Sunday, August 30, 2015

2015 Preseason NFL Power Rankings

With 3 weeks of the preseason pretty much in the books (The Texans and Saints and Cardinals and Raiders are squaring off later today), it's the perfect time to look at how the 32 NFL teams stack up heading into the regular season. It should be noted that this ranking is where I believe these teams are as of today, not where I think they'll be come the end of the season. Hope you all enjoy and please feel free to speak your mind on my picks in the comments section below!

1.New England Patriots
2.Seattle Seahawks
3.Green Bay Packers
4.Indianapolis Colts
5.Denver Broncos
6.Baltimore Ravens
7.Arizona Cardinals
8.Dallas Cowboys
9.Philadelphia Eagles
10.Buffalo Bills
11.Pittsburgh Steelers
12.Miami Dolphins
13.Carolina Panthers
14.Cincinnati Bengals 15.Detroit Lions
16.San Diego Chargers
17.Kansas City Chiefs
18.Minnesota Vikings
19.Houston Texans
20.New Orleans Saints
21.New York Giants
22.St. Louis Rams
23.New York Jets
24.San Francisco 49ers
25.Chicago Bears
26.Atlanta Falcons
27.Tampa Bay Buccaneers
28.Oakland Raiders
29.Jacksonville Jaguars
30.Washington Redskins
31.Cleveland Browns
32.Tennessee Titans

Friday, August 28, 2015

2015 NFL Preview: NFC South

Atlanta Falcons
2014 Record: 6-10
Head Coach: Dan Quinn (1st year)
Notable Additions: OLB Brooks Reed, DE Adrian Clayborn, OLB Justin Durant
Notable Departures: WR Harry Douglas, RB Steven Jackson,  ILB Sean Weatherspoon
The Falcons offense is completely dominated by the passing game. Matt Ryan is arguably the best veteran quarterback in the league to never win a Super Bowl while Julio Jones continues to make a strong case for being the league's best receiver with his perennially ridiculous numbers. The passing offense is further aided by number two receiver, Roddy White-who is still putting up solid numbers into his 30's despite being hampered with a slew of injuries over his career.

As good as the Falcons passing offense is, they could even be even better if they had a competent offensive line in front. According to Pro Football Focus, their offensive line graded out as 8th worst offensive line in the league in 2014. Ryan consistently throws for over 4,000 yards, but the shoddy protection he receives forces him to throw double digit INT's and ruins his accuracy rating.

Unfortunately for Ryan, things don't look like their going to be any better in 2015. This is almost a mirror image of the unit that allowed Ryan to get pummeled last season and unless young guys like Jake Matthews and Joe Hawley can show some type of insane improvement, this offense will once again get not reach their full potential because of terrible offensive line play. Ryan's quick release and ability to throw under pressure keeps this offensive afloat, but when your under duress on just about every throw, your bound to not put your best numbers.

The Falcons offense is also held back by their inability to run the football. Aside from Michael Turner, the Falcons have not enjoyed the luxury of having a quality running back on their roster since the dawn of the new millennium and their fortune doesn't appear set to change in 2015. While the poor offensive line play certainly plays a factor in their ineffective rushing attack, the Falcons running backs just aren't very good. Current starter Devonta Freeman made a few nice plays in his rookie year, but was way too erratic to be effective and rookie Tevin Coleman is going to have to prove he can produce without getting the mack-truck sized rushing lanes he enjoyed during his time at Indiana University. Freeman and Coleman will likely undergo a pretty even split in carries, but unless one of them is hiding some crazy rushing ability, I don't expect either of them to do much damage this season.    

The primary reason the Falcons hired Dan Quinn as their new head coach was to fix their ailing defense. Quinn, who was previously the defensive coordinator for the Seahawks, certainly has the football IQ to create a winning defense, but he's going to have to work some serious magic to turn around a Falcons  defense that finished near the bottom of the league in almost every major category in 2014.

While the entire defense is pretty much broken, the Falcons decided to focus a majority of their offseason efforts to fix their paltry pass rush that managed to pick a mere 22 sacks (tied for 31st in the NFL) a year ago. With all of the top free agent edge-rushers (Justin Houston, Jerry Hughes, Brandon Graham) choosing not to leave their respective teams from a year ago, the Falcons settled for picking up mid-tier options in ex-Texan Brooks Reed and ex-Buccaneer Adrian Clayborn. Reed and Clayborn aren't exactly world-beaters, but they are a big improvement for a team who's 2014 sack leader was Kory Effn' Biermann.

The Falcons waited until the draft to pick up a potential game-changing pass-rusher and that gamble could potentially pay dividends for them as they ended up with defensive end/outside linebacker Vic Beasley. Beasley lacks ideal size for a defensive end (6"3, 246 lbs), but he has an inhuman burst off the snap and has the strength to blow past lineman that are twice his size. If Beasley brings the same dominance that he showed during his time at Clemson and in pre-draft workouts to the NFL, he should make a huge impact on this defense and be one of the frontrunners for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Unfortunately, the Falcons did not make the same effort to improve the rest of their defense. Their secondary outside of the highly underrated 3rd-year cornerback Desmond Trufant is a disaster (their pass-defense was dead-last in the league a year ago) and their linebackers are still below average, even with the addition of Justin Durant to their ranks. A couple of young players (rookie cornerback Jalen Collins, outside linebacker Tyler Starr) could make some noise, but are way too raw to be relied on as key contributors. The additions to their front and the presence of Quinn should allow them to improve from a year ago, but it's highly unlikely that this defense will amount to anything special in 2015.

Bottom Line:
Despite a new coaching staff, the Falcons should suffer from the same unbalanced offense and unreliable defense that haunted them during the Mike Smith-era. However, the potency of their passing attack could still keep them in the hunt for the crown in this weak division.
Carolina Panthers
2014 Record: 7-9
Head Coach: Ron Rivera (5th year)
Notable Additions: CB Charles Tillman, WR Jarret Boykin, T Michael Oher
Notable Departures: DE Greg Hardy, RB DeAngelo Williams, T Byron Bell
The Panthers proved their allegiance to quarterback Cam Newton this offseason by giving him a massive contract extension (5 years/$103.8 mil/$60 mil guaranteed) that will keep with the team until 2020. Newton has been productive in his first 4 years in the league despite having consistently middling receivers, no rushing game and after Jordan Gross and Geoff Hangartner retired in 2013, a terrible offensive line that allows him no time to throw the ball.

2015 may prove be to Newton's toughest challenge to-date. His top wideout from a year ago, Kelvin Benjamin is now out for the season after tearing his ACL during practice 2 weeks ago. Benjamin's level of production (73 REC, 1,008 YDS, 9 TD) and knack for making spectacular catches and big plays is going to be sorely missed in 2015.

Newton's new de facto number one receiver is rookie Devin Funchess. Funchess was one of the most head-scratching picks of the 2nd round of the draft due to his lack of a polish as route runner, elite speed and inconsistent hands, but the Panthers are clearly very high on him as they traded up 16 picks to draft him. On the bright side, Funchess has a similarly imposing stature as Benjamin and will be so flooded with targets that he could be productive.

Newton's other receivers are similarly unproven. Corey Brown (formerly known as Philly Brown) is an intriguing yet raw speedster who could thrive in the slot, Jarret Boykin looked good at times in Green Bay, but it's unclear whether or not he impressed on his own or the excellence of Aaron Rodgers just made him look good, and Jerricho Cotchery and Ted Ginn Jr. are just too damn old to be relied on as starters. Regardless of who starts, at least 1 of these guys is going to have to step up and help take some of the burden off of Funchess.

The one luxury Newton has is the ability to check down to tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen is one of the most consistent tight ends in the game and enjoyed a career year in 2014 (84 REC, 1,008 YDS, 6 TD). Olsen is an especially valuable asset to have given the lack of weapons and experience among the team's wide receivers and he should help this offense overcome some of the adversity their facing in the passing game at the moment. 

With all of the red flags in their receiving corps, the Panthers are going to be forced to rely on the running game more than ever. Jonathan Stewart is being touted around the league as a breakout candidate simply because he has a firm grasp on the starting job, but I'm not buying it. While Stewart looked good down the stretch in 2014, his lengthy injury history is cause for major concern. Stewart has not played a full season since 2011 and with the near-guarantee of receiving a heavy workload this season , it's very likely that he gets banged up yet again.

Aside from Stewart, the rest of the running depth chart is a little shaky. Veterans Fozzy Whitaker and Jordan Todman are respectable situational runners, but have struggled anytime they've been asked to step into the starting role and rookie Cameron Artis-Payne lacks the burst and vision to handle a brunt of the carries at the NFL-level. If Stewart can remain healthy and produce, the running game will be fine. If not, the Panthers could be going yet another season without having a viable running back on their roster.

The Panthers have established their identity as a defensive football team since Ron Rivera took over as head coach in 2011. While the team struggled out of the gate without defensive end Greg Hardy- who was deactivated for the entire season after being found guilty of domestic abuse- in the first half of the year, they eventually regained their mojo and finished in the top 10 in overall defense. Without almost all of their starters returning, there's no reason to believe that this unit won't be one of the best in the league again in 2015.

The Panthers front 7 is one of the most terrifying in the league and even with star outside linebacker Thomas Davis turning 32 and defensive end Charles Johnson end turning 29 during the offseason, I don't expect them to lose any traction in 2015. Their pass-rush led by Johnson and Mario Addison is one of the most relentless in the league, their starting defensive tackle combo of Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei is a massive brick in the wall in the middle of the defensive line and inside linebacker Luke Kuchely is a bona fide superstar who is only becoming more dominant by the year. Even with pass-rushing specialist Frank Alexander set to miss the miss the entire season with a torn Achilles, the Panthers are one of the most well-rounded and deep defensive fronts in the league.

While the front 7 gets a majority of the attention, the secondary flies under the radar and has just as much, if not more talent than their counterparts up front. Cornerback Bene Benwikere and safety Tre Boston are 2 of the most unheralded and gifted young defensive backs in the league. These guys didn't enter the starting lineup until the latter stages of the 2014 season, but once they got there, they made a huge impact. Benwikerie and Boston helped right the ship after veterans Thomas DeCoud and Charles Godfrey struggled mightily in the first half of the year and ended up grading out as 2 of the 30 best defensive backs in the NFL for the 2014 season according to Pro Football Focus. Throw in the talent of veteran Charles Tillman, who is hungry to prove he can still play at age 34 after tearing his tricep 2 years in a row, and the Panthers could have the makings of a top-tier pass defense in 2015.

Bottom Line:
Even with all of the question marks on offense, the Panthers are still the most talented team in the NFC South and should remain the frontrunners to win the division barring a mass amount of injuries or a complete implosion by Newton.

New Orleans Saints
2014 Record: 6-10
Head Coach: Sean Payton (8th year)
Notable Additions: RB C.J. Spiller, C Max Unger, CB Brandon Browner
Notable Departures: TE Jimmy Graham, OLB Junior Gallette, WR Kenny Stills 
The national media has spent most of the offseason saying that Drew Brees time as an elite NFL quarterback is officially over with. Personally, I'm not buying this propaganda for a second. Yes Brees is now 36. Yes, the offseason trades of star tight end Jimmy Graham and deadly slot receiver Kenny Stills hurt the quality of the receiving. Yes, he threw an uncharacteristically-high 17 INT's last year. However, none of these things mean he's lost his edge. Brees may have had a "down year" in 2014, but he still tied for the league lead in passing yards (4,952) and threw 33 TD's, despite the fact that his offensive line was less-than-stellar and his defense's ineptness undermined his quality performances for a majority of the season.

As for the receiving corps, there's more than enough talent here to aid Brees in getting another 4,500-yard season. 2nd-year wideout Brandin Cooks should lead the charge and has the potential to put up massive numbers if utilized properly, Marques Colston is a reliable veteran option who can still put up 2 or 3 huge games a year and  Brandon Coleman is a massive redzone target (6"6, 220 lbs) who could make waves after buried on the depth chart last season (he was a healthy scratch for a majority of last season). The bottom line is that it's way too early to bury Brees and I'd be completely surprised if he didn't retain his elite form in 2015. 

While Brees' alleged demise and the revamped receiving corps have taken most of the headlines this offseason, the Saints quietly improved their rushing game. The Saints brought in C.J. Spiller in free agency to split carries with Mark Ingram, who pick up a new contract after posting is 1st career 1,000-yard season in 2014, and got center Max Unger in the trade that sent Graham to the Seahawks. Spiller has the potential to thrive like he did in his early years in Buffalo as a complementary option to Ingram and Unger is one of the best pure run-blocking centers in the league and should help stabilize an interior line that struggled at times last season. I still don't believe Sean Payton's vows that they're going to become a run-first team this year, but they certainly have the tools to have a much more balanced and competent rushing attack in 2015.

The Saints abysmal defensive play was the primary reason the team fell from grace in 2014. While the Saints clearly recognized this problem and took action this offseason, I don't believe the moves they made are going to be able patch up the abundance of issues they have.

Their defensive front was the root of a lot of their problems a year ago as star defensive end Cameron Jordan had an off-year and their rushing defense could not stop anyone they faced. Their front going into this year could be even worse now that outside linebacker Junior Gallette is gone. Gallette was basically the sole pass-rusher the Saints had last year and losing him is a devastating blow to a front that was already hurting for talent. Gallete's replacement, rookie Hau'oil Kikaha, has plenty of upside, but it's highly unlikely he'll be the destructive edge-rushing force Gallete was.

Elsewhere on the front, the Saints are either relying on guys that struggled last year (John Jenkins, Akiem Hicks, David Hawthorne), veterans whose best days are well behind them (Kevin Williams, Dannell Ellerbe, Anthony Spencer) and raw rookies (Stephone Anthony, Davis Tull, Tyeler Davison) to stabilize the front. Unless the rookies are all breakout stars, I don't see how this front can come together and become something formidable this season.  
The fate of the secondary doesn't look quite as grim, but there's no guarantee they're going to be excellent. A lot of their success is going to come depend on how well safety Jarius Byrd recovers from the torn meniscus he suffered early last season. Byrd was one of the best safeties in the league prior to the Saints signing him last season and if he can get back to the level he was during his tenure with the Bills, the secondary should be greatly improved in 2015.

The rest of the Saints secondary doesn't have nearly as much as upside as Byrd. Free agent pickup and projected starter cornerback Brandon Browner is useless if he doesn't lock up his receivers within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, safety Kenny Vaccaro got benched last season because of his poor play and top corner Kennan Lewis, while very talented, has not been able to stay healthy since he came to the Saints in 2013. There's a decent shot that Vaccaro can return to the dominant form of his rookie year and Lewis avoid injury and have a hell of a season, but those are not bets you can rely on this point in time. The Saints secondary is equally likely to return to the top 10-15 form they had in 2013 or maintain their bottom-10 standing from last season.

Bottom Line:
The Saints have a potent offense that can run up 28+ points a game without breaking a sweat, but I don't see how they can make the playoffs with their current defensive personnel.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2014 Record: 2-14
Head Coach: Lovie Smith (2nd year)
Notable Additions: DT Henry Melton, OLB Bruce Carter, DE George Johnson
Notable Departures: DE Michael Johnson, S Dashon Goldson, QB Josh McCown 

After watching their 2014 season go up in flames due to the collective failures of quarterbacks Josh McCown and Mike Glennon, general manager Jason Licht decided to use the number 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft on Jameis Winston. While Winston isn't a exactly a slam dunk pick, he's the best chance the Buccaneers have of reversing their fortunes in 2015.

In all my 5 years of deeply assessing NFL-bound quarterbacks, Winston is the single most polarizing prospect I've ever seen. Winston has the look of a great quarterback with his fantastic pocket presence, arm strength and the remarkable football IQ he demonstrated during the pre-draft process. On the other hand, his gunslinger mentality leads to a ton of INT's, his throwing mechanics are inconsistent and his inconsistency while throwing on the run could lead to failure at the next level.

In addition to his on-the-field problems, Winston brings a whole hell of a lot off-the-field baggage that implies he doesn't have the maturity or focus to be successful in the NFL. Winston was reportedly very transparent and genuine in pre-draft interviews about the various off-the-field incidents that got him national headlines and backlash during his time at Florida State. Those interviews were clearly enough to convince the Bucs to roll the dice on him,  but Winston is going to have to prove early on that the transparency and maturity he showed in those interviews wasn't just a facade to preserve his status as a high-draft pick.

Winston is entering a pretty ideal situation offensively as he gets to throw to the deadly 1-2 receiver punch of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson and work with a proven pass-happy offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter (Koetter was with the Falcons for the past 3 seasons) right out of the gate. I honestly can't remember the last time a rookie quarterback got to work with that much talent around him at the start of his career. The receiving corps should also benefit from Winston's presence. Both Evans and Jackson put up over 1,000 yards with horrid quarterback play last year. Unless Winston ends up completely tanking, it's highly unlikely that they can't improve upon those numbers in 2015.

The factor that could ultimately decide how Winston fares this year is the play of the offensive line. The Buccaneers line has been an abomination the past and their play played a huge role in the offense's ineffectiveness last season. As I stated earlier, Winston is at his best as a pocket passer. If he's forced to run for his life, the team will suffer and be on the fast track to the bottom of the league yet again.

As of right now, the prospects of this line being good this year are not very high. Left tackle Demar Dotson, who has the only reliable member of this line this past 2 seasons, is already out for the first month of the year with a severe knee sprain and they're relying on 3 first-time NFL starters in guard Garrett Gilkey, tackle Patrick Omameh and rookie tackle Donovan Smith to step up and fix the o-line problems that has ruined the franchise over the past few years. Making matters is worse the 2 proven veterans on the line, guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Smith, are both coming off the worst years of their careers and haven't shown any signs in the preseason that they've returned to form. If Winston can keep his head screwed on and his offensive line can prevent him from getting lit up, he could very well turn into a viable franchise quarterback.  

For whatever reason, head coach Lovie Smith thought it would be a smart idea to snatch up every free agent that played for him while he was with the Bears. Smith brought in defensive tackle Henry Melton, safety Chris Conte, outside linebacker Khaseem Greene, cornerback Isiah Frey and re-signed safety Major Wright this offseason. Outside of Melton and Wright, none of these guys made much of an impact when they played for Smith in Chicago, so bringing them to Tampa Bay doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense.

Aside from bringing in some scrap-heap Bears players, The Buccaneers made some subtle tweaks that should help this defense perform more consistently this year. They went out and added veterans at almost every position on defense, bringing in defensive end George Johnson, defensive tackle Tony McDaniel, inside/outside linebacker Bruce Carter, safety D.J. Swearinger and cornerback Sterling Moore through free agency and trades. Only Johnson and Carter are slated to start, but all of those guys should help boost the depth problems that plagued this defense a year ago. 

In order for the Buccaneers defense to live up to their immense potential, players aside from stud defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebacker Lavonte David are going to have step up and perform each and every week. Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, cornerback Alterraun Verner and Wright are among the best in the league at their respective positions when they're are on their game. All 3 of these guys had their moments in 2014 (especially Verner who was downright dominant in a few games), but couldn't parlay those bursts of strong play into long-term success and it ultimately led to the Bucs losing a lot of close games (9 of the 14 Bucs losses were by a touchdown or less) and having a defense that ranked near the bottom of the league in every major category. The Buccaneers have the 2-3 marquee players necessary to be a powerhouse similar to what Smith had during most of his tenure with the Bears, the supporting cast around them just needs to play with a consistent edge.

Bottom Line:  
 This squad wasn't nearly as bad as their 2-14 record a year ago suggests and with some definite improvements made this offseason, they should improve by a notable margin in 2015. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see them take the division if Winston plays well.

Projected Standings for the NFC South:
1.Carolina Panthers (9-7)
2.Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-8)
3.New Orleans Saints (7-9)
4.Atlanta Falcons (6-10)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Best and Worst of Owen Wilson

The "Best and Worst" series profiles the best and worst work of an actor starring in one of the week's new theatrical releases. This week I take a look at the filmography of "No Escape" star Owen Wilson.

Films starring Owen Wilson that I've seen:
Bottle Rocket
Shanghai Noon
Meet the Parents
The Royal Tenenbaums
I Spy
Shanghai Knights
Starsky & Hutch
Meet the Fockers 
Wedding Crashers
You, Me and Dupree
Night at the Museum
Drillbit Taylor
Little Fockers
Hall Pass 
Midnight in Paris
Cars 2
The Big Year
The Internship
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Performance: Wedding Crashers (2005)
Wilson has made a career of being the second-banana in comedy films. Films like Zoolander, Meet the Parent and I Spy saw him taking a back seat to a big comic star (Ben Stiller in the former two and Eddie Murphy in the latter) and subsequently being outshined by them. Wedding Crashers was one of the few times where Wilson got to be in the spotlight and he absolutely crushed it. Wilson may not have the demented snark and whirlwind energy of his costar Vince Vaughn, but his reserved delivery and brilliant timing led to some of the film's biggest laughs.

Worst Performance: You, Me and Dupree (2006)
Wilson's best trait as an actor is his inherent likability. The likability that defines him was thrown out the window for his role in the terrible 2006 comedy You, Me and Dupree. Wilson plays Dupree, a "loveable" loser who is forced to move in with his best friend (Matt Dillion) and new bride (Kate Hudson) after he his evicted from his apartment. There was not a minute where Wilson was on screen in this film where I didn't want to punch him in the face. Dupree is an obnoxious asshole and as a viewer, you want nothing more than to see overwhelming pain continuously inflicted on him. Wilson has never been so insufferable on screen and he would have to put together a Herculean effort to ever top this.

Best Film: Zoolander (2001)
Wilson has been a part of a number of excellent comedies over the years, but none are as absurd and consistently laugh-out-loud funny as Zoolander. I've seen Zoolander at least half a dozen times since I was in middle school and it doesn't lose any of its comedic value on repeat views. The characters are full-blown insane and Stiller's satire on the ridiculousness of the world of male-modeling is sharp and spot-on. Hopefully the sequel- which is currently slated to be released next February- can capture at least some of the brilliance of this film. 

Worst Film: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
I'm sure someone will crucify me for picking this over widely-panned films like I Spy, The Internship and Drillbit Taylor. The truth is that I'm not a Wes Anderson fan at all. I find his movies to be pretentious, annoying and woefully unfunny. Of all the Anderson films I've seen, The Royal Tennenbaums is easily the worst. It's the strongest example of everything I hate about Anderson as a filmmaker wrapped into one movie and the fact that he wasted the talents of so many great actors (Stiller, Gene Hackman, Bill Murray, Luke Wilson) on this dreck fills me with an unholy amount of rage. This movie can go straight to hell where it belongs. 

 Thank you for reading this week's installment of "The Best and Worst of". In two weeks, I'll take a look at the best and worst work of "Sleeping with Other People" star Adam Scott.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

2015 NFL Preview: NFC North

Chicago Bears
2014 Record: 5-11
Head Coach: John Fox (1st year)
Notable Additions: OLB Pernell McPhee, S Antrell Rolle, WR Eddie Royal
Notable Departures: WR Brandon Marshall, CB Charles Tillman, OLB Lance Briggs
(Note: I'm a Chicago Bears fan, so I had to sacrifice a bit of my objectivity to properly convey the sorrow and bitterness rooting for this team fills me with.)
Groundhog Day is striking in Chicago as Jay Cutler will be forced to learn yet another offense in 2015. Granted, the firing of head coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer was entirely justified after the disastrous 2014 campaign that saw this offense sputter out completely (23rd in points per game and 21st in total yards) after finishing 2nd in the NFL in scoring and 8th in total yards in 2013, it just sucks that Cutler is going to be forced to learn yet another offense. Most quarterbacks only have to learn 2-3 offenses in their entire careers, Cutler is onto his 5th offensive coordinator since he joined the Bears in 2009. Cutler has certainly caused a lot of his own woes with his tendency to rush throws and take unnecessary risks by throwing into double and triple coverage instead of simply throwing the ball away, but the rapid changeover of offensive coordinators has undoubtedly stunted his production during his tenure with the Bears.

There's a lot of optimism that new offensive coordinator Adam Gase will be the guy to finally provide stability to Cutler's game and the offense in general. In Gase's 2 years as the o-coordinator in Denver, the Broncos were the top scoring offense in football over that span and were damn near unstoppable most weeks. However, it's unclear whether Gase or quarterback Peyton Manning was the catalyst for the Broncos offensive domination during that time. The early reviews out of training camp have been glowing for both men (Cutler allegedly didn't throw a single interception in practice!), but I won't believe that Gase is an offensive virtuoso or that Cutler has remedied his turnover woes and finally become the elite quarterback the Bears expected him to be when they traded for him 6 years ago until they prove it in the regular season.

Further complicating the offense's rebound effort is the loss of 1st-round pick Kevin White for at least half of the year after he underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his shin last week. White was expected to fill the void at wideout left by the offseason trade of star Brandon Marshall and his loss all but ensures that the Bears won't have a 3rd playmaker in their receiving corps to line up alongside Alshon Jeffrey and tight end Martellus Bennett. Eddie Royal, the Bears other offseason acquisition at wide receiver, is taking over White's starting job and while he's a serviceable veteran fill-in who has the benefit of having previously played with Cutler in Denver, he lacks the big-play potential and excellent athleticism that White brings to the table.

About the only thing can get really excited about this season is that all of their offensive line is coming back healthy. None of their starters played all 16 games last season, which really effected the chemistry up front and led to Cutler taking a beating for most of the season. The return of guard Matt Slauson will be particularly welcome. His mauling presence as a run-blocker was sorely missed in the 2nd half of the season and played a large part in running back Matt Forte's middling numbers down the stretch (he only had 1 100-yard game after Slauson went down with a torn pectoral muscle against the Patriots in late October). This unit was one of the best in the NFL in 2013 and if they can stay healthy and seamlessly integrate new center Will Montgomery into the fold, they should return to that status in 2015.

The Bears defense followed up their historically-bad 2013 with an almost equally poor performance in 2014. They were pretty much hopeless against both the run and pass and as a result of their collective incompetence, they surrendered the 2nd most points per game in the entire of league. Like pretty much everyone else that sat in the front office or stood on the sideline last season, the defensive coaching staff was rightfully terminated once the season was over.

Of all the new hires the Bears made this season, none was better than defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Fangio's arrival in Chicago will answer the question of whether or not the personnel or Mel Tucker's poorly-constructed, zone-heavy scheme was responsible for the team's defensive woes over the past 2 seasons. Fangio worked some serious magic during his 4-year stint with the 49ers by frequently overcoming adversity and managing to put a productive defense on the field week in and week out. He's going to have to pull off an even grander miracle to make the Bears defense respectable once again.

The pool of players Fangio will be relatively different than the ones Tucker worked with a season thanks to the large number of acquisitions new general manager Ryan Pace made in the offseason. Pace brought in outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, safety Antrell Rolle, defensive end Jarvis Jenkins, inside linebacker Mason Foster, defensive end Sam Acho and cornerback Alan Ball in free agency in an effort to sure up the defense and take some of the pressure of the team's young starters. Outside of McPhee and Rolle, none of these guys are guaranteed to start, but they're all veterans with low-risk deals who provide depth and experience on a defense that is in desperate need of both. Pace's reluctance to sign big free agent deals outside of McPhee- who could prove to be a brilliant signing if he's the same pass-rushing, run-stuffing monster he was with the Ravens- is definitely an admirable approach after previous GM Phil Emery repeatedly gave big-money contracts to any schmuck who was willing to play in Chicago, but it may prevent the Bears defense from making a drastic turnaround this season .

It'll be very interesting to see how Fangio goes out about assembling this defense. There's no proven young stars (second-year cornerback Kyle Fuller and rookie defensive tackle Eddie Goldman have serious potential though), their safeties outside of Rolle can't be trusted, their pass-rush is questionable at best, and how well their defense is going to play this season hinges on whether or not 33-year old Jared Allen can successfully make the transition to outside linebacker after spending the first 11 years of his career at defensive end. While the prospects are certainly gloomy at this point in time, Fangio is one of the few people in the league that could potentially turn this giant mess of over-the-hill veterans and unproven young players into a productive defense.

Bottom Line:
The experience and proven leadership of their new coaching staff should allow the Bears to improve from last year's nightmare season, but a brutal schedule (on top of their tough division, they have to play the NFC and AFC West) and general lack of talent on both sides of the ball will keep them firmly in the NFL's lower-tier of teams.

Detroit Lions
2014 Record: 11-5
Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (2nd year)
Notable Additions: DT Haloti Ngata, G/C Manny Ramirez, WR Lance Moore
Notable Departures: DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Nick Fairley, RB Reggie Bush
The Lions offense took a bit of a hit in 2014 with Calvin Johnson missing more than 2 games in a season for the 1st time in his career with an ankle injury and severe injuries to Reggie Bush and guard Larry Warford preventing their rushing attack from being as dangerous as it was in 2013.
With a healthy Johnson and Warford back in the mix, the Lions should be able to return to their elite offensive form in 2015. Matthew Stafford is a consistent, quality starting quarterback who can go off at any time, Johnson and Golden Tate-who is a coming off a career-best 2014 campaign (99 REC,1,331 yard, 4 TD)- are one of the most deadly wide receiver combos in the league and their already solid offensive line got even better with the acquisition of guard Manny Ramirez from the Broncos in a draft-day trade and 2nd-year center Travis Swanson replacing veteran Dominic Raiola, whose age finally caught up with him in 2014 after 13 dominant seasons in the league, in the starting lineup.

The Lions offense could prove to be even deadlier if rookie running back Ameer Abdullah and tight end Eric Ebron play up to their immense potential. Abdullah possesses the same skill as the recently-departed Bush, only with more explosiveness and better vision. Abdullah has looked unstoppable in training camp and the first 2 preseason games and if he play continues at this level, he'll find himself replacing Joique Bell as the Lions starting running back in no time. Ebron hasn't made nearly as much noise as Abdullah in the preseason due to head coach Jim Caldwell limiting his starters to 12 snaps a game, but he's apparently been excellent in camp and showed a much better understanding of the offense than he did in his disappointing rookie season (25 REC, 248 YDS, 1 TD) in 2014. Ebron's athleticism and polish as a receiver made him the rare tight end to be selected with a top-10 overall draft pick and if the dominance he showed in college can transfer over to the NFL, he will be the clear number 3 option in this passing offense and could quite possibly morph into one of the league's best tight ends.

It's no secret how stout the Lions defense was last year. They were 8th in the league in sacks (42),  tied for 2nd in least points allowed (17.6 per game) and ranked 1st in run defense. The odds of the level of dominance they displayed in 2014 occurring again in 2015 is highly unlikely after defensive tackles Ndmuakong Suh and Nick Fairley decide to leave the team in free agency.

The though of 2 players leaving having such an impact on the quality of the entire defense may seem ridiculous to the average, but the play of Suh and Fairley is what this defense elite. The pressure Suh and Fairley put on opposing offenses by disrupting the line of scrimmage on almost every play took the pressure off the rest of the defense and largely covered up any holes that existed. Multi-faceted defensive tackles that can defend the run and get after the quarterback the way Suh and Fairley don't come around very often and are damn near impossible to replace. The Lions did soften the blow to the interior line a bit by trading for former Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who is still playing at a pretty high level at age 31, but his presence won't be nearly enough to replicate the wrecking ball Suh and Fairley were in the middle of this defense.

The unit that will feel the brunt of the hit from the loss of Suh and Fairley will be the secondary. The Lions 13th-ranking against the pass a year ago can almost entirely be attributed to how the defensive front played. Their starting corner duo (Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis) is adequate at best and is going to have display far more consistency if they want to enjoy the same level success they had a year ago. This was a unit that got ruined in 2013 when Fairley had a down year and without that consistent disruptive presence up front, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to watch this secondary get lit up on a weekly basis again this year. The Lions may still have some quality defensive players in outside linebacker DeAndre Levy, defensive end Ezekiel  "Ziggy" Ansah and safety Glover Quin, but it's highly unlikely this defense will be elite again in 2015.

Bottom Line:
The huge losses of Suh and Fairley paired with the increasingly stiff competition of the NFC should prevent the Lions from repeating the success they had in 2014. Anything above 9 wins would be very surprising.

Green Bay Packers
2014 Record: 12-4
Head Coach: Mike McCarthy (10th year)
Notable Additions: None
Notable Departures: CB Tramon Williams, CB Davon House, ILB A.J. Hawk

Everything appeared to be business as usual for the Packers high-powered offense 2015. They were able to re-sign free agent wide receiver Randall Cobb to a new deal (4 year/$40 mil/$17 mil guaranteed) and suffered no major losses from their offense that ranked 6th overall in the league a year ago. Then disaster struck in last Saturday's preseason game against the 49ers when star wide receiver Jordy Nelson suffered a torn ACL and will now miss the entire 2015 season.

While the loss of a player of Nelson's caliber would be devastating for almost every other team in the league, the Packers should be just fine. Cobb is every bit as talented as Nelson and should effortlessly slide into the role of the Packers uncontested top receiver and 2nd-year player Davante Adams showed flashes of brilliance as a slot receiver during his rookie campaign last year and has to potential to put up insane numbers with more targets coming his way in 2015.

It also helps that the Packers have an elite quarterback in Aaron Rodgers that can produce with whatever pieces are at his disposal and a workhorse running back in Eddie Lacy that can carry the offense on his back if the passing game isn't working out. The Packers are one of the few pick-your-poison teams to still exist in the current pass-happy incarnation of the league and that sense of unpredictability should continue to benefit them immensely this season.

The same continuity that has defined the Packers offense in the Mike McCarthy/Ted Thompson-era carries over to the defense. While their offense is largely recognized as one of the best in the league, their defense doesn't really get the love they deserve.

They have one of the deepest secondaries in the league and should only get better this year if Ha-Ha Clintion-Dix can build on his strong play from the end of the last season, their pass-rush is solid and inside linebacker Sam Barrington is quietly becoming one of the better young linebackers in all of football. Don't get it twisted, the Packers defense isn't as loaded as their offense, but they are a pretty damn good unit that should only get better in 2015.  

The only area that's still a concern for the Packers is their defensive line. Mike Daniels is a respectable starting defensive end who has gotten better each year he's been in the league, but aside from him this unit is lacking in talent and depth. Datone Jones has struggled mightily since he entered the league in 2013 and nose tackle B.J. Raji is coming off back-to-back season-ending injuries and his ability as a run-stuffer has greatly diminished since his Pro Bowl season in 2011. While their defensive line is certainly an area of concern, it's not nearly weak enough to prevent this defense from being productive yet again in 2015.

Bottom Line:
The Packers have consistently at the top of the NFC every year since 2009 and it would be an absolute shock if that changed in 2015.

Minnesota Vikings
2014 Record: 7-9
Head Coach: Mike Zimmer (2nd year)
Notable Additions: WR Mike Wallace, CB Terrence Newman, QB Shaun Hill
Notable Departures: WR Greg Jennings, QB Matt Cassel, ILB Jasper Brinkley

Vikings fans can officially rejoice as star running back Adrian Peterson has officially been reinstated by the NFL after missing all but 1 game in 2014 after being indicted and eventually pleading no contest to charges of child abuse and endangerment. The production of the Vikings offense dropped considerably without Peterson in the lineup and his return should at the very least give this offense more balance than it had a year ago. There are definitely questions about how Peterson will perform after just turning 30 and sitting out of football for a year, but given his stellar track record when the odds are stacked against him, I'd be willing to wager he comes out and has a hell of a year in 2015.

Peterson's return should also have a positive effect on the development of 2nd-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. If Peterson return to dominant form, opposing defenses will have to stack the tackle box to try and stop him. That attention paid to Peterson should allow Bridgewater more opportunities to thrive in the passing game and allow him to stretch the field more than he did in his rookie year where he was forced to call mostly screen passes to make up for the lack of receiving talent around him.

Even if Peterson fails to make an impact, Bridgewater should greatly improve from his rookie season a year ago. Bridgewater closed on an incredibly high note putting 8 TD's, a 105.5 QBR and completing 71.7% of his passes over the last 5 games and ended up grading out as the quarterback with best accuracy while throwing on the run in 2014 according to Pro Football Focus. The confidence and polish Bridgewater showed down the stretch is a great sign that he'll continue to be successful in the NFL. 

Bridgewater should also benefit from the rebuilt receiving corps. With Kyle Rudolph missing most of the year (once again) with assorted injuries and underwhelming play of wideouts Cordarrelle Patterson, Greg Jennings and Jarius Wright, Bridgewater's only reliable target last year was backup running back Matt Asiata. Thankfully, the organization decided to make some changes to the receiving corps going into 2015. The biggest move was going out and acquiring Mike Wallace in a trade with the Dolphins. Wallace is an undeniably streaky player, but his top-end makes him a lethal deep threat.  The Vikings are also very high on 3rd-year wideout Charles Johnson, who joined the team in mid-October of last year after being signed from the Browns practice squad. Johnson looked excellent in semi-limited reps down the stretch last season and has cemented his status as a potential 2015 breakout candidate with a strong season of offseason workouts and solid preseason performances. Bridgewater's play will ultimately determine how productive this offense is and as of right now, the prospects for him succeeding are pretty bright.

Head coach Mike Zimmer has put a lot of effort into overhauling the Vikings defense since he arrived in January 2014 and even though it's still a work in progress, he's already done excellent job improving this defense during his 1st year on the job. The secondary led by rising star safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes is the clear centerpiece of this defense right now (they ranked 8th against the pass in 2014) and Zimmer went out and bolstered the depth this offseaso by adding veteran Terrence Newman and scrappy rookie Trae Waynes to the mix. Newman may be out of his prime, but he's a still respectable corner that can be deployed anywhere in the secondary while Waynes is a physical press corner with excellent ball skills who could turn into something special if he can adjust to the stricter refereeing of the NFL.

The front 7 also became surprisingly formidable in 2014 in large part because of Zimmer's decision to gamble on veteran defensive end Everson Griffen and rookie Anthony Barr paying off big time. Griffen and Barr were risky for much different reasons (Griffen never saw significant playing time in his first 4 years in the league and Barr was a rookie who had only played on the defensive of the ball for 2 years in college), but both proved to be excellent players that thrived in Zimmer's defensive blitz-heavy, 4-3 scheme. Both of these guys haven't even come close to hitting their ceiling yet, but when they do, they could very well turn into two of the best defensive players in the league.

With all the promise on this defense, they didn't do much in the offseason to patch up their leaky run defense that finished 25th in the league in 2014. Drafting a polished, instinctive inside linebacker in Eric Kendricks should help a bit, but his presence isn't nearly enough to stop this team from getting bowled over by Eddie Lacy and Matt Forte 4 times a year. The Vikings have some talented players (Linval Joesph, Sharif Floyd, Chad Greenway) that struggled in 2014 that could very well  bounce back in 2015, but if that doesn't happen, this defense will likely struggle to stop to run the again this season. 
Bottom Line:
With a promising young quarterback, underrated young defense and an intelligent head coach running the show, the Vikings could very well be the surprise team of 2015.

Projected Standings for the NFC North:
1.Green Bay Packers (12-4)
2.Minnesota Vikings (9-7)
3.Detroit Lions (7-9)
4.Chicago Bears (6-10) 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Quick Movie Reviews: The Man From U.N.C.L.E, The End of Tour, American Ultra

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: Guy Ritchie really doesn't get enough credit for how good of a director he is. Ritchie is able to take a spy film with a loose premise (a pair of special agents from the USA and Russia team up to stop an upstart criminal organization from launching a nuclear weapon) and no legitimate villain and make it a winner by injecting it with his trademark snappy dialogue, gorgeous cinematography and dashes of well-timed dark humor. Ritchie applying his defining traits as a filmmaker to a traditional spy film makes this feel fresher than a majority of the genre's recent entries (including the vastly overrated Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation that's also currently theaters). While Ritchie's flare for comedy and striking visuals play a large part in the film's success, perhaps his greatest accomplishment here is managing to get respectable performances out of the normally wooden Henry Cavil and Armie Hammer. The duo have a nice rapport with one another and both demonstrate much more screen presence than they did in their previous turns as action leads. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a mindless, breezy piece of late summer entertainment that is well worth the watch for fans of the espionage genre.
3.5/5 Stars

The End of the Tour: During a time of year where big, loud blockbusters dominate cinemas, it's refreshing to see a smart, minimalist film like The End of the Tour hit the marketplace. The film is completely centered around a five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and writer David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) at the end of Wallace's book tour for his widely celebrated 1996 novel Infinite Jest. Segel steals the movie with his incredible performance as Wallace. Segel effortlessly captures the wide range of emotions that haunted Wallace after the breakout popularity of Infinite Jest and proves to skeptical audiences that he can tackle drama with the same level of skill he displays in his comedic work. Eisenberg brings a similar level of magnetism and emotional depth to his portrayal of Lipsky. Lipsky deeply admires Wallace's work, but also resents him for having the successful literary career that alluded him during his time as a novelist. The duo's respective egos and reservations about opening up to one another make their conversations consistently unpredictable and create a drama that is remarkably compelling and deeply human. The conversations between Lipsky occasionally get too bogged down with philosophical rhetoric  and the final scene-which takes place after Wallace's suicide in 2008-is completely forced and tonally inconsistent from the rest of the movie, but for the most part,  The End of the Tour is an intelligent and engrossing film that allows the audience to better understand the psyche and true character of one the most reclusive and brilliant authors of the 20th century.
4/5 Stars  

American Ultra: Aside from Kingsman: The Secretman Service, 2015 has had a serious lack of fun, ultraviolent B-action movies. American Ultra fills that void and then some. The film kind of stumbles out of the gate as it sets up the relationship between mellow stoners Mike (Jeese Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), but as soon as Mike discovers he's a CIA-trained sleeper agent, American Ultra becomes an unforgettable and absurdly entertaining ride. Screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) does a great job of putting together a narrative that blends indie romance, stoner comedy and balls-out, over-the-top action without ever feeling jarring and the ensemble cast headed by Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace and Walton Goggins are game for every twisted, ludicrous setpiece the script throws at them. American Ultra is one of the most insane mainstream American films I've ever seen and while it'll probably struggle to find an audience during its current theatrical run, it has the potential to become a cult classic a few years down the road.
4/5 Stars

Friday, August 21, 2015

2015 NFL Preview: NFC East

Dallas Cowboys
2014 Record: 12-4
Head Coach: Jason Garrett (5th year)
Notable Additions: DE Greg Hardy, RB Darren McFadden,  ILB Jasper Brinkley
Notable Departures: RB DeMarco Murray, OLB Bruce Carter, DT Henry Melton
The Cowboys suffered one of the biggest losses of the offseason when they lost running back DeMarco Murray to the Eagles in free agency. Murray, who led the league in rushing in 2014 with a ridiculous 1,845 yards, was the centerpiece of this offense and the primary reason the Cowboys were able to clinch their first playoff berth since 2009. Many experts have downplayed the loss of Murray due to the Cowboys elite offensive line who can create massive rushing lanes on just about every play. They may still have the best offensive line in football, but that doesn't mean their running attack will be anywhere near as deadly as it was a year ago. Their current running backs have either never started in the NFL (Joseph Randle, Lance Dunbar) or are more fragile than a box full of glassware (Darren McFadden). Randle is expected to get the starting job, but based on his poor training camp performance and limited sample size (he hasn't surpassed 55 carries in either of his first 2 NFL seasons), it's far from a guarantee that he'll thrive as the starter. Murray's effectiveness took pressure off quarterback Tony Romo and ate up a ton of clock time, which in turn kept their lackluster defense off the field. I'd be highly surprised if the Cowboys had the same luxury this year.
If the rushing attack doesn't come to fruition, Romo has the ability to carry this offense. With a receiving corps led by superstar Dez Bryant, grizzled veteran Jason Witten and TD magnet Terrence Williams, Romo could very well flirt with a 5,000-yard this season in 2015. The Cowboys have been a pass-first offense for most of the last decade and that should once again be the case in 2015.

 Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli deserve all the credit in the world for making this talent-barren defense respectable in 2014 (8th against the run, 26th against the pass,19th overall). The Cowboys rewarded Marinelli's inhuman display of coaching wizardry with a 3-year contract extension and the addition of some intriguing young talent that should make his job a little bit easier this season. 

The clear highlight of the Cowboys offseason haul was defensive end Greg Hardy. The signing of Hardy was extremely controversial in the wake of the domestic abuse charges that forced him to miss all but 1 game in 2015, but there's no denying that he's one hell of a football player. Hardy has picked up 23 sacks in his last 24 games played and barring some bizarre drop in production, should immediately wreak havoc on opposing quarterback once he returns from 4-game suspension against the Patriots in Week 5. The Cowboys also went out and used their 1st-round pick on an athletic freak in cornerback Byron Jones to help patch up their horrid secondary and hopefully take away top corner duties from veteran burnout Brandon Carr and brought in veterans Jasper Brinkley and Andrew Gachkar to sure up their depth at linebacker. The Cowboys didn't much cap space or high-draft picks to work,  but they managed to pull down a pretty impressive group of new players that should help this defense improve in 2015.   

The Cowboys success on defense is largely going to hinge on how well their young pass-rushers DeMarcus Lawernce and Randy Gregory fare. Hardy is the only consistent pass-rusher the Cowboys can out on at the moment and they're going to need a strong pass rush  to take pressure off of their awful secondary. The young duo have a lot to prove as Lawrence as largely ineffective in his rookie year (he didn't get a sack until the Wild Card round of the playoffs) and Gregory's draft stock took a nose dive due to his poor performance in pre-draft interviews and workouts. Both of these guys have sky-high ceilings and could eventually morph into one of the league's top pass-rushing duos, but for now they have to prove they can handle the speed and mental drain of the NFL. The Cowboys defense more than likely won't transform into a top-tier defense, but there's surely a lot more reasons to be excited about this unit than there was this time last year.

Bottom Line: 
Without a proven workhorse back to carry the load, The Cowboys will likely fail to reproduce their success from 2014 and revert back to the above-average team they've been for much of the past half-decade.

New York Giants
2014 Record: 6-10
Head Coach: Tom Coughlin (12th year)
Notable Additions: RB Shane Vereen, WR James Jones, CB Josh Gordy
Notable Departures: S Antrell Rolle, OLB Spencer Paysinger, S Stevie Brown

There is arguably not another offense in the NFL with more question marks than the Giants. Can Victor Cruz return to form after tearing his patellae tendon? Can the offensive line hold up without veteran Will Beatty in the lineup for at least the first half of the season? Can rookie Ereck Flowers handle starting at left tackle out of the gate? Can Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams or the newly-acquired Shane Vereen emerge as a legit NFL starting running back? If all or most of these work out, this offense could contend to be the top offense in football-especially if they can lineup a healthy Cruz next to budding superstar Odell Beckham Jr. If not, the Giants will falter mightily and probably employ the "throw the ball to Odell 15-20 times a game" strategy they used once Cruz and Jennings went down last year. Since it's the Giants and you really never what the hell you're going to get from them, both of these options have about equal probability of coming true.

The stabilizing figure in this offense is quarterback Eli Manning. Manning throws a lot of INT's and can be extremely erratic at times, but when he's on, this offense thrives and can outscore just about anyone in the league. Despite a trashy running game and basically no help from his offensive line, Manning's 2014 numbers were his best (4,440 YDS, 30 TD, 14 INT, 92.1 QBR) since their title run in 2011. If he can actually get some protection from his offensive line and Beckham Jr. and Cruz can stay healthy and continue to produce at a high level, those numbers should only improve this year. Even with all the murkiness that surrounds this offense, there's no denying that they're one of the most intriguing groups in the league heading in 2015 season 

The offense may have a plethora of question marks surrounding it, but those uncertainties are nothing compared to the nightmares this defense is facing heading into 2015.

Unless you've been in a coma or vacationing on Mars for the past month, you're probably aware of the fact that defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul lost one of his fingers in a fireworks accident over the 4th of July weekend. Pierre-Paul-who was given the franchise tag in March-is the team's top pass-rusher by leaps and bounds and is one of the best run-stopping defensive ends in the NFL. As of today, there's no word if Pierre-Paul will return to the team this year or at all. With Pierre-Paul out of the mix indefinitely, their defensive line is basically screwed this season.

On top of the Pierre-Paul disaster, they didn't bring anyone into help fix their horrible rush defense that ranked 30th in the league a year ago and their safety situation became so grim after Antrell Rolle and Stevie Brown departed in free agency that they just brought in Brandon "The Party Starter" Merriwheather to potentially start alongside rookie Landon Collins. The organization is optimistic that Collins and fellow rookie defensive Owamagbe Odigizuwa will be able to remedy some of their defensive woes, but even if they both work out, they are only 2 guys on a defense that is almost completely full of holes. If they can't fix their inability to stop the run, find a pass-rusher and lock down 2 solid safeties, it could be a very long for the G-Men on defense.

About the only positives the Giants can relish in heading into 2015 is the return of former defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo and cornerback Prince Amukamara to the starting lineup. Spagnuolo was the architect of the horrifying pass rush that anchored the Giants 2007 Super Bowl run and could potentially unlock the talent in their raw young players like Odigizuwa and third-year defensive end Damontre Moore and further bolster the pass-rushing skills of defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins, who enjoyed a breakout 7-sack last season in 2014.

Amukamara is an even more welcome return. He was playing at an All-Pro-caliber level before going down with in early November with a torn bicep and his services will be needed more than ever with all of the other issues in the Giants secondary. Amukamara and his fellow starter Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have the potential to be one of the better starting corner duos in the league and could really help this defense remain respectable as they try to figure out a solution to their front seven and safety woes.

Bottom Line:
The Giants are too well coached to be complete failures, but their plethora of question marks on both sides of the ball make them longshots to make the playoffs.

Philadelphia Eagles
2014 Record: 10-6
Head Coach: Chip Kelly (3rd year)
Notable Additions: RB DeMarco Murray, QB Sam Bradford, CB Byron Maxwell
Notable Departures: RB LeSean McCoy, WR Jeremy Maclin, QB Nick Foles
Head coach Chip Kelly became the general manager in February and he made a hell of entrance into the world of general managing. Kelly used his newfound player personnel control to dump most of the key components from an offense that ranked in the top 10 every major offensive category a year ago. Kelly traded 2013 rushing champion LeSean McCoy to the Bills and starting quarterback Nick Foles to the Rams, let top wide receiver Jeremy Maclin walk in free agency and released both of their Week 1starting guards (Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans) from a year ago. These moves were drastic to say the least and the jury is still out on whether or not Kelly is a bold, risk-taking visionary or a complete lunatic for making them.

Kelly was equally aggressive in replacing his departed players with equally high-profile talent. Kelly made his intent to keep the Eagles as a run-first offense clear by bringing in 2 of the top free-agent running backs in 2014 rushing champion DeMarco Murray and former Chargers starter Ryan Matthews. Both Murray and Matthews are high-risk players with their lengthy injury histories (and in Murray's case, historic workload a year ago), but both are incredibly hard runners who fit perfectly in Kelly's power-run scheme.

Kelly made an even riskier move at quarterback by acquiring Sam Bradford to take over for Foles. While Bradford is admittedly a perfectly competent starting quarterback, he's coming off 2 straight seasons that have been shortened by torn ACL's, making him a far from safe bet for success in 2015. The good news is that Bradford only has 1 year left on his current contract. The bad news is that if he doesn't end up returning to his pre-injury levels of production and/or gets injured for a 3rd straight year, the Eagles will once again be forced to look for a new starting quarterback in 2016.

However, the losses of Mathis and Herremans could prove to be the loss that hurts the Eagles the most in 2015. Mathis is the best pure run-blocking guard in the league and Herremans is a solid veteran starter who rarely misses blocking assignments. For whatever reason, the Eagles didn't draft any offensive lineman this season and had no contingency plan in place when they cut Mathis in late June after a contract dispute. Their current starting guard competition is between a pair of undrafted rookies (Malcolm Bunche, Brett Boyko) a 2014 practice squad player (Josh Andrews), a below-average veteran who didn't play in 2014 (John Moffit) and a converted tackle who's started a whopping 8 games in his 7-year career (Andrew Gardner). The Eagles having 3 of the best lineman in the league in Jason Peters, Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce in the other spots on the line should help ease the pan of the transition, but the lack of proven guards to help aid the running game could really hurt them in the long run.

Wide receiver is easily the spot that inspires the most confidence on this offense. Rookie Nelson Agoholor was arguably the most pro-ready receiver in this year's draft outside of Amari Cooper and Jordan Matthews should be able to build off his excellent finish last season to nicely fill the top receiver role vacated by Maclin. Throw in the presence of a rock-solid tight end who's about to enter his prime in Zach Ertz, speedster Josh Huff and respectable albeit unremarkable veterans in Miles Austin and Serij Ajirotutu, and you have one of the most quietly loaded receiving corps in the league.

Kelly's moves on defense were nowhere near as drastic as the ones he made on offense, as outside linebacker Trent Cole, cornerback Brandon Boykin and safety Nate Allen are the only quality starters from 2014 not returning to the team in 2015. Out of these departures, only Boykin will really sting as he is one of the best slot corners in the league and the Eagles don't have anyone set to take his place.

Kelly's other moves were actually pretty good. He spent a majority of his attention addressing the porous secondary that repeatedly cost them them games in his first 2 years with the team. First off, he dumped the starting corner tandem of Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. These guys got burnt in almost every game over the past 2 years and it's a blessing for the entire team that Kelly decided not to trot them as his starting outside corners for a 3rd consecutive year.

Of the new additions, cornerback Byron Maxwell was easily the flashiest pickup. The Eagles have been widely criticized for giving Maxwell such a huge deal (6 years/$63 mil/$25 mil guaranteed) after only starting for 1 season, but I don't really see the issue with it. Maxwell got regularly tested last season in Seattle due to  opposing quarterback's fear of throwing to Richard Sherman's side of the field and he did a pretty damn good job facing a heavy workload, grading out as a top-15 corner in 2014 according to Pro Football Focus. While Maxwell isn't a guaranteed slam dunk, he showed enough during his time with the Seahawks to lead me to believe he can be a number 1 corner in this league. The other moves lacked the name recognition of Maxwell, but they should all be able to help in the effort to turn this secondary around. Walter Thrumond is a versatile defensive back that can be lined up at corner and safety while cornerback E.J. Biggers is a respectable veteran who can be a stopgap starter in the slot (rookie JaCorey Shepard was slated to get the gig before he tore his ACL in training camp.) However,  the most intriguing addition aside from Maxwell to this secondary is rookie Eric Rowe. Rowe was one of the most underrated defensive backs in this year's draft and with his versatility to play any position in the secondary and strong ball and tackling skills, he should be able to come in and be a productive starter right away. If this rebuilt secondary can come together as planned, this defense will no longer have to worry about their secondary costing them games.

While the secondary was the primary focus of the Eagles defensive rebuilding effort, Kelly also landed a very talented piece for his front 7 when the Bills sent over inside linebacker Kiko Alonso in the trade for McCoy. Alonso had an excellent rookie year in 2013 (he finished 2nd in voting behind Jets defensive end Sheldon Richardson for Defensive Rookie of the Year) before being sidelined for all of 2014 with a torn ACL. Alonso- who played under Kelly at Oregon- is a perfect fit for this fast, instinctive front and should be in line for an excellent year if he's the same player he was prior to the ACL tear. Pairing Alonso with edge-rushing savage Connor Barwin and premier run-stopping defensive end Fletcher Cox makes this front a nightmare in the making for opposing offenses. 

Bottom Line: 
2015 will be the season in which we figure out if Chip Kelly is a mad genius or just a madman. Whatever the results ends up being, the Eagles will be the single most fun team to watch this season.


Washington Redskins
2014 Record: 4-12
Head Coach: Jay Gruden (2nd year)
Notable Additions: DT Terrence Knighton, OLB Junior Galette, CB Chris Culliver
Notable Departures: OLB Brian Orakpo, RB Roy Helu Jr., DE Jarvis Jenkins

If you take a good look at the Redskins offense, you'll probably be surprised by the amount of talent they have. Alfred Morris is a consistent 1,000+ yard rusher, Trent Williams is an athletic freak who ranks among the best tackles in the league, rookie Jamison Crowder was one of the most impressive slot receiver prospects in this year's draft and wide receiver DeSean Jackson is arguably the best pure deep threat in the league. There's just one major problem: They don't have a quarterback that can be counted on.

Unless a miracle happens, poor quarterback will once again sink the Redskins offense. As of today, 4th-year trainwreck Robert Griffin III is penciled in as the starter. His confidence, throwing mechanics and dynamic running ability all went out the window after he tore his ACL in the Wild Card playoff game against the Seahawks at the end of his rookie year in 2012 and they don't appear to be coming back. The Redskins decision this past April to exercise his 5th-year option for 2016 is a complete head-scratcher. I know that they gave away an insane amount of draft picks to trade up and draft him, but the ship on RG3 being a franchise quarterback has long since sailed (the regression he's displayed since his spectacular rookie season is unprecedented) and it's time for the Redskins to start exploring other options. 

If RG3 goes down with an injury for the 46th time in 4 years, their other options at quarterback aren't much better. Kirk Cousins-who has long been touted as the franschise's savior if RG3 didn't work out- showed flashes of promise in the early part of his tenure as starter last season while RG3 was out with an ankle injury before completely crapping out and throwing 9 INT's in his last 4 starts before going down with an injury himself. Their 3rd stringer is none other than Colt McCoy, a veteran journeyman who is lucky to still be in the league at age 29. When a low-tier backup like McCoy is the best quarterback on your roster, you have some serious problems.

 New general manager Scot McCaughlin worked under John Schneider during his first 4 years as the Seahawks general manger (McCaughlin resigned from the job prior to the 2014 season to seek treatment for his alcoholism). McCaughlin spent his first year as the Redskins general manager mimicking Schneider's formula for success by making major changes to a defense that desperately needed them.

McCaughlin took advantage of the team's healthy amount of cap space to bring in talented veterans who can come in and contribute right away. The most drastic changes were done on the defensive line as they dumped aging starters Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen for Terrence Knighton and Stephen Paea. Knighton and Paea give the Redskins young, versatile weapons up front who can stop the run and get to the quarterback with equally proficiency. The Redskins further beefed up the front 7 by selecting promising pass-rusher Preston Smith in the 2nd round of this year's draft and signing troubled yet talented outside linebacker Junior Gallette right around the start of training camp. Pairing the new additions alongside incumbent stars Jason Hatcher and Ryan Kerrigan makes this front 7 a potential powerhouse in 2015.

While McCaughlin made a lot of great pickups on the front seven, his moves (or lack thereof) in the secondary leave a lot to be desired. Aside from cornerback Chris Culliver- who was very impressive last season with the 49eers, none of the new additions seem primed to make much of an impact on this secondary. Safety Dashon Goldson is not even a quarter of the player he was when in his early years with the 49ers and has been one of the worst coverage safeties in the league during his past 2 seasons with the Buccaneers, Jerron Johnson rarely played anything besides special teams during his tenure with the Seahawks and rookies Kyshoen Jarrett and Deshaor Everett will be lucky to make the team. With guys like the ancient and oft-injured cornerback DeAngelo Hall and atrocious safety Duke Ihenacho projected to be in the starting lineup, it's kind of astonishing that McCaughlin didn't use a high-draft pick or sign a big-ticket free agent on a safety or cornerback that could potentially turn this unit around. Culliver and second-year cornerback Bashaud Breeland could be a surprisingly stout corner pairing, but their lack of depth and horrible safeties will more than likely keep this secondary in the bottom half of the league for a 3rd straight year.

Bottom Line: 
The Redskins made some definite improvements in the offseason, but their lack of a quarterback and question marks on the back end of their defense makes them one of the least threatening teams in the NFC.

Projected Standings for the NFC East:
1.Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
2.Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
3.New York Giants (7-9)
4.Washington Redskins (5-11)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Best and Worst of Jesse Eisenberg

Films starring Jesse Eisenberg that I've seen:
The Village
The Social Network
30 Minutes or Less
Now You See Me

Best Performance: The Social Network (2010)
The general movegoing community spends so much time ripping Eisenberg for his goofy demeanor and resemblance to Michael Cera that they forget just how great of an actor he can be when given the right role. Eisenberg picked up a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his turn as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher's The Social Network. Eisenberg perfectly nails the snark and arrogance of the social media mogul and makes the thoroughly unlikable Zuckerberg a compelling and even somewhat emphatic character.

Worst Performance: 30 Minutes or Less (2011)
I'm not going to lie saying this is Eisenberg's worst performance is kind of unfair because his acting here is perfectly fine. The problem is that Eisenberg isn't nearly as funny as supporting players Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson and Michael Pena and largely gets lost in the shuffle despite being the main character in the film.

Best Film: Zombieland (2009)
 Zombieland was not only the movie that exposed Eisenberg to mainstream audiences for the first time, it's the best film he's starred in to-date. The horror comedy brilliantly balances laugh-out-loud comedy with zombie-movie carnage, the cast anchored by a scene-stealing Woody Harrelson and crazy badass Emma Stone is excellent and the cameo from Bill Murray is too perfect for words.

Worst Film: The Village (2004)
This is the second week in a row I've named an M. Night Shyamalan as an actor's career lowlight. I really don't mean to keep rehashing my disdain for his work, it's just that the actors I've chose for these pieces recently have been attached to one of the horrible projects he's released over the past 11 years. The Village was the film that signified the start of Shyamalan's descent from promising young director to the laughing stock of Hollywood. The film starts off decently enough with solid tension and an intriguing mystery at the center of the plot before the second half of the film piles on a series of increasingly ridiculous twists and become a complete and total joke.  Even in a filmography that's as loaded with duds as Shyamalan's, The Village is an embarrassment.

Thank you for reading this week's installment of "The Best and Worst of". Next week I'll take a look at the best and worst work of "No Escape" star Owen Wilson