It’s frightening to think the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl without Rob Gronkowski:

Photo credit: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images Sport

Author: Jon Kuzma

The New England Patriots ended 2016 as Super Bowl Champions but one notable player was not on the field for Bill Belichick’s team. That player was Rob Gronkowski and it’s frightening to think that the Patriots were good enough to win it all wit out one of their best players. Gronkowski finished 2016 with only 540 yards and 3 touchdowns. While those numbers might look like a rookie player’s stat line, keep in mind that was a career low in production for the 28 year old Gronkowksi. Having a healthy Rob Gronkowski on the football field will make New England leaps and bounds more potent and it appears Gronkowski is making strides in his recovery. New England recently had organized team activities going on and Gronkowki’s talents were on full display. Everyone at the Patriots facility were raving about Rob Gronkowki’s skill set and that should let you know where number 87 is in his comeback efforts. Gronkowski’s best year came back in 2011 when he caught 1,327 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. When you have a single player that has 17 touchdown potential that impact typically propels a team and New England will be much better off with Rob Gronkowki back in their starting line up. With the Patriots making several significant roster upgrades this off-season (Brandin Cooks, Dwayne Allen) getting Gronkowski back will also add to that blend of new talent. Ultimately that will give the Patriots the best chance out of any team to win the Super Bowl in 2017 and don’t be surprised when this team repeats. There’s no football team on earth with the excellence that the New England Patriots possess, it’s because they execute better than any other franchise and they get the most out of their players. New England proved last season they can get the job done with less but in 2017 they will have all their weapons on the field ready to unleash on opposing teams. That makes New England the easily number 1 in the NFL power rankings.

Charity of the day: CJ First Candle

Go donate! www.cjfirstcandle.org

Buccaneers and Titans can both be playoff contenders in 2017:

Photo credit: Cliff McBride / Getty Images Sport

Author: Jon Kuzma

There are plenty of good teams in the NFL but the Buccaneers and Titans in particular are two of the most improved teams. The Buccaneers had a huge acquisition this off-season when they added DeSean Jackson and that seems to be yielding big results in OTAs. Jackson adds another dynamic weapons outside of Mike Evans and Jameis Winston is already making the most out of having Jackson on the roster. Both Winston and Jackson seem to be developing a chemistry with one and other which will certainly help this football team during the regular season. If Tampa Bay can get a significant amount of production from Jackson that could be enough to put the Bucs over the playoff hump and make no mistake about it this is one of the hottest emerging teams in the NFC. As far as the Titans go, they’ve been making strides in the AFC ever since Tennessee signed Demarco Murray and drafted Derrick Henry. Together that two back tandem gives the Titans a smash mouth running attack that is to be feared on game day. While that is essentially the glue that makes up the Titans, Tennessee has also made some significant upgrades this off-season to give their roster a substantial boost. Tennessee drafted Corey Davis in the draft and they also had several key free agent signings. Davis should give Marcus Mariota the best wide receiver he has ever had from pass catching perspective while Logan Ryan and Jonathan Cyprien should help solidify the defense. Together those moves collectively make the Titans a much better football team and now they will no doubt make a push for the AFC South division title. Tennessee actually has a better chance at wining their division than the Buccaneers just because the AFC South is much easier than NFC South. The Titans nearly won the division last year but weren’t nearly as talented as they are this season. On the other hand the Buccaneers will have a tough time with the greatly improved Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers. Two teams who will give the Buccaneers all they can handle in 2017. Regardless though both of these franchises (Bucs and Titans) are much better off than they were a season ago. That should give each organization a chance to really turn some heads when the regular season rolls around.

Charity of the day: CJ First Candle

Go donate! www.cjfirstcandle.org

Artie Burns proved the NFL stage wasn’t too big for him during his rookie season:

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Author: Jon Kuzma

The Pittsburgh Steelers were adamant that they improved their secondary in the 2016 NFL Draft and man did they get a complete player when they drafted Artie Burns. Artie Burns is a 22 year old cornerback who played college football at the University of Miami. Since joining the professional ranks Burns hasn’t skipped a beat. Burns recorded 65 tackles and 3 interceptions during his rookie season with the Steelers. Those 3 interceptions as a rookie were extremely productive and you can tell Burns has natural football instincts. When a player has that kind of skill set in his first year of professional football that sets a good precedent for the future. Burns will only get better with each rep he takes and his development as a football player still has a lot of growth to come. That is great news for the Pittsburgh Steelers and there is no doubt Burns will end up playing a pivotal role for this team as time goes on. A good coverage player is worth their weight in gold in the NFL and that’s because the wide receivers in this league are so dynamic. Burns has the ability to minimize the impact that these top wide outs have and he will be especially important in limiting the New England Patriots offense. Tom Brady has great rhythm and timing with his wide receivers and that group strikes terror in their AFC opponents. With the Steelers being the biggest threat to the Patriots in the AFC, it will be up to Artie Burns and the Steelers defense to contain Brady and the Patriots. All it takes is for Burns to intercept one pass and that could be the reason the Steelers instead of the Patriots go to the Super Bowl. If that does happen you will understand firsthand how much value a talented cornerback has and Artie Burns will solidify himself has a household name. Before that happens though Burns must do the little things right and prepare himself to be an elite competitor. So far though everything looks promising for the up and coming Artie Burns.

Charity of the day: Oxfam-America

Go donate! www.oxfamamerica.org

Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott have to avoid complacency in order to keep the Cowboys atop the NFC East:

Photo credit: Hannah Foslien / Getty Images Sport

Author: Jon Kuzma

No two rookies had a greater impact than Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 and no two players will have more pressure on them to succeed in 2017. After bursting on the scene a year ago both Prescott and Elliott now have to avoid getting complacent and regressing. In order to do that both players have to train harder than they did last season and the young Cowboys have to acknowledge that the results they put up last year aren’t guaranteed this upcoming season. That’s not easy to do when the world rolls out the red carpet for you and these guys have to understand that the key to success in this league is treating everyday like it’s your first day on the job. Almost every single NFC East team significantly improved and that’s going to turn up the heat on the Cowboys a little bit. If Prescott and Elliott aren’t at their absolute best, that opens the door for a team like the Giants to come in and dethrone Dallas. New York already had the Cowboys number a year ago and the Giants improved this off-season by signing Brandon Marshall. Dallas needs to trust their running game early and often to keep the other teams in this division at bay. That means the offensive line has to open up holes upfront and Elliott has to be the catalyst for this team like he was a year ago. If Elliott can continue to be the driving force behind the Cowboys success that will give Dallas the best chance to repeat as division champs and make it back to the postseason. It should also be noted that it’s imperative that Zeke Elliott stays healthy because without their promising young running back the Cowboys will fall apart. As far as Dak Prescott goes he needs to maintain his poise and play exactly how he did in 2016. If Prescott can continue to keep his interception total under 10 a year, that will give Dallas a huge edge on game day. However if Prescott loses that cool about him and the turnovers start to pile up then anything is possible. So there is clearly a lot riding on Prescott and Elliott which will have a direct correlation on whether or not the Cowboys make splash like they did last year when they won 13 games. You have to believe that Prescott and Elliott will be ready when week 1 rolls around but like mentioned above nothing is ever guaranteed in the NFL.

Charity of the day: Oxfam-America

Go donate! www.oxfamamerica.org

At 31 years old Aqib Talib isn’t showing any signs of slowing down:

Photo credit: Steve Nehf / Denver Post

Author: Jon Kuzma

The Denver Broncos might not have made the playoffs in 2016 but Aqib Talib was definitely a bright spot for this football team. Talib was one of the top graded defenders in all of football last year and it’s because Talib is excellent against the pass and he gives more effort than most corners against the run. While Deion Sanders might have stated that he gets paid to guard receivers, Talib has a different philosophy on the football field. Aqib Talib plays with reckless abandon on every single snap deciding not shy away from contact. Most corners are hesitant when a sweep comes their direction but Talib flies up in run support doing whatever he must to take a ball carrier down. That “run stopping corner” label might not seem like much but it can easily save a team numerous touchdowns throughout a season. Talib was also the best pass defender for all of 2016 as well, he recorded three interceptions and one defensive touchdown. Those stats let you know that Talib can take the ball away from opposing offenses and when he does intercept a pass he has the ability to go for six points the other way. In fact Aqib Talib has an amazing nine defensive touchdowns since starting his career back in 2008 with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When you compare that to Darrelle Revis’ three defensive touchdowns and Richard Sherman’s two defensive touchdowns you can see how dominant Talib has been when it comes to scoring on defense. The last thing that makes Talib so impressive is the fact that he hasn’t lost a step at 31 years old. Cornerback is such a fast twitch position and guys usually start to slow down around the 30 years old mark. Instead Aqib Talib has actually gotten better with age and it must be noted that Talib didn’t allow a single touchdown pass all last season. That’s ultimately what you’re measured on if you’re a defensive back in the NFL and Talib basically had a flawless stat sheet. The Broncos are very lucky to have the best defensive back in all of football at the moment and expect this guy to have another big year in 2017.

Charity of the day: Fistula Foundation

Go donate! www.fistulafoundation.org

The Saints are changing their philosophy up a little bit, will it result in more wins in 2017?

Photo credit: Elsa / Getty Images Sport

Author: Jon Kuzma

The New Orleans Saints seem to be reshaping their approach after signing Adrian Peterson this off-season. That moves leads you to believe that Head Coach Sean Payton plans to be a more run orientated football team and it will be interesting to see how that change in philosophy affects New Orleans? That wasn’t the only shocking move the Saints made this season either, New Orleans front office also traded away Brandin Cooks who was a significant weapon for Drew Brees. Losing Cooks could end up being much more detrimental than the Saints anticipated and only time will tell how that move impacts this football team? The good news for New Orleans is they had two first round picks in the draft because of trading Cooks and they got two very good football players. Marshon Lattimore and Ryan Ramczyk will both contribute to the Saints sooner rather than later, which is always a victory when discussing rookie players. Ramczyk should not only help Drew Brees with pass protection upfront, he will also help both Mark Ingram and Adrian Peterson in the running game. So the former Wisconsin Badger offensive tackle fits will into the Saints smash mouth football game plan and expect a much more physical Saints offense in 2017. As far as Marshon Lattimore goes he was one of the top cornerbacks in the nation last year at Ohio State. The Saints have traditionally struggled on defense during the Sean Payton era, so adding Lattimore was a no brainer. New Orleans is putting a much greater emphasis on adding defensive talent these days and that’s just another way this organization is trying to revamp themselves. Truthfully you have to believe these adjustments will benefit the Saints because they’ve been trying to get it done with just a passing offense for far too long. Now the Saints will be able to play fundamental football which is done by running the ball and trusting their defense. Mike Thomas, Coby Fleener, and Willie Snead will have to pick up the slack to help eliminate the loss of Brandin Cooks. While Marshon Lattimore, Cameron Jordan, and the rest of the Saints defense will have to get enough stops to help this team be competitive down the stretch. New Orleans went 7-9 last year and you almost have to expect they will be at least .500 in 2017. It believable that the Saints improved this off-season.

Charity of the day: Opportunity International

Go donate! www.opportunity.org

The Chicago Bears sign Victor Cruz to a one year contract:

Photo credit: Al Bello / Getty Images Sport

Author: Jon Kuzma

The Chicago Bears knew they had to get better at the wide receiver position and now they are signing Victor Cruz to a one year contract in order to do so. The former Giants receiver joins Chicago after recording 586 receiving yards and just one touchdowns last season. Although Cruz himself believes his lack of production is due to the Giants not giving him the right opportunity to succeed. Cruz recently told the press that New York’s front office was intentionally trying to sabotage his 2016 season and it’s good to see the veteran wide receiver get a fresh start. The Bears have also signed Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, and Rueben Randle this off-season. That should make for a competitive receiver battle and Cruz will have to go to the Windy City and earn his reps for the Bears. At 30 years old Cruz should have little bit left in the tank but keep in mind he hasn’t had 1,000 yards in a season since 2012. After battling nagging injuries throughout his career which include ankle, calf, and knee setbacks. Cruz now will look to finish his first season in Chicago injury free and as a productive wide receiver for Mike Glennon or Mitchell Trubisky. While it feels like Glennon will get the nod for most of 2016, eventually Trubisky will take over the reins for this football teams and that’s why we’ve seen the Bears load up on receivers. Chicago wants to put their quarterback in the best position possible and this one year contract should be considered an audition year for Victor Cruz. If Cruz plays well and exceeds expectations that would incline the Bears to explore re-signing the newly acquired receiver for a longer duration. If Cruz struggles to beat out the other receivers for playing time, that will likely mean a one and done for Victor Cruz. So it’s a great opportunity for Cruz to showcase his talents and he has to make the most out the opportunity the Bears franchise has given him. You never know how many chances you’re going to get in the National Football League. Fortunately for Victor Cruz he will at least get one more in Chicago.

Charity of the day: Opportunity International

Go donate! www.opportunity.org

Carson Wentz looks light-years ahead of where he was last season as a rookie:

Photo credit: Rich Schultz / Getty Images Sport

Author: Jon Kuzma

Early reports out of Philadelphia are Carson Wentz has been looking leaps and bounds better than he did a season ago. Wentz is entering his second professional season and it’s clear he has much better grasp of what his coaches are asking of him. Wentz started every single game as a rookie last year and he finished the season with 16 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for the Eagles. Those numbers aren’t that bad for a rookie quarterback especially when you factor in how many superstar quarterbacks struggled in their rookie seasons (Manning, Young, Favre, and Elway). The fact that Wentz put up better numbers than a lot of those guys shows how much potential the Eagles starting quarterback has and Philadelphia hasn’t had this much promise since 2013. In 2013 the Eagles made it to the postseason but this group could be even more talented. Especially when you factor in the offensive star power on the roster right now, along with Jim Schwartz calculated defense. That will give Wentz such an opportunity to succeed in 2017 and those receiver additions (Alshon Jefferey and Torrey Smith) should yield big results. Wentz struggled at times in 2016 because the guys on the receiving end of his passes dropped a lot of balls. That won’t be the case with Philadelphia’s new acquisitions and the front office did a terrific job of making this team competitive. The key to the puzzle now will be Wentz personal growth and it appears that’s exactly what’s taking place at Eagles OTAs. Wentz looks crisper than a season ago which is undoubtedly due to his will and commitment to improve on the field and from an athletic stand point. All of Wentz’s efforts have the 24 year old signal caller looking more polished than ever and so far it looks like the Eagles nailed it by selecting Wentz 2nd overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. There’s nothing but high praise for Carson Wentz at the moment.

Charity of the day: Direct Relief & Direct Relief Foundation

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Teddy Bridgewater is progressing in his rehabilitation from a major knee injury:

Photo credit: Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images Sport

Author: Jon Kuzma

It was a scary situation when Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down with a major knee injury last season. Bridgewater dislocated his knee and completely tore his ACL on a simple drop back during practice in late August one year ago. That injury compelled the Minnesota Vikings to trade for Sam Bradford and the rest is history. Many people in the Vikings organization questioned whether not Bridgewater would ever play again most notably the Vikings Head Coach Mike Smith. However it appears that Teddy Bridgewater is defying the odds and making great progress in his recovery. The Vikings recently released a video of Bridgewater taking snaps, working on drop backs, and throwing the football. Bridgewater looked ahead of schedule in all three phases and now it looks like the former Louisville quarterback could have a shot to be cleared to return to action by training camp. That’s such an accomplishment for the 24 year old signal caller because everyone was discussing whether or not Bridgewater’s career was over? Give Teddy Bridgewater credit for being relentless in his pursuit of getting back on the football field and it’s clear this guy is putting in a ton of hours strengthening his knee/body. There’s no way we are even talking about Bridgewater stepping back onto a football field without that determination and it just goes to show anything is possible when you commit yourself to a certain goal. Now the Vikings did pass on Bridgewater’s 5th year contract option, so it’s pretty clear that Minnesota is committed to Sam Bradford as their top quarterback. Regardless though this is about Bridgewater making the unimaginable comeback and just getting another opportunity to compete. If Teddy Bridgewater can recapture his form the rest of the other stuff will work itself out. Right now it’s just about getting back to full time playing status if you’re Teddy Bridgewater. Other teams will be much more inclined to give Bridgewater a shot if he can show he can handle all the responsibilities that come with being an NFL quarterback. That starts with being completely healthy.

Charity of the day: Direct Relief & Direct Relief Foundation

Go donate! www.directrelief.org

The NFL got it right when they decided to relax punishment on excessive celebration penalties:

Photo credit: Icon Sports Wire

Author: Jon Kuzma

The NFL took a step in the right direction when it comes to shedding their “No Fun League” persona that they’ve developed over the years. The league recently has decided that they will now allow players to celebrate their athletic achievements after scoring touchdowns. If you remember in the past players were very limited in what they could do during their touchdown dances. For example group celebrations were banned and if you’ve ever seen old football footage before 1984 you will know teams like the Washington Redskins Fun Bunch brought a lot of enjoyment to the game. Of course the league put all that to an end in 1984 when they decided to clean the game up a bit. Over the years players expressed their frustrations with the lack of touchdown celebration freedom and eventually the fans begun to have the same feelings. While Roger Goodell has put a lot of effort into protecting the game’s positive image, the league itself was starting to suffer from coming off as stiff and almost robotic. With the other professional leagues allowing more relaxed policies on a number of different issues, eventually Goodell knew he could win over some popularity by allowing the NFL to have some “fun” again. That led the commissioner to ultimately relaxing penalties on touchdown celebrations and now players will be able to dance, use the football as a prop, or coordinate a team celebration. The creativity that these unique dances are composed of really spices the game up because they are so authentic to the emotions that are going through a scoring player’s head. Trying to restrict that expression of feelings is almost like taking away a player’s art form and to be honest making the change is a great move for the National Football League. Touchdown celebrations make fans feel closer to the players and that will help sell the league to new audiences. It’s good to see Mr. Goodell easing up his authority and doing what’s best for the league. These new rules should make for a very entertaining 2017 season.

Charity of the day: Keep America Beautiful

Go donate! www.kab.org

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