It's that time of year everyone! Training camp! In what has been a long off-season, with lots of moves, we have taken a big step towards our journey back to football. So with that being said, lets go over four intriguing teams to watch.
1. San Francisco 49ers
Last year, we were strongly anticipating quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo's impact from 2017 to carry over to a playoff appearance last season. Unfortunately, he went down with an ACL tear in week 3 which ended his season as well as the 49ers season. Despite this, it didn't stop others from contributing to the team. Tight end George Kittle had arguably the best season for a tight end in NFL history. He caught 88 passes for 1,377 yards which is a record for all tight ends, and 5 touchdowns. Three of them were 43 yards or longer. On defense, DeForest Buckner also turned in a successful season with 12 sacks which was good enough for a pro bowl appearance. Coach Kyle Shanahan was able to make the most out of Garoppolo’s injury by turning undrafted quarterback Nick Mullins into a quality passer. As a team, the 49ers entered this year’s offseason as a favorite to get Antonio Brown while Odell Beckham Jr. and Le’Veon Bell were dark horses. However, they whiffed on all 3 of those players. They did refurbish their front 7 on defense with the acquisitions of Kwon Alexander and Dee Ford along with the selection of Nick Bosa. All of those players will have something to prove for this upcoming season. Alexander has to become a better tackler unlike his years in Tampa Bay. He is a play maker who has a knack for takeaways, but last year he missed 78 tackles in only 6 games! If he's going to live up to his big contract, he has to improve that flaw. Dee Ford had a quiet start to his career. but made a big jump last season recording 13.5 sacks. Like Alexander, Ford was given a big contract from the 49ers once he was traded so his ability to follow up his breakout year will be tested in the Bay Area. Nick Bosa will be tasked with not only making a full recovery after sitting out his final season at Ohio St., but he also has to adapt to the NFL immediately given the value pass rushers have in today's game. If all of those new players along with Buckner are able to play together, San Francisco will have a dominant front 7 in the years to come. But if they want to return to the players, their season will hinge on the player starting at the most important position in all sports. Garoppolo. His health will determine 2019 for the 49ers, so as long as he stays healthy, they can make a run in the playoffs.
2. New York Jets
New York did a lot of work this off-season from the moment their season ended. They fired head coach Todd Bowles and hired Adam Gase to take over the sidelines. The hire of a drill Sargent in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is considered the best assistant coach hire of the off-season. As for players, they acquired pro bowl guard Kelechi Osemele in a trade with the Oakland Raiders and signed linebacker C.J. Mosley who is already building up an impressive resume in his 5 seasons that could get him to Canton if he keeps up his accolades. They were also able to draft defensive tackle Quinnen Williams who has the attributes to be the Aaron Donald of the AFC. But the biggest ,one of the off-season, was the free agent signing of all pro running back Le’Veon Bell. Bell is easily one of the top running backs in the last 5 years, but he sat out all of last season because of a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, he has kept himself in shape and will likely be a major part in helping quarterback Sam Darnold take a big step forward in his sophomore season. That has become a common theme for quarterbacks to take a major step forward in their second year. Guys like Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, and Mitchell Trubisky have experienced that kind of success. Given the improvement Darnold had at the end of the season and the new weapons the Jets got on offense, a big jump should be likely. However, it would be a surprise to think that the Jets could have an entire offseason without making any negative headlines. About a month after the draft, G.M. Mike Maccagnan was fired in a shocking move. All of a sudden, what seemed like a perfect offseason was going to be a disaster with Adam Gase possibly flexing his powers as the interim G.M. in a bad way. Fortunately, the Jets instead went after one of the leagues top executives on the market in Joe Douglas. Douglas played a big part in forming the Eagles’ Super Bowl roster and when he turned it down, the Jets doubled up their offer which was enough to lure him to the Big Apple. And just like that, all of the concerns within the front office can now be washed away for the rest of the offseason and hopefully beyond that. Now the only question, is if all of the new guys on the team from the players to the front office can jell together with last year’s core players like Darnold, receivers Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa, tight end Chris Herndon IV, pro bowl safety Jamal Adams, and defensive lineman Leonard Williams. If they can, Jets fans will finally be able to see a year of playoff football. Something that they’d like to be in after missing it for 8 straight seasons.
3. Cleveland Browns
I didn’t rank this team higher because they have all the reasons to dominate 2019. On offense they got quarterback Baker Mayfield who delivered one of the best rookie seasons for a quarterback in NFL history and looks like the answer to the Browns long hunt for a quarterback. His weapons included pro bowl receiver Jarvis Landry, and running back Nick Chubb. On the defensive side of the ball, they got pro bowlers in defensive end Myles Garrett, linebacker Joe Schobert, and cornerback Denzel Ward. Coach Freddie Kitchens showed a lot of promise when he took over offensive coordinator duties last season and could possibly form a long lasting QB/coach duo with Mayfield. What was the G.M. John Dorsey able to do? Sign star running back Kareem Hunt off waivers and trade for Odell Backham Jr. from the New York Giants. Once Hunt returns from his 8 game suspension, he and Nick Chubb will have a great chance of forming one of the best running back duos in the league. Odell gives Mayfield a big target as well as a one two punch with him and Landry. In the draft, they might’ve got a big steal with the selection of cornerback “Greddy” Williams which gives Cleveland a strong possibility of having 2 lockdown cornerbacks. However, there is one word that stands in the way of all of the hype. Egos. Cleveland has a lot of big personalities that are contained by most of their top players. Mayfield probably is the most outspoken quarterbacks in the league and veterans of the team expressed their disapproval in his cockiness. Backham Jr. is one of the most outspoken receivers in the league. Temper tantrums were no rare thing in New York and in Cleveland, lots of people will be closely analyzing that next season. Hunt was only picked up from the Browns because Dorsey drafted him when he was in Kansas City and he’ll have to prove that he has rebounded from his horrific incident in February last year where he hit a woman in a hotel room which landed him a spot on the exempt list before being released by the Chiefs once TMZ released a video in late November. Egos can also be created when there’s lots of hype surrounding a team which will give Cleveland one simple task. Downplay the hype, put egos to rest, and just play football. As long as they follow that simple formula, lots of playoff games will come very soon.
4. Houston Texans
Last year, we finally saw the damage that this team was able to do with a healthy roster. After starting 0-3, they reeled off 9 straight wins en route to finishing the season atop their division with an 11-5 record. The offense which featured arguably the best QB WR duo of Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins is the best in the league along with young receivers Will Fuller IV, Keke Coutee, and running back Lamar Miller, gave Houston a potent unit. On defense, end J.J. Watt returned to his old form after missing the last two years with injuries by recording 16 sacks while Jadaveon Clowney served as the perfect pass rusher to compliment Watt. In the secondary, pro bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Justin Reid, and Johnathan Joseph produced a solid secondary. This helped Houston have a defense that was solid throughout the season. Overall, their offense and defense made them arguably the league’s most balanced teams. But it all came crashing down when they got outplayed and out coached in their wild card defeat to the rival Indianapolis Colts. Their offseason was average. For the pros, they gave out smart contracts to veteran starters Tashaun Gipson and Bradley Roby who should contribute to the secondary. For the cons, they let Mathieu walk in free agency in which he signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, they didn’t make much adjustments to their offensive line, and they’re in a really sticky situation with negotiating a new deal for Clowney. What will also be interesting, is if Houston will still possess the ability to win in close games. Last season, they’re young core showed the ability to win close games down the stretch. This will either continue this year or set the Texans up for even greater success in the future. But there’s also wear and tear that comes along in close games in victory or defeat and given the injury prone roster that Houston has even though it didn’t affect them this year, it could take its toll. Chances are that this team will still remain a playoff team that can definitely achieve greater heights within a few years, but they have more question marks going into the season than any other team that made last year’s playoffs which is why I included them on this list.
Every year, there are those teams that enter the season with lots of question marks. Sometimes those question marks could be about how good, bad, or average they’re going to be. That’s what leads to an interesting team to keep an eye on.
It's crazy to think that a franchise that's maybe one of basketball's most notable franchises, could still be arguably the most cursed franchise in all of sports. And yet the Knicks might've established themselves as that franchise after their major flop in free agency.
Before I even go into depth on why they're cursed, lets go over why they've historically been one of the best franchises in basketball.
New York has made the playoffs a solid 40 times in their 72 year history. That includes a number of deep playoff runs. Eight times they made it to the finals and 2 times, they won it all. They've had great coaches in Joe Lapchick, Red Holzman, and Pat Riley. Some of their Hall of Famers are Patrick Ewing, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bernard King, and many more. From 1967-1968 to 1973-1974, they had one of the greatest winning spans in N.B.A. history. With Holzman at the helm along with Reed, Frazier, DeBusschere, and Bill Bradley, they won 60 games and their first championship in 1969-1970 against the Los Angeles Lakers when Willis Reed famously limped onto the court in game 7 to inspire the Knicks to a 14 point victory with Frazier racking up 36 points and 19 assists. Two years later, they added two more future Hall of Famers in Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe. It payed off as they beat the Lakers again in 1972-1973. The next years had some bright moments like Bernard King transforming the Knicks back into a playoff team in the early to mid 1980s with outrageous scoring performances, but they were overall inconsistent. That changed in 1985 when they drafted Patrick Ewing. He was not only a guarantee for points, rebounds, and blocks, but for being the reason why the Knicks made the playoffs for 13 straight seasons. None were more evident than in the mid 1990s in which behind his leadership under Riley, the Knicks were one of the most physical teams in the NBA. This earned them a Finals appearance in 1994. Five years later, the Knicks became the first 8th seed team to make the Finals even with Ewing tearing his ACL in the Conference Finals. About a full decade later, Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire gave some long awaited playoff seasons from 2010-2013.
Those are all of the pros, so let's now go to the cons.
New York made the Finals 3 straight times in the early 1950s, but lost all of them. Two of them went to a game 7 and both were when Hall of Fame guard Carl Braun was in the military. Had he been available, they might've one at least one championship. They then began to decline and it showed until the late 1960s. For about the next decade there was happiness, but all good things must come to an end.
That's what happened at the end of the 1970s and early into the 1980s until King made them relevant for 2 years. Then 1984-1985 came. After nearly eliminating the eventual champion Boston Celtics the previous season, hopes were high for the upcoming season for King's Knicks. King lived up to the hype as he won the scoring title with 32 points a game, but the Knicks didn't. In March, they were barely in the playoff hype when they were playing the Kansas City Kings. King went up to block a shot in that game and with one snap of the knee, his season as well as next season, and the majority of 1986-1987, were done. He did show that he still had his scoring touch in the final 6 games that he played in his last season in a Knicks uniform, but it wasn't enough to save his time in New York. He was shipped off to the Washington Bullets where he regained his scoring touch. Yes, the Knicks' 14 year playoff streak started next season after King, but Ewing, who was there for the first 13 (he was a Seattle Supersonic in 2000-2001) never got to play with him. If they did, lots of championships would've come to the Garden.
The heartbreak that comes to the minds of Knicks fans takes place in the 1990s when they were at their best, in the Ewing era. In 1993, Ewing helped the Knicks win 60 games. In the playoffs, they breezed to the Conference Finals where they went up 2 games to none against Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. The Bulls took the next 2 games which set up an important game 5 at the Garden. Down one in the final seconds, a falling Ewing gave the ball to Charles Smith who was blocked at the rim not one, not two, but three times. The Bulls took game 5 as well as the next game to reach the Finals. Next season brought even more optimism with Jordan entering his first retirement. The Knicks lived up to it, as they overthrew the Bulls in the semifinals which set up a matchup against the Indiana Pacers. They trailed 3 games to 2, but won game 6 in Indy, and then game 7 thanks to Ewing's put back dunk with under 30 seconds left. This put them in the Finals for the first time in 21 years where they faced the Houston Rockets. In what was a hype matchup between two future Hall of Fame centers in Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon, the Knicks were able to take a 3-2 series lead. One game away from a long awaited championship. In the final seconds, they were down by 2 and all star guard John Starks had the ball. Starks, a fan favorite was hot in the game and used an Ewing screen to try and free himself up. But a pursuing Olajuwon was able to block Starks and the Knicks championship dreams as he outplayed Ewing in game 7 to win the championship. As devastated as the team was, they still won 55 games next season which set up a rematch with the Pacers. Only things were different this time. In game 1, Reggie Miller scored 8 points in 9 seconds to overcome a 6 point deficit. The Knicks fell behind 3 games to 1, but clutch performances by Ewing in the next 2 games forced a game 7. The Knicks trailed big, but battled back and they had the ball with a chance to tie it. But Ewing missed a finger roll at the buzzer.
The buzzer not only eliminated the Knicks, but ended the tenure of hall of fame coach Pat Riley, who established himself as one of the best coaches in Knicks history despite not bring a title. He forced his way into Miami to coach the Heat, joining Jordan and Miller as New York's public enemies. He later said that he felt very sorry for it during his Hall of Fame speech, but at the time, it was a major punch in the gut for Knicks fans.
This didn't stop the team from competing however. They made the semifinals the next season and with a big offseason, they won 57 games in 1996-1997 which earned them a chance to stick it to Riley's Heat who had won 61 games. They were up 3 games to 1, but a fight in what was already going to be a game 5 lost, led to lots of suspensions for Knicks players. However, lots of key players who committed minor actions were also suspended. The Knicks lost the next 2 games which added to heartbreak. Even when they wrote one of the greatest underdog stories by becoming the first 8th seed team to make the Finals two years later, the ending was disappointing as they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in 5 games. After losing to the Pacers in the 2000 Conference Finals, they traded Ewing and even though they still made the playoffs the year without him, the next years were horrifying for fans.
At the center, was James Dolan who made terrible hires in guys like Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson. Thomas made one bad move after another as a coach, GM, and person, giving tabloids a field day. After firing him, the Knicks slowly rebuild back into a playoff team thanks to the acquisitions of Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire. But as they then began to struggle, Dolan tried to right the ship with the hiring of Phil Jackson. Instead he made things worse as Jackson unsuccessfully tried to employ his famed, yet outdated triangle offense. He also made Anthony's final months with the team rough. Overall, Dolan just doesn't know the meaning of what an owner should do. That's because he is too sensitive about the criticism he received from others. It was bad to the point that he banned Charles Oakley from coming to the Garden for insults that he directed at Dolan, as well as a fan for telling him to sell the team, and threatened to sue the Daily News for negative reports on the team.
But this offseason was supposed to be different. They were going to draft Zion Williamson at #1 and sign free agents Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Then the lottery happened. The Knicks got the 3rd pick, which they used to get R.J. Barrett who may be a more complete player than Zion actually. But they flopped in free agency. Of course Dolan made almost no effort to get Irving and Durant. Even worse, is that they went to the crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets therefore making them the #1 team in New York. And the reason why, is Dolan. While Durant and Irving both have questionable personalities, Dolan's lack of effort as well as preparation, is just another example of his incompetence.
At this point, the Knicks do have a young core along with the free agent signing of Julius Randle who has been getting better every year since the knee injury he suffered in his rookie year. With R.J. and Randle likely being the leader amongst other promising players like Dennis Smith Jr., Mitchell Robinson, and Kevin Knox, they can definitely compete for a playoff spot.
But then it's just a fact that instead of being a possible contender for a championship, they are now only a playoff contender. Overall, the Knicks took a big blow in free agency. The reasoning is simple, this organization hasn't been ran well for almost 2 decades. If they want to rebound next offseason, they must acknowledge that players will only come to them if they are a good team with promise. If they don't take that into account, they'll remain far away from a championship because as it stands, they are one of the most cursed franchises in sports.