Finishing Off The Teams That Probably Can’t Win The Super Bowl

This column serves as part three of the NFL preview. Yes, we’re once again a day behind, but both the Cowboys and Buccaneers have been covered.

Now to finish off the rest of the league: the remaining teams that have a case to win the Super Bowl. Again, these teams are listed in no particular order.

Ravens

The reason they can: Whatever he may be now, Lamar Jackson was and maybe still is an MVP, and now he’s got three legitimate weapons in Marquise Brown, Mark Andrews and Rashod Bateman (who will be out to begin the season just like every other Raven, it seems). The defense, despite the loss of Marcus Peters, is still stacked at every level, with the front seven being the highlight.  Baltimore needs to rekindle some spark to get there, but if it can, they’re right at the top of teams to look out for.

The reason they can’t: There’s now been some foresight bought by publishing this post-Thursday, which saw Baltimore’s already ammargoden-like offseason only get worse.  The Ravens have lost three running backs (including their No. 1 starter and his replacement) and their top cornerback to torn ACLs, and now have to operate with two washed-up veterans in Devonta Freeman and Le’Veon Bell in the backfield. Latavius Murray’s presence should help, as he’s not as ineffective as the other two have been, but is ultimately not someone who is getting 20 carries a game at this stage of his career. The losses at running back put a huge burden on Jackson, whose shine as a passer could have been a one-year fluke during his MVP season.  With receivers now in haul, it’s on Jackson to return to form, or else Baltimore may be a team fighting for the playoffs while being carried by its defense.

49ers

The reason they can: They shouldn’t have the injury year they did in 2020, plain and simple.  And San Francisco now has an upgrade at quarterback if they need it.  The rest of the roster is stacked, just as it was when the 49ers made the Super Bowl in 2019-20.  If Trey Lance is truly not ready for NFL regular season snaps, the defense (which is among the best in football aside from some once again shaky cornerback play) can carry Jimmy Garoppolo and company, and Kyle Shahanan can make due just as he did two years ago with Garrapolo’s averageness throwing the ball.

The reason they can’t: It wasn’t enough two years ago to win it all, the NFC West is a hellscape and the book is out on Garoppolo, even if Shanahan can work some magic.  While the upside in Lance exists, he’s still a wild unknown and could be completely overwhelmed if inserted in as San Francisco’s starter.  Also, the 49ers’ safety play should help, but their cornerbacks have serious burn potential on a game-to-game basis.

Browns

The reason they can: Cleveland’s roster is another that easily ranks among the top ten in the league, and is perhaps one of the best.  The Browns have incredible one-two punches at running back and wide receiver, with football’s best offensive line in the middle.  All of that, in addition to a defense that could carry any average offense to the playoffs, should be more than enough for Baker Mayfield to succeed.  If he can elevate his play just a tad higher, and breach the elite boundary, Cleveland should win the AFC North with ease.


The reason they can’t: Can Mayfield really do it?  Is the Cleveland Browns franchise legally allowed to win a title?  Are the Browns really better than the Chiefs or Bills?  Cleveland is set up for perhaps its most successful season ever in 2020-21.  At the same time, it’s understandable as to why the Browns front office is holding out on giving Mayfield an extension.  The passing game should not be as flaccid as it is given the weapons on hand.  Health from everyone is needed, but Mayfield should be able to make due.  Until he elevates even a smidge, he’s going to be the loser in a duel between him and Patrick Mahomes or Josh Allen.

Chargers

The reason they can: Justin Herbert looks on-pace to be one of the best quarterbacks in football after an explosive rookie season, and Los Angeles is doing the opposite of not giving him enough weapons with Austin Ekeler, Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Jared Cook all to play with.  LA’s biggest controllable holes have been fixed – the offensive line is the best it has been in years (with the guard spots still a little iffy, but alas) and Anthony Lynn is no longer in charge.  The Chargers’ defense should be one of the best in football, with a wealth of talent at almost every position group.  The Chiefs being in the division is a problem, but if things break right, LA should be right among the top teams in the loaded AFC.

The reason they can’t: Because they’re the Chargers and can’t stay healthy, can’t make kicks and can’t execute when it matters, for whatever reason.  Maybe it was Lynn’s lack of preparedness for late-game situations, or a slew of bad luck, but there’s no way to be certain that the Chargers won’t Charger this season, even with a bit of a culture change in place.  Constant injury issues also won’t be rerouted by Brandon Staley’s presence, nor will a change in kicker performance.  It’s in the Football Gods’ hands, and who knows what wrath they will lay down this year.

Washington Football Team

The reason they can: This is, essentially, the blueprint for the Broncos of this year and of 2015-16: a very average, mediocre or worse quarterback held up by a fierce defense and plenty of weapons on the offensive end.  The defense will need to do a lot, but with perhaps the best defensive line in football and reliable defenders elsewhere, all Ryan Fitzpatrick needs to do is not have them on the field the entire time.  That should be viable, as Antonio Gibson is primed for a breakout season at running back and four-to-five viable pass-catchers exist for Fitzpatrick when the team is at full strength.  It’s unlikely, but similar things have happened recently – the parallels to the 49ers in 2019-20 are strong.

The reason they can’t: In no way is it conceivable that Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to win the Super Bowl.  The Nick Foles case exists, but at least he had shown multiple flashes at multiple points of his career.  In addition, Fitzpatrick is not along the lines of “knowing of what you’re getting” average – he’s actually the complete opposite, where four touchdowns in a game is just as likely as three back-breaking interceptions.  The variance is just too tough to bet on, and the loss of Curtis Samuel to short-term IR hurts deep.

Bengals:

The reason they can: With a fixed offensive line and good core of weapons, Joe Burrow should be ready for ascension, and that ceiling is limitless.  Burrow was the revelation we expected him to be before a devastating knee injury last November ended his season. He was on pace for a season – and projected ceiling – as good as Herbert’s.  If he can come back from it with no hiccups, then anything is possible for Burrow and the Bengals.

The reason they can’t: The defense is nowhere near good enough – with linebacker needing a complete overhaul – and issues still exist offensively with JaMarr Chase seemingly struggling to adjust to the NFL’s level of play and the offensive line still dealing with holes.  The AFC North is pretty open, but a lot else needs to go right for Cincinnati aside from Burrow being Burrow.

Jaguars:

The reason they can: Like Cincinnati, this is an upside play.  Jacksonville has a generational quarterback at the helm of its offense, and with that, anything is possible.  Trevor Lawrence walks into a better situation than given credit for with the Jaguars.  Despite the loss of fellow Clemson rookie Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville has a reliable running back in James Robinson, whose presence made the original drafting of Etienne Jr. a little confusing.  Jacksonville has given Lawrence weapons to work with up front in his career – D.J. Chark Jr. finally has a quarterback, Marvin Jones Jr. is a steady-eddy and Laviska Sheanault Jr. is a complete wild card in the best sense possible.  The offensive line has struggled but has some talent, and the Jaguars’ defense has a lot of versatile talent in the front seven, which will help make up for a questionable secondary.

The reason they can’t: It’s just a lot to ask for from a rookie quarterback – even one as decorated and seemingly destined for as Lawrence is.  Peyton Manning’s rookie season tells us all we need to know – even for the greats and the highly-anticipated ones, it takes time.  The culture in Jacksonville already seems certainly shaky, which is not ideal for a rookie quarterback.  It was never going to be about whether Urban Meyer can coach, it was always going to be about whether he could lead.  High-end success for him and the Jaguars would be quite a turnaround in a short amount of time.

Patriots

The reason they can: It’s the Patriots, who have completely reloaded, solved all their problems except one, and still have the best coach in football at the helm in Bill Belichick.  Absolutely nobody should be surprised if this happens.  New England gets back a lot of personnel that opted out in 2020, including stud linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who leads a stacked group in the middle.  The secondary is great, and that’s even without Stephon Gilmore, who will miss the beginning of the season and could see himself traded afterwards.  Additions were made up front too, with Matt Judon leading a stout defensive line.  The Patriots finally invested in the wide receivers Tom Brady begged them too – rookie Mac Jones now has four reliable targets and plenty of depth behind them in addition to a talented backfield.  The offensive line is loaded too, and as we’ve learned over the years, roster holes are almost non-existent with Belichick in charge.

The reason they can’t: They’re going to be starting a rookie quarterback who projects to be just average, not only this season but in the future as well.  That’s putting a lot of pressure on the other parts of the defense – a la what’s happening in Denver, Minnesota, Miami and Washington this season (among other teams).  Jones simply has to not suck for the Patriots to be successful this year – assuming Belichick’s heavy spending offensively pays off.  For all the talk about New England’s mediocre pass-catchers, they sure didn’t upgrade as significantly as one would hope.  A lot of money went to injury-prone, drop-heavy players.  Jones should love Jonnu Smith though – the ceiling of that duo, in addition to Damien Harris’ running ability, might be what New England’s success hinges on this season.

Eagles:

The reason they can:  For all the issues, turnover and drama, there’s still a lot of talent on this roster.  The defense, outside of linebacker, is a formidable group that needs the secondary to play up to its potential.  The offensive line still has four solid starters, and two competent depth options in Andre Dillard and Landon Dickerson.  In terms of scoring, Philadelphia has revamped its attack, with Carson Wentz out the door for Jalen Hurts.  Hurts had his struggles late last season, but there was a sense of rejoice and freshness breathed into the Eagles offense.  Now, with rookie DeVonta Smith in the fold and Jalen Reagor having a full offseason to get up to speed, Hurts has legitimate weapons around him, not to mention the tight end duo of Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz.  Miles Sanders can help balance things out, especially if concerns about Hurts’ arm come to fruition.  It would be wild to see Hurts’ rise in such dramatic fashion, but don’t underestimate the power of a new face.

The reason they can’t: Like Atlanta and the Chargers, the Eagles just seem to have bad things happen to them every season when it comes to injuries, and it usually happens to a degree that it decimates the roster. If injuries occur, it could devastate certain weak areas of the roster – linebacker is banking on being supported by the rest of the squad, and cornerback is already a little suspect.  The same can be said for Hurts’ receivers, as demonstrated the past two seasons.  Additionally, counting on Hurts’ to deliver in a big way is a tough bet.  While he semi-ignited the show last year, Hurts wasn’t a first-rounder for a reason, and needs a serious boost from his supporting cast to produce this year.

Steelers

The reason they can: The roster – outside of the offensive line and quarterback (which are admittingly important) – is loaded.  Pittsburgh’s defense is the type that can carry an average offense (which might describe the Steelers’ this year), with impressive linebackers, a ferocious pass rush and a talented secondary.  If Ben Roethlisberger can just hang in, his weapons and defense might be able to take care of him.

The reason they can’t: Roethlisberger was simply bad last year, and there is a shell of an offensive line to protect him this season.  Even with Najee Harris in the fold, the combination of Roethlisberger’s deficiencies and the lack of help up front could very well make the offense even worse than it was last year.

Titans

The reason they can: The Titans added the firepower they desperately needed to their supposed Derrick Henry-led offense, although that could change now that former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is the head coach in Atlanta.  Julio Jones’ addition becomes even more impactful if the Titans rely less on Henry and let Tannehill air it out more – it’s a shift that could probably be used given that the Titans have still felt short of destiny the past two years.  The defense is surprisingly talented, and aside from Jonnu Smith, there were no big losses anywhere aside from the coaching staff.

The reason they can’t: A potentially new offense that relies on Tannehill more and Henry less may not be something that Tannehill is equipped for, as we’ve seen dating back to his Miami days.  Additionally, there is not much depth at receiver if either Jones or AJ Brown go down, and cornerback is a little suspicious.  It still seems like it’d be asking a lot of Tannehill to take the Titans this far.

Saints

The reason they can: Jameis Winston got a change of scenery and eye surgery.  It’s as simple as that.  If he can just be average, and not mess things up to the degree that he was used to doing in his career, the Saints have a chance – the defense is good enough to pull of a carry-job.  Wide receiver is obviously very suspect, which is not something that bodes for helping out a quarterback who needs every ounce of support he can get, but New Orleans always is able to seemingly pump guys out of their system and turn them into reliable players.

The reason they can’t: It’s Jameis Winston, and everything that comes with that.  The perfect situation doesn’t exactly exist with this roster, thanks to just a steaming pile of uncertainty at pass-catcher.  Winston could even have the best situation possible and still not produce to an acceptable level – Tampa Bay is almost proof of that.  It is more likely that not that the Saints will be looking for their next franchise quarterback after this season – Winston is more likely to tell them that than the Saints deciding it for themselves.

The 6 Teams That Can Absolutely Win The Super Bowl

This column serves as part two of the NFL preview. Yes, we’re a day behind, but both the Cowboys and Bucanneers have been covered. Look out for part three either Friday or Saturday.

Now for part two: the real contenders.

Chiefs

The reason they can: It’s almost easier to just discuss why they may not.  The Chiefs fixed what they needed to this offseason: the offensive line, which arguably single-handedly cost them back-to-back Super Bowl wins when they lost to Tampa Bay in February.  Even though some youth exists, all projected contributors were good players in college, and veteran help will come if needed in Kyle Long, Andrew Wyile and Laurent Duvernay-Tardiff.

The reason they may not: The pass-catching talent outside of Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill is extremely problematic.  If one of those two go down for a significant amount of time, the Chiefs may be in serious trouble even with Patrick Mahomes under center.  Additionally, the interior defensive line is a little weak, and cornerback has zero depth.  Kansas City has four playable safeties, so that could allow it to get creative with its packages, but playing nickel with an extra corner might be a scary proposition. 

Buccaneers

The reason they can: Like the Chiefs, it might just be easier to say why they may not.  Also, they did so last year, and quite literally everyone that made it happen is back.

The reason they may not: Tom Brady is 44 years old and at some point this nonsense has to come to an end?  Because Aaron Rodges is extremely pissed off?  Because Sean McVay finally has a quarterback?  In all seriousness, it’d be surprising if the reason the Bucs don’t repeat came off of this roster, because a lack of cornerback depth does not matter for Tampa Bay this year.  The Buccaneers still have the best roster in football and it’s not close.  The only way this is truly their fault is if Brady is not the same player, which should not be surprising whenever that time comes. 

Packers

The reason they can: They have Aaron Rodgers, who is even more pissed off than he was last season, when he won MVP.  He’s throwing to one of the best wide receivers in football in Davante Adams, and can rely on a very good running back in Aaron Jones.  Green Bay also has a stacked defensive line and secondary, although that side of the ball has given them more problems that one would think the past couple years.

The reason they may not: This exact formula hasn’t worked for years, and Rodgers knows it.  While Green Bay did finally draft another wide receiver and traded for Randall Cobb to help Rodgers out, Amari Rodgers doesn’t move the needle like a Tee Higgins or Chase Claypool in 2020 or a Rondale Moore – per se – in April’s draft would have.  Rodgers has a foot out the door, and it’s fair to wonder if he mails it in considering the current state of affairs between him and the franchise.  Additionally, linebacker is a massive problem, and the offensive line is the worst Rodgers has had in front of him in years thanks to the loss of Corey Linsley in free agency and David Bakhtiari’s injury.

Buffalo

The reason they can: The Bills might have the second-best roster in football.  The defense could be the best in the league, as Buffalo, like the Chiefs, fixed the one thing they desperately needed to in the offseason: the pass rush.  The Bills have a group of five defensive ends they can rotate in and out on downs, including rookies Carlos (Boogie) Basham Jr. and Greg Rousseau and second-year player AJ Epenesa.  The back seven is loaded, the offensive line is great and Josh Allen still has plenty of weapons.

The reason they may not: Can Allen really do it?  Even though he broke out onto the scene last year and was in the MVP conversation, it still feels like he has to take another step forward.  Whether it’s the sometimes bone-headed decisions or the high variance of relying on downfield throws, the high-end side of his game still doesn’t feel possible.  The Bills really have no weaknesses aside from a questionable run game – how much that should be relied on could come to the forefront this season.

Rams

The reason they can: Sean McVay has a real quarterback now, and it could be scary hours for the rest of the league because of that.  The loss of Cam Akers hurts when it comes to making this offense a balanced, cataclysmic threat.  But it could also lead to the Rams to airing it out at an unprecedented rate, and subsequently unleashing holy hell on opposing secondaries.  The defense has arguably the two best defensive players in football and a dynamite secondary to help keep things in front of it.

The reason they may not: This is not exactly last year’s defense.  Even with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, holes exist in the front seven.  The line probably doesn’t need help with Donald, but an extra edge rusher wouldn’t hurt.  Linebacker is relying on a couple unknown guys, although Donald should plug up the run and the secondary should have their back.  Additionally, the defensive coordinator who made it all work last year is now the Chargers’ head coach.  Offensively, this is the time for Stafford to show who he truly is.  Are we sure he just needed a better support system?  McVay and Co. will be the ultimate test.

Seattle

The reason they can: Seattle is probably the biggest surprise in this top category of teams.  A lot of it has to do with the Seahawks, like Buffalo and Kansas City, fixing their two or so biggest problems over the offseason.  The offensive line is the best it has been in years, with Gabe Jackson’s addition at guard likely to do wonders.  Damien Lewis is a young, talented player opposite of him, and Duane Brown is a stable hoss.  That’s at least three quality linemen, and in a new offensive scheme, Russell Wilson should have to do less while getting beat up less as well.  Seattle’s defense features two awesome safeties and Bobby Wagner in the middle – giving them an impressive array of athletes to send flying all over the field.  Other areas are a little suspect, but if the o-line holds up, there’s no reason the Seahawks’ offense shouldn’t look like it did to begin 2020.

The reason they may not: A lot rests on Wagner and those safeties’ shoulders.  Cornerback is a weak, depth-lacking position.  The pass rush and defensive line is still quite bad.  The offensive line also has its holes despite upgrades.  Wilson strangely declined even after regressing back to the mean from the hot start last year.  Hopefully Seattle’s new offensive coordinator draws up advanced protections and quick, easy throws for Wilson, or else there might be another scare of the quarterback wanting to play elsewhere again this offseason.

The 8 Teams That Can’t Win The Super Bowl, And 6 More Who Probably Can’t


Welcome to the Hub’s 2021-22 NFL season preview. To preview the upcoming year, we’re breaking all 32 NFL teams down into three categories: those that can’t win the Super Bowl, those that probably can’t get there and those that absolutely can.

To start, let’s kick it off with the eight teams who don’t have any shot at winning Super Bowl 56, with reasoning to follow. Note: The following teams are listed in no particular order.

Colts

The reason they can’t:  While the Colts have overcome their preseason injury bug to a degree, there’s still not enough talent here overall.  Indianapolis’ offense and coaching is an upgrade from what Carson Wentz had in Philadelphia, but with T.Y. Hilton out, the Colts really lack a true No. 1 wide receiver that Wentz can rely on.  Additionally, left tackle is a big question mark with Eric Fisher out for part of the season and Sam Tevi out for the year.  Those two question marks do not bode well for a quarterback whose ability to handle pressure has seemingly fallen off a cliff in recent years.

The defense has holes at every level – most notably at linebacker, where Darius Leonard has a lot on his shoulders.  It’s not a group that’s going to carry the offense, even if Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack are the best backfield in football.

Bears

The reason they can’t: It was tough to not elevate the Bears into the next category, just because their ceiling with Justin Fields under center is so much higher than it is with Andy Dalton.  But there’s no way to know when that day will come – it certainly won’t be Sunday, at least to start out.

In addition, even with Fields in the mix, problems are present.  The offensive line on paper may not look like a disaster, but the center position is a question mark, and Germain Ifedi was let go by the Seahawks of all teams for a reason.  Even with Fields’ running ability and some underrated weapons, rookie QBs should be as comfortable as possible.  Chicago will not make Fields feel that way.

In years past, this was a defense that could overcome the troubles of the offense – specifically quarterback play.  It’s how the Bears went 12-4 and made the playoffs in 2018-19.  This group isn’t quite as ferocious, though.  Cornerback is an extremely thin position, and the talent is concerning behind Jaylon Johnson.  A lot rests on Roquan Smith at linebacker, although the fearsomeness of the defensive line still exists with Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn.  Even so, Smith and Chicago’s safeties – Eddie Jackson (who oddly declined last year) and Tashaun Gipson Jr. (who’s kind of been a journeyman himself since the year he led the league in interceptions) – have a lot to make up for, and that’s just on their side of the ball.

Giants

The reason they can’t: It would simply be too much of a step up to expect Daniel Jones to make this year.  Elevating from a well-below average quarterback to an above-average quarterback, which is what would be necessary given New York’s good-but-not-great defense, is almost unprecedented in NFL history (Yes, Josh Allen is a very recent example, but one could debate how below average he truly was before last year), and Jones has shown zero flashes that suggest he could do that (Unlike Allen, who was initially seen as the No. 1 overall prospect in the 2018 Draft).

That said, Jones should be better this season.  The Giants invested heavily in weapons over the offseason.  Aside from a still shaky offensive line, there’s no more excuses for Jones.  If he still struggles, the Giants are looking at a player who needs a near perfect situation, on both sides of the ball, to succeed.  Better QBs, and therefore easier tasks for a front office, can be found.

Jets

The reason they can’t: It’s hard to slam the Jets for their defense, but some of it was avoidable.

Season-ending injuries to Carl Lawson and Jarrad Davis are brutal, but cornerback was the team’s second-biggest weakness entering the offseason, and not much was done to correct it.  New York has good safety play in stud Marcus Maye and LaMarcus Joyner, but there will be a lot of responsibility on those two, especially with CJ Mosley being more of a run-stuffing presence than a cover linebacker.

The offense comes down to how much one believes in Zach Wilson.  The offensive line is as good as it has been in years, and the weapons core is better than former quarterback Sam Darnold ever had it.  But there’s no clear No. 1 option in the pass-catching corps, and Wilson being totally overmatched as a pro shouldn’t come as surprising.

Lions

The reason they can’t: This roster makes it quite clear how the Lions feel about Jared Goff as their starting quarterback long-term.

There is just no real support system for him here, which is what he will need to be successful.  Detroit’s receivers are awful.  The defense, especially the secondary, has many holes.  It’s not a group that is strong enough to carry a bad offense to .500 (or, now with 17 games, around .500) or the playoffs.  Goff’s offensive line is quite good, which could lead to a productive season for D’Andre Swift and the rest of the Lions’ young running backs.  But we’ve seen Goff flame out in the past in a scheme built around a strong running game and play action.  In his favor then was a much better head coach, and one of the league’s best defenses.  The Lions don’t possess either of those.

Texans

The reason they can’t: Not going to lie about it – the Texans received consideration for the next group of teams up.  

In no way are the Texans Super Bowl – let alone playoff – contenders.  But Houston doesn’t have the worst roster in football, and in that particular superlative, they aren’t even close.  

The offensive line is the best it has been in years.  With whatever underwhelming quarterback they throw out there in DeShaun Watson’s absence, that will pay dividends. To help overcome QB deficiencies, the Texans have two solid lead running backs in Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay, a third in David Johnson if he’s healthy, and a perfect complimentary back in Rex Burkhead.  At the worst, one of those four can be flipped at the trade deadline for a late-round pick.

The defense is not very good, with holes aplenty.  The biggest reason why there’s no case for the Texans to be in the next bunch is because their quarterback will likely be career backup Tyrod Taylor or rookie third-rounder Davis Mills throughout the season.  But while Houston should be picking in the top five of 2022’s draft, it wouldn’t be shocking if they were closer to No. 10 than No. 1.

Panthers

The reason they can’t: This Panthers field the best surrounding roster Darnold has had in his NFL career.  That doesn’t mean he’ll take advantage of it, or that it will be enough.

While he has a weapons core that has high potential, the line in front of Darnold is still suspect.  Matt Paradis and Taylor Moton are the only starters who can be penciled in to hold their own.  The rest of the line is filled with journeymen and low-end starters.  That’s bad news for Darnold, who already struggles to make decisions even with a clean pocket.  A flustered Darnold, even with better weapons, will not lead to less turnovers.

Carolina’s defense is good, especially up front.  The defensive line will have to make up for the presence of only one true linebacker, and the secondary has some holes as well.  It could be a good defense that gets Carolina to the playoffs, but that’s an iffy bet, and with Darnold being a complete unknown, it’s hard to make a case for Carolina being a contender.

Falcons

The reason they can’t: It was a surprise to place Atlanta in this group of teams. It has been a sneaky sleeper team since the drafting of Kyle Pitts, which was for seemingly good reason.  But it’s not the offense that’s the issue, it’s the defense.

The secondary is a mess, with Duron Harmon probably slotting in as the only projected average player in the group.  Deion Jones is Atlanta’s only bankable linebacker, and his health is a massive wild card every season (as is everyone’s on this Atlanta team).  The line is perhaps the defense’s best position group, but there’s no dominant pass-rusher who can single-handedly wreck games.

The Falcons are going to score a lot of points.  A key stop that they will need here and there though may be hard to come by.


Now, let’s partially dive into the next category: Teams that probably won’t win Super Bowl 56, but have a case that could be made for them to do so. Again, these six teams are listed in no particular order. Note: Part 2 of this category will be released tomorrow, and the final category will be released on Thursday.

Cowboys

The reason they can: This was arguably the most unstoppable offense in football in 2020 before Dak Prescott’s horrible, gruesome ankle injury.  If Ezekiel Elliot is still ‘Zeke’ and Prescott is the same player, then they should be able to outscore anyone – other issues be damned.  There’s no better trio of wide receivers in football with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup, and the offensive line still has two studs in Zack Martin (who will be out in Week 1 due to a breakthrough positive COVID-19 case) and Tyron Smith.

The reason they can’t: Well, it’s the Cowboys.  Mike McCarthy had his issues early last season, and his ability to guide an elite offense still seems suspect.  Prescott had his ankle pointing the other direction less than a year ago, and it’s fair to wonder whether that should be talked about more.  He also has what’s been described as a “baseball-style” injury somewhere in his upper-body.  Elliot has teetered on the elite label the past two seasons, and the defense, particularly the secondary, has numerous holes.  Dallas might also be giving up bomb after bomb down the field. Case in point: It’s the Cowboys.

Broncos:

The reason they can: This season and situation is going to be the tell-all test for Teddy Bridgewater and what his status and legacy really means.  How far can situation and non-below-average quarterback play get you?  Well, this year’s Broncos will be the answer. 

The Broncos did it before, when Peyton Manning was on his last legs in 2015-16.  There was no way Denver got as far as it did without the defense and weapons core it had in place – Manning was arguably below average that year.  Denver’s defense this season is one of the best units in the league, with a front that can wreck teams’ offenses.  Bridgewater has a good offensive line in front of him and more weapons than he seemingly needs.  Every piece is in place for Denver to make a miracle run.  It just comes down to whether Bridgewater is the guy we think he is or not.

The reason they can’t: The defense isn’t perfect, which is what it might take.  Linebacker isn’t very talented nor is it deep – Denver will be relying on rookie Baron Browning heavily at that spot.  The secondary and front will have his back, but most dynamic defenses have at least one stud in the middle.  Even with the offense being set up the way it is, asking Bridgewater to do enough to win the Super Bowl (versus making the playoffs) is a whole different ball-game, and Denver may need a more offensive-minded head coach to get them there.

Raiders

The reason they can: The offense had its moments last year, with Henry Ruggs III occasionally looking like Tyreek Hill when he was healthy and forcing Derek Carr to throw the ball deep.  In a perfect world, Carr has two high-impact targets in Ruggs III and tight end Darren Waller, with plenty of depth behind them in Hunter Renfrow, Zay Jones and Willie Snead IV.  Josh Jacobs also exists, which gives Las Vegas a potentially lethal attack offensively.

The reason they can’t: The other end of the ball, which has plagued Las Vegas for years no matter what it looks like on paper.  This is perhaps their best unit in that regard, with the back seven hole-free.  But the Raiders’ secondary has been a turnstyle year after year, and the defensive line needs a couple different players – most notably Yannick Ngakoue and Gerald McCoy – to step up. Additionally, Carr turning into an elite quarterback seems like a stretch at this point in his career, which lowers the Raiders’ ceiling and puts even more pressure on a defense that’s shown no evidence that it can handle it.

Dolphins

The reason they can: It’s simply about Tua Tagovailoa and whether he’s the guy we thought he was out of college or not.  That player was someone who could make any throw within 25 yards thanks to pristine accuracy and awareness in addition to having the ability to make plays with his legs.  Last year, Tagovailoa was coming off of a devastating hip injury, a subdued training camp and no preseason all while playing in an offense that was designed specifically for Ryan Fitzpatrick and not him.  The offensive line is a little suspect, but Miami has one of the deepest receiver rooms in football.  Tagovailoa should be able to elevate them, and if he can’t, then they can do the reverse instead.

The reason they can’t: The defense just may not be good enough if Tagovailoa is the type of quarterback who needs substantial help.  The Dolphins have one of the best secondaries in football, but the front seven is young and only possesses one or two impact guys (that’s including rookie Jaelen Phillips, who is hard to bet on because of his youth).  Additionally, expecting Tagovailoa to emerge as an above-average-to-elite QB might be unreasonable – even with his injury and all the other complications he faced, his lows were quite low last year.

Vikings

The reason they can: The defense should be a lot better, with the potential to be a load-carrying group if Kirk Cousins is the reason the offense is held back.  If he can be average or better, then the Vikings should score plenty.  Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen and Dalvin Cook is about as good of a one back, two receiver set up that a team could ask for.  The offensive line has gotten better, although right tackle and center are both still a big question mark.  Minnesota has the potential on both sides of the ball.  On the margins is where concern lies.

The reason they can’t: If Kirk Cousins is in his best form, is that enough?  Or what if he is and the line sucks?  If he’s worse than his best, it’s over for Minnesota.  Additionally, the defense isn’t as loaded as you’d like it to be – cornerback has no one guaranteed to be successful as it’s a group of flyers.  The safeties help, but there’s also a hole at one of the linebacker positions.  Cousins is just a little tough to bet on after such a large lack of improvement last decade, and even if Minnesota is serious about putting pressure on his starting role, all Kellen Mond did in college at Texas A&M was underwhelm.

Cardinals

The reason they can:  The offense has the chance to be special.  Arizona alleviated any concerns about not having enough wide receivers by adding AJ Green and Rondale Moore over the offseason.  They pivoted full-time to Chase Edmonds as the starter at running back instead of relying on underqualified or washed up players to assume a high-volume starting role.  That would lead one to believe that the Cardinals are ready to air it out this season, and put head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense on full display with perhaps the largest dose of Kyler Murray’s legs we’ve ever seen, because when he runs, the Cardinals’ offense clicks.

The reason they can’t: As smart as Kingsbury is, the stars just haven’t aligned for him quite yet as he enters his third season at the helm, and if they don’t this year, then he’ll be out of excuses for the reasons above.  Additionally, cornerback is a complete mess for Arizona, with Malcolm Butler’s surprise retirement putting them in a tough spot less than two weeks before the season-opener.  Jordan Phillips to the IR hurts as well, although the Cardinals have gotten used to him not being available as his free agent signing looks like a total disaster.  Arizona also plays in a division that has at least two contenders, if not three.  The Cardinals are trying to be the fourth, and that will not come easy.

With Glendale Kicking Them Out, Is The Coyotes Future Viable In Arizona?

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity was “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  

Since the Arizona Coyotes moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg in December of 1995, the team has experienced more chaos and instability than perhaps any other franchise in the NHL.  Seven ownership changes, a lengthy bankruptcy case, a league takeover, a decimating expose and now a mandate from the team’s arena’s landlord to get out have all dominated the headlines since the team’s arrival in the desert.  

All of the troubles, old and recent, pose one question: Are the Coyotes a viable business in Arizona, or is relocation the only answer?

None of the people interviewed for this story believe the latter is truly the answer.  But almost all added that time may not suffice to figure that out.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN in 2020 that he hoped Arizona’s latest owner – Alex Meruelo, who bought the team in the summer of 2019 – would “crack the code” when it came to the franchise’s struggles, signaling that the league still hoped to keep the team in town.  Instead, figure after figure has failed to do so, including Meruelo himself.


To Matt Layman, he was just different.

Then a reporter with 98.7 Arizona Sports, Layman walked out of Meruelo’s introductory press conference as the Coyotes’ new owner in late July of 2019 certainly amused, and perhaps confident about the team’s future success.

“I actually remember being impressed with him,” Layman said via phone from Dallas, where he currently works outside of the journalism industry. “I thought he was good.  He seemed like somebody the Coyotes needed, at least from what was said about him and what he said about himself.”

Meruelo was an espresso shot into a drained body.  He had bought the team from Andrew Barroway, who represented the last remaining tie to the franchise’s infamous bankruptcy saga in the late 2000s and early 2010s.  He was the first hispanic owner in NHL history, and hoped to blend Maricopa County’s 31.4% hispanic population with hockey by introducing spanish-language social media accounts and celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.  He also replaced CEO Arhon Cohen with Xavier A. Gutierrez, who became hockey’s first Latino President and CEO.

“He seemed like a really fiery, energetic guy who used a swear word in his introductory press conference,” Layman said. “That definitely stood out to me.”

On the ice, Arizona made big changes too.  They traded for Taylor Hall and Phil Kessel and signed Clayton Keller and Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

“There were some things that you noticed, and correlation doesn’t always mean causation, but there were certainly things that were new or that changed with the franchise in that time since Meruelo took over,” Layman said.

In that introductory same press conference, the Coyotes new leader spoke about the difficulties the team had faced since moving to Arizona, and how he intended to fix that.  Treating the franchise as purely a business – Meruelo’s self-proclaimed strength – was the plan.

“He talked a lot about trying to turn the business in the right direction and make good business decisions,” Layman recalled.  “It was all about business and what he had done previously in his other industries – casinos and hotels.  It was ‘Yeah, I’m going to do what I did in those other places and I’ve done this before and I’m going to do it again.’”

While his words were seemingly reassuring, hiccups could be found.  According to Layman, Meruelo seemed “a little nervous or chatty during the press conference.  He kind of ad-libbed and went off the cusp.”  While the former reporter was hesitant to correlate that with the new owner’s struggles, it perhaps was a look into the future.  According to Katie Strang’s piece in The Athletic, “several employees felt there was a lack of understanding about what makes running an NHL team… different from a private business.”

But to the public eye, Meruelo was set up for success, and Layman didn’t raise a finger.

[Meruelo] was probably reassuring for the fans,” he said. “I would say on a personal level, I bought it to an extent too.”


The allegations in The Athletic piece – and the extent of them – are startling.

Strang details Meruelo’s berating of team employees and lack of following through on promises and missed payments (to players, employees, vendors and sponsors).  She also mentions the dysfunction behind the drafting of Mitchell Miller, the dismissal of former GM John Chayka, the reign of control exerted by current GM Bill Armstrong and reported sexual harassment within the workplace.

According to Todd Merkow, a Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication faculty associate and the owner of Three Screens Media, Arizona’s wild inconsistency over the years is the perfect breeding ground for issues within an organization.

“When you talk about ownership, there’s been so many [with the Coyotes] that stability is the greatest key to success,” he said. “Stability and strength.  I’m not sure that those all existed with every ownership that has been a part of the Coyotes with the exception of, to a degree, Gluckstern and Burke.”

The group headed by Steven Gluckstern and Richard Burke brought the Coyotes to Arizona from Winnipeg in the mid 1990s and experienced relative success.  In their first four seasons, the team made the playoffs, and in five of its first six, it did as well.

“In those early days, when they came here with that product, they had great stars,” Merkow recalled.  “They traded for Jeremy Roenick to boost the star power.  They went into the playoffs their first four years.  The White Out was introduced.  The energy in that building [in] downtown [Phoenix, where the Coyotes played at what is now the Footprint Center] was unbelievable.”

But during the 2000-01 season, Arizona failed to qualify for the playoffs, which triggered a stretch that resulted in the Coyotes missing six of the next seven postseason tournaments.  At the same time, things outside of hockey began to change.  Gluckstern was bought out by Burke in 1998, and Burke later sold the team to Steve Ellman in 2001.  

Ellman had big plans.  While the team had success in downtown Phoenix on the ice, and perhaps attracted the most fans in its Arizona existence, what was then America West Arena brought obstructed views to some of those attending games.  The venue was constructed for the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury, and didn’t have hockey in mind.

So Ellman looked elsewhere for the Coyotes to play.  He wanted them to have their own venue – a place meant for hockey.

The flashy Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale made perfect sense, but an article written by Carolyn Dryer quoted Ellman saying that Joe Arpaio, the former Maricopa County Sheriff, “got me thrown out of Scottsdale.”  According to Dryer, the deal went “sour” and Arpaio wanted the site Ellman chose to eventually be a jail.

Ellman then shifted his focus to Glendale, who he “had a long history with,” according to Ellman in Dryer’s article.  He touted the Coyotes as being a “significant sales tax generator for the city” and planned on the Coyotes arena and surrounding area (now the Westgate Entertainment District) to be where “every meeting in the Valley is going to be held.”  

“This was a real estate deal for him,” Merkow said of Ellman.  “That was the play for him.”

Al Gage, a real estate agent in the Valley since 1996, agreed with Merkow’s opinion.

“I think that it was the incentives from the city and a little bit of badgering from the location on the east side and a willingness to embrace them on the west side,” he said.  “Essentially, the land was cheaper.”


The decision to build in Glendale could be seen as the catalyst for all of the Coyotes’ problems over the years.

Ticket revenue for Arizona has long been near the bottom of the NHL, and while Gila River Arena may be nice, it isn’t a particularly flashy venue – nor is it a historic one.

In addition, the arena’s location – at the Loop 101 and Maryland Avenue in the West Valley – is far from the Coyotes target audience.

“Being in Glendale doesn’t help them at all,” Layman said.  “As somebody who lived in Chandler when I was a teenager and in my early years of college, Glendale was a long way to go to go watch a hockey game, especially on a weeknight.  

“That’s not doing them any favors.”

The arena’s location – in addition to an elongated stretch of no success on the ice – has put the Coyotes in financial hell.  People don’t want a bad product, and certainly aren’t making the long haul to see it.

Merkow said that when Ellman moved the team to Glendale, Ellman was betting on the west side of the Phoenix metropolitan area eventually taking off, which would bring fans in from shorter distances.  But the growth wasn’t as sharp as expected off the jump.  

“It was too early to go out West,” Merkow said.  “I don’t know if it was going to grow at the rapid pace they expected.”

Ellman sold the team to Jerry Moyes in 2005, who took over just two years before a catastrophe no one saw coming struck: the recession.

“That area just hit a wall,” Merkow said.  “There was no growth whatsoever.

“It got killed because of the recession.  All the way around, he got killed.”

The Coyotes lost any progress they had made, setting them back years in their quest to be a mechanism for growth in the West Valley.  Now, the franchise sits in the purgatory Layman described: bad and far away.

“You still have to have a winning franchise and it has to be in the right location,” Merkow said.

On Thursday, a push to get the franchise out of Glendale came in ways previously unseen, as the city told the Coyotes that they must leave Gila River Arena at the end of the 2021-22 season. While the team has been exploring a new arena based in Tempe, no ground has been broken, and the Coyotes have been here before. With the same issues still existing at the Footprint Center in Phoenix, the Coyotes are homeless starting one year from now.

Gage believes location isn’t as large a part of the equation.  Consistency in the product on the ice is.  When the team moved to Glendale, it was coming off of a season in which it finished fourth in its division and missed the playoffs.  The losing continued for multiple seasons after that.

“I’m a huge hockey fan, and was there Opening Night at Gila River,” Gage said.  “Did you know that the first three pucks in regulation to go over the glass went to the same guy?  That’s statistically impossible, but it happened, because they slid down the net at the same place and he was the only one sitting there.

“The biggest problem they have in my opinion is that they don’t put the product on the ice.  I don’t think it’s a matter of West Valley vs. East Valley.  I think you’ve got to have a team that plays well for more than a couple of half seasons in a row.”

Success eventually found the Coyotes again after their early successes downtown.  Arizona made the playoffs three straight years from 2010-2012, and even came within three wins of making the Stanley Cup Final.  But while the franchise found the winning it craved on the ice, problems off it overshadowed the achievement.

Moyes secretly handed control of the team over to the NHL in 2008, just three years after he purchased it from Ellman.  He then filed bankruptcy, hoping to escape the losses incurred from the team’s losing and location during the recession.

After a lengthy saga, the NHL eventually found a taker in 2013: Ice Arizona.  But a year later, the savior group sold half its interest to Barroway, and three years later, the Ice Arizona party was completely out of the picture.

“Owners have to deal with the team being out of Glendale,” Merkow said. “I just think it is like being in a ring with a boxer. Anybody who owns that team and is operating out of Glendale, you’re just going to take on hits left and right, jabs and uppercuts with what is going on out there.”


Meruelo figured to be the saving grace.  

Arenas are expensive – and the Coyotes’ latest owner seemed to have pockets deep enough to take care of that.  But Layman noted that the billionaire isn’t likely to receive much help from the public if he intends to move the franchise elsewhere in the Valley.

“The willingness of the general public to pay money for sports arenas has dwindled,” he said. “That’s not as easy to accomplish as it used to be.  There’s now just hostility for that, even when the taxes are just tourism taxes or hotel taxes or are district-specific.  People don’t want to hear that.  They don’t want to spend taxpayer money, they don’t want new arenas being built.  They say, ‘The Coyotes already have an arena.’  That’s probably different now than it was when Gila River was built.”

That forces Meruelo to potentially come completely out of pocket for a new venue, and use cash that he seemingly doesn’t have if the reports from The Athletic are accurate.

Merkow believes that it’s a unique set of circumstances that has given the team such extensive problems.  Glendale is one of them, but the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic can’t be understated.

“Look at the pandemic – what’s the effect in the first year of ownership?” Merkow said. “Coming into sports ownership for the first time and the growth that needs to occur.  These early years come with growing pains and these are coming with an incredible growth spurt because you don’t have fans.”

Merkow cites Arizona’s invitation to the NHL bubble in the summer of 2020 as evidence for on-ice success translating.

“[Meruelo] pulled the trigger when he first got here,” Merkow said. “He said, ‘Hey, let’s go for it.’  And there was a payoff – the postseason – that was really good for them.  But it didn’t translate locally because those games were being played at neutral sites.  They didn’t have what you’d normally get out a lift like that.  They would’ve had a White Out for all of those playoff games, I’m assuming.  The energy would have lifted.  That carries, man.  That carries into the next season, and that carries with your fan base.  It creates a tremendous amount of energy to build upon. 

“I don’t think they truly have the one-on-one relationship with their fans yet and how that’s going to all convey.  You have to look at the pandemic in this case, because it’s all so vital to the first year of ownership.”

The first year of ownership is a larger theme Layman and Merkow both went deeper into.  While Meruelo strived to run the Coyotes like he did his prior enterprises, that can be tough.

“With any new owner that comes into the sports business world, there are expectations that these businesses can be run like other businesses, and in general, the answer to that question is ‘Yes, they can be,’” Merkow, the former COO of the Los Angeles Avengers AFL team, said.  “But sports offers just a uniquely different platform when it comes to business.  Business in itself is uniquely tied to your customer relationships.  In sports, it is highly tied to the relationship of your fans.  How it translates through to the play on ice, how it translates through to the screen, how it translates through to the environment in the arena.”

Layman said some of Meruelo’s ripples so far can be excused, but issued a similar warning as Merkow: sports are different.

“Alex Meruelo has never owned a sports team before,” he said.  “The point is, when you have people that are in a new position – and sports is a business, but it’s also a unique thing that’s unlike a lot of industries.  So when you have people that are new in the industry, sometimes you screw up.  I got a new job recently. I make some mistakes too.”

Meruelo did attempt to own a sports team before.  According to Strang’s piece in The Athletic, the NBA had concerns about Meruelo’s supposed wealth when he was interested in purchasing the Atlanta Hawks in 2011.

Those might be coming to a head now.  

Merkow remains optimistic.  He believes the pandemic is a major reason for Arizona’s issues, and believes Meruelo has the cash on hand to do whatever he wants – whether that means moving the team or not.  

“I do believe that if he’s the owner they will do the right things and will end up being successful,” Merkow said.

Part of him believes the pandemic shouldn’t be giving Arizona as hard of a time as it is, but also thinks Meruelo should be able to recover.

“He certainly has got the pockets to withstand some of the hits that occur being out there, but he certainly has the pockets to go into other places as well,” Merkow said.

It’s early, he claims.  Meruelo hasn’t fully gotten the chance to see what his product looks like in its final stage yet, nor has he been able to really experiment with growth.

“I think this is really trying to understand what your challenges are and how to overcome them,” Merkow said.  “Part of that might mean that they need to move to a different location in the Valley.  I don’t see them going somewhere else.  I think Meruelo is in it for the long haul and is going to make it work in Arizona.  It’s just a question of whether it’s going to be in Glendale or somewhere else.”

Layman worries if Arizona is still in the cards given all the turmoil the Coyotes have experienced.  Articles have been written wittily about why a relocation hasn’t occurred already, while NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is on-record about keeping the team in the desert.

“I think that Alex Meruelo’s ownership of the Coyotes might be one of the last interactions of the Coyotes that we get if they are going to move,” Layman said.  “I’m not predicting that they’re going to move, but I’m saying that it needs to work eventually.  Because if it doesn’t work eventually, it might be difficult for the owners or the league office to justify continuing to support the franchise.  That’s just my take.  I’m not a businessman.  

“There have been so many changing of hands and there was the bankruptcy about 12-13 years ago.  I think there may come a point when somebody throws their hands up and says ‘Enough is enough.’  But I don’t know when that is.”

In some ways, it’s fair to compare the Coyotes to the Cardinals, who play right across the street all the way out in Glendale.  Why do people travel for them and not for hockey?

“Bottom line is, if you build it, they will come,” Gage said.  “That’s always been the [slogan].  If they were putting good hockey on the ground, it doesn’t matter whether it is in Glendale or Scottsdale.  Or Tempe.  People are going to come.  The Cardinals aren’t having a problem when the Cardinals put out a good product.”

Layman wonders if Phoenix just isn’t as crazed for the Coyotes – or sports as a whole.

“You look at a team like the Arizona Diamondbacks,” he said.  “They’re not one of the top spenders in MLB, and there’s probably a reason for that.  I found in my 20 years living in Phoenix that fans in Phoenix tend to be fair weather except for the die-hards of course, but those tend to be the exception to the rule.  But there’s a lot of people who aren’t from Arizona and a lot of people who cheer for teams that aren’t in Arizona.”

Gage agreed and offered another way of thinking about it: “We are a transistient community.  We don’t have fans in Chicago that have been Diamondback fans their entire life.  It doesn’t happen that way.  We don’t have people moving from here to somewhere else.”

If the Arizona population isn’t very sports-centric, then the Coyotes seem to be the odd team out.  None of the people interviewed for this story claimed to be Einstein-like, but all expressed pessimism in some regard considering the health of the Coyotes – on the ice or off it.  As the cycle repeats with yet another struggling new owner, and now a mandate as serious as any other in history, the time to do something drastically different could be now.

“That team has just been mixed up for all the wrong reasons,” Merkow said. “It’s easy to say all the wrong reasons, because there are so many franchises that have done this, and done it successfully.  It could have been the right reasons.  But the timing in all of this is everything.”

What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its 2021 First Round Selection, Picks 11-30

This column serves as Part 3 of a three-part series called “What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft,” featuring picks 11-30, some guys who missed the first round, some second round sleepers and a breakdown of the Big Board.

Pick No. 1

Picks No. 2-10

No. 11, Charlotte Hornets: Kai Jones, Texas

Kai Jones is probably the rawest prospect in the draft, with Kuminga coming in second place.  He’s one of the most athletic players you’ll see for a guy his size, but at times it seems as though he has no idea how to play the game of basketball.

It makes sense that he doesn’t – Jones has only been playing since he was 15, and he’ll be 20 on draft night.  At 6’10, Jones frolics around the court like a deer.  He moves incredibly smoothly, which immediately gives him a perimeter game as at worst a dribble-handoff guy, and potentially a shooter.  For now, he’s probably somewhere in between those two things.  He experimented as a driver in college and had success with it, but some of that feels a little unreasonable in the NBA given his lack of body control at times.

Jones has the chance to be an incredibly unique and valuable big at the next level.  His best case scenario is that he can be a stretch big who can get to the rim from the three point line, be a threat on the roll, shoot and even create his own shot.  On defense, he could be a switchable player 3-5, and protect the rim with ease in drop and when switching PNRs.  

At worst though, Jones is a simple rim running big whose sole offensive purpose is to catch lobs and who is simply put out there to threaten drivers with his large, massive frame.

Jones has a wide range of outcomes at the next level.  The hope is that he doesn’t end up at his low-end projection.  If he doesn’t, then the Hornets have themselves a pretty good player at center, which fills a huge hole and will make LaMelo Ball quite happy.

No. 12, San Antonio Spurs: Josh Giddey, Australia 

Giddey is largely rumored to be Memphis’ target at No. 10 overall, and it makes sense.  Giddey, along with Jalen Johnson, is one of the few prospects not ranked in Tiers 1 or 2 that have true star potential.  That’s the type of player that the Grizzlies need.

So why Johnson and not Giddey for Memphis, who’s ranked three spots ahead of the Duke wing on the Hub’s board?  

Giddey projects as a point guard at the next level.  He’s an incredibly talented passer who can throw any dime known in the book.  There isn’t much else to his game yet – he’s a poor shooter and hope for that to develop is low. Despite a 6’8 frame and impressive athleticism, he’s bad defensively.  But Giddey does some of the things you’d want your starting point guard to do – passes like a wizard, gets to the rim and dictates the game at his own pace.

So where’s the star power?  Well, Giddey’s passing has the chance to be special.  He’s the third best passer in the draft, which doesn’t sound impressive, but given Cunningham and Suggs’ projection as potentially generational guys, Giddey is up against unfair odds.  

His lack of a jumper could make some worried about his effectiveness in the PNR, but vision and accuracy on passes should allow him to fire the ball anywhere, no matter how deep the drop is or where else defenders are helping away from him.

The Spurs are similar to Memphis in the sense that they have a lot of talented youth.  But nobody has emerged as the alpha among those guys yet, and they need to be done waiting around.  Giddey is the best bet left to emerge as that guy.

No. 13, Indiana Pacers: Moses Moody, Arkansas

Indiana is devastated by the picks of Jalen Johnson and Giddey, as it is in the same boat as Memphis and San Antonio, teams equipped with talented, deep rosters but ones that lack a player good enough to take them over the top.

That player doesn’t exist at this spot – all the guys left that project along that trajectory are massive reaches and are essentially fliers.

The Pacers could use some more athletic, defensively-apt wings on their roster though.  Kispert is ranked higher than Moody on the board, but doesn’t project as the effective two-way player Moody does.

Moody was miscast at times at Arkansas, having to carry an offensive load he wasn’t quite equipped for.  However, he was more successful than one would think in that role, and it makes one wonder whether there’s some upside with shot creation down the line.

For now, Moody is a lights out shooter – the third-best in the class – and should provide good defense on the wings and in switching schemes.  If he’s more than that, Indiana has a gem on its hands – exactly what it needs.

No. 14, Golden State Warriors: Corey Kispert, Gonzaga

The same two things apply to Golden State here as they did at No. 7: overall competence and shot-making.

Kispert is 22 years old and ready now, making the first trait an obsolete problem.  He’s also the best shooter in the draft, checking the second box.

Kispert is a bit more than a shooter though.  He’s a very good defensive player even though he’s not the best athlete in the world.  He’s strong and long, making him a tough out for anyone smaller than him.  

The Warriors wouldn’t be their 2017 selves with Kispert in the lineup, as he has zero upside as a shot creator like Kevin Durant.  But the former Gonzaga forward could be just as lethal of a shooter, and with Bouknight potentially carving defenders up, Golden State suddenly has title contender written all over it next season.

No. 15, Washington Wizards: Jaden Springer, Tennessee

Here’s what was written about the Wizards taking Springer prior to the Russell Westbrook trade:

“The state of the Wizards franchise is in flux.  It’s unclear whether Bradley Beal will be on the team next year, and the roster is geared as if he will be, creating a paradox.   Regardless of Beal’s presence, defense simply does not exist, and Russell Westbrook doesn’t make the situation better as a whole.

Washington likely has to deal with Westbrook being on the roster for two more years, assuming he opts into his $47 million player option next summer.  Whether he’s on the roster or not, the Wizards should be in the business of trying to upgrade from him.

That’s where Springer enters the picture.  He’s probably the most complete point guard in the draft outside of Suggs and Cunningham”

With Westbrook now gone thanks to the Lakers’ hilarious dealings, the fit is even better.  

Springer solves many of Washington’s problems at once.  He’s a ridiculous defensive player despite his relatively small size at 6’3.  He’s hard for anybody to shake when dribbling, and simply grinds through possessions with a pest-like energy.  Springer maintains that energy off the ball too, and has the potential to take anybody out of a game whenever he wants.  He should be a decently switchable defender given his abilities on and off the ball, though it remains to be seen how effective he can be against ball dominant wings, especially when they’re driving.

Offensively, Springer is one of those guards who always seems to know what he’s doing and never makes the wrong decision.  Playing at his pace is his speciality.  

He combines his very solid passing ability with a scoring punch too.  The grit he shows on defense translates into offense evidently.  Springer can get to the rim against seemingly anyone, though that can get the best of him against beefier rim protectors, as his finishing numbers aren’t as high as you’d like them to be.  Still, Springer’s herky-jerky style makes him an incredibly tough guard.  Defenders can’t lax in their effort when on him.

The jump-shot is a weakness, which could allow teams to drop deep against him and take away his driving lanes, and subsequently make finishing even harder.  But athleticism tends to win out. Washington could get a player similar to Westbrook in Springer, just without all the shenanigans and bad stuff.

No. 16, Oklahoma City Thunder: Isaiah Jackson, Kentucky

It seems like Oklahoma City is destined to move up with this pick and No. 18 overall.  But if they keep it, it makes for the Thunder to keep addressing their front-court.

Jackson has been rumored to have received a promise from the Thunder with this pick, although trading it would obviously void that.  OKC’s interest makes sense.  Jackson is the exact type of simple center craved in the league now.  He’s incredibly athletic and won’t be played off the floor.  He has a long frame, which makes him an imposing shot blocker and rim protector.  He’ll never be a floor spacer, but his bounciness doesn’t make him totally out of place on the perimeter.  There’s potential for him to attack the rim from out there thanks to his athleticism and quick feet, but it’s not something OKC should count on.

Simply put, Jackson projects as a classic rim running, shot-blocking big.  Making selections because of Aleksej Pokuševski’s presence on the roster seems a little reckless.  With Barnes and now Jackson, the Thunder have their front court of the future, with Barnes hopefully being able to play anywhere he wants.

No. 17, New Orleans Pelicans: Trey Murphy Jr., Virginia

New Orleans has an interesting choice with this pick.  It could go with a guard, signaling that the front office doesn’t plan on bringing back Lonzo Ball in restricted free agency and instead re-sign Josh Hart, or they could go with a wing like Murphy Jr., opening up a spot for Ball or another point guard while letting Hart walk.

The only real need New Orleans has is defense.  Murphy Jr. provides that.  He’s one of the safest players in the draft thanks to his three-and-D skill set.  He’s reminiscent of Cam Johnson thanks to a long, wiry-like frame, but is a much stronger and more developed defensive player than Johnson was out of North Carolina. 

It seems like Murphy could go higher than this on Thursday, which is respectable.  He’s about as close to a guarantee as one can get in the draft.

No. 18, Oklahoma City Thunder: Jared Butler, Baylor

Butler would be really intriguing for New Orleans the pick before, giving them a scoring punch at guard that no one on its roster provides.  But another small guard in their backcourt doesn’t provide the defense the Pelicans are looking for, even though Butler is pesky on the ball.

Instead, Oklahoma City takes him, and gets a solid point guard ahead of Theo Maledon, who’s already perfectly playing his role as a backup.  Butler’s scoring ability is the big difference between him and Maldeon.  He’s a three-level scorer who winds his way to the rim and can stop on a dime for pull-up jumpers as well.  Playing next to Davion Mitchell required some patience, but Butler figured it out and was able to hit threes at a good rate off the ball.

Butler is a solid passer who tends to make the right decision, though his vision isn’t elite and the turnovers were higher than you’d want.  His scoring is what elevates the rest of his game, and his status as a prospect.  Oklahoma City would probably want someone with a bit more upside at this position in the future, but if Cunningham or Suggs aren’t in the cards for them this draft, then Butler is a solid fall-back plan.

No. 19, New York Knicks: Isaiah Todd, G-League Ignite

Todd might be the biggest riser of the past month or so, and with good reason.

The last out of the four prospects on G-League Ignite to be taken seriously, Todd is a super unique player who could be a lot of different things in the league.  But the one skill that will certainly translate is his shooting ability.  Todd is an absolute sniper from deep, and can hit threes in a variety of ways.

From there, Todd’s game can take a whirlwind of avenues.  He’s got some isolation skills, although a lot of the shots he took out of those play types were a bit wild and inefficient.  He’s got the body of a power forward, which makes him incredibly intriguing as a screen-setter – he could roll, pop or slip out of a pick and be able to finish in either way.  He has a good handle and feel for the game, which could turn him into an offensive hub in the post.

All of these skills could develop for Todd over time.  If they all do, he could be an absolute star.  But it’s likely only one or two will develop.  Whether he’s a stretch four who is effective as a roller or a scoring wing, the Knicks could use competent rotation players almost everywhere.  Not that their 2020-21 season was a total fluke, but surviving again with Taj Gibson, Elfird Payton, Derrick Rose and Alec Burks contributing heavy minutes seems unlikely.

No. 20, Atlanta Hawks: Usman Garuba, Spain 

The Hawks roster is loaded, which means they can afford to draft for need more than other teams.  Atlanta lost in the Eastern Conference Finals largely due to its inability to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is obviously no easy task for any team in the league.  So why not take the second-best defender in the draft to help with that?

Garuba, like Scottie Barnes, is switchable 1-5 and is a complete specimen.  There’s not much else to his game outside of his lurking defensive ability.  He figures to be a nice roll man and lob threat, but Garuba’s value will be held in his ability to lock down an opposing team’s best player.

No. 21, New York Knicks: McKinley Wright, Colorado

This is likely the biggest reach of this entire mock, and Wright’s placement on the Hub Big Board might be the highest that exists anywhere.  But the Colorado guard is one of the most underrated players in this draft.

Wright had games last season where he was absolutely unstoppable.  His ability to get any shot he wants in the paint is comparable to few in this draft.  Wright’s athleticism causes defenders to guard the rim, but he can then hit them with a beautiful floater instead.  He can also stop on a dime to pull-up, as well.

Wright’s a very good passer, not great.  But he’s best at making plays in the PNR, which is most important at the NBA level.  The combination of his PNR chops and mid-rangers alleviate concerns about poor outside shooting and lack of great feel.

He also doesn’t take it slow on the defensive end, which will make him a good fit for Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks.  Wright does everything we wished Elfrid Payton or Frank Ntilikina did on the offensive end, giving the Knicks the best of both worlds.

No. 22, Washington Wizards: Chris Duarte, Oregon

After clearing Westbrook, selecting Springer at No. 15 and still acquiring Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma from the Lakers, the Wizards are in win-now mode and could use even more length on the wings. Duarte is perhaps the most NBA-ready player in the draft as an elite shooter and solid, strong defender.

No. 23, Houston Rockets: Franz Wagner, Michigan

Houston lacks length on its roster whether it wants to contend or not – most of its wings aside from DJ Wilson and Sterling Brown are almost like hybrid guards.  That’s where Wagner comes in, who is renowned for his defensive ability and three-point shooting.  The Hub is significantly lower on Wagner than most because of some overplayed hype about his ability to move well, but he should be a serviceable three-and-D player at the next level.

No. 24, Houston Rockets: Sharife Cooper, Auburn

Houston could really use another big on its roster, but all the ones remaining are a bit of a reach at this spot.  Outside of Suggs, the Rockets lack a really good passer on their roster.  Cooper doesn’t do much else thanks to a poor jumpshot and small frame, but he’s at least a top five passer in the draft.

No. 25, Los Angeles Clippers: Miles McBride, West Virginia

McBride is a player who could very well be in play for the Knicks, as he’s a defensive grinder who also shoots.  He’s ranked ahead of Cooper on the Hub’s board, but Houston needs someone who can pass, which isn’t McBride’s strong suit.  That said, he’s still a good point guard, and the Clippers desperately need someone to right the ship at that position.  They essentially take the best one left in McBride.

No. 26, Denver Nuggets: Cam Thomas, LSU

Even without Jamal Murray, the Nuggets roster is pretty loaded.  It’s fair to wonder whether they still have enough with Murray back in the fold from a perimeter shot creation standpoint.  Thomas is no guarantee to be anything more than a sixth man who’s actually ninth in the rotation, but his skills are too hard to find.  There’s always that 0.1% chance he’s a star.

No. 27, Brooklyn Nets: Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, Villanova 

This pick belonged to Phoenix before an afternoon trade on Thursday.  Brooklyn sent Landry Shamet to the Suns for Jevon Carter and this pick, which seems like a bit of a steep price for Phoenix given that Shamet never fit in Brooklyn and had a bad year.  At the same time, Phoenix protects itself from Cam Payne’s overpay with Shamet, while passing up the opportunity to add to the front court with Robinson-Earl, who’d be a perfect fit for Brooklyn as well.  Robinson-Earl will help limit Kevin Durant’s minutes at the five as a small-ball option, and also take minutes away from Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown.

No. 28, Philadelphia 76ers: Davion Mitchell, Baylor

The 76ers still need a star perimeter creator with or without Ben Simmons or the roster, and while the Hub is much lower on Mitchell than others, he still offers a decent two-way skillset.  It seems doubtful that Mitchell will thrive on both ends given his 6’1 frame and poor historical shooting, but if he’s here, he’s certainly worth a shot.

No. 29, Brooklyn Nets: Josh Primo, Alabama

The Nets just need as many competent players as possible.  After helping out their front court at No. 27, they address the wings here with Primo, who’s a lights out shooter who plays a tad too casually.  Brooklyn should be able to get away with that though, and they replace Shamet in an instant with this pick.

No. 30, Utah Jazz: Bones Hyland, VCU

Like Denver, it remains to be seen if the Jazz have enough firepower and star shot creation on their roster.  Hyland might end up just as a sixth man type player, but the guy can get buckets with ease thanks to a long, wiry frame.

How are these guys not first round picks? (# = big board rank)

  • Tre Mann (#27): There just wasn’t a fit for him in the late rounds after all of Thursday afternoon’s trades.  He’s a good shooter and is a menacing presence as a passer thanks to his 6’5 frame. 
  • Ziare Williams (#55): Might have one of the widest ranges in the draft.  Reports indicate that he could go as high as No. 8 overall or fall out of the first round completely.  Williams dealt with a lot this past year, but he played like someone who was much better than he is.  The jump-shot also feels like it will never come around.
  • Ayo Dosumno (#56): Could be a solid third guard in the league, but his NCAA Tournament performance was just too hard to get over.  You can let Loyola Chicago swallow you like that if you’re truly in consideration for National Player of the Year.
  • DayRon Sharpe (#57): It sounds like Sharpe is trying to refine his game by shooting threes, but it seems unlikely he’ll come into the league as a shooter.  If he’s not one, it might be tough for him to stay on the court.
  • BJ Boston (#59): A top recruit who had a bad year and has since endured tragedy, this is quite a fall for Boston.  But he seemed overwhelmed with the responsibilities handed to him at Kentucky, and could project best as a sixth man in the NBA.
  • Josh Christopher (#60): Similar to Boston, Christopher might be best suited as a sixth man after the handing of the car keys to him at Arizona State went poorly.  Christopher did get hurt and suffered from poor roster construction around him, but like Williams and Boston, he played like he was the best player on the court when he certainly was not.

Some favorites that didn’t make the first round:

  • Sandro Mamukelashvili (#35):  This guy is a wild player, but it seems like he could at least be something in the NBA.  He’s almost seven feet tall and shoots, passes and gets to the rim off the dribble.  One of those skills has to flourish at the next level.
  • Jericho Sims (#42): Just a fantastic rim runner who’s strong on defense and should be a good roll man.
  • Justin Champagnie (#43): He’s a similar prospect as Sims – just trades rim protection for more athleticism.
  • Charles Bassey (#44): This guy is a freak.  Not many guys get up as high as he does at his size.  He’s got to put it all together, but the athleticism is hard to overlook.

Big Board tiers break down:

Tier 1A: Superstars

  1. Cade Cunningham
  2. Jalen Suggs

Tier 1B: Superstar with some questions

  1. Evan Mobley

Tier 1C: Elite players in a role, need to develop more for superstardom

  1. Jonathan Kuminga
  2. Scottie Barnes

Tier 2: Can they really reach their ceiling?

  1. Jalen Green
  2. James Bouknight

Tier 3: Good bet to be solid players because of one or two things they do exceptionally well

  1. Keon Johnson
  2. Alperen Sengun
  3. Corey Kispert
  4. Josh Giddey
  5. Jaden Springer
  6. Moses Moody
  7. Jalen Johnson
  8. Kai Jones
  9. Isaiah Jackson
  10. Trey Murphy Jr.
  11. Usman Garuba
  12. Jared Butler

Tier 4: Tier 3, but with less confidence 

  1. Isaiah Todd
  2. McKinley Wright
  3. Chris Duarte
  4. Miles McBride
  5. Sharife Cooper
  6. Cam Thomas
  7. Josh Primo
  8. Tre Mann
  9. Davion Mitchell
  10. Quentin Grimes
  11. Isaiah Livers
  12. Franz Wagner
  13. Joe Wieskamp
  14. Bones Hyland
  15. Jeremiah Robinson-Earl
  16. Sandro Mamukelashvili 

Tier 5: Each of them are something

  1. David Johnson
  2. Rokas Jokubaitias
  3. Matthew Hurt
  4. Herb Jones
  5. J.T. Thor
  6. Moses Wright
  7. Jericho Sims
  8. Justin Champagnie
  9. Charles Bassey
  10. Filip Petrusev
  11. Greg Brown
  12. Joel Ayayi
  13. Daeshin Nix
  14. Jason Preston
  15. Austin Reaves
  16. Aaron Henry
  17. Kessler Edwards
  18. Sam Hauser
  19. Vrenz Bleijenbergh

Tier 6: Out on

  1. Ziare Williams
  2. Ayo Dosumno
  3. DayRon Sharpe
  4. Neemias Queta
  5. BJ Boston
  6. Josh Christopher
  7. Juhaan Begarin
  8. Luka Garza
  9. Santi Aldama
  10. Aaron Wiggins
  11. Raiquan Gray

What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its 2021 First Round Selection, Picks 2-10

This column serves as Part 2 of a three-part series called “What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft.” Part 3 will come on Thursday, with picks 10-30 and looks an some intriguing second round talents.

THE BIG BOARD

No. 1, Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

No. 2, Houston Rockets: Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

The Rockets seem destined to take Jalen Green with this pick. Trading up for Cunningham, who they are allegedly interested in and would make sense given Houston’s array of future draft picks and Cunningham’s prospectus, is perhaps a better option. But the Rockets can split the cake if they instead take Jalen Suggs, who’s the only player in this class in the same tier as Cunningham.

Suggs is a classic high floor player with his passing, instincts and addiction to winning. But he has a higher ceiling than that. He possesses a scoring knack seldom seen in guards, using his lean yet sturdy frame to get to the rim and a mechanical but effective jump shot to hit from deep and pull up in transition.

At Gonzaga, Suggs was everywhere on the court. He always seemed to be in the right spot making winning plays – be it a steal, box-out, extra effort on a help defensively, a rebound, or a game-winning shot..

He’s reminiscent of Tyrese Haliburton from last year’s draft class in that sense – a player that this site was way too low on (He was No. 14 on the Hub’s 2020 Big Board). Having Suggs ranked as high as No. 2 might be an overcorrection from that, but Suggs’ shot creation skills give him an extra flavor that Haliburton – as a draft prospect – never let exude.

Houston is at the forefront of a rebuild, but Suggs represents a path down multiple routes. He can play next to John Wall in the short term while representing a path forward and past Wall’s contract. A team with Suggs, a hopefully healthy Wall, Eric Gordon assuming he’s not traded and Christian Wood isn’t terrible. Sprinkle in some Kevin Porter Jr. off the bench, and if the Rockets want to be competitive while stuck with Wall’s salary, that mix of players doesn’t make a great team, but it’s not exactly a bad one. It puts them in contention for a playoff spot.

Suggs also would serve as the next face of the franchise and Wall’s successor at point guard in the long term. He’s the type of player you build around rather than insert as a role guy. His upside is the best player on a championship team.

Suggs’ weaknesses are the expectations. Like Cunningham, projecting anybody as a true 1A offensive option is risky. This is even more true with Suggs, who already does so much on both ends of the court, and isn’t the shooter Cunningham is, limiting his potential as a scorer in the pick and roll game. He’s bigger than one would think, but his lack of immense size at the guard spot, in addition to a lack of moves in isolation, makes him potentially more of a true point guard rather than an all-around offensive creator.

No. 3, Cleveland Cavaliers: Evan Mobley, USC

In a way, Mobley should be the Cavaliers’ pick at this spot no matter who is on the board, assuming he’s available. Cleveland might be set on developing its young backcourt of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland even further, and Mobley’s unique skill set as a big makes him fit to play anywhere in the frontcourt. The fit is so good that Cunningham, if he were here, may be worth passing on for the Cavs.

But that scenario is unlikely to occur, with Cunningham destined to go No. 1 no matter who is picking. That makes this decision easy for Cleveland.

Mobley is the best player available and with good reason. The 7-footer is an absolute freak for his size and position. He moves as effortlessly as a wing or guard for his size – the only prospects in recent years who comes close to matching Mobley’s mobility are Oneyka Onkongwu in 2020 and Bam Adebayo in 2017, and both of those players are at least three inches shorter than Mobley.

Mobley’s game is simply beautiful. He’s not much of a bruiser or a post-up player thanks to a thin frame, but his athleticism and soft hands make him deadly on the roll. His height allows him to shoot over anyone – even the tallest bigs – with jumpers, hooks and curls. While Mobley won’t bang, his quick feet and athleticism gives him the ability to take his time before attacking a defender – one he will almost certainly beat. In addition to his work as a true center, Mobley can shoot it from anywhere. On a short roll, he can pull up from the mid-range while creating the mirage that he’s diving to the hoop. He can pop instead of roll out of the pick and drain a three with an effortless stroke. He has shot creation skills as well with his knack for shooting, touch and athleticism. At the same time, he doesn’t need the ball, because he’s a capable shooter from beyond the arc and moves around like a slashing wing trying to find an open spot on the court to spot-up from.

That’s just the start of it, too. Mobley’s not quite Nikola Jokic, but has an amazing passing gene for someone his size. He can handle and take dribble-handoffs, and have the offense anchored around him at the elbow. With some seasoning as a ball-handler and an expanding knowledge bank, it’s not far-fetched to say that he could be a lead ball-handler someday.

On the other end, Mobley is just as special. The athleticism on the offensive side of the floor translates perfectly to defense, where the former Trojan can switch and guard 2-5. He’s a menace at the rim, blocking anything in sight and using those quick feet to help and recover to wherever. Teams simply can’t hunt in the pick and roll – he’s too fluid to let a screen disrupt his movement and stands a chance against almost any ball-handler in that scenario (aside from much smaller, craftier guards).

So how is Mobley not the No. 2 overall pick, or let alone the first? He has very few weaknesses – the first being that despite his skills as a rim protector, his thin frame will likely see him suffer against beefer bigs like Joel Embiid and Jokic. The second is a reaction to the first. If he can’t hang against those players, then who does his team have to put on the floor to help handle them, and what kind of problems does that cause late in the postseason when unathletic bigs are hunted and usually played off the floor?

The value of bigs overall still plays its part here. Sure, Mobley himself projects as a player able to stay on the court in those situations, but does his defense – or someone else’s in spite of Mobley’s limitations thanks to that thin frame – actually hurt against teams that can get away with going against the grain? That list is bigger than it seems– the Lakers, Sixers, Nuggets, Bucks, Suns and Pelicans are all doing it with success or likely will be soon. 

In addition, the fact that a player can do everything Mobley does at his size at the NBA level seems a bit unreasonable. Every USC game of his was a show, but the Pac-12 wasn’t exactly college basketball’s greatest display last season. Can Mobley do all of the things he displayed at the next level? If he truly can, then he could very well be the best player in this draft years from now.

That said, Mobley is a fantastic prospect, and the Cavaliers should be ecstatic that they’ll likely be able to take him here on Thursday night. Mobley’s versatility allows them to play him at the 4-spot if they re-sign Jarrett Allen to play center, which will protect Mobley from bigger guys but allow Cleveland to deploy him as a switching defensive menace who can simultaneously protect Allen against more mobile bigs. If Allen and the Cavs part ways, then Mobley slides right into the 5-hole, and likely struggles defensively in certain matchups but punishes unathletic bigs on the other end.

No. 4, Toronto Raptors: Jalen Green, G-League Ignite

The Raptors need a star – and one who can be a star right away. 

That’s why Toronto takes Jalen Green here, who despite having two players ranked ahead of him on the Hub’s board, can be that.

Let’s first start with the players we don’t have Toronto taking. More in-depth scouting reports will be found in the next two picks, but Jonathan Kuminga, despite being the better prospect, is not an immediate help to the Raptors, whose roster won a NBA Championship two years ago and is not far off from being there again. Kuminga may be a better player than Green someday, but his rawness on both sides of the ball makes inferior to Green right now.

There’s perhaps a better case for Scottie Barnes going to the Raptors here. Toronto needs more size, and likely has a hole at guard assuming Kyle Lowry signs elsewhere (Suggs seems likely to be here for the Raptors Thursday night, which is insane and would be a home run for them to draft). Barnes can arguably fill both of those roles, as his passing instincts are rare for a player with his size and frame and his defensive acumen and ability is the best in the draft. But he’s a lock at either position, and probably fits best as a Draymond Green-style player offensively – someone who can screen and roll or be anchored at the elbow throwing darts to teammates. Using him solely as a rim protector – which Toronto needs – wastes his true potential.

So, enter Green. Pascal Siakam is a fine, solid player. But his half-court and isolation scoring went off the deep end after a brutal performance in the Bubble in 2020 – the Celtics seemingly figured him out in that second round series last Fall, and he never recovered. Fred VanVleet is the same level of offensive player as Siakam, as he can get hot one night and carry the team, but isn’t a crunch-time scorer made for deep playoff runs.

Toronto needs someone like Green – who’s best skill is scoring and who can do so in bunches. He’s their best bet in the short-term to pull them out of the league’s middle class.

That said, Green as a prospect is not perfect. While scoring is his best skill, it might be the only one he has. He’s a weak passer for someone who projects as a No. 1 offensive option, and doesn’t have the best game in and out of the pick and roll. Green is a high-usage player, who loves isolations and high-usage possessions. It’s not totally a bad thing if the ball consistently goes in, but players like Green – who are purely scorers and don’t bring anything else to the table aside from it – tend to have their ceiling capped in the NBA.

Those players are not bad – Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Donovan Mitchell come to mind. But teams like Washington and Utah seemed capped out at second-round playoff exits with those types of players as its 1As. With two-way threats like Kuminga available, a Green-clone in James Bouknight still on the board and potentially Suggs or Mobley in reach on Thursday night, Green’s ceiling just isn’t worth reaching for at the top of this class. For Toronto though, it is.

No. 5, Orlando Magic: Jonathan Kuminga, G-League Ignite

Sure, this is the classic Orlando pick – a long, athletic guy who’s raw and has problems shooting.

But the Magic have room for error. First, they own this pick and No. 8 overall, allowing them to take a swing with one of the spots. Second, if the past four years are any indication, Orlando’s front office led by John Hammond and Jeff Weltman have unlimited job security – that duo entered a rebuilding situation four years ago, took the team nowhere, and have now entered their second rebuilding phase. It is incredibly hard to not get anywhere at all when building a team up from nothing.

With those two things in my mind, Kuminga should be the pick. There’s a case for him to be a top-three ceiling player in this class, as his two-way skill set and athletic wing frame is comparable to no one ahead of him.

Kuminga is raw as all hell. He needs to fine-tune his shot selection, and he can be too aggressive at times on the ball and take shots away from those who potentially deserve it more. Despite his athleticism, his defense can waver – most of this may be due to his age and lack of development thus far. 

But the seeds are there. If he can put it together, Kunminga could develop into a Kawhi Leonard-type player, where he’s one of the game’s best defenders and not only is a No. 1 option offensively, but can handle the ball and initiate the offense as well. For better or for worse, Kuminga plays at his own pace, and establishes control over a game that way – similar to the way Leonard does. That’s a rare skill to have – it’s the same reason Cunningham is going No. 1 overall. 

Throughout the last decade, the Magic have had solid pieces. But there was never a guy to bring all together with his star power, and it’s why Orlando has been stuck in the dirt for years on end. Kuminga is no guarantee to be that guy either, but he has the best shot out of anyone available.

Barnes is the widely expected pick here, and it makes sense. The Magic don’t have a big man they can be confident in, as Mo Bamba has seemingly busted and Wendell Carter Jr. is not the player we’d thought he’d be out of college. But at No. 8 overall, the Magic should have another option to fill that spot, and whoever may be there doesn’t have close to the ceiling that Kuminga does.

No. 6, Oklahoma City Thunder: Scottie Barnes, Florida State

The Thunder are living a blank check lifestyle.

With 17 first-round picks over the next seven drafts starting Thursday night, Oklahoma City can essentially make any offer they want to, and subsequently, draft whoever they want to.

It seems as though they’re already trying. As written on Tuesday, the Thunder have reached what they considered their ceiling to be on a package offered for No. 1 overall, and it’s not enough for Detroit to accept given that there’s a potentially generational player on the board. It’s odd that the Thunder won’t go to the ends the Pistons want, because they certainly can, but there’s also a good case that protecting some of those draft assets to trade up for another generational prospect in a future draft – or a disgruntled star elsewhere in the league – is worth it as well. 

If the Thunder don’t move up for a shot at one of the top three prospects, all of whom should be held in similar regard by their respective teams compared to the Pistons and Cunningham, Barnes is the best player available.

The Thunder have cornerstones of their future at guard and on the wing already in Shai Gilgenous-Alexander, Luguentz Dort and Darius Bazley. Down low, there’s less of a future, with Aleksej Pokuševski being a complete wild card in terms of which way he goes as an NBA player (or not – that’s legitimately still up in the air).

With Barnes, the Thunder can get someone they can play anywhere. Likely used best as a screener and roll man and switchable big, Barnes’ athleticism makes him a matchup nightmare on both ends. Offensively, he’ll be impossible to stop when heading toward the rim. With a good passing guard, lobs should become a staple play of his. He also has the ability to initiate an offense – some see Barnes as a point guard given how good his feel for the game is. That might be a tad ambitious, but there’s no reason he can’t be an anchor at the elbow with sets running around him, or bring the ball up the court at times and initiate from the top of the key. 

Barnes is the best defensive player in the draft, too. He’s legitimately switchable 1-5, which automatically makes him one of a select few in the NBA. He’s got the special ability to play the equivalent of free safety on the basketball court by manning the open space on the court and quickly jumping to wherever the help is needed or the switch is to occur. His recovery time is that small, thanks to a chiseled, long frame and ballerina feet.

For whoever takes him, Barnes is an extremely safe pick. The only concern is his lack of a jump-shot, which is brutally bad and has no means of getting better given his poor free-throw shooting. In minutes he does play point guard, the lack of an outside shot could throw off his team’s offense – the same way it has to Philadelphia and Ben Simmons all these years.

No. 7, Golden State Warriors: James Bouknight, UCONN

If they don’t move them, the Warriors need to be getting two things out of their two lottery picks.

  1. Basketball competence. 
  2. Consistent shot-making.

Last year was just not good enough in those two departments. For example, Kelly Oubre Jr.’s line left you wondering if he was wildly underrated or overrated every night. Juan Tocanso-Anderson is certainly a rotation player, but the days of him starting need to be over. James Wiseman was simply not ready for the minutes allocated to him, and his eventual injury forced players much less talented than him into the rotation.

Of course, upgrades might be more bankable on the trade market rather than in rookies. But those options are much different than they were in 2020, when Golden State was picking No. 2 in a perceived weak draft. Trading last year’s pick for a star or selling low on it and acquiring two or three average to above-average rotation players was a better choice than taking a swing on whatever prospects were available. 

This year, a trade for a star player is the only real option outside of using the picks. The talent available at No. 7 and No. 14 is not far removed from – or perhaps even better than – trading for NBA-qualified veterans or rotation players. 

But does a star exist? It seems like neither Damian Lillard nor Bradley Beal are officially available yet. Ben Simmons would be the third name but picks No. 7 and No. 14 seem like a lot for someone who would essentially serve the same role as Draymond Green on the Warriors current squad.

It seems as though the Warriors are stuck using these picks, which isn’t totally a bad thing, as James Bouknight would provide both of the traits Golden State needs.

Bouknight is a very similar prospect to Green in the sense that both have only one real skill in scoring. But the Warriors desperately need that around Stephen Curry and the returning Klay Thompson to avoid a similar outcome as last season. Bouknight’s shot bag is deep, and he projects as a classic 2-guard who could fit in alongside Curry and Thompson. 

Bouknight has a chance to be a bit more efficient than Green despite his poor outside shooting. He’s not quite as high usage as Green is, displaying more selflessness as an off-ball offensive player despite bad three-point percentages. His slim, small frame may be a worry when cutting and slashing, but his athleticism translates to him getting to the rim well when the ball is in his hand.

If Bouknight’s threes can go down, then he’s got similar ability to Curry in the sense that he never stops moving and trying to get open. His shot creation skills make him more bouncy and slippery at the point of attack than Curry, which could allow Bouknight to still be effective if the shot never comes along.

Bouknight tries hard defensively. His small, slight frame puts a cap on his defensive ceiling that he can’t control. But the Warriors, for once, need offense with these picks. The other side of the ball is, for once, not a worry at all.

No. 8, Orlando Magic: Alperen Sengun, Turkey

After taking a high-upside wing at No. 5 overall, the Magic come back and address their problems down low here at No. 8 overall with Sengun.

Sengun is simultaneously one of the most intriguing and confusing prospects in this draft. The things he does to his opponents on tape make you wonder if he’s playing against YMCA dudes, but the Turkish League is a legitimate association, and Sengun put up historic numbers in it and won MVP at just 18 years old.

So how does a non-switching, defensively challenged, throwback offensive big end up ranking ninth on the Hub’s big board and go eighth in the draft? 

Sengun is simply a bucket. He will almost immediately challenge Joel Embiid for the best footwork in the league, which he uses to dance with bigger, slower players in the post with his back-to-the-basket. His quick feet also allow him to attack off the dribble from the perimeter and get to the rim, a skill that seems hard to believe until you see it. 

On the roll, Sengun can throw dimes to shooters, keeping defenders honest and reluctant to help inside. This opens up the lane and rim for him, which is an easy two points every time. 

Sengun’s passing also allows a team to use him as an offensive hub at the elbow, where he can dot up opposing defenses with craft and I.Q. 

There are serious limitations with Sengun, though. While his bounce off-the-dribble when driving would lead one to believe that he has untapped potential as a shooter and switchable big, neither is guaranteed. Sengun’s quick feet do not translate to defense at all, and his three-point percentage is quite low on not much volume. Not only is Sengun not switchable, but his defense in every type of coverage is poor. He’s also a little short on height, which doesn’t give him advantages on the defensive end.

Does that combination of traits in a Magic uniform sound familiar? Sengun is extremely comparable to former Orlando center Nikola Vucevic with his dazzling footwork, passing skills and lack of defensive talent, but he might have a higher ceiling thanks to his capabilities off the dribble and work from the perimeter.

No. 9, Sacramento Kings: Keon Johnson, Tennessee

Texas’ Kai Jones would make a lot of sense here for the Kings given their need for a big man, but Sacramento also desperately needs defense, which is Keon Johnson’s calling card. 

Johnson should be expected to make a similar defensive impact Isaac Okoro did for the Cavaliers last season as a rookie. He’s a lockdown wing defender who grinds through screens and has quick feet. He’s a tad short, but has a long wingspan and might be one of the best athletes in the draft – June’s Combine proved that.

His ability on the offensive side of the ball is up for debate. Johnson certainly projects to be better on that end than Okoro was or ever will be, but to what extent is unknown. He was a little too ball-dominant at times at Tennessee and took shots at times when he would have been much better off putting in Jaden Springer’s hands instead. But those shots at times were impressive when they went in, and tapped into Johnson’s perhaps unexpected potential as a go-to scorer.

The Kings could benefit from a guy like that. They currently lack a star offensive player on their roster, although Tyrese Haliburton’s second year could bring some upgrades to that department. Regardless of what Johnson does offensively, his defensive presence should make an immediate impact, one that the Kings sorely needs.

No. 10, Memphis Grizzlies: Jalen Johnson, Duke

The Grizzlies need a star.

Ja Morant already is that, but he and Memphis are bogged down by his inefficiencies in the half-court. Morant plays 100 mph, and while that’s not a bad thing, it’s unfortunately not the way things can be all the time.

So the Grizzlies need somewhere else to go for those buckets. As good as he is, Dillion Brooks just isn’t that guy, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is best suited shooting from the corner and wrecking havoc defensively.

Jalen Johnson has his warts. He has no jump-shot. He left Duke after his relationship with Coach K soured and his performance dipped. He’s done the same at other schools. His effort wanes on both sides of the ball, particularly on defense.

But the Grizzlies need a star and are one of few teams in the league that can afford to take a gamble. That star is their only missing piece, now that they’ve installed a greater veteran presence on their roster and added extra draft capital thanks to Monday’s trade with the Pelicans, who initially owned this pick.

The trade was smart for both sides. Memphis downgraded at center with Steven Adams but at least replaced the leadership Jonas Valancuinas brought to the table. It also added to it with Eric Bledsoe who, despite his selfish tendencies, can at least be a bit of a mentor to Morant, as the two’s games at one point were quite similar. They also picked up an extra first in addition to moving up to this spot, giving them extra protection if this pick or future ones bust.

New Orleans got rid of two massive financial mistakes in Bledsoe and Adams, and only moved down seven spots while giving up one of its billion other future picks in the process. They also improved their current roster, as Valanciunas is a much better fit next to Zion Williamson in the front court thanks to his ability to shoot threes.

Both teams are better off, and if both hit on their draft picks, it’s essentially a win-win.

Memphis may not hit on Johnson though. What he’s guaranteed to bring to the table is an intriguing skillset built around his astute passing gene, which is rare for a wing his size. He’s a wizard in transition and would be a dynamic threat next to Morant. In the half-court, his vision is still pristine, but his lack of a jump-shot makes his constant yet impressive drives to the rim predictable – he’s not a Ben Simmons/Giannis Antentokoumpo body mold, making those play types much easier to stop.

But the Grizzlies need someone who can be any type of threat off the dribble. Johnson’s frame makes him much more imposing than Morant, and his passing skills give Memphis something else to bank on. With youth everywhere and only one piece missing, the Grizzlies are best off taking a chance. Johnson is a big one, but he just might be worth it.

AD, Luka, Zion, Cade?? Why The 2021 NBA Draft’s No. 1 Pick Isn’t Getting Enough Love

This column serves as Part 1 of a three-part series called “What Each NBA Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick In The 2021 NBA Draft.” Part 2 will come on Wednesday, spotlighting another top prospect and unveiling another team’s projected pick before Thursday’s first round mock debuts.

No. 1, Detroit Pistons: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

After one of the NBA’s best drafts in 2020, the Pistons found luck in 2021 by winning the lottery and being in position to select Cunningham, who’s long been the No. 1 prospect on the Hub’s board and on many boards dating back to when he was in high school. 

That recognition comes with good reason.  Cunningham is potentially generationally – his prospectus is the fourth-best we’ve seen since 2010, after Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic.  Cunningham is that good.

It starts with his size.  At 6’8, Cunningham has an immense feel for the game and can make any pass in the book.  His height allows him to pass out of contested drives to the rim and throw dimes at angles few else can.  In the pick and roll, Cunningham’s size makes him possible to guard when he attacks the rim, and gives him an added advantage when making the pass to the roll man.

Cunningham’s ability to create his own shot is also incredibly developed.  He doesn’t miss as a shooter, although his percentage from deep will likely decrease in his early NBA years before rising back up again.  His size allows him to bully guys when driving and punish smaller guards with short wingspans when pulling up.  He’s not an amazing ball-handler given how special his passing is, but his knockdown shooting and frame can make up for that in the short term.

With so much hype and skill, it’s fair to wonder whether Cunningham can reach the ceiling pegged for him.  Perhaps the most indicative indicator of that resides in just how much Cunningham did for Oklahoma State this past year.  None of his teammates were close to NBA-level prospects, and none of them will likely be in the future.  Opponents swarmed Cunningham defensively and helped off his teammates in an ultra-aggressive way.  Yet, Cunningham still rallied to the Cowboys to an NCAA Tournament berth, put up impressive numbers and cemented his status as the best player in his class.

Given his point guard traits, Cunningham may seem like an odd fit next to Detroit’s second-year guard Killian Hayes, who the Pistons took No. 6 overall in 2020.  But the beauty of a player like Cunningham is his versatility on the offensive end.  Need a point guard?  Great, Cunningham is your guy.  Have one and need scoring next to him?  Cunningham’s projects as a No. 1 offensive option in an offense in addition to his passing ability.  Both guard spots full?  Cunningham’s 6’8 frame and lights-out shooting makes him a fit on the wing, and his passing comes as an added and perhaps overqualified bonus.  He’s the perfect tall, ball-dominant wing every NBA team craves.

On top of all of that, Cunningham is already a valuable defender off the ball thanks to his lengthy frame, and could develop into an on-ball pest with more effort and development.

We’ve seen this type of player fail before – AKA Markelle Fultz in 2017. Fultz projected as the offensive hub and creator Cunningham is, and played for a struggling college team. Cunningham has extra height on Fultz though, and plays the game at his own pace – something that Fultz’s struggled with on the court and off it coming into the draft. Additionally, Cunningham’s a better passer, has more feel and will have to purposely try not to make an impact defensively given his size. The same could not be said for Fultz.

Detroit has seemingly rebuffed offers from Houston at No. 2 overall and Oklahoma City at No. 6 overall to move up. The Pistons are smart to do this, given that Cunningham is a potentially generational player. But Oklahoma City has a lot of ammo, and Detroit would be smart to strangle them with picks until they tap out. The Thunder likely have their cut-off point, and it’s probably not enough for Detroit to give in.

2021 NBA Finals Preview

Whether he plays or not, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a problem in the 2021 NBA Finals.

For Milwaukee, it’s obvious: Antetokounmpo’s presence is the only guaranteed advantage the Bucks hold against the Suns, and even that statement has its limits.

And for Phoenix, the same problem that almost every team in the NBA has faced over the past two years sticks out like a sore thumb: Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare, with positives in every defensive matchup or scheme tough to find.

But for the Suns, some do exist.  In the two regular season games between these two teams – which were both worthy of regular season Game of the Year consideration – Deandre Ayton did an impressive job defending Antetokounmpo on drives and postups, and forced jump shots instead.  He kept a low base, used his hands and moved his feet, and didn’t ever find himself overshooting his eventual recovery in the pick and roll.

Those performances came before Ayton’s ascension as a valuable playoff performer – before he gave Anthony Davis problems in the first round, before he played MVP Nikola Jokic to a draw in the second round and before he didn’t let the Los Angeles Clippers take advantage of him with their small-ball ways in the Western Conference Finals.

So assuming Ayton is the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, that is, when he plays, the matchup may not be as much of a lost cause for Phoenix as one may think.

Milwaukee can make Ayton work and let Antetokounmpo shine by using him as the roll man in the PNR at an even higher usage than it has during the regular season and playoffs, both of which saw a much-needed increase in those types of plays.  This forces maximum movement from Ayton, which while improved, is likely the weakest part of his game defensively aside from some general wavering effort at times.  If done enough – and successfully – it could force the Suns to switch that action more frequently to give Ayton a break.  Depending on the ball-handler, that could pit one of the Suns smaller or more challenged defensive players – Devin Booker or Chris Paul – on Antetokounmpo when he rolls, which is tough sledding for Phoenix.

Of course, the Suns avoid this by putting a more defensively-apt player on the PNR ball-handler – likely Jrue Holiday.  But that requires sacrificing Mikal Bridges – who’s almost certainly going to be glued to Khris Middleton in this series and isn’t someone the Bucks are going to pick on – or Jae Crowder, another astute Antetokounmpo defender.

If Ayton struggles, Crowder is the Suns secret weapon.  He was one of the main reasons for the Bucks’ colossal letdown in the Bubble last season, acting as a one-man wall against Antetokounmpo’s constant straight-line, bull-rush drives to the rim.  Milwaukee’s offense has evolved past that, thanks in part to Middleton’s elevated shot-making and the presence of Holiday as a true point guard.  But Crowder’s history is a positive sign for Phoenix, and can be used at its deposition if Antetokounmpo puts Ayton through hell.

The Bucks don’t have to rely on Antetokounmpo so heavily, even though it gives them the best shot to win the series.  Middleton has proven that he can play to the level of the best player on a championship team at times – his takeover ability has been on display twice this postseason.  Holiday’s shot creation and jump shooting numbers have plummeted in these playoffs, but he’ll likely have one of Booker or Paul on him, which could be a favorable matchup thanks to Booker’s deficiencies defending one-on-one and Paul’s multiple nagging injuries.

Milwaukee might also be forced to not rely on Antetokounmpo.  Listed as questionable for Game 1, his status for the series is completely up in the air.  If he doesn’t play a majority of the games, the Bucks chances of winning this series are quite low.

The MVP of these playoffs so far has been either Booker or Paul.  We’ll see if either of them play at that same level during this series, and in turn win it, but up until this point, the top of the ballot belongs to one or the other. 

That’s why Antetokounmpo’s presence is critical.  As well as Middleton has played, and as high as Holiday’s ceiling is as a creator for himself and others, Booker and Paul are just better at the top skills that Milwaukee’s duo possesses.

The Suns also have many ways to toy with Milwaukee, with Antetokounmpo in the fold or not.  While half of the Bucks’ demise against the Heat in the second round of the playoffs last season had to do with its poor offensive strategy involving the two-time MVP, the other half was its drop PNR defense and lack of switching.

The Bucks experimented with switching throughout the 2020-21 regular season, and deployed it at times against Brooklyn in the second round and in the final two games of their Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Hawks.  It was successful, but perhaps that was out of necessity – Brook Lopez’s constant drifts to the arc of the restricted area were giving Trae Young and company floater after floater. Lopez at least put something menacing in front of drivers.

Playing drop coverage against the Suns is a death sentence.  Booker and Paul have ate well in the postseason with mid-range shots – they’ve been able to get shots off with little space or create it with their crossovers and elevation on jump shots.  If Lopez is dropping as far as he can, Booker and Paul could average 30 points per game this series.  Those are not the guys Milwaukee should be letting beat them – at least willingly.

Lopez’s dropping in the PNR limits opportunities for Ayton offensively, although his sneaky face-up game could emerge in this series.  Ayton is quicker and more athletic than Lopez – he’ll have the advantage if he wants to dabble in some shot creation.  

If and when he plays, the Bucks also have Antetokounmpo to deploy defensively.  The Suns are not going to want him switching or dropping in the PNR, as he matches up way better with Ayton on the roll and could swallow whatever Phoenix guard is the ball-handler.  If Lopez struggles against Ayton, and is toasted when the Bucks potentially switch, Antetokounmpo at the five is the Bucks’ last resort – and it’s a pretty good one.

Lopez’s shortcomings on defense in this series could be made up for on the other end.   Him and Antetokounmpo are a size nightmare for the Suns, who could be forced to play Dario Saric next to Ayton for more minutes than they’d like to.  While it’s possible Ayton could do a good job on Antetokounmpo, Lopez’s ability to space the floor forces Phoenix to give up serious height on three-point attempts, and his post-ups could be overpowering against a smaller wing. 

For the all perhaps overbearing all talk about the NBA being a make-or-miss league these days, parts of that description hold very true in this series.  If the Suns hit enough shots, they can make up for what they’re giving up to Lopez – if they hold true to their usual rotations and don’t increase Sarics’s minutes.  

Phoenix also has to hit shots in this sense: outside of Lopez, the Bucks aren’t going to play anyone the Suns can easily hunt on the defensive end.  Holiday, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, PJ Tucker and Lopez (to a certain degree) are all excellent defenders.  Lopez is the only one the Suns have a real advantage against.  When the shots are there against those defenders, they have to go down – that task falls on Booker and Paul maintaining the level of play they have in these playoffs.  If that production from the backcourt is still there, the Suns probably have the best two players on the court, whether Antetokounmpo is playing or not. But Milwaukee’s defense with or without its best players gives it a huge advantage in the series.

This series is incredibly even, which makes Antetokounmpo’s injury hurt bad for Milwaukee and for fans who want an entertaining series.  The Suns win every game he doesn’t play in – the star-power on their end is just too much for the Bucks to overcome.  While it seems likely he plays eventually, the Suns win at least two games in this series with him on the court.  If he misses one or two contests, that could give the Bucks no hope.  Since Antetokounmpo was likely to play in a Game 7 against the Hawks, he should be back for Game 2 if he doesn’t play Tuesday night.  That extra win should give the Suns the boost they need.

Pick: Suns in 7

Previewing Saturday’s NBA Playoff Series, Plus Knicks-Hawks

Below are previews for the NBA first-round playoff series that get underway on Saturday, plus a look at Knicks-Hawks, which gets underway on Sunday.

No. 6 Miami Heat vs. No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks

The memories of last year’s second-round series between these two teams are still fresh, and still relevant.

It was only October when the Heat unleashed a barrage of three-pointers, walled off Giannis Antetokounmpo in a way never seen done before and triggered an organizational shift within the Bucks’ franchise after knocking Milwaukee out in six games in last season’s playoffs.  

Much has changed.  As pleaded for after the stunning exit, Milwaukee has a real point guard in Jrue Holiday now, and has also embraced a modern and competitive defensive scheme that doesn’t involve the dropping of every player when the pick is ran against him.  

Milwaukee is also the definitively the better team this time around.  Despite its surreal feeling in the moment, the warning signs for a Miami upset in October were there – and almost all of them played out in real-time.

Miami has struggled in 2020-21 since its defeat of the Bucks and subsequent run to the NBA Finals.  The Heat were one of the teams hardest-hit when the COVID-19 virus made its way through the league early in the season, and other players have dealt with long withstanding injuries, including Jimmy Butler, who when healthy, has played at a level perhaps even higher than the one he reached in last year’s playoffs.

Butler’s performance this season might be Miami’s best case in this series.  With the notable struggles of Antetokounmpo when it comes to shot creation and playoff success, and Milwaukee’s still-present lack of a true ball-dominant superstar, Butler has the chance to be the best player on the floor.  The team with that guy tends to win in the postseason.

Miami might not be able to take advantage of Antetokounmpo like it used to though.  The presence of Holiday has been massive, as Antetokounmpo’s offensive numbers are up again thanks to a lesser, more efficient role in the scheme.  In addition, Khris Middleton has seen his productivity bump up in a larger role.  That type of change is rare, but Middleton has flourished as the Bucks’ No. 1 shot-creator in late-game situations this season.

The bottom line is that the Bucks don’t have to rely on Antetokounmpo like they did the last time these two teams met – or like how they did against Toronto in 2019.  

That gives Milwaukee a huge advantage not just in this series, but going forward throughout the playoffs.  While Middleton and Holiday may not be on the level of Brooklyn’s shot creators – or some of the top guys out West – the allure of both them with the spector of Antetokounmpo is a scary thought.

Miami can counter with Butler, but the Heat have felt like one of those Super Bowl hangover teams we see in the NFL each season.  Whether its their fault or not, the Bubble on top of wonky inconsistency this season seems to have the Heat looking more toward next year.  Assuming Milwaukee doesn’t have the same pettiness with its play against, this very well could be the Bucks’ series.

How can Miami really put up a fight?  In addition to Butler continuing his stellar regular season play, winning the shooting battle would help, but that will be harder this time around thanks to Milwaukee’s willingness to switch and the Heat’s overall lower percentages this year.  Tyler Herro has struggled in his second season, and while still plenty lethal, Duncan Robinson isn’t as surprising anymore to opposing defenses.  Jae Crowder was unprecedentedly hot back in October, and the Heat not only don’t have that going for them, but have struggled to fill the hole he left at that spot, and have resorted to playing Trevor Ariza heavy minutes on the wing.  He and Andre Igoudala probably aren’t the athletic duo you want heading deep into the postseason.

There’s also the Bam Adebayo factor, which is undeniable.  His two-way play is among the best in the league, and he’s incredibly underrated at blowing up any actions while incubating the middle of a defense.  The Heat having him as a card to play cannot be taken lightly.  

Much like the Clippers, the feeling that the Bucks are still fools gold is reasonable and still present.  Miami just might have their number, and that needs to be taken into consideration.  It’s unclear whether this is Milwaukee’s year, but it doesn’t seem like it is Miami’s.  That, in conjunction with the steps the Bucks have taken to ensure last year doesn’t happen again, has Milwaukee in the driver’s seat this time around.

Prediction: Milwaukee in 6


Quick hits on Mavericks-Clippers:

  • The Clippers have perhaps been the league’s most underappreciated team this season.  They’ve kicked butt all year long, thanks to Kawhi Leonard sneakily putting up an All-NBA First Team-caliber season and Paul George returning to his 2019 MVP candidate form.  Los Angeles has retooled their roster and offensive system – Ty Lue has installed strict roles for everyone but his two stars on the court, and it’s worked.  The defense is still ranked concerningly low, but the Clippers have flipped the switch more this season than they did in early 2019-20.
  • Dallas has been the opposite of impressive this year.  COVID-19 and injuries have hit them hard, but time and time again it seems as if the Mavericks just don’t show up for games.  They’ve had a similar vibe as the Celtics – who we’ll address next – where effort and defense just seems optional at times, and it leads to slow starts and extremely poor shooting numbers.  
  • That said, after a slow start, Luka Doncic has put together a top-7-or-so MVP season, and he’s still an absolute force to be reckon with.  The Clippers learned that lesson the hard way in last year’s playoffs, where neither Leonard or George could do much against him.  That was with the backdrop of Doc Rivers in place, and when defensive habits of the team plainly just didn’t exist, though.
  • This time around, the Clippers might be smart to let Doncic eat and focus their resources elsewhere on Dallas’ roster.  If an early postseason exit is in the cards for Dallas, it’ll likely trigger big questions this offseason about the makeup of the team around Doncic.  What’s currently there’s just isn’t good enough. 
  • Doncic has been let down too many times.  If Los Angeles focuses on taking away three-pointers for the likes of Tim Hardaway Jr., Josh Richardson and Kristaps Porzingis, then it’s solely a Doncic show.  With the way LA’s two stars have played this season, matching that production should be no problem.
  • Of course, it is still okay to have reasonable doubt about the Clippers after what happened last postseason.  Trusting them, even with the changes they made, is still hard, especially when the defense hasn’t made any real improvement statistically.  Trusting them against a player as good as Doncic is scary as well – he can impact winning in so many ways that it will catch up with you once it’s too late.
  • Still, Dallas has been so hard to trust this year that picking them against a team as talented as the Clippers is just insurmountable.  If LA is flimsy out of the gate, it wouldn’t be surprising, but its culture change should be enough to advance in this series.
  • Prediction: Clippers in 5

No. 7 Boston Celtics vs. No. 2 Brooklyn Nets

The storylines in this series are towering.

The Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade, and how Brooklyn is miraculously in a better spot all these years later.  The Kyrie Irving revenge series for both sides.  Boston’s seemingly lost season, and how much fun this would be if Jaylen Brown was healthy and the Celtics still gave a crap. Whether and however the hell the Nets’ big three will sort things out in the postseason, and whether sample size should be damned or not.

Whew.  That’s a lot. Bring it on.

When one team walks out James Harden, Kevin Durant and Irving onto the court, that’s obviously a problem for the opponent.  So how does Boston even go about containing the trio?  

It likely starts with Jayson Tatum – an underrated defender – on Durant.  That’s a huge ask, given that Tatum will have to be the offense’s focal point with Kemba Walker’s struggles.  But the other options are bleak.  When Tatum isn’t the on the floor, the Celtics are looking at Aaron Nesmith or Evan Fournier as their primary defender on Durant, neither of which inspires confidence.  

Who the Celtics put their guards on between Harden and Irving seems interchangeable.  Walker will seemingly be picked on do his smaller size and lesser defensive ability.  With Harden’s acceleration and deceleration ability, he could be fresh meat, but the same could be said for Walker against Irving, who’s finishing ability is perhaps best in the league.

The Celtics would probably like Smart to fluctuate between the two, and give his all equally to each, limiting their total impact.  But Brooklyn will hunt down wherever the mismatch is, and Walker is going to have to do his best to hold his own.

If the Celtics can’t stop Brooklyn, then they’re going to have to outscore them.  Down Brown, whose offensive game just seems to keep elevating every year for the past two seasons, that will be tough.  

Asking Tatum to do what we’ve hoped he’d do season after season in this series is unreasonable.  He’d have to perform like an MVP candidate or perhaps better to give Boston a realistic chance against the Nets without Brown in the fold.  He is Boston’s only source of consistent offense.

If Walker can play at even his 2019-level self – a season in which he played like he was in his prime and led the collective NBA-sphere to believe that with a jump from Tatum, Boston wouldn’t lose much with Walker replacing Irving – then Boston has better odds of matching Brooklyn’s output.  But Walker’s been a shell of himself due to injuries and a seemingly overall decline in play this year, and once he’s expectedly put through the ringer of numerous Nets screens and picks, being an overwhelmingly net positive will be tough.

Effort could play a huge part in this series, and that applies to both teams.  Boston has had spurts throughout the season where it could simply care less about defense, and it has resulted in early deficits that have been unrecoverable at times.  Against the Brooklyn Big Three, a lack of attention defensively is likely an automatic loss.  At the same time, focusing that energy on offense may also be necessary as well.

The Celtics could gain some luck in the series if Brooklyn decides not to kick it into gear early on.  With teams as good as the Nets, that can tend to be an early theme in games and the series overall.  A laziness from Brooklyn on either end of the floor gives Boston a serious boost. 

It’s likely impossible, but the Celtics can win the series if two things happen: 1) In each game, they take out or get less-than-expected performances from two of three Brooklyn stars and 2) Tatum matches or out-performs the one Nets star left standing.  It will take a stroke of luck, but Tatum’s shown he’s able to play at that level.  With Durant likely guarding him, it will take a real show.

While Brooklyn hasn’t proven anything, its talent is undeniable.  Boston’s ability throughout this season to seemingly lose to anyone on a given night in addition to the latest injuries they have suffered make this series a real long shot for them.  If the Celtics win or make it close one, we’ll be looking at Tatum as an early MVP candidate next season.

Prediction: Brooklyn in 5 


Quick hits on Trail Blazers-Nuggets

  • With or without Jamal Murray, this is a titanic matchup.
  • Murray in the fold would have made this is a classic, but it’s still a hotly contested battle without him.  Neither of these teams play much defense, though the Nuggets’ accquisition of Aaron Gordon seemed to have fixed their biggest problem – when Murray was healthy, the Nuggets looked like the second-best team in the West with Gordon in the middle of their defense.  
  • Portland wasn’t quite the worst defensive team in the league this year statistically, but the eye test made them seem like it, perhaps because of how talented they are on the other end.  Their swapping of Gary Trent Jr. for Norman Powell only expounded the problem.  
  • With all of that said, it’s fair to proclaim that defense may not matter at all this series, with Gordon and Robert Covington being the potential outliers.
  • Damian Lillard has once again been on a late season tear, though it hasn’t been as potent as the ones he’s had in years past.  A top-10 MVP candidate once again, Lillard has the chance to be the best player on the floor in this series from a shot-creation stand-point, depending on how much more Nikola Jokic can do.
  • Portland has zero answers for Jokic.  Jursurf Nurkic has topped out defensively, and his limited mobility hasn’t improved the Trail Blazers’ overall defensive numbers this season.  Jokic has evolved into the type of player who can get practically any shot he wants and do whatever he pleases on the court.  At his size, there’s no stopping that no matter what your personnel is.
  • Then there is Michael Porter Jr. to deal with, who has turned into the scoring wing we hoped he’d be in the absence of Murray.  His numbers have been obscene since stepping into a larger role, and will put a huge burden on Covington, whose defense has just slipped more and more over the years – he has not been worth the two first round picks Portland gave up for him in the offseason.
  • Denver has guys to throw at Lillard – the absence of Murray does not hurt them here.  PJ Dozier, Will Barton, Austin Rivers and even Aaron Gordon can all use their length and defensive prowess to slow him down.  In addition, all could be effective trapping against Lillard – though that comes with riskier sacrifices as Powell is much more of a threat than anyone else Portland has had in the past around its two guards.
  • CJ McCollum has a chance to make even more of a name for himself this postseason.  If Denver throws all it can at Lillard, McCollum and Powell still represent a potent punch.  Like Lillard, McCollum could be the best shot creator on the floor in this series.  If he can step into that, Denver is in trouble without its franchise guard on the floor.
  • This might be the hardest series to pick in the first round.  Both teams are equally unstoppable for each other – Jokic will pick Portland apart, where as Denver just may not have enough to account for all of the Trail Blazers’ scoring options.  That said, Portland might have no realistic shot at stopping the Jokic-MPJ duo, and the Nuggets can throw guys at Lillard while using Gordon as a switcher.  This series goes seven games, but any potential outcome is on the table here.
  • Prediction: Nuggets in 7

No. 5 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 4 New York Knicks

This is simply an awesome series because it seemed impossible before the season that this would ever occur.

You cannot go wrong with either Monty Williams or Tom Thibodeau for Coach of the Year.  The Hub had the Knicks projected as the worst team in basketball this season, and they’re now in the playoffs.

There’s not much credit to spread around for the Knicks’ success aside from Thibs.  He’s turned Julius Randle into a legitimate No. 1 option on a good team via drives and isolated pull-up jumpers – an astonishing accomplishment in player development given Randle’s former prowess as a traditional power forward and his inability to do the same just a year ago.  The Knicks are fourth in defense and have Nerlens Noel playing a leading role in that. They also have Derrick Rose upgrading their rotation and are getting a diamond in the rough with a late first-rounder in Immanuel Quickley.

Atlanta’s rise is less stunning but perhaps as dramatic.  Expected to take a step forward this year, a slow start due to a faltering coaching situation and numerous injuries to key contributors led to a late season rise from the Hawks and Nate McMillan, who also has a good case for COTY if not for his lack of games at the helm.  The Hawks have been a different team under him, as Bogdan Bogdanovic has been the microwave scorer they hoped while Trae Young has underwhelmed but not gotten worse this season.  In addition, Clint Capela has been purely dominant, and has a top-3 case for Defensive Player of the Year and a spot on Third Team All-NBA, and DeAndre Hunter – when healthy (which he should be for these playoffs)– has hit the ceiling pegged for him as an impact defender.

Despite all of that, this matchup is quite simple.  If the Knicks’ success this season still seems improbable and unexplainable, that’s because it is.  This is going to be and has been the Randle show, and if you can stop him, the Knicks are much easier to reign in.  

The Hawks have options.  Hunter’s health is key, but throwing a big, strong wing at Randle who outmatches his foot speed and will force him to settle for jumpers is a solid choice for McMillan.  Capela has earned the right of drivers to respect his menacing as a rim protector – guys don’t like going down there against him.  Randle could be in for the same experience, even though his size greatly outweighs those who typically press against Capela.  John Collins gives the Hawks a little bit of both Hunter and Capela, with size but quicker athleticism.  Tony Snell – whose offensive production has been amongst the top in the league statistically this season – is another long athlete Atlanta could deploy.

How much is Randle up for?  That’s the big question in this series.  He’ll likely need to elevate his game once again to give New York a chance.

The Hawks seem to have just too many weapons.  Even if the mix of Elfrid Payton and perhaps Frank Ntilikina can swallow Young, the Knicks are likely throwing Reggie Bullock at Bogdanovic, and still have other shooters and scorers like Kevin Huerter, Snell, Collins, Cam Reddish and Lou Williams to deal with.  While Quickley can get hot seemingly any night, and RJ Barrett can pour in points as well, Randle is going to have to put the team on his back in ways he hasn’t done before.  If New York wins this series, Randle comes out of it as a favorite to actually make All-NBA next year, if he doesn’t already sneak on this season. 

Prediction: Atlanta in 5

What Each NFL Team Should Do With Its First Round Pick

The following is a culmination of the Hub’s work on the 2021 NFL Draft.  Below is a What-Should-Happen Mock Draft of Thursday’s first round that features no trades, followed by a diagnosis of notable prospects who were left out of the first round and big boards of players at almost every position.

Here we go.

No. 1, Jacksonville Jaguars: QB, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson

Lawrence will have the chance to put the Jaguars legitimately on the map for the first time in a while, and he’s not walking into a tire-fire situation that most teams selecting No. 1 overall are.

The former Clemson star with have good weapons and smart coaching around him in Year 1.  Urban Meyer as a play-caller should make Jacksonville an at-least decent team next season, assuming he doesn’t lose the locker room as a rookie head coach who’s never led at the NFL level.

Lawrence is about as sure of a thing as one can get.  His only caveat is whether he can live up to it.

No. 2, New York Jets: QB, Justin Fields, Ohio State

As discussed on Monday, the slide Fields is likely to endure on Thursday night is completely irresponsible.  He should be the Jets’ pick here.

Fields performed beautifully at one of the highest levels out of anyone in this draft.  While Zach Wilson’s traits are just as tantalizing, Fields is just a better guarantee given his experience against good competition.  His dual-threat ability and accuracy is supreme to Wilson’s, and his arm isn’t much worse.  Additionally, Fields’ durability and size at the next level is of zero concern, whereas Wilson’s tall but slight frame – paired with his scrambling – can make one a tad worried.

Fields won’t be the pick here, and who knows where he will end up, but regardless, the Jets come out of this pick better off than they were in 2018 when they drafted Sam Darnold.  For all of Wilson’s cons, his potential is sky high.  Whether that translates or not is something New York probably shouldn’t be betting on, though.

No. 3, San Francisco 49ers: QB, Trey Lance, North Dakota State

Whether Fields is here or not on Thursday night, Lance should be San Francisco’s pick at No. 3.

Rumors have varied about the 49ers’ willingness to keep Jimmy Garoppolo as next year’s starter.  After the trade, it seemed like he’d be around at least another year – if not two.  But recent reports indicate that Garoppolo could be moved by the end of the draft, and that whoever this pick is for the 49ers will be the team’s starter in the fall.

If the intention is to keep Garoppolo, Lance is the perfect pick.  He’s the exception to the rule of starting your first-round quarterback in year one, as his sky-high potential will follow him learning how to succeed against upper-level talent and adapting to high passing volume schemes.  San Francisco can keep Garoppolo under center, still be remotely competitive and not put themselves in financial hell to get out of his contract while Lance develops.

Due to that, Lance is probably the right pick even if Fields is still here, because Fields would be wasted by being benched.  

Lance would bring back memories of the Robert Griffin III-Kyle Shanahan duo back in Washington.  Even though Shanahan tends to like lower ceiling, stable QBs, Lance is too good of a prospect to pass up here.  If the 49ers are patient, he’ll eventually be the upgrade they’re looking for over Garoppolo.

No. 4, Atlanta Falcons: TE, Kyle Pitts, Florida

Atlanta should trade down.  While Pitts is potentially a generational talent, they don’t truly need him in an offense that is already pretty loaded with weapons – and will have competent coaching for the first time in years.  Assuming Matt Ryan isn’t totally washed, the Falcons offense just needs to stay healthy in 2021 to be successful.

But if Atlanta can’t trade down to land an impact defender (literally any type – cornerback, edge, linebacker… it doesn’t matter), Pitts has to be the pick.  There’s no one worth reaching for with him on the board.  While the Falcons committed to Hayden Hurst last offseason at the tight end position, Pitts can easily assume the No. 3 wide receiver role ahead of Russell Gage, and create a titanic arsenal featuring Julio Jones (who should not be traded unless a first round pick and more is the offer) and Calvin Ridley.

Quarterback has been a popular pick for Atlanta here throughout the offseason, but the team just restructured Matt Ryan’s contract to make his dead cap unrecoverable after next season.  That would mean whichever quarterback Atlanta takes would be sitting not for just next season, but the year after as well.  The Falcons would be better off taking Pitts, making the best of Ryan for the next two years and resetting at the position heading into the 2023 Draft.

No. 5, Cincinnati Bengals: WR, DeVonta Smith, Alabama

Like Atlanta, the Bengals should probably consider trading down here.

As written about on Wednesday, Cincinnati is in better shape on its offensive line than given credit for.  Help is needed inside, but it’s unjustifiable to take either Alijah Vera-Tucker or Rashawn Slater, both of whom can play guard, over Penei Sewell here.

With the offensive line out of consideration, the focus moves to wide receiver.  While the Bengals are also sneakily taken care of there, they still lack a reliable No. 1 option, as Tee Higgins might be suited best as a No. 2 on the outside.

Smith is that primary guy. Ranked No. 1 on the Hub’s wide receiver board, the Heisman Trophy winner simply knows how to get open.  He’s a silky smooth route runner who uses his length to reach out and grab any ball.  His footwork gets all the hype, but Smith also uses his speed and long legs to simply run past defensive backs and never look back.  He also has the surest hands in the draft – a nice bonus considering how open he consistently is.

The biggest worry with Smith is a legit one: At 166 pounds and 6’1, he’s a pure bean-pole.

It’s odd to see that he weighed in so low.  Throughout the college football season, Smith looked thin and lengthy, but didn’t play like it.  He was able to stave off defenders and was never roughed up.  Smith plays bigger than his weight, but he’s also going to be dealing with bigger, more mature defenders who could bring a heftier pop in the NFL.

Smith’s weight is less of a concern than JaMarr Chase’s time off.  While Chase was fantastic at LSU, he did benefit from Joe Burrow and Justin Jefferson being on his team.  Those two just put up some of the best rookie seasons we’ve ever seen.  Is a third outbreak really coming from that same LSU roster?  That seems improbable.  Chase is not a bad prospect, but Smith’s ability to get open is just that special.

No. 6, Miami Dolphins: OT, Penei Sewell, Oregon

The Dolphins are ecstatic to land Sewell here, who caps off the building of their offensive line to protect Tua Tagovailoa.

Sewell was pegged as a generational talent out of high school, and while he’s still quite good, that label has worn its course.  He’s still the best offensive lineman in this class, and will be an immediate plug and play stalwart for the Dolphins for years to come.  

No. 7, Detroit Lions: WR, JaMarr Chase, LSU

Detroit could go a couple of different places here, including trading down, but its No. 1 priority this season should be to find out whether Jared Goff is a viable starting quarterback or not.

That answer is seemingly obvious, but the Lions new front office hails from Los Angeles, where Goff was originally drafted.  They might have their own plans for Goff, and believe in him more than the Rams had time for given their win-now roster.

Detroit had an active offseason at wide receiver – they lost Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr. while replacing them with Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman, which isn’t exactly the two-for-two swap you want.  But Chase can improve their receiving core instantly, and can likely emerge as a No. 1 option immediately with his speed and physicality on the line.  He’s strong and quite large for his 6’1 frame, and should become Goff’s most trusted weapon this season.

No. 8, Carolina Panthers: CB, Patrick Surtain II, Alabama

This might seem high, but the Panthers don’t have too many holes on the defensive side of the ball.  Surtain II is the best cornerback in the draft, and with AJ Bouye suspended for six games to begin the season, Carolina will need a sturdy replacement.  Surtain III also figures to be an upgrade over Donte Jackson at the other corner spot, making this pick a perfect one.

The Panthers should probably investigate trading down, as the other holes they need to fill are a little too rich for the No. 8 overall pick.  That said, Carolina goes as far as Sam Darnold takes them, and making sure its defense is spot free allows the Panthers brass to evaluate him as cleanly as possible.

No. 9, Denver Broncos: LB, Micah Parsons, Penn State

This pick for Denver changed significantly with its trade for Teddy Bridgewater on Wednesday.

With either Drew Lock or Bridgewater under center, the Broncos will need zero holes in their defense.  That group will be carrying them, and Parsons fills their last need.

Parsons is a freak.  He’s built like a middle linebacker but moves like a hybrid player, and reads the opposing quarterback like he’s actually the quarterback.  Parsons stuffs the run, can blitz and blow up passing plays and drop into coverage like a safety.  He’s incredibly versatile, and can do anything a coordinator asks.

Off the field concerns are valid – Parsons was implicated in hazing and bullying accusations while at Penn State.  Those are not qualities you want in a leader on the defensive side of the ball, but he’s joining a defense laden with veterans who will put him in his place if he acts up.

No. 10, Dallas Cowboys: OT, Rashawn Slater, Northwestern

Slater – for now – projects as a guard for the Cowboys, whose offensive line is stacked aside from some youth on the inside.  He represents the future at tackle once Tyron Smith retires, but the future Hall of Famer shows no signs of slowing down.

Slater is a massive human being who has fantastic feet, which qualifies him for both guard and tackle on the line.  Slater smashed in between Smith and Tyler Biadasz at center recreates the behemoth line Dallas possessed prior to Travis Frederick’s retirement, and addresses a major weakness from last year’s forgotten season.

No. 11, New York Giants: OT, Alijah Vera-Tucker, USC

The Giants wish they could land Slater, but take the next best lineman available in Vera-Tucker, who like Slater, can play either guard or tackle.

New York would use Vera-Tucker at guard in the short-term, similar to how Dallas would use Slater.  It drafted Andrew Thomas at tackle last year, and has Nate Solder on the other side.  Will Hernandez is another young player on the line who should man one guard spot, leaving a spot for Vera-Tucker, and wide open running lanes for Saquon Barkley.

No. 12, Philadelphia Eagles: WR, Rashod Bateman, Minnesota

Bateman will not go this high, and certainly won’t go ahead of Jaylen Waddle, but the Minnesota product is perhaps one of the most underrated players in this draft.  Ranked No. 3 on the Hub’s wide receiver board, Bateman might be the safest pass catcher in this class outside of Pitts.  He’s big, sturdy and can run routes incredibly efficiently for his size.

This pick might seem redundant after the Eagles took Jalen Reagor in the first round last year, but adding Bateman to the picture gives Philly an all-the-sudden loaded weapons core for second-year QB Jalen Hurts.

Bateman goes ahead of Waddle due to consistency.  We’ll get into it below, but while Waddle’s big play ability is intoxicating, it can also be unsustainable at times.  Bateman is more of a sure bet to make an impact right away, which is what Philadelphia needs.

No. 13, Los Angeles Chargers: OT, Christian Darrisaw, Virginia Tech

The Chargers join the massive run on offensive linemen by selecting Darrisaw, who’s another incredibly solid tackle at the top of this draft.  After nailing Justin Herbert’s selection last year, Los Angeles has to ensure they can protect their franchise quarterback.  Darrisaw takes care of one end of the line, with former Packer stalwart Bryan Bulaga manning the other.

No. 14, Minnesota Vikings: DE, Azeez Ojulari, Georgia

The Vikings miss out on the run on offensive lineman – a position they could sorely use – but fill a different hole with Ojulari.  The lengthy and bendy defensive end is the best in his admittingly weak class, but that doesn’t reduce his effectiveness.  Ojulari screams off the edge with explosive power, and is absolutely chilised in his upper body, making his fantastic athleticism a scary attribute.  Pairing him with Danielle Hunter should give Minnesota the fearsome pass rush they once had back for good.

No. 15, New England Patriots: LB, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame

New England has almost zero holes, and if they don’t trade up for a quarterback, then a trade down here depending on who is available might make the most sense.

As covered on Monday, the Patriots taking Wilson – even in the unlikely scenario that he falls to them (like now) – isn’t worth the gamble.  He’s too far from a sure thing, and it’s super easy to buy into a Cam Newton bounce-back season if that is the direction they decide to go (It seems like Garrappolo might be their path forward, though).  

Enter Owusu-Koramoah.  The Notre Dame linebacker is a bit tricky of an evaluation, because the success of players like him in the NFL has been limited (Isaiah Simmons’ rookie season was…. not great).  He’s also a little small for the position, which is why some teams see him truly as a safety.

He’s one of those do-it-all defenders, similar to the way Parsons is.  But Owusu-Koramoah is even more versatile, which also means he might be a little too in over his head.  If anyone is going to put him in the right spot, it’s New England, who could use one more linebacker alongside the return of Kyle Van Noy and Donta Hightower.

No. 16, Arizona Cardinals: CB, Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech

The concern over Farley’s medicals are legit – and even scary.

But Farley would be CB1 on the Hub’s board if not for them.  The Virginia Tech product is a freak – long arms, 6’2 with lockdown potential.  Farley would be the perfect replacement for Patrick Peterson, and pair nicely with Byron Murphy Jr.

Arizona doesn’t have a lot of other places to go with this pick.  Its roster is sneakily loaded, and just needs to execute next year, making the risk of Farley – a player who had back surgery after playing zero games in 2020 (opt-out), had back spasms the year prior and has dealt with a torn ACL – a justifiable yet terrifying one.  The talent is there.  Farley just needs to stay on the field, and is worth the first round gamble for a team that can afford it.

No. 17, Las Vegas Raiders: OT, Teven Jenkins, Oklahoma State

Las Vegas’ total teardown of its talented offensive line this offseason remains puzzling, but beginning to restock here can put up a pretty convincing front.  Jenkins installed on one end leaves Kolton Miller and Richie Incognito on the other side, which is still a quality group.

Jenkins doesn’t have the ceiling that the linemen taken above him do, but he can play multiple positions and works incredibly hard.  His lacking athleticism might see him kicked inside at a point during his career, but with Gabe Jackson out in Vegas as well, Jenkins can play wherever the Raiders want him to.

No. 18, Miami Dolphins: DE, Jaelan Phillips, Miami

It might be puzzling to not see receiver be the pick here, but like last year, this class is loaded, and the position can wait for the Dolphins, who are in better already thanks to the addition of Will Fuller.  

Miami continues to build in the trenches with this local pick.  Phillips is incredibly talented, and will likely go higher than this on Thursday night, but medical and effort concerns seem to be hovering around his stock.  That said, Phillips’ length and athleticism is tantalizing, and he has the chance to be a completely unstoppable force in the NFL if he stays healthy and is kept on the right track.  Miami’s culture is top-notch, and they could use a presence like Phillips in its front seven.

No. 19, Washington Football Team: QB, Zach Wilson, BYU

If Washington wants Wilson on Thursday night, they’re going to have to come way up.  He will obviously not be here at this pick.

Should he be?  Wilson clocks in at QB4 on the Hub’s board, and as covered above and on Wednesday, just isn’t worth the risk for New England (Garoppolo is even a better option). No other teams after San Francisco need a quarterback, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Carolina or Denver do something dumb considering the rumors that have been floating around – the same goes for Detroit, though that would be less dumb on its part.

If Washington is somehow able to grab Wilson – here or in a trade up – it makes sense.  That roster is too good to let Ryan Fitzpatrick govern, and Wilson has the potential to elevate it.  Lance or Fields also make sense for Washington, as they’d be better off handing the keys to Fitzpatrick than attaching themselves to Mac Jones long-term.

No. 20, Chicago Bears: OT, Alex Leatherwood, Alabama

This might seem high, but a lot of teams around the league need tackles, including Chicago.

Leatherwood is another safe pick whose ceiling is probably lower than others.  He’s SEC-battled tested, and has mammoth size.  Like Jenkins, that size – and therefore lack of athleticism – could kick him inside, but the Bears could very well go guard as well early in the draft.  Trading down would be in Chicago’s best interest here.

No. 21, Indianapolis Colts: DE, Kwity Paye, Michigan

It says a lot about this pass rushing class that Paye, a stubby end who’s a little short for his heavy weight, is the third best prospect at his position.

It’s just not a super talented group this year.  But that doesn’t mean Paye won’t be effective.  The Colts sorely need a presence on the edge, and Paye plays with a lot of power and has good feet given his size.  The concern is that he’s not any more athletic than the tackles he will face, but Indianapolis needs any pressure they can get right now.

No. 22, Tennessee Titans: WR, Jaylen Waddle, Alabama

Waddle will almost certainly not fall this far – his teammate DeVonta Smith might, though.

Tennessee gets incredible value here with Waddle, who seems destined to underwhelm given how much he’s been compared to Tyreek Hill in the pre-draft cycle.  While Waddle is bigger and longer than Hill, he’s just not as fast – which is ridiculous to say considering how fast Waddle is in general.  

Comparing receivers to Hill is unfair to Hill, and it will eventually become unfair to Waddle.  Waddle is certainly a big play machine, but he’s going to make those plays via route-running and tackle shedding.  Hill simply runs away from people.

That’s why Waddle is lower than perhaps expected on the Hub’s board.  He’s a bit of a boom-or-bust player.  He’s not fast enough to blow by defensive backs like Hill, or even like his former Alabama teammate and 2020 first-round pick Henry Ruggs III.

Waddle would excel, however, next to AJ Brown, who’d still be Tennessee’s No. 1 option.  Surrounding talent will be key to Waddle’s success, as he’s just not going to be reliable enough to be a lead receiver at the next level.

No. 23, New York Jets: CB, Greg Newsome II, Northwestern

Outside of quarterback and cornerback, the Jets roster isn’t in as bad of shape as one would expect entering Thursday night.

That’s why New York is plugging those holes in this first round mock.  With Fields at the top and Newsome II here, the Jets address their two biggest needs, and head into 2021 looking like a potentially competent team.

Newsome II has been a late riser the past couple months, and it’s understandable given his length and ball-hawking mentality.  Newsome II gets the edge over Jaycee Horn because of his ability to stay disciplined and still be aggressive.

No. 24, Pittsburgh Steelers: OT, Liam Eichenberg, Notre Dame

This is a reach, but the run on tackles early left Pittsburgh in a bit of a bind, and it’s hard to argue for the Steelers taking any other position in the first round.  Another safe bet, Eichenberg should be a bookend for the Steelers for a long time to come.

No. 25, Jacksonville Jaguars: S, Trevon Moehrig, TCU

Like the Jets, Jacksonville is sneakily lacking with holes outside of quarterback.  Here with Moehrig, the Jaguars address their second-biggest need and enter 2021 in quite good standing.

No. 26, Cleveland Browns: LB, Zaven Collins, Tulsa

It seems likely that Collins will go well before this on Thursday night, but the Browns land an ultra-capable and sorely needed linebacker to their defense in him here.  The Tulsa product can do a variety of things on the field, though his large frame may scare teams off regarding how legit those abilities are.

No. 27, Baltimore Ravens: C, Landon Dickerson, Alabama

Dickerson is the safest unsafe prospect in this draft.

If he’s able to stay healthy, he’ll be a starting center in the NFL for 10-plus years.  But the Alabama cornerstone dealt with a major injury every year of his college career, and could just be broken, which is a massive shame.

He’s worth the risk, especially for a Baltimore team that desperately needs a center after the position was a constant source of struggle last year.  Dickerson has versatility, and can easily play guard, making him more attractive to other teams as well, but if the Ravens land him, expect him to be inserted at the helm of the line right away.

No. 28, New Orleans Saints: LB, Jamin Davis, Kentucky

The Saints scoop up the last linebacker remaining who’s first round worthy in Davis, and fill a hole on their defense.  Receiver is also certainly in play here, but Davis’ length and size forecasts him as a force in the New Orleans front seven.

No. 29, Green Bay Packers: C, Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma

Like New Orleans, Green Bay could certainly go receiver and make Aaron Rodgers happy, but having a line to protect him should be first on the priority list, especially considering that Rodgers had a MVP season last year with a weak set of weapons.

The Packers offensive line has fallen off substantially in the past year, and losing Corey Linsley to the Chargers in free agency opens up a hole at center.  Humphrey is arguably the best at his position in this draft, contingent on how one feels about Dickerson’s medicals.  This might be a reach, but this spot on the line makes the most sense for Green Bay at this point in the draft.

No. 30, Buffalo Bills: CB, Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State

The Bills have the second-best roster in football, so figuring out where to add to it is tough.  Samuel Jr. is the best cornerback available, and while Levi Wallace is by no means a bad player, Buffalo could seek to upgrade the spot adjacent to Tre’Davious White with this pick.

Samuel Jr. is his father reincarnated, though he has a lot to live up to.

No. 31, Baltimore Ravens: WR, Rondale Moore, Purdue

After addressing the line a couple picks prior, Baltimore can play around with this pick.

While the Ravens added some receivers to the mix in the offseason, neither of them are likely to move the needle.  Moore, despite his concerningly small size, is an absolute play-maker who would help bring Baltimore’s offense back to its 2019-level.

No. 32, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB, Najee Harris, Alabama

Tampa Bay has the best roster in the league and practically zero holes.

The idea of drafting a running back in the first round is usually idiotic, but the position is the one need the Buccaneers have.  In addition, Najee Harris is far and away the best running back in this class, and has the chance to be something quite special at the next level.  Crowd-sourcing the position with the likes of Leonard Fournette isn’t going to remain viable, and Harris gives the Bucs a reliable and versatile option.

How did these guys not go in the first round?

  • Jaycee Horn: Horn is just too undisciplined and aggressive as a cornerback coming into the league.  Multiple safer options exist in this class.
  • Mac Jones: Covered Monday.  You just don’t draft average talent in the first round, or even the second.
  • Travis Etienne: Far and away the second-best back in this class, but at the end of the day, is still a running back.
  • Gregory Rousseau Jr: A top high school recruit who never really lived up the billing and has a small sample size.  Incredible potential, but a lot needs to go right.
  • Joe Tyron: In a weak class, better ends just exist.
  • Jayson Oweh: Pressure without sacks is a legitimate skill in the NFL, but you can’t have that label coming out of college and be a first-round pick.  Sorry.
  • Carlos Basham Jr.: Like Tyron, better ends just exist.  He should be a solid contributor for somebody in year one, though.
  • Elijah Moore: Reminiscent of a Jalen Reagor from last year, just less fast, which makes him a tough evaluation.
  • Terrace Marshall Jr.: A really intriguing prospect, but issues medically and off-the-field contribute to his fall.  His length is among the best in this class, and is a silky smooth route-runner.
  • Levi Onwuzurike: It’s a bad defensive line class overall and Onwuzurike feels the burden of that.  He should still be a contributor for somebody in year one.
  • Kadarius Toney: Gadget players aren’t first-round picks.

Select big boards:

QBs:

  1. Trevor Lawrence
  2. Justin Fields
  3. Trey Lance
  4. Zach Wilson
  5. Kyle Trask
  6. Mac Jones
  7. Davis Mills
  8. Ian Book
  9. Kellen Mond

RBs:

  1. Najee Harris
  2. Travis Etienne
  3. Chuba Hubbard
  4. Javonte Williams
  5. Kenneth Gainwell
  6. Jermar Jefferson
  7. Kylin Hill

WRs:

(Oh boy)

  1. DeVonta Smith
  2. JaMarr Chase
  3. Rashod Bateman
  4. Jaylen Waddle
  5. Rondale Moore
  6. Terrace Marshall Jr.
  7. Tylan Wallace
  8. Elijah Moore
  9. Amari Rodgers
  10. Amon-Ra St. Brown
  11. Seth Williams
  12. Kadarius Toney
  13. Josh Palmer
  14. Anthony Schwartz
  15. Dyami Brown
  16. Frank Darby
  17. Dax Milne
  18. Marlon Williams

TEs:

  1. Kyle Pitts
  2. Tommy Tremble
  3. Pat Freiermuth
  4. Ben Mason

OL:

Positions fluctuate for most of the linemen in this class, so we’re ranking them as a whole based on their flexibility and pure talent.  Note: Mock draft may not match big board order.  Also: Oh boy.

  1. Penei Sewell
  2. Rashawn Slater
  3. Alijah Vera-Tucker
  4. Christian Darrisaw
  5. Teven Jenkins
  6. Alex Leatherwood
  7. Landen Dickerson
  8. Liam Eichenburg
  9. Creed Humphrey
  10. Samuel Cosmi
  11. Wyatt Davis
  12. Jalen Mayfield
  13. Walker Little
  14. Brady Christensen
  15. Trey Smith
  16. Stone Forsythe
  17. Dillion Radunz
  18. Spencer Brown
  19. Ben Cleveland
  20. Ben Meinerz

DEs:

  1. Azeez Ojulari
  2. Jaelan Phillips
  3. Kwity Paye
  4. Gregory Rousseau Jr.
  5. Joe Tyron
  6. Carlos Basham Jr.
  7. Ronnie Perkins
  8. Jayson Oweh

DTs:

  1. Christian Barmore
  2. Levi Onwuzurike
  3. Milton Williams
  4. Daviyon Nixon

LBs:

  1. Micah Parsons
  2. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
  3. Zaven Collins
  4. Jamin Davis
  5. Jabril Cox
  6. Pete Werner
  7. Dylan Moses
  8. Nick Bolton
  9. Baron Browning

CBs:

  1. Patrick Surtain II
  2. Caleb Farley
  3. Greg Newsome II
  4. Asante Samuel Jr.
  5. Jaycee Horn
  6. Kelvin Joseph
  7. Tyson Campbell
  8. Eric Stokes
  9. Shaun Wade