National Football Authority

Football fans know his name. They know his game. Equally important, they know his hair.

Troy Polamalu was a household name around the NFL for more than a decade. He spent 12 seasons in the league, all of them with the Pittsburgh Steelers, during which time he developed a reputation as one of the most effective defensive backs alive.

This all begs the question: Where does he rank on the Steelers’ list of all-time greats?

Answering with “pretty high” is fitting. But it’s interesting to consider just how high.

Polamalu racked up 583 solo tackles and 32 interceptions over the course of his career. With him in the secondary, the Steelers routinely fielded one of the NFL’s most feared defenses. He won the ultimate honor for someone on the less glamorous side of the ball in 2010, when he snagged the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.

For nearly a half-decade, Polamalu cracked the NFL’s top-100 list. That’s not easy to do as a defensive back. Those exercises typically favor quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. Polamalu, though, ranked as high as No. 6, a spot he earned in 2011.

Looking back, he essentially reinvented the safety position. So many of today’s versatile standouts owe their job description to Polamalu. He was a trail-blazer for those who didn’t want to be considered niche defenders in any specific packages. He was an every-down guy in the secondary at a time when those weren’t all that common.

Pinpointing where he ranks in Steelers lore isn’t exactly easy. The franchise has a rich history of immensely talented players. It makes most sense to start with those who we know rank in front of him.

That list is short: Joe Greene, Mel Blount and Jack Lambert are the only ones worth including. From there, you could also put Polamalu behind guys like Franco Harris, Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw, Antonio Brown, Jack Ham and Donnie Shell. There are arguments to be had across the board here, many of which will end with split hairs.

Then again, Polamalu’s staying power has to matter. He didn’t just reimagine the functionality of the safety position. He stuck around for 12 years in a league where the average career span is less than four seasons.

So let’s call a spade a spade: Troy Polamalu is one of the five best players to ever suit up for Steelers.

September 21st, 2012

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Training camps are important for every NFL team. They give squads a chance to incorporate new additions, groom rookies, get veterans into shape and, of course, fill empty roster spots. No franchise will say training camp is unimportant.

At the same time, each and every year, it is more pivotal for select teams. Next season, the Cleveland Browns will be among that group of squads.

Most of the core players are expected back, and the team doesn’t have to worry about holding a quarterback tryout. Baker Mayfield has underwhelmed under center, but not so much that his job is in jeopardy entering the third year of his career. Continuity at the league’s most important position is a valuable ingredient.

However, the Browns have a ton of other battles and questions that will be facing them. Above all, they have to worry about the health of star wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr.

Both will be returning from offseason surgeries. Though neither one’s injury is considered particularly serious, they will each lose valuable time to train. Getting them in game shape could take longer than usual, and there’s always the chance one of them isn’t the same compared to seasons past. Cleveland might even want to think about spending big in free agency on another receiver or tight end to hedge its bets against potential regression from OBJ or Landry.

Equally important, the Browns will have a lot of new faces on the offensive line. They have holes both on the ends and the inside of the offensive line. They’ll no doubt draft a guard and tackle, and they’re expected to add at least one more in free agency.

And while the importance of offensive linemen is often overlooked, it really shouldn’t be. There’s a reason that quarterbacks and running backs buy gifts for their offensive linemen when they’re in the midst of a career season. They understand that run-blocking and pass protection is paramount.

Cleveland struggled mightily in both areas last year. That needs to be addressed immediately and in a big way if the team is going to clinch its first playoff bid since 2002. And no matter how many talented options they sign for the offensive line, they need Mayfield to get reps with the newest additions so that he can develop timing and chemistry on snap counts and every-down tendencies.

So yeah, the Browns are not unique in that they’ll have much to do during training camp this year. They will, however, have more riding on it than most others.

August 26th, 2012

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Tim Hightower had quite a bizarre NFL career.

The weirdness started before he even entered the league. He wasn’t invited to the Draft Combine and needed to stand out at a Pro Day to gain any sort of traction. He would up being selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the fifth round of the 2008 draft.

After a somewhat disappointing rookie season, Hightower came on strong during his second- and third-year campaigns. Through those two seasons, he totaled 1,334 yards and 13 touchdowns while averaging a solid 4.5 yards per carry. He also developed a reputation as a solid pass-catcher out of the backfield, adding another 564 yards through the air.

In the 2011 offseason, however, the Cardinals opted to go in a different direction and traded Hightower to the Washington Redskins. The latter badly needed a punch on the ground, and Hightower projected as the perfect fit, as someone who could both burst off the line scrimmage to rattle off big gains and also add a pass-catching dynamic out of the backfield.

Unfortunately, his tenure in Washington didn’t unfold as planned. Not only did Hightower’s average run plummet behind the Redskins’ shaky offensive line, but he tore his ACL a mere five games into the season, leaving him out for the year.

Though Washington re-signed him on a one-year deal that summer, the team ended up cutting him before the start of the regular season, mostly because they wanted to create more volume for rookie running back Alfred Morris.

In retrospect, there was nothing too wrong with that decision. Hightower ended up missing the next three NFL seasons before making a return with the New Orleans Saints in 2015. It was there, however, that he pieced together a stellar showing as Mark Ingram’s backup. His average yards per run hovered around four, and he continued to make the more-than-occasional play as a receiver.

Really, the entire NFL gave up on Hightower too early. There’s no way he should have been out of the league for that long, even with his injury history. Washington specifically, though, seemed to miss an opportunity.

They never needed to cut Hightower to make room for Morris. Hightower had cut his teeth as a No. 2 and No. 3 running back. He could have fit easily into the rotation and would have added more of a pass-catching dynamic Morris never fully sported. Chalk this up to another example of hindsight being 20/20.

August 9th, 2012

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In recent years, under head coach and president Jon Gruden, the Las Vegas Raiders, formerly the Oakland Raiders, have failed from a personnel perspective.

They traded Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears for future picks. They flipped Amari Cooper to the Dallas Cowboys. And most notably, they traded for Antonio Brown from the Pittsburgh Steelers, only to see his stock both on and off the field combust and release him without any sort of compensation.

This is not the way to run an NFL team—trading guys who fit your more gradual timeline for win-now players who suggest you’re further along in your rebuild than you really are.

It would have been fine if the Raiders dealt Mack and Cooper and then acted like a normal rebuilding franchise. They didn’t. The Brown acquisition proved as much. Worse still, they don’t seem to have changed their ways. They’ve been linked to signing soon-to-be 43-year-old quarterback Tom Brady to replace Derek Carr under center.

This shouldn’t stand. It can’t stand. The Raiders are not ready to compete for a Super Bowl. They finished 7-9 last year, but they’re not on the precipice of anything special. To wit: They ranked 27th in Simple Rating System, a metric that grades teams by accounting for their point differential and strength of schedule. By this measure, the Raiders were, very comfortably, a bottom-seven team.

No one free-agency signing is going to change that. The Raiders have to recognize this. They have to get back to the more deliberate thinking that prevailed in 2012 free agency.

Indeed, that version of the Raiders wasn’t good either. But they had the opportunity to sign an aging Plaxico Burress, who despite not playing in 2009 or 2010, remained a Super Bowl champion and coveted free agent. They passed, and he ended up in Pittsburgh, where he appeared in just four games.

The Raiders, meanwhile, would go on to tally three straight seasons in which they won no more than four games. It was a tough stretch, but embracing that rebuild set them up for a more convincing 7-9 record in 2015 and then a 12-4 finish in 2016.

They need to recapture that kind of thinking now. It might be a long road back to the playoffs, but investing in players that don’t fit the bigger picture will only hamstring their ability to develop youngsters and build a lasting identity that carries them to something better than six or seven wins.

August 4th, 2012

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Following an improbable run to the NFL playoffs, the Tennessee Titans’ rumor mill is reaching fever pitch. Everything from free agency, to quarterback targets, to draft stuff is being tossed around. Let’s roll through the most important subjects.

Tom Brady Headed to Tennessee?
No one’s quite sure just yet if Tom Brady is going to return to the New England Patriots, the only team he’s ever played for. Though the Pats don’t exactly have a successor in place, everyone has thought that head coach Bill Belichick has wanted to move on for a while. Brady is going on 43 and doesn’t have the arm that he used to.

Plenty of potential landing spots have been kicked around, including the Las Vegas Raiders. But the Titans are apparently gaining plenty of steam. They appear to be over the Marcus Mariota era, and while Ryan Tannehill helped them beat the Patriots in the playoffs, he’s not what you would call an offensive stud. Running back Derrick Henry carried their attack.

Titans Eyeing Cornerback in the First Round of the Draft?
With so many incumbent free agents set to hit the open market, the Titans have to prepare themselves to recoup impact talent through the draft. They’re selecting No. 29 overall, and speculation is growing that they may select a cornerback.

Jeff Gladney of TCU is the name to watch here. He plays extremely physical pass defense and is a rookie who could replace Logan Ryan should he leave in free agency.

Tennessee Looking for a Wide Receiver in Free Agency?
Plenty of the Titans’ cap space will be devoted to retaining some of their own players. They’ll have even less money to work with if they end up being the team that wins the Tom Brady sweepstakes.

Still, they are expected to make a play for outside talent, most notably a bargain-bin wide receiver. They ranked 24th in passing yards and 17th in passing touchdowns last season. Getting a QB that can throw more than Mariota or Tannehill is key, but they also need someone who can make plays while running his routes.

Breshad Perriman’s name is starting to gain traction around Tennessee. He boasts elite speed, having run an unofficial 4.22-second 40-yard dash before being drafted in 2016. Whether his big-play potential would go to waste beside the limited arms of Brady or Tannehill is up for debate, but he’s both an impact player and affordable.

July 21st, 2012

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Everyone will be looking at one position battle when the Cincinnati Bengals next enter training camp: The competition for starting quarterback.

After nine years under center for the team, Andy Dalton’s time has seemingly come to an end. He is technically still on the roster, but the Bengals are expected to waive or trade the soon-to-be 33-year-old, depending on what happens at the draft and in free agency.

Everyone who’s anyone expects Cincy to use the No. 1 pick on LSU signal-caller Joe Burrow. He has been the consensus first-overall selection since he smoked Alabama’s offense in November of the 2019 season.

The real question is whether the Bengals will start him right away. Top picks are usually thrown right into the fire, but it’s tough to tell if the franchise is truly committed to a thorough rebuild. They might have designs on treading water in the playoff picture while grooming Burrow for the long term.

Of course, this all assumes the Bengals have someone to compete with the inbound QB for the starting position. Ryan Finley didn’t show enough during his reps in the 2019 season to warrant that consideration, though the possibility exists. He was selected in the first round of the 2019 draft, so the Bengals have plenty of asset equity in him, albeit not enough to pass on the chance to select Burrow, who is considered a potentially generational talent under center.

It stands to reason the Bengals will at least give Finley a chance to win the job. He could show out in training camp or the preseason, or Burrow himself could struggle to grasp the ins and outs of the NFL early on.

What the Bengals absolutely won’t do is sign another high-end quarterback to enter the fray. They’ll have two first-round signal-callers on their roster. Bringing in another would be excessive.

The only way their QB battle becomes a three-way competition is if Dalton returns to the team. He has no plans to retire and is still under contract. Many have theorized the New England Patriots could look to trade for him, but if a deal doesn’t materialize, the Bengals have the option of keeping him around to mentor both Finley and Burrow while giving him a shot to win the starting gig.

That might seem counterintuitive on its face. Dalton isn’t the future of the team. At the same time, many franchises have elected to begin the season with veterans before pivoting to their rookie QB. The Bengals could be the next squad to do so. We’ll just have to wait and see.

July 20th, 2012

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The early 2010s New York Jets remain a symbol for squandered potential around NFL circles. And no what-if is more emblematic of their fast decline than running back Shonn Green.

Heading into the 2011 regular season, the Jets were in a great spot. They had rattled off 11 victories the year before, sported one of the league’s best defenses and were fresh off an appearance in the AFC Conference Championship, a mere one victory away from making a Super Bowl appearance.

Greene played a pivotal part in their success during that 2011 season. He was not their every-down at that point; said honor belonged to LaDanian Tomlinson. But the Jets preferred to control the pace and milk the clock by leaning on their ground game. Only one team tallied more rushing attempts than them in 2011. Ipso facto, they needed more than just Tomlinson to get by. And Greene provided that second-option punch, averaging a stellar 4.1 yards per carry.

By 2011, in fact, he had superseded Tomlinson as the team’s every-down runner. He responded to the additional responsibility fairly well, averaging a rock-solid 4.2 yards per carry, scoring six touchdowns and mixing in some possessions as an early-down pass-catcher.

With quarterback Mark Sanchez firmly removed from the stardom track for which he was originally ticketed by this point, the Jets struggled to gain any sort of momentum. They finished just 8-8. Still, their running attack carried them to a top-13 offense. The infrastructure of a better team appeared to be in place.

But then the 2012 season came around.

Greene was the every-down back by this time, and he turned in another admirable year. He amassed over 1,000 rushing yards, rattled off another eight touchdowns and kept his average gain per rushing attempt right around four years. And yet, behind a shoddy passing attack, the Jets still placed 28th in points per game. Those struggles lead to a 5-11 record, and the decision not to retain Green leading into 2013.

Talk about a free fall. The Jets went from defensive darlings and Super Bowl hopefuls to non-threats. And while no one decision is to blame, you can’t help but wonder if things might’ve changed had they deployed Greene more properly.

Depending on him more in the red zone would’ve been a good start. Then-head coach Rex Ryan was too trusting in Sanchez. More importantly, it would’ve helped to use Greene as a receiver more frequently. He had the jukes and misdirection footwork to make defenders miss in the open field.

Whether it’s because Sanchez wasn’t the QB to maximize Greene’s skill set, or because the offensive line was too crummy, or because the Jets weren’t well-coached, the verdict is clear in hindsight: They did a terrible job deploying Shonn Greene after the 2011 season.

July 2nd, 2012

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Seventh round draft picks seldom carve long careers in the NFL. They are dice rolls, fliers and high-variance prospects by design. Teams are incentivized to take risks, to think big because they’re not expected to glean any real value from that late-draft position anyway.

Safety Eric Hagg was supposed to be different—perhaps not at first, but definitely, as he inched closer towards his second year.

Selected with the 248th overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Cleveland Browns, Hagg quickly stood out relative to the rest of the team’s secondary early on. It was surprising on many levels, but it also wasn’t out of nowhere.

His college career hinted that he might be able to stick at the NFL level. He spent four years at Nebraska, where he amassed a reputation as one of their most versatile and reliable defenders. In his senior season alone, he racked up 41 solo tackles and five interceptions through 14 games.

Though he never really made a name for himself as an interception threat through his first three years at Nebraska, his solo playmaking was almost always present. He combined for 59 solo tackles in his sophomore and junior seasons. His freshman year was a wash, as it can be for many collegiate players. He racked up five assisted tackles while playing minimal downs across seven appearances.

Given his consistency in the secondary when actually granted playing time, though, it came as little surprise to people at Nebraska when, in 2012, Hagg became the favorite to start in Cleveland. Injuries opened the door for him to become part of the defense’s regular rotation, but he was routinely outplaying then-No. 1 safety Usama Young, who had struggled with both his performance and injuries the year before.

It was a perfect storm of circumstances, and it led to Hagg getting real run during his second NFL season—a serious accomplishment for someone selected so late in the draft. He recorded 12 appearances that year, including four starts, through which he amassed 20 solo tackles and one QB hit.

The groundwork for an every-week player was there, even if he wasn’t necessarily starter’s material. Unfortunately, injuries began to derail his availability from there. He didn’t play in the 2013 NFL season, and though he latched onto the Denver Broncos in 2014, he never made it past their practice squad. Hagg retired from the NFL, officially, in July 2014.

None of which makes his story a cautionary tale. Again, for where Hagg was drafted, his track record is not unique. His career arc is more so evidence of just how hard it is for seventh-round draft picks to stick beyond their second season. They are guaranteed nothing entering the NFL.

Most, in fact, are guaranteed to see even less time than Hagg ultimately did.

June 20th, 2012

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The Seattle Seahawks have a lot of work to do over the offseason. They’re set on offense so long as Russell Wilson is under center, but they need to address needs at every imaginable level on the defensive end.

Though they’re not bone-thin in the secondary, that is where they figure to have the most territorial battles, both on the left and right side of the field. None of their main guys are free agents, and they’re expected to make a play for corners both in the draft and free agency.

Seattle’s right side cornerback rotation is headlined by Tre Flowers and Neiko Thorpe. Their left side rotation is topped by Shaquill Griffin and Akeem King. Of those four, Griffin is probably the safest after making a Pro Bowl for his work in the 2019 season. But that still leaves three spots in which they could stand to make upgrades. 

Flowers may be the most at risk. The Seahawks moved him from safety to corner after drafting him, and he’s kind of faded into the backdrop since. King and Thorpe are flight risks by default. They will be entering free agency, though they’re not considered primetime targets for teams around the league.

>Names to watch in the draft include Trevon Diggs, Jaylon Johnson or A.J. Terrell. The Seahawks don’t traditionally burn earlier draft picks on corners—they picked up Richard Sherman in the fifth round—and those are guys that could still be available when Seattle uses one of its three selections in the fourth and fifth rounds. 

As far as free agency goes, the Seahawks have a lot of options. They have a boatload of cap space entering the offseason; their spending power could rise near the $60 million markers. They can have their pick of the litter.

Depending on how much cash they’re willing to burn, they could take a look at Chris Harris Jr., a four-time Pro Bowler from the Denver Broncos. Bradley Roby from the Houston Texans and Bradley Jones from the Dallas Cowboys are also options, though both could be in the market for deals that run longer than Harris’s next contract.

If the Seahawks can pair Griffin in the secondary with another impact corner—Logan Ryan from the Tennessee Titans and James Bradberry from the Carolina Panthers are also in play—they’ll be in a position to field a much better defense next year. 

Dare we say, it might even be Super Bowl-caliber with such an addition.

June 20th, 2012

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The Green Bay Packers took a swing in 2012 NFL free agency, signing 30-year-old running back Cedric Benson to a fairly substantial contract ($825,000) with the hope that he could add a punch out of their backfield.

Investing in ball-carriers with seven years of experience is typically considered taboo. Running backs have some of the shortest shelf lives in the NFL, and Benson arrived in Green Bay with more than 1,500 career carries. The Packers were rolling the dice on his age-29 season with the Cincinnati Bengals, wherein he cleared 1,100 yards from scrimmage, including 1,067 on the ground, and racked up six touchdowns. 

Even in the context of this gamble, it was a borderline no-brainer move. The Packers employed a hodgepodge of talent in the backfield, most notably James Starks and Alex Green. Benson afforded them certain optionality they could use to leverage the play option around franchise quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

But the move never worked out. Benson suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his foot five games into the season and was deemed out for the year. He would never suit up in the NFL regular season again.

It’s a wonder that the Packers team finished 11-5 and won a playoff game at all. Injuries ripped through their backfield, hitting just about everyone. Green led the team in carries, with just 135. Three running backs, including Benson, churned through 70 carries and five finished with more than 30. 

Lesser issues have doomed better teams. The Packers just so happened to have one of the greatest playmakers in NFL history under center to get them by. They finished fifth in points per game despite all the instability in the backfield.

Knowing what we know now, some might be inclined to call the Benson signing a mistake. It doesn’t make sense to go that far. Serious injuries are both parts of the game and unpredictable. Benson wasn’t ineffective because he was older or run down; he was averaging an adequate 3.5 yards per carrying before his injury. He still had football left in the tank.

Signing him to help diversify the backfield was a winning decision. Had he stayed healthy, the Packers would’ve had another sturdy red zone option. Maybe they’re even more dangerous in the playoffs. We can’t be sure. 

We can, however, be certain of one thing: His tenure in Green Bay is one of the potential lost to injury, not a fundamental failure.

June 13th, 2012

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