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NFL 2023: Predicting the AFC Divisional Winners at the Halfway Point

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Trevor Lawrence of Jacksonville Jaguars

Is the NFL already at its halfway point? It feels like two minutes since the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs were raising the curtain on the 2023 season when they hosted the Detroit Lions at Arrowhead Stadium at the start of September.

But as we approach week nine of the 2023 NFL campaign – a game week that brings with it the season’s halfway point – we decided it was the perfect time to take stock and take a look at which team looks set to be headed for divisional glory.

AFC East – Buffalo Bills

Before you say it, we already know. Josh Allen and his Buffalo Bills have been well below par so far this term. They have already lost three games which is just one fewer than they lost in the entirety of last season. And to make things worse, two of those losses came against the lowly New York Jets and New England Patriots.

But whether you want to admit it or not, the Highmark Stadium side simply has the Miami Dolphins’ number, their closest competitor in the AFC East. Even though the Floridians currently top the standings, the Bills have already knocked off the Dolphins this term with a resounding 48-20 victory.

The pair will meet once more on the final day of the season, and we fancy Allen and Co. to head to Hard Rock Stadium and claim the victory.

AFC West – Kansas City Chiefs

Can any other team really compete with the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West? The Division is one of the weakest in the entire league, and Patrick Mahomes’ side is far superior to the Las Vegas Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers and Denver Broncos.

All three of those sides will consider their campaign a success if they end the year with a winning record, never mind topping their division.

But the Chiefs have far loftier expectations. Despite slipping to a shocking opening-day defeat at the hands of the Detroit Lions, they have since bounced back. Mahomes has steered his side to five consecutive victories and they are looking like genuine Lombardi contenders once more.

 Admittedly they haven’t faced any of the league’s best sides thus far and much tougher tests against the likes of the Miami Dolphins, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills and their nemesis Cincinnati Bengals await in the second half of the season.

But after reaching at least the AFC Championship game in each of the last five seasons, converting three of those appearances into Super Bowl trips – two of which they won – it’s clear to see that the Chiefs will be there or thereabouts come next February.

AFC North – Baltimore Ravens

While the AFC West may be one of the weakest divisions in the entire NFL, the AFC North is one of the strongest. So far, all four teams have had relatively impressive starts to the season. The Baltimore Ravens currently top the standings with five wins and two defeats, with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns one win behind them with a game in hand.

You know it’s a tough division when the Bengals are currently bottom of the standings, despite reaching the Conference Championship game in each of the last two seasons.

 At the start of the season, it would have been Joe Burrow and Co. that we tipped to win the division for the third consecutive season. With the 2019 Heisman winner at quarterback as well as Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins out wide, they have one of the strongest rosters in the entire league.

Many expected them to mount yet another charge at a maiden Lombardi this season however, they are currently 3-3 and have a challenging second half of the season. Games against the Bills, Ravens, Jaguars and Chiefs all lie in wait on the horizon, and that may be too much for them to handle.

 While we expect Cincy to scrape into the playoffs, it will be the Baltimore Ravens that top the division. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is replicating the kind of form that led him to the MVP award in 2019, rushing for 363 yards already this season, more than half the league’s top running backs. Add to that his 1,610 throwing yards, and it’s clear to see that the former Louisville Cardinal is back to his very best.

AFC South – Jacksonville Jaguars

Prior to the season getting underway, the Houston Texans were the rank outsiders for Super Bowl glory this term. However, new franchise quarterback C.J. Stroud has hit the ground running, throwing for 1,660 yards and leading his team to a 3-3 record.

They have picked impressive victories over the Jaguars, Steelers and New Orleans Saints however, despite that, it is the former of those three that we expect to top the AFC South.

The Jaguars are simply further along in their development in comparison to their rival Texans. Even though they dropped a stunning 37-17 loss to them on home turf, Trevor Lawrence is currently at the helm of a well-oiled machine.

His side gave the Chiefs all they could handle in the playoffs last season and with a 5-2 record this term, we expect the Jaguars to head deep into the postseason once more.

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Olympic Champion Gable Steveson Embarks on NFL Journey with Bills

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Gable Steveson’s agent informed ESPN’s Adam Schefter that his client signed a contract with the Buffalo Bills on Friday.

Steveson, who won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, initially pursued a career in professional wrestling with WWE. However, he was released from his WWE contract earlier this month. Now, Steveson, who has never played organized football, will attempt to make the Bills’ roster as a defensive lineman.

More About the Decision

According to Schefter, Steveson signed a “standard rookie three-year deal.” Steveson expressed his excitement about the new challenge, stating: “I have been fortunate to compete at the highest level in my sport but am looking forward to the challenge of seeing how my wrestling skills may translate to football. I am grateful to Coach [Sean] McDermott, [general manager] Brandon Beane, and the Buffalo Bills organization for giving me this opportunity.”

Despite his impressive athletic background, including two NCAA Division I national championships in wrestling as a heavyweight at the University of Minnesota, Steveson is essentially starting from scratch in football. Schefter noted that Steveson had never even put on a pair of cleats before his recent workout with the Bills.

At 24 years old, Steveson faces long odds to make Buffalo’s 53-man roster in 2024. However, if he shows enough potential in training camp and preseason, a practice squad spot could be a possibility.

McDermott, a successful high school wrestler himself, has a history of gravitating towards players with wrestling backgrounds. According to Schefter, McDermott believes Steveson’s wrestling skills could help him transition to the NFL as a defensive lineman.

While Steveson is somewhat undersized for an NFL defensive lineman at 6’1″ and 275 pounds, his undeniable strength could set him apart from the competition.

Steveson’s attempt to carve out an NFL career is reminiscent of Brock Lesnar’s path. After leaving WWE in 2004, Lesnar, also a national champion wrestler at the University of Minnesota, tried out for the Minnesota Vikings despite not playing football since high school. Although Lesnar was eventually cut, he transitioned to MMA and won the UFC heavyweight title before returning to WWE.

Gable Steveson

In high school, Steveson achieved remarkable success as a three-time age-level world champion, securing U17 world titles in 2015 and 2016, followed by a U20 world title in 2017. Continuing his wrestling career at the University of Minnesota, he placed third at the NCAA Tournament as a true freshman in 2019, and went on to win consecutive national titles in 2021 and 2022.

During his time with WWE, Steveson’s training was interrupted in 2022 due to a heart procedure to treat Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. Although he was cleared to return to training, he only had one televised match before his release.

Steveson now joins a long line of Olympic athletes attempting to transition to the NFL. Hall of Fame wide receiver “Bullet” Bob Hayes is the only Olympic gold medalist to have won a Super Bowl, accomplishing this feat with the Dallas Cowboys at the end of the 1971 season.

Draft Strength’s

The Buffalo Bills added 12 rookie free agents this offseason who will compete for spots on the roster or, at the very least, positions on the practice squad. We’ve already had a chance to see them in action during the rookie minicamp and the recent OTAs. Once OTAs conclude, we won’t see them or any players again until training camp kicks off in late July.

NFL history is filled with legendary undrafted players like quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Warren Moon, and one of the greatest defensive backs, Dick “Night Train” Lane. Including these greats, Keaton Bills looks to be the most exciting undrafted free agent on this year’s Bills team.

Keaton Bills, who played college football at Utah, was a mainstay on their offensive line for three years. Interestingly, his name and jersey number are perfect for the team—he wears number 60, the same year the Bills began playing football. At 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 321 pounds, Bills possesses significant experience and expertise. He earned Pac-12 All-Conference honorable mention for two consecutive years (2022 and 2023) and was a team captain, a trait that Brandon Beane seemed to prioritize in this year’s draft. Sobleski isn’t alone in his admiration; fellow Bleacher Report writer Ryan Fowler also sees Bills as the most likely UDFA to make the team. With his talent and depth on the offensive line, let’s hope he proves them right and secures a spot on the roster.

Team Synergy

Together, Gable Steveson and Keaton Bills represent the diverse talent and untapped potential that the Buffalo Bills are banking on this season. Steveson’s raw athletic power and wrestling prowess, coupled with his willingness to embrace a new sport, bring an element of surprise and excitement to the defensive line. His journey from Olympic gold medalist to NFL hopeful is a testament to his versatility and determination. If he can translate even a fraction of his wrestling dominance to football, he could become a formidable force on the field.

The synergy between Steveson and Bills could be a game-changer for the Bills. Steveson’s potential to disrupt opponents’ offenses and Bills’ ability to fortify his own team’s offensive line create a dynamic that could elevate the entire squad. Their respective backgrounds in wrestling and college football bring a unique blend of skills and perspectives to the team, potentially filling gaps and adding strengths where needed.

Read more: Who Are the Top 2024 NFL Draft Prospects?

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Detroit Drafts into the Spotlight: Unprecedented Turnout and Lions’ Standout Picks

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NFL Ball with Logo of all NFL Team

The opening day of the 2024 NFL Draft in Detroit witnessed an unprecedented turnout, with over 275,000 fervent fans flocking to support their teams, shattering the previous attendance record for Day One.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell revealed this staggering figure midway through the first round on Thursday, following the closure of the NFL Draft site due to reaching maximum capacity even before the commencement of the draft proceedings.

The previous Day One attendance milestone was set by the 2018 NFL Draft in Nashville, Tennessee, where over 200,000 attendees gathered on the inaugural night.

Draft in Detroit

Since the NFL designated Detroit as the host city for the 2024 draft, officials had touted the event as an opportunity to elevate the city’s national prominence and generate a substantial economic boost. However, skeptics, both among experts and within the downtown draft environment, question the true significance of enhancing Detroit’s national image and its potential long-term financial implications.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan expressed readiness to showcase a revitalized Motor City, emphasizing that the event’s true impact would be gauged not only in the immediate aftermath but also in its lasting effects on the city’s trajectory.

In addition to the overwhelming turnout of fans in downtown Detroit, millions more across the nation tuned in to witness the draft unfold against the backdrop of Detroit’s cityscape. Unlike previous events such as the 2006 Super Bowl, which relied on temporary installations, Detroit showcased its thriving downtown, with the towering presence of a nearly 700-foot structure emerging from the site of the historic Hudson’s store.

Dave Beachnau, the head of the Detroit Sports Commission, highlighted that the draft also provides essential funding for local nonprofit and community organizations, prompting reflection on what enduring legacies the event will leave behind once the NFL departs from the city.

Day One Pick Terrion Arnold

Following this record-breaking attendance, the Lions draft pick was Terrion Arnold coming from Alabama Crimson Tide. In the 2023 season, Terrion Arnold, demonstrated his versatility and impact across various facets of the game. Racking up a total of five interceptions, 17 passes defensed, a forced fumble, a sack, and 63 total tackles, including 6.5 for loss, Arnold emerged as a dominant force on the defensive side of the ball.

Arnold’s prowess also extended beyond his individual statistics, as evidenced by his exceptional performance in coverage. Over the course of 471 coverage snaps throughout the season, he held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 50.7, showcasing his ability to shut down passing lanes and limit big plays downfield. Furthermore, Arnold’s impact was not limited to his coverage skills alone, as he also proved to be a highly effective run defender. With a remarkable Pro Football Focus(PFF) run-defense grade of 90.6, Arnold consistently demonstrated his ability to disrupt opposing rushing attacks and make key stops in the backfield.

Arnold’s stellar performance throughout the 2023 season did not go unnoticed, earning him well-deserved recognition from both the media and analytics experts. Garnering first-team All-American honors from the Associated Press, Arnold solidified his status as one of the premier defensive players in the nation. Additionally, his impressive overall grade of 88.4 from PFF further underscored his impact and contributions to his team’s success. 

Second Day Pick Ennis Rakeshaw

The Lions’ newest addition, Rakestraw, boasts a versatile skill set suited for both zone and man coverage schemes, yet he strongly favors press man coverage, aligning well with the team’s preferences. With a background primarily on the outside, he’s demonstrated proficiency in slot coverage, indicating potential flexibility in his NFL role. Rakestraw’s arrival could provide the Lions with added depth and strategic options in their defensive lineup, potentially allowing their current nickel starter to take on more versatile matchups.

Rakestraw offers a candid assessment of his playing style, emphasizing his physicality, competitiveness, and love for tackling. While acknowledging the need to increase his ball production, he asserts confidence in his ability to judge the ball in flight and disrupt passes effectively. Known for his aggressive play, Rakestraw brings a fearless attitude to the field, delivering impactful hits and asserting his presence on every play.

In coverage, Rakestraw showcases patience and versatility, excelling particularly in press man situations. His adeptness at mirroring receivers, coupled with sharp change-of-direction skills, allows him to maintain tight coverage and minimize penalties. Despite occasional challenges with long speed, Rakestraw compensates with instincts, often positioning himself strategically to contest passes effectively.

While ball production remains an area for improvement, Rakestraw demonstrates promise in his ability to position himself for plays on the ball. With the guidance of NFL coaching, he has the potential to further enhance this aspect of his game. Notably, Rakestraw’s standout attribute lies in his run defense, where he exhibits exceptional instincts and tackling prowess. Quick to diagnose plays and unafraid to take on blockers, Rakestraw’s proficiency in run support sets him apart as one of the premier defenders in his class.

Read More: Arsenal beat Tottenham to stay alive in the EPL 2023/24 title chase

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Rodgers’ Reinstatement: Eagles’ Cornerback Depth Gets a Lift

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Philadelphia Eagles NFL Kit and Equipment

Just days before the kickoff of the 2024 NFL Draft, the Philadelphia Eagles received encouraging news. Isaiah Rodgers has been reinstated by the NFL after serving an indefinite suspension for violating the league’s sports gambling policy.

The 26-year-old cornerback was initially suspended last summer and subsequently released by the Indianapolis Colts. Despite his suspension, the Eagles demonstrated faith in the young defensive back by signing him in August of the previous season, with the understanding that he would be ineligible for at least a full season. The decision to retain Rodgers on the Reserve Suspended List underscored the team’s belief in his potential and willingness to provide him with a second chance.

The Eagles’ voluntary offseason program commenced on April 15, marking a timely opportunity for Rodgers to rejoin the fold. Now, Rodgers could potentially be a hidden gem for Philadelphia in the upcoming 2024 season. While a year away from NFL action might raise questions about his immediate impact, Rodgers has a clear path to a significant role on an Eagles team in need of both short-term and long-term help in the secondary.

The Suspensions

A total of 12 players have faced suspensions for gambling, starting with receiver Calvin Ridley’s season-long suspension in 2022. Ridley was reinstated in March and has since joined the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite the NFL reinstating five players from gambling suspensions on April 18, Rodgers’ name was conspicuously absent from the list. 

In an interview with ESPN conducted in February, Rodgers admitted to placing bets from his account, albeit on behalf of others residing in Florida, where online sports betting remained illegal at the time. He acknowledged the error in judgment and expressed remorse for the consequences. Notably, Rodgers’ suspension coincided with a period of personal growth and reflection, as he contemplated the ramifications of his actions.

Before Suspension

Prior to his suspension, Rodgers had exhibited promising potential as a cornerback for the Colts, with his standout season occurring in 2022. Over the course of his tenure in Indianapolis, Rodgers showcased his versatility as a kick and punt returner, amassing impressive statistics and demonstrating his value as a multifaceted player. With the NFL’s revised kickoff rules enhancing the importance of return specialists, Rodgers’ reinstatement presents an opportunity for the Eagles to leverage his speed and agility in special teams play.

Despite his modest stature at 5’10 and 170 pounds, Rodgers’ previous experience primarily as an outside cornerback suggests he could transition seamlessly into the slot position for the Eagles.  The UMass product possesses exceptional speed, evident from his impressive kick return stats as a rookie in 2020. That year, he ranked third in the NFL with an average of 28.8 yards per kick return and scored a touchdown with a 101-yard run-back. His agility and speed, evidenced by his impressive 40-yard dash time of 4.28 seconds, make him a formidable asset in coverage and special teams play alike.

In his subsequent seasons, despite limited defensive snaps, Rodgers showcased his playmaking abilities with interceptions, pass breakups, and fumble recoveries. His versatility and skill set have garnered praise from teammates and opponents alike, with many recognizing his potential impact on the field.

The Comeback

Rodgers will likely compete for an outside cornerback role, but he may also see reps both inside and outside. With a strong off-season, Rodgers could contend for a starting spot or a key backup role, especially with competition at the corner from players like James Bradberry, potential improvement from Kelee Ringo in his second year, and the Eagles’ potential draft plans.

With players like Darius Slay Jr. and Bradberry aging at cornerback, Rodgers provides a mix of youth and experience to the Eagles’ defense. Additionally, with the NFL emphasizing the return of meaningful kickoff plays, Rodgers could be a frontrunner to handle return duties for Philadelphia in 2024, adding speed and agility to a crucial position.

Additionally, Rodgers could contribute as a kick returner, boasting a career average of 27.0 yards per return and one touchdown. With the NFL’s new kickoff rules potentially increasing his value, Rodgers has another opportunity to make an impact.

While expectations should be tempered given his year-long absence from football and adjustment to a new team and scheme, Rodgers could prove to be a valuable addition to the Eagles. His performance in OTAs and training camp will be worth watching as he looks to make his mark in Philadelphia.

Read More: 2024 NFL Draft Top Young Prospects

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