New York Jets: The importance and symbolism of the right tackle battle

As the New York Jets continue to seek clarity on the offensive line, an intriguing battle for snaps has emerged between two veterans.

Addressing the offensive line is the football equivalent of having a salad: no one wants to do it.

Everyone would rather have a tasty cheeseburger with a side of fries, downing it with a cold beverage…i.e. add a flashy skill player, one whose antics can become a staple in the pregame hype videos played on stadium videoboards. But, at the end of the day, the consumer knows deep down that adding a blocker or keeping up on their fruits and vegetables will lead to its long-term survival and prosperity.

The New York Jets indulged themselves for far too long. Prior to taking Mekhi Becton with the 11th overall choice of the 2020 draft…passing on several elite receiving talents…they had gone nearly a decade without choosing an offensive lineman within the first 64 picks (dating back to second-round tackle Vlad Ducasse in 2010). While the first round was mostly dedicated to defensive washouts (Kyle Wilson, Quinton Coples, Dee Milliner, Darron Lee), some of their second round choices saw them miss out on future NFL protection staples. Cody Whitehair went to Chicago seven picks pick after the infamous Christian Hackenberg selection in 2016. Aerial busts Stephen Hill and Devin Smith were respectively chosen ahead of Kelechi Osemele and Rob Havenstein.

The Joe Douglas era has seen the general manager attempt to atone for that negligence. Even if his moves haven’t fully panned out (i.e. convincing Ryan Kalil out of retirement, trading for Alex Lewis), the mere action was refreshing from a New York standpoint. Becton’s breakout, a rare silver lining of the woebegone 2020 campaign, was perhaps the first example of Douglas’ blocking blueprint yielding visible, on-field results.

“You guys know how I feel about the offensive line: it’s hard to have a good team without one,” Douglas said of the line during the 2020 Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, per Ralph Vacchiano of SNY. Few would know of the importance of winning a good trench battle better than Douglas, a two-time all-state blocker at Lee-Davis (now Mechanicsville) High School in Virginia before embarking on a lengthy college career at Richmond.

At the time of those comments, the Jets were looking to protect Sam Darnold as he entered his third year as the team’s franchise quarterback. Now, they’re fortifying their wall as the professional debut of last spring’s second overall pick Zach Wilson looms. Bolstering the line could also help awaken a run game that hasn’t finished in the NFL’s upper half since 2016.

The Jets continued their renovations on the blindside when they traded up with Minnesota to take guard Alijah Vera-Tucker out of USC with the 14th choice. Vera-Tucker has dealt with a pectoral issue that will keep him out of Saturday’s preseason opener against the New York Giants (7:30 p.m. ET, WNBC), but should be ready for the Jets’ visit to Green Bay next week.

In the meantime, the right side of the unit faces an intriguing battle, one that has only intensified with the release of the Jets’ first depth chart earlier this week. While the opening positions are mostly solidified, one top slot stood out: not one, but two names resided in the right tackle’s role: George Fant and Morgan Moses.

It’s a battle of depth, a war of experience, one that serves as a strong monument to Douglas’ goals in the trenches.

Some assumed that Moses would automatically gain primary right tackle duties when he joined the as a late signing in July. The third-round pick from the 2014 draft (chosen 17 picks after the Jets took star-crossed tight end Jace Amaro out of Texas Tech) had established himself as one of the more reliable outside blockers during a seven-year career in Washington. He is a blocker who has stayed healthy, someone who had made himself a staple (he had been in the team’s starting lineup in each of the last 96 games) on a playoff team (Washington ended a four-year playoff drought with an NFC East division title last season). Such consistency, at least that of a veteran variety, hadn’t been seen in New York since D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold saw their final snaps.

Yet, he wasn’t going into Florham Park assuming anything and that feeling hasn’t subsided as game day approaches. In fact, he welcomes and has appreciated the ongoing battle between him and Fant.

“Competition is everything for me,” Moses said this week, per Dennis Waszak of the Associated Press. “Nothing is given. Everything that I’ve worked for in this league since I’ve been in the league, I’ve earned. And that’s how I want it to be. I feel like if things are given to you, we take it lightly. I’m here to get myself better and try to make this team and make the offensive line better.”

Training camp has served as a solid reintroduction for Fant, who was part of Douglas’ blocking splurge during the 2020 offseason. The group endured an up-and-down endeavor as a whole but Fant showed he had lasting power in New York. His teammates voted him an offensive captain and appeared on 829 snaps with the group.

The Jets could’ve saved about $7 million if Fant was released this offseason, but they kept him aboard even with Moses in tow. His self-confidence was apparent in a reflection of the 2020 season published by team reporter Ethan Greenberg.

“I proved to myself and I feel like I proved to everybody else that I deserve to be in the league, (that I) deserve to be a starter in this league, and that I could play at a high level consistently,” Fant said in Greenberg’s report. “There are more things I want to work on, but I feel like that’s the number one thing. I needed that for myself, the confidence in myself and hopefully put that confidence in the team as well.”

In team notes, head coach Robert Saleh said that starters would play “a quarter, couple series” in Saturday’s metropolitan showdown. Right tackle reps will likely be split between Moses and Fant. Saleh said after Thursday’s practice that their matchup, equally sprinkled with intensity and professionalism, has been one of the most enjoyable parts of his first metropolitan training camp.

“It’s competitive, they’re two professionals,” Saleh said in further notes from the Jets. “I’m actually enjoying the fact that those two talk all the time about technique and they’re helping one another out, I think it’s pretty cool. They exemplify professionalism and it’s been fun to watch.”

The competitive respect between Fant and Moses has up with Saleh’s theme of respect, one that shockingly drew ire and annoyance on Fox Sports’ Speak For YourselfThe blockers’ battle has served as a perfect counterargument to the idea that the Jets have “no fire”, as analyst and former NFL defensive lineman Marcellus Wiley declared.

Instead, the two are making each other better for not only Saturday’s exhibition opener, but for a crucial 2021 season as a whole. Fant, signed one for one more season after 2021 while Moses is on a one-year deal, knows that the competition can also make him a better blocker for the future. If it makes him better immediately, the Jets’ new era of offense, headlined by youngsters like Wilson, Elijah Moore, and Michael Carter, can get off to a strong start, one full of confidence for the road ahead.

“It’s a great opportunity to add depth to the team,” Fant said at the onset of training camp, per video provided by the Jets. “He’s a really good player, a great veteran to add to our room…That’s what this game’s all about. That’s what the NFL’s all about: you’re competing at all times.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Chicago Bears Mailbag: Justin Fields, Trenches talk, and more

With the Chicago Bears‘ first preseason game set to take place on Saturday afternoon, Usayd Koshul answers various questions regarding the Bears in his latest mailbag.

1. Thoughts on the retooling process now that Justin Fields is QB1?

Really good actually. With Fields now in the fold, the Bears focus should shift to building around him on offense. As generic as that sounds, Chicago does have some players on offense in line for contract extensions next offseason. We all know star wide receiver Allen Robinson is due for a payday but don’t forget about OL James Daniels who’s heading into a contract year, along with running back David Montgomery who’ll be eligible for an extension next offseason.

Speaking of extensions, the Bears just picked up the fifth-year option for LB Roquan Smith. Here’s what I’ll say: Chicago needs to extend Robinson and Smith first, then focus on Daniels to keep the interior of the OL intact. To create additional cap space, designate OLB  Robert Quinn as a post-June first cut in 2022, a move that should create about $12M in cap space.

Fields adds flexibility to the Bears’ future plans. For a quarterback who’s got the potential to develop into a franchise-caliber player, all Fields must do is progress enough to the point where the Bears can lock up key players until it’s time to pay Fields, which will be a conversation for the 2023 or 2024 offseason.

 

2. Why can’t the organization commit to figuring out the OL?

Trust me, it’s a question that drives all of us crazy, myself included. If you’ve been listening to our weekly podcast, I’ve said that Ryan Pace neglecting the offensive line from 2017-2019 finally caught up to the Bears in 2020. Between that same span, the Bears drafted just two offensive lineman: Jordan Morgan (fifth-round in 2017) and James Daniels (second-round, 2018).

Pace has consistently shown that he’s always willing to go ahead and trust his own players, which is fine but at some point, you need to cut bait, rather than hold onto players too long, something that Pace has been notorious for doing. And guess what, Pace drafted two offensive line in the 2021 NFL Draft (Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom) making it the second time in seven seasons that Pace has taken two or more offensive lineman in the same NFL Draft.

The blame starts with Pace but ends with the coaching staff. Why hasn’t the coaching staff been able to get the most out of guys like Arlington Hambright or Lachavious Simmons? Matt Nagy’s staff has developed undrafted free agents such as Alex Bars and Sam Mustipher but Nagy being an offensive-minded coach needs to make investing in the OL a priority.

To close out this question, I went back and looked at draft classes of the Kansas City Chiefs since Andy Reid arrived in 2013, the same year that Nagy was appointed as the Chiefs QB coach. Reid has drafted 10 offensive lineman since 2013, including taking two or more offensive line three times (2013, 2014, and 2021), while also continuing to develop at a high rate.

3. Offensive Explosion and an NFC North title?

This would be sweet. After spending a few days attending training camp at Halas Hall, I can tell you that the Bears are ready to surprise some people heading into 2021. The defense appears to be due for a bounceback season but the offense needs to get going if the Bears are contending for the NFC North title in 2021.

Nothing is possible in the NFL, let’s be honest but if Andy Dalton is starting against the Los Angeles Rams in week one, Dalton will need to play nearly perfect every week if the Bears want to have a shot at winning the division. Justin Fields’ playmaking ability does give the Bears a slightly more explosive offense and that’s because Fields mobility and 4.4 40-yard dash makes the Bears offense lethal on RPO’s, especially when David Montgomery is in the backfield.

The Bears offense should be more explosive in 2021, regardless of who’s at quarterback, so buckle up because it’s about to be a fun season.

4. Young, emerging talent on the roster

First off, I really appreciate the two-part question here but I’m going to answer just the second question about young talent on the roster. There’s a lot so let’s start by looking at the Bears 2020 draft class. The Bears had seven draft picks and I do believe three players (Cole Kmet, Jaylon Johnson, and Darnell Mooney) will be part of the Bears’ core moving forward. Keep an eye on OLB Trevis Gipson and CB Kindle Vildor as two solid options who could develop into serviceable starters down the road.

I also like OL James Daniels, the 39th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. If Daniels can stay healthy and put together a consistent season at left guard, he could earn a nice payday next offseason, cementing his status as a cornerstone of the offensive line. By the way, don’t forget Sam Mustipher, who’s looked faster and stronger throughout training camp. Mustipher has an opportunity to be a mainstay on the Bears’ offensive line, giving the Bears their first long-term starter at the Center position since Olin Kreutz.

Perhaps the most intriguing player on this list is 2021 undrafted free agent Charles Snowden, who has drawn comparisons to former Bears’ first-round pick Leonard Floyd. Snowden has been praised at training camp by coaches, which means that he could wind up as a hidden gem that develops into a contributor as early as 2022.

5. Let’s talk about CB2?

It’s hard to pick a winner right now when discussing CB2 for the Bears. It’ll come down to either Kindle Vildor or Desmond Trufant but I’d lean more towards Vildor, who’s drawn praise from coaches this offseason for his work ethic. Prior to training camp, Trufant being the surefire CB2 was something many expected, however, Trufant is only signed to a one-year deal worth $1M, with no guaranteed money, making him an easy cap casualty.

“Kindle showed that he belongs in this league, last year and the reps that he took last year,” Defensive Coordinator Sean Desai said via the Bears official YouTube channel. “So I think he’s going to have a chance to compete at various positions. We’re going to have a lot of competition at the nickel as well. We’ve had guys that have played there in games.”

It’s still early but Vildor appears to be pulling ahead each day and with a strong showing in preseason and over the final two weeks of training camp, Vildor will have an opportunity to win the race outright.

 

Giants sign offensive line depth in Ted Larsen, waive two more

ted larsen, giants

With veteran offensive linemen Joe Looney and Zach Fulton electing to retire, the New York Giants were in the market for more depth in the trenches.

With that being the case, the Giants went out and signed former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Ted Larsen, who featured in just 38 offensive snaps last season as a practice squad player for Tom Brady and Co. Larsen was activated for two regular-season games and the entire post-season, who was simply a reserve and last resort for a unit that performed quite well with Brady at the helm.

The Giants desperately need more competitors in the trenches, with two veterans leaving camp early. However, Larsen hasn’t been an effective offensive lineman since the 2016 season he spent with the Chicago Bears. He posted a 70.2 overall pass-blocking grade and 74.9 run-blocking grade, per PFF. Over 581 snaps, he allowed two sacks and 12 hurries, spending the majority of his time at RG. Larsen has played a total of 3446 snaps at left guard, 766 at center, and 1805 at right guard.

Larsen will likely sign for the veteran minimum, given the Giants don’t have much salary space to work with at the moment. The corresponding move for Big Blue is the waving of running back Mike Weber and defensive back Jordyn Peters. The Giants will take on the New York Jets in their first preseason game of the season on Saturday.

UFC pushing back Israel Adesanya – Robert Whittaker 2

One of the more highly anticipated UFC fights of 2021 is going to have to wait. Today, we’ve learned that the rematch between Israel Adesanya (21-1) and Robert Whittaker (23-5) is being delayed.

Apparently, the UFC was targeting this rematch as the headliner of UFC 268 in New York. The rematch between Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington was thought to be the headliner of the event.

However, we are now learning that the UFC was targeting that fight as the co-main while the Adesanya – Whittaker rematch would be the headliner. Unfortunately for fight fans, that fight will not take place in November as originally planned.

Whittaker’s manager told the Daily Telegraph today that the UFC had planned on Whittaker – Adesanya 2 headlining MSG. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions in New Zealand, the fight is being pushed back.

According to Whittaker’s manager, neither Adesanya nor Whittaker were going to have issues getting into the United States. However, Adesanya was going to be stranded for a while without being able to return to New Zealand for a while. As a result, the UFC is scrapping the November idea.

When will the UFC book this rematch?

Per Whittaker’s manager, the UFC is now looking at potentially booking the rematch in the first part of 2022. Perhaps the January PPV or even the Super Bowl PPV cards could be the target for their rematch.

The two men fought back at UFC 243 when Adesanya was the interim champion and Whittaker was the undisputed champion. Adesanya finished Whittaker in the second round to unify the UFC title.

Since that win, Adesanya has gone 3-1 with the lone loss coming in his attempt to capture a second world title against Jan Blachowicz. Whittaker has been extremely patient while he’s waited for his rematch with the UFC champion.

Bobby Knuckles has gone on a run where he’s defeated Darren Till, Jared Cannonier, and Kelvin Gastelum. Honestly, Whittaker deserved this rematch a long time ago and I’m just glad he’s getting the next shot. Downside is that we have no idea at this point when the fight will take place.

David Montgomery not concerned about Chicago Bears OL

One defining storyline for the Chicago Bears throughout training camp has been the state of the offensive line. An overhauled unit, the Bears projected starting five has yet to practice together, with tackles Germain Ifedi and Teven Jenkins being held out of practice due to injuries. With Chicago featuring a new offensive line combination nearly everyday in practice, many wonder if this constant reshuffling will impact how the Bears offense performs in the regular season.

One aspect of the Bears offense that many felt underperformed due to a bad offensive line last season was the Bears running game. Heading into 2021, running back has been labeled by many as being the best positional group on the roster. Workhorse running back David Montgomery is complemented by pieces such as Damien Williams, Khalil Herbert, and Ryan Nall, giving Chicago versatility.

“You never want anybody to be out there hurt but as far as with me, I just go out there, whatever opportunity to do whatever I can, when I get the opportunity to,” said Montgomery via the Bears official YouTube Channel. “So I’m just hoping that the guys that are battling injuries, they can get back on top of it so they can get back to themselves.”

Montgomery has established that he’s a never-say-die attitude running back who will continue to fight for every yard, despite how the offensive line in front of him is performing.

“Whatever’s in front of me, we’re going to rock out with,” said Montgomery regarding his mentality about the Bears’ offensive line.

Entering year three, a way to increase production for Montgomery will simply include making the former Iowa State standout a major part of the offense. That means being able to use his dual-threat skillset as both a running back and a receiver in order to allow for the Bears to take another step forward on offense.

The Bears’ first test with the offensive line will come on Saturday at home against the Miami Dolphins where we’ll have an opportunity to see both starters and backups in an actual NFL game, providing an opportunity to evaluate where the entire unit is really at.

PFL 7 Preview: Welterweight and Lightweight playoffs begin tonight

Tonight the PFL is back with their seventh event of 2021 and the playoffs begin tonight. It will be the welterweights and lightweights that will take center stage tonight as four men look to punch their ticket to the finals and one step closer to one million dollars.

In the main event of the evening, former Bellator welterweight champion Rory MacDonald (22-7-1) will be taking on former PFL champion Ray Cooper III (22-7-1). This is the welterweight matchup we were hoping to see out of this PFL season.

That said, nobody thought we’d see it in the semifinals. MacDonald was the victim of a horrific decision against Gleison Tibau back at PFL 5 which robbed him of a higher seed. Had MacDonald won that fight, he could’ve met Cooper III in the finals.

Instead, we see it in the semis. Cooper III has been dominant so far with two wins including a first round submission thus far in the 2021 PFL season. Whoever wins this matchup tonight could be the favorite heading into the finals.

The other semifinal matchup features former PFL champion Magomed Magomedkerimov (28-5) taking on Sadibou Sy (9-5-2, 1 NC). Magomedkerimov has never lost under the PFL banner and he’s the big favorite to get it done tonight against Sadibou Sy. Sy is just 3-3, 1 NC in seven career PFL bouts.

PFL Lightweight Playoffs

Opening up the featured card on ESPN is the two lightweight semifinal matchups. The popular Clay Collard (20-8) takes on Raush Manfio (13-3) in one of the matchups. Both of these men have shared the same two opponents thus far in the 2021 season.

Collard and Manfio have decision wins over Anthony Pettis and Joilton Lutterbach. Both of Manfio’s wins were by split decision while Collard was able to get a unanimous decision over Anthony Pettis.

This is a tremendous matchup and is likely to gain a lot of attention at PFL 7. The other lightweight semifinal actually features a rematch from the first PFL event of 2021.

Alex Martinez (8-1) will be taking on Loik Radzhabov (14-3-1). Martinez picked up the split decision back at PFL 1 and Radzhabov bounced back to defeat Akhmed Aliev by first round knockout at PFL 4.

Alex Martinez lost his first professional fight in his last appearance by dropping a split decision to Natan Schulte. That said, despite both men being 1-1, they’ve both secured a spot in the semifinals tonight.

Playoff Predictions

  • Rory MacDonald vs Ray Cooper III – Cooper III by Unanimous Decision
  • Magomed Magomedkerimov vs Sadibou Sy – Magomedkerimov by Unanimous Decision
  • Clay Collard vs Rausch Manfio – Collard by Unanimous Decision
  • Alex Martinez vs Loik Radzhabov – Martinez by Split Decision

New York Giants: Daniel Jones speaks on progress going into preseason opener

New York Giants, Daniel Jones

The New York Giants open the preseason tomorrow night against the Jets, but Daniel Jones won’t be on the field. That’s not because of an injury, but because of Joe Judge keeping Jones out by coaching decision and choosing to focus on evaluation over playing starters. Even if Jones is sitting out, however, he can’t escape the attention of the press.

Jones was asked on Thursday about his thoughts on sitting out but didn’t have any answers outside of the expected ones. He pointed out the truth of the matter, which is that the decision isn’t in his hands. However, his statements about the team’s progress as well as his own expectations in year three may be more interesting to some.

“I think if you look at where we were three weeks in last year versus where we are now in terms of what we were installing or the conversations we were having about certain plays, we’re obviously at a much higher level this year. I think we are able to install plays faster, which puts us further ahead week three than where we were last year,” Jones told reporters. “So that’s an advantage for us and for the whole offense.”

The Giants haven’t had to deal with the same widespread COVID-19 restrictions that impacted last year’s training camp.

The hope has been that with a full offseason, Jason Garrett’s offense will be properly implemented unlike last year. While the preseason is ultimately unimportant outside of evaluating players, it will be one of the few chances before the regular season to see if that has happened.

Daniel Jones in year three

Daniel Jones stopped short of talking directly about the expectations placed on him this season, but was asked about the year three progress of Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield. While Jones did give a safe answer, he appeared to acknowledge the comparison.

“Yeah, there’s certainly stuff to learn from those guys and learn from people who have had success early in their careers, whether it be year two, three, four, whatever it is. I’m focused on improving myself and making sure that I’m in a position to play well and this offense is in a position to play well,” Jones said.

But the spotlight won’t be on Jones just yet, as Mike Glennon has the start against the Jets. There’s still some time before we’ll see Jones in a game that matters, so in all likelihood, his future performance will remain a subject of speculation and debate right up until the start of the regular season.

Bellator 264 Preview: Who will walk away middleweight champion?

Tonight, Bellator 264 takes place and the middleweight championship is on the line. One of the best and most underrated middleweights in the world, Gegard Mousasi (47-7-2) is back to defend his title against John Salter (18-4).

Gegard Mousasi is one of the rare instances where a fighter left the UFC for Bellator on a high note. Mousasi signed with Bellator after leaving the UFC on a five-fight win streak including a TKO victory over Chris Weidman.

Since coming over to Bellator, Mousasi has gone 5-1 with the lone loss coming against Rafael Lovato Jr by Split Decision. Since that loss where Mousasi lost his middleweight crown, he’s bounced back with wins over Lyoto Machida and Douglas Lima.

The man who will try to become Bellator middleweight champion tonight is John Salter. Salter will enter the cage on a three-fight win streak. The last time we saw him was at Bellator 244 when he won by third round arm triangle over Andrew Kapel.

Bellator 264 Prediction

When you look at this fight it’s all going to come down to the takedown. There is really no secret to John Salter’s game plan this evening. He’s going to try to come forward with pressure and he’s going to try and take down Gegard Mousasi.

That is the one path to victory for Salter. Salter has the ground skills to control Mousasi if he’s able to get him down. That said, getting Gegard Mousasi down is not going to be an easy task.

Mousasi is very good at keeping his range and he possesses tremendous takedown defense. There’s a reason why the Bellator middleweight champion has had the success he’s had over the course of his career.

In the early rounds, I find it hard to believe that Salter can get Mousasi down. I believe Mousasi is going to pull out ahead easily in the first three rounds. Perhaps if he gets tired, Salter can land some takedowns in the later rounds, but I don’t see it being enough tonight.

Prediction: Gegard Mousasi by Unanimous Decision

Roll the Dice: Yoshimoto repays Knicks trust with solid NBA Summer League coaching

It’s not only Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin who are taking leadership lessons this summer for the New York Knicks.

Daisuke “Dice” Yoshimoto, the long-time Tom Thibodeau’s right-hand man, is also taking the crash course in his first big break as a coach.

So far, the boyish-looking, 40-year old assistant coach is making the most out of the opportunity.

After the Knicks groped for form in their opening-day loss to the Toronto Raptors, the team has responded to Yoshimoto’s coaching and won the next two games.

“First of all, I want to thank Leon (Rose), Wes (William Wesley), Scott Perry, and coach Thibs (Tom Thibodeau) for giving me this opportunity to coach this team,” Yoshimoto said after the Knicks’ opening game in the NBA Summer League.

“It’s all about me getting better as well, to keep improving. It’s also a great opportunity for me to showcase what I’ve learned from coach Thibs. I’m biased. I think coach Thibs is the best coach in the league so, I’m very fortunate to be able to learn from him over the course of the years.”

Yoshimoto is just one of the few Asian-Americans coaching in the NBA. Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra remains to be the poster boy as the lone Asian-American head coach. Other assistant coaches around the league with Asian heritage are Portland Trail Blazers’ Jonathan Yim, Los Angeles Clippers/Agua Calientes’ Natalie Nakase. Filipino-American Jimmy Alapag, who led the Philippines to the FIBA World Cup in 2015, is trying to join that exclusive club. Alapag is in his second stint as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings’ Summer League team.

Like Spoelstra, Yoshimoto climbed the ranks from the film room to an assistant coach. In Knicks’ first summer league under Thibodeau, they rolled the dice with Yoshimoto.

“I think [diversity] is important. At the same time, I’m focused on getting better. I just want to be the best coach that I can be,” Yoshimoto said.

“I’m just fortunate to be able to learn from guys like coach Thibs over the years. I learn from everybody. I started with coach Mike Fratello and Lawrence Frank and coach Thibs for a long time. Also, coach Mike Malone, I had a chance to work for him before in Denver. Two years ago, I had the chance to work in college for coach Tom Crean. Obviously, this is a great opportunity for me to get better.”

Yoshimoto broke into the NBA as an intern for the New Jersey Nets in 2009 after getting his Master’s degree in Education from Fordham in 2008. Before that, he played Division III basketball and received a bachelor’s degree in Sports, Event, and Entertainment Management from Johnson and Wales University.

As an intern with the Nets, Yoshimoto assisted with player development and coded opponents’ games.

Yoshimoto left the Nets after two seasons and joined Mike Fratello as his head video coordinator for the Ukraine national basketball team. He parlayed his 2011 Euro Championships experience into an NBA job. He started as an assistant video coordinator and was later promoted as head video coordinator with the Chicago Bulls, where he forged a good working relationship with Thibodeau.

When the Bulls fired Thibodeau, Yoshimoto transferred to the Denver Nuggets, holding the same position as the head video coordinator. He linked up again with Thibodeau anew in Minnesota and now with the Knicks. In between his Timberwolves and Knicks stints, he worked with Georgia Bulldogs as their director of basketball strategy and video.

Throughout his NBA journey, he learned how to live code games, scout opponents to help create game plans, edit videos for the coaching staff and players, prepare and present games plans, and work with players daily in film reviews and workouts.

As much as Yoshimoto has empowered Quickley and Toppin to lead the Knicks’ Summer League squad, Thibodeau also did the same to him.

After the Knicks lost to the Raptors, he talked with Thibodeau and looked at the film. He came back strong, guiding the Knicks to win the next two games against Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We talk about games and stuff. He always tells me things that we, collectively, need to work on so that’s why my focus is to try to get this team better. My job is to tell him what I see. I think the team has done a great job responding to that,” Yoshimoto said.

Thibodeau values loyalty. He demands it as much as he gives it to anyone who deserves it. Yoshimoto has earned Thibodeau’s trust, and as much as this NBA Summer League coaching job is one of those rewards, it is also the coach’s way of building the team’s culture.

Thibodeau often harped building a team of leaders. He made one out of Julius Randle last season. Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson became leaders in Chicago that Thibodeau now leans on in New York. He wants to do the same with Quickley and Toppin through Yoshimoto. And in the process, developing Yoshimoto, too.

This is the Thibs’ way — a culture of leadership and accountability.

You can sense the humility, often perceived as shyness when the soft-spoken Yoshimoto speaks during the Summer League postgame interviews. As Yoshimoto’s Japanese features are more pronounced, Thibodeau is empowering him to embrace his heritage and break the Asian stereotypes.

“He just tells me to be me, and I’ve got to be comfortable with my own skin. And I’ve got to find my voice, and that’s what I’m doing right now,” Yoshimoto said.

So far, he’s pushing the right buttons and making the proper adjustments. The young Knicks team has responded well to him. He commanded their respect that resulted in their fine play this summer.

Of course, Yoshimoto wanted to win and make a splash in his first coaching break. But the heart and core of these Summer League games aren’t lost on him.

“Obviously, it’s important to have [progress] in terms of the development of players and being able to win some games. There’s a fine line in between, and we have to find that balance where we can do both. We need to keep building the culture,” Yoshimoto said.

So far, so good.

Quickley, Toppin, and some of the Knicks rookie standouts like Miles McBride and Jericho Sims are all basking in the afterglow of their solid NBA Summer League campaign. Yoshimoto is content to be in the background.

“I just focus on what I have to do. I just concentrate on getting this team to play at the highest level they could,” he said.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

New York Yankee Analysis: What to expect from the last seven weeks of the season

New York Yankees, DJ LeMahieu

The New York Yankees have been surging during the last month, so have the Toronto Blue Jays, while the Tampa Bay Rays continue to be the best team in the AL East. The Boston Red Sox overachieving has ended, making the race for the postseason exciting. Today I will try to predict what I see for the remainder of the season and why. Over the past few years, I have registered just over 50% accuracy in my predictions, so take this for what it is worth.

The Baltimore Orioles: We can get this out of the way right away. The Orioles will finish last in the AL East. No matter what they do in the last weeks of the season, they won’t improve their position.

The Toronto Blue Jays: The Jays are the team that is making this season so interesting. They are a young and energetic team that has done much this season to better themselves. The Jays are just whispering behind the Yankees in the division, with both teams going 7-3 in their last ten games. Although the Blue Jays lead the AL in home runs and OPS thanks to an MVP-caliber season from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., they got an important boost at the trade deadline via the acquisition of two-time All-Star José Berríos, the Yankees are yet to meet up with Berrios.

With the return of George Springer to the outfield and Alec Manoah back in the rotation, things are looking pretty bright for the Jays going forward. Where the Jays may fail is with their not-so-good bullpen has really underperformed. Nevertheless, I predict the Jays will finish third in the East and fight Oakland for the second wild-card spot.

The Boston Red Sox: After the first few weeks of the season, I said they would fall apart when the Red Sox were playing so well. They haven’t but recently have not over-achieved like they did the first half of the season. The addition of Alex Cory, like him or not, has had a huge impact on the Red Sox in changing their culture. In addition, the Red Sox has going for them the return of their ace Chris Sale to the rotation; if he returns to form, it will be a big plus for the Sox.

Rafael Devers has been huge for the Red Sox. he has 27 home runs and 82 RBIs. Right behind him are juggernauts Xander Bogaerts and JT Martinez, with a combined 37 home runs and 133 RBIs. The problem for the Red Sox is that they don’t have a single starting pitcher with an ERA under 4, and during the second half so far, they have gotten little offense from the outfield. Also, in the second half, their bullpen has been less than stellar. Prediction: they will finish fourth in the East and will not make the playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Rays: It’s hard to change the picture for the Rays. They have the best put-together team managed by the best manager in the AL East. They went to the World Series last year and will make the postseason this season as well. The addition of Nelson Cruz at the trade deadline could be huge for the Rays as it adds a proven veteran to their relatively young lineup. The young lineup has four players with 20 or more home runs. They don’t have a single starter with a losing record, and Andrew Kittridge 8-1 has been huge for the Rays.

It’s hard to find weaknesses with the Rays. If they have any, it’s a lack of production from short and the loss of their pitching ace Tyler Glasnow that has been a Yankee killer. They also have some injuries to deal with. Luckily for the Rays, they don’t have an extremely challenging schedule ahead. I predict the Tampa Bay Rays will win the AL East by at least 2 games.

The New York Yankees: The Yankees, after a plodding start to the season, have been the best team in baseball for the last several weeks, advancing in the AL East. The Yankees have been winning despite having more injuries and Covid outbreaks (21) than any team in the East. They also did more to improve the team at the trade deadline than any other American League team, with 3 pitchers and contact hitting lefty Anthony Rizzo and power-hitting Joey Gallo.

That’s not to say the Yankees don’t have their problems; they do, and some big ones. Most significant is that the Yankees have been hit harder than other teams with Covid outbreaks that have put key pitchers and key hitters on the Covid list; this coming week, Yankee ace Gerrit Cole will finally be back with the team, followed by pitcher Jordan Montgomery. Also, in the coming week, Anthony Rizzo and catcher Gary Sanchez should rejoin the team. However, the biggest disappointment for the Yankees is that neither of last seasons’ batting average champ DJ LeMahieu and home run leader Luke Voit has yet to perform this season. To get to the postseason the Yankees will need improvement from them both.

Predictions: It’s hard to predict the New York Yankees because they have had so many injuries. With the returning players, and if the team can find a way to limit further infections, they have an excellent chance of finishing second in the AL East and will surely get a wild card berth. If they are fortunate and the Rays are not, they could still take the division.