It wasn’t all that long ago that conventional wisdom in the NFL said rookie receivers rarely make an impact. But that’s an example of woefully outdated thinking, and this year’s rookie receiving class is every bit as good -- if not better -- than it was billed during the long pre-draft build-up.
At midseason, the success stories are everywhere on that front. Buffalo’s Sammy Watkins and Carolina’s Kelvin Benjamin are leading the way as first-round stars, but the depth of the league’s rookie receiving talent is impressive, and becoming more apparent by the week. Arizona third-rounder John Brown hauled down that game-winning 75-yard bomb for the Cardinals against the Eagles last week, and Pittsburgh’s Martavis Bryant, a fourth-round pick, caught two touchdowns in the Steelers’ shootout win over the Colts, who stayed in the game in part thanks to 113 yards receiving and a touchdown from third-rounder Donte Moncrief.
And the list goes on and on, with Philadelphia’s Jordan Matthews, New Orleans’ Brandin Cooks, Green Bay’s Davante Adams, Cleveland’s Taylor Gabriel, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans and Jacksonville’s tandem of Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson all taking turns in the spotlight in the season’s opening eight weeks. According to The New York Times, rookie receivers this season have produced 38 touchdowns through eight weeks, putting them on pace to easily outdistance last year’s league record of 58 (at least in a non-strike or replacement-player season).
All that impact may lessen in the season's second half as the colder weather makes the passing game more difficult and the rookie 'wall' approaches for some, but the league’s new crop of pass-catchers is, from all appearances, the real deal. And the best could still be to come in 2014.
• Last week: 10-5; Season: 79-41 (.658).
• Best pick in Week 8: Cleveland 24, Oakland 13 (Actual score: Browns 23-13).
• Worst pick in Week 8: New York Jets 17, Buffalo 13 (Actual score: Bills 43-23).
Below are my Week 9 picks. And here’s my pick for Thursday night’s game between New Orleans and Carolina.
With the back injury he suffered in the second half Monday night against Washington, Tony Romo will find this a bad time to look up to see the Cardinals’ blitz-happy defense staring back at him. Arizona kept right on blitzing Philly’s Nick Foles last week until its dramatic victory was sealed on the game’s final play, and the Cardinals, according to ESPN.com, have sent extra pass rushers on an NFL-high 47 percent of their defensive snaps the past two years. As Arizona coach Bruce Arians put it: "Have we ever not [blitzed until the very end]? That’s who we are." Combined with Arizona’s stout run defense, this isn’t the matchup Dallas needs to avoid its first losing streak of a surprisingly good 2014 season.
The seven-man contingent of former Texans that dot the Eagles’ roster make this a veritable Houston homecoming affair. Starting Philly linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin are the big names, but don’t forget about tight end James Casey and punter Donnie Jones, too. It should make for quite the pre-game photo. The Eagles should get running back-return man Darren Sproles back in the lineup and that adds a big-play element that was missing last week in a narrow loss at Arizona. Houston’s best chance is to ride the red-hot Arian Foster, who has four consecutive 100-yard rushing games and just dented Tennessee’s defense for 151 yards last week. Foster is Comeback Player of the Year material at midseason, with 722 yards rushing and a stellar 5.2-yard average rush in six-plus games. He may only be the second-best NFL running back in Texas, but this year that’s still a lofty accomplishment.
So Michael Vick gets his third (or is it fourth?) chance as an NFL starting quarterback and it comes against Andy Reid, the former Eagles head coach who gave him his second chance as a No. 1 early in Vick’s memorable 2010 season in Philadelphia. Neither one of them is an Eagle any more, but the symmetry is still nice. Vick won’t rescue the moribund Jets’ season, but New York’s Rex Ryan couldn’t run Geno Smith back out there and still look the veterans in his locker room in the eye. As for Kansas City, I have to admit after its 0-2 start, I did not think the Chiefs would see the happy side of .500 all season long, but they’re 4-1 since then, and the good times certainly won’t end this week against the floundering Jets.
Colt McCoy doesn’t deserve to take a seat, but Washington has no choice: It has to find out once and for all if Robert Griffin III is worth the price of that 2012 blockbuster trade with St. Louis or not. The clock is ticking and there’s no time to waste. If Griffin can’t reach the heights of 2012, he needs to stay healthy long enough to transition his game into a sustainable version of his rookie self. Washington head coach Jay Gruden preferably needs to figure that out by the end of the season, allowing for a clear-cut plan at the position going into 2015. This game also has a fascinating sub-plot in that it pits the two former Bengals coordinators -- Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer and Gruden -- head to head in a chess match infused with familiarity. I’m liking what I see of Zimmer’s work with the Vikings' defense, which is starting to forge its identity and become the strength of the team.
The Bengals’ stirring late-game comeback win against Baltimore won’t mean quite as much as we thought it did if they get sloppy this week at home against the 1-7 Jaguars, who did rise up and beat the other team in Ohio, the Browns, by 18 points two weeks ago. Cincinnati faces Jacksonville and Cleveland in the span of five days at Paul Brown Stadium, so at least that made the scouting film work a little bit easier, I suppose.
Jaguars rookie quarterback Blake Bortles has been a bit Blaine-like at times this season, and that’s obviously not a compliment in Jacksonville. His league-high 12 interceptions include a league-worst four pick-sixes and opponents have blitzed him very effectively, leading to poor decision-making and him taking unnecessary risks. A strong rebound in the season’s second half can still change the narrative for Bortles, but he needs to start showing significant improvement.
The Dolphins just seem more comfortable playing on the road (3-1) than they do at home (1-2), and that’s indicative of a team that feels the pressure of years of unmet expectations. The Chargers are well-rested, coming off their mini-bye weekend that followed a Thursday night road loss to Denver in Week 8. If the Chargers are going to make another playoff run this season, it starts now. They have at Miami, bye week, home against Oakland and St. Louis in the coming four weeks. They need to be 8-3 coming out of that stretch, because San Diego’s final five games are flat out brutal.
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The bottom line is Cleveland has to find a way to win this game and get to midseason at 5-3 or all the “same old last-place Browns’’ thoughts will start anew. Not to mention the Johnny Manziel chatter. After losing two weeks ago at Jacksonville and then beating winless Oakland at home in Week 8, Mike Pettine's scrappy club needs to go at least 2-1 against the dregs of the league, even without the injured Alex Mack, the suspended Josh Gordon and the recently concussed Cameron Jordan. The Cleveland running game hasn’t been much to talk about without Mack in the middle of the offensive line, but with some chilly early November weather forecast for the lakefront, it’s time to bang away on the ground at the warm-weather Bucs and grind out a much-needed win.
The Rams usually play the 49ers tough, but if they couldn’t put San Francisco away up 14-0 early in their Monday Night Football meeting at home in Week 6, I don’t see them reversing that 31-17 outcome at Levi’s Stadium, with Jim Harbaugh’s club coming off its bye week and starting to get healthier. Alas, St. Louis isn’t even going to make it to its customary seven-win plateau this season, not with a 2-5 record and the next four weeks including trips to San Francisco, Arizona and San Diego, with a Week 11 home game against Denver thrown in for good measure. If the Rams hang up a five- or six-win season, isn’t Jeff Fisher due for the hot-seat treatment? If not, why not? St. Louis hasn’t been even .500 since 2006, and hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004.
I’m of the belief that there's very little that’s new to say about the annual showdown of quarterbacking legends, other than I’ve always liked the way Peyton Manning refers to No. 12 as "Brady" far more often than he does "Tom." I’m pretty sure Brady usually goes with "Peyton," but maybe that’s because there’s more than one Manning he has to contend with in any given year. The reality is this glamor game could ultimately decide who wins the AFC’s top seed and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs, and that means if there’s a doubleheader on tap once again this season, I see it unfolding in Foxboro rather than Denver. But it’s Week 9, so don’t go taking anything to the bank just yet.
Wonder how the good people of San Antonio -- who know a thing or two about toasting championships -- feel about the Raiders these days? Has anyone even asked them of late if they still want the winless wonders? I mean in the last eight weeks? Oakland, at 0-7, is the surest bet in the NFL prediction business. Give the Raiders an 'L' and chalk it up. It’s like starting with that one automatic chip on your bingo card. At this point, at least Dennis Allen knows it was about them, not him.
I know it’s a sign of the NFL’s respect for this rivalry, but it feels like years and years since I’ve seen a Ravens-Steelers game played during daylight hours. Who knows, maybe it’s a secretly passed league bylaw that Baltimore-Pittsburgh have to play their smash-mouth style games in prime time, when the darkness adds an element of atmosphere to all that black and purple on display. The Ravens, in a rarity for this series, won handily at home in Week 2, at the height of the Ray Rice controversy. But the Steelers seem to have finally captured some sense of consistency and are trying to go 3-0 in what might turn out to be a season-turning, three-game home-stand. With everyone in the jumbled AFC North owning four or five wins, to go with two or three losses, a Steelers victory splits their season series with the Ravens and serves to only further tighten the race.
Monday, Nov. 3
The Colts aren’t in Baltimore any more, and the Giants aren’t in New York, but other than that, this still has a chance to be 'The Greatest Game Ever Played,' ... At least, you know, on this particular Monday night. If I don’t see at least two or three clips of Alan Ameche and Johnny Unitas in that epic 1958 NFL title game during the telecast -- I can almost hear Jon Gruden now: "Mike, that was real football, man" -- I’m going to be sorely disappointed. Somehow I know ESPN won’t let me down.