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 AFC Preseason Playoff Predictions

By Connor Pignatello

Welcome back, NFL!!

In this article I’ll explain my picks for the 2017 NFL playoffs.

This year, the AFC is a very diverse conference, containing the league’s best (Patriots) and worst (Jets) teams within the same division. As always, there are teams on the rise (Raiders), teams who peaked last season (Dolphins), perennial contenders (Patriots), and dark horses (Titans).

In making these predictions, I’ll try not to fly too close to the sun. I hope to make these interesting, but in a makes-me-look-smart way, not a makes-me-look-stupid way. I want to look over the NFL landscape, like Icarus did when he built his wax wings, but not make his same mistake (predict something that completely backfires).

Here are my picks for this year’s AFC playoffs. You can view the spreadsheet that contains my record predictions for each team here.

AFC East

DIvision Winner: New England Patriots: 13-3
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Come on now, did you really think it would be any other team? Belichick and Brady have continued to dominate, and the duo won their fifth Super Bowl in February.

After that dramatic win, the Patriots improved their squad tremendously in the offseason by signing cornerback Stephon Gilmore and trading for receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks should cover for the loss of Julian Edelman to a preseason ACL tear.

The Pats look as invincible as ever. Anything less than a Super Bowl berth will be a disappointment for this juggernaut of a club.

Other teams:

Miami Dolphins: 5-11

After losing their starting quarterback to an ACL tear, the ‘Fins were forced to bring Jay Cutler out of retirement and don’t figure to participate in the postseason.

Buffalo Bills: 4-12

The Bills fired much of the front office in the offseason, and this lost organization will most likely add to its 17-year playoff drought.

New York Jets: 1-15

New York has the least-talented roster in the league by a large margin, and will struggle to win a single game.

AFC North

Division Winner: Pittsburgh Steelers: 12-4

Pittsburgh’s already-lethal offense added a new component this offseason in Martavis Bryant, who will join Antonio Brown in a loaded receiving corps. Bryant, one of the NFL’s best deep threats and most athletic players, returns to the team after a year-long suspension for substance abuse.

In addition, the Steelers have continued to select defensive players early in the draft — this was their fifth straight year taking a defender in the first round. This approach has led to a very young defense (six starters are 25 or under).

The Steelers have a great mix of veteran talent on both sides of the ball in addition to many talented young players. Now that they are finally healthy, they have a great shot at reaching the Super Bowl.

Other teams:

Ravens: 9-7

Baltimore has been mediocre since their Super Bowl victory in 2013. That level of performance will not likely change any time soon.

Bengals: 8-8

The Bengals roster — especially the offensive line — was depleted severely in free agency, making it difficult for them to remain competitive in a difficult division.

Browns: 4-12

The Browns improved one of the league’s most talent-barren rosters by selecting ten players in this year’s draft — including three in the first round.

AFC South

Division Winner: Tennessee Titans: 10-6
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I believe this is “the year” for Tennessee, a squad that probably would have made the playoffs last year if not for an injury to Marcus Mariota in week 16. The Titans saw incredible growth from their star quarterback last season and should contend in the playoffs this year.

Tennessee also upgraded their receiving corps and defensive backfield in the offseason, both in the draft and in free agency.

If the young Titans can defeat contenders like the Seahawks (week 3) and the Steelers (week 11), they will prove that they are ready for the playoffs.

Other teams:

Texans: 9-7

Houston’s great defense will always keep them in games, but I think their offense improves just enough for them to squeeze into the playoffs as the sixth seed.

Colts: 8-8

Andrew Luck has not practiced yet after offseason shoulder surgery, and if he misses the first few weeks, the Colts will not be able to reach the playoffs.

Jaguars: 4-12

Without a clear-cut starting quarterback, the Jags will fail to top five wins for the seventh consecutive season.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: 11-5
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Now, here is where I get a little bit unconventional. The AFC West is a very crowded division, a division that I believe is the best in football. All four teams have the potential to make the playoffs — the Chiefs and Raiders reached the postseason last year, the Broncos won the Super Bowl two years ago, and the Chargers made the the playoffs in 2013.

In 2017, I predict that the both the Broncos and the Raiders finish 11-5, but Denver wins the division thanks to a tiebreaker (better division record). The Broncos still have a dominant defense, and I believe that Trevor Siemian will improve enough to allow the Broncos to recapture the division title.

Other teams:

Raiders: 11-5

Derek Carr contends for MVP, leading the Raiders to a playoff berth.

Chiefs: 7-9

Kansas City has lost their number one receiver and number one running back from last year — and face the third-hardest schedule in the league — meaning they’ll miss out on the 2017 playoffs.

Chargers: 5-11

After hiring a new coach and moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers have taken a leap forward, but their unsteady defense will hold them back.

Final Conference Standings

Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
1 Patriots 13-3
2 Steelers 12-4
3 Broncos 11-5 Better division record
4 Titans 10-6
5 Raiders 11-5
6 Texans 9-7 Head to Head Record

Non-Playoff Teams

Seed Team Record Tiebreaker
7 Ravens 9-7
8 Colts 8-8 Head to Head record
9 Bengals 8-8
10 Chiefs 7-9
11 Chargers 5-11 Head to Head record
12 Dolphins 5-11
13 Bills 4-12 Conference record
14 Browns 4-12 Head to Head record
15 Jaguars 4-12
16 Jets 1-15

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

Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger picture credit: By Keith Allison – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51367937

Stay tuned for my NFC Preseason Playoff Predictions, which will be released soon.