Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Patriots Free Agency: Why Re-Signing Rex Burkhead Is In New England’s Best Interest

By Zack Cox
February 20, 2018

Rex Burkhead proved to be a dangerous and versatile offensive weapon in his first season with the New England Patriots. When he could stay healthy, that is.

The 27-year-old running back was a touchdown machine for the Patriots late in the season and provided a jolt of offensive production in Super Bowl LII, but he also missed seven games (including playoffs) due to injury and dealt with additional ailments during the preseason.

First, it was a rib injury suffered in Week 2 — shortly after Burkhead hauled in a 19-yard pass from Tom Brady for his first touchdown in a Patriots uniform — that sidelined him for four games. Then, a knee sprain in Week 15 that kept him out until the AFC Championship Game.

Fortunately for the Patriots, they had tremendous depth at running back this season, allowing them to absorb Burkhead’s injuries plus another one to James White late in the year without skipping a beat. Burkhead and White both took a backseat to Dion Lewis (career-high 896 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns), but all three made important contributions as New England fell one win short of a second consecutive championship.

Burkhead, who signed a one-year, $3.15 million contract with the Patriots last spring, is set to venture back into free agency next month. (So, too, is Lewis, whom we profiled earlier in the week.) Let’s take a look at Burkhead’s 2017 season and his chances of returning to the Patriots in 2018.

2017 stats: 64 carries, 264 yards, five touchdowns; 30 catches (36 targets), 254 yards, three touchdowns

Highlight of the season: His performance in a Week 13, when he rushed 12 times for a season-high 78 yards and two touchdowns while also catching three passes for 25 yards in a win over the Buffalo Bills.

Six of Burkhead’s eight touchdowns came during a four-game stretch from Week 12 to Week 15.

Burkhead also scored a touchdown and blocked a punt in a Week 10 win over the Denver Broncos and made the most of his limited action in Super Bowl LII, amassing 64 yards from scrimmage on just four touches in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Chances of coming back: Pretty good, especially if Lewis signs elsewhere, which appears likely at this point. With his ability to contribute as a runner, pass-catcher and special teamer, Burkhead is a perfect Patriots player, and the injuries he dealt with this season should allow them to re-sign him to a relatively affordable deal.

Running back depth: White, Mike Gillislee

Contingency plan: The Patriots were overstocked at running back this season, so much so that Gillislee — who underperformed in the early going but wasn’t horrible — hardly saw the field over the final 11 games. If Lewis and Burkhead both leave, though, the Patriots will need to bolster the position this offseason.

Even if Burkhead does re-sign, given his injury history, it could be worth using a mid-round draft pick on a running back prospect. New England rarely drafts running backs but has been successful when doing so, selecting White (fourth round) in 2014 and Stevan Ridley (second round) and Shane Vereen (third round) in 2011.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Ex-NFL QB Kordell Stewart Shares Vision for Mariota, Titans

Former NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart shared his thoughts on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, and new head coach Mike Vrabel, his teammate with the Steelers, with Titans Online.

By Jim Wyatt
February 16, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Former NFL quarterback Kordell Stewart sat down with Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota on Super Bowl LII Radio Row recently, and came away impressed.

“He’s everything that you see on the football field, which is very calm and relaxed and easy-going,” said Stewart, a host on "NFL No Huddle" which airs on NFL-TuneIn. “But you can see that little spark inside of him. When you look into his eyes you can kind of tell what goes on inside his soul. I like him a lot because he is humble and he hasn’t forgotten where he came from. And he’s a good football player.”

So, what do the Titans and Mariota need to do to take things to another level?

Stewart discussed that topic with Titans Online, and he also shared some thoughts on new Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, his teammate four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The thing is being able to allow the player, Marcus in this case, to take his talents, and just be natural with it,” Stewart said. “When we saw him at Oregon, we saw the RPOs, which is something he hasn’t done since he’s been with the Tennessee Titans. If you can add that functionality to it a little bit, it gives him a chance to be himself. Being able to move and run a little bit is a big part of why he’s been so successful and why he won a Heisman Trophy.

“If you can bring that kid-like life back to the game for him, you’ll have a chance to see his talents flourish the way they should.”

Stewart, who played 11 seasons in the NFL, played from 1995-2002 with the Steelers before playing with the Bears and the Ravens. Nicknamed “Slash,” he was known for his athleticism and versatility. He threw for 14,746 yards during his career, and ran for 2,874 more.

Mariota, heading into his fourth NFL season, has already thrown for 9,476 yards with 58 touchdowns and just 34 interceptions. But Mariota’s numbers dipped in 2017 in his second full season under former head coach Mike Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie. After throwing for 3,426 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2016, he threw for 3,232 yards with 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 2017. He ran for 312 yards on 60 carries.

While Mariota guided the Titans into the playoffs, his passer rating dipped from 95.6 to 79.3. Mariota’s passer rating as a rookie was 91.5, when he threw for 2,818 yards with 19 touchdowns in 12 starts.

Stewart believes Mariota should benefit from an offseason without surgery. Some fresh ideas with new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur, formerly with the Los Angeles Rams, should also help, he said.

“I think we all have to respect Marcus Mariota came off a severe injury that I think slowed him down a step and a half last year,” Stewart said. “But you also have to get him to evolve into being a better passer. You have to remember he came into the league from Oregon being an RPO kind of guy, a run/pass offense. So now he’s been asked to be a three-step, five-step, seven-step guy. Well, that’s not who he is. But you also have to start forcing the hand to implement that so he can develop into being that quarterback on the field. … It is taking this and developing his skill set to be a more efficient quarterback in the National Football League. Sometimes coaches try to change a player. You don’t want to change him, you just want to refine him, enhance what you have.”

So how might that look like in 2018 for Mariota, and the Titans?

“The sooner he grasp what is being asked of him and he gets comfortable, the better off he’ll be,” Stewart said. “In the interim, it is going to be a process, and I don’t think you need to put a stamp of approval of what it should be, other than when watching him, doing the eye test. Is he progressing to be something better than what he was? And that’s not saying the guys weren’t good coaching him. But we all like to evolve, right?

“It is just going to be a matter of how he progresses. You saw what happened to Jared Goff last year with the Rams. Look at how a coaching change impacted him. Look at how (Eagles quarterback) Carson Wentz seemed to change overnight before he was injured. Get in a good situation and have an opportunity, and you have a chance to be great.”

As for Vrabel, Stewart thinks he has a great chance to be successful.

Stewart said he thought Mularkey, his former offensive coordinator with the Steelers, helped the Titans make improvements. He called Vrabel, his teammate from 1997-2000 with the Steelers, one of the smartest players he’s ever been around.

“He gets it and understands it,” Stewart said of Vrabel. “Mike has been amongst the best and seen how they coached. He played the game like he was one of the best. And I think he is going to take that combination of success and apply it to his football team.”

Ohio State’s Katie Smith named finalist for another hall of fame

Katie Smith, who has been named one of the 2018 inductees into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, is now a finalist for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

By Andrew Erickson
February 17, 2018

It has been a hall of fame kind of week for Katie Smith.

The former Ohio State women’s basketball player and two-time ABL and WNBA champion on Saturday was named one of 13 finalists for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The announcement comes less than a week after Smith was named one of the 2018 inductees into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.

Smith, a Logan, Ohio, native, helped Ohio State to its only NCAA title game appearance during the 1992-93 season, won two championships each with the ABL’s Columbus Quest and the WNBA’s Detroit Shock and was an Olympic gold medalist in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

Smith, 43, joined the WNBA’s New York Liberty as an assistant coach in 2014 before being named coach last October.

The star-studded list of nominees includes Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Ray Allen, Maurice Cheeks, Grant Hill, Chris Webber, Tina Thompson, coach Charles “Lefty” Driesell, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, coach Rudy Tomjanovich, referee Hugh Evans and the Wayland Baptist University women’s basketball team.

Inductees into the Basketball Hall of Fame will be announced March 31 at the Final Four in San Antonio.

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