Hillcrest Prep Post Graduate Team Reaches End of the Road

As the sun rises over Hillcrest Prep, a handful of players are already in the gym lifting weights or working on their shots. Practice for the post-graduate team starts at 9:45 a.m. sharp every day, but players are often in earlier to hone their skills.

With high school no longer restricting their practice time, basketball has become their no.1 priority. Their job now is to get college basketball programs to notice them because after this, it’s all over.

This is the end of the road.

“This is a last chance for me,” said Emeka Udenyi. “I know I have to play hard every time and make the best of my opportunity.”

Udenyi’s style of play combines his intimidating size, 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, with his surprising grace, and punishes anyone who stand in his way. His smile lights up the room, and his booming voice echoes through the empty gym on an early Monday morning.

His story is not unlike that of many of his teammates. Udenyi was a good high school basketball player, starring on his local team and garnering mild attention and praise locally. But his college offers were lacking.

“I wasn’t getting the interest I really wanted,” said Udenyi. “I still felt like I was kind of slept on.”

Only Western Oregon and Cal State East Bay, two Division II programs, offered Udenyi scholarships. So instead of attending a less than stellar program or enrolling at a junior college, Udenyi utilized the one year of eligibility the NCAA offers high school graduates to try and improve as a player and elicit offers from more elite college programs. He bet big on himself, uprooting from Concord, California to attend Hillcrest to try and obtain that elusive Division I offer.

Other players on the team already had Division I offers when they graduated high school, but believed they were capable of more. Trevon Taylor is a lanky 6-foot-7 swingman with a funky shot that always seems to go in, and arms that stretch for miles. He received an offer from Norfolk State, a low Division I program, but instead decided to attend Hillcrest.

“All my coaches and my family told me if not a high major, I could be a mid-major guy so I just want to get one of those,” said Taylor.

The fundamental problem with a team of this nature is the inherent selfishness that plagues each player. Team success takes a backseat to individual success, because gaudy statistics get you noticed and impressive win-loss records don’t.

The relationship between players is more akin to coworkers than friends, as members of the team come from across the country to play for Hillcrest, stay for a year, and then jettison off to college.

Practices have a distinctly different vibe than that of a regular high school team. They’re more intense, they’re chippier, there’s less joking around and more scowling. There is a sense of desperation that shrouds the gym. Players look like grown men fighting for their lives because in reality, that’s what they are.

“We have a lot players who’s first and only objective is to score the ball,” said part time assistant coach Wayne Smith, whose son is on the team. “You look around at some of the higher levels of basketball and that seems to be all anyone cares about, so naturally it’s how these players think they’re going to get noticed.”

There are serious doubts about whether a program of this nature is beneficial to the players, or merely giving them a vehicle in which to extend their frivolous dreams of stardom.

There are success stories that emerge from teams like this, but they are few and far between. In the end, every player gets told eventually they are no longer good enough to compete at the highest level. For many of the players on this team, that moment is now.

Advertisements

Future Sun Devil Kyree Walker primed for success

Kyree Walker, star sophomore on the Hillcrest Prep basketball team, does everything to the max. Whether it’s running the simplest of drills, to orchestrating plays in a high intensity intra-squad scrimmage, Walker does it all with a fervent passion.

This passion, combined with his otherworldly athleticism and high basketball I.Q. have transformed Walker into one of the best high school prospects in the country. In the latest ESPN class of 2020 rankings, Walker is listed as the No. 14 player in his class. For him, that’s thirteen spots too low.

“They’re trying to rob me,” Walker said with a jovial grin. “This year they’re going to see, I’m coming back for my title as the number one player. I’m ready to become another monster.”

The title Walker is referring to is MaxPreps Freshman of the Year, an accolade he earned while playing for Moreau Catholic High in Hayward, California. Walker averaged 21.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists as a freshman, carrying the team to a 25-10 record en route to a spot in the California Division II title game.

After his freshman season, Walker and his family decided it was time for a change, and moved to Arizona to team up with more elite level prospects at Hillcrest Prep.

“Some people thought I was scared,” Walker said. “But coming to a prep school is all about starting a new life. This is a new life move.”

When watching Hillcrest play, it becomes quickly apparent that Walker is the most talented and important player on a loaded squad that looks to reassert itself as one of the best teams in the country. He’s also the youngest player on the team, yet makes no qualms about his role as leader.

“I have to be a leader on this team, I mean that’s my role,” said Walker. “My coaches told me it doesn’t matter if you’re the youngest you have to lead by example. Be here early, work hard, and push everybody.”

It’s easy to forget he’s still a sophomore. He is so naturally talented, and plays the game with a fluidity usually reserved for men twice his age. He can score with ease, but seems to find true pleasure in setting up his teammates up for easy baskets. Fittingly, when asked what NBA player Kyree is most similar to, his father and assistant coach Khari Walker compared his son to one of the best to ever play the game.

“Magic Johnson,” Khari Walker said. “He’s that level playmaker. For [Kyree] it seems like the speed of the game really slows down as he gets going.”

Walker’s unique brand of basketball has him ideally suited for his next endeavor, college basketball. Although he is only a sophomore, Walker has already committed to Arizona State and the pressure of becoming the next great Sun Devil looms large.

“I’m not scared,” Walker confidently said. “Committing to ASU so early, I’m talking to the coaches already and they’re teaching me new things. I’m also communicating with some of the players on the team and they’re helping me out. [Head Coach] Bobby Hurley is a great coach, he went to Duke and was able to play with a lot of great players. He’s a player-coach. He’s going to be able to teach me some things that Coach Krzyzewski taught him. I really just want to pick his mind and learn about the point guard position.”

The fact that Walker will be able to be around Hurley and his staff for the next three years before even enrolling at ASU will unquestionably improve his game and make his transition to college significantly easier.

“I think it’s great for him to stay so close,” said Hillcrest head coach Howard Thomas. “ASU is able to get eyes on him all the time so they’re coming down here all the time to come watch us. For him, he can build up a really good rapport with their staff which I think for any kid is huge.”

While Walker won’t officially enroll at ASU until the fall of 2019, the belief that he could revitalize the program is already widely held. His future coach is certainly a believer.

“Coach Hurley told me we’re going to play around you, start a team around you,” said Walker. “That sounded really good to me, and I know that when the time comes, I’ll be ready.”

 

Coming to America: The Incredible Story of Alireza Shafiei

Alireza Shafiei, better known as Ali by his teammates and coaches, doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the typical elite basketball prospect. He’s relatively short, coming in a little under six feet tall, he’s built more like a linebacker than a point guard, and he was born and raised in Iran.

On a Hillcrest Prep team littered with incredible athletes with almost superhuman abilities, Ali more closely resembles your average high school basketball player. Yet watch him play and all questions on how he is part of this team, much less actually get play time are answered. He plays defense like a rabid dog, typically guarding his opposition the full ninety four feet of the court. He invades his matchup’s personal space with aplomb, nestling himself right underneath the chin of his typically taller opponent. And if that wasn’t enough, he never shuts up. Sometimes it’s words, other times it’s just incoherent noises coming out of Ali’s mouth. Regardless, it is always loud and it is always right in somebody’s ear.

He seems to take special pleasure in guarding players who have been granted the incredible God-given gifts he was not. Kyree Walker is Hillcrest’s best player and is one of the top sophomores in the country. When the end of practice rolls around and scrimmages begin to take place, Ali always seems to finagle his way into guarding the 6’6 Walker, despite the sizeable difference in height and talent. While Kyree often bests Ali in their duels, they are not as one sided as one may assume. Ali gets the better of Kyree more times than Walker would probably like to admit, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed.

Coach Howard Thomas rarely played Ali in the first few games of the season, but has quickly grown to rely on the tenacious point guard for key minutes off the bench.

“He really just brings so much energy,” said Thomas. “He’s had several games where we’ve injected him when we’re a little sluggish and he immediately just comes in and is this Energizer Bunny. He gets the other guys so hyped up.”

Ali’s journey to America was not an easy one. To call the relationship between Ali’s home country of Iran and the United States tense would be an understatement, and it was only worsened by the emergence and eventual victory of President Donald Trump. Iran was one of the six Muslim-majority countries President Trump banned immigrants from. While thankfully the ruling was shot down months before Ali was planning on moving to the States, it was not the most welcoming of gestures. Anti-American sentiments were already present within Iran, as the country has boycotted over 200 American products. Regardless, Ali was determined to make his way to the United States, and despite the odds he was going to try and make his dream a reality.

“It was really hard,” said Ali, referring to the immigration process. “Everybody back home told me it would be impossible to get a visa, but I went and applied and for some reason they gave me one. It was a miracle.”

Hillcrest Prep provided a basketball oasis for Ali. Through a system of international scouting and friendly working relationships between coaches, Hillcrest is able to find top international prospects and bring them to Phoenix. Bringing international players to Phoenix is more than just a basketball decision though. The likelihood of Ali and players like him getting into top universities, through basketball or just purely academics, has skyrocketed now that they are in the states.

“My goal for now is to get into a good school,” said Ali. “If possible, I’d like to play basketball in college and then who knows. Why not the NBA?”

If Ali were to make the NBA, he would join Hamed Haddadi as the only two Iranian players to ever suit up for an NBA team. While it is clearly not a huge emphasis in Iran to produce NBA-caliber players, Ali believes the style of basketball played in Iran compared to that of America’s limits the possibilities of any players emerging from his home country.

“Here in America, there is a much bigger emphasis on scoring and being selfish,” said Ali. “Everybody is looking to create for themselves. In Iran, we played for each other. We passed the ball a lot more and played more team basketball.”

Overall though, Ali reports the transition from Iran to the United States has been a good one. When asked what he misses most, his answer is his family without hesitation. He says he rarely talks to them due to the time change, which makes it even harder. It’s not exactly clear if his parents fully comprehend his decision to come to America to play basketball, but he says they support him none-the-less.

Culturally, Ali reports a relatively quick and seamless assimilation. While his English isn’t perfect, it can be kind of broken at times, it is still incredibly impressive for someone who came to this country in September. He laughs off the idea of any sort of language barrier, reminding me that Iranian school children are taught English from a very young age. Yet there are still some things in America that manage to surprise even someone as confident and comfortable as Ali. When asked what his favorite new food is, he has to think for a while but eventually comes up with an answer of Mexican food. He proceeds to go on a long and poetic spiel about the beautiful intricacies of the first taco he ever enjoyed, how the way the meats and cheeses and spices came together it was unlike anything he had experienced back home. While it is obvious Ali pines to see his home and his family again, he also makes it readily apparent that he is adjusting better than anyone could’ve expected.

Of the four international players currently on Hillcrest’s roster, Ali is certainly one of the more vocal and outgoing. He seems to have a unique and genuine connection with seemingly every player. Off the court, his teammates appear to take pleasure in educating Ali in the ways of the American teen. Every first brings a new round of excitement and laughter for all.

“For the other guys, learning about where Ali is from is always comedy,” says Thomas. “For him, so many things are new like hot dogs, music, girls, all that stuff is brand new to him and we’re just not used to that. I remember the first time he had macaroni and cheese. Those are like huge deals to him. For us, it’s just comedy watching how he gets so excited for stuff that’s so routine for the rest of us. It’s always funny with Ali, because we never know what’s new to him. Every time we’re with him and we do something and it’s the first time for him we have a great time. He’s like a kid in a candy store. It’s funny, but I also know it’s a great experience for him.”

The perspective a player like Ali can provide for his Hillcrest teammates is immeasurable, and despite his impressive talents on the court his affect may be more heavily felt off of it. He is usually calm and collected, but when he needs to be he can be jovial and gregarious. He is one of the more liked players on the team, and at times can provide leadership for a team that is sometimes lacking. While he may not realize his own importance, he does comprehend just how good Hillcrest can be and speaks excitedly about their potential this season.

“This is a really, really fun team,” says Ali, who is almost giddy with excitement. “There are so many really good guys, it’s really great. This team won it all last year, and I think we can do it again.”

NFL Preview: Playoffs and Awards

Playoff Predictions

NFC

First Round Byes

(1) Green Bay Packers, (2) Los Angeles Rams

Wild Card Round

(3) Philadelphia Eagles vs (6) San Francisco 49ers

(4) New Orleans Saints vs (5) Minnesota Vikings

Divisional Round

(1) Green Bay Packers vs (5) Minnesota Vikings

(2) Los Angeles Rams vs (3) Philadelphia Eagles

Championship Round

(1) Green Bay Packers vs (3) Philadelphia Eagles

AFC

First Round Byes

(1) New England Patriots, (2) Houston Texans

Wild Card Round

(3) Kansas City Chiefs vs (6) Los Angeles Chargers

(4) Pittsburgh Steelers vs (5) Jacksonville Jaguars

Divisional Round

(1) New England Patriots vs (5) Jacksonville Jaguars

(2) Houston Texans vs (3) Kansas City Chiefs

Championship Round

(1) New England Patriots vs (2) Houston Texans

SUPER BOWL: Green Bay Packers vs. Houston Texans

SUPER BOWL CHAMPGreen Bay Packers

Award Predictions

 

MVP: QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers is fully recovered from the collarbone injury that forced him out of most of last season, and ready to wreak havoc on everyone who doubted him. The offseason narrative surrounding the NFC North has been the emergence of the Minnesota Vikings, but Rodgers is ready to remind everyone who the best team in the NFC is. Rodgers has a nice collection of weapons, his best defense in recent memory, and an unclear running back situation. Look for the Packers to lean heavily on Rodgers as he puts up absolutely monster numbers and leads Green Bay to a number one seed and a first round bye.

OPOY: QB Deshaun Watson, Houston Texans

Deshuan Watson has yet too play a full season in the NFL, but he is already considered among the leagues elite talents at quarterback. He was electric in his injury shortened rookie season, and should pick up right where left off. The offense line is a major concern, but Watson has enough talent to transcend their mediocrity and carry this Houston Texans team to an AFC South title.

DPOY: CB Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars

My original pick was DE Joey Bosa, but with news of his foot injury I audibled to the best player on the leagues best defense. Jalen Ramsey is the leagues best corner, and provides a toughness and ferocity at the position typically unaccompanied with a player of his stature. He’s the most physically intimidating corner in the league, possessing elite height (6’1) and quickness (4.41 forty time), and will shut down the oppositions best offensive weapon regardless of position. He may not put up the gaudy stats typically associated with this award, mostly due to the fact no quarterback dares throw his way, but as crazy sack numbers continue to decline voters will look to reward other statistical achievements. Ramsey notched the fourth lowest passer rating against (57.2), and captains last season’s stingiest pass defense. He’s the most important player on the leagues best defense, and should take home Defensive Player of the Year

OROY: RB Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

The easiest award to predict, Saquon Barkley should run away with this award and never look back. He is by far the most electric of the rookie running backs, and brings significantly more to the table than his counterparts. Barkley will be the focal point of an offense lacking in overall talent, and should get more than enough carries to put up some ridiculous numbers. He could easily lead the league in rushing, and has a serious shot at making the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams.

DROY: LB Roquan Smith, Chicago Bears

The last rookie to sign, Roquan Smith is well worth the wait as he should transform the Chicago defense from the second he steps on the field. Fellow Bears Khalil Mack and Adrian Amos have more talent, but Smith’s ability to effect both the the run and pass game instantly makes him the most valuable player on that defense. He is the definition of a three down linebacker and should be a mainstay on the Bears defense for years to come.

COY: Bill O’Brein, Houston Texans

Coach of the Year often has less to do with who is schematically superior and more who captures a narrative. O’Brien is not one of the more advanced coaches in the league, and is often outmatched by younger smarter coaches like Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, but if takes this Texans team to the heights I imagine them reaching O’Brien will be a natural for the award. He is competent enough to not hold back Watson and the rest of an exciting Texans team that I expect to overachieve.

CPOY: RB David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals

After a week one wrist injury knocked David Johnson out for the entirety of last year, he is primed to bounce back in a big way this season. He is the focal point of one of the league’s worst offenses, and through simple volume will be near the league leaders in rushing yards and yards from scrimmage. Whether it’s Sam Bradford or Josh Rosen under center, the game plan will be feeding the ball to Johnson. Add in the fact that in his last healthy season Johnson lead the league in yards from scrimmage and was fourth in touchdown, Johnson should nab Comeback Player of the Year in what could be one of the tightest races in recent memory.

 

NFL Preview: NFC West

NFC WEST

1. Los Angeles Rams                                                 Projected Record: 12-4

The Los Angeles added some of the leagues most exciting players to an already loaded roster, and they have asserted themselves as legit Super Bowl contenders. The addition of defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh creates possibly the most terrifying inside combination in league history, as he teams up with All-Pro Aaron Donald to provide offenses with the impossible choice of who to double team. Los Angeles linebacking corps is still the team’s weakest unit, but a strong season from linebacker/safety Mark Barron could alleviate some of the team’s weaknesses. In the secondary, the Rams added cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to an already stellar group of defensive backs. While Peters and Talib will need some time to acclimate and may not quite be as dominant as expected from week one, but come playoff these former All-Pros should be back to form. Offensively the Rams took a huge step forward due in large part to the pairing of quarterback Jared Goff and head coach Sean McVay. In his first season as head coach, McVay proved himself something of a coaching savant. Goff was placed in the ideal situation for a quarterback of his stature, and running back Todd Gurley compiled a league leading 2,093 all purposed yards. The Rams wide receiving corps is solid, with last year’s third round pick Cooper Kupp looking to build off his intriguing rookie season. Schematically Los Angeles alway seemed one step ahead of the opposition last season, and there’s no reason to think that will change this year. Adding more talent to an already stacked roster spells more success this season for the Rams, and a long playoff run seems in the cards.

2. San Francisco 49ers                                              Projected Record: 9-7

The pairing of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and head coach Kyle Shanahan might be the most exciting aspect of the new NFL season, with the two representing a new era in 49er football. Garoppolo is one of the NFL’s best young quarterbacks, and he set the league on fire last season when he failed to lose a game in his six starts for San Francisco last season. Shanahan appears to be the next great offensive mind, and watching him duel with division rival Sean McVay will be an absolute joy for the forseeable future. The weapons surrounding Garoppolo are good but not great, and the season ending injury to running back Jerick McKinnon forces Matt Breida and Alfred Morris into featured roles. Regardless, Garoppolo has more than enough talent to elevate the average talent around him and should lead this unit to a top ten finish. This team’s biggest question marks lie on the defensive side of the ball. Free agent acquisition Richard Sherman should provide some legitimacy to an otherwise young and unproven secondary. Linebacker Rueben Foster is an absolute stud in the middle of San Francisco’s defense, and former first round picks DeForest Buckner and Erik Armstead help anchor the 49ers defensive line. In total, this team will go as far as Garoppolo and Shanahan can take them, and if everything breaks nicely this team should find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.

3. Seattle Seahawks                                                   Projected Record: 7-9

The Seattle Seahawk dynasty is certainly coming to an end, but the remains are still there of a Super Bowl team. Russell Wilson remains under center, and even with one of the league’s worst offensive line, he has enough individual talent to transcend their mediocrity and lead this unit to relevancy. The Seahawks are also lacking in skill position talent, and the injury to Doug Baldwin doesn’t help, but there’s enough ability between Tyler Lockett, Chris Carson, Brandon Marshall and others to keep Wilson sane. Rookie running back Rashaad Penny had a disappointing camp, and ultimately lost the starting job to Carson, but there’s enough promise there to think he could emerge later in the season. On the other side of the ball, the situation is dire with the exception of two future Hall of Famers. Free safety Earl Thomas and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner are two of the leagues best at their position, but they are surrounded by a lot of league average talent. Their defensive line is one of their weakest in recent memory, and it’s hard to see how current Philadelphia Eagle wouldn’t have helped this unit. The secret weapon on this team is their punter, Michael Dickson. The rookie from Texas looked absolutely dominant in the preseason, consistently placing his kicks within the opponents ten yard line. For a team that looks to struggle a fair amount on offense, having one of the leagues best punters could swing a handful of games and put this Seahawks right back in the playoff hunt.

4. Arizona Cardinals                                                  Projected Record: 4-12

The Arizona Cardinals return superstar running back David Johnson to a team that won eight games last season, yet the outlook remains bleak in Arizona. Quarterback Sam Bradford is the team’s option under center, but top ten pick Josh Rosen is nipping at his heels. The team’s offensive line looks to be one of the worst in the league, so there may be some thought that it’s advantageous to keep Rosen on the bench where he can’t get slaughtered. The Cardinals also aren’t doing whoever’s under center any help with their current crop of wide receivers. Ageless wonder Larry Fitzgerald remains a steadying presence for a unit searching for another competent pass catcher. Second round pick Christian Kirk seems promising, but the unit as a whole doesn’t project as a strength. The offense will be funneled through Johnson, and if he has another fantastic season there’s a chance he drag this team to relevance. Defensively, Arizona has a nice assortment of weapons at each level of the team. On the defensive line, Chandler Jones is one of the best pass rushers in the league and commands the attention of the entire opposing offensive line. Linebacker Deone Bucannon is one of the most versatile players around, and the perfect fit for the modern NFL. In the secondary, second year safety Budda Baker impressed in his rookie season and should have a monster season as the team’s starting free safety. In total, the Cardinals have a handful of really exciting players, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but not enough overall talent to overtake the other teams in their division.

NFL Preview: AFC West

1. Kansas City Chiefs                                       Projected Record: 11-5

Alex Smith played at an MVP level last season, and most around the Kansas City Chiefs organization feel they got better at the quarterback position. I am buying all of the Patrick Mahomes stock available, and believe he can dominate from his first snap under center. The combination of Mahomes natural ability, the weapons surrounding him, and Andy Reid is absolutely deadly, and should obliterate opposing defenses. The pairing of Mahomes and Tyreek Hill is a match made in heaven, and running back Kareem Hunt remains one of the league’s most prolific talents out of the backfield. The Chiefs also boast one of the NFL’s most consistent offensive lines, with right tackle Mitchell Schwartz anchoring the line from the right tackle position. His job just got significantly easier with the stunning trade of Khalil Mack, but facing the duos of Von Miller/Bradley Chubb and Joey Bosa/Melvin Ingram twice a year remains one of the hardest jobs in football. While the offense looks to be one of the league’s most feared units, their defense should be a welcome sight for struggling offenses. Cornerback Kendall Fuller will try and fill the hole left by Marcus Peter’s departure, but the drop off from a Pro Bowl talent like Peters to league average will certainly be felt. The return of Eric Berry will also help stabilize the group, but overall the secondary has more questions than answers. The Chiefs front seven is equally uninspiring, with an assortment of solid rotational pieces but no elite talent. The pass rushing combo of Justin Houston and Dee Ford is solid, but the linebacker corps as a whole needs serious improvements. In total, Kansas City should be one of the league’s most exciting teams and their offense should prove very quickly to be must watch football.

2. Los Angeles Chargers                                 Projected Record: 10-6

The Los Angeles Chargers have compiled one of the leagues deepest and most talented rosters, complete with elite level talents on both sides of the ball. The addition of rookie safety Derwin James, and the first full seasons for both wide receiver Mike Williams and guard Forrest Lamp adds three highly touted “rookies” to a team that won nine games last season. At quarterback, Phillip Rivers remains a steadying presence as he continues to crank out Pro-Bowl caliber seasons. Running back Melvin Gordon finally rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, and looks to set a new career high this season behind a much improved offensive line. For the first time in a very long time, the Chargers can evaluate their offensive line and feel optimistic about their chances. Even if the inevitable injury bug makes an appearance, Los Angeles has about seven or eight league average offensive lineman which is a lot more than many teams can say. On the defensive side of the ball, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram will continue to wreak havoc this season as one of the league’s top pass rushing duos. The Chargers also possess one of the league’s deepest collection of corners, with All-Pro cornerback Casey Hayward captaining the squad. Trevor Williams and Desmond King III both took huge strides last season as up and coming corners, and each will play a pivotal role as Los Angeles looks to remain one of the best secondaries in the league. Where the Chargers remain weak is up the middle. Defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and Darius Philon remain huge question marks, and middle linebacker Denzel Perryman has yet to prove he can stay healthy and on the field. Los Angeles struggles in special teams can also not be overlooked. After the Younghoe Koo debacle last season, the Chargers failed to shore up the kicker position this offseason. Los Angeles signed both Caleb Sturgis and Roberto Aguayo to compete for starting kicker with Sturgis eventually winning out with Aguayo getting cut. Sturgis looked strong in the preseason, but he should in no way quell the fears of worried Chargers fans everywhere.  If everything breaks right, the Chargers could overtake the Chiefs for the AFC West crown, but more than likely they will settle for second place and a wild card berth.

3. Denver Broncos                                            Projected Record: 7-9

The Denver Broncos have enough exciting players to keep a lot of their games competitive, but lack the coaching or the star power to truly compete with the upper echelon of the AFC. Denver’s new starter under center is Case Keenum, who unlike any of the Broncos quarterbacks last season, is actually a competent NFL quarterback. The addition of rookie running back Royce Freeman should provide a spark on an otherwise bleak offense that probably peaked about three years ago. Neither Demariyus Thomas nor Emmanuel Sanders are the players they used to be, but while Sander’s career could be extended by Keenum’s affinity for short and intermediate routes, a deep threat like Thomas could see a dramatic dip in production. Defensively, the Broncos still employ a bevy of playmakers across all levels of defense, but it has yet to translate to a strong, cohesive unit. Rookie pass rusher Bradley Chubb should excel from week one, and lining up opposite Von Miller will only open up opportunities for the top five pick. At middle linebacker Denver has Brandon Marshall, a quick and versatile tackling machine who captains the Bronco defense. Finally in the secondary Denver has retained a few crucial members of their Super Bowl winning defense, most namely cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby. Both Harris Jr. and Roby grade out as above average starters and the two form an experienced and savvy cornerback duo. Overall, the Broncos will remain close in a lot of their games this season, but will ultimately wind up with a losing record and on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

4. Oakland Raiders                                              Projected Record: 3-13

New Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s handling of the Khalil Mack situation has only cemented my belief the Raiders will be an absolute dumpster fire this season. It takes a special kind of coach to have already lost the locker room before week one even begins, but then again Gruden is a special kind of guy. The move to trade Mack for two first round picks makes theory in a vaccum (tying up almost half your cap in two players like the Raiders would have with Carr and Mack doesn’t make team building sense) but not for an Oakland team that believes they can compete now. Trading away a player of that caliber sends a clear message to the rest of the team that winning is no longer a priority, and when that player was a team leader like Mack it can be even tougher to see the silver lining. For now, Mack departs a defense that could be one of the worst in the league. Bruce Irvin and draft darling Maurice Hurst are both enticing players in Oakland’s front seven, but overall the unit is lacking in exciting young talent. The secondary has a couple intriguing young players, including second year corner Gareon Conley and third year safety Karl Joseph. On the other side of the ball, the Raiders seem equally inept. Derek Carr has come to be defined by mediocrity, while Marshawn Lynch continues to chug along in his twelfth season in the league. Oakland’s receiving corps is more style than substance, with big names like Amari Cooper and Jordy Nelson masking just how bad this unit could be. Incredibly, this roster is one of the oldest in league history with an average age of 27.4. This is a full six months older than the next closest team, the Atlanta Falcons who clock in at 26.9. All signs point to the Raiders having an absolutely dreadful season, as Gruden’s return to coaching should get off to a less than stellar start.

 

NFL Preview: NFC North

1. Green Bay Packers                                              Projected Record: 13-3

The offseason talk surrounding the NFC has typically centered on a handful of certain teams. The Los Angeles Rams are getting a lot of buzz for their flashy offseason moves, while the Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles are generally considered the class of the conference. Yet much of football media has ignored the Super Bowl contender staring them in the face, the Green Bay Packers. Lead by superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers will once again field one of the league’s most dynamic offenses. The addition of tight end Jimmy Graham to a pass catching group that includes wide receivers Davante Adams and Randall Cobb will give Rodgers plenty of ways to pick apart defenses, and should make Green Bay absolutely unstoppable in the red zone. The running back trio of Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery complement each other nicely, and if one is able to step up and take on lead ball carrying responsibilities a major question mark surrounding the offense would be answered. Defensively, the signing of defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson was one of the most underrated acquisitions of the offseason and transforms the Packers front seven into one of the best in football. Wilkerson and fellow defensive end Mike Daniels are an absolutely lethal pairing in the middle of that defense, and linebacker Blake Martinez should continue where he left off last season after co-leading the league in tackles. Green Bay’s greatest question mark lies in the secondary, where the team is relying heavily on talented yet inexperienced cornerbacks like rookies Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, and second year pro Kevin King. Alexander and Jackson were two of the draft’s most highly touted cornerback prospects, and both possess the skills to contribute from day one. In total, the Packers should be one of the best teams in football and a real threat to bring home the Lombardi trophy.

2. Minnesota Vikings                                              Projected Record: 12-4

The Minnesota Vikings are one of this year’s trendy picks to make the Super Bowl, and it’s easy to see why. The have one of the most complete rosters in football, and their defense top to bottom might be the most talented in the league. The signing of defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson elevates Minnesota’s defensive line from great to unreal. Being able to generate an obscene amount of pressure when only sending four is a massive advantage, and helps define the Vikings defensive scheme as a whole. Safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Xavier Rhodes anchor one of the league’s strongest secondaries, while linebacker Anthony Barr controls the middle of the field. On the offensive side of the ball, the signing of quarterback Kirk Cousins and the extension for wide receiver Stefan Diggs clearly indicates Minnesotas shift towards a more aerial attack. It makes a lot of sense, considering Diggs and fellow pass catcher Adam Thielen form the leagues most talented wide receiver duo. The team will also look to utilize running back Dalvin Cook, who looked absolutely electric before going down with an injury early last season. The biggest question surrounding the Vikings is Cousins, and if he ultimately raises their ceiling or handicaps it. The idea that Cousins will be significantly better than last season’s starter Case Keenum is presumptuous, and underrates just how impressive Keenum was last season. Cousins has yet to show he can lead a team to the playoffs, and the pressure of expecting to improve off of last season’s NFC Championship game berth may be a little bit too much for Cousins. Ultimately Minnesota’s defense should be one of the stingiest in the league, and they will keep the Vikings in essentially every game they play. I personally have some concerns about Minnesota’s offense, but still feel confident enough to project double digit wins and another playoff berth.

3. Chicago Bears                                                       Projected Record: 8-8

The trade for pass rusher Khalil Mack was probably the most shocking of the offseason, and adds a whole new element to one of the league’s up and coming defenses. A player of Mack’s caliber elevates everyone around him, and a front seven that also includes fellow pass rusher Leonard Floyd and top ten pick Roquan Smith should improve from a borderline top ten unit to one of the league’s best. Chicago’s secondary hovers around league average, and safety Adrian Amos is a superstar hiding in plain sight. The biggest question surrounding this Bears team is the offense, and more specifically the play of quarterback Mitchell Trubisky. Believers in the Bears project a stellar season for Trubisky, and Chicago’s front office has certainly made it a priority to make his life as easy as possible for the upcoming season. That starts with the hiring of Matt Nagy as the team’s new head coach. Nagy, an Andy Reid disciple, was one of the most innovative young coordinators in the league last season and should completely revamp the Bears offense. Chicago’s front office has also surrounded Trubisky with a bevy of weapons, including running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen as well as free agent signings wide receiver Allen Robinson and tight end Trey Burton. Couple all that with an above average offensive line, and all the pieces are in place for Trubisky to have a Jared Goff or Carson Wentz style breakout sophomore season. Chicago has set themselves up very nicely for the future, and I personally would be more optimistic about their upcoming season if they didn’t play in such a tough division.

4. Detroit Lions                                                         Projected Record: 3-13

The Detroit Lions boast one of the weakest and most uninspiring rosters in football, headlined by longtime quarterback Matt Stafford. The Lions offense once again projects as a below average unit, as their inability to cultivate a run game handicaps the teams overall ceiling. The team drafted running back Kerryon Johnson in the second round, but buried him on the depth chart behind veterans Theo Riddick and LeGarrette Blount. Detroit’s wide receivers are nothing to write home about, with Marvin Jones Jr. and Golden Tate the most talented of the group. Defensively, the Lions lack difference makers are every level of their defense. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah is a powerful force off the edge, but he lines up alongside three other league average talents at best. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis is bursting with potential, but he must improve off his abysmal rookie season if he wants to remain in the league. Detroits secondary is similar to the team’s defensive line in that one outstanding talent (cornerback Darius Slay) must try and compensate for the rest of the abysmal unit. In total, Matt Patricia’s first season as Lions head coach looks primed to be a disappointing one as he inherits one of the leagues worst teams.

NFL Preview: NFC South

1. New Orleans Saints                                             Projected Record: 12-4

The New Orleans Saints devastating playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings last season shrouded just how talented that Saints team truly was. Running back Alvin Kamara’s production on a per touch basis was unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and with the suspension of Mark Ingram for the first four games Kamara should see an heavy  workload from the jump. Pair him with wide receiver Michael Thomas, and you have the most electric receiver/back combo in the NFC. All of these weapons at the disposal of quarterback Drew Brees sets the offense up for another stellar season. Last year’s incredible draft, which included rookie starters Kamara, cornerback Marshon Lattimore and offensive tackle Ryan Ramcyzk, has extended Brees career and transformed the Saints into Super Bowl contenders. Lattimore headlines a defense that took impressive strides last season and should continue to improve. Cameron Jordan forced his name into the Defensive Player of the Year conversation with a breakout season from the defensive end position. Jordan, setting career highs in sacks (13.5) and tackles (48), anchored a defensive line that produced the seventh most sacks in the league. Linebacker Manti Te’o had a nice bounce back season as New Orleans starting mike linebacker. In the secondary, safety Marcus Williams had a breakout campaign alongside the newly departed Kenny Vaccaro. Overall the Saints are one of the leagues best teams and should seriously contend for another Super Bowl appearance.

2. Carolina Panthers                                                Projected Record: 9-7

All signs point to an absolutely monster season from Quarterback Cam Newton, with a new plethora of weapons that doesn’t include Kelvin Benjamin. The loss of guard Andrew Norwell will hurt, but Newton is mobile enough to survive behind what is now just an average line. Rookie wide receiver DJ Moore is instantly the team’s most talented receiver, but will still likely be the team’s third option through the air behind tight end Greg Olsen and running back Christian McCaffery. McCaffery, with his proficiency in both running and catching the ball, established himself last season as one of the league’s most versatile weapons and should see increased production in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s running back heavy scheme. On the defensive side of the ball, Luke Kuechly played 15 games last season for the first time in three years, and earned his first All-Pro nod since 2015. He and Thomas Davis remain one of the league’s strongest linebacker duos, and anchor a defense that was the third stingiest against the run last season. Much of that also has to do with one of the league’s best defensive lines, who added defensive tackle Dontari Poe to a group that already included lineman Kawann Short and Julius Pepper. The secondary remains the team’s biggest hurdle to Super Bowl contention, but rookie cornerback Donte Jackson could help elevate a unit that currently slots James Bradberry as it’s number one corner. In total, the Panthers have some serious flaws that will likely hold them back from their full potential. All it takes though is one or two breakout campaigns for this team to find themselves in the thick of the playoff race.

3. Atlanta Falcons                                                     Projected Record: 9-7

The Atlanta Falcons remain one of the leagues most prolific offenses, with an impressive group of weapons surrounding quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan certainly has his flaws, and he looked shockingly average without offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, but he still possess the talent to lead this talented Falcons team to the playoffs. Wide receivers Julio Jones, rookie Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu form an enticing trio that should give secondaries fits while Atlanta’s running back combo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman remains one of the league’s most electric. Combine all that with an above average line, and it’s hard to see this Falcons offense not finishing as a top ten unit. Defensively the Falcons took sizable strides as the unit transitioned from liability to league average. Deion Jones asserted himself as one of the league’s premiere linebacker talents, and with another healthy season could lead the league in tackles. The season ending injury to safety Keanu Neal is painful, but Atlanta’s secondary is well equipped to handle his absence. Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant is one of the best in the business, and Robert Alford is certainly an above average talent. On the defensive line, pass rusher Vic Beasley Jr. looks to return to his 2016 form when he lead the league with 15.5 sacks. Defensive end Takkarist McKinley produced as a rookie, and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett took a huge step forward in both run defense and rushing the passer. All in all the Falcons still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFC, and will advance as far as Matt Ryan can take them.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers                                       Projected Record: 2-14

Nothing about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offseason has inspired confidence in the team for this upcoming season. Whether it was their starting quarterback getting suspended for the first three games, or their rookie running back absolutely crapping the bed in the preseason, the Buccaneers season seems over before it has even begun. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will lead the team for the first three games and possibly more depending on performance, but is straddled with one of the league’s worst group of skill position players. The fact that second round pick Ronald Jones was unable to beat out Peyton Barber for the team’s starting running back job is disappointing to put it lightly, and a disastrous start to a career many expected to blossom from week one. The Bucs receiving corps hovers around league average, with neither Mike Evans nor Desean Jackson playing at the levels they once occupied. Tampa Bay’s tight end combo of Cameron Brate and OJ Howard is probably the most intriguing unit on the offense, as Howard should assert himself as one of the league’s next great tight ends. On the other side of the ball, the defense still possesses a handful of difference makers at each level. On the defensive line, Gerald McCoy remains as one of the league’s most productive players. Teamed up with outstanding weak side linebacker Lavonte David, the Buccaneers boast an above average front seven. In the secondary, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves should improve after an up and down sophomore season. All said and done, Tampa Bay will be lucky to escape this season with more than four wins, and should be looking for their quarterback of the future come next April.

NFL Preview: AFC South

A crucial point about the AFC South before we begin. It’s the best division in football. Each team has a quarterback they can feel good about, and some semblance of a plan (ok, maybe not you Indianapolis). All things considered, this division should produce some of the best games of 2018, and could potentially put three teams in the playoffs.

1. Houston Texans                                      Projected Record 12-4

Before Quarterback Deshaun Watson went down last season with a torn ACL, the Houston Texans looked to be one of the league’s most dynamic offenses. The team averaged over forty points a game over Watson’s final four starts, and they now have the benefit of playing a last place schedule. Houston’s offense will pick up right where it left off last season, and should continue to torch defenses from week one. Wide receivers Deandre Hopkins and Will Fuller complement each other beautifully, while running back Lamar Miller provides a steadying presence in the backfield. The major question mark surrounding the offense is the offensive line. Houston gave up the second most quarterback sacks and allowed the most quarterback hits of any offensive line in the league last season, yet failed to substantially improve the unit heading into 2018. Seantrel Henderson is the team’s new starting right tackle, and he played alright in seven starts with the Bills last season, but he is far from the solution. The one silver lining is Watson thrived behind a slightly worse offensive line last season, and there’s no reason to think he can’t again. Defensively, the Texans boast one of the league’s strongest front sevens with the return of superstar defensive end JJ Watt and the emergence of linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. The signing of free agent Tyrann Mathieu was one of the savviest in the league, and should pay dividends from the jump. Mathieu should help legitimize a secondary that gave up the second most passing touchdowns and the most plays over forty yards in the league last season. Overall, I predict huge things for the Texans this season behind the greatness of their quarterback prodigy Deshaun Watson.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars                              Projected Record: 12-4

After capturing the AFC South and making a impressive run to the AFC Championship game last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars will look to build off their surprising success. The team added All-Pro guard Andrew Norwell and wide receiver Donte Moncrief, but the offense looks essentially the same it did last season. The offense will still revolve around running back Leonard Fournette, but their ceiling is only so high with Blake Bortles at quarterback. He showed slight improvement over the course of last season, but overall he’s still a bottom tier signal caller. The Jaguars front office hasn’t done him any favors, surrounding him with an uninspiring group of receivers, but it will be interesting to see how much Doug Marrone and the rest of Jacksonville’s coaching staff asks of him. On the defensive side of the ball, Jacksonville remains one of the league’s most feared units. Lead by All-Pros Calais Campbell and Jalen Ramsey, this defense is overflowing with talent at every level. With no conceivable weaknesses and plenty of depth, it’s hard not to see this defense continuing to dominate and carrying this Jaguars team to the playoffs.

3. Tennesse Titans                                     Projected Record: 9-7

The Tennessee Titans spent the past offseason molding themselves in the image of  the New England Patriots, and if there is a team to model yourself after it is certainly the Pats. With the hiring of Mike Vrabel as head coach, and the signings of both Dion Lewis and Malcom Butler, the Titans front office clearly placed an impetus on bringing the New England culture to Nashville. Vrabel’s biggest concern is likely the progression of quarterback Marcus Mariota, and to that he turns to new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. LaFleur, the first branch of the Sean Mcvay coaching tree, is the new offensive coordinator in Tennessee and Mariota’s new best friend. Mariota has never had a coordinator half as creative as LaFleur, and an offense heavy with play action, run pass options, and trick plays will best utilize Mariota’s unique skillset. At this point, Mariota has run out of excuses. The weapons around him have never been better; Corey Davis is an enticing option at wide receiver, Delaine Walker is still one of the leagues best tight ends, and the running back tandem of Derrick Henry and Lewis form an impressive one-two punch. On defense, the Titans have a number of enticing playmakers littered across the unit. Kevin Byard may be the most underrated player in the league, and Adoree Jackson showed flashes of dominance in his rookie season. Up front, Jurrell Casey remains one of the leagues best defensive tackles, and Derrick Morgan is a strong presence off the edge. The opportunities are there for the Titans to jump into the upper echelon of the AFC, but they all hinge on the play of Mariota. His improvement will almost singlehandedly determine the outcome of Tennessee’s season, and it could shake up the entire AFC playoff picture.

4. Indianapolis Colts                                  Projected Record: 4-12

Similar to most last place teams, the Indianapolis Colts roster is bereft of talent. Unlike most last place teams though, they actually have a plan at quarterback. Assuming he returns to his pre injury form (granted that’s a big assumption), Andrew Luck has enough talent to keep the Colts in almost every game they play. Their wide receiving corps is nothing to write home about, as T.Y. Hilton proved last season how ineffective he is without Luck under center, and running backs Marlon Mack and Jordan Wilkins have much to prove before they could be considered starting-caliber backs. Thankfully the Colts front office have finally placed a priority on protecting Luck, and a combination of center Ryan Kelly and guard Quenton Nelson should help keep Luck upright for the foreseeable future. Defensively, Indianapolis is lacking in elite talent and should be one of the worst units in the league. Free safety Malik Hooker is the only long term solution at any position for the Colts, as he and pass rusher Jabaal Sheard may be the only NFL  caliber players in the starting eleven. All in all, Luck will breathe some much needed life into this franchise, but their defense is far too young and inexperienced for the Colts to seriously compete in the cutthroat AFC South.

NFL Preview: AFC North

1. Pittsburgh Steelers                                      Projected Record: 11-5

The Pittsburgh Steelers remain the class of the AFC North as they look for their third division title in four years. Lead by All-Pros Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, this offense should once again be a dynamic force. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has shown serious signs of decline, but has been buoyed by the brilliance of the skill position players around him. His decision making and accuracy are sorely lacking, and the years of Roethlisberger as an elite QB may be over. Regardless, the Steelers still have one of the league’s best infrastructures, and their offense should survive as they pursue another championship. In the same vein, the absence of Le’Veon Bell may not be as crippling as one might think. It is unclear at the current juncture how long Bell plans on sitting out, but in his place rookie James Conner can fill in admirably. He will obviously not match Bell’s production, but if he were to contribute 80% of what Bell does the Steelers could more or less run the same offense they would if Bell were there. On the defensive side of the ball, Pittsburgh has serious question marks all over the field. The defensive line remains anchored by Cameron Heyward, but the linebackers corp has a serious hole to fill with the injury to middle linebacker Ryan Shazier. The Steelers are relying on steady production from cornerback Joe Haden, who is slotted to be Pittsburgh’s number one corner to start the season. Haden was solid in his first season with the black and yellow, but will need to return to his once dominant form for this Steeler defense to reach its full potential. This is far from Mike Tomlin’s most talented team in his tenure with the Steelers, but it should be enough to carry Pittsburgh to another division title and a shot at another Lombardi trophy.

2. Baltimore Ravens                                      Projected Record: 8-8

The Baltimore Ravens remain one of the league’s most frustrating franchises as they posses a dominant defense capable of swinging games but also, Joe Flacco. This team has the talent to make a playoff run in the weak AFC, but has a cap on their overall ability thanks to the talents, or lack thereof, of their strong armed quarterback. To further compound the problem, the Ravens front office has failed to surround Flacco with any sort of weapons. John Brown is their most talented receiver, which in itself speaks volumes, and Alex Collins is a league average back at best. Baltimore’s best chance at success this season is keeping the score low and relying on the power of their defense. Baltimore’s defense is one of the most well-rounded in the league, with difference makers littered all across the unit. Jimmy Smith is one of the league’s most underrated talent at the cornerback position in the league, while Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson form a fearsome safety pairing. CJ Mosely remains one of the top linebackers in the league as he captains this Ravens defense, while Michael Pierce wreaks havoc in the middle of the defensive line. This Baltimore team has loads of talent, it just all happens to reside on the defensive side of the ball. If their offense can get out of their own way, look for the Ravens to be in the wild card hunt come playoff time.

3. Cleveland Browns                               Projected Record: 5-11

For most teams, a five win season and a third place finish in the division would be a massive disappointment. But, for a Cleveland Browns organization that has won one game over the last two seasons, those results would practically trigger a parade down the streets of Cleveland. A sense of optimism has swept Cleveland as they have brought in an exciting collection of talent. Tyrod Taylor, the Browns new starting quarterback, spent last season dragging a hapless Buffalo Bills squad to the playoffs only to be kicked to the curb. Jarvis Landry is one of the league’s preeminent pass catchers, and was acquired for the bargain price of a fourth round pick. Finally, the team’s most exciting offseason acquisition was number one overall pick Baker Mayfield. Their quarterback of the future impressed in limited snaps this preseason, and will likely see the field at some point this season. Cleveland has placed a higher priority on surrounding whoever’s under center with plenty of weapons, and now boast an enticing roster including Landry, tight end David Njoku, and running back Carlos Hyde to name a few. Defensively, there is still work to be done but the pieces are slowly coming together. Pass rusher Myles Garrett looked absolutely dominant in his shortened rookie season, and he should pick up right where he left off in his second year. EJ Gaines and Damarious Randall are two intriguing defensive backs who should take big steps forward in 2018, while linebackers Christian Kirksey and Jamie Collins Sr. need to prove they can stick in this league. While there are still a multitude of questions surrounding the Browns, this year should be a big step in their rebuilding process.

4. Cincinnati Bengals                                 Projected Record: 4-12

The most awe-inspiring fact about the NFL in 2018 is that Marvin Lewis is still the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. After years and years of heartbreak and playoff buffoonery, you would’ve thought it was time for the Bengals to find a new head coach. But no, Cincinnati instead chose to once again place their faith in the man with the 0-7 career postseason record. Lewis will look to command a team lacking in talent on both sides of the ball. The wide receiving corps of AJ Green, John Ross and Tyler Boyd is teeming with talent, but the Bengals lack the quarterback to fully unlock all of their skills. Running back Joe Mixon also impressed in his rookie season, but faces a difficult road ahead behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines. The additions of left tackle Cordy Glenn and rookie center Billy Price should provide some legitimacy, but they won’t be enough to transform the troublesome unit. The defense has typically been strong under Lewis, but this year may prove to be the exception. Besides defensive tackle Geno Atkins, the Bengals defense lacks proven difference makers and instead includes a bevy of unproven commodities. Jessie Bates III is slotted to be the teams starting free safety as a rookie, while Preston Brown is poised for another strong year after departing from Buffalo. All in all this team has more questions than answers, and should be primed for a disappointing season.