as he makes his cuts. His rookie season was a magic show. He’d disappear into a cloud of blockers, then emerge sprinting wildly out the other side.

While Howard lacks the top-end speed to be a true home run threat like Ezekiel Elliott, his ability to move the chains for a lackluster offense in 2016 made him special. With the three-headed hydra of overthrown passes behind center — Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Barkley — defenses knew they had to stop Chicago’s rushing attack. Despite the pressure, he still rushed for 1,313 yards, more than anyone else in the league not named Zeke.

In 2017, he’ll have to replicate that performance despite a passing offense that looks even worse on paper than last season’s. Fortunately, the second-year tailback is more than just a runner.

Howard’s ability to work as an active receiver gives him an extra dimension and will make him a useful security blanket option for Glennon or Trubisky this fall. He caught 29 passes as a rookie and while his 58 percent catch rate was on the low side for a running back, it’s something that stands to improve with experience. This development was an added bonus for the rookie, as he’d made only 24 total receptions in his three seasons of college football.

The unique vision and innovation Howard brings to the running game also translates as a receiver. Here, he sticks with a scrambling Cutler just long enough to be the target of a last-second shovel pass. Howard’s willingness to improvise turns a broken third-and-8 play into a 38-yard gain.

That’s the kind of unplanned wizardry Howard brings to the table. Even when teams blast through the Chicago offensive line, he has the patience to find holes and the vision to take the path of least resistance. With opponents likely to stuff the box with defenders in an all-out effort to stop the Bears’ best player, those skills will be put to the test in 2017.

Fortunately for Chicago, its young running back has proved time and again he can be a glimmering light that shines through a bad team. All the Bears have to do now is figure out the rest of their offense.

5 reasons Falcons pass rusher Takk McKinley will be your new favorite NFL player

5 reasons Falcons pass rusher Takk McKinley will be your new favorite NFL player

He dances, oversleeps, has a dog named Codeine … AND he’s a pretty good pass rusher.

Takk McKinley is best known for carrying a large framed photo of his grandmother, Myrtle Collins, on stage with him after being selected No. 26 overall by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL draft. His passionate speech about his grandma, who raised him, included an F-bomb. He created a sensation when he said the NFL could “Fine me later, man,” about his swearing.

The NFL players we’re most excited about this year

It’s NFL Hype Week here at SB Nation. The network’s 32 NFL team sites and the staff at SB Nation dot com are all contributing to a little offseason excitement with training camp right around the corner with a closer look at the players we’re most excited about this year. Check it out!

McKinley could be the player the Falcons need to take the pass rush to the next level in 2017. But we’re more excited to welcome McKinley into the NFL because of his big personality.

Here are five things you need to know about McKinley that may make the rookie one of your favorite players on and off the field.

1. He’s a hell of a dancer.

When McKinley is excited, the world is going to know it. He took to Instagram to share his joy over seeing that NFL money hit his bank account.

To see my family struggle everyday growing up and now I can help change that..YES I’M HAPPY ! Don’t worry I’ll be this happy getting sacks pic.twitter.com/LckhYSEkQ8

— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) June 1, 2017

But there’s a good reason for McKinley to be that excited.

2. McKinley overslept on a recruiting visit to Cal.

He did it because it was the first time he had slept in a bed for months. To say that McKinley’s upbringing was rough is an understatement. His mother abandoned him when he was five years old, and his father was never in the picture.

His grandmother kept a roof over their heads and paid the bills by collecting bottles and cans to recycle. But home was crowded with family members, and McKinley slept on couches and floors for much of his childhood.

He also sacrificed plenty of time on the field and with friends as a child to help take care of his grandmother.

“He kind of gave it up to help me take care of her,” said Peggy Wiggins, McKinley’s aunt, via the Los Angeles Times. “I promised him that God was going to bless him for sticking in there with me to help take care of her.”

McKinley committed to Cal, but he didn’t qualify academically. He started talking about giving up football, and he was afraid he wouldn’t fulfill the promise he made to his grandmother.

“I was talking about quitting football and I started applying to McDonald’s and Taco Bell,” McKinley said. “I was kind of just over it because I was like, man, I failed her.”

A UCLA assistant coach was the one who realized there was an error on McKinley’s transcript that would have changed his eligibility, and the coach went to great lengths to get it corrected.

So when you see him celebrating his NFL contract, that enthusiasm is a little sweeter knowing where McKinley came from.

3. He has a giant gorilla tattoo on his shoulder.

A year ago a legend was taken away from us.. #RIPHarambe#riseup (I did not get this tattoo because of harambe) pic.twitter.com/uHhclHVuZF

— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) May 29, 2017

4. He’s passionate about all of his interests.

McKinley goes all in on every single thing he loves. He’s not lukewarm about anything.

He loves his hometown Warriors, and he celebrated Golden State’s NBA Finals win in true McKinley style.

We are the champions!!! The bay lit asf pic.twitter.com/hxNfCyPpkG

— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) June 13, 2017

He supports every sport at his alma mater wholeheartedly, including the women’s softball team. This time, he had a little help from his very good dog, Codeine.

Thanks @Takk#GoBruinspic.twitter.com/i1A2nmfFqF

— UCLA Softball (@UCLASoftball) June 3, 2017

We didn’t see this one coming. McKinley is a big fan of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from the Titanic soundtrack.

If you ever need help shedding a tear.. Just listen to this song pic.twitter.com/SVi31FT6s6

— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) May 15, 2017

And McKinley has his eye on some older ladies. He’s not ashamed to let everyone know.

Them older flight attendants bruh yahh sleeping on them fr fr

— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) April 6, 2017

But he’s especially passionate about one food item.

5. He freaking loves ramen noodles.

Like he really, really loves them.

Oh man…I’m totally in on drafting @Takk McKinley.

Going all out for the Ramen endorsement. pic.twitter.com/JCzjEIPv5a

— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) February 23, 2017

Back on my ramen noodle diet

— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) June 13, 2016

What flavor does McKinley prefer? It’s not an easy decision.

chicken, shrimp and beef couldn’t choose one lol

— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) June 14, 2016

And then he had seconds.

round 2 pic.twitter.com/VbPtfjjBbj

— Takkarist McKinley (@Takk) June 14, 2016

He even got a congratulatory tweet from Maruchan after he was drafted.

Congrats on building on the promises you made to your Grandma! Now

grab a bowl of @Maruchan_Inc ramen and get to the quarterback!

— Maruchan (@Maruchan_Inc) April 28, 2017

Maybe Maruchan really should come through with a ramen endorsement for McKinley.

McKinley is just as passionate about football as the rest of his interests. McKinley had 18 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, and six pass breakups in his final season at UCLA, and he did that while playing through a torn labrum.

That labrum required surgery, and McKinley wasn’t able to participate in rookie minicamp because of it. He’s eager to get on the field with his teammates.

“I like to compete. I like football, and I don’t like to be on the sideline just watching,” McKinley said. “I like to be out there with my brothers, helping make plays and stuff like that. So I understand it’s a process. I’ve got to get the shoulder right, and once it’s right, I’m going to help the Atlanta Falcons — do what I can to get wins.”

But when he does get on the field, he should elevate the Falcons’ pass rush. McKinley has the relentless attitude on the field that Dan Quinn covets on defense. His play should be as entertaining as his personality.

DeAndre Hopkins will remind everyone how good he really is

DeAndre Hopkins will remind everyone how good he really is

Hopkins’ play suffered thanks to a bad QB situation last year. But one of the league’s best receivers is due for a major bounce-back.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In 2015, DeAndre Hopkins had a career-best season and established himself as one of the premier wide receivers in football. Despite having an endless parade of mediocre quarterbacks throwing him the ball, Hopkins still put up 111 catches, 1,521 yards, and 11 touchdowns, earning his first Pro Bowl bid. With Hopkins’ rookie contract set to expire after 2016, picking up his fifth-year option was an easy call for the Houston Texans.

Unfortunately, things weren’t quite as rosy in 2016. Brock Osweiler ended up being much worse than anyone could’ve expected, and Hopkins’ production suffered as a result. He finished with a sharp drop in numbers.

Despite the down year, there is every reason to expect Hopkins will go back to dominating opposing defenses. The Texans got rid of Osweiler and have two options for their 2017 starting quarterback. They drafted Deshaun Watson (who happens to be from Clemson, just like Hopkins) in the first round, and they still have Tom Savage, whom Hopkins praised this offseason.

The NFL players we’re most excited about this year

It’s NFL Hype Week here at SB Nation. The network’s 32 NFL team sites and the staff at SB Nation dot com are all contributing to a little offseason excitement with training camp right around the corner with a closer look at the players we’re most excited about this year. Check it out!

“I like his leadership,” said, Hopkins, via ESPN. “Now that he’s in that role, it’s no surprise to anybody on this field that he deserves that role. He has earned it, not just from playing, but from the chemistry he has built in the locker room with everybody.”

There’s still some uncertainty under center, so Hopkins might have to do some heavy lifting again. But he’s proven in the past that he can already do this.

Hopkins wins with perfect routes and beautiful body control

While Hopkins has certain athletic gifts, he wasn’t touted as a physical specimen coming out of college. At the 2013 combine, he measured in at 6’1, 214 pounds and ran a 4.57 40, pretty average numbers for an NFL wide receiver. Hopkins was the second receiver off the draft board that year, but he slipped to the back half of the first round at No. 27.

However, where Hopkins excels isn’t necessarily his ability to outrun defenders or fly past them. Hopkins wins in all the mental aspects of football — an exceptionally crisp route runner with sticky hands and an impeccable sense of timing. Hopkins’ biggest talent is using his hand-eye coordination to track the ball and grab it at exactly the right time.

Although Hopkins’ game is more cerebral than physical, you only need to watch some highlight clips to see how deadly he is in that part. He’s one of the best in football at using his entire body to locate the ball and make plays.

Hopkins became the Texans’ new No. 1 receiver after Andre Johnson left for the Indianapolis Colts in 2015. He enjoyed that breakout season even with the constant turnover at quarterback. Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates, and Brandon Weeden all started games for the Texans that year. It’s a huge credit to Hopkins’ talent level that he still had the year he did.

Then 2016 came around. And with Osweiler coming to town, the prevailing thought was, “hey, maybe Hopkins would finally have a good quarterback to work with. Who knows what heights he could yet achieve with Osweiler?”

Well, about that …

Osweiler was a trash fire who held back Hopkins

I don’t think we should dwell on Osweiler any longer than we have to. Long story short — he was bad, the Texans’ offense went in the tank with him under center, and Hopkins never came close to his 2015 stat line. He recorded only 78 catches and 954 yards, along with just four touchdowns. His targets went down from 192 to 151, and his catch rate plummeted from 57.8 percent to 51.7. Normally a receiver’s catch rate falling that far is cause for alarm, but Osweiler’s scattershot accuracy played a fairly big role in that.

Despite the wildly inconsistent year, Hopkins closed out 2016 strong. He went off for seven catches and 123 yards in Week 17, helping the Texans clinch the AFC South, then scored a touchdown in the Wild Card win over the Oakland Raiders. Often, Hopkins will still get his, even when the offense around him can’t do anything.

After shipping Osweiler to the Cleveland Browns and drafting Watson, the Texans should have renewed optimism for the offense. Bill O’Brien finally has a worthy young quarterback he can develop in his image, while Hopkins gets a fresh slate, whether Savage or Watson earns the job.

Still only 25 years old, Hopkins will be a free agent next year, unless the Texans hammer out an extension before training camp. If they don’t, he’ll have several million reasons to replicate his 2015 numbers, so he won’t be lacking for motivation at all. He also has yet to miss a single game in four seasons. If Hopkins doesn’t get back to the 100-catch mark, then something went wrong along the way.

Why should you be excited about Hopkins?

Who doesn’t enjoy watching athletically gifted wide receivers? I like Julio Jones. I like Odell Beckham Jr. I like Mike Evans. Those guys all use their freakish, God-given talents to separate themselves from the rest of the league.

Hopkins’ pure athletic gifts don’t pop like those men, but he succeeds in a different way. It’s not that he’s a stiff on the field — far from it — but there’s a certain crispness to his game that makes him so fun to watch. He’s not the fastest or the strongest or the tallest guy out there, but everything Hopkins does just feels right. He runs routes right, he beats man coverage right, he knows where the ball is going and how to get there right. He doesn’t have to outrun you, because he’ll just outsmart you instead.

Put simply, Nuk is unique, and that helps him stand out in the NFL and highlight a special talent who deserves more time in the limelight. Here’s to many more years of him being the Texans’ most exciting offensive player.

Jadeveon Clowney will be one step closer to greatness in 2017. That’s scary.

Jadeveon Clowney will be one step closer to greatness in 2017. That’s scary.

Clowney thrived on the edge last season, and he could be spending even more time there with J.J. Watt back in the mix. Did you just get chills?

Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

When you think about the top 3-4 rush linebackers, guys like Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Justin Houston and now, after last season, Vic Beasley probably come to mind. Those guys are all around 6’3 and 250-260 pounds. Jadeveon Clowney, on the other hand, is all of 6’5 and weighs more than 270 pounds. That size difference showed up on film last year. And yet Clowney played his best football when he was out on the edge like those other guys.

I know some folks may have been baffled as to how Clowney made the Pro Bowl last season with only six sacks. Turn on his film and any confusion quickly dissipates.

As I pointed out late in the season, with J.J. Watt hurt last year Clowney wasn’t playing out on the edge that much early on in the season. He still played well, but lining up as a 3-technique on a run down is not the best place to have him. As fate would have it, once starting outside linebacker John Simon went down in Week 11 it opened the door to Clowney playing more on the edge, and his play went to another level.

It wasn’t just that he was making plays, it was that if you looked close enough you could almost see his confidence rising from Week 12 through both playoff games. His performance in the postseason is the way I expect him to start off this season.

Maybe he’ll be even better.

With Watt expected to be back healthy this season, it isn’t out of the realm of imagination that Clowney will take another leap forward this year. Watt lining up at his familiar 3-4 defensive end position on early downs should allow Clowney to stay out on an edge for the entire year. Watt’s presence should also open up more opportunities for Clowney along with the play of Whitney Mercilus who will be manning the other edge rusher position opposite Clowney.

Or maybe Mercilus and Clowney will line up on the same side some on passing downs.

Or maybe Mercilus, Clowney, and Watt will line up on the same side on passing downs.

If Watt is even close to the monster we are used to, Clowney should be able to make a ton of plays just cleaning up messes that Watt creates in opposing backfields.

Houston’s offense should be a lot better this season with Brock Osweiler shipped out of town to Siberia … errr Cleveland, so (gasp) the Texans might even be playing with a lot of second-half leads where we get to see Clowney, Watt, and Mercilus just tee TF off for 30 minutes.

Did you just get a chill up your spine?

I just got a chill up my spine.

Even with his Pro Bowl nod last season, Clowney was banged up for a lot of the year and missed two games. He still hasn’t been “healthy” for a full 16 games, so that gives him even more room to grow in 2017.

I hope I am not jinxing him. While Clowney probably got a lot of haters off his back last season, his best is still very much yet to come. I’m looking forward to seeing him take another step towards greatness in 2017.

Jameis Winston is ready to take his place among the NFL’s best quarterbacks

Jameis Winston is ready to take his place among the NFL’s best quarterbacks

Jameis Winston has been on the verge of greatness, and his new cast of characters may finally help him cut his mistakes.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jameis Winston was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft and, understandably, that comes with high expectations. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers expected a franchise quarterback who could lead the team to great things.

So far, Winston has just been average. Not great. Not bad. Just average.

That slow start to his career has kept the mercurial former Heisman Trophy winner mostly out of the spotlight in the NFL. Despite being an unpredictable player who’s as likely to run through half a defense for a first down as he is fumble a ball away like a hot potato, Winston has been forgettable.

He finished the 2016 season with 4,090 passing yards (12th in the NFL), 28 touchdowns (seventh), 18 interceptions (second), and an 86.1 passer rating (21st). Along the way he provided plenty of highlights, but had the tendency to make critical errors as well.

And every step of the way, Winston has brought his own brand of unique silliness, positive or negative.

But in 2017, the Buccaneers have a strong chance at seeing real returns from their investment. After an offseason that added DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard, and Chris Godwin to his offensive arsenal, Winston is primed to step into the limelight.

Winston has one of the NFL’s best highlight reels

If it wasn’t for the 33 interceptions Winston threw in the last two seasons, he may already be considered one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks. At 6’4, 232 pounds, Winston has a blend of size, strength, athleticism, and arm talent that made him the No. 1 pick.

At times, it has shown on the field in spectacular ways.

In November, he provided arguably the play of the NFL season by dodging nearly the entire Chicago Bears defense and narrowly avoiding a safety before heaving a pass about 50 yards downfield.

The play is everything exciting about Winston in a nutshell.

Sure, it required all of his athletic abilities to pull it off, but it happened because Winston is one of the only quarterbacks who would actually be willing to run backward 15 yards, change directions three times, and then hurl a ball up for grabs.

It’s a play you’d never see Tom Brady attempt. And that’s probably a good thing for New England Patriots fans.

Winston’s go-for-broke mentality is part of what has always made him an exciting player and one who is prone for some awful moments. Even during his prolific national championship-winning and Heisman-winning collegiate career at Florida State, Winston still had remarkably bad lowlights.

It’s important to remember that Winston turned 23 less than a week after the end of the 2016 regular season. While he has 32 NFL starts under his belt and another 27 games at Florida State, he’s still a player who graduated high school five years ago.

But now entering his third season, it’s time for Winston to rein it in.

New offensive cast should help cut lapses

So far in Winston’s NFL career, he’s relied heavily on large possession receivers. His leading receiver has been 6’5, 231-pound receive Mike Evans and on the other side was the oft-injured Vincent Jackson, who stands at 6’5, 241 pounds.

With so few other receiving options, Winston has targeted tight ends often in his first two NFL seasons. That fueled a breakout season for Cameron Brate in 2016, and it could mean Winston looks to first-round pick O.J. Howard often in 2017.

But for the first time, Winston also has a legitimate deep threat in DeSean Jackson. There’s reason to question if Jackson’s best days are behind him now that he’s on the wrong side of 30, but he still led the NFL in 2016 in yards per reception and posted his fifth 1,000-yard season.

If Jackson still has gas in the tank, he and rookie Chris Godwin could give Winston the yards after catch he has so desperately lacked over the last two years.

67.8 percent of Jameis Winston’s passing yards came through the air in 2016 (as opposed to yards after catch), most in the NFL. pic.twitter.com/ng2jvDjhXF

— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 9, 2017

Winston has made more mistakes than he should so far in his career — he’s already thrown 33 interceptions and fumbled 16 times. But sometimes a quarterback needs others to make big plays and take the possibility of turnovers out of the passer’s hands.

A rushing attack that averaged 3.6 yards per carry (29th in the NFL) didn’t do Winston any favors either. With few changes up front and at running back, that will still be a concern for the Buccaneers in 2017. J.R. Sweezy will return from an injury that cost him an entire season and young players like Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet may still be improving, but it will again be Winston leading the way.

His new weapons should help plenty.


In NFL Network’s countdown of the top 100 players in the league, Winston landed at No. 57. That’s probably a tad premature considering Blake Bortles and Philip Rivers are the only two quarterbacks with more interceptions over the last two seasons.

If Winston can continue to grow as a player and a passer, he’s well-positioned to be one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and take the Buccaneers on a playoff run for the first time since Jon Gruden was the team’s head coach. And just because it’s Jameis, it’ll probably come with some ridiculousness, too.

If you don’t know who Jordan Hicks is now, you will this season

Jordan Hicks is the best NFL player nobody’s talking about. That’s about to change.

The Eagles’ interception magnet is ready to take a leadership role in 2017.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Jordan Hicks may not be a household name, but he’s come up big for the Philadelphia Eagles in his short career. Hicks has become an interception magnet — he led the team with five in 2016 — and in his third year, he should be an even bigger contributor, on and off the field.

At the middle linebacker position, Hicks is responsible for identifying formations and putting his teammates in a position to make stops. He’s grown to be the more vocal and confident leader that comes with the experience of a full regular season under his belt. But more importantly, he should also have a clean bill of health.

The NFL players we’re most excited about this year

It’s NFL Hype Week here at SB Nation. The network’s 32 NFL team sites and the staff at SB Nation dot com are all contributing to a little offseason excitement with training camp right around the corner with a closer look at the players we’re most excited about this year. Check it out!

There was cause for alarm earlier this month, when the linebacker injured his hand while on his honeymoon in Greece. The Eagles haven’t confirmed if his hand is actually broken, but even if it is, the team doesn’t expect Hicks to be out for more than four weeks, marking his return right around training camp.

Hicks is heading into the 2017 offseason with a leg up over previous years. For the first time in his career, he hasn’t had to incorporate significant rehab into his training. With his time and energy instead focused on improving on an already impressive year, Hicks is poised to break team and league records in the months ahead.

Hicks can building off a league-leading season

Hicks gained momentum throughout the year as a clutch player, especially against division rivals. He capped off the season with a two-interception game against the Cowboys in Week 17. With most of the Dallas starters resting in preparation for the playoffs, Hicks’ picks came against former teammate (and buttfumble legend) Mark Sanchez — to the delight of Eagles fans.

Pretty impressive play for Jordan Hicks’ seventh career INT. #Eaglespic.twitter.com/6mtOwpaDvT

— Dave Zangaro (@DZangaroCSN) January 2, 2017

Hicks became the first NFL linebacker with 11-plus takeaways in his first 24 games since Hall of Famer Jack Ham in the early ’70s. He was sidelined for seven weeks at the end of his rookie season with a torn pectoral muscle, or he might’ve earned that record a little sooner.

Overall, the middle linebacker has recorded 100 tackles, 14 passes deflected, seven interceptions (including a pick-six), four fumble recoveries, two sacks, and one forced fumble.

And he’s just getting started.

Hicks is ready to have yet another career year, and that won’t come without hard work in the weight room and the film room.

“Obviously last year I was able to make some plays. Again, I’m just trying to build off of that. Being able to be in the same defense will help a lot, and to be able to really work on the intricacies of the defense,” Hicks told Bleeding Green Nation.

That undersells the real value he added to the Eagles defense. Not only did he lineup for 95.2 percent of the defensive snaps, but he ranked No. 7 on the team in snap counts, behind only Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, and Nigel Bradham on defense, and Jason Kelce, Carson Wentz, and Jason Peters on offense.

The sophomore player didn’t just stand out among his teammates, but also throughout the league. He led all linebackers with five interceptions last season (tied for No. 3 among all position groups), along with the most passes defended (11), and most plays on passes (16). Hicks was also ranked by Pro Football Focus as the toughest linebacker for quarterbacks to face in the league in 2016.

No linebacker was tougher on opposing quarterbacks than @JordanHicks of the Eagles. pic.twitter.com/BKEAEGU2Lv

— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) May 10, 2017

The most exciting thing about Hicks’ performance last season is that it set the perfect foundation for 2017. He entered the offseason more confident and with a full year of experience in a new defensive scheme. Building on what he did last year will set him, and the Eagles defense, up for a havoc-wreaking year.

In what quickly became a bright spot for the team in 2016, the defensive side of the ball gained momentum throughout the season. Despite a few light position groups (like at cornerback), as a whole, the defense was on the cusp of being among the top 10 in the league — finishing 2016 at No. 13 of ESPN’s total defense rankings.

With Hicks firing on all cylinders at the end of last season, in addition to his offseason motivation, he’ll be pivotal in making the Eagles’ defense one of the most aggressive in the NFL.

He’s embracing a leadership role

Heading into just his third year in the league, Hicks is already stepping up to save a sad 2015 draft class for the Eagles. Hicks and wideout Nelson Agholor are the only two picks still with the team from the final draft class of the Chip Kelly era. Agholor has struggled his first two seasons, but Hicks has become an exciting young leader for the defense.

“At middle linebacker, I feel like I have to be [a leader]. I think honestly we have quite a bit of guys who are considered leaders,” Hicks told Bleeding Green Nation.

Despite being only 25 years old, he’s not afraid to speak up. The Eagles released footage of a mic’d up Hicks throughout the 2016 season, and it’s easy to get excited about a guy who is all-in so early in his career. It isn’t just the defense he’s riling up and supporting, but quarterback Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson too.

He’s played just two years in the league, but @JordanHicks is already a leader on this #Eagles defense. #FlyEaglesFlypic.twitter.com/wL27fE4Tdn

— Philadelphia Eagles (@Eagles) March 21, 2017

He understands the value of consistency, and having the same defensive scheme — and defensive coordinator — two (healthy) seasons in a row will go a long way to get there.

Hicks already has a plan, telling BGN, “We’ll be able to see [the same route concepts] and take specific film and figure out the steps and drill work. Work on what we weren’t really good at last year. That’s how you take the next step.”


Still playing under his rookie contract, Hicks could cost the Eagles big money when he becomes a free agent following the 2018 season. But, if he keeps flying around the field, making big plays on opposing quarterbacks, and contributing to an upward-trending defense, he’ll be worth every penny.

Mariota’s unprecedented path to NFL greatness

Marcus Mariota is on an unprecedented path to NFL greatness

The Titans budding superstar could be the first quarterback from a college spread option offense to win a Super Bowl. Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz explains.

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Hope. The NFL sells hope more than any other league. In the NBA, we can pencil in the Warriors and Cavs in the finals. In baseball, does anyone care if it’s not the Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox, or Cardinals? College football has Alabama, Clemson, USC, Michigan, etc.

For NFL fans, this time of year is hopeful. There are fan bases across the country getting excited for their team’s run to the Super Bowl. Get hot at the right time, and you can watch your favorite team play in Minnesota on a cold Sunday in February.

One fan base whose hopes should be strong right now is that of the Tennessee Titans. That hope rests, as it rightfully should, on the shoulders of quarterback Marcus Mariota.

The NFL players we’re most excited about this year

It’s NFL Hype Week here at SB Nation. The network’s 32 NFL team sites and the staff at SB Nation dot com are all contributing to a little offseason excitement with training camp right around the corner with a closer look at the players we’re most excited about this year. Check it out!

As Mariota enters his third professional season, the sky is the limit. I’m an Oregon alum, so I’ve been following Marcus since he first stepped onto the field in the Oregon green and yellow (or gray, black, orange, white or whatever other color Oregon chooses on a Saturday). I knew Mariota was talented. He’s intelligent, a great leader, has a strong arm, and can move fluidly.

Still, I was skeptical he would succeed in the NFL.

One style of quarterback play wins Super Bowls — a pocket passer. There has yet to be a college spread option offense quarterback who’s won a Super Bowl. Everyone will scream Russell Wilson at their screens. He played in a pro style offense at Wisconsin, and he’s a pocket passer before he’s a runner. The way Mariota is progressing, I could see him being the first quarterback from a college spread option offense to win a Super Bowl.

Mariota had an up-and-down, injury-plagued rookie season. He had turnover issues and got sacked 38 times, way too often for a rookie to get comfortable. To make matters worse, there was a coaching change midway through his rookie season. Ken Whisenhunt was out; Mike Mularkey was in.

There were other changes that needed to be made to get Mariota comfortable in the pocket.

Heading into the 2016 season, Mularkey and Co. added DeMarco Murray and drafted Derrick Henry to pair in the backfield. They also drafted stud right tackle Jack Conklin to help shore up protection for Mariota.

It was announced, with some mockery, that Mularkey wanted to go old school and run the football first, pass second. Use a tight end and a fullback on the field at the same time, which is the opposite direction most teams are heading nowadays. Now a full season removed from this decision, it couldn’t have gone any better for Mariota’s development.

By forcing Mariota into an old school offensive structure, it made him learn to play quarterback from the beginning — start under center, learn the proper reads, and improve as a pocket passer.

At times, offensive staffs decide to incorporate spread offense elements to help ease a college quarterback into the NFL. This doesn’t always lead to success and more importantly, it can lead to injuries. You’d rather the quarterback get hit as little as possible.

Lastly, when you start with a run-based offense, it opens up the play action for success. Play-action passes are generally easier reads for the quarterback. The linebackers feel run, suck up, and you throw a crosser behind them. Not as complicated as spreading it out.

Without much help at wide receiver, Mariota had a much-improved second season before breaking his ankle in Week 15. Mariota threw for 26 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He had a top-10 quarterback rating, and his offense was just above league average.

Where Mariota shines, where it counts the most, is in the red zone. Lots of offenses can move between the 20s. That’s easy. The field is spread out, and there are plenty of holes to find long chunk plays. In the red zone, things happen fast.

How Mariota makes the Titans unstoppable in the red zone

Tennessee Titan v Miami DolphinsPhoto by Chris Trotman/Getty Images

What’s driving the Tennessee Titans’ resurgence? Geoff Schwartz takes a closer look at the best red zone offense in the NFL and the man behind it, quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Last season, Mariota completed 62.5 percent of his red-zone passes, good for top five in the league. He’s yet to throw a red-zone interception in his two seasons, running his tally to 33 touchdowns against zero picks. This is all without a go-to red-zone receiver.

A good front office is one that knows how to surround its franchise player with weapons. In 2016, they were Murray, Henry, and Conklin. This offseason, the Titans drafted Corey Davis fifth overall, a big-bodied wide receiver for Mariota. The Titans also drafted a receiver in the third round and a tight end in the fourth. Lastly, they brought in free agent Eric Decker, another go-to receiver in the red zone. Mariota should be excited about this offseason haul.

As well as improving the offense around Mariota, the Titans upgraded their secondary that was piss-poor last season. Improved play on defense should equal better field position for the Titans offense and more points.

Everything is looking up for the Titans and Mariota. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Titans, behind their franchise quarterback, win the division and go deep into the playoffs.