Archive for January, 2014

Jacksonville Jaguars v Denver Broncos

Over the next few months, SkoodSports will be doing a comprehensive rating of every starter at each position. We begin with perhaps the most important position in football. That is, the man under center. Obviously, every franchise dreams of having a franchise quarterback with the potential to lead them to greatness. But, these commodities obviously don’t grow on trees. It takes talent, poise, determination, and endurance to overcome the obstacles and become one of the best signal-callers in the game. These rankings below are based on a collection of information including: Regular season success (both in the long and short term), statistical achievement, postseason success, and “it factor.” Without further ado, here is SkoodSports’ 2014 NFL Quarterback Power Ranking:

1. Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos

Was there any doubt that Manning would rank first? The warrior may be nearing his final battle. But, there are few that you’d rather have under center. Manning could become the first player in the history of the sport to win Super Bowls as the starting QB for two different franchises. He’s already broken the NFL’s single-season touchdown pass record twice with two different teams. One of the best, if not THE best of all time.

2. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

After Manning, some would say that Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees deserve consideration. Well, it’s pretty clear that those people have no clue what they’re talking about. Tom Brady deserves just as much consideration as Manning got for the #1 spot. But, he falls just inches short based on the short-term statistical success that Manning has achieved. Brady has more rings. But, none have come in nearly a decade. Still, his success year after year stands out.

3. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Rodgers already owns a Super Bowl ring and should grab at least one more before his career is over. The former Cal Golden Bears’ ability succeed both as a scrambler outside the pocket and as a typical pocket passer sets him apart from most in the league today. Rodgers has had some durability problems in recent years. But, once Brady and Manning call it quits, he likely becomes the de facto best QB in the league.

4. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Another gunslinger with one Super Bowl ring, Drew Brees has perhaps the best statistical numbers of anyone on this list outside of Peyton Manning. The question of whether or not Brees’ success is aided greatly by playing in the Superdome are relevant. He’s also just 1-6 outdoors in his postseason career. But, there’s no denying the talent, leadership, and statistical dominance that the former Boilermaker has shown at the NFL level.

5. Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers

I know; this seems strange. I’m no Big Ben fan. But, the guy has two Super Bowl rings and hoards of regular and postseason success on his resume. He’s been to four AFC Championship Games, three Super Bowls, and countless one night stands in bar bathrooms. Roethlisberger may not be likable. But, he fits the criteria of a top-five quarterback.

6. Eli Manning, New York Giants

Another quarterback coming off a brutal season, Manning makes the top-six of this list simply because of his recent postseason success. The regular season numbers for Eli are average at best and pathetic in 2013. But, when the game is on the line and the pressure is at its highest point, there are few better in the game than Eli Manning.

7. Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers

Ten years ago, Eli Manning was selected first overall by the San Diego Chargers. Eli’s father, Archie, had no interest in his son playing in southern California. So, he orchestrated a trade to New York for the fourth overall pick, Philip Rivers. In the end, the Giants got two Super Bowls. But, San Diego still landed a franchise quarterback. The former NC State star had perhaps his finest statistical season to date in 2013, leading the Chargers from the brink of elimination on December 1st to a playoff win in Cincinnati.

8. Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

Now, we get to some of the future stars of the league. Andrew Luck has been crowned as the heir apparent to Peyton Manning on the top of this list by many, and it’s difficult to argue otherwise. The 2012 first overall pick has made the playoffs each of his first two seasons in the league. He also excels both as a passer and as a runner. The only concern that I have is the dramatic difference in turnover ratio between the regular season (when he looks like Tom Brady) and the postseason (when he looks like Jay Cutler).

9. Joe Flacco, Baltimore Ravens

Deciphering where to place Flacco on this list was one of the more difficult decisions to make. The 2012 Super Bowl MVP deserves all the credit in the world for his success in both the regular season and playoffs since he was drafted in the 1st round in 2008. However, his statistical numbers don’t suggest that he’s a top-ten signal caller. In the end, Super Bowl titles speak louder than week eight touchdown passes. So, Flacco overcomes younger, more talented players to reach the top-ten.

10. Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Despite the lack of fanfare coming into the league for Wilson, there’s little doubt that he belongs in the top half of the league’s quarterbacks. Whether or not he’s top-ten material is arguable. But, the success that he has achieved over his first two years in the league (most wins of any QB over his first 32 starts), is undeniable. He and the Seahawks can continue his legacy, and perhaps push him into the top-eight, with a victory on Sunday.

11. Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons

Matty “Ice” was anything but this season as he and the Falcons went from the best record in the NFC to a top-five pick in May’s draft. Injuries certainly contributed, as did a porous defense. But, Ryan wasn’t immune to gut wrenching mistakes. The former BC Eagle has led Atlanta to their most successful era in team history. But, postseason success has been hard to come by.

12. Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers

If this list were purely based on ability to throw the football, Kaepernick would rest securely in the bottom-ten. But, his undeniable athletic prowess and ability to change games with his legs is unrivaled at the quarterback position at this point. Kaep has played one-and-a-half seasons and already he’s played in two NFC title games. That’s impressive even if it has more to do with his defense than his play on the field.

13. Nick Foles, Philadelphia Eagles

Where to place Foles on this list was a big question going in. After all, this is a young player who has not even played a full NFL season. But, the success that he experienced in 2013 (27 TD, 2 INT) is enough to get him in the top half of the league. If Foles can come out in 2014 and show similar success, it won’t be long until he is firmly in the top-ten.

14. Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers

The next three or four quarterbacks are excruciatingly close in ranking. Newton holds down the fort at 14 due in large part to his ability to change the game with both his arm and legs. The gunslinger has a division championship on his mantle. Now, he needs to look for that first playoff win next year.

15. Andy Dalton, Cincinnati Bengals

Dalton’s regular season success should have him above Newton and Foles. But, the former TCU Horned Frogs’ inability to push through in the playoffs is what keeps him right in the middle of the pack. Dalton is now 0-3 in playoff games, and looked absolutely lost in the Bengals’ Wild Card defeat at the hands of Rivers and the Chargers.

16. Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears

Another difficult quarterback to place, Jay Cutler has had all sorts of statistical success since coming into the league in 2006. But, playoff appearances have been few and far between. In fact, he’s only made the playoffs once in eight seasons. Yet, somehow, the Bears felt it prudent to give him one of the richest contracts in football. Cutler is a good quarterback. But, his inability to win when it matters coupled with a fragile physique keeps him from being a great quarterback.

17. Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys

For all the statistical sensationalism, Tony Romo is merely an average quarterback. His inability to lead Dallas over .500 in each of the last three seasons further illustrates this belief. Really, Romo has only had two outstanding seasons. Those being in 2007 and 2009. In the former, he and the Cowboys fell flat on their face in their playoff opener against New York. Meanwhile, 2009 saw Dallas finally get a playoff win against Philadelphia before Romo was corralled by Minnesota in the Divisional Round. One playoff win in eight seasons is just not good enough.

18. Alex Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

A few seasons ago, Smith was considered a massive bust. The 2005 first overall pick went through a handful of offensive coordinators and three head coaches before he finally found his groove in 2011 under Jim Harbaugh. Despite leading the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game that year, Smith was unceremoniously benched and then traded in favor of Colin Kaepernick in 2012. One thing is for sure, you can do a lot worse than Alex Smith. He’ll never be the guy who wins the big one because of his inability to make the game-changing play. Still, Smith is the classic game manager who can win double-digit games per season.

19. Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins

A year ago, Griffin would get plenty of top-ten consideration. But, the hype surrounding the former Baylor Bear was clearly overstated. Prior to his Senior year at Baylor, Griffin did very little, and wasn’t even considered a top three round draft choice. But, two spectacular seasons suddenly made him a marked man, and that showed when he struggled in 2013, costing Mike Shanahan his job in D.C. It doesn’t help that Griffin has developed the reputation as being a primadonna.

20. Sam Bradford, St. Louis Rams

Truth be told, few know exactly what is to come out of the 2010 #1 overall pick. Bradford had an impressive rookie campaign, followed by a dismal 2012. Last season, the veteran was enjoying a spectacular statistical season before going down with a knee injury for the remainder of the season. St. Louis will likely give Bradford one more season to figure out who he is. But, the clock is ticking on a quarterback that has yet to have a winning season despite an astronomical financial guarantee from the Rams.

21. Carson Palmer, Arizona Cardinals

Ten years ago, Palmer would be the hot, young up-and-comer like Luck or Wilson. Now, he’s merely a has been whose career was sidetracked by numerous injuries over the last eight years. You could certainly do worse as a rebuilding squad. But, a contender like Arizona needs someone with a stronger future than Palmer.

22. Matthew Stafford, Detroit Lions

Surprised to see Stafford so far down this list? You shouldn’t be. The Lions’ gunslinger has been woefully inconsistent the last few seasons. His record down the stretch the last two years (lost final eight games in 2012 & six of seven in 2013) is quite glaring, as well. Stafford has the best receiver in football and plenty of talent behind him. Yet, he’s only made the playoffs once as a former #1 overall pick. His statistical success notwithstanding, Stafford has been a disappointment. Still, there’s room for improvement for a quarterback who is still quite young.

23. Ryan Tannehill, Miami Dolphins

Tannehill is intriguing because, while he’s performed quite admirably over his first two years, he has very little to show for it with regards to victories. The Dolphins were in line for their first playoff berth since 2008 this season, and yet Tannehill’s offense couldn’t muster anything in two late losses down the stretch. He holds on to the ball for too long, resulting in coverage sacks that could otherwise have been avoided. R.T. still carries with him a lot of upside, and could find himself in the top-15 at this point in 2015.

24. Josh McCown, Chicago Bears

The first non-starter to appear on this list, McCown proved last season with Chicago that his best days may lie ahead. A third round pick of Arizona in 2002, McCown has made a career out of being a journeyman backup. His numbers were never impressive prior to 2013, and success never was easy to come by, either.  Then came last year, when McCown threw 13 touchdowns and just 1 interception. The 34-year old veteran has an opportunity to find a starting job this offseason if he chooses to leave Chicago.

25. Mike Glennon, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Glennon came into the NFL as a mid-round draft pick of the Buccaneers in 2013. The former NC State star stands tall at 6’6 and, despite his goofy looks, had quite a rookie campaign for a mediocre team in Tampa Bay. By completing 59% of his passes and throwing 19 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions, Glennon showed new coach Lovie Smith that he may already have his quarterback of the future on the roster.

26. Matt Schaub, Houston Texans

What a fall from grace in just one year for Matt Schaub. At this point a year ago, the former Virginia Cavalier would likely be in or near the top-15. Instead, the soon to be former Texans’ quarterback will have to find himself a backup job this offseason. After winning back-to-back AFC South championships, Schaub fell apart in 2013. He was ultimately benched by Houston after setting an NFL record for most consecutive games with a pick six thrown.

27. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tennessee Titans

Say what you will about the former Harvard Crimson star. But, Ryan Fitzpatrick has crafted a nifty little career out of being utterly and completely mediocre. His arm strength, decision making, and win-loss record are all very average. It should be no surprise, then, that the former Bills’ starter rests quite deep in our power rankings.

28. EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills

Plenty of upside for the 2013 first round pick. But, we just didn’t get to see enough of him during an injury plagued rookie season to say that he’s anything more than a question mark heading into 2014. There remains a solid chance that Manuel develops into a star. But, there also remains that seed of doubt that, in Buffalo, stars are rarely witnessed.

29. Kyle Orton, Dallas Cowboys

That’s right, another backup is on the list. Orton proved in his week 17 matchup vs. Philadelphia that he could still manage a game and put up impressive statistics. Orton’s ability to get the ball away quickly has always been his greatest strength, and he showed that during his one-game cameo last season. Of course, it was the Purdue grad’s turnover that ended the Cowboys’ hopes. So, let’s not get too carried away.

30. Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles

If you ask me, Vick could easily find a starting job heading into 2014. I mean, look at Cleveland, Oakland, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Tennessee, and Houston. None of those teams have starters in place heading into the offseason. Granted, some will look towards rookies to fill their vacancy. But, as a short-term stopgap; there are few better options than Vick.

31. Kirk Cousins, Washington Redskins

Cousins hasn’t played enough to really give us enough to grade him on; and the success he achieved in 2012 was tempered by the failures of 2013 in Washington. But, the former Michigan State Spartan has a lot of perceived upside. He’s another potential starting quarterback for one of the teams mentioned above.

32. Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings

Whether or not Matt Cassel returns to Minnesota next year is still in doubt. What isn’t in doubt is Cassel’s place in this league. The former Patriots’ backup turned Kansas City starter found success late in the season for the Vikings, leading them to victories against Philadelphia and Detroit whilst nearly beating Baltimore in a thriller. The signal caller should find a cozy backup position somewhere in 2014.

33. Terrelle Pryor, Oakland Raiders
34. Jason Campbell, Cleveland Browns
35. Chad Henne, Jacksonville Jaguars
36. Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers
37. Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
38. Case Keenum, Houston Texans
39. Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
40. Kellen Clemens, St. Louis Rams
41. Josh Freeman, Minnesota Vikings
42. Thaddeus Lewis, Buffalo Bills
43. Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns
44. Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars
45. Scott Tolzien, Green Bay Packers 

 

Super Bowl XLVIII Prediction

Posted: January 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

super-bowl-48-broncos-vs.-seahawksSuper Bowl XLVIII will kick off in less than five days. With two number one seeds facing each other for just the second time in 20 years (2009), the frosty New York affair promises to be a legendary battle. On one side is the AFC champion Denver Broncos; whose passing offense sits alone as the greatest the league has ever seen. In the other corner rests the Seattle Seahawks; a team with a powerful running attack and a ferocious defense led by CB Richard Sherman.

The old adage is that defense wins championships. But, with the added emphasis on pass interference/illegal contact calls, defenses have been neutered by the league in recent years. Will Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary prove strong enough against the greatest quarterback of our generation, Peyton Manning? Or, will the future Hall of Fame gunslinger win his second championship in this his 16th NFL season? On Sunday night, we’ll find out. 

Seeing as how both of these teams were the best in their respective conferences basically from start-to-finish this year, finding a true underdog can be daunting. Yes, Vegas has Denver as a 2.5 point favorite right now. But, a line that small doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence in picking the Broncos. Seattle’s secondary, unlike New England’s a week ago, is healthy and physical. The Broncos receivers, meanwhile, have thrived this year by utilizing their own physicality on pick plays over the middle to free up other targets for Manning. They’ve done this in every single game this year and while it may be technically illegal, the referees rarely throw the penalty flag. If Seattle’s secondary can match or surpass the physical nature of Demaryius Thomas, Erik Decker, and Wes Welker, then Manning will have a tough time finding open targets downfield. This will intensify the focus on the Seattle pass rush, which is led by a trio of dominant defensive ends, Michael Bennett, Chris Clemons, and Cliff Avril.

On offense, the Seahawks will likely have better success against Denver through the air than they did against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. Denver’s defense is banged up and relying heavily on veteran Champ Bailey after the loss of Chris Harris for the season in their earlier playoff win vs. San Diego. His injury forced Bailey back into the starting lineup and subsequently pushed everyone else up the pecking order in the depth chart. This is a significant concern because of Seattle’s ability to spread the football around. The return of offseason pickup WR Percy Harvin, who played just one game all season for the Seahawks, will be huge. Harvin, along with Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate, and Jermaine Kearse, form a deep receiving corp for sophomore sensation Russell Wilson to utilize.

The aforementioned Seahawks’ signal-caller will be making his fifth career playoff start (3-1) against Manning, who is lining up for his 23rd (11-11).  That inexperience could be a huge factor. Especially when one considers that Wilson hasn’t exactly been Joe Montana since the beginning of December (4-2 record, 5 TD – 3 INT). While his numbers against San Francisco two weeks ago were the best that he’s had in that time frame, Wilson wasn’t exactly asked to do a lot in an offense that revolved around not turning the ball over and running Marshawn Lynch 20+ times a game. Which brings me to my next burning question; will Marshawn find “beast mode” against one of the best rushing attacks in football? The Broncos defense has allowed a combined 280 yards on the ground the last four games. That’s an average of just 70 yards a game. It’s not like the Broncos were playing the Cowboys, either. Those performances came against very good running teams in New England, San Diego, Oakland, and Houston. In fact, the last time the Broncos gave up a 100+ yard performance on the ground was their Thursday night defeat at the hands of San Diego, a matchup in which the Chargers rolled for 177 yards via the run.

There was a period in the middle of the season in which the Broncos gave up over 100+ yards on the ground in six consecutive games. They went just 4-2 in those affairs. Which is telling considering the Broncos have lost just those two games all season long. It shows that, despite all the talk about the Seahawks’ defense vs. Peyton Manning or the inexperience of Russell Wilson, this game will likely come down to whether or not the Seahawks can establish the run with Lynch and Robert Turbin and then continue to pound the rock down the throats of the AFC Champions. If Lynch goes for over 100 yards on Sunday, the Seahawks will win their first Super Bowl. If he doesn’t, and the Broncos are able to keep the ball in Manning’s hands for the majority of the game, it will be Denver celebrating a third Lombardi Trophy.

In the end, it’s impossible to accurately predict what will happen. But, Seattle’s penchant for keeping their hands on the football while also forcing turnovers is the exact recipe necessary to win a Super Bowl in this day-and-age. People will continue to suggest that the passing game has enveloped the league to the point that, if your team doesn’t throw for 400 yards a game, you don’t have a chance to win a championship. We’ve seen numerous times over the last five years that this just is not the case. Baltimore, New York, and Pittsburgh have won a combined four of the last six Super Bowls thanks to their ability to run the ball and force turnovers. If Colin Kaepernick isn’t intercepted by the Ravens’ Ed Reed in the first half of Super Bowl XLVII, who knows who ends up winning that tight affair. It’s the same story with Tom Brady the year prior, who was forced to take a safety early in the game by a ferocious Giants’ pass rush. When Pittsburgh defeated Arizona in 2008, it was in large part due to a 100+ yard pick-six delivered by Steelers’ OLB James Harrison late in the first half.

Turnovers and a strong rushing attack are the keys to Super Bowl glory. For Seattle, a city with just one title in their history and many, many close calls; the keys are in the ignition awaiting the green light that says, “go.”

 Prediction: Seattle 20, Denver 17 (MVP: Richard Sherman)

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With Super Bowl week finally here, it’s time to focus on rooting interests. Let’s face it, most of us don’t have a horse in the race anymore. Whether or not you’re a Cleveland fan who never had a prayer or a Patriots’ faithful still sulking from the recent AFC Championship loss, you’ll probably still be watching the big game on Sunday. You may be betting, and that will certainly impact your opinion. But, for those who stay away from gambling and have no real allegiance to either team, picking one to go with can be difficult. Especially when they’re two evenly matched teams like the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Let’s take a look at certain criteria and which team you should be rooting for if you fit into each realm:

1. You love offense, offense, and more offense. 

If you’re fanatical about points, then the Denver Broncos are the team for you. Peyton Manning and Co. put up more points this season than any team in the history of football. They can beat you through the air or on the ground. Though, the air attack that made Peyton the all time leader in single season passing touchdowns is still their best C.O.A. Seattle’s offense is no slouch. But, no team on the planet today can compete with what the Broncos can put out on every single Sunday. If you like high scoring affairs and teams with air attack offenses, Denver is the team to root for.

2. Defense wins championships and your allegiances. 

Some of us are old school. We appreciate the good old 14-10 affairs and the intricacies of a zone vs. man defense. If this is you, then you should be rooting for the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. Sure, Denver’s defense is good. But, the Seahawks’ is legendary. Not only do they possess one of the deepest pass rushing defensive lines in a decade. Seattle also has the biggest group of defensive backs in the league. Richard Sherman, for all the drama he presents to the media, is the best corner in football. Couple his talents with that of Walter Thurmond, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas, and you have the best secondary money can buy. If you like low scoring, high octane games with plenty of pass rush, go with Seattle.

3. This is America and we dig the frontrunners.

Many of us appreciate the shock of an underdog pulling out a victory. But, for some, the favorite is the way to go. Many people just find someone unsettling about an upset. If you hate change and relished the days of dynasties like Dallas and San Francisco, then the Denver Broncos are the team for you. No, Denver hasn’t won a championship in 15 years. But, they have reigned over the league since Manning arrived and have seemed to be in contention for the postseason every year since John Elway retired. It didn’t matter if Jake Plummer, Brian Griese, or Tim Tebow was their quarterback. The Denver Broncos almost always are in the playoffs. If you liked Goliath, root for Manning and the Broncos.

4. No way, the underdog is the way to go.

If, like most, you side with the underdog, then the Seattle Seahawks are your team this weekend. Granted, both of these teams were spectacular this season and Denver is only a 2.5 point favorite. But, the Seahawks have never won a Super Bowl and have only gotten this far once in their history (2005). In fact, the entire city of Seattle has just one championship to look back on, and that team isn’t even around any more (SuperSonics in 1979). The fans may be annoying. But, they’re knowledgeable, passionate, and above all else, tortured. Seattle is the underdog, whether Richard Sherman agrees or not.

5. I want to see history happen. 

If your interest in this game revolves around the likelihood of a historic evening, then the Denver Broncos are your team. Sure, Seattle could win their first Super Bowl six days from now. But, Manning has the chance to become the first quarterback in history to win two Super Bowls as the starter for two different teams. Kurt Warner nearly did it first in 2008-09. But, his Cardinals fell short against the Pittsburgh Steelers that year. If Manning wins on Sunday, he will end the discussion between he and Tom Brady and become the best quarterback of our (or perhaps any) generation.

6. I find personal redemption intoxicating and want to see some on Sunday.

If you like a good personal redemption story, then there might be no better tale than that of Pete Carroll. The Seattle Seahawks coach is on the verge of a Super Bowl title despite two decades of controversy. In the 1990s, Carroll was a rather unsuccessful coach of the Jets and Patriots after earning his stripes in New York as their defensive coordinator. Through much of the 2000s, Carroll became a household name as head coach of the USC Trojans. With Southern California, the energetic head coach won two National Titles (2003 and 2004) and lost in another (2005). He also developed a reputation as less than ethical with regards to recruiting and providing benefits to collegiate athletes. In the end, Carroll bolted USC when faced with significant repercussions by the NCAA. When he was hired by Seattle in 2010, many believed it to be a foolish signing. After all, Carroll’s success had come in college, where he was found to be cheating by the organization that governed him. But, on Sunday, Carroll has the chance to get the last laugh. If you like personal redemption, the Seahawks are the team for you.

All offseason, the general consensus has been that the Philadelphia Phillies are entering another disappointing season in 2014. Fresh off their worst campaign since 2000, Philadelphia is labored with robust contracts to fading veterans. Despite the negatives, there remains a shimmering light at the end of the tunnel for the Phillies. Yes, the expectations are low. But, the reality is that this is a much better roster than the team thathoward broke camp last spring. If the stars can stay healthy, the Phillies could reasonably win 90+ games in 2014. The Red Sox did it in 2013, going from worst to first in a very difficult AL East division. If Philadelphia gets what they expect out of their top-end talent, then October could be red again this fall.

First and foremost, any chance that Philadelphia has of competing in an uber-difficult National League East will depend on their ability to stay healthy. The last two years, health has been a fleeting fiction for the Phillies. Injuries to key players crippled any chance of success over that time frame. In fact, only one starter played more than 130 games in 2012. That was Jimmy Rollins (156). Other than Juan Pierre (130), John Mayberry (149), and Carlos Ruiz (114), nobody played more than 100 games that year. In 2013, the sad story continued. Of the players expected to start in the Phillies’ opening day lineup, only four played over 100 games (Rollins, Domonic Brown, Chase Utley, and Michael Young). Granted, the rapidly accelerating age of the unit as a whole doesn’t suggest that these injuries will desist. But, one can hope that the infusion of youth in the form of Brown, Ben Revere, and Cody Asche could aid whatever illnesses injuries bring to the Phillies in 2014.

As for those who missed time a year ago, the news heading into spring training is good. Ruben Amaro was quoted last week as saying that “Ryan Howard is 100% healthy.” The health of Howard is likely the key to any success over the next year. The former MVP has played just 151 games combined since the beginning of 2012, contributing 25 home runs and 99 RBI in that time frame. If Howard can play 140 games for the first time since 2011, the Phillies will have solved most of their offensive woes. The additions of Asche and Marlon Byrd should only serve to improve a lineup that relied far too heavily on Mayberry, Delmon Young, and Kevin Frandsen a year ago. Keep an eye on Darin Ruf, as well. The 27-year old slugged 14 homers and drove in 47 in just 73 games last year. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Ruf to spell Howard against lefties at first base. A combination of Ruf and Howard at first could conceivably go for 40+ homers and 130+ RBI, if both remain healthy.

What’s clear is that the Phillies’ offensive difficulties of 2012-13 should be less of a liability this season. As for their pitching staff…well, that’s another story. Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee (a combined 22-22 in 2013) should be on top of their game again. Hamels dealt with pathetic run support during the team’s woeful run scoring drought. Expect a strong bounce back from him. Meanwhile, which Kyle Kendrick we see this season is an entirely different story. The righthander signed a one year deal to avoid arbitration and is heading into his free agent season. It’s not out of the question to think that K.K. could put together a banner season in his walk year. But, that remains to be seen.

Behind the three veterans at the top is a cluster of question marks. Offseason signing Robert Hernandez is a veteran righthander with postseason experience and solid numbers in the past. But, he’s coming off a dreadful year in Tampa Bay and whether or not he survives pitching at home in Citizens Bank Park is still up in the air. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Amaro’s big international free agent signing from last August, has a good chance of making the team out of spring training. His repertoire suggests a solid 3 or 4 starter with the possibility for upside. It’s unlikely that he becomes Jose Fernandez so swiftly. But, Gonzalez has got to be considered a significant wild card in 2014. Joining Gonzalez in the quest for the fifth rotation spot are Ethan Martin and Jonathan Pettibone. The former was dynamite at the AAA level before struggling as a starter in Philadelphia in 2013. Martin could be used primarily as a reliever, depending on how his spring training goes. As for Pettibone, he remains a candidate to earn the fifth spot after a surprisingly successful campaign a year ago. The 23-year old right hander went 5-4, 4.04 in 18 MLB starts. Although his stuff isn’t as good as Gonzalez or Martin, his ability to attack hitters and show no fear on the mound gives him a possible edge over the more inexperienced duo he’s competing with. The Phillies also have youngsters with high upside in Adam Morgan, David Buchanan, and Jesse Biddle waiting in the high-minors.

Finally, the new faces in the bullpen are minimal. The team acquired righthander Brad Lincoln in December. 29 in May, Lincoln is a former first round pick converted to a rather successful reliever. His best year came in 2012, when he went a combined 5-2, 3.68 with Pittsburgh and Toronto. He will be expected to fit right into the 7th inning role. Joining Lincoln in the Phillies’ bullpen will be familiar faces Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Adams, Jake Diekman, Justin De Fratus, and Antonio Bastardo. Expect more cameos from Joe Savery, Phillippe Aumont, and Jeremy Horst, as well. The Philadelphia bullpen isn’t as strong as Amaro would like. But, with live arms like Martin, Luis Garcia, Kevin Munson, and BJ Rosenberg in reserve, it’s deeper than it’s been in years.

The Phillies were 20-22 under Ryne Sandberg in 2013. While that doesn’t seem all that impressive, it’s important to note that they were 14 games below .500 under Charlie Manuel. The team also was incredibly banged up and in the midst of a firesale when the former Chicago Cubs second baseman took over. If Sandberg can continue to lead this team with the vigor of a lieutenant, then Philadelphia could defy the odds in 2014. Can this team with 90 games this year? That question remains up in the air.

pettineThe Cleveland Browns, one of the most dysfunctional franchises in sports, have reportedly agreed to hire former Buffalo Bills Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine as their newest head coach. This comes a month after the team fired first year coach Rob Chudzinski after he and the Browns went 4-12 in 2013.

Pettine, 47, has never been a head coach at the professional level. But, he was a four time PI-AAAA state champion with North Penn in the late-90s and early-2000s. Pettine’s father, Mike Pettine Sr. was a heralded head coach at Central Bucks West, where Mike Jr. played high school ball as a quarterback and defensive back.

The first time NFL coach took a long and windy road to his current destination. After experiencing rampant success with the Knights of North Penn, Pettine joined the defending champion Baltimore Ravens in 2001 and was promoted to outside linebacker coach in 2005 when Rex Ryan became the team’s defensive coordinator. Pettine would follow Ryan to New York, where the former became the Jets’ defensive coordinator in 2009. When his contract expired a year ago, the Buffalo Bills grabbed the defensive guru for the same role. Both New York and Buffalo experienced dramatic upswings in defensive production once Pettine joined each franchise.

For Cleveland, the move is a bit out of left field. The Browns shocked most pundits when they fired Chudzinski just 11 months after they hired him. But, Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi clearly wanted to go in another direction. After flirting with offensive gurus like Denver’s Adam Gase and New England’s Josh McDaniels, Cleveland has settled on Pettine. Defense wins championships, they say. For the city of Cleveland, absent a title since the Browns last won the NFL Championship in 1964, that mantra had better be true.

Careers in baseball don’t get much more interesting than that of Charlie Hayes. The longtime MLB third baseman, once considered one of the brightest young prospects in the game, kicks off our new series, The Average Baseball Player of the Week. You see, there are a lot of athletes in charlie-hayes-new-york-yankees-last-out-autographed-photograph-3390639the major leagues. Many of them are stars whose light shines brighter than the sun. But, for most, baseball is merely a passion that follows them from the time they first lace up the spikes to their final at bat in the International League at the age of 38. For some, baseball is a talent. For others, it is life. This is a tribute to that massive majority. This is The Average Baseball Player of the Week.

Charlie Hayes was never the best of hitters. Upon breaking into the bigs in 1988 with the San Francisco Giants, Hayes would not hit above .257 until 1993. In fact, the former fourth round pick’s career looked to be just about over after his first stint with the Philadelphia Phillies ended in 1991. Following that season, in which he hit .230-12-53, Hayes was shipped to the Yankees as a player to be named later in a previous deal the Phillies made for Darrin Chaplin. Hayes played in 142 games for a lowly 76 win Yankees team. But, it was the playing time that he got that season that truly changed Hayes’ career for the better.

After hitting .257 with the Yankees in 1992, the third baseman was selected with the third pick in the 1993 MLB Expansion Draft by the Colorado Rockies. As most know, the thin air in Denver provides hitters an impressive advantage when playing at home. Hayes was no exception, as 1993 saw the veteran establish career highs in average (.305), home runs (25), runs batted in (98), and nearly every other offensive category. Hayes even led the National League in doubles that season with 45 after never hitting more than 23 prior to that campaign. Thanks to this upswing in production, Hayes cashed in during arbitration, earning $3.075 million in 1994 with the Rockies, his final season in purple.

As expected, he didn’t enjoy as prolific a sophomore campaign in the Rocky Mountains. Still, Hayes’ .288-10-50 line in 113 games with Colorado during the strike-shortened 1994 season was enough to get Lee Thomas and the Phillies calling in 1995. The former Phillie returned to The City of Brotherly Love on a one year contract to start at third base with Dave Hollins moving to first after the departure of John Kruk for Chicago. As predicted, the departure from Colorado greatly affected his play both in the batter’s box and on the field. Hayes was a butcher at third that season, committing 14 errors to go along with a mediocre .963 fielding percentage. These numbers weren’t good enough to compliment a declining offense, as the 30-year old hit just .276-11-85 in the middle of Philadelphia’s order. A year later, Hayes departed Veterans Stadium yet again, this time as a free agent. That offseason, he signed a one year deal with the Keystone State’s other team, the Pittsburgh Pirates.

With a couple of poor seasons in his rear view mirror and on the wrong side of 30, the bright spots of Hayes’ career appeared to be over. However, a midseason trade back to one of his previous destinations would prove fruitful for the veteran and provide him with the storybook moment that his fledgling career desperately needed. On August 30th, just days prior to the expiration of the waiver trade deadline and with Pittsburgh well below .500, Hayes was dealt back to the Yankees for a minor leaguer. The Yankees viewed him as a valuable bench bat and a potential defensive replacement for aging star Wade Boggs. Hayes would go on to play just 20 games in September for the Yankees and hit just .188 in the World Series that year. But, it was this average ballplayer who made the series’ most memorable play. With two outs and John Wetteland on the mound looking to cement a championship for the Yankees, Hayes was brought in to play third by Joe Torre against the Atlanta Braves. Moments later, the veterans’ series clinching grab on a popup in foul ground beyond the third base line sent Yankees Stadium into a frenzy, as the Empire won their first championship in nearly two decades. That moment will forever be etched in the memories of Yankees’ Nation, and helped to usher in an era of dominance and dynasty for the Bronx Bombers.

Hayes would go on to play through the 2001 season, finishing his career with stops in San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Houston. But, nothing would ever come close to surpassing that crisp October night in 1996, when Charlie Hayes, forever the portrait of baseball mediocrity, was on top of the world for just one pitch.

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On March 11th, NFL teams will be free to sign unrestricted free agents to new contracts. Likewise, players whose contracts are expiring will venture to the feeding frenzy known as free agency with an opportunity to ink that next megadeal with one of the league’s 32 teams. For the Philadelphia Eagles, this is a critical offseason. A year ago, this franchise was in rebuilding mode, putting together the pieces after a dismal 4-12 campaign under Andy Reid. Now, the Eagles have their sights set on returning to the playoffs and repeating as NFC East champions. To do that, they’ll need to find the right mix of new players while deciding whether or not to bring back a talented crop of free agents ready to depart for “greener” pastures. With the team over $30 million under the cap, they should be able to bring in any offseason target they desire. Below is a look at each of the key Eagles’ free agents and whether or not SkoodSports believes the team should resign them. The players are listed from most important to least:

1. WR Riley Cooper – Unrestricted Free Agent

Heading into the preseason, I (along with plenty of others) considered Riley Cooper to be expendable. The former Florida Gators star had not done much during three years in Philadelphia and made audible noise by uttering a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert last summer. But, Cooper came back with a vengeance. The 26-year old broke out in 2013, catching 47 passes for 835 yards and 8 touchdowns while becoming one of Nick Foles’ favorite redzone targets.

Whether or not that improvement in production warrants a new contract is up for debate. The Eagles will likely need to find at least one new receiver whether or not they keep Cooper and Jeremy Maclin (more on him in a bit). The latter is unlikely to command anything more than $3-4 million per season, so it’s not as though Howie Roseman and Co. will need to break the bank to bring him back. The questions around whether or not Cooper would be able to fit into the locker room after his off the cuff remarks are behind him, and the veteran was an integral part of Philadelphia’s offensive surge in the second half of the season.

If the Eagles do not bring Cooper back, then someone like New England’s Julian Edelman should be considered to replace him. Though, at this point, it’s a stretch to say that Edelman would be any more cost effective than Cooper. Seeing as how Riley has proven to be a fit in this offense, bringing him back would probably be the best move for the Eagles.

2. WR Jeremy Maclin

The forgotten one, Jeremy Maclin, will turn 26 on May 11th. After missing the entire 2013 season due to knee surgery, it’s easy to forget that J-Mac was one of the best young receivers in the game prior to going down early in training camp. Even during the Eagles’ dismal “Dream Team” era, Maclin was a force. The 2009 first round pick caught a combined 132 passes for 1716 yards and 14 touchdowns from 2011-12. Those maclin2numbers came despite an offense that was turnover prone with Michael Vick under center. Now, imagine his performance with an accurate and efficient passer like Nick Foles at the helm. When one considers these facts, bringing Maclin back doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

Of course, there are significant risks to resigning the veteran receiver. While surgery to repair torn ligaments has come a long way over the last few decades, ACL injuries still cause concern in athletes. Especially considering that speed was such an integral aspect of Maclin’s game prior to the devastating injury. If that acceleration doesn’t come back, will the former Missouri Tiger even be worth tendering an offer to? Maclin has also been called “soft” by some, and that is unlikely to be remedied by spending a year out of football.

Still, Maclin has proven to be one of the best #2 receivers in the league, and he wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to sign. If Philadelphia, who has monitored his rehab closely, considers Maclin on schedule to start the season; they should strongly consider a reunion with their former first round pick.

3. P Donnie Jones

It’s unusual for a punter to be considered a critical aspect of any team’s offseason. But, “Donnie Football” was such a huge part of the Eagles’ run to a division title that leaving him off this list would be criminal. It would also make it a very short list, seeing as how the Eagles arent exactly crippled by pending free agents this offseason. Jones, 33, was among the league’s leaders in net average and punts inside the 20. His ability to launch 65+ yarders in crucial fourth quarter moments helped the team overcome tough tests against Arizona and Dallas en route to a division crown.

It’s unlikely that the Eagles are going to find an available punter that is as trustworthy and experienced as the former St. Louis Ram. If they’re smart, Philadelphia will stick with the guy they know and bring back Jones on a multi-year contract.

4. FS Nate Allen

Few will shed a tear if the Eagles don’t return Nate Allen to their defensive secondary in 2014. The 2010 2nd round pick got off to a fast start on his career, including an interception of Aaron Rodgers in his first career game. However, Allen has never developed into the ball hawking safety that the Eagles hoped he’d be when they drafted him out of South Florida. His inability to cover or tackle anybody handicapped him on the field and crippled the Eagles’ pass defense over the last few seasons.

Granted, Allen was far from the worst of the worst with regards to Eagles’ safeties in recent seasons; Kurt Coleman and Patrick Chung deserve that honor. But, his lack of distinctive moments and plethora of questionable efforts make it easy to list him toward the bottom of this list. If the Eagles bring Allen back, they will also need to add a bonafide starter with star potential across from him. Another season of Allen and a mediocre strong safety will leave the Eagles’ defense looking average once again.

5. FS Colt Anderson

Granted, a special teamer is rarely considered a valuable commodity. But, that’s what makes Colt Anderson such an intriguing possibility this offseason. Most teams will look at the veteran and say, “too short, too small, too slow.” But, the Eagles know what Anderson brings to the table on their respective coverage units. The fan favorite has long been the best of the Eagles’ coverage teams, and bringing him back on the cheap would allow the team to focus on other needs in free agency and the draft.

Many fans will not forgive Anderson for his admitted mistake on the final kick return against New Orleans in the Eagles’ 26-24 Wild Card round loss. But, all players make bad plays, and Anderson was hardly the reason why the Eagles succumbed to the Saints. His leadership and experience as a gunner allows the special teams coach to focus on other issues.

Best of the Rest

6. QB Michael Vick – Few expect or want the former starting quarterback of the team to return. Vick’s propensity for turnovers and poor redzone performances overshadowed his big play ability and led to his demotion in favor of Nick Foles last season. He’ll head to free agency hoping for a starting job. Honestly, I just don’t see it out there for him. Though, the Cleveland Browns (led by former Eagles executive Joe Banner) should consider it. If they draft Johnny Manziel early in round one, Vick could prove a worthy mentor for the dual threat gunslinger.

7. DL Clifton Geathers – Geathers had his moments last season. But, he was far too inconsistent to be considered an important free agent. Just another dime-a-dozen lineman, the Eagles could get by without him.

8. SS Kurt Coleman – Last on this list is Kurt Coleman. A decent special teamer, Coleman became known in 2011-12 for his propensity to get completely lost in coverage, leading to many, many big plays the other way. I wouldn’t be broken up if he returns for the minimum to lay some wood on special teams. But, if he is considered a potential starter at safety, your team is going to suffer.