Black Quarterback: The Biggest Storylines Heading into the 2018 Season
By Brandon Simmons
This is Black Quarterback, the weekly column of the NFL back for its 5th season! The 2018 NFL season is just about here, and there is so much going on right now; but I was able to break it down into around 5-6 headlines to look out for.
1. Are the Browns ready to take even one step forward?
At the end of the 2017 season, the Cleveland Browns were in the news for all the wrong reasons. They went 0-16, a year after going 1-15 and a carousel of quarterbacks. Going into this season, things appear to be looking a little bright. They had the number one pick in the draft and took former Oklahoma Sooner QB Baer Mayfield, but before that, they were able to pick up veteran Tyrod Taylor. The Browns also added wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who led the league in catches last season and will also get back wide receiver Josh Gordon from his suspension. The coaching staff also added defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hype of them appearing on Hard Knocks this season but compared to what they have done in the past 2 years, the Browns could make some real progress. Now considering that they have won only 1 game within those past 2 seasons, the term “progress” will come with a vague definition. But it refers to the sweet spot they are in right now with all the pieces they have added. They were able to secure a potential franchise quarterback in Mayfield as well as a competitive veteran in Taylor, who will start the season opener at least. Mayfield could be the starter at some point down the line but it’s probably better a veteran such as Taylor leads this team to a few wins to get the fan base excited; after it will probably his job to lose or they will send him off like the Chiefs did Alex Smith in favor of Patrick Mahomes. Either way, this Browns team will find themselves out of the dog house.
2. All eyes on the Rookie QB’s
This year’s group of rookie quarterbacks was led by multiple contenders for the number one draft picks. The Cleveland Browns (and maybe some rumored trade partners) had their choice of Wyoming QB Josh Allen, Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, Louisville QB Lamar Jackson, USC QB Sam Darnold and UCLA QB Josh Rosen. The Browns ended up taking Mayfield with number one overall pick, but the rest of the names went in the first round as well, including Jackson being selected with the 32nd overall pick by the Ravens. There are reality shows not even written this well.
But each of these signal callers are expected to take the starting reigns of their positions, in the immediate future. Mayfield is coming to a situation where the Browns have won only one game in the past 2 years and are being led by a journeyman, but solid starting quarterback in Tyrod Taylor. Allen is going to a Bills team that has no valid options at the QB position after getting rid of Taylor; the same can be said for Rosen after the Cardinals lost Carson Palmer to retirement. Darnold has already been named the starter for Week 1 while some believe Jackson could replace Ravens QB Joe Flacco as early as this season. Rookie QB’s are tricky to work with because you don’t want to break their confidence, but you don’t want to hold them back too long. This particular high-profile group might not be 100% ready to start, but they are in situations where the opportunity can be easily afforded to them.
3. What success will Dak Prescott have this season?
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott exploded onto the scene his rookie season, after replacing the oft-injured Tony Romo and leading Dallas to the playoffs with a 1st round bye. Unfortunately, it was short-lived the following season when he became a victim of the sophomore jinx, and his running back getting suspended for 6 games for violating the personal conduct policy. Coming into his 3rd season as a pro, Prescott has a few variables that can determine what season he will have. Running back Ezekiel Elliot will suiting up for the whole season, with no type of punishment looming. However, the young QB will be without wide receiver Dez Bryant after he was cut by the Cowboys over contract disagreements.
This will be the season that can show the word what kind of quarterback Prescott is. Team president Stephen Jones has gone on record to say that this season’s offense will be “Dak-friendly”. Even though, he will have Elliot to alleviate some of the defensive pressure, there has been a lot of questions as to the talent level of his receivers. Is there somebody capable of getting the ball from him and becoming a threat? Former Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Tavon Austin is a speedy threat but he might not even be in the rotation. As good as Elliot is, the Cowboys are not going to run him in the ground; there will be times where Dak must take over the game as a starting quarterback, whether people believe he can do it or not. If the Cowboys are serious about making some real noise in the playoffs, it’s important that he shows his progress or he won’t have very many “friends” supporting him in the offense.
4. Can Donald and Mack live up to the check?
Los Angeles Rams Aaron Donald and Chicago Bears linebacker Khalil Mack both earned their long awaited paydays. Donald signed a 6-year, $135 million contract, which made him the highest paid defensive player…at the time. A few days later, the Oakland Raiders traded Mack to the Bears, where they gave him a 6-year, $141 million contract. Donald and Mack have both been involved in holdout situations that ended up positively for them. Last season, Donald and the Rams were involved in contract negotiations with 2 years left on his rookie deal. He was looking to make $6.9 million this year but has now jumped to over $8 million. The same can be said for Mack
Obviously, these are some pretty hefty contracts for players on the defensive side of the ball but are these guys worth the investment? Both players led their respective teams in sacks since they were drafted in 2014. These guys are also the last 2 winners for Defensive Player of the Year. Donald won it last season recording 11 sacks, despite missing the first 2 games due to his holdout. Mack won it the previous year by recording 11 sacks and a career high five forced fumbles. The only drawback they have is that neither player has much playoff experience. However that can be attributed mostly to the teams they were on but that’s another argument for another time.
These two pass rushing threats can add a lot of value to their teams right now, the way their situations are set up. The Rams also added Ndamokung Suh to their defensive line, which might free up Donald a little bit to get after the quarterback. The Bears drafted outside linebacker Roquan Smith which could also spread the opposing offensive line’s attention when it comes to rushing the QB. At most, these gentlemen are only a couple of years removed from their Defensive POY titles and still young enough to cash in on their talents.
5. Will the Vikings and Eagles remain atop the NFC?
The Minnesota Vikings and Philadelphia Eagles finished as the top 2 teams in the NFC as expected. They were 1 and 2 in the conference for much of the 2017 season and ended up meeting in the NFC championship, which turned out to be pretty uneventful. During the offseason, each team made some moves to retool and in hopes of repeating and expanding their success for the 2018 season. The Vikings signed former Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins to a fully guaranteed contract, while the Eagles added Michael Bennett to their defensive line. But is it enough to keep off the teams that will be nipping at their heels?
There are some teams in the NFC who made some major moves in the offseason that could lift them past either of these two teams. The Los Angeles Rams made some huge strides getting wide receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Aqib Talib, while getting new deals for running back Todd Gurley and defensive end Aaron McDonald as well as adding defensive tackle Ndamokung Suh. The New Orleans Saints have a running game and defense to build off of; plus they were just a missed tackle away from the NFC championship themselves.
It was not an easy road for the top 2 teams to meet each other. The Vikings were a missed tackle away from getting bounced out of the playoffs. The Eagles barely beat the Atlanta Falcons in the divisional round, had it not been for their kicker putting in 4 field goals. Neither team’s schedule is easy, especially the Eagles. Philly will be going up against the 49ers, Saints, Falcons, Panthers and have a rematch with the Vikings. When you factor that in with the possibility of a quarterback controversy midseason between Nick Foles and the franchise QB, Carson Wentz, that is a tough road. As for the Vikings, adding Cousins is a good move but he’s still unproven in the postseason. That defense can probably get them to open up in the divisional round but how far can they go after that? This isn’t the AFC where the New England Patriots can make reservations to be in the Super Bowl every other year. The NFC is a little bit more unpredictable, but you can “predict” things will run just as wild at the end.
Bonus: Will Le’veon Bell and Earl Thomas get what they deserve?
As of right now, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell and Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas are at odds with their current teams due to contract disputes and it’s actually making for a nice personnel storyline. Thomas began his holdout in June but ended it Wednesday without a new deal and having 1 year left on his contract. Bell is entering the 2018 season with a franchise tag for the 2nd year in a row and will be sitting out Week 1 of the season.
Even though holdouts worked for Aaron Donald and Khalil Mack, it’s no guarantee they will work for Bell and Thomas. In fact, Mack’s situation is prob 50/50 because he ended up getting traded to get his money. While Thomas has stated, he wants to finish his career as a Seahawk but has also hinted at a trade with the Cowboys. As a 26-year-old running back, Bell just might have to find money elsewhere, given that the window closes on that position much earlier than other positions. It’s likely they will let him walk in free agency as opposed to give him a huge payday as he nears the age of 30.
Players just don’t want to get paid, they want that security as well. Playing on a 1 year deal is risky, especially if that player gets a serious injury in that contract year and takes a while to rehab and recover. As in the case of Mack, there are teams willing to pay the price tag on any of these guys caught up in these situations. One team’s franchise tag is another team’s franchise player.
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