Down below you’ll get some takes on a variety of topics, including the Jets–Patriots slap fight, Peyton Manning’s resurgence, the Broncos’ trade for Vernon Davis, the Saints’ rebound and Ken Whisenhunt’s firing. We’ll also look at some big injuries, and the latest endeavor by former Marine-turned-long snapper Nate Boyer. And you’ll get my 10 thoughts heading into Week 9. But first, since we’ve reached the midway point of the schedule (already?!), let’s take a stab at a midseason All-Pro team that somewhat follows the official positions. Most of the picks were easy, but there is and will be some stiff competition at other spots.
One man’s opinion on a midseason All-Pro team... (Just in case anyone was wondering, I don’t have an official vote at the end of the season.)
QB: Tom Brady, Patriots. He’s so good that his one mistake, a pick-six against the Colts, was actually a perfect pass that Julian Edelman dropped. Carson Palmer of the Cardinals is the only other player that deserves consideration at this point.
RB: Le’Veon Bell, Steelers. Bell is the best all-around back in the game, but he won’t be finishing the season on this list because he was placed on injured reserve this week with a knee injury (Devonta Freeman will replace him if he keeps it up). No one is more elusive and valuable in both the run and pass game, even with two games missed due to suspension.
RB: Omitted. NFL teams only play with one running back. So should the All-Pro team.
FB: Omitted. Patrick DiMarco of the Falcons is the busiest fullback in the league and plays 32.3% of his team’s snaps. That’s not enough to warrant postseason accolades.
WR: Julio Jones, Falcons. Leads the league in catches (70) and yards (892) and is tied for second with six touchdowns.
WR: DeAndre Hopkins, Texans. The only thing Hard Knocks got right this year: Hopkins is a star in the making. Despite having the yo-yo of Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett throwing to him, Hopkins is third in catches (66), second in yards (870), tied for second with six touchdowns and has had an amazing 81.8% of his receptions go for first downs.
Slot WR: Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals. Has enjoyed a renaissance since his big body and great hands were moved inside in Bruce Arians’s offense. Julian Edelman could end up winning this, but his seven drops in 72 targets (per Pro Football Focus) is keeping him out for now.
TE: Rob Gronkowski, Patriots. If the second half of his season is just as strong as his first, he will merit consideration for league MVP and, certainly, Offensive Player of the Year. One thing to watch: Gronkowski’s blocking has regressed after a very strong start. Is he battling something or just bored?
OT: Andrew Whitworth, Bengals. Some good alternatives here (Joe Thomas, Terron Armstead, Sebastian Vollmer), but Whitworth hasn’t given up a sack since Cincinnati’s playoff loss to the Chargers in 2013.
K: Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots. Great on kickoffs and perfect on all field goals and extra points. What else do you want?
Returner: Adam Jones, Bengals. Still the best two-way returner in the league.
DE: J.J. Watt, Texans. He might not be getting the same pub as last year amid the Texans’ struggles, but he’s still the best defensive player on the planet.
DE: Cameron Jordan, Saints. Gets very little help up front for New Orleans but he’s one of the big reasons why the Saints still have a heartbeat in the NFC South.
DT: Aaron Donald, Rams. Even after his impressive rookie campaign, Donald is still dominating offensive lines.
DT: Kawann Short, Panthers.Greg Hardy was released, Charles Johnson has been injured and yet Carolina is still playing great defense. Short, who plays the run and pass equally well, is a big reason why.
OLB: Von Miller, Broncos. Need to get one of Denver’s top pass rushers on here, and Miller gets the nod over DeMarcus Ware because of Miller’s 37 total quarterback pressures (PFF).
ILB: Luke Kuechly, Panthers. He’s been so good in the four games he’s played (39 tackles in the past three!) that it doesn’t even matter that he missed three games with a concussion.
LB: Dont’a Hightower, Patriots.Jamie Collins gets more attention because of his athletic ability and his plays against the pass, but Hightower is the engine of the defense and is better rushing the passer and stopping the run.
CB: Josh Norman, Panthers. The midseason Defensive Player of the Year, he’s been a joy to watch each and every game. PFF has him with a 25.5 defensive passer rating. Wow.
CB: Chris Harris Jr., Broncos. He will probably split some votes with teammate Aqib Talib, but for my money Harris has tougher assignments in sub packages inside with no sideline to help him.
Slot corner: Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals. Arizona’s Swiss Army knife gets it done covering, stopping the run, blitzing and just wreaking havoc.
S: Reshad Jones, Dolphins. Really close call between Jones and the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins. Jones gets the edge for now because of how he’s performed with very little around him in the secondary outside of CB Brent Grimes.
P: Sam Koch, Ravens. Ranks third in average (49.4), first in net (45.6) and doesn’t have one touchback. With Baltimore’s offensive struggles, he’s secretly helped keep them close in all their losses.
Wet Blanket Report
Stop the crying: Can we get back to the time when we didn’t hear anything about NFL teams accusing this team of that, or this team being affronted because this team accused that team of cheating? It specifically says in the NFL Game Operations manual that “clubs are required to take appropriate steps to ensure that information concerning actual or suspected violations … remains strictly confidential.” So everyone, please, shut up and grow up. For crying out loud, NFL Sundays have turned into bedtime with our eight-year-old twins. It needs to stop. You, Jets people, stop running to Daddy every time you play the Patriots. If you have at least some proof of something, then fine. But if you don’t, you can’t just start investigations on a whim. And you, Patriots, quit your whining about other teams targeting you. Twice you accepted penalties for bending the rules. This is what happens as a result of your actions. If you don’t want to be hassled, then don’t bend the rules and/or accept the penalties. You don’t want me to pull this car over.
Don’t go overboard on Peyton: I’ve been driving the “Peyton Manning isn’t as terrible as he looks” bus for a while, but the overreaction to his 340-yard passing game against the Packers has almost been as bad. First of all, it was against the Green Bay defense and coordinator Dom Capers, who will never adjust his scheme to counter the strength of the opposing quarterback. And, most importantly, the weather is still nice and there’s no pressure on Manning to deliver a big victory. Let’s see what happens at home against the Patriots, and then we can talk.
Vernon Davis isn’t a savior: Staying in the Mile High City, the trade to acquire 49ers TE Vernon Davis was much celebrated. Look, he’s going to help the Broncos because he’s an upgrade over Owen Daniels and Virgil Green. But this isn’t the Davis from four years ago who caught 67 passes, or the one from two years ago who caught 13 touchdown passes. Davis is no longer the speed demon he once was. Yes, he’ll help, but those expecting an adequate replacement for Julius Thomas from last year will be sorely disappointed.
Saints uprising: After being teased unmercifully last season by the Saints, it appears that coach Sean Payton has finally found the right mix. Not only has New Orleans won three straight games for the first time since the middle of the 2013 season, it has taken three straight at home, where it had lost six consecutive previously. Drew Brees and Payton have the offense clicking thanks to some route adjustments and a offensive line that is much improved from last season, but Rob Ryan’s defense will still determine how high New Orleans goes.
Patriotic tributes: According to a report released by Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, NFL teams received over $6 million of taxpayer money from 2012 to ’15 to perform “paid patriotism” functions at games and practices. The Falcons and Patriots received the most money. Roger Goodell said that if audits show NFL teams took taxpayer money, they’ll return it. Too late. As if you needed further proof, NFL owners will stop at nothing to make a buck.
Scapegoating: It’s ridiculous that Ken Whisenhunt was fired just 22 games into his tenure with the Titans. Maybe he wasn’t the long-term answer for the franchise, but to pull the cord at this point was just wrong. Has anyone looked at the roster of the team he had last year and this year? Just take the quarterback position. In 22 games, Whisenhunt had to start Zach Mettenberger (eight games), Charlie Whitehurst (five), Jake Locker (five) and a rookie in Marcus Mariota (five). Did the Titans think Whisenhunt was German for Houdini? This season, the Titans have been, on the whole, competitive, with one win and three other losses by a combined six points. Whisenhunt’s plan for Mariota (92.6 rating) was solid. He should have been given the rest of the season to prove his worth.
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 8 injuries?
WR Keenan Allen, Chargers (lacerated kidney, injured reserve): A huge loss considering Allen’s 67 receptions were the third-most in NFL history through three games. Malcolm Floyd will get more opportunities, but look for Stevie Johnson to get some looks. He’s a very similar receiver to Allen and should be able to just slide in.
DE Cameron Wake, Dolphins (Achilles, injured reserve): Derrick Shelby will get the reps, but at 6'3" and 270 pounds, he’s a totally different type of player than Wake (6'2", 258). Shelby is a power player and doesn’t have much shake to his pass rush. Olivier Vernon is going to have to be the speed guy now.
LT Ty Sambrailo, Broncos (labrum, injured reserve): Already missing starter Ryan Clady, Denver is down to its third-string left tackle. The good news is Sambrailo missed the previous four games, so Ryan Harris and Tyler Polumbus will continue to try to hold down Peyton Manning’s blind side.
HUMANITARIAN OF THE WEEK
Former active duty Green Beret Nate Boyer, who at 34 years old was last seen in Seahawks training camp trying to make the team at long snapper, is still competing. This time the, opponent is Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, and it’s for charity.
Boyer and former Marine Blake Watson, who lost his leg to an improvised explosive device in Iraq, will both climb Kilimanjaro to raise enough funds to build two water wells for suffering communities in East Africa.
“This thing is going to be huge,” Boyer said. “We want to raise a million dollars.”
For more information and to contribute to this worthy effort, go to: http://www.waterboys.org/kili.
10 thoughts heading into Week 9
1. I wouldn’t get too alarmed by the Jets losing in Oakland last week. Not only are the Raiders rapidly improving and Geno Smith was subbing for the injured Ryan Fitzpatrick, but that was a stereotypical Jets letdown game that used to happen all the time under Rex Ryan. Todd Bowles is changing the mindset there, but he’s not a miracle worker in less than a season.
2. The Cowboys have to be thrilled with first-round pick Byron Jones. Not only did he do an admirable job against Rob Gronkowski earlier in the season, but the Cowboys are not afraid to line up Jones at any spot or against anybody in the secondary.
3. Having covered Mike McCarthy, I can almost guarantee this was a week where he laid the wood to his offense, including the coaches. He had to have been embarrassed by the output in Denver, and I would expect the Packers to come out with some adjustments against the Panthers. Not sure they can do enough of it to get things corrected in one week (starting with more quicker and shorter routes), but it could be enough to win a tough road game.
4. Keep an eye on Bills TE Charles Clay going against his former team, the Dolphins. The Bills haven’t used Clay enough, but this is a perfect opportunity, against a team that is lacking in linebackers who can properly cover Clay, to utilize that weapon.
5. We’ll know if the Steelers’ defense is for real (its performance against the Cardinals was good, but could have been a one-off, and Andy Dalton was shaky on his own for three quarters last weekend) when Pittsburgh welcomes in a Raiders offense that is really starting to click both in the air with Derek Carr and in the running game with Latavius Murray. Big test for this secondary.
6. We do know this about the Steelers: That front seven is legit. Without injured standout defensive end Stephon Tuitt, that front line of the Steelers still won the day against a very strong Bengals offensive line.
7. I don’t know what Kellen Moore has done to keep the Cowboys from giving him a look at quarterback, but I’m surprised they haven’t. Moore’s not the most talented passer in the world, but he’s a gamer and a winner from his Boise State days. Moore showed some things in his preseason work with the Lions.
8. We’ll get an idea exactly how good Cowboys rookie left guard La’el Collins is (and he’s been pretty good) when he squares off against Eagles end Fletcher Cox on Sunday night. In his first pro action in Week 2 as a sub, Collins had a rough time at the hands of Cox. This will be a good measuring stick for the young player.
9.Russell Wilson still has a lot of room to grow as a quarterback. There was a great play-action concept to set up Jimmy Graham against the Cowboys last weekend, but Wilson, as he is wont to do, didn’t throw it in the proper timing of the route. He waited to throw to the sideline and was nearly intercepted. To take the next step, Wilson has to be better on those.
10. As we come down the home stretch, the schedule is going to be a factor in sorting out the final playoff spots. According to Football Outsiders, here are the easiest and toughest schedules of those teams still in the hunt. Easiest: Saints, Falcons, Jaguars, Packers, Colts. Hardest: Vikings, Bills, Texans, Giants, Cardinals.