Patriots’ chances, NFL power rankings, Yannick Ngakoue deal and more

In recent years, late August has brought talk of whether the New England Patriots were finished. This summer, there has been no need.

A playoff spot? Unlikely, but maybe. The Super Bowl? Not anymore.

For the New England Patriots, being on the outside of the contender’s circle is a weird feeling. After all, it’s been 20 years since New England wasn’t a favorite, if not the overwhelming choice.

Yet in 2020, nothing is as it once was. Not in the world at large, and not in Foxborough.

Tom Brady has given way to Cam Newton, meeting with Rob Gronkowski in Tampa Bay. Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, Ted Karras, Nate Ebner and Elandon Roberts left in free agency. Marcus Cannon, Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung and five others gone to COVID-19 opt-outs. Famed offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired.

Even the uniforms are slightly different. The Patriots, in deed and duds, won’t be the same again.

While Bill Belichick is arguably the greatest head coach of all time, he’s without the requisite talent to make a serious run.

Last year, the Patriots enjoyed a comically easy schedule to begin 8-0. The final eight games saw New England go 4-4 before losing at home in the AFC Wild Card round to the Tennessee Titans.

In the second half of the season, playoffs included, Brady threw for more than 300 yards only once. Belichick’s squad averaged 20.3 points and 334.6 yards per game. Over a full season, those figures would have ranked 23rd in both categories across the league.

Moving forward, the Patriots don’t have a reliable, dynamic offensive playmaker. Julian Edelman is a terrific slot option, but the vertical game is missing. For Newton to have success finding chunk plays, N’Keal Harry must step up in his second season, and/or Mohamed Sanu needs to find his footing in New England.

Defensively, one of the league’s best units in 2019 is without a bevy of aforementioned contributors. Chase Winovich is the best player in the front seven, and while he has potential, that sums up the situation for Belichick in terms of a talent deficit.

While the AFC East is perhaps the NFL’s weakest division, New England no longer lords over the quagmire, but is part of it.

The Buffalo Bills need to prove their mettle, but they’re considerably more talented than the Patriots in all aspects with the possible exception of quarterback. If Tua Tagovailoa and Miami’s large rookie class step up early, the Dolphins could make a surprise run as well.

Maybe this ends up being a bridge year for the next wave of competitive football in New England. Maybe Belichick sticks around into his 70s and continues coaching with his son, Steve, for years to come. Maybe the Patriots find their quarterback in a rejuvenated Newton, build a new core around him and finally answer whether Belichick or Brady was the main cog in the New England machine.

Or, maybe this is the end. The loud thud of the sport’s greatest dynasty coming to an abrupt conclusion. Looking at the roster, the latter seems obvious. Looking at the cap situation both present and future, the former is quite possible.

In the years ahead, the answer will present itself. In the months ahead, the Patriots will try to make the postseason for a 12th straight year, hoping for another January moment even as a decided underdog.

Power rankings

Worst 10 Hall of Fame snubs (players only)

1. Alan Faneca, OG, Pittsburgh Steelers (9x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro)
2. Torry Holt, WR, St. Louis Rams (13,382 receiving yards, 74 TDs)
3. John Lynch, S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro)
4. Randy Gradishar, LB, Denver Broncos (7x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, ’78 DPOY)
5. Sterling Sharpe, WR, Green Bay Packers (5x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro in seven seasons)
6. Tony Boselli, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars (5x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro in seven seasons)
7. Lester Hayes, CB, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders (5x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, ’80 DPOY)
8. Ken Anderson, QB, Cincinnati Bengals (4x Pro Bowl, 1x All-Pro, ’81 MVP)
9. Jim Marshall, DE, Minnesota Vikings (127 credited sacks, 2x Pro Bowl, 282 straight games)
10. Otis Taylor, WR, Kansas City Chiefs (3x Pro Bowl, 2x All-Pro, 7,306 yards, 57 TDs)

Quotable

“I’m really not going to talk football when I come into these meetings in light of recent events that have happened around the country. For me and my platform, my duty is to speak on things that are happening, and that’s just my stance. I’m just not going to talk football this year.”

– Tennessee Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro on his media sessions this season

Expect a ton of social justice demonstrations this year, especially early on. The NFL is a melting pot of different backgrounds and experiences, making it a prime place for ideas to be hatched and action to be taken.

This isn’t political, it’s societal. The NFL has long tried to extinguish these movements from its own in the past. It won’t be doing so in 2020.

Podcast

Random stat

Both the Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints scored touchdowns on their first play of existence. Each did so at home, coming on kickoff returns.

Info learned this week

1. Ravens sit out multiple practices, make statement into action items

The NFL isn’t shying away from social justice. In fact, its teams are leaning into it.

Last week, in the wake of Jacob Blake being shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wis., many teams cancelled practice. This included the Detroit Lions — who were the first to do so —  and the Baltimore Ravens, who did so on consecutive days.

Baltimore also rewrote the book on statements, providing direct action items the organization wants to see from politicians in the country.

Furthermore, Chiefs president Mark Donovan told reporters the team is looking into making Arrowhead Stadium a polling place for the upcoming presidential election. The NBA has already taken the unprecedented step of doing so with all of its arenas.

Around the league, teams took turns making powerful speeches led by Black men both on the field and through social media. We saw it from head coaches Anthony Lynn and Mike Tomlin of the Los Angeles Chargers and Pittsburgh Steelers, respectively. We also saw Minnesota Vikings running back Ameer Abdullah, with his team behind him at U.S. Bank Stadium, talking about the changes he wants to see.

It’s understandable if fans don’t want societal and political issues thrust into their faces, but those days are clearly over. Teams won’t be able to hide from the nation’s arguments over police brutality any longer, not after commissioner Roger Goodell publicly voiced his support.

Sports and politics have always been tied together, whether subtly or overtly. Today, with so many avenues of discourse and information outlets, it’s unavoidable.

2. Vikings land Ngakoue to pair with Hunter in shrewd trade

Quarterbacks won’t enjoy facing the Vikings this season.

Minnesota landed defensive end Yannick Ngakoue early Sunday morning in a trade with the Jaguars, sending a 2021 second-round and ’22 conditional fifth-round pick to Jacksonville.

The Vikings now pair Ngakoue with fellow 25-year-old star Danielle Hunter on the edges. Over the past two seasons, Hunter has notched 14.5 sacks in each. Meanwhile, Ngakoue has totaled 37.5 sacks in his first four campaigns, including eight in 2019.

Combined with linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, and safeties Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, Minnesota is going to field one of the league’s best defenses.

For Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, this move is a steal if Minnesota ends up inking Ngakoue long-term. In the meantime, the 25-year-old will play on a re-worked franchise tag of $12 million (down from $17.8 million) this season. If Ngakoue leaves after one year, Minnesota is out a premium pick and another lottery ticket, an acceptable risk for getting a stud entering his prime.

So why would the Vikings not sign him immediately?

Due to Ngakoue not signing his tender and negotiating a new deal by July 15, Ngakoue can’t sign until after the season. This ensures he’s either tagged at 120 percent of his current number, he hits unrestricted free agency, or Minnesota pays him in the DeMarcus Lawrence/Frank Clark range.

Not a bad situation for the former University of Maryland star.

3. 49ers are developing major offensive problems

If the San Francisco 49ers are going to repeat as NFC champs, they’ll be doing it with a patchwork passing game to start the season.

Jalen Hurd (torn ACL) is out for the season, while Richie James is unlikely to play Week 1 with a wrist injury. Rookie first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk is likely to suit up, but he’s missing significant reps in camp with a hamstring strain.  Then there’s second-year star Deebo Samuel, who has yet to practice this summer after sustaining a broken foot in the spring.

Should Aiyuk and Samuel be sidelined for their opener against the Arizona Cardinals on Sept. 13, it’s essentially tight end George Kittle and a band of backups. Considering San Francisco has little margin for error in the NFC West with the Seattle Seahawks on their trail, the 49ers have to be worried about their early-season attack.

After signing a five-year, $75 million extension, Kittle will be relied upon more than ever. Even if Aiyuk and Samuel return quickly, both will be working towards being in football shape. Opponents will be doubling Kittle and stacking the box without much concern about being beat deep.

San Francisco has the running game and defense to survive a wave of injuries for a few weeks, but if they linger, it’s bad news.

4. Nagy not naming QB for season opener vs. Lions

The Chicago Bears are play mind games with the Lions. It’s a waste of time.

Chicago head coach Matt Nagy says he won’t reveal who his starting quarterback will be until the last moment, apparently believing there’s an enormous difference in talent and style between Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles. In reality, Detroit’s gameplan for either will be the same:

Double Allen Robinson, control the ground game and force the Bears into passing situations.

Yes, Trubisky is more mobile than Foles, but it isn’t as though he’s Lamar Jackson. Detroit has an athletic front which has seen the Bears — and Trubisky —  many times over the years.

Additionally, there’s no keeping secrets in the NFL. Come the Wednesday of Week 1, whoever the starter is will be taking the first-team reps.

Whether by reporters or leaks, it’ll come out who is getting those snaps. Always does.

5. James’ injury is brutal blow for Chargers team depending on defense

If the Chargers are going to win this season, it’ll likely be because of the defense.

Losing Derwin James is a crushing blow to those hopes.

On Sunday afternoon, the All-Pro suffered a meniscus injury at practice and according to reports, is expected to miss a significant amount of time. James hurt his meniscus in Sept. 2016 at Florida State and although expected to miss 5-7 weeks, was out the balance of the campaign. Hopefully this isn’t a repeat.

Without James, the Chargers are extremely thin at safety. Second-year man Nasir Adderley will be relied upon after a rookie season in which he only suited up four times and make two tackles. He’ll be matched with James’ replacement, Aloha Gilman, a sixth-round rookie from Notre Dame.

Los Angeles still has ample talent on the unit with edge rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, cornerbacks Chris Harris Jr., Casey Hayward and Desmond King, and linebackers Denzel Perryman and rookie Kenneth Murray.

Yet the loss of James takes away Los Angeles’ queen on the chess board, a do-it-all component without any adequate replacement.

Two Cents

The Houston Texans are doing Deshaun Watson a royal disservice.

Since coming to Houston as a first-round pick in 2017, Watson has played behind bad offensive lines and with a mediocre coach in Bill O’Brien. Now, he’s without the extension many believed he would get this offseason, and going into a campaign relying on the oft-injured Brandin Cooks and Will Fuller following the trade of DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona.

The situation is made worse by O’Brien failing to address the defense. This offseason, he signed journeyman safety Eric Murray to a three-year, $19 million deal and let star nose tackle D.J. Reader walk. The starting secondary is comprised of Bradley Roby, Vernon Hargreaves and Gareon Conley at corner, with Murray and Justin Reid manning the safety spots.

Outside of Reid, yikes.

Watson will be forced into obvious passing downs saddled with the aforementioned defense, behind a middling line and without his former top weapon. It could be a long, long year for Watson and the declining Texans.

Gambler’s Game

Take the under on the New York Jets for their 6.5-win total.

New York is without its two best defenders from a year ago in C.J. Mosley and Jamal Adams. Offensively, rookie receiver Denzel Mims has been held out of camp with a hamstring injury and Le’Veon Bell is already furious with Adam Gase.

Looking at the schedule, the Jets draw the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots for a quarter of their schedule, and then have the AFC and NFC Wests. Good luck.

If there was ever a time to fade the Jets — and there’s been ample opportunity — this is it.

Inside the League

The next two weeks are critical for Zach Ertz’s future in Philadelphia.

After watching George Kittle and Travis Kelce sign extensions earlier this month, the Eagles understand it’s their turn. Everyone in the league does.

With less than two weeks until Week 1, general manager Howie Roseman undoubtedly knows the time to negotiate is now. The good news for Eagles fans? The sides are talking, a source tells FanSided.

It’s rare when both sides have leverage, but this is one such instance. The Eagles love Ertz’s backup, Dallas Goedert, and believe he’s a future star. However, Ertz’s representation can say he’s a superstar in his prime at 29 years old who, without him, Philadelphia’s offense doesn’t function.

Should the campaign start without Ertz being locked up beyond 2021, there’s a good chance he’s either holding out for long-term security or wearing different colors next season.

If you understand the economics of the league — and Philadelphia’s ugly cap sheet — it’s the only logical conclusion.

Meanwhile, Clyde Edwards-Helaire isn’t the only rookie worth watching in Kansas City.

The Chiefs selected L’Jarius Sneed out of Louisiana Tech in the fourth round and although he spent the last year of his college career at safety, they plan to use him at corner. With veteran Bashaud Breeland suspended four games, Sneed is expected to start in his place.

At 6-foot and 192 pounds, Sneed has good size and athleticism for days. Per source, Kansas City loves what it has seen in camp, and believes the former Conference USA star can play a big role in its title defense.

History Lesson

Tom Landry was the Dallas Cowboys’ head coach for their first 29 seasons, spanning 1960-88. If his reign happened now, it’s unlikely he makes it past the initial few years.

Dallas entered the NFL as an expansion team in 1960 and didn’t win a game in its inaugural season. The Cowboys went 18-46-4 before going .500 in 1965 and then winning the Eastern Division in ’66. From ’66-69, Dallas won four division titles and failed to win a single playoff game, losing twice to Green Bay and then twice to the Cleveland Browns.

In 1970, Landry’s Cowboys broke through and reached Super Bowl V. There, they lost 16-13 to the Baltimore Colts, despite receiving seven turnovers.

Finally, Dallas won it all the following year after rotating quarterbacks in Roger Staubach and Craig Morton for half the season. The Cowboys won the Super Bowl again in 1977, giving Landry his final title.

For Dallas, and Landry, patience paid off.

Parting Shot

Time for Dan Snyder to go.

One bombshell story in an offseason is bad enough. Now, Snyder and his Football Team have two.

After July’s feature detailing pervasive sexual harassment claims, last week saw another Washington Post story in which Snyder is accused of receiving a video of cheerleaders made to be topless during a photo shoot. This among many other accusations of gross mistreatment of female employees.

In the first story, Snyder wasn’t explicitly involved in the harassment, but he didn’t step in at any point. In the latter, he’s directly at the epicenter of the problem. Snyder made matters worse by issuing one of the more embarrassing statements we’ve seen.

The NFL isn’t in the business of forcing out owners. It’s unseemly and a legal headache. It doesn’t matter. Much like the NBA did years ago with Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers, Goodell needs to step in, suspend Snyder indefinitely and pressure him, along with the minority owners, into selling.

With the allegations against Snyder overwhelming and the culture extraordinarily toxic, the NFL has to take swift action and ban him from football permanently.

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