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2018 NFL Season Preview: The MySpace Top 8

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These are Matt Weston’s eight favorite non-Texan players to watch entering the 2018 season.

I think the Houston Texans are my favorite football team. I love DeAndre Hopkins’ stretchy one-arm spider catches, Jadeveon Clowney doctor’s notes, Bill O’Brien not going for it on fourth down in playoff games or running draws on third and eight, injury lamentations, desire for J.J. Watt to come crawling out of that machine sailing through the fields of time, collective patience for Deshaun Watson to come scrambling back into our televisions and into our hearts, lugubrious special teams, and Lamar Miller weight loss tips.

This octagon isn’t for loved ones, though. This is the MySpace Top 8. This cork board covered in photos stuck with tacks is reserved for friends, people outside the square topped with a triangle and a rectangle puffing smoke. Filling your Top 8 with your cousin, or your brother, or heaven forbid your mother, gets you shoved into the urinal and knocking little yellow clumps off your shirt, your baritone beaten, your binder knocked out of your hands, your rings stomped on, your carefully divided papers ripped in half, and phalluses redrawn into rocket ships and Toucan Sam on your folders.

No Houston Texans allowed. No immediate family permitted. I need to shed the coils of this esoteric cloister. Below are my eight favorite players in the NFL who don’t play in Houston.

CASE KEENUM

Last season KEEEEEEEENUUUUUUUUM was the most efficient passer in football. He led the NFL in passing DVOA at 28.1%. He completed 67.6% of his passes and averaged 7.1 net yards per pass, which ranked 8th. These are all things he had never done before, and things he will probably never do again. The glass slipper was probably a Croc all along.

Last year’s NFC Championship Game was ruined after Keenum’s pick-six. This year, in Denver, he will probably struggle behind a worse offensive line, playing for a worse offensive coordinator, and throwing to worse wide receivers. Nevertheless, that can’t take away what Keenum did last season. He was a purple-clad maniac and has traveled across an equator since his practice squad days in Houston and later brain-scrambling days playing for Jeff Fisher.

Before last season when I thought about Keenum, I thought about deep sacks. I thought about pressure and him running backwards to escape defenders bigger, faster, and stronger than him. It rarely worked. Case Keenum isn’t Russell Wilson. Too often he would turn a pass rush into an infinite loss.

Even then, during the bad old days of 2013, Keenum could still throw a high rising deep ball. It took him two completions to throw for over 100 yards in Andre Johnson’s last great game. He averaged 5.8 deep passes a game. Case ‘Eff It, I’m Going Deep’ Keenum was more than a meme or a cliche; it was the truth, and it all began in his first NFL start against Kansas City when he found DeAndre Hopkins down the left sideline.

The world is an entirely different place since then. Keenum has learned how to climb the pocket. A novel concept. Last year, after taking over for Sam Bradford’s soggy knees, he consistently climbed away from outside pressure and slung it down field. I still can’t believe he didn’t run backwards on this play.

Playing with Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen gave Keenum Reading Rainbow confidence to do anything. He could throw off his back foot in the face of the apocalypse.

More often than not, he was perfect on downfield throws. It didn’t matter. All he had to do was get it close enough. Close enough was all it took for Thielen’s yellow Hamburger Helper gloves to catch passes or for Diggs to wait like true love after losing the defensive back in a slurry of footwork.

Now Case is gone. The Vikings chose Kirk Cousins over him. Keenum is now a Bronco. Even though he won’t replicate last year, I’m still excited as hell to watch Keenum in that Rocky Mountain wasteland. The air is nice and thin. The ball flies forever. Keenum’s air balloon passes may never come down. This, plus a below average offensive line, and we have the makings of some exciting quarterback play.

One last time...

KEEEEEEENUUUUUUUUUM!

ALVIN KAMARA

When I was a baby boy, Marshall Faulk was my favorite player. The Rams’ blue and yellow jerseys were the same color as my elementary school. The importance of a running back who could catch and run was the first smart football thing I learned from my father. I would take this knowledge to the video games and hit the right trigger or R1 and find Faulk in the flat, spin away from an outside linebacker, and then run forever. On Sundays, we’d go to the racetrack and I’d watch Sunday Ticket on a little horse race television and see Faulk and his big binky mouthpiece eviscerate defenses.

Since that time I’ve always fallen hard for running backs who can both run and catch, but other than LaDainian Tomilson (who I never cared for after he sat out an AFC Championship Game), there hasn’t been a running back who could do it quite like Marshall. Then, out of nowhere, Alvin Kamara rose from the horizon.

As a runner, it’s nearly impossible to hit Kamara in his chest. He’s too shifty. He’s too fast. Constantly, defenders are diving at legs, taking boots to the chest, and falling off.

It’s not all glitz and right stick flicking glamour either. Kamara can make you go one way and then go anther, and he can go right through you. In this same game, Kamara took a toss and went through four defenders with a single wide receiver blocking to score.

As a runner last season, Kamara only had 120 carries. He accrued 728 yards, 8 touchdowns, and eclipsed 6.0 yards a carry. Only three players aside from Kamara this century have picked up 6.0 yards a carry over the course of 120 carries: Adrian Peterson, C.J. Spiller, and Jamaal Charles. You’d have to go back to Barry Sanders in 1997 to find anyone before that. Kamara also finished third with 255 DYAR despite that limited number of carries.

As a receiver, he’s even better. He can catch slip screens out of the backfield, run angle routes from the shotgun position, play out wide, or my personal favorite, play as a slot receiver.

This is my favorite wide receiver route combination. Slant, slant, wheel route. The Saints ran it to perfection in last year’s absurd divisional playoff game against the Vikings.

It’s not all accurate passes right into the chest. Kamara can outrun defensive backs off the line of scrimmage, look up, and find the football.

Last year Kamara caught 81 of his 100 targets for 826 yards. He had 5 touchdowns that way. He had a DVOA of 36.4%, and a DYAR Of 278. Absurd. Hopefully Mark Ingram hanging out in the penalty box won’t change how Kamara is used next season. Kamara is a 10 carry/10 target a game player. The most carries he had in a game last year was 12. That’s two too many. Keep him fresh. Let him do it all. Alvin Kamara should never be winded.

Additionally, Kamara has a bullring septum piercing. Pretty cool. Some days, when I’m nauseated with post-modern city living, I want to do the same. I want to drill a hole in my nose, dye my hair blonde, buy enough white t-shirts to last me my entire life, and move to California. Instead, here I am, still, and still without a nose piercing.

JASON KELCE

The Super Bowl winning genie played the best football of his life as the anchor on the best offensive line in football last year. No longer was he undersized, known only for getting out in screen passes in Chip Kelly’s offense. Kelce did it all last season. He could latch onto the nose tackle like a bull and hang on for longer than eight seconds.

He could take over quick strong outside double teams, allowing the guard to move to the second level without any worries of the past. He could reach the outside shoulder and patiently wait for the guard, without any worries of not getting to the linebacker.

He could snuff out big belly pass rushers and navigate around from ‘B’ gap to ‘B’ gap to pick up free rushers.

He could also work with Brandon Brooks to run some of the best ‘Ace’ blocks in football. I imagine this is what it’s like to get shot. Pop. Pop. That’s it.

This is just rude.

A.J. BOUYE & JALEN RAMSEY

Last season the Jaguars made the jump from 15th in pass defense DVOA to first. Their pass defense DVOA was -27.6%. The Ravens were second with a DVOA of -15.4%. The Jaguars took a young defense and added the two best defensive free agents available, Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye, two All-Pro caliber players.

Together Bouye and Ramsey became the best cornerback duo in the NFL. Ramsey was targeted 91 times, gave up 5.5 adjusted yards a pass (8th), had an adjusted success rate of 63% (7th), allowed 0.9 yards after the catch (3rd), and had 17 deflected passes, and 4 interceptions. Bouye was targeted 84 times, gave up 5.6 adjusted yards a pass (10th), had an adjusted success rate of 62% (10th), allowed 0.8 yards after the catch (1st), and had 20 deflected passes, and 6 interceptions. WR1s had a DVOA of -58.4%, and WR2s had a DVOA of -14.1% against this combo. Sheesh.

Aesthetically, and personality-wise, there’s no better combination of cornerbacks. Ramsey is physical, long-armed, and violent. He has the chest of a post defender. There isn’t a bigger hater or trash talker in football, and he’s one of the rare few who can back it up and have it come out as earnest and enjoyable. I still haven’t gotten over this red zone fade defense against Kelvin Benjamin where even offensive pass interference couldn’t prevent Ramsey from defending the pass.

Wide receivers can rarely outrun Ramsey. Because of his strength, they can’t outplay him for the ball either. He out-receivers most receivers.

The only shot you got at beating Ramsey is by knocking away his press coverage, slipping past, and then outrunning him. Luckily, DeAndre Hopkins gets to play him twice a year, so we all get to head to the theater and witness the most violent wide receiver-cornerback battle in football.

Bouye, on the other hand, isn’t a bellowing, thin-strapped cut off Gold’s Gym tank top wearing Minotaur. I don’t think he’s ever whispered a word into another man’s ear on the football field. The furthest he’ll go is a little finger wag. He’s skill. He’s a footwork technician. He’s never beat. He’s always in control of the route. He allows wide receivers to garner some space so he can unleash his perfect trail technique and catch back up to the football.

He’s also a mighty little mouse when it comes to blitzing. He’s like one of those blow gun shooting Pygmies you find in a Flayer Jungle.

I love watching these two so much that I’ve spent the past two weeks trying to talk myself out of the numbers and out of the possible defensive regression. I don’t want to put those thoughts out there to create that possible universe. I want to stay closed off. I want more best pass defense in football Jacksonville Jaguars football where these two continue to manacle the rest of the league.

DAVID DECASTRO

DeCastro is a top five guard. He’s constant and steady. He never misses blocks. He’s the tide rolling in. He’s my car air conditioning shutting down every August. He’s the cicadas clinging to everything and hollering in unison to create a rattling buzzsaw that travels through the inferno. Over the last two seasons, DeCastro has given up just half a sack. Once his hands are on you, your life is over.

As great and impenetrable he is as a pass blocker, I like him even more as a run blocker. He can wait in an amusement park line with sticky thighs and still keep a smile on that bearded face. There’s never a rush. He doesn’t get overwhelmed when he doesn’t see his block right away. He’ll keep scanning the vicinity, waiting for a second defender to clobber.

This is insane. He reaches the outside shoulder so well that he’s able to turn his back from the opposite sideline and wait for the guard, all without having any trouble getting to the next level. This type of carefree caution perfectly blends with Le’Veon Bell’s style. This is my favorite running back-guard combo in the league.

Not everything is front porch rocking, chair mosquito slapping sitting. DeCastro is a violent player. When the opportunity comes to create fatalistic collisions, he goes for it, spewing purple guts and turning defenders into a pink mist.

To be one of the best offensive linemen in football, you have to do two things: One, make all your blocks consistently, and two, pull back the curtains and unleash the sublime. David DeCastro does both.

EVERSON GRIFFEN

We’ve lost a lot of players like Griffen because of the passing revolution. Edge defenders are no longer sea monsters or leviathans, monstrous men, sulking along the fringes of the line of scrimmage. Instead, most edge defenders are teensy little guys who can run real fast and turn the corner like a cool kid’s tires in a CVS parking lot. Players of Griffen’s 275 pound stature rarely play as wide 9s. They are Calais Campbell rushing as a ‘5’. They are his counterpart Danielle Hunter playing defensive end at 250 pounds.

Griffen, however, is like a great jungle cat that’s almost been hunted to extinction; the ones that haven’t been popped have seen their environment, their home, sliced away to grow palm oil. He’s made from the same stuff as Julius Peppers. Griffen can beat offensive tackles off the line of scrimmage with an insane jump off the snap of the ball, and then use his 3-4 outside linebacker-esque speed to demoralize the blocker.

This was my favorite pass rush from last year. Griffen sees the center dip to start the snap. He unleashes all that wound up energy and takes three steps up the field compared to the very good Terron Armstead’s one. He does this without even knowing the snap count. Immediately Armstead is splayed and flayed. He leaps to hamper Griffen, but he’s merely a rabbit under late night desert tires. He gently stops his momentum upfield, looks for Drew Brees, and curls back around to bring him down from behind. Rather than murder the little man, he instead gently removes the ball from his hands, but doesn’t recover it. The whole process, from the get-off to the sack, takes Griffen roughly 3.26 seconds.

Griffen can rush wide from a jet position too. On this strip sack, he’s a wide ‘5’. He comes at a direct angle perfectly in line with Matthew Stafford’s dropback. Sure, there’s some curling around the tackle. Nothing is perfect. The tackle immediately opens the gate and turns and faces Griffen. In a flurry of hand flaying, Griffen slaps both of the tackle’s hands away and rips under, all in unison with his feet scurrying to the quarterback. He dips around the edge and slingshots himself into Stafford’s back. The ball of course pops out.

Even at the ripe age of 31, when most people expect for edge rushers to decline, Griffen is still 275 pounds putting up 13 sacks and 36.5 hurries in a season. Don’t expect this skull cap wearing quarterback devourer to drop off this year either. Griffen still has edge burst, a vicious spin move, and the hands to vaporize offensive tackle punches.

TARIK COHEN

Cohen and I are entirely different people, and that’s why I love watching him play so much. Cohen is 5’6” and 181 pounds. I haven’t been 5’6” or 181 pounds since sixth grade. I have never been fast. I have never been able to jump high. Just a big stupid caveman dragging his club across the ground is all I am.

Cohen can run fast and jump high, and he does it while being bite-sized. He’s a red laser light terrorizing house cats in a weird woman’s apartment personified. His rookie year was electric. He made some spectacular plays.

Like running in the direction the play was called and quickly realizing it was the wrong direction.

Or tosses where he runs so fast he floats over the field like his feet and the field are magnets with opposite polarity.

He authors quick cutbacks that lead to open field runs that lead to open field tackle attempts that turn defenders into a penalty kick saving goalies who can only close their eyes and pick a side once the foot meets the ball.

At his size, defenders are looking to squish him between their toes like Doritos. They actively hunt him on the field. Sometimes he’s drawn into defenders and gets demolished; other times it leads to silly, murderous penalties.

Other times, Cohen switches and takes advantage of light feet looking by going through the upright defender.

Like Kamara, Cohen is more than just a running back. He’s a pass catcher too. Against Carolina, he lined up as an outside receiver and caught a long, almost but not quite a touchdown pass by torching the cornerback, turning back and looking for an underthrown Mitch Trubisky pass.

With Matt Nagy as the head coach, the Tyreek Hill comparisons will write themselves. I’m thinking more like Darren Sproles, who is still somehow playing football for the Eagles. Cohen still has a journey ahead of him. He was a lot of fun, but he was more like a rash than an effective offensive weapon. Hopefully another year of Mitch Trubisky, a new head coach, and more offensive weapons around him will lead to greener pastures and more one-on-one tackle opportunities so that Cohen can be something more than FUN. He can be a great back that morphs an offense into an entirely different thing.

DUANE BROWN

No matter how many times you say it, or sit there and close your eyes to make time stop, you can never truly appreciate anything while it’s happening. It takes time. It takes departure to fully understand the importance of someone or something. I loved watching Duane Brown play football for ten years. Wide and hulking, by physical dimensions alone, Brown is impossible to get around. Add a perfect kick-slide and pristine hand placement, and you get a perennial Pro Bowler and an All-Pro player.

It wasn’t until watching Kendall Lamm start the 2017 season opener at left tackle that I understood the effect Brown had on the entire offensive line and the Texans’ pass protection. Quarterbacks only had to worry about what they could see when they were throwing footballs for the Texans when Brown was protecting the blind side. The subterranean unknown didn’t concern them. Brown was down in the dungeon, slaying edge rushing beasts so the quarterbacks could stare downfield without concern. It wasn’t until I watched Jeff Allen commit three false start penalties in a row that I understood how difficult it is to hear the snap count in a raucous boot-scootin’ environment or play without fear while being way out there on the left edge. It wasn’t until watching Chris Clark that I understood the gap of talent between Brown and replacement level.

Brown is now in Seattle. The Texans didn’t give into his contract demands and extend him past his age 31 season or enjoy his fist-raised protest during the National Anthem. In a different state, in a different place, he didn’t have the impact you’d expect. The Seahawks’ offensive line was still droopy, damp, and miserable. An improvement in left tackle play last year didn’t mean much.

Since Juli’en Davenport was drafted, I thought he could play left tackle in the NFL. He has the quickness and the natural kick-slide. Last season confirmed this. And with an offseason turning his arms into quadriceps, Davenport should be able to play competently in just his second year. The Texans will probably come out of this fine. Regardless, I still, and always will, miss Brown kick-sliding along the left side of Houston’s line of scrimmage.