Rookies Shine Bright in NFL Debuts

By Connor Pignatello

Football is back!

With the start of the new school year comes the beginning of the NFL season, and 15 exciting games were on tap for week one.

Sports help us gain perspective, and the cancellation of Sunday’s Buccaneers Dolphins game due to Hurricane Irma showed that there are more important things in life than football. Sports can also bring out the best in us, and I was astounded by J.J. Watt’s $32 million fundraising campaign for Hurricane Harvey relief. My thoughts are with those who lost loved ones, houses, or livelihoods due to the hurricane.

If you’re upset because of the recent disasters that have hit our country, I hope that reading this will brighten up your day.

Here are some great performances by rookies this week.

Thursday Night

Chiefs surprise the Patriots 42-27

Rookie of the Game:
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Kareem Hunt: 17 rushes for 148 yards, 5 catches for 98 yards, 3 touchdowns, 1 fumble

Hunt had the best performance of any player this week, let alone a rookie, and it was his first career game! He had quite the inauspicious start — he fumbled on his first professional carry — but he rebounded magnificently.

Hunt concluded the first half by hauling in a 3 yard score. In the second half, the rookie was wide open streaking down the field, and scored a 75 yard TD. Hunt found holes in the defense all game long, culminating in a 58-yard rush to ice the game with four minutes left.

The future looks bright for the young running back.

Sunday Afternoon

Falcons outlast the Bears 23-17

Rookie of the Game:
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Tarik Cohen: 5 rushes for 66 yards. 8 catches for 47 yards, 1 touchdown

Tarik Cohen, a fourth-round pick last spring, surprised everyone in his debut. He led the Bears in rushing yards, targets, catches, and receiving yards while also scoring a touchdown. The 5’6” Cohen showcased his excellent speed and elusiveness as he juked past defenders left and right. He captivated the crowd in the second quarter when he took a play designed to go to the left, and cut it back to the right, gaining 46 yards.

The Bears are nearly devoid of offensive weapons thanks to season-ending injuries to their top two receivers, meaning they need Cohen to perform well the rest of the year.

Steelers overcome the Browns 21-18

Rookie of the Game:
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T.J. Watt: 6 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 interception

T.J. Watt seemed to be everywhere at the same time, leaping for interceptions, diving for tackles, and wrapping up sacks. Watt justified his place in the starting lineup by harassing Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer all day long.


If Watt can come close to matching this kind of play in the weeks to come, he will grow into one of the centerpieces of the Steelers’ exciting young defensive core.

Lions overwhelm the Cardinals 35-23

Rookie of the Game:
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Kenny Golladay: 4 catches for 69 yards, 2 touchdowns

Kenny Golladay was outstanding for the Lions on Sunday, and his two touchdown grabs led Detroit to a win over the Cardinals. Thanks to his performance on Sunday, it appears that the 6’4” rookie has secured a spot as the Lions third receiver.

Golladay’s first TD came in the fourth quarter, when he leaped over Justin Bethel to catch a ten-yard lob from Matthew Stafford.

The rookie’s second touchdown was possibly the catch of the week. At full extension, he reached out and snagged a 45-yard bomb from Stafford to give the Lions a two-possession lead with just four minutes remaining.

Golladay has exceeded expectations so far this year, and Matt Stafford will be very glad to have another weapon to fight with in the tough NFC North.

Jaguars thrash the Texans 29-7

Rookie of the Game:
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Leonard Fournette: 26 rushes for 100 yards, 3 catches for 24 yards, 1 touchdown

Leonard Fournette was just as good if not better than advertised in his NFL debut. He played spectacularly, running through, around, and under defenders en route to a 100-yard rushing performance.

What makes Fournette such a lethal option is that he can beat defenders in so many different ways.

Here, Fournette burrows his way into the endzone from one yard out, with impressive strength.

Fournette also showcases his ability to run straight through defenders and extend runs.

On this play, the rookie jukes Kevin Johnson into the turf and sprints down the field for a first down and more.

On Sunday Fournette was able to beat his opponents with power, speed, brute force, or finesse. In Fournette, Jacksonville may finally have the franchise star that they have been searching for since Maurice Jones-Drew left the team in 2013.

Lots of rookies outperformed expectations this week, no matter if they were selected fourth overall (Fournette), or in the fourth round (Cohen). These young stars have bright futures ahead, and the rest of the NFL should be on watch.

Stats via Pro-Football Reference, videos via NFL on Youtube, and GIFs via GIPHY.

Green Bay Packers picture credit: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA – Aaron Rodgers, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61805564

2017 NFC Preseason Playoff Predictions

By Connor Pignatello

For this post, I’ll be predicting each NFC team’s record for the upcoming NFL season, as well as predicting which teams make the playoffs. This is a continuation of my last article, which detailed my predictions for each AFC team in 2017.

After the season ends, I’ll revisit these predictions and analyze my incorrect picks. You can view my record predictions here.

Let’s get started!

NFC East

Division Winner: New York Giants: 11-5
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The Giants reached the postseason last year, and they figure to reach the playoffs again this year, thanks to their $200 million spree on defensive players last spring. This spring, the Giants signed veteran wide receiver Brandon Marshall in free agency, forming one of the league’s most explosive receiving corps.

New York also retains its fearsome defense from last year, a unit that was top ten in the league both in points and yards allowed.

Big Blue should be able to squeak past the depleted Cowboys and capture the division title.

Other teams:

Dallas Cowboys: 10-6

The Cowboys won the division last year, but this year I predict they will make the playoffs as a wild card team, because of a much harder schedule and Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension.

Philadelphia Eagles: 9-7

The Eagles have a franchise quarterback in Carson Wentz, but they are still a year or two away from making noise in the postseason.

Washington Redskins: 6-10

Washington lost its top two receivers from last season and their shaky defense will prevent them from contending in the crowded NFC East.

NFC North

Division Winner: Green Bay Packers: 13-3
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Aaron Rodgers had possibly the best streak of his career last season, and at 33 years old he has not shown any signs of decline. During the Packers’ eight game winning streak from week eleven to the divisional round, Rodgers threw for 21 touchdowns against just one interception while averaging 298 passing yards per game.

The Pack have one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, one of the league’s deepest receiving corps, and a coaching staff that is always thinking of new ways to get past their opponents.

As long as the Packers have Rodgers at the helm, they will be one of the elite teams in the NFL.

Other teams:

Minnesota Vikings: 8-8

The Vikings fierce defense kept the team out of the NFC North basement last year, but the offense just doesn’t have enough playmakers to make a playoff run.

Detroit Lions: 6-10

The Lions magical 2016 season will be extremely hard to repeat, and without a top-half offense or a top-half defense, the team won’t sniff the postseason.

Chicago Bears: 2-14

The Bears are in full-rebuild mode and are years away from contending for a playoff berth.

NFC South

Division Winner: Atlanta Falcons: 12-4
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I believe the Falcons will escape the dreaded Super Bowl hangover (see Panthers, Carolina) because of the tremendous talent they have on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is coming off of an MVP season, Devonta Freeman is now the highest paid running back in football, and linebacker Vic Beasley led the league in sacks last year.

Even though Atlanta lost its talented offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan, they have retained the majority of their talent from last year. I believe that Atlanta is motivated by their Super Bowl collapse and I predict that they win the division for the second year in a row.

Other teams:

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 11-5

The Bucs missed out on last year’s postseason because of a tiebreaker, but they added talent in both free agency and the draft, and are poised to make a run in the playoffs as a wild card team.

Carolina Panthers: 9-7

Carolina followed up their Super Bowl berth with a perplexing 6-10 campaign last year, but they’re healthy this year and will return to relevance.

New Orleans Saints: 8-8

The Saints, as always, will possess a top-five offense, but their bottom-five defense will hold them back.

NFC West

Division Winner: Seattle Seahawks: 12-4

I’m betting on Seattle to return to the postseason for the sixth straight year: a streak bested only by the Patriots and the Packers.

Seattle’s record-breaking defense just added another piece on September 1st: ex-Jet defensive end and Pro-Bowler Sheldon Richardson. The Seahawks own one of the best defenses in modern NFL history — the unit has ranked in the top five both in fewest points and yards allowed in each of the past five seasons.

I believe Russell Wilson will have a bounceback year, and the Seahawks will reach the ten-win mark for the sixth straight year.

The Seahawks always seem to be in the thick of things come playoff time, and I don’t expect that to end any time soon.

Other teams:

Arizona Cardinals: 10-6

Arizona reaches the ten win plateau thanks to David Johnson, who becomes just the second player in NFL history to record 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards.

Los Angeles Rams: 5-11

New head coach Sean McVay injects life into the Rams organization, and the team improves to 5-11.

San Francisco 49ers: 3-13

The Niners improve thanks to new head coach Kyle Shanahan, but still finish at just 3-13.

Final Conference Standings

Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
1 Packers 13-3
2 Seahawks 12-4 Head to Head Record
3 Falcons 12-4
4 Giants 11-5
5 Buccaneers 11-5
6 Cowboys 10-6 Head to Head Record

Non Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
7 Cardinals 10-6
8 Eagles 9-7 Head to Head Record
9 Panthers 9-7
10 Saints 8-8 Head to Head Record
11 Vikings 8-8
12 Redskins 6-10 Common game win%
13 Lions 6-10
14 Rams 5-11
15 49ers 3-13
16 Bears 2-14

2018 NFL Draft Order

Non-Playoff Teams

*SOS = Strength of Schedule

Pick Number Team Record Division Finish Tiebreaker
1 Jets 1-15 4th
2 Bears 2-14 4th
3 49ers 3-13 4th
4 Jaguars 4-12 4th SOS
5 Browns 4-12 4th SOS
6 Bills 4-12 3rd
7 Rams 5-11 3rd SOS
8 Dolphins 5-11 3rd SOS
9 Chargers 5-11 4th
10 Lions 6-10 3rd SOS
11 Redskins 6-10 4th
12 Bills (from Chiefs) 7-9 3rd
13 Colts 8-8 3rd SOS
14 Bengals 8-8 3rd SOS
15 Vikings 8-8 2nd SOS
16 Saints 8-8 4th
17 Ravens 9-7 2nd SOS
18 Panthers 9-7 3rd SOS
19 Eagles 9-7
20 Cardinals 10-6 2nd

Playoff Teams (based on record, because I didn’t predict the playoff games themselves)

Pick Number Team Record Division Finish Tiebreaker
21 Browns (from Texans) 9-7 2nd
22 Titans 10-6 1st SOS
23 Cowboys 10-6 2nd
24 Buccaneers 11-5 2nd SOS
25 Giants 11-5 1st SOS
26 Raiders 11-5 2nd SOS
27 Broncos 11-5 1st
28 Steelers 12-4 1st SOS
29 Seahawks 12-4 1st SOS
30 Falcons 12-4 1st
31 Patriots 13-3 1st SOS
32 Packers 13-3 1st

*Houston and Kansas City both traded away their 2018 first-round picks during the 2017 NFL Draft to Cleveland and Buffalo, respectively.

Special thanks to Pro-Football Reference for each team’s schedule, NFL.com for tiebreaker information, and ESPN for each team’s depth chart and transactions.

Russell Wilson photo attribution: By Larry Maurer – http://www.flickr.com/photos/larrymaurer/8195990017/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22773967