TOP 5 ‘UNDER THE RADAR’ PICKS FROM 2019 NFL DRAFT

Ok. If you’re familiar with College Football then you will likely know who each of the following 5 picks are. In fact you are likely to know what position they play, who they played for, and where they were projected to come out of the draft. Advanced warning — yes some of these picks were drafted in the 2nd round, and for those players I am going to argue their draft stock(s) should have been a lot higher. However, once the regular season starts, there could be a lot of head scratching around the league, with several coaches and GM’s asking themselves ‘just how did we let this guy slip?’. Let me explain……

Andy Isabella (WR, Arizona Cardinals)

Yes the former UMass product did indeed go to the Arizona Cardinals with the 62nd overall pick, and was rated as the no. 1 wide receiver in all of college football by Pro Football Focus prior to the 2019 NFL Draft. But if we’re being honest how many ‘reputable’ reporters, former executives and players had Andy Isabella go that high? We certainly didn’t. But if you judge a player simply by his combine/pro day performance then you aren’t paying attention. Put simply this kid had a monster senior season, compiling 102 receptions, 1,698 receiving yards, and 13 TD’s (albeit playing against weakened opposition that one would expect of an independent school). Nevertheless, despite the lack of college competition, the aforementioned Cardinals are a perfect fit. If first year Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury’s ‘Air Raid’/RPO heavy offence is to work it will require dynamic pass catchers who have elite speed. More importantly, Kyler Murray will need a security blanket when the going gets tough — because it will. Yet with Larry Fitzgerald entering his 16th season, you can bet on Isabella being his man.

Josh Oliver (TE, Jacksonville Jaguars)

2019 proved to be one of the strongest TE draft classes in recent memory. Former Iowa Hawkeye teammates T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant were taken in the first round, and both Irv Smith Jr. and Drew Sample in the second. Yet of those previously mentioned TE’s, who can impact both the run and pass games respectively? Of course Hockenson immediately springs to mind (he is widely viewed as the heir to Rob Gronkowski’s ‘unicorn’ crown), but the others are a little more difficult to judge. For example, both Fant and Smith Jr. could very well be viewed as heavier, big bodied WR’s. Others, like Sample, could be viewed as pure blocking TE’s. However, like Hockenson, Josh Oliver has shown flashes of being able to do both — and do both well. The 6’5″/250Ibs former San Jose State TE has the size, just enough speed, and catching ability to be viewed as a serious red zone option. Although his run blocking is not as strong as his pass catching ability at this point in his young career, Oliver played linebacker at high school, knows how to hit, and has demonstrated a willingness to learn. Thus, providing his skill set is utilised correctly, and he is consistently moved along the line of scrimmage, he could very well become Nick Foles go to receiver — like Zach Ertz was for him in Philly.

Jaylon Ferguson (DE, Baltimore Ravens)

Just how did Jaylon Ferguson slip to the 3rd round? Yes his weight has been a concern at times, and he lacks an inside pressure game for now, but boy can he set the edge. In his 4 year college career he amassed 45 sacks (including 17.5 as a senior), making him the all team sack leader in NCAA FBS history. Yes the level of competition could be called into question, but outside of a QB orchestrating an offence, those tasked with chasing and harassing said player position can arguably have the most impact for a franchise, and he’s going to the RAVENS. A defensive behemoth for the best part of 20 years, those in Baltimore know defence wins championships. Yet despite being ranked 1st in both pass yards allowed and total defence in 2018, the departures of veteran leaders Terrell Suggs and C.J. Mosley should indicate just how high the Ravens are on their rookie DE. Expect him to be used almost exclusively in several defensive packages in the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season whilst he acclimatises to pro football — before being unleashed on the league in the run up to the 2019 NFL Playoffs.

Damien Harris (RB, New England Patriots)

Confession time. Pre-draft I had 3 RB’s ahead of Damien Harris (Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders and Bryce Love). Of course, me ranking said players higher than Harris is not a reflection of a perceived lack of ability on Harris’s part, because this young man is a stud. After all, you don’t play for Nick Saban for 4 years; best your former Alabama teammate (Josh Jacobs) in almost every major rushing category in each of your 3 seasons together, and become a 2x CFP National Champion, without having immense talent. Yet with the exception of Trent Richardson being taken 3rd overall in 2012 (which in itself was a disaster), teams have rarely overpaid for RB’s. However, this all changed when Todd Gurley came along in 2015. As a direct result of his success, RB’s are now viewed as viable commodities once again — paving the way for Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley to be drafted as high as 4th and 2nd respectively. Subsequently, Harris should be viewed as a steal at 87, especially when you consider the same franchise drafted another RB with their 31st pick last season (Sony Michel). Yes Super Bowl winner Michel should progress after enjoying a stellar rookie season, but he does have a history of knee injuries dating back to college. For this reason, and because the Patriots offence has been rebuilt to protect Tom Brady, Harris will likely see plenty of action in his first year. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised to see Harris sit for the first 3-4 weeks, then announce himself by having a 120+ yard, 3 TD regular season game.

Kingsley Keke (DT/DE, Green Bay Packers)

Ok. I admit it. I didn’t know a whole lot about this former four-star recruit before the draft. Selected by the Green Bay Packers with the 150th pick, Kingsley Keke is certainly a name to watch out for in the second half of the 2019 NFL season. During his senior year at Texas A&M Kingsley would drop 20 pounds in his bid to transition from DT to DE, and the results were impressive — producing 51 stops, whilst sacking the QB 7 times in what is an ultra competitive SEC. Nevertheless, size (6’3″/288Ibs), ability, and college production are not the only reasons why I placed Keke in my list of ‘under the radar’ draft picks. Team fit is often disregarded when predicting a players level of success in the pros, and despite Green Bay traditionally having a relatively poor track record recruiting defensive talent, they do appear to be getting it together in recent years. Outside of Mike Daniels, Keke joins fellow 2019 draft pick Rashan Gary in what is now an incredibly young defensive line. Yet if adding both Keke and Gary to a team that totalled 44 sacks in 2018 sounds like overkill — it isn’t. In reality, the vast majority of these sacks came from linebacker blitzes, designed to mask the lack of a traditional pass rush. Its another reason why the secondary predominantly lined up in press-man coverage — to stop huge chunk plays. Said deficiency severely limited Mike Pettine’s play-calls throughout 2018, as he rarely got to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 in game. With Gary likely to garner a ton of attention from opposing offensive coordinators, and with the hope of Darnell Savage shoring up the middle of the field, Keke could excel at being the ‘closer’ for the green and gold. J

IT’S A ‘HARD KNOCK’ LIFE FOR RAIDERS

The Oakland Raiders will be on Hard Knocks. I repeat — THE OAKLAND RAIDERS will be on Hard Knocks. Put simply this is going to be box office. We are finally going to see how team owner Mark Davis operates behind the scenes (and just who cuts his hair too), how Jon Gruden plans to reignite Derek Carr’s career amidst a huge off season roster overhaul, and what actions former NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock will take to justify being appointed GM for one of the leagues most storied franchises. Then there is Antonio Brown. Forget his official YouTube channel. His legendary competitiveness, yet widely reported divisiveness, should be on full show for the world to see. Then there is the integration of Richie Incognito potentially going south, Vontaze Burfict going Mike Tyson on his new teammates, and the small task of preparing for next years move to Las Vegas. Just how will HBO fit all of the above in just 5 episodes with The Men in Black?

Yet the immediate question should be just who benefits from this weeks announcement? HBO? Certainly. The audience? Most definitely. The Raiders? Well that’s a tough one to answer. In reality both Mark Davis and Jon Gruden likely see their respective participation very differently. From an ownership perspective the Raiders are about to uproot their entire organisation in less than 12 months, leaving fans in Oakland with just one professional sports team (the NBA’s Golden State Warriors move to San Francisco in October). Those who run the franchise behind the scenes know the perils of moving away from an established fanbase to a new market. The Raiders themselves moved to Los Angeles in 1982, just to move back to Oakland 12 years later due to a split fanbase and damaged stadium (due to the 1994 Northbridge earthquake). Don’t forget they also play in a loaded AFC West. Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes will likely tear up the league for years to come, the Los Angeles Chargers are in their own Super Bowl winning window, and the Denver Broncos are always a threat. So just who will be talking about the Raiders ahead of their move to Las Vegas?

The Raiders are due to move to Las Vegas in 2020

But for Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock, the presence of multiple cameras could not have come at a worse time. It’s hard enough to build a winning culture in the NFL, especially with the ever revolving door of player personnel. Yet add tens of cameras, producers and technicians into the mix, the Raiders likely have more than Antonio Brown’s Facebook Live sessions to worry about if they want to better the 4 wins they had in 2018. Sure the Browns were pretty good last year, and 6 of the 13 teams previously documented improved their regular season records immediately following the show. But generally speaking secrecy and cohesion win. Just ask Bill Belichick and the Patriots. In 19 years as the HC and de facto GM, only a handful of reports of dissent and player unrest have ever come out of New England. Subsequently, you have to wonder whether everyone within the Raider organisation, players and execs alike, will ever be able to be themselves in what is a crucial period for any team trying to establish an identity.

But for the rest of us? Put simply we just want to be entertained. For this reason I’ve decided to have some fun and list my top 5 predictions for this years edition. Enjoy. J

  1. Antonio Brown angers Jon Gruden with an impromptu Facebook Live session in the locker room (again). The player is brought in and told it won’t fly in Oakland.
  2. Despite being new teammates their strained history rears its ugly head when Vontaze Burfict takes out Antonio Brown on a crossing route, thus leading to a mass brawl.
  3. Richie Incognito does not make final 53-man roster.
  4. One of the Raiders 1st round picks will go down with a season ending injury during training camp.
  5. Tom Cable (offensive line coach) will steal the show. Seriously, check this guy out.

FANTASY 5IVE

With the 2020 NFL regular season fast approaching and with many of our readers ready to join family, friends and colleagues in Fantasy Football leagues across the country, here we begin our weekly series of FF tips designed to highlight the traps you will want to avoid, as well as the moves that you will need to make to ensure FF domination from week 1.

1. Avoid drafting from New England

I understand the temptation to draft players from New England. After all, they, more than other franchise, put their players in positions to succeed. Yet you would be best served to resist drafting players from the reigning Super Bowl Champions. No one plays the field week to week better than Bill Belichick. Those who have fallen foul in recent years will know that sinking feeling of drafting Rob Gronkowski, believing he would grab a pair of TD’s and 100+ yards when playing against the 32nd ranked pass defence in the league that week — only to find out New England ran the ball down their throats all day. Similar scenarios have appeared when drafting Julian Edelman, James White or Sony Michel (we would know). Said players can of course have impressive FF numbers at times, but guessing when that player will be utilised to do so remains almost impossible whilst BB is in charge.

2. Take a RB early

Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Alvin Kamara, Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley (if fit), and Le’veon Bell (once game ready). Concerns notwithstanding, these are the players to target in the first 2 rounds of your draft. All have been tremendous value for Fantasy Football owners in the past and will likely continue to churn out huge numbers this season. However, if you fail to draft one of these tier 1 backs, or have to wait until your pick gets back to form or full fitness, then ensure you take one of these backs — David Johnson (due a rebound year), James Connors (who will get plenty of touches for an effective yet predictable Steelers offence), Christian McCaffrey (a back who will see even more of the ball due to his QB’s injury worries), and Nick Chubb (the motor behind the Browns resurgent offence). Sleeper hit? Josh Jacobs of the Oakland Raiders.

3. Don’t underestimate weekly NFL schedule

One mistake every FF ‘noob’ undoubtedly makes is going into his/her weekly matchup believing they are playing their opponent. No. You are playing the NFL schedule, the betting lines, and everything in between. You will need to make calculated decisions as to who your star players are playing each week, how banged up the secondary/defensive line is that your WR’s/RB’s will be going against, whether your players are carrying injuries that will likely limit their production, how bad the weather will be in Buffalo in week 14, or whether one of your QB’s gets to play inside a dome against one of the league’s worst pass rush/pass defence teams. All of the above will matter, and will be the difference between finishing in playoff contention, or having to play against your 12 year old nephew; who regularly torches you at Madden, in a meaningless end of season dead rubber matchup.

4. Wait it out for your QB

Not even the most seasoned of FF players could have anticipated Patrick Mahomes having a 50 TD/12 INT/5000+ yard season. Why? Because this type of season has only been witnessed a handful of times in NFL History, with Marino in ’84, Brady in ’07, Rodgers in ’11 and Peyton Manning in both ’04 and ’13 being the other notable QB’s to have ripped up the stat sheet. Nevertheless, try to wait until the 2nd, or even 3rd round to draft your QB, because said seasons are rare, and there are many ‘face of the franchise’ QB’s who will post incredibly similar numbers over the course of a regular season. Indeed outside of Mahomes, Luck, Rodgers and Watson, who will all likely get the keys to their respective offences in 2019, there is some real value in the next tier. Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson and Baker Mayfield will all air the ball out a bunch, and players such as Carson Wentz, Cam Newton and Derek Carr are all due comeback seasons. However, if Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy, and he is able to sing from Kyle Shanahan’s hymn sheet, ensure you take him, even if you have drafted your starting QB. This leads us to………

5. Get a ‘backup’ for your star player(s)

Once again you must remember you are playing against the league, not your weekly opponent. This means you will have to contend with multiple bye weeks that could ultimately wreck your chances of winning, and winning well. Avoid taking multiple kickers, multiple defences and TE’s. Instead secure yourself a top 5 statistically ranked RB, WR and QB, if given the chance, then ensure you draft ‘backups’ that play for teams that rely heavy on that player’s particular skill set. This will do one of two things. First, it will give you options — again you play against the league, the schedule and everything in between. Second, although all starting calibre players are prone to a bad day, it reduces the risk of having a significant drop in points from one week to another. Subsequently, one or perhaps two, of your regular starters will pick up the slack that ensures yet another weekly FF win — helping get you into your end of season championship round. J

Benny Given Sunday will post weekly ‘Fantasy 5ive’ Football tips as the NFL regular season approaches. Additionally, we will also be hosting our own FF league this year and if you or anyone you know would like to be a part of it please get in touch by emailing us at bennygivensunday@outlook.com

TODAY IN NFL HISTORY

If you have ever wanted to own the equivalent of an NFL ‘Sports Almanac’ then look no further. After finishing ‘Today in NFL History’ I have come to the conclusion that Ben Isaacs (author), is the Three-Eyed Raven of American Football. Isaacs really has managed to compile every notable event in ‘gridiron’ history into one single format, one that will likely be impossible for future NFL historians to follow without citing his work. As someone who has followed the game for over 25 years, who attends games both in London and the US each year, and who truly thinks he knows everything there is to know about this sport, I was truly humbled to learn so much. The book is not without humour and heart as well, with the events of ‘the whizanator’, ‘Shareece Wright’s Uber’ and ‘the first indoor post season game’ being just three of my personal favourites. Slated to release for eBooks only (I assume due to the shear size of the book) my hope is that Ben Isaacs and his publisher will reconsider print format — because this deserves to be on every NFL enthusiast’s book shelf. J

‘Today in NFL History’ was supplied to Benny Given Sunday by Ben Isaacs.

You can preorder your copy here

Should you have any questions for Ben Isaacs you can find him on Twitter @tweetsfromben

NFL LAUNCH UK ACADEMY

In news that shocked absolutely no one — today the NFL launched its first dedicated academy outside of North America. Starting in September 2019 student athletes aged between 16-18 will be given the opportunity to hone their skills as well as their athletic abilities with the chance of playing for NCAA college football scholarships. Of course the official line from the NFL is a little more inspiring:

The NFL Academy is a unique programme that gives aspiring young American football players and outstanding athletes the chance to develop their skills and knowledge of the game.​ Alongside elite coaching, athletes will study courses of their choice at Barnet and Southgate College.​ There will also be a character development programme for students to give them all the tools to be successful in whatever pathway they take following the NFL Academy. Athletes will be given access to elite sports training facilities, kit and equipment, as well as an opportunity to learn from players and coaches from the NFL. They will be involved in outreach projects in the local community and be given a pathway for apprenticeships and higher education opportunities (in the UK and US). This life-changing opportunity is available for up to 80 students per year, aged 16-18. Selection for the NFL Academy programme will be based on athletic ability, as well as educational and character assessment.

The high school level programme has been a priority for the NFL ever since it partnered with Tottenham Hotspur, with their state of the art NFL purpose built stadium residing less than 5 miles from Barnet and Southgate College. Yet don’t be fooled by key words such as ‘higher education’ and ‘apprenticeships’. Many have long suspected the move, ourselves included, with the NFL likely setting the foundations for a future franchise based in London. To facilitate the long term success of said potential franchise, Roger Goodell believes it is imperative for a market as large and important as the UK to have home grown talent. Consequently, with several British players having varying degrees of success over the past 10-15 years, due in part to the NFL’s International Player Pathway scheme, the NFL has once again decided to show its hand with where it believes future expansion to be. J

POST 2019 NFL DRAFT POWER RANKINGS

So the NFL’s annual ‘next generation’ showcase has closed for yet another year. In the salary cap era the draft is supposed to be the great ‘eraser’ where GM’s across the league earn their money. Yet despite all the pre draft hype surrounding a number of players your uncle Jimmy had taken in his mock draft basement party, it’s easy to forget most of these rookies likely won’t contribute this year — despite an NFL record 40 draft day trades reflecting the immediate needs of a number of teams. Like every draft there were a number of surprises too; Daniel Jones going to the Giants for the 6th pick was a shocker, and several players with legitimate 1st round talent weren’t taken until day 3. Once again the draft proved one thing — no one outside of those respective war rooms knows a damn thing or what to truly expect, ourselves included. Nevertheless, due to said draft, free agency, veteran experience, strength of coaching and schedule, here are our initial power rankings for the 2019 NFL season. J

1. New England Patriots

2. New Orleans Saints

3. Los Angeles Rams

4. Los Angeles Chargers

5. Chicago Bears

6. Kansas City Chiefs

7. Philadelphia Eagles

8. Atlanta Falcons

9. Dallas Cowboys

10. Pittsburgh Steelers

11. Indianapolis Colts

12. Minnesotta Vikings

13. Green Bay Packers

14. Cleveland Browns

15. Seattle Seahawks

16. Jacksonville Jaguars

17. Baltimore Ravens

18. Tennessee Titans

19. Houston Texans

20. Carolina Panthers

21. San Francisco 49ers

22. Denver Broncos

23. Oakland Raiders

24. New York Jets

25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

26. Detroit Lions

27. Washingtion Redskins

28. Buffalo Bills

29. Miami Dolphins

30. Cincinnati Bengals

31. New York Giants

32. Arizona Cardinals

FINAL 2019 NFL DRAFT PREDICTIONS

The NFL Draft is finally upon us. Tonight 32 college players will have their lives forever changed. Following our original draft predictions, not only have several moves been made (Frank Clark being one), but insider whispers have a number of players rising at the last minute. There will undoubtedly be a number of draft day trades, with teams wishing to move up and down the board. Nevertheless, on the assumption that there will be no trades — here are our final first round draft predictions. J

1. Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals)

2. Nick Bosa (San Francisco 49ers)

3. Ed Oliver (New York Jets)

4. Devin White (Oakland Raiders)

5. Josh Allen (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

6. Quinnen Williams (New York Giants)

7. Jawaan Taylor (Jacksonville Jaguars)

8. Clelin Ferrell (Detroit Lions)

9. D.K. Metcalf (Buffalo Bills)

10. Drew Lock (Denver Broncos)

11. Marquise Brown (Cincinnati Bengals)

12. T.J. Hockenson (Green Bay Packers)

13. Dwayne Haskins (Miami Dolphins)

14. Christian Wilkins (Atlanta Falcons)

15. Greedy Williams (Washington Redskins)

16. Andre Dillard (Carolina Panthers)

17. Daniel Jones (New York Giants)

18. Cody Ford (Minnesota Vikings)

19. Jeffery Simmons (Tennessee Titans)

20. Byron Murphy (Pittsburgh Steelers)

21. Rashan Gary (Seattle Seahawks)

22. N’Keal Harry (Baltimore Ravens)

23. Greg Little (Houston Texans)

24. Noah Fant (Oakland Raiders)

25. Johnathan Abram (Philadelphia Eagles)

26. Dexter Lawrence (Indianapolis Colts)

27. Montez Sweat (Oakland Raiders)

28. Rock Ya-Sin (Los Angeles Chargers)

29. Devin Bush (Seattle Seahawks)

30. Jonah Williams (Green Bay Packers)

31. Garrett Bradbury (Los Angeles Rams)

32. Dalton Risner (New England Patriots)

THE ‘RUSSELL WILSON’ DILEMMA

So just where are those former players and execs that still refuse to acknowledge the shift in player power this morning? After Antonio Brown was granted everything under the sun by the Raiders, it now appears that if you are a franchise QB you can impose a contract deadline and get a record setting deal in return. After weeks of rumours regarding a potential trade/end of season free agency move to the New York Giants (often a negotiating tactic by the agent representing the player), the Seahawks starting QB got what he ultimately wanted. In the early hours of this morning he signed a 4 year contract worth a reported $140m, that now makes him the highest paid player, per season, in NFL history. With such a huge contract and the current trend of big name players getting what they want, here we take a quick look at how this could impact the NFL moving forward.

Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson was drafted in the third round in 2012

As has been the trend over the last 4 to 5 seasons, NFL QB’s are getting paid. First it was Andrew Luck, then Jimmy G, then Kirk Cousins, and then Matt Ryan, until Aaron Rodgers blew all of their respective contracts out of the water in 2018. Yet each contract was expected, largely due to how the NFL’s current labor deal is structured. Signed as part of the collective bargaining agreement in 2011, it has allowed players to command more and more each year due to ever increasing NFL revenue. Nevertheless, although said agreement runs to 2021, with several premier QB’s now under contract and players like Dak Prescott likely to secure at least $25m per year sooner rather than later, don’t expect the market to spiral completely out of control for at least another 2 years, when we will see Patrick Mahomes receive the next record setting deal.

Yet when these contracts are agreed who wins? Is it good for the players? Absolutely. Is it good for the teams? Well that is a little harder to answer. Russell Wilson got paid his current market value, and in return the Seahawks secured their franchise QB for what should be the best years of his relatively young career. Yet look at the immediate impact such a large contract had on the Packers, the Falcons, the Vikings and the Colts. Teams often appear to struggle to secure both their young stars, as well as the occasional marquee talent that might just push them over the top towards a championship. So unless a team has an unprecedented run in the draft (like the Seahawk’s had with Wagner, Sherman, Chancellor, Wilson et al), or players are playing lights out in a contract year, history has shown that it becomes increasingly harder to remain competitive, at least in the short term. In reality only Bill Belichick has been able to successfully turn over a roster year after year and still remain a force. Yet the Patriots have had relative financial flexibility over the years due to the discount Tom Brady gives the organisation. Once he retires the Patriots will likely find themselves in a similar position — having to pay whatever the market rate is for their future franchise QB.

And this leads me to one final observation. How much do these players want to win a championship? There can be little doubt regarding their respective talents, and both Rodgers and Wilson will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But have they done absolutely everything that is necessary to win? Is it even their responsibility to do so? Ask yourself whether you would take a pay cut to ensure a better working environment? If the answer is no how can anyone expect a professional athlete to? Nevertheless, no team has ever won a Super Bowl whilst having a player account for over 13% in total cap space, and for the time being at least, this trend will likely continue. Finally, could we see a future trend where teams regularly draft new (cheaper) QB’s like they do with other skill positions? Could blockbuster QB trades be the future to ensure teams can spread the wealth? Or perhaps more QB’s will risk playing under the franchise tag, as Kirk Cousins did when he was with the Redskins, if teams become reluctant to hand over more guaranteed dollars? Yet whilst QB’s are making more money than ever before, we will likely have to wait for the next collective bargaining agreement to answer those questions. J

THE NFL’S BIG MOVE

With the opening of the NFL’s first purpose built stadium outside of the United States; here we take an in depth look at how we got here, and what this represents for American Football moving forward.

The NFL’s first international purpose built stadium

NFL expansion. Back in the United States these are words that are traditionally welcomed by owners and fanbases alike. Traditionally believed to assist the growth of the game, the most recent wave came between 1995-2002 when 5 additional teams were created (if you count the revived Cleveland Browns of course). The teams? Carolina, Jacksonville, Baltimore and Houston. Outside of the latter, one may believe these to be relatively small markets, yet they were all strategic, calculated moves, made by a relatively conservative ownership group. So why expand and add competition to a successful product they all have equal share of? As always the answer is related to dollars. After all, it’s the sole reason why the Rams and Chargers were moved to Los Angeles, and why the Oakland Raiders received permission to move to Las Vegas despite being a market long feared by the NFL due to the potential pitfalls of legalised sports betting. Nevertheless, the world of professional sports rarely stands still, and with all of the above, just what is the NFL’s next ‘big’ move?

For those old enough to remember, the NFL’s first attempt at testing the popularity of the sport on an international stage was with the introduction of the World League of American Football, later rebranded NFL Europe. From its inaugural season in 1991, to its end in 2008, NFL teams used the league to supplement their rosters with young, unproven talent, whilst giving them an opportunity to gain experience through additional playing time and coaching. Audiences on the other hand got to see emerging talent such as Jake Delhomme, Adam Vinatieri, James Harrison and one Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner. However, the overall benefit to European audiences was unclear, and the stop start nature of the sport was believed to be too contrived amongst the fans of more free flowing sports without seeing the very best stars the sport had to offer. Thus, with dwindling attendances and the league operating at an annual loss, NFL Europe ceased to exist, with the NFL seeking to replace it with a more focused approach, dedicated to bringing the real thing to audiences around the world. Subsequently, in 2007 the league launched the International Series, and by doing so the NFL set out a 10 year plan to right the wrongs of their annual European ‘spring league’.

As previously alluded to, the first phase was to bring regular season games to audiences outside of the US, with said games almost exclusively being held in London at Wembley Stadium, England’s historic national Football (Soccer) home. To the NFL’s surprise, each year the game sold out within hours, due in part because the NFL ensured each game had one, or a combination of, either a genuine Super Bowl contender, or a historic franchise that had an existing fan base outside of the US. With record attendances each year, and some incredibly encouraging broadcasting figures, the NFL doubled down in 2013 and announced a second game was to be held each year, with the Jacksonville Jaguars (more on this later) announcing a partnership with the NFL to bring one home game to London until the 2020 season. Later, Mexico’s Estadio Azteca, and England’s national Rugby stadium, Twickenham, were added as additional venues in 2016 and 2017 respectively, with both the Rams, Chargers and Raiders all joining the Jaguars as part of their respective deals for relocation.

So this brings us to 2019, where there will be FIVE regular season games played outside of the US, which in 2007 was scarcely believable to the average American Football fan. Yet here we are. Speaking from personal experience and as someone who has attended games each year since 2007, you can sense a shift in both knowledge and energy each year. Not only do we no longer have to endure mid game explanations of some very basic Football concepts (hallelujah), due in part to the exceptional domestic coverage the game receives from British American football personalities such as Neil Reynolds and former New York Giant and Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora, but a number of unofficial tailgates are springing up as well, both sure signs of the sport’s growth and ability to mobilise fans.

In truth, said growth should not be underestimated. In late 2018 NFL research reported there being in excess of 13 million fans in the UK, with 5.7 million describing themselves to be ‘avid’ followers of the league. Consequently, with a population of just 66 million, 19.7% have some form of affinity towards the sport. Globally, this figure is even higher, with globalwebindex’s 2015 ‘GWI audience report’ finding 38% of adults to be fans. Naturally these figures are higher in the US, with 65% of adults saying they follow a combination of the NFL and CFB. Yet in a world that is so in love with the other ‘beautiful game’, these figures show just how far the sport has come. Indeed participation at grass roots levels in the UK is also at an unprecedented high, due in part to several NFL funded programme’s, with 81 universities now competing against one another under the British Universities and College Sport umbrella. Consequently, with said International Series and a significant commitment to grass roots participation, the next step in the NFL’s grand plan has now come to fruition, partnering with the EPL’s Tottenham Hotspur to fund the first purpose built professional American football stadium outside of North America.

So just what does the NFL want heading into this unofficial ‘second phase’ of international expansion? The simple answer to that question is a potential franchise in London. However, one suspects the move to not be as easy a sell as was the previous expansions of the mid to late 90’s. For example, does the NFL intend to create a new franchise, creating potential havoc with current scheduling, or do they intend to relocate an existing team, which would of course still create a number of issues? Reading between the lines the most likely team to make the move would be the Jacksonville Jaguars, who as previously mentioned, play one home game per year in London. Additionally, Shahid Khan, Jacksonville’s owner, came within a whisker of purchasing Wembley in 2018, only for the deal to fall through due to the English Football Association (the current owner), succumbing to public pressure not to sell. For all of Mr. Khan’s denials of moving the team from Florida, and read of that what you will, in reality the move by the NFL to invest in Tottenham stadium likely showed his hand far earlier than he would have initially wanted.

Yet, for all of the hyperbole surrounding a potential move, one would imagine the NFL would likely want more time, and games, to see how the UK continues to respond to the sport, before moving an existing franchise away from the US. One reason for this is the inevitable domestic backlash that such a groundbreaking move would undoubtedly have. Yes Jacksonville rarely sells out when playing in Florida, but the image of the league will likely suffer in the short term, at least in the States. We could also see games in Brazil, South Korea and Germany before any franchise is moved to London, with said markets perceived to be even stronger than that of the UK with regards to game day viewership, as well as the sale of team merchandise. Nevertheless, in one of our previous articles, the ‘Robert Kraft’ dilemma, we outlined several issues both the league and sport currently face. Yet one thing is clear — the game outside of North America has never been stronger, and a team being based outside of the US is now almost inevitable. Subsequently, with all things being considered, not only do we believe the Jaguars will move to London by 2024, but each team will play one game outside of the US each season by 2030 as well. J

2019 NFL SCHEDULE: LOCKS AND SHOCKS

The NFL Schedule will be released at 8PM ET (or 1am here in the UK) on the 17th/18th April. Here we take a look at what is almost always guaranteed and how the schedule organizers might spring a surprise.

Lock: Cowboys vs Giants on SNF

The NFL stunned the football world a year ago when they didn’t schedule Dallas against New York for Week 1 Sunday Night Football, opting for Week 2 instead. The NFL loves to have two of its biggest markets in the spotlight even when they’re both terrible. So even though the Giants are expected to be one of, if not the worst team in the NFL this season, expect them to host Dallas early this autumn.

Shock: more of the Jets

Speaking of New York and prime time games, don’t be surprised to see the green half of the Big Apple appearing under the lights more times in 2019. The Jets had two prime time games last year; in Detroit and in Baker Mayfield’s debut in Cleveland. Whilst they probably won’t threaten the playoffs, offseason acquisitions such as Le’veon Bell and CJ Mosely certainly make New York a more watchable team. Couple that with a second year QB and terrible new uniforms and they’re a dead cert for some prime time action.

Lock: Patriots have favourable bye week position

Now, I’m not suggesting that the Patriots ask the NFL to schedule their bye week between weeks 9-11, typically seen as the best time to have a bye as it is half way through the season, but four of the last five Patriots bye weeks have been in weeks 9-11. Expect nothing different in 2019.

Shock: Patriots play the Chiefs late into the season

Now many people think this is a lock for the opening Sunday Night Football (banner night for New England) as the NFL will want a marquee game to bring in a ratings boost early. However, this will certainly be a game that will have playoff implications and therefore to me seems nonsensical to have so early on the season. KC @ NE was week 1 in 2017 and week 6 in 2018, expect the two meet weeks 12-16 this time around.

Lock: one prime time game for ARI, MIA and TB

I mean, you could make an argument for the Arizona Cardinals to have more than one game under the lights simply because of the league consensus that they will draft Kyler Murray at #1, but other than that they are terrible and won’t threaten the playoffs. The Dolphins are equally terrible and just aren’t entertaining enough to be playing in prime time. Bucs games are more exciting due to their electric offense and woeful defence, but that won’t be enough to force more than a single divisional prime time game.

Shock: Baltimore and Pittsburgh meet in Week 17

For whatever reason, since the NFL introduced the rule that all Week 17 games would be divisional games, one of them has never been Baltimore vs Pittsburgh. Maybe it has been seen as too big a game for the final week with too much at stake, but these two are no longer the best in the AFC North. That title now belongs to the Browns, so it would be fun to see these two battle it out for the AFC’s sixth seed on the final day. Will it happen? Probably not, but it’d still be fun. B