Maybe it was an alert about your upcoming fantasy draft or the breaking news about the newly christened Washington Football Team after franchise owners couldn’t come up with anything that wasn’t a racial slur, but the NFL season kind of snuck up on us. The pandemic has derailed most everything else in our lives, but the NFL is kicking off on time (albeit fan-free) tomorrow when the Super Bowl champs, the Chiefs, face the Texans. The league stands ready to dominate our autumn once again — and with much of college and high school football sidelined, it could end up being the only game in town. Today’s Daily Dose gets you prepped for the season with the best storylines, fantasy players to watch and our cut at an all-time NFL team.
— Daniel Malloy, Senior Editor & Nick Fouriezos, Senior Reporter
are you ready for some football?
1. COVID Be Damned
Football would seem the most difficult of the major sports to pull off amid the pandemic, given it has the largest rosters, demands the most space and requires intimate physical contact. But America’s pro sports kingpin will not be sidelined. Only one player and seven staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in the most recent round of more than 8,300 tests, which is a good sign. But 66 players have opted out of the season rather than risk it. The NFL is not playing in a “bubble” like the NBA and NHL, instead choosing to travel as usual to play in fan-free stadiums. MLB has tried this, with far smaller rosters, and has had dozens of canceled games due to positive tests — providing a valuable test case for our larger society.
2. Death of the Preseason
Preseason games, a play by NFL owners to suck more cash out of fans in games where the starters barely play, were nixed this year due to the pandemic. While these games were a snooze for fans, they were valuable for coaches and executives — as well as young players. As a result, younger players will have fewer chances to prove themselves early on. The upside? Veterans have fewer chances of getting hurt.
3. What Will They Do for the Anthem?
You can now play as Colin Kaepernick on the new edition of the Madden video game, but you still won’t see him in a real game, as the league has frozen the former star QB out since his 2016 protest. Eric Reid, a former Pro Bowl safety who led player protests last year, also does not have a team despite being an above-average player at his position — another likely case of teams wanting to avoid “controversy.” But expect widespread protests this year, which will not be penalized. The league and even Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones have reversed course on the issue. “That was two years ago,” Jones told reporters recently of his previous mandate that players stand “toe on the line” for the national anthem. “This is now. We’ve had very, very sensitive times.”
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You may have heard that the most successful quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, left New England for Tampa Bay this offseason. Here are the other moves you might have missed.
1. Big Bucs
Tampa Bay, which hasn’t seen the playoffs since the 2007 season, is suddenly gearing up for a Super Bowl–or–bust campaign — bringing in not just Brady but also pulling his former tight end Rob Gronkowski out of retirement and signing two former stud running backs in Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy. Add that to a defense that ranked first against the run last year, and you’ve got a contender … if the league’s worst pass defense can tighten things up.
Former MVP Cam Newton has been racked with injuries in recent seasons, but he’s healthy and getting accolades for his work ethic from notoriously difficult coach Bill Belichick. The 6-foot-5 quarterback with a linebacker’s body at nearly 245 pounds has always impressed when healthy, pairing big-play passes with a running ability that could make him a devastating scoring threat in the red zone. Expect Belichick to look to last year’s breakout rushing quarterback, Lamar Jackson, for play-calling ideas that could restore Newton, 31, to his former glory. The Pats will need it, considering how their defense has been decimated by departures and COVID opt-outs.
3. First and Wrong?
The Atlanta Falcons are coming off a disappointing 7-9 season, one in which the offense ranked fifth in yards per game — one slot ahead of the vaunted Kansas City Chiefs — but a middling 13th in points. Their offseason solution? Rack up as many former first-rounders as possible and build what is clearly the NFL’s most talented roster, judging by old scouting reports over actual on-field success. The additions of RB Todd Gurley and TE Hayden Hurst, plus sophomore linemen Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary, ensure that the Falcons offense will start 10 first-rounders out of 11 possible starters. If their paper talent leads to explosive results, the Falcons could start a new arms race for former first-round flameouts.
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He flew under the radar last year due to Arizona's losing record, but the rookie played huge — almost reaching 4,000 passing yards and rushing for more than 500 yards. Murray is a prime candidate as a sophomore to follow Jackson as one of the league’s premier run-pass threats, and it doesn’t hurt that he now gets to toss passes to Pro Bowl wideout DeAndre Hopkins along with future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald.
After facing a demoralizing leg injury in the midst of the best season of his career in 2017, the running back told OZY that fantasy owners should stop dehumanizing NFL players. And yet, he should make those who pick him happy as a key part of a Jacksonville Jaguars squad that just jettisoned starter Leonard Fournette and will likely need to rely on Thompson for his pass-catching ability out of the backfield. He’s rising quickly up draft boards.
Golladay is poised for a breakout season with seasoned signal-caller Matthew Stafford back under center, building off a 2019 season where he led the league in receiving touchdowns (11) while catching passes from, for lack of a better term, utter scrubs.
4. WR Marquise Brown (Ravens)
This wideout was highly touted but disappointed in his rookie season, struggling for opportunities while dealing with injuries and a run-first offense with limited passes to go around. But Baltimore will likely have to pass more now that defenses are keying in on their rush attack, and Brown showed his potential by surpassing 120 yards in each of his last two games in 2019.
He’s what you call a post-hype sleeper: Mayfield’s Browns got all the offseason love last year, and then flopped, so now they’re flying under the radar. This plucky former college walk-on could break out a year later than expected — which would match his nontraditional path. Mayfield recently opened up about his unlikely rise on The Carlos Watson Show.
A first-ballot Hall of Famer at just 31 years old, Gronk is being drafted late because his last season was marred by injuries and subpar performances. Still, reports suggest that he is feeling better than ever after taking a season off and now rejoins a loaded Buccaneers offense led by his longtime colleague Brady, making the risk well worth his potential league-winning payoff.
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We’re always looking for fresh thinking, so this one caught our eye: A new LinkedIn interview series called “Leading in the B-Suite” goes deep with Black business leaders about the obstacles they encountered and how the system can change. Adam Bryant, a former New York Times columnist, and Rhonda Morris, a Chevron executive, are leading the project, and they have landed big names like BET co-founder Bob Johnson and Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox and Veon.
The NBA’s Houston Rockets have found success in the playoffs with an unlikely tactic: a small ball lineup anchored by a 6-foot-6 center. The NFL’s version? The Baltimore Ravens, who deployed dual-threat quarterback Jackson to be run-dominant in a pass-happy league, rushing more than any other team by nearly 1,000 yards last year. Look for the Arizona Cardinals, led by the similarly mobile Murray and innovative head coach Kliff Kingsbury, to shock skeptics. And the Dallas Cowboys, who already became the league’s second most efficient offense — and the fastest in the league when the game was within one score — could somehow be even better in offensive coordinator Kellen Moore’s second season, particularly after adding the talented CeeDee Lamb to pair with 1,000-yard wideouts Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper.
2. Quarterbacks in the Hot Seat
Both the Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles drafted early-round QBs — Jordan Love in the first round and Jalen Hurts in the second — despite already having MVP-caliber starters in Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz. Sure, Rodgers will be 37 in December and Wentz has an extensive injury history, but the forward-looking picks are lighting fires under their current leaders. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Charger Tyrod Taylor and Miami Dolphin Ryan Fitzpatrick, both career journeymen and occasional starters, have first-rounders breathing down their necks in Justin Herbert and Tua Tagovailoa. In a league where it's considered disappointing for a top-drafted quarterback not to start their first season, it’s worth watching who will ascend and who will stick to carrying a clipboard.
3. Speed, Speed, Speed
The Chiefs won the Super Bowl with some of the league’s fastest athletes, including wideouts Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. Other teams noticed and drafted accordingly, led by the speed-fiend Oakland Raiders (Henry Ruggs III, Lyn Bowden and Bryan Edwards), Denver Broncos (Jerry Jeudy and KJ Hamler), Eagles (Jalen Reagor) and San Francisco 49ers (Brandon Aiyuk). Offenses drafted for athleticism over route-running don’t always pay off with real-world results. Meanwhile, the Ravens drafted Patrick Queen (he of the 4.50 40-yard-dash) in the first round, an acknowledgment from perhaps the league’s best defense that even linebackers have to be speed demons these days to compete.
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ozy’s all-time nfl greats
If we were picking one squad of 22 to line up against anyone, here’s who we would take. Respond to this email or tag us @ozy on Twitter to tell us whether you agree with our picks.
QB: Joe Montana. Sure, Brady has the most rings and the revolutionary Patrick Mahomes was an enticing potential pick here. But if you want the guy who would will your team to victory, it’s four-time Super Bowl champ and comeback king Joe Cool. RB: Barry Sanders. As elusive as one can possibly be with a football, he’s the only player to ever record four consecutive 1,500-yard rushing seasons. (If we’re playing the what-if game: The supremely athletic Bo Jackson looked bound for this spot until a devastating hip injury cut short his career.) FB: Jim Brown. The only player ever to average more than 100 rushing yards per game for his career would punish all comers. He also might be the greatest lacrosse player ever.
2. Pass Catchers
WR: Jerry Rice. He made touchdown catches look routine — and they were: He caught 197 of them and is the league’s all-time leading receiver by a country mile. WR: Randy Moss. The 6-foot-4 West Virginian was an absolute freak of an athlete who would run past and jump over anyone. Imagine if he’d spent more of his career with Brady. (Current player honorable mention goes to Julio Jones, who is rising fast on the all-time receiving list at age 31.) TE: Travis Kelce. Premature? Perhaps. But six years in, he’s doing things that no tight end has ever done before, such as his current streak of four straight 1,000-yard seasons — and catching balls from Mahomes, he figures to do it for a long time to come.
OT: Orlando Pace. The engine who paved the way for the Rams’ Greatest Show on Turf, Pace made seven Pro Bowls and was a rare offensive lineman to be the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. OT: Anthony Munoz. The longtime Bengal was on 11 consecutive All-Pro teams and even caught four touchdowns on tackle-eligible plays. OG: Bruce Matthews. He played all five o-line positions and was killer at each of them for the Titans/Oilers franchise, and his 293 games started is second all-time behind Brett Favre. OG: Larry Allen. He made sure Emmitt Smith got his record-breaking rushing totals, and the Dallas Cowboy was one of the strongest men ever to play in the NFL (he recorded an official bench press of 700 pounds). C: Mike Webster. He got the ball into Terry Bradshaw’s hands and then pounded out holes for the likes of Franco Harris, making nine Pro Bowls in the process.
CB: Deion Sanders. You want speed? Try 4.27 seconds in the 40-yard dash. One of the biggest personalities to ever play in the league, Neon Deion could back it up by keeping up with any wideout step for step and notching 53 interceptions over his career. CB: Darrell Green. Over a remarkable 20 seasons with the Washington [Redacted], Green was consistently one of the fastest players in the league and a lockdown corner. S: Ed Reed. Beware the most fearsome footsteps in football, of the punishing Reed, who also had incredibly soft hands. He scored nine defensive TDs over his career, and set the NFL record for most interception return yards. S Ronnie Lott. The dominant defensive backfield force of the 49ers dynasty, Lott was a six-time All Pro who topped 100 tackles five times and has 63 career interceptions to his name.
LB: Lawrence Taylor. The defensive GOAT, LT revolutionized the idea of what a linebacker could do, roaming the field with abandon and regularly defying even coach Bill Parcells when he knew he had to make a play.LB: Ray Lewis. The heart of some of the greatest defensive teams of all time, Lewis won Super Bowl MVP on the 2000 Ravens and generally smothered anyone who came near him. LB: Chuck Bednarik. Best known for an iconic photo of him gloating above a knocked-out QB Frank Gifford, Concrete Charlie was a durable World War II veteran who powered the Eagles to two NFL championships as the last “two way” player, lining up on both offense and defense.
DE: Reggie White. The Minister of Defense was a 13-time All Pro who ended up with the most sacks of anyone in pro football history, if you include his two seasons in the USFL. DE: Deacon Jones. He coined the term “sack” and he had too many to count — literally, it was not yet an official stat — in a career mostly spent with the Rams. A 14th-round draft pick, he came to redefine a position. DT: Warren Sapp. The four-time All Pro owned the middle in the dominant Tampa Bay defenses at the turn of the century, and had a mouth to match. (Current player honorable mention goes to the Rams’ fearsome Aaron Donald.) DT: Alan Page. The heart of the Vikings “Purple People Eaters” defense was the only defensive player aside from LT to be named MVP. Then he went on to become an attorney and serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
looking ahead to the big game
Here’s who our staff — or at least the members of OZY’s own fantasy football league — likes to win the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, 2021 (assuming there is one).