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#pounditTuesday, March 2, 2021

Stories by Dan Benton:

5 NFL players who could be cut before free agency

Alex Smith

The start of the new league year, which is ushered in with the beginning of free agency, is now less than one month away. Leading up to that time, NFL teams will continue shuffling their rosters. Teams are hoping to not only clear salary cap space for players they covet, but also to clear roster space.

That means many players will be cut in the coming weeks, and you can bank on a few of them being big names. We’ve already seen one big name make that list.

Here’s a look at five more players who could be sent out to pasture leading up to free agency.

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5 impending under-the-radar NFL restricted free agents

Gus Edwards

The 2020 season has reached its conclusion with a Tampa Bay Buccaneers victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. Attention will now turn to the league’s offseason, which promises to be every bit as interesting as the last one, due to COVID-19.

One thing that will not change is the rush on free agents come mid-March. Previously, we broke down a list of under-the-radar unrestricted free agents who may helps teams at a bargain price, but what about restricted free agents?

Although these players are less likely to switch teams (especially if tendered at a high round), some teams might decide to make a big move for them. Here is a look at five under-the-radar restricted free agents.

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5 impending under-the-radar unrestricted NFL free agents

Tyrod Taylor

In under two months, the NFL world will be thrust back into its busiest time: free agency.

All 32 organizations will dive head-first into a deep pool of available players in an attempt to find their missing pieces. And although the initial flurry is always focused on the top-end free agents, it’s the second and third wave of players who tend to shore up key loose ends.

In 2021, just as it’s been in each year prior, there will be several under-the-radar players who sign at a discount and go on to make all the difference. Here’s a look at five unrestricted free agents who could very well fit that bill.

5. Tyrod Taylor, QB

Tyrod Taylor isn’t “under-the-radar” in the sense that he’s an unknown, but he is “under-the-radar” in the sense that he’s a quality quarterback capable of starting in this league but just can’t seem to find the right situation. Many believed he had it in 2020, but a botched injection by a team doctor caused Taylor to miss some time and ultimately paved the way for Justin Herbert’s emergence. It was an unfortunate break for Taylor, but at just 31 years of age, there’s still time to find that ideal fit. In a league so heavily influenced by offense, Taylor’s ability to pass and run without turning the ball over is going to appeal to someone.

4. Romeo Okwara, EDGE

Romeo Okwara entered the league as an undrafted free agent, signing with the New York Giants and playing an extremely limited role until he joined the Detroit Lions in 2018. That season, Okwara flashed some very real talent, recording 7.5 sacks in 15 games. However, he was relegated to a reserve role in 2019, and his sack total dropped to 1.5, leaving many to wonder if the prior season had just been a flash in the pan. But in 2020, Okwara reemerged with a career-high 10 sacks despite starting just nine games for the Lions. He earned an 85.4 pass rushing grade from Pro Football Focus and was credited with an impressive 61 total pressures. At just 25 years of age, it’s entirely possible that Okwara’s best and most dominant football remains ahead of him.

3. Mike Davis, RB

Mike Davis wasn’t able to gain a foothold in San Francisco, Seattle or Chicago. Despite a solid 2020 campaign, he may not be able to find one in Carolina, either. The argument against Davis is that he gained just 3.9 yards per carry last season and averages just 3.7 yards per carry throughout his career, all while never coming close to the 1,000-yard mark. All of that may be true, but there’s more than meets the eye here. Davis is a hard runner similar to Derrick Henry or Marshawn Lynch in that he forces missed tackles. In 2020, he forced a mind-blowing 65 missed tackles (43 as a runner and 22 as a receiver), leading to a 75.0 overall grade courtesy of Pro Football Focus. He’s also an excellent option out of the backfield and has a career catch rating of 80.1% (84.3% last season). Someone somewhere is going to get a bargain.

2. Keelan Cole, WR

A one-time undrafted free agent, Keelan Cole substantially boosted his value with a 55-reception, 642-yard performance in 2020 that included five touchdowns. It was Cole’s best season since his rookie campaign in 2017, and it showed that he’s capable of playing multiple roles to success. Although Cole is not likely to secure a WR1 position anywhere, he can be a very productive WR2 or WR3 in the right system, playing both outside and in the slot. He is in the 60th percentile of creating separation, which is something several teams desperately need, and he’s also good at bringing down contested balls (52%). But perhaps the most noteworthy improvement of Cole’s game is ball security — something that was an issue early on in his career but has become a strength over the previous two seasons.

1. Matt Milano, LB

As a fifth-round pick in 2017, expectations for Matt Milano were tempered. However, he rapidly developed into a consistent presence on the Buffalo defense beginning in his second season when he took over as a starter. That continued with a career-year in 2019 before Milano suffered a torn pec this past season and was relegated to a backup role upon his return. However, despite a significant reduction in snaps, the 26-year-old continued to play well, recording a career-high 3.5 sacks while compiling a 78.5 pass rush grade from Pro Football Focus. Although the injury clearly derailed Milano and opened the door for others, his entire body of work cannot be ignored. He’s proven himself to be good in coverage and as an ascending pass rusher. If Milano can clean up his tackling, he will become a very underrated signing for someone this offseason.

5 best NFL free agent signings of the 2020 season

Tom Brady Bucs

During free agency, every single signing is up for debate and scrutiny. No one is entirely sure how each addition will work out. More often than not, there are some very real surprises. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are good or bad, just that they’re ultimately eye-opening.

Looking back on the 2020 offseason, who made some of the best free agent signing? Here’s a look at five of the best signings from the 2020 offseason.

5. Robby Anderson, WR, Carolina Panthers

What a career resurgence for Robby Anderson. After being stuck in the mud for four seasons with the New York Jets, many believed Anderson had hit his professional ceiling and would be nothing more than a complementary receiver. The Panthers saw something more in him, and credit to head coach Matt Rhule, who certainly got the most out of Anderson. In his first season in Carolina, Anderson led the team with 136 targets and 95 receptions. He closed out the year with 1,096 yards and three touchdowns. While his production numbers were second to fellow receiver DJ Moore, there’s no denying Anderson has taken over as WR1 in Carolina and is just getting started.

4. Blake Martinez, LB, New York Giants

Since the retirement of Antonio Pierce following the 2009 season, the Giants have struggled to find an impact middle linebacker who can stop the run and drop into coverage without being a complete liability. That spot had been a persistent weakness until this season. The arrival of Blake Martinez signaled a significant change in East Rutherford, both on the field and in the locker room. Voted defensive captain by his teammates, Martinez finished the season with 151 tackles (third in NFL), six QB hits, three sacks, five passes defensed and one interception. He was snubbed for the Pro Bowl but did receive an All-Pro vote.

3. Tom Brady, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

How could this list possibly exist without the inclusion of the great one himself, Mr. Tom Brady? Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Brady is among the best to ever play the game. His presence in Tampa Bay has turned that franchise around. Yes, the Buccaneers brought in head coach Bruce Arians and then surrounded Brady with a ridiculous level of talent, but that’s only served to highlight the level at which Brady plays — even at 43 years of age. Some thought he was finished after his split with New England, but Brady responded with 4,633 yards, 40 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 16 games this season. The 40 touchdown passes were the second-most of his career, and the 4,633 passing yards were his most since 2015. The achievements are remarkable when you think about it.

2. James Bradberry, CB, New York Giants

For all the criticism Giants GM Dave Gettleman receives, it’s rather telling to see two of his free agent signings on this list. However, there’s no denying that both are deserved. Like Martinez, Bradberry joined the Giants and immediately established himself as a hard-working leader who brought much to the table both on and off the field. In the locker room, he worked closely with a very young and inexperienced cornerback group, while he completely dominated on the field. Bradberry’s 18 passes defensed were second in the NFL. His 79.8 PFF grade was second on the Giants and seventh overall at his position. Unsurprisingly, Bradberry’s play earned him Pro Bowl recognition.

1. Philip Rivers, QB, Indianapolis Colts

It was strange to see Philip Rivers in another uniform, but 2020 was a strange year, and the NFL regular season reflected that. At the age of 39, Rivers had one of his best seasons to date, completing 68 percent of his passes for 4,169 yards, 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. It was also just the second time since 2009 that Rivers led his team to double-digit wins. Though the Colts were bounced out of the playoffs in the Wild Card round, it was through no fault of Rivers. If this season does end up being his last, there’s no reason for Rivers to hang his head. He gave the Colts every last thing he had in the tank and helped revitalize a franchise that had been teetering.

5 NFL coaches and GMs who could be fired on Black Monday

Adam Gase

As the famous holiday song goes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Everyone is in the holiday spirit with Hanukkah and Christmas having just passed, but that will be short-lived for those in the NFL.

Just a week after Christmas has concluded, the dark clouds will begin to approach and then, as the new year is ushered in, many officials across the NFL will likely be ushered out. That is, of course, because Black Monday is right around the corner and as the name indicates, it’s one of the most difficult days on the league calendar.

Here is a quick look at five general managers and head coaches who could be given a pink slip on Black Monday.

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Jets punter received angry comments from fans for helping team win

New York Jets

The New York Jets picked up their first win of the season in a Week 15 upset of the Los Angeles Rams, and punter Braden Mann certainly deserves some of the credit.

With 5:33 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Jets up 23-20, Rams punt returner Nsimba Webster broke out into the open field and appeared to be headed for a score. However, Mann, a high school linebacker, managed to size Webster up and take him down at the Jets’ 43-yard.

The Rams would eventually turn the ball over on downs and the Jets’ offense would run out the remainder of the clock.

Under normal circumstances, Mann would be hailed as a hero. But this is 2020 and the Jets, who are in a race for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, may have cost themselves a chance at Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence with the victory.

As a result, Jets fans were furious with Mann and they let him know it on social media.

“I got a few messages like that,” Mann said, via ESPN. “But whoever says something like that, I don’t think they ever tried to compete at something like this. For us, we get paid to play. We get paid to win.”

While fans were upset, Jets players and coaches were not. In fact, they were elated and many offered Mann a pat on the back for a job well done.

“I couldn’t care less about the social media reaction, to be honest with you,” Mann added.

In the end, Mann just happens to be the current lightning rod for a fan base that is beyond frustrated. He’ll likely take a few more days of heat before they move onto their next target.

5 most important remaining games on NFL schedule

Alex Smith

It may be hard to believe, but we’ve reached the final stretch of the 2020 NFL regular season.

Despite the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL has managed to maneuver their way to the tail-end of the schedule. And with just two weeks remaining this season, playoff contenders are beginning to separate themselves from the pretenders, which also means each game is of the utmost importance.

With plenty left to be decided, here’s a look at the five most important games remaining on the NFL schedule.

5. Week 16: New Orleans Saints vs. Minnesota Vikings

The Saints currently lead the NFC South by one game, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looming. Meanwhile, the Vikings find themselves on the outside of the wild card race looking in and cannot afford to lose again this season. Although these two teams seem destined for different outcomes, they collectively make up one of the most important remaining games of the season — third in terms of importance factor heading into Week 16. The reason for that is simple: regardless of the outcome, it will impact both the Saints and Vikings, as well as the Buccaneers, Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals. And that’s the fun of late-season games during a tight playoff race.

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5 under-the-radar NFL players performing at a Pro Bowl level

Robby Anderson

The 2020 regular season is now beyond the midway point and as we’ve gone over in recent weeks, there have been plenty of surprises as well as plenty of letdowns.

But the surprises tend to run more deep and extend beyond just unsuspecting players performing at a high level. There are also several household names who have exceeded expectations and are playing at a Pro Bowl level.

Here is a look at five of those players.

5. Garett Bolles, OT, Denver Broncos

Over the first three seasons of his career, Garett Bolles looked like a potential draft bust in the making. During that span, he was among the most penalized offensive lineman in the game. He even drew the public ire of his general manager, John Elway. Outside of the penalties, Bolles was average at best, and at his worst, struggled in pass protection. Here in 2020 however, the former first-round pick has completely — and we mean completely — turned a corner. Not only has Bolles seen a dramatic decrease in the number of penalties called against him, he leads all tackles with a 90.2 Pro Football Focus grade and is top four in both pass protection and run blocking grades (1st). That’s Pro Bowl stuff any way you slice it, and the reason why he got a big contract extension from Denver.

4. Brandon Graham, DE, Philadelphia Eagles

Brandon Graham feels like a player who will forever be underrated, and it’s no different here in 2020. Through eight games this season, the relentless smack-talking Graham has recorded 7.0 sacks, which is just 2.5 shy of his career high. His 80.5 Pro Football Focus grade is also tops among Eagles defenders, second overall on the team, and within the top 15 (11) league-wide at his position. Graham is consistent and can be relied upon for a certain level of play each week and that speaks volumes about his overall value to the team away from statistics, numbers and analytics. What’s even more remarkable is that he’s played well for 11 consecutive seasons and never once been named to the Pro Bowl. That could very well change this year.

3. Leonard Williams, DL, New York Giants

When the Giants acquired Leonard Williams from the New York Jets in 2019, general manager Dave Gettleman faced overwhelming criticism. However, it may be Gettleman who gets the last laugh after all. Williams is second on the Giants (250-plus snaps) with a 79.9 Pro Football Focus grade and leads the defense with 6.0 sacks. Always stout against the run, Williams has drastically improved his pass rush, and he’s arguably the best all-around player in East Rutherford. His play has helped elevate a defense that has unexpectedly kept the Giants in all but one game this season.

2. Robby Anderson, WR, Carolina Panthers

Robby Anderson spent an entire career with the New York Jets hovering around 750-800 yards per season with the sole exception of 2017 when he broke out, finishing the year with 941 yards and seven touchdowns. It was a glimpse of what Anderson could achieve, but a plateau he never reached again — until now. Anderson signed with the Carolina Panthers this offseason, and that appears to have been the right move for his career. Through 12 games this season, Anderson has hauled in 75 receptions for 912 yards and two touchdowsn. His 74.7% catch rate also represents a career high by nearly 20%. If Anderson gets those TD numbers up, there’s no denying that’s Pro Bowl-level play.

1. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Miami Dolphins

Entering his fifth NFL season, Emmanuel Ogbah had never recorded more than 5.5 sacks, which he did twice in his career — first as a rookie with the Cleveland Browns and then again in 2019 as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. Through 11 games in 2020, Ogbah leads the Dolphins with 8.0 sacks and 14 QB hits. But his impact is not exclusive to rushing the passer. Ogbah also has three forced fumbles and is third on the team with five passes defensed. Collectively, those numbers also make him one of the most successful all-around defensive ends in football and should warrant serious Pro Bowl consideration.

Photo: Jeffrey Beall/Wikimedia via CC-BY 4.0