The NFL season is almost upon us.
Training camps are underway. Teams are developing. They are planning and fine tuning. Decisions are being made.
Not the Face of the Franchise has learned — if nothing else — that procrastination is its greatest enemy (see here). It is with a new found spirit of required immediacy and demanded decisiveness that we are going to call our shot early.
Right now — before August is even underway — we are releasing our 2017 NFL Team of ntfof.com.
It is a bold move. Some might call it fool-hardy.
But let us understand what this team represents. It is not predictive. We do not seek to make wild prophecy. This isn't a list of those we think will excel or transcend to new levels.
It is perhaps best considered as a collection of the under-appreciated. A rag-tag bunch of the over-looked.
When this football season comes to an end these selections — when re-evaluated in the harsh glare of hindsight — may offer the opportunity for ridicule and disbelief. But such an outcome is as inconsequential as it is entirely inevitable.
This team is made up of ‘guys-we-are-going-to-root-for’ in the coming year. Their individual stories are as varied as their standing in the game.
These are not the faces of franchises. And this is exactly why they are on our team.
Part One : The Offense
(New York Jets)
Journeyman. Placeholder. Bridge quarterback.
Nobody is building their future around Josh McCown. He is the guy you play until the next guy is ready. He is the experienced but limited veteran.
But there is something undeniably admirable about McCown.
This is the guy that coached high school football during spells of NFL unemployment. On the Chicago sideline he cut an impressively commanding figure somewhere between clipboard-holding-backup and offensive co-ordinator. When Jay Cutler went down with injury McCown went in. His brief tenure as starting Bears QB didn't set the world alight but the Chicago fanbase — perhaps keen to emerge from an underwhelming and despondent Cutler fog — responded to McCown’s gritty approach.
His performances were stirring enough to see Tampa Bay acquire him during the next offseason. They thought enough of McCown to give him a starting role. Until such time as they drafted Jameis Winston.
McCown is a professional. He is a tough, plain-spoken, humble guy who recognizes his own limitation. This year he is guiding the New York Jets on what is projected to be a difficult season. The younger duo of Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg will be eager to remove him from his quarterbacking throne. As they wait in the wings McCown, with a roster bereft of complimentary offensive talent, will be under the microscope. Calls for his removal are likely to be early and frequent.
He will do what he always does. Drag his battered body onto the field and play.
He doesn't have the cerebral approach of Peyton Manning or the arm of Ben Roethlisberger. But he will stand his ground in a collapsing pocket and throw the football. He doesn't have the elusive mobility of Russell Wilson or youthful vitality of Derek Carr. But when the opportunity presents itself he will tuck the ball and run full-force into danger.
This isn't necessarily the smartest move … but you have to admire the guts.
This is the example of a player who, in years to come, will almost certainly no longer qualify for Not the Face of the Franchise inclusion.
In the National Football League it is entirely possible to have multiple stars on a roster. The Titans have their quarterback in Marcus Mariota. They are now attempting to build the offensive core and structure their game-plan to enhance his considerable talents.
The feature running back on the Titans is DeMarco Murray. He has been there and done it. But the future is the hulking behemoth that is Derrick Henry.
He is strong, fast and exciting. He is a raw, enthusiastic, bruising talent that is entering his second year of professional football. 2017 is another year in the maturation process.
He is on the ntfof.com team this year because by 2018 he may be considered too good for it.
Cole Beasley is easily dismissed as an afterthought in the Dallas Cowboys offensive juggernaut. He is the small plucky guy who gets open and secures the ball.
He isn't the flashy top-tier talent of Dez Bryant. He isn't the franchise changing combination of tremendous offensive line and powder-keg running back Ezekiel Elliot.
Sometimes the hard yards have to be made. The ball simply has to be caught. In such circumstances Dak Prescott will often look to Beasley. He, in the company of bigger and better names, has the trust of quarterback and play-caller.
Do not sleep on the little guy.
He’s just Lil’ Cole Beasley … and the Cowboys don't overlook or under-value him.
When we hear of collegiate basketball players who turn to football we automatically think of the likes of Jimmy Graham and Tony Gonzalez. We have become accustomed to the prototype — rangy athletes with ball-catching skill and a considerable leap.
It makes sense.
What would seem to make less sense is that the Seattle Seahawks have entrusted the protection of Russell Wilson’s blind side to a guy who previously considered playing pro basketball in Poland.
But when you deconstruct the Seahawks decision-making it becomes more understandable.
Fant has all the intangibles. He is large and muscular. He has been able to add mass to his frame. He has proven to be ‘coachable’.
He also — as an un-drafted player — has a wholly affordable contract. His cap hit is minimal which has considerable value to a team trying to financially safeguard their assets.
He is incredibly raw with huge upside. If the Seattle Seahawks can coax reliable and consistent production from George Fant they will deserve the platitude. But their successful reinvention process may lead to a cataclysmic chain reaction in how NFL teams recruit and develop offensive line talent.
Who amongst us has not been captured on video ripping gnarly hits from our gas mask bong ? Who is so true, so virginal, so pure as to not have watched said video virally tear through social media platforms while we sit waiting to get drafted ?
Stop press … College student smokes weed.
Laremy Tunsil was initially projected to be the first overall pick on draft night. He fell to the thirteenth selection due to a baffling obsession with quarterbacks and the circulation of a video.
The Miami Dolphins picked him. They took the consensus best player in the draft at no.13. It shouldn't happen. It did.
He had a reasonably effective first year at guard and looks to be consistently improving. There has been no extra curricular drama. One can easily project his trajectory leading to a Pro Bowl caliber career. It is entirely possible we will look back and denounce those who passed on him on draft night.
This year Miami is expected to move Tunsil out to left tackle. He starts at left guard on our team because we retain the right to do what we want … with or without gas masks.
In April 2015 the Chicago Bears drafted Hroniss Grasu out of Oregon. Very little fuss was made. As the early third round pick competed at training camp his stock rose slightly. When he had worked himself into a starting role nobody outside Illinois really cared. By the time he was injured eight games later national media had taken notice.
They were telling the tale of a young rookie making considerable and significant strides of improvement. The story now became how his development would be stunted as he faced a long spell on the sidelines and in treatment rooms.
Hroniss Grasu has yet to re-emerge on the field for the Chicago Bears. He might not make their team this year.
Grasu is a little bit of a rarity. He is a pure center. Not a converted guard. Coaches and general managers talk of his football intelligence. They tell of his exquisite understanding of the playbook and mastery of the scheme. He was a little undersized but was working to maximize his physicality. He was growing into the NFL. The Chicago Bears thought they might have their center for the next decade.
Then Hronnis Grasu tore his ACL.
Time and NFL franchises wait for no man. In Grasu’s absence the Bears have deployed rookie guard Cody Whitehair in the center role. He has exceeded all expectations.
With no guarantee of resuming full fitness Grasu must look to the Bears overhauled offensive line and question if he still fits. His lack of positional flexibility may hamper his chance to make it through roster cuts.
But he has made this team.
Understanding and assessing lineman is a skill in itself. It is hard to judge who the great are amongst the very good and thoroughly decent. But on occasion, a player will demand attention. They don't just pass the eye test as much as scream dominance.
David DeCastro is one such guard.
On a high powered Pittsburgh offense he has become a key element. He is a mobile 6-foot-5 that combines a fleet footedness with demonstrative power. He is often a major contributor to the running lanes Le’Veon Bell strides through.
He plays the guard position to such a high standard he would be a hugely marketable asset on most teams. As a Steeler he plays in the shadow of a franchise quarterback, elite running back and high-profile receiver. But each of that trio, to varying extents, owe some of their success to the man that brings stability, mobility and raw strength to their offensive line.
(Green Bay Packers)
The most basic formula for NFL success is fairly simple. Get a great quarterback. Provide him with offensive weapons. Take appropriate steps to ensure he is hit as infrequently as possible.
To that end the Green Bay Packers rely on Bryan Bulaga to marshal the right hand side of their offensive line. Whereas some teams elect to schematically (over)compensate Bulaga is mostly left in isolation against premier pass rushers. By virtue of Aaron Rodgers’ speed of thought and Bulaga’s persist dominance they typically minimize quarterback contact.
Rodgers is one of the best in the business. With veteran savvy and the absolute minimum of fuss Bryan Bulaga strives to keep him that way.
Not the Face of the Franchise has not scouted David Njoku thoroughly. Game tape exists but this hasn't been meticulously devoured and pored through. It would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise.
This inclusion is based solely on the work of others. Interviews with this rookie leave the viewer in no doubt. This is a formidable athlete who is also a likable, bright kid from a lovely family.
He is now on a roster in desperate need of talent. Their tortured fans need something. Anything with which they can garner enthusiasm. The Cleveland Browns are a team strategically rebuilding. It will be a huge and lengthy undertaking to improve this franchise.
Njoku may offer a foundational piece for their reclamation project.
Maclin caught passes as a Kansas City Chief. Prior to that he caught them in Philadelphia. Now he's aiming to do the same thing in Baltimore.
It’s kinda what he does. He catches the ball.
How he does it is where the curiosity lies.
Players considered the team’s primary wide receiver tend to be huge muscular targets. They tend to be dynamically athletic. Or absurdly quick. In rare occasions players can be a combination of all of these traits.
Maclin is not blessed with blistering speed. He doesn't rely on mammoth physicality to haul in passes. He just, with admirable consistency over the last five years, catches the ball.
After struggling with injury throughout his career this season represents a new chapter for Jeremy Maclin. The Baltimore Ravens have a Steve Smith Snr shaped hole in their offense. It will be interesting to see how successful Jeremy Maclin will be in trying to fill it.
In a previous NTFeature it was posited that the punter position was akin to the spirit animal of the site.
Whilst not ready to fully retract the statement at this time Not the Face of the Franchise is happy to offer a competing theory : NFL fullbacks better encapsulate the site’s vibe. *
Because not every team has a fullback. When they are on rosters they aren't typically valued or celebrated. If they are used it tends to be in a supporting role of a higher profile player. But on occasion their number is called and they do their job. In rare instances they may even grasp the spotlight.
Andy Janovich did his fair share of assisting, blocking and chipping last year for the Broncos. But in the nationally televised season opener he did significantly more. He took it to the Carolina Panthers. He got in the end zone. The fact that he wasn't meant to surely doesn't matter.
Gary Kubiak is a known proponent of the fullback and — tellingly without Peyton Manning’s shotgun offense to limit their use — deployed Janovich in the backfield in standard fullback position. There he stood — just ahead of the running back. The presumption is Trevor Simian is going to hand the ball to Devontae Booker. He will run behind Janovich’s blocking to gain the single yard they need for a new set of downs.
But Simian hands the ball to Janovich, effectively using the running back as a decoy. The design of the play is simple in its intent. The fullback is charged with getting the small yardage by capitalizing on the misdirected defense.
Andy Janovich takes the ball. It is the first carry of his NFL career. He gets the yard.
But as he careens off the assembled mass of lineman the field simply opens up. He darts beyond the defensive pressure. Sprints thirty yards.
Into the end zone. Into the national spotlight.
And — surely more importantly — into the 2017 NFL Team of ntfof.com
* little unclear as to what the vibe is exactly …