All posts by connorlocke

Cuban Immigration Policy Continues to Affect MLB Player Eligibility

As the hot stove continues during the MLB offseason, it is important to consider an increasingly popular means of signing players: international free agency. This isn’t about the “Japanese Babe Ruth,” Shohei Otani, who will begin his MLB career with Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels. I’m instead talking about the dangerous side of international free agency.

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Shohei Otani (pictured) continues a successful tradition of baseball players coming to the US to play in the MLB.

The issue stems from a loophole in Major League Baseball and the United States Treasury Department rules surrounding the signing of Cuban baseball players. Since the beginning of the Cold War, direct trade talks between the United States and Cuba have been practically non-existent. On November 8, President Donald Trump announced that he would roll back achievements from the Obama administration in regards trade with Cuba. Despite icy relations between the two countries, Cuban defectors are able to come to the States and immediately set themselves on the pathway to becoming a legal resident. As legal residents, these players can declare for the MLB draft, where they can be chosen by any team setting themselves up to be paid around the league minimum salary, about $500,000. However, if defectors are smuggled into a second country before signing with an MLB club, they can be signed as an international agent and forgo low rookie contracts.

According to Baseball Reference, 76 Cuban defectors have played in the MLB since Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959. MLB teams have identified Cuba as a hotbed for young talent. According to American sports agent Joe Kehoskie, “Cuba is a very close second in terms of overall talent…If you are comparing Cuba and the major leagues, if the major leagues are the American League East, Cuba is the American League West.”

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Jose Abreu (pictured) is one of many MLB players who had to defect from their country in order to play in the MLB.

Much of this talent is untapped as a result of the travel restrictions to Cuba. Despite difficulties in scouting players in Cuba, many defectors have been able to make it to the forefront of the MLB – this includes Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and 2014 Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. There has been no shortage of success for Cuban defectors in Major League Baseball, but getting them into the country and into the league has proven to be a far more difficult task.

Yasiel Puig took the MLB by storm in 2013. That year, the 22-year-old Cuban defector hit for a batting average of .391 and an OPS of .925 with 19 home runs and 42 RBI in 104 games with the Dodgers. Throughout his career, he has been known for his eccentric behavior and questionable off-field antics. In 2013, he was arrested on a reckless driving charge for going 110 mph in a 70 mph zone. On a separate occasion, when asked why he licks his bat during the 2017 World Series, Puig replied, “I make love to the bat and he pays me back with hits.”

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Yasiel Puig (pictured) has had one of the more well-documented journeys to the MLB of any Cuban defector.

Puig’s journey to American baseball was similar to many other Cuban defectors. He was approached by a Miami air conditioner repairman, Raul Pacheco, who told Puig that he would be able to smuggle him into Mexico where he could take up residence before being signed as an international free agent. In return, Pacheco would get 20% of Puig’s MLB earnings. Puig was smuggled into Mexico by a drug cartel and held captive during negotiations between Pacheco and the cartel. Once negotiations were settled and Puig was able to escape, he was scouted by MLB clubs and signed to a seven year, $42 million deal with the LA Dodgers. Puig’s saga, however, was not over. On December 16, 2014, a Miami man named Gilberto Suarez was convicted of smuggling the Dodgers’ star outfielder to Mexico and was forced to forfeit the $2.5 million that Puig owed him after signing his contract. According to the Miami Herald, Raul Pacheco organized Puig and others’ escape from Cuba to Mexico, while Suarez smuggled the group into the United States. Suarez spent a month in federal prison for his crimes.

Gilberto Suarez was not the only smuggler to be arrested for trafficking Cuban baseball players. Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez was sentenced to nearly four years in prison and a forfeiture of $15.5 million on smuggling charges. Many Cuban MLB players, including Jose Abreu, testified to being smuggled into Mexico or Haiti using forged documents. In order for Cuban players to be signed as free agents, the Treasury Department needed to amend its stance on normalizing relations with Cuba. On March 21, 2016, United States President Barack Obama made significant strides towards implementing these policies by becoming the first president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The trip was a highlight of Obama’s efforts to lift the Cuban embargo imposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958. Featured on the trip was an exhibition baseball game played between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. The game was symbolic of progress made by the Obama administration. Just before his trip on March 15, 2016, the President announced that his administration would allow Cuban citizens to work in the United States. As a result, Cuban players would be able to be signed as international free agents right out of Cuba.

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Sports agent Bartolo Hernandez (pictured) faces four years in prison along with a forfeiture of significant funds due to his player-smuggling activity.

The change in policy never got a chance to influence Major League Baseball. On November 8, 2017, President Donald Trump’s administration announced its decision to overturn the decision made by the Obama administration to loosen restrictions on visitation and trade with Cuba. As a result, Cuban players are, once again, unable to be signed as free agents without having to take up residence in a third country. In light of this issue, there are a number of different policies that both Major League Baseball and the United States Federal Government should enact to lessen the threat to Cuban defectors playing in the MLB. Unfortunately, the MLB owners and the Players Union have already agreed to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement through 2021. Hopefully, at that time, changes would be able to be made in regards to the integration of Cuban defectors into the MLB. One potential solution to the issue is to end the financial incentives that persuade defectors to take residence in a third country. The MLB would be able to force all international players to enter into the draft, meaning that whether a defector is signed from Mexico or from the United States, he would make the same salary. However, the MLB Players Association is one of the strongest unions in sports, and this legislation may seem like an effort to decrease player salaries, and likely would not be agreed upon. Another potential option would be to allow Cuban players to sign as international free agents from Cuba. According to the New York Times, the MLB is currently on board with this plan, but needs permission from the Treasury Department in order to engage in trade with Cuban players. Such consent from the Treasury Department seems increasingly unlikely given the Trump administration’s current policies towards trade with Cuba. There is still potential for a resolution to come from outside of the MLB, if the current administration changes its attitudes towards Cuban relations.

Unless MLB fans want to see the next Yasiel Puig or Jose Abreu subjected to drug cartels and kidnapping, they must call their representative in Congress and make several other initiatives to vocalize their support of normalized relations with Cuba.

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win Comfortably vs Struggling Broncos

Positives

Special Teams

It’s hard to take much away from great special teams play because it only really shows against bad teams. Isaiah McKenzie’s muffed punt against the Pats to begin the game was his fifth punt return fumble of the season. I don’t put too much into Bill Belichick’s left-footed punter philosophy (Belichick favors lefty punters because the ball spins a different way, confusing some returners), but the Broncos’ special teams coach should have benched McKenzie against a lefty punter when he clearly can’t even catch righties. A win on special teams speaks to the overall ineptitude of the opponent, and the consistency and preparation of Coach Belichick.

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Sunday night was a win on special teams. By the time the Patriots had jumped out to a 20-6 lead with 8:47 remaining in the second quarter, New England had scored 17 of their points off of special teams. Their first touchdown was a 14-yard pass to running back Rex Burkhead, which capitalized on starting at the Denver 24-yard-line as the result of McKenzie’s muffed punt. After a Denver field goal, Dion Lewis returned the kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown. In the second quarter, Burkhead’s blocked punt at the Denver 30-yard-line set up Stephen Gostkowski’s 28-yard-field goal to take a 20-6 lead. Early special teams highlights helped the Patriots jump out to an early lead, and they didn’t look back.

Dwayne Allen

Congratulations to tight end Dwayne Allen for making his first catch of the 2016 season. Allen, who was acquired from the Colts for a fourth round draft pick, registered his first reception with a 11-yard touchdown catch.

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Tight Ends and Running Backs

The Patriots have seemed to find a new way to preserve Brady as he continues to age. Tight ends and running backs have been integral to the offensive scheme since Rob Gronkowski was drafted in 2010. This year, Brady has preferred targeting running backs and tight ends over targeting wide receivers. This may be the result of injuries to Malcolm Mitchell and, most notably, Julian Edelman. During Sunday’s game, 16 out of 28 of Brady’s completions were to tight ends, running backs, and fullbacks (57.14%). Competitively, out of Brock Osweiler’s 18 completions, just four were to running backs, tight ends, and fullbacks (22.22%).

Negatives

Malcolm Butler

Sunday night was likely Malcolm Butler’s worst outing this season. So far, Butler has had a subpar season in the last year of his contract, but showed improvement in the three games that Stephon Gilmore missed due to injury. Butler was mostly matched up in one-on-one coverage with Emmanuel Sanders, who is not very easy to cover. Sanders made six catches for 137 yards, including a 38-yard completion on Denver’s first play of the game. Butler was in position to make a play on most of Sanders’ receptions, but he was burnt several times. He must play more consistently in man coverage for the remainder of the season, and if he does improve, maybe the Patriots could resign him (unlikely, though).

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Run Defense

The New England run defense on Sunday night demonstrated the importance of Dont’a Hightower in the middle of the group. Denver rushed for 118 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per attempt. Hightower’s season-ending injury will force the Patriots to piece it together against the run, something that they have been having a difficulties with when he isn’t in the lineup. The Patriots currently rank 26th in the NFL in running yards allowed per game with 121.1 yards, ranking last in yards per attempt with 5.0 yards per attempt. Despite missing Hightower on Sunday, the Patriots held Denver to 16 points. However, like Julian Edelman, Hightower’s absence seemingly impacts the game at the worst possible time. For instance, in Week 15 the Patriots play the Steelers in a game that will likely decide home field advantage in the playoffs. With an aged Ben Roethlisberger and a prolific Le’Veon Bell, the Patriots will probably be forced to stop the run if they want the AFC Championship Game to be at Gillette.

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Challenge Flag

Bill Belichick’s mismanagement of the throwing the challenge flag during a catch by Rob Gronkowski was the worst in-game mistake that he has made in a while. It definitely was not as bad as his mismanagement of Jimmy Garoppolo (who he traded for the 49ers’ second round pick, when Cleveland was likely offering at least a first round pick over the offseason), but Coach Belichick is different than GM Belichick. On the Patriots’ field goal drive following Burkhead’s blocked punt, Rob Gronkowski appeared to make a diving touchdown catch that the officials ruled incomplete. Belichick called a timeout before throwing the challenge flag and have the call stand on replay. On a conference call with reporters Monday, Belichick admitted his mistake saying, “I could have just challenged it in the first place. I didn’t do that, I probably should have,” seeming as though he hadn’t thought about it until that very moment. I can’t remember Belichick admitting fault for a miscue on the football field. His acknowledgement of the blunder speaks to the magnitude of his mistake. That being said, first half timeouts are not as meaningful as second half timeouts, and the game was almost over at that point.

Next Game in Mexico City vs. Oakland

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The Raiders are too inconsistent to get a read on. After beating the Chiefs 31-30, they have lost 34-14 to the Bills and beaten the Dolphins 27-24. The secondary should have its hands full between covering Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, especially if Derek Carr is on his game. This is a streaky team and this game will really depend on what the Raiders are able to do on offense. Tom Brady could be in for a long day going up against Khalil Mack, unless the offensive line plays as well as they did this week.

Prediction: Patriots 34, Raiders 17

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win the Super Bowl Rematch

Sunday night’s fog-filled Super Bowl rematch doubled as the Patriots’ best win of the season. Most importantly, the defense was able to shut down the Falcons, a team with a lot of talent on the offensive side of the ball. That being said, this was far from a statement win. The 3-2 Falcons have been sputtering after winning three in a row to begin the season. In week five, Atlanta blew a 17-0 halftime lead at home to the Miami Dolphins, who outscored them 20-0 in the second half. Given the way that the Falcons played on Sunday, I have a hard time giving the Patriots too much credit. It was a good win because the Falcons are a good team on paper, and the Patriots defense has struggled greatly up to this point, but they will have to play just as well against far better competition if the Patriots have true Super Bowl aspirations.

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Strengths

Malcolm Butler

There is no doubt that Butler’s play this season has been impacted by the big offseason acquisition of cornerback Stephon Gilmore. After the undrafted Super Bowl XLIX hero played himself into being one of the top cornerbacks in NFL, it must have shaken his confidence to see $65 million given to a Buffalo Bill. Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels acknowledged this in the broadcast booth during Sunday night’s game as matter of fact, despite being mere speculation up to this point in the season. It comes as no coincidence that Butler has played much better in the two weeks that Gilmore has missed with a concussion. On Sunday, he was very effective in man coverage, breaking up a pass in the end zone on third and goal early on in the fourth quarter, and recording six tackles including a big hit in the backfield to break up a Tevin Coleman rush. Butler’s play has been encouraging for two straight weeks, and hopefully this trend continues as Stephon Gilmore likely makes his return to the lineup this Sunday.

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Third Down Offense

The Patriots offense was extremely effective on third down on Sunday, converting seven of thirteen attempts. Third down efficiency was one of my biggest concerns following the Edelman injury in the preseason. Thus far, Brady and the offense have proven me wrong, converting on 45.65% of their third down attempts, good for third best in the league. While converting on third down has been an issue at times this season (5-15 against the Chiefs in week one and 4-12 against the Buccaneers in week five), they have been effective for most of the season and especially in the last few weeks. Brady and his group of receivers have really stepped it up on third down. Brady’s statistics in situations of third and six or more have been best that they have been in the post-Garoppolo era (since 2014). He currently has a 65.1% completion percentage and a 124.0 quarterback rating on third and long. The offense has truly stepped it up on third down to help mitigate Julian Edelman.

Offensive Line/Running Game/Dion Lewis

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The offensive line has played well for a second straight week, allowing two sacks for just eight yards and giving the Patriots the opportunity to run the ball effectively. On Sunday, New England rushers combined for 162 yards, the most all season, on an average of 4.5 yards per rush. The running game has been indicative of the improvement in offensive line play, as the Patriots have rushed for at least 100 yards in the last three games. This only happened once last year, excluding the four games that Brady missed due to suspension, and it was in the last three games of the season when the Patriots may have been looking to take some heat off of their then-39 year old quarterback. It is also not a coincidence that in the three weeks, Dion Lewis has been given a larger role and has emerged as the lead back, for now. Lewis has the capacity to be electric, and has the ability to jumpstart the offense. Last year’s AFC divisional game against Houston could have been a much different game if it weren’t for Lewis’ kickoff return touchdown. On a team that is so reliant on the passing attack, Lewis should remain the Patriots’ primary back, unless he needs to be preserved to avoid injury.

Negatives

Stephon Gilmore

The defense has shown improvement over the course of the last two weeks, as Gilmore has been sitting out with a concussion. Butler’s aforementioned recent success is almost certainly a product of Gilmore missing time. It is never a good sign when commentators are debating starting Johnson Bademosi over a healthy Stephon Gilmore. However, Gilmore should be in the starting lineup this Sunday, and should be in man coverage against Tyrell Williams, the bigger receiver in the Chargers’ group of wideouts.

Containing Opposing Offenses

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The defense has had some uncharacteristic issues so far this season. They are currently last in yards allowed per game and yards per play. While it is not surprising that the Patriots are giving up a lot of yards, they typically do not allow big plays. Even though New England finished 25th in yards allowed in 2016, they were tied for eighth in yards per play. Similarly to allowing big plays, the Patriots have failed to contain quarterbacks this year, unlike their history of handily being able to do so. On Sunday, Matt Ryan rushed for 37 yards on three attempts. Allowing rushing first downs to Matt Ryan is extremely problematic for a defense that hangs its hat on discipline. The amount of big plays and lack of containing lead me to question the players’ reaction to coaching on the defensive side of the ball. These are not issues of talent, but rather issues of executing defensive schemes coached up by Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. If the defense is unable to do that, there are bigger issues than just Stephon Gilmore and problems in coverage at hand.

Next Week: Home vs. Chargers

The Chargers have won three straight after beginning the season 0-4. Three of their four losses have been by three or fewer points, and two were lost on missed last second field goals. On defense, they have the formula to beat the Patriots; they are able to pressure the quarterback without blitzing. The Chargers are currently tied for fourth in the NFL in sacks with 23. Defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram both rank in the top six in sacks with 7.5 and 8.5 respectively. This will be a big game for the offensive line, especially for center David Andrews and guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. If the Chargers are able to get pressure up front, it will be a long and painful game for Tom Brady.

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Prediction: Patriots 27, Chargers 24

Defending Champs Watch: Pats Win Again in Week 3

Positives

Passing Attack

For the second straight week, the passing attack is the highlight of a Patriots victory. Tom Brady finished the game 25/35 for 378 yards and five touchdowns, including the 25-yard game winner to Brandin Cooks. Rob Gronkowski had a second straight big game, despite leaving with a groin injury in last week’s game against New Orleans. He finished the game with eight receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown. After a week one in which he and Brady looked disconnected, it is nice to see Gronk back as an integral part of the offense. With the absence of Edelman, a consistent and healthy Gronkowski is the only way that I see the Patriots hoisting their second straight Lombardi Trophy.

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Brandin Cooks looked like the receiver the Patriots gave up a first round pick for. He led the team in receiving with five catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Not only was he making big plays, but he also created space for other receivers. Cooks was almost solely responsible for Chris Hogan’s two wide-open touchdowns, drawing the defenders away on both plays. Cooks also showed off his speed on a 42-yard touchdown and made an incredible toe-tap reception to win the game. Last week, I wrote that Brandin Cooks was a player to keep an eye on, given his performance in the first two weeks to go along with Brady’s history of having a hard time of integrating new wide receivers into the offense. If he continues to flash like this and draw away defenders on deeper routes, I was absolutely wrong.

Negatives

Devin McCourty

This was the worst game that I have ever seen McCourty play as a safety. He was at least partially responsible for two touchdowns. On the first, Deshaun Watson fired a 29-yard touchdown to Bruce Ellington, who was left in single coverage with Jonathan Jones. On this play, the eyes of the rookie quarterback fooled McCourty. To be fair, Watson looked to star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who got safety help almost all game, on the fake. However, it looked like Gilmore was playing pretty good man-coverage on Hopkins and McCourty did not need to jump the gun like he did. On the second touchdown, McCourty simply got beat in single coverage by tight end Ryan Griffin, who has never been known for his playmaking capabilities. McCourty was symptomatic of issues that the entire Patriots secondary faced against Watson, who completed 22 of 33 passes for 301 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions (one came on an attempted hail-mary at the end of the game). Watson had success scrambling, and he was also able to simply drop back and beat the Patriots defense. Being a veteran leader and an established player, I expect McCourty to bounce back next week, but this secondary, which was projected to be one of the best in the league, has raised many questions with no answers through three weeks.

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Offensive Line

Through three weeks, the offensive line has been the biggest issue with the team. I cannot remember a year when the Patriots had a remarkably good offensive line. I can, however, remember years in which the Patriots have had a bad offensive line. Those years, like 2007 when Brady was sacked five times for 37 yards in the Super Bowl, never end well. Last week, I wrote that this game against Houston would be a good test for the offensive line. After allowing five sacks for 41 yards on Sunday, it is safe to say that they failed, and were the reason that the game was much closer than it should have been. The fact that the Texans only recorded five sacks is a product of Brady’s amazing play.

According to Greg Bedard of Boston Sports Journal, the Patriots offensive line allowed pressure on almost 50% of Brady’s drop-backs. Going up against a Texans defensive front with J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney is a tough task, especially when missing right tackle Marcus Cannon who was out with a concussion. However, the biggest issue on the line was not LaAdrian Waddle, who was filling in for the injured Cannon; it was Nate Solder. According to Bedard, Solder was responsible for three sacks on Brady, and did not even touch the pass-rusher on one of them. If the Patriots wish to have success against defensive teams like the Texans, the offensive line will have to do better to protect a 40-year-old Brady.

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Things to Keep an Eye On

Third and One

So far this year, the Patriots are 1-5 on third and fourth down with one yard to go. Last season they were 19-26, boasting a success rate of 73.1%. Up to this point, the Patriots have only attempted a quarterback sneak with Brady once, a play that has been extremely successful in past years. This could be an effort by the Patriots to protect their 40-year-old star quarterback, but such inefficiencies in these short yardage situations may also be due to poor play from the offensive line. The Patriots currently rank 23rd in the league in rushing yards per attempt, which is likely a result of poor blocking. Third down efficiency is extremely important for this Patriots team, especially with the absence of Julian Edelman. They cannot afford to miss out on such short yardage opportunities, and the offensive line must do better to protect in these situations.

Next Week: Home vs. Carolina

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This game should be a big opportunity for the defense to rebound after allowing 26 points to Houston. Cam Newton is not playing well, and the Panthers put up a mere 13 points against an abysmal Saints defense last week. After allowing Deshaun Watson to have a big game, it will be interesting to see how the Patriots defense plays against another mobile quarterback. The Patriots should generally not have any difficulty moving the ball against a Carolina defense which carried it to a 2015 Super Bowl appearance but has since lost its edge. The New England defense should have a field day against a sputtering Carolina offense.

Prediction: Patriots 34, Panthers 16

Defending Champs Watch: Analyzing the Patriots’ Week Two

Sunday’s one o’clock game against the New Orleans Saints featured a far more Patriot-like performance than that of last Thursday’s opener against Kansas City. The 36-20 decisive win featured a clicking offense, an improving defense, and, of course, brilliant play at the quarterback position. The game was effectively decided after a 20-3 first quarter in which Brady completed 11 of his 15 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 30 of 39 for 447 yards, the fourth most in his career, and three touchdowns. Despite an impressive start, the Patriots were far from perfect. Here are my positives, negatives, and nit-picks from Sunday’s win.

Positives

The Passing Attack

The Patriots offense in the first quarter was the biggest takeaway from their week two game in New Orleans. They scored touchdowns on all three opening drives pummeling 75 yards down the field twice, and 67 yards once. After an underwhelming performance in week one by Brady and his receiving core, the offense looked to spread the ball around, with nine players recording receptions (compared to six players from week one). Rather than attempting to force the deep passing game, New England moved back to their bread and butter, 10-20 yard intermediate passes and exploiting whatever matchup they saw fit. It was good to see the Patriots distancing themselves from the deep passing game plan that we saw in week one. After a subpar week one from Rob Gronkowski, James White and Chris Hogan, they turned it around to lead the receiving corps in week two. Most importantly, the Patriots were six of twelve on third down, improving on five of fifteen from week one.

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Unheard-of Defensive Players

In the first two weeks, I have seen nothing impressive from the Patriots’ top defensive players, which I will address later. But in their absence, a few surprising players stepped up and turned in big performances. Defensive End Deatrich Wise, the Patriots’ fourth round draft pick this year, led the way for a New England defensive line which allowed 185 rushing yards to the Chiefs in week one. Wise recorded two tackles, a sack, a run stuff, and five hits on the quarterback in a disruptive day on the line for him. Wise’s strong start overshadowed veteran defensive tackle Alan Branch’s poor performance. Against New Orleans, Branch saw his playing time reduced, and failed to record a single tackle. I would like to see an even better performance from the run defense which allowed 4.8 yards per carry this week against the Saints. However, week two was certainly an improvement on the run defense compared to week one, and Deatrich Wise was a big reason why.

The biggest defensive standout from Sunday was cornerback and second-year undrafted player Jonathon Jones. He finished the game with two passes defended, the same amount as big-name corners Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore combined. The highlight from his game was breaking up a would-be touchdown reception from Ted Ginn Jr. and forcing fourth down. If Malcolm Butler continues to struggle, Jones may see an increase in playing time.

Negatives

Big-Name Defensive Players

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It has not been a good couple of weeks for Malcolm Butler. The Super Bowl 49 hero-turned stud cornerback had some offseason conflicts with the Patriots organization over his contract negotiations. The restricted free agent refused to sign his restricted tender, which would increase his salary to $4 million, as he was asking for more. At one point, it seemed as though a trade with the Saints involving Butler was imminent. When talks fell through, I was under the impression that Butler would still be an effective member in the Patriots secondary, especially in a contract year. Through two games, he has been anything but effective. Butler was benched at the start of week two against New Orleans in favor of Eric Rowe (who later suffered an injury which put Butler in the game). It was the first time since the beginning of the 2015 season that Butler did not start a game. However, Butler does more than just start; he plays almost every single down. Since 2015, Butler has been on the field for 98% of defensive snaps. However, his recent poor play earned him a spot on the bench. If Butler fails to improve his play, his name could join Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins on the list of Patriots who were traded in a contract year.

Things to Keep an Eye On

The Brady-Cooks Connection

It is impossible to deny that wide receiver Brandin Cooks has talent. However, earning the trust of Tom Brady is not an easy thing to do. Many receivers have failed to get on the same page with Brady, and never shine in New England. Through two weeks, Cooks has yet to flash the prowess that he showed on the Saints. Despite a couple of big plays, he has not had a few weeks. It may just be an adjustment period, but I’m not too sure that a big-play receiver like Cooks will fit well in the Patriots’ short yardage passing attack. It is far too early to be pressing the panic button, but Cooks may need a prolonged adjustment period, and may not work out as a Patriot.

Second Half Performance

Do the Patriots have an issue late in games? Through two weeks, the Patriots have scored a mere 16 points in the second half, and only three points in the fourth quarter. It is easy to look at the game against the Saints and believe that the game was over after the first quarter, and so the Patriot offense took their foot off the gas. While this may be the case, New England was outscored 28-10 in the second half and 21-0 in the fourth quarter during their week one game against Kansas City. The Thursday night opener was the first game in Tom Brady’s career in which he lost a home game with a lead in the fourth quarter. Normally, I would not worry over a lack of offensive production after a 36-20 win featuring a 20-point quarter, but given the second half of week one, I would say that the Patriots’ second half performances are something to keep an eye on.

Red Zone Production

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So far this season, the Patriots have not had much of an issue with moving the ball. They currently lead the league in total yards, a statistic aided by Sunday’s 555-yard performance. However, New England has struggled to cap off many of their drives once they reach the red zone. In two games, the Patriots have scored touchdowns in six of their thirteen trips to the red zone, ranking twentieth in the NFL. The last time that the Patriots finished the season ranking outside of the top ten in red zone efficiency was 2009 when they ranked twelfth. You don’t win the Super Bowl by kicking field goals, and if the Patriots continue to settle for three points in the red zone, the offense may come up short in the playoffs.

Next Week at Home vs. the Houston Texans

This game will be a big test for the Patriots offensive line, as the go up against J.J. Watt, Whitney Mercilous and the rest of that relentless Texans pass rush. Marcus Cannon may miss the game with a concussion, providing even more of a challenge for the questionable offensive line. With some recent turmoil in the secondary, pay attention to who will cover star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Stephon Gilmore is the safe bet, given his height and the poor play of Malcolm Butler. The Texans offense currently ranks 29th in the NFL in both total yardage and points per game. Their two games have featured a 29-7 blowout at the hands of the Jaguars and a 13-9 win against Cincinnati. If the defense has problems in this game, they will likely have problems all season.

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Prediction: Patriots 30, Texans 6

What the Julian Edelman Injury Means for the Patriots

It has been a crazy week in the world of Boston sports. The Red Sox, who had a record of 15-4 in August coming into last Thursday night’s game in Cleveland, went on a four game losing skid, including a sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles. The Celtics pulled off a blockbuster trade that was finally completed after they resolved the concern over the condition of Isaiah Thomas’ hip. However, despite these developments, the Saturday news that Julian Edelman has a completely torn ACL is the lead story in Boston this week. This news did not come as much of a surprise to anyone who heard that Edelman had been carted off the field in Friday night’s preseason game against Detroit with a non-contact knee injury. Later that night, Adam Schefter reported that the Patriots believed the injury to be a torn ACL. Even with Edelman out for the season, anything short of a Super Bowl title for this Patriots team would be a disappointment because of their wide receiver depth to make up for the loss of the Kent State product. Aside from Edelman, the Patriots will have former Saints top option Brandin Cooks, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan, as well as undrafted rookie Austin Carr who showed flashes of talent in the preseason. Edelman’s injury shouldn’t have much of an impact on the regular season, and this team has enough talent to hypothetically replace his production in the postseason. However, the loss of Edelman has the potential to trip the Patriots up in a big game given his standing and his versatility within the Patriots offense.
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Ever since Wes Welker signed with the Denver Broncos after the 2012 season, Julian Edelman has solidified himself as a staple of the Patriots offense. Over that time, he has become Tom Brady’s favorite receiver (discounting Gronk because of his tight end status), and his best friend. The go-to factor with Edelman cannot be overstated. He is the best third down receiver in football, leading the league in third down yardage and finishing second in third down receptions in 2016. When the Patriots won their recent championships, they relied heavily on converting in third down situations at a high clip throughout the seasons. In three of their last four Super Bowl-winning seasons (this stat was not recorded in 2001), the Patriots finished top five in the NFL in third down conversion percentage.

In their last two Super Bowls, New England dominated their opponents in third down conversions, largely thanks to Julian Edelman. In Super Bowl 49 against Seattle, the Patriots converted on eight of fourteen third down attempts, while the Seahawks converted three of ten attempts. The story was the same in Super Bowl 51. The Patriots converted seven of fourteen (50%) third down attempts, while the Falcons converted just one of eight (12%). Third down success can serve as a pretty accurate barometer for the Patriots’ success overall, and without Brady’s go-to receiver in the slot, I question how effective New England will be on third down. chris-hogan-tom-brady-nfl-baltimore-ravens-new-england-patriots-850x560

The offense will have to go through drastic changes to make up for the loss of Edelman. There is no player in New England or in free agency that could possibly fill the role of Julian Edelman. Instead, Belichick and Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels will have to fundamentally change how the offensive is run. Instead of relying on Edelman to move the chains on third and long, the Patriots must perform more on first and second downs to alleviate the pressure. With Brandin Cooks and Chris Hogan at the top of the depth chart at wide receiver, the Patriots will try to incorporate the deep ball into their offense. If the Patriots’ offense is centered on the deep ball, they will not win the championship. I do not trust a 40-year-old Tom Brady to deliver deep passes with the same consistency that he did in his prime, even if he is indeed the G.O.A.T. The only year when the offense was centered on Brady throwing the deep ball ended with him recording 50 touchdown passes, but no Super Bowl ring. They are better off relying on Brady to make pinpoint 10-15 yard throws and using his brain to dissect defensive schemes.

Even with a new offensive game plan, I am not sure that the Patriots have reliable weapons to win it all this year. With Edelman out for the year, New England will rely on Rob Gronkowski to stay healthy for the full season, a rarity over the course of his career. In his six years in the NFL, Gronkowski has only stayed fully healthy for two seasons. One of them was his rookie campaign in which he only made 11 starts. I do not trust Gronk to remain healthy for the entire season, and an offense without Gronkowski and Edelman could come to be the nail in the coffin for the 2017 Patriots season. There are other concerns in the Patriots’ offense as well. 2016 fourth round draft pick Malcolm Mitchell flashed talent last season, but also showed some injury concerns and is hurt again this preseason. Danny Amendola would be a potential fill-in for Julian Edelman, but he has injury concerns as well. In his eight seasons in the NFL, he has played 16 games twice. If we were to get the same amount of touches as Edelman, he would likely not last the full season.

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Despite potential injury risks, the Patriots have enough talent in their receiving core to make up for Julian Edelman’s production. Barring another injury, I do not believe that Edelman’s absence will prevent the Patriots from reaching the AFC Championship Game, or even another Super Bowl. However, I have concerns about what will happen in the Super Bowl without Julian Edelman. Out of the five Super Bowls won by the Patriots franchise, every single one has been close. The Patriots’ 34-28 overtime win over the Falcons was the biggest point differential in a Patriots Super Bowl victory. If the Patriots make it to the Super Bowl, it will be close, and this is what scares me. Brady has weapons this year, but we have seen wide receivers get shut out of the offense because Brady does not trust them. With new characters, young players attempting to solidify themselves in the offense, injury risks and no go-to receiver in sight, I am not sure about who will deliver for the reigning champs with the Super Bowl on the line.

Analyzing the Kyrie Irving Trade from the Celtics Standpoint

The race to lose to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals just got a lot more interesting. The Association was shaken up Tuesday night as a blockbuster trade saw Kyrie Irving traded to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and next year’s first round draft pick acquired in the Brooklyn trade. This is a deal with a lot of moving parts, so here is a breakdown of each piece involved (from a Boston perspective, off course).

Isaiah Thomas

I’m not going to say I told you so (but see my earlier article “Why the Celtics Should Explore Trading Isaiah Thomas”). Coming off of a season in which he was the third leading scorer in the NBA, Thomas’ stock has never been higher. Despite his recent success, I have serious questions as to whether or not a 5’9” player can be a superstar, especially given the fact that much of Thomas’ game relies on his ability to get to the basket. Another facet to keep an eye on moving forward will be Thomas’ hip injury that forced him out of the Eastern Conference Finals and is forcing the Cavs to re-think the trade. While I believe that Thomas would have continued to play if the series had been more competitive, reports Tuesday prior to the trade were that Isaiah would be re-evaluated prior to training camp. I do not believe that his hip will be an issue, but as a small guard who relies on quickness to get to the hoop, any lingering issue with that hip could significantly impact Thomas’ 2017-2018 season.

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Thomas (right) was sidelined after injuring his hip against the Cavs. After news of the potential increased severity of this injury, there is talk that this trade may be reversed.

To me, moving Thomas was more about his contract than anything else. He has made it apparent that he is expecting a max deal at the end of this season, telling the team that they should expect to “backup the Brink’s truck” after this season. I had serious doubts as to whether or not his one-and-a-half seasons of success in the league deserves a max contract. It is not a question of whether or not he will get the max. The max contract has become essentially a formality for any good player in the league. However, in a time of rebuilding for the Celtics, I do not want to commit max money over five years to anyone who is not an established superstar. Kyrie Irving is exactly that – an established superstar who deserves that deal – and I certainly do not mind sending Thomas in exchange.

Jae Crowder

Goodbye. See you later. I could not care less. For some reason, Celtics fans have fallen in love with Crowder as a tough and gritty player who is an example of the Celtics way. His hard-nosed play combined with his team-friendly contract (Crowder is signed until 2020 for about seven million dollars each year) has created the illusion that his loss will impact the team. First of all, recent moves made by the Celtics have made Jae Crowder obsolete. If he was still on the team, he would be the third option at small forward. The signing of Gordon Hayward and the drafting of Jayson Tatum has solidified the position for Boston. While Brad Stevens likes to play “positionless basketball,” Crowder is too small to play the four and too raw to play the two. If anything, moving Crowder should leave more room for Tatum’s development. While his toughness on the defensive end is something that this Celtics team will not have at the small forward position, the addition of Marcus Morris at power forward adds a gritty element that Boston did not find in Amir Johnson, while increasing offensive production.

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Ante Zizic

It is difficult to make an assessment of a player we have yet to see in the NBA. However, a lot of basketball analysts significantly value the 20 year-old from Croatia. Many believed that he would potentially find his way into the starting line-up, as Al Horford would prefer to play the four rather than the five, and the seven-footer would add much-needed size in the paint. That being said, the Celtics have seen their fair share of seven-footers who cannot rebound (Kelly Olynyk and Tyler Zeller) and Zizic did not have a very good showing during Summer League action. I am more than happy to give up Zizic, a complete unknown, for a top ten player in the NBA, despite how highly regarded he is by some Celtics analysts.

Brooklyn First Round Pick

This is the worst part of the trade. I am far more hesitant to give up the pick than I am to give up Isaiah Thomas. Isaiah was a good player for the past few years when the Celtics did not have a chance of winning a title. Those Brooklyn picks are for when Golden State’s dominance runs its course and the rest of the league can become competitive again. However, given reports that Cleveland was asking for this year’s first round pick (Jayson Tatum) in place of the pick, I do not mind parting with that last Nets pick. Boston was able to keep a shot at a high pick by trading down from first overall to third last year. In return, they received either the Lakers’ 2018 first round pick if it is number two through five or the Kings’ 2019 pick if it is number two through five. With the potential to remain at the top of the draft, it is not as detrimental it would first appear to give up that Brooklyn pick. Additionally, for the first time in a few years, there is some uncertainty as to where that pick will land. After an abysmal 20-62 season, the Nets revamped their roster with D’Angelo Russell, Timofey Mozgov, DeMarre Carroll and Allen Crabbe poised for major minutes. This is not to say that the Nets have a good roster, and certainly not what some Celtics fans now believe (that the Nets might make the playoffs). But with an improving roster and no need to tank, there is a chance that the pick falls outside of the top five.

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Jeremy Lin (pictured) comes back with more weapons to work with as they (and the Celtics) hope to improve on their last season in a continuous rebuild campaign.

The pick could be incredibly important this season for Cleveland amidst rumors of LeBron leaving in free agency. They could flip it at the deadline for a player like DeMarcus Cousins to help encourage their star to stay. A supporting cast of Thomas, Cousins and Love may be enough to entice LeBron to stay. If he chooses to move to Los Angeles and join Lonzo Ball and a potential addition of hometown kid Paul George on the Lakers, Cleveland has a piece to potentially start over in his absence. In order to make a deal, they required a young player from Boston’s core – either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, or that Nets pick. Brown is highly regarded by the Celtics organization and will likely be the starting shooting guard this season, with the ability to play at the forward spots as well. Tatum flashed moments of greatness in Summer League action, showing offensive ability and a good-looking shot. It took a young piece to get the deal done, and out of the three on the table, Boston chose the right one to give up.

Kyrie Irving

The Celtics just got younger, taller, and better and point guard. Kyrie is a similar player to Isaiah, only with more height, better defense (still bad defense, but better), and a better ability to get to the basket. He is an established NBA superstar, while Thomas had a few good seasons and one great one. I feel far more comfortable giving Kyrie a max contract when his time comes, and I believe that Boston acquired him with the expectation that he will re-sign. Reports after the deal said that Irving was excited to be in Boston and would work on an extension or on re-signing. It is difficult to not get excited as a Celtics fan for an established NBA superstar and a top-ten player in the league.

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Overall

From the perspective of a Celtics fan, I love the trade. That is not to say that it was a steal; the deal required giving up some real assets. There is a genuine concern that Boston overpaid for a player who wanted out of Cleveland. That being said, given the player they received, I do not mind giving up any of the assets involved, and Irving is under contract for the next couple of years. For the last year, I have been pleading that the Celtics organization does not give Thomas a max contract. The deal tells me that they have the same opinion, and see no issues with moving him in the last year of his contract. Jae Crowder is more than overrated, and moving him will actually help the Celtics in the long term. The signing of Gordon Hayward and the drafting of Jayson Tatum forced Crowder out of a role, and moving Crowder will allow Tatum more space to grow. Although his grit and defense be missed, a replacement can be found in Marcus Morris who provides that very same intensity. Parting with that first round pick is tough, especially in a year of what is supposed to another loaded draft. But there is no way of knowing for sure what that asset will be, and the Celtics have already acquired two players for the future. It was time for this franchise to make a big move, and they did just that.