New York Jets: Connor McGovern welcomes an old rival

Connor McGovern, jets

New York Jets blocker Connor McGovern is ready to let bygones be bygones with incoming pass rusher Shaq Lawson.

New teammates Connor McGovern and Shaq Lawson appear to have resolved their differences over a pint…of Gatorade.

McGovern, set to enter his second season as the New York Jets’ primary center, is all too familiar with Lawson, the newest metropolitan pass rusher. The pair wore different colors during a fateful encounter in November 2019, when Lawson’s Buffalo Bills demolished McGovern and the Denver Broncos in a 20-3 shellacking in Orchard Park. Lawson played a major role in the victory, earning two sacks in part of a Buffalo defensive effort that allowed only 134 yards on the chilly afternoon.

After the game, cameras from WROC-TV captured Lawson confronting McGovern during the postgame scrum on the field.

“You remember my name, I had two sacks on your a**!” Lawson tells McGovern before being ushered away by then-teammate and McGovern’s fellow Missouri alum Mitch Morse. “I got two sacks on your a**, you remember me now!”

The Jets confirmed on Monday that they acquired Lawson from the Houston Texans in exchange for a sixth-round pick that originally belonged to San Francisco (obtained through a trade for linebacker Jordan Willis). McGovern was naturally asked about the transaction when he spoke after the Jets’ week-opening practice.

Fortunately for the Jets, McGovern said that the situation was resolved long before Lawson’s NFL passport was stamped with the Jets’ green oval. There was a prime opportunity to do so, as their new destinations…McGovern as a Jets and Lawson as a Miami Dolphin…gave them a prime opportunity to make amends.

“We played each other twice last year. It was all cordial,” McGovern said on Monday, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. “I’ve played him since then and nothing. It was just playing any other opponent. It’s game time. Everybody’s in the moment and what have you.”

“We talked after the last two times we played each other. That video is from two years ago,” he continued. “The last two times we played each other. It was fine. I think we actually laughed about it when we played down in Miami last year.”

McGovern had far more positive affairs to speak of on Monday, as he enthusiastically expressed his anticipation for the coming season. He’s particularly excited about working with the new schemes implemented by offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, believing he’s a perfect fit for what the former 49ers overseer is trying to accomplish.

“Personally, I feel like I’m confident in saying I’m built for this scheme,” McGovern said, per team reporter Ethan Greenberg. “I feel like I’ve had a really good camp, playing at some of the highest levels I’ve played at. Definitely a step up from last year, a huge step up from last year, and even another step up from two years ago. I’m looking to have, personally, a good year and I think this will be a phenomenal year for the Jets and especially the Jets offensive line.”

McGovern was part of the Jets’ blocking reformation last offseason, one of the rare metropolitan acquisitions guaranteed a second year under his contract. The former Bronco endured a roller-coaster season though he was the only New York blocker to appear in all 16 games. No Jet, in fact, played more snaps in 2020 than McGovern’s 969 during the woebegone 2020 campaign.

The center admitted that he “didn’t play as well as (he) wanted in 2020”, per Greenberg. But the hiring of Robert Saleh helped him regain his confidence going into the new season, describing the Jets’ new boss as a “leader of men”.

“He doesn’t think that Xs and Os win football games. He knows players win football games,” McGovern said of Saleh, per Al Iannazzone of Newsday. “He’s the kind of guy that’s going to motivate everybody. He makes it simple enough where we can play fast and play incredibly effective but not so simple that it’s easy to beat. He’s a head coach that I’ve always wanted to play for.”

McGovern is once again expected to take a starting role on the offensive line when the Jets open their regular season on Sept. 12 against the Carolina Panthers (1 p.m. ET, CBS).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets: Why Shaq Lawson is a low-risk, high-reward addition

Shaq Lawson doesn’t change the New York Jets’ 2021 outlook, but he can be a solid stopgap in a developmental season.

The New York Jets are fulfilling an offseason promise to put Lawson on their defensive line.

Carl Lawson is done for the year but those designing the Jets’ uniforms can still use the surname’s nameplate. The Jets reportedly welcomed in defensive end Shaq Lawson to the fold on Sunday, sending the sixth-round pick they gained from San Francisco in last year’s Jordan Willis deal. Most recently donning a Houston Texans helmet, Lawson is on to his fourth team after entering the league as Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2016 (immediately before the Jets chose Darron Lee).

Shaq Lawson arrives at an interesting landmark on the Jets’ 2021 timeline. It was previously hinted that the Jets would seek help in the pass rush after Carl Lawson, the Jets’ most expensive offseason acquisition, was lost for the year after rupturing his Achillies during a joint practice in Green Bay. Fellow veteran Vinny Curry was likewise lost for the year after dealing with blood clots. The Jets appeared to have fulfilled that quest with Sunday’s transaction.

What exactly can be expected with Lawson poised to don a green uniform? ESM investigates…

Affordable Redemption

The Jets are desperate enough to write a redemption story for the past decade of fruitless football, much less finally pen a sequel to the Super Bowl III epic. To that end, they can’t concern themselves with co-authoring someone else’s, no matter how talented that player can be. That’s removed them from the conversation on several high-profile stars and, frankly, should’ve steered them away from the expensive Le’Veon Bell gambit in 2019.

Shaq Lawson, at first glance, appears to carry the baggage that a developing team like the Jets should avoid. The Clemson alum has shown flashes but has yet to live up to his first-round billing. New York is his fourth team over the past three seasons and he was playing deep into the second half of the Texans’ preseason contests. His lasting legacy, as of this moment, is perhaps his status as the penultimate premier pick of Buffalo’s ill-fated Doug Whaley era.

But Lawson’s redemption story that the Jets can literally afford to play a supporting role in. If/when the trade is confirmed, the Jets are set to inherit only circa $2 million of Lawson’s salary, with the Texans set to take on nearly $7 million in dead cap. If Lawson were to perform well enough that the Jets want more, his contract allows the Jets to retain him at just under $9 million. Even with the pick from the Willis trade gone, they will have a dozen choices to work with come next spring.

From a football standpoint, Lawson isn’t being called upon to turn the tide in New York. Even with Carl Lawson in tow, this wasn’t going to be a playoff team in 2021. He can work things in relatively peaceful surroundings with the Jets, where defensive storylines will likely linger on Quinnen Williams’ development and what’s going on in the Jets’ secondary. One could argue he had a similar blank slate in Houston, but the Jets seem much more secure in their future (particularly when it comes to comparing the quarterback situations). What Joe Douglas has done this offseason won’t make the Jets a playoff team immediately but he has built a situation that allows the team to take a risk or two in the name of veteran help.

AFC Beast

Lawson potentially enters the Jets in a bit of a prickly situation: the Jets’ preseason slate wrapped on Friday night, giving him just two weeks to cram the Jets’ playbook before they open against Carolina on Sept. 12. But despite Lawson’s lack of a true NFL impact so far, he appears to be on a bit of an upswing.

Whereas the departed Carl Lawson’s hype was partly built on advanced pressure numbers, the incoming Shaq has tried to make a name for himself through more conventional means, traditional numbers that have been sorely lacking in New York in recent times. Lawson has earned 10.5 sacks over the last two seasons, including 6.5 during his final year in Buffalo in 2019. In comparison, only one player (Jordan Jenkins) has reached double-figures in sacks, falling just short of Lawson’s mark with 10. He won’t fully replace the pressure that the unrelated Carl brought in Cincinnati but he is a well-traveled pressure artist in his own right, earning 77 pressures over the last two seasons with the Bills and Miami Dolphins.

Lawson is coming off a solid, if not uneventful, season with the Dolphins after his career-best campaign in Buffalo in 2019. He’s a better option than free agent question marks like Everson Griffen (who went back to Minnesota after the Lawson injury) and Olivier Vernon and was likely far less expensive than potential trade candidates like Dante Fowler or Chandler Jones. The Jets needed pressure and Lawson, despite his flaws, has been reliable in that regard. As to the potential problems when it comes to a speed course in the New York defense, Lawson got a taste of 4-3 action during his brief time in Houston under defensive coordinator Lovie Smith.

“With this defense, you can just attack,” Lawson said of the 4-3 scheme, per Anthony Wood of SI.com. “You don’t (have) to think about no blocks or anything you’ve got to worry about. I mean, that’s the great part about being in a 4-3 defense.”

Houston head coach David Culley got to witness some of Lawson’s developmental antics as a Buffalo assistant. Asked about his potential to fit with the Texans’ front seven, Culley reminisced about pass-rushing endeavors that have been sorely lacking in green metropolitan circles in recent seasons.

“Shaq was a pass rusher up there,” Culley said, per notes from the Texans. “He’s quick. He has great movement. He’s got a great first step…He plays with good leverage, and he’s got good hands, and basically, what we teach all those guys to do, he has that.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Can Bills’ Josh Allen handle the pressure of big expectations in 2021?

josh allen, bills

Ever since he stepped into the league in 2018, Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen has progressively developed into a site to behold. In only his third season in the NFL, Allen put together a spectacular breakout performance as he not only threw for a career-high 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns but, in the process, led the Bills to their first AFC Championship game in decades. Despite falling short to Patrick Mahomes and his Chiefs in the playoffs, what Allen was able to achieve with this team, was nothing short of incredible, providing a spark of hope that Bills fans have been craving for so long.

However, what’s quite unique with Allen’s rise to stardom is that since his rookie season, he’s yet to have any setbacks in his ascent to prominence, more or less, an off-year.

To clarify, even players of his caliber in talent sometimes fall short of the statistical brilliance they’ve achieved in previous seasons. Whether it’s due to injuries, immense pressure, a struggling support system, or something else entirely, this phenomenon has become a commonality in the league that usually takes place during the second year of most breakout stars that shine in their rookie seasons (aka The Sophomore Slump). We’ve seen this with guys like Todd Gurley, Sam Bradford, Mike Williams, Baker Mayfield, and Cam Newton, to name a few.

That being said, these declines (whether small or large) don’t always take place during the sophomore year for all NFL players and stars alike. In fact, some of the biggest names in football, including Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, and Jared Goff, all have experienced significant drops statistically following big breakout years in their careers, with many of these lowered outcomes taking place after their second seasons. And despite his young three-year career so far and an immaculate third season in the league, Allen has yet to have that kind of step-back experience, and it’s hard not to wonder if this slide will come around this year, particularly with the added pressure of making a trip to the Super Bowl.

But what makes this season even more challenging for Allen is the expectation and requirement to produce another flawless season that, at the very least, closely matches the one he produced last year. And this includes limiting turnovers significantly, which has been an issue for Allen since he got drafted. Though he posted a career-low in rushing fumbles last year with only 4, Allen had an additional 5 passing fumbles along with 10 interceptions, illustrating just how vital it is of him to limit turnovers this year both on the ground and through the air (ESPN). Anything short of his last season numbers could certainly jeopardize the Bills’ aspirations for a Super Bowl ring, and that’s another layer of pressure that might be too difficult to surmount.

Nonetheless, Allen has proven that he is no ordinary quarterback and has predicated the brunt of his success on one key component: growth. From season to season, Allen has made grand strides with his development by not only refining his mobility in and out of the pocket but also by improving his throwing accuracy immensely, ascending into one of the league’s best passers in the process. And since his shaky rookie campaign only three years ago, Allen has shown no signs of slowing down as he aims to uphold the dominant level of play he’s been able to achieve so far. Though he’s shown that turnovers can still be a thorn in his side, Allen has become a student of the game, driven by his dedication and desire to succeed at the highest level with an unquenchable interest to learn from his imperfections and beat on his craft. What he did last year was truly impressive and a tough feat to match. But then again, there’s no reason why Allen can’t throw for over 5,000 yards and 40+ touchdowns this season. And with everything at his disposal, Allen’s poised to unleash his biggest season yet.

Bills’ Cole Beasley Claims He Would Rather Retire Than Receive COVID Vaccine: Is This An Extreme Reaction?

bills, cole beasley

If there’s anything we learned from the year 2020, is that COVID-19 is not a joke and that the danger of a grand scale pandemic can be crushingly devastating. Not even five days ago, the New York Times reported that the world’s coronavirus death toll had surpassed four million, as stronger variants continue to spread and unequal vaccine distribution stunts the level of global immunity.

Although this pandemic has cast a dark cloud upon humanity, the vaccines have provided a sign of hope and have proven to be a very effective, preventative measure to ensure people don’t get the coronavirus and avoid the most severe symptoms that can fatally hospitalize them if they do contract it. Whether it’s Moderna, Pfizer, or AstraZeneca, the vaccines have the effectiveness to reduce the risk of COVID-19 by 90% or more, according to the CDC, providing substantial protection to one of the most contagious viruses our world has ever lived through. In fact, the driving force behind why cases have gone down in the U.S., for example, is due to the significant number of individuals who have received vaccinations so far, with nearly 48% of the country already fully vaccinated.

However, despite the continued success behind the vaccinations, many people have chosen not to get vaccinated. The reasons behind these decisions vary and are fueled by several different influences. That being said, due the devastation and heartbreak this virus has already caused and continues to insinuate, numerous of people have given these anti-vaccine individuals a lot of criticism and backlash over their decision-making. Believe it or not, this anti-vaccine stance and sentiment is widely felt throughout the entire country, even among celebrities and professional athletes. And over the past month, one popular sports athlete who’s chosen not to be vaccinated and has been at the forefront of this ongoing controversy is Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley.

Coming out with a Twitter PSA on June 18th, Beasley stated that “he’s not vaccinated and that he wants to live his one life like he wants to,” explaining that “he’d rather take his chances with COVID and build up an immunity that way.” Further detailing instructions for those that live around him and might encounter him in person, Beasley also took the time to explain his standing on the freedom to choose what he feels is best for him and his life, going as far to say that “I’ll play for free this year to live how I’ve lived from day one.” And “If I’m forced into retirement, so be it.”

Whether you’re a Bills fan or a sports fan in general, this is certainly a conflicting concern that can pose a variety of issues. To begin with, the Bills are a Super Bowl contending team, and any setbacks due to COVID-19 throughout the season could be consequential for this franchise’s big aspirations. Though the NFL has a rigorous policy in place for unvaccinated players, including mask-wearing, daily testing, as well as weight room capacity limits, Beasley’s approach could cost him outside of the NFL’s jurisdiction, and he could easily put his teammates at risk, whether they’re vaccinated or not (ESPN).

On the other hand, the Bills also really need Beasley to be present, healthy, and focused. Ever since he came to Buffalo in 2019, Beasley has posted new career highs in receptions (82), targets (107), yards (967), touchdowns (6), and receiving first downs (53), becoming a vital component of this Bills offense (ESPN). On top of his incredible chemistry level established with quarterback Josh Allen, Beasley never turns the ball over, recording his last fumble back in 2015 (ESPN).

In short, Beasley’s decision about the vaccine has become a significant cause for concern regarding the Bills goals this season. And, as a matter of fact, he’s not the only player in the NFL who’s chosen not to get vaccinated. That being said, if you were in his position, would you take the vaccine or opt-out and risk an early retirement? Here at ESM, we would love to hear our readers and fans weigh in on this controversial matter, especially since the Bills have so much on the line this year. Feel free to chime in with your comments and thoughts!

Can the Bills overcome their weaknesses and take a step forward toward a Championship in 2021?

josh allen, bills

Last season was a really big step for the Buffalo Bills. Finishing the year with an excellent 13-3 record followed by their first AFC Championship appearance since 1993, the Bills, for the first time in a long time, truly looked like Super Bowl contenders. With a high-octane offensive and a versatile defense, the Bills evolved into a force to be reckoned with and illustrated how dominant they can be.

Entering the playoffs with a big wild card victory over the Indianapolis Colts to then completely shutting down the Baltimore Ravens the following week in the divisional round, the Bills really lived up to the hype and proved just how dangerous and elite they are. Coming off a season in 2019 where they went 10-6 and suffered a swift playoff exit in the Wild Card round, last season’s accomplishments really highlighted the tremendous amount of growth this team mustered together in just a year’s time, despite adding a handful of new cornerstone players to their roster.

However, when this strong team was confronted with the living epitome of greatness in Patrick Mahomes, the Bills did not have an answer for the former MVP and struggled to keep up with the Chiefs’ offensive tenacity. Not only did they have a very difficult time trying to slow them down defensively, but on top of that, not even their offense could keep up with the scoring output from the Chiefs, resulting in yet another tough playoff exit.

What the Bills confronted, though, wasn’t an unusual setback; the Chiefs are the greatest team in the AFC and have solidified that over the last two years. And just like it is for the Ravens, Titans, Steelers, Browns and other championship-driven AFC teams, overcoming the Chiefs this year for the Bills is the greatest challenge they face in the AFC period. Making it to the playoffs is no simple task as is. But beating the Chiefs in the playoffs is the biggest test for this Bills team to surmount and remains to be a feat that seems awfully daunting for them to prevail against this season.

That being said, the Chiefs did come up short in the Super Bowl against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who beat them fair and square by 22 points. Although Tom Brady pulled off yet another flawless Super Bowl performance and took home the Super Bowl MVP honors, the key ingredient for their success that night was nothing but their staunch and ruthless defense led by Todd Bowles. Holding the Chiefs to only nine points, Mahomes and his offense had no solution against the Buccaneers’ defensive schemes, and the former MVP quarterback found himself scrambling helplessly all too often from start to finish.

On the contrary, this is precisely what the Bills lacked with their very own defense and was ultimately why they couldn’t slow down the Chiefs in the first place. Though they have a handful of great defensive playmakers and specialists on their unit, the Bills defense had a couple of gaps in talent and strength, particularly along their defensive line who struggled against the run and could hardly garner any pressure against opposing quarterbacks. Just to give you an idea, the Bills defense allowed over 350 total yards per game with 119.6 of them coming on the ground, finished the year in 12th in total sacks and conceded 23.4 points per game in the process (ESPN). Considering the talent and potential this defense has, those numbers were far from ideal and have to improve if they want a shot at redemption come January 2022.

But since the Super Bowl ended back in February, a series of small yet significant changes have been made with the Bills, and there’s no doubt that this team has what it takes to make it to the Super Bowl within the next two years if not sooner. It sounds kind of crazy, but the Bills made all the right adjustments over the offseason that they needed to make, putting themselves in the best position to go the distance for the first time in decades.

For starters, the Bills made defense their biggest priority this offseason, and they really capitalized on that in this year’s NFL Draft. With their first two picks, the Bills not only selected debatably the best defensive lineman coming out of the draft in Gregory Rousseau out of the University of Miami, but they also selected the gifted, defensive menace in Carlos Basham Jr. out of Wake Forest, big-time playmakers that wreaked havoc during their college years. With Rousseau bringing elite athleticism, quickness, and versatility and Bashem Jr. providing an unrelenting level of strength, grit, and power, the Bills have assembled one dangerous defensive line considering they have Ed Oliver, Mario Addison, and Jerry Hughes to begin with. Along with these additions, the Bills also reinforced their already stacked secondary in the draft by selecting safety Damar Hamlin and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, physical and competitive defensive backs that possess good upside and skill (ESPN). Though these rookies are all very new to the league, they all have the talent and athleticism to provide what the Bills have been seeking for defensively, it’s just a matter of when. Last year, the Bills defense ranked 14th overall in the league; this year, they have the potential to be top-five, and that’s due in large part to a very well-executed draft that addressed the most vulnerable areas of their defensive unit (ESPN).

Offensively, the Bills didn’t need to do much outside of pad their overall depth and replace the deep threat hole John Brown left behind. Well, lo and behold, they did just that. Signing Emmanuel Sanders over the offseason, a savvy veteran presence that brings tremendous downfield speed, the Bills also drafted Marquez Stevenson out of Houston, a lighting quick receiver that is downright lethal after the catch and brings big-play potential every time the ball is thrown his way. Additionally, the Bills also went ahead and drafted two bright offensive tackles in Spencer Brown and Tommy Doyle, providing a strong and young insurance policy in case Daryl Williams or Dion Dawkins deal with any injury setbacks. Though there’s a good chance both of these rookies won’t see a whole lot of starting reps this season, a deep offensive line is vital for the Bills’ long-term success, and both of these tackles possess encouraging potential.

Outside of these minor changes, the Bills offense is just about as dangerous as any other in the league and has everything it needs to replicate their success from last year. With Josh Allen getting better every season, to Zach Moss and Devon Singletary forming a complimenting, one-two punch out of the backfield, to Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley leading the charge of a strong group of receivers, this Bills offense is so complete with not only star talent and excellent role players but also has the close-knit chemistry that an offense needs in order to succeed at the highest level.

When all is said and done, the Bills did just about everything they could to address their greatest concerns on both sides of the ball and met all of those expectations wholeheartedly. With their defense looking much stronger than last year, the Bills have a serious chance at ending their Super Bowl drought this season by not only overwhelming their opponents with their offensive resiliency but by also stifling and shutting them defensively as well. Beating out Mahomes and the Chiefs still remains to be the greatest test the Bills face down the line. But if there’s any team in the AFC that could do so this season, it’s no one else but the Buffalo Bills.

New York Jets: 5 games that could get the national TV treatment

When can New York Jets fans expect to see their team in prime time? ESM investigates with the official schedules on their way out tonight.

Nothing showcases the stranglehold that the NFL holds on the American imagination than the release of its annual schedule. The 2021 edition emerges on Wednesday, with early game reveals scheduled for the morning programs of Fox, CBS, and ABC (Fox & Friends, CBS This Morning, and Good Morning America respectively) before the full schedule is posted in prime time.

Contrary to the popular belief that performance dictates how “easy” or “hard” a team’s schedule is, there’s hardly any surprise involved when it comes to an individual team’s opponents. By the time we get to Wednesday’s reveals, everyone knows who their team is going to play in 2021. Heck, the NFL’s scheduling formula allows us to look to, say, 2049, and figure out all but three opponents for the year ahead. But the mere attachment of times and dates causes we, the football-hungry public, to break out into hysterics, a process and celebration that the league has now turned into an all-day affair.

The drama of schedule release day has been relatively benign for fans of the New York Jets. Trapped in a playoff drought that just hit double figures, the Jets have mostly been bestowed the comparatively mundane 1:00 p.m. ET timeslot in a majority of their contests. For example, they haven’t been a part of NBC’s Sunday Night Football package since 2011, seeing several other opportunities to appear on the peacock network erased by flexible scheduling.

But with the arrival of head coach Robert Saleh and offensive weapons, the young Jets could be worth watching and putting on a national stage again. Putting them in the playoff discussion might be a tad much, but there’s no doubt whatsoever that the Jets are in a much more intriguing spot than they were last year. Suddenly, there’s drama behidn the numbers again.

Which games could get the national call? ESM takes a look at five…

1. @ Carolina Panthers

There’s not much history between the Jets and Panthers. The teams have met only seven times and last faced off in Charlotte in 2013. But the Sam Darnold…and, to a lesser extent, Robby Anderson…factor changes everything. The new New York guard…Zach Wilson and Elijah Moore…going up against the old…Darnold and Robby Anderson…makes this a game the Jets could use as a barometer to see where they are in the latest chapter of their rebuild.

The Jets and Panthers may not be fighting for postseason position this year, but they’re in remarkably similar spots: trapped in a division with a powerful conference finalist that shows no signs of relenting, but equipped with hope through young offensive weaponry.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars

Whether they like it or not, Wilson and Trevor Lawrence are forever linked through their status as the opening two picks of the 2021 NFL Draft. Despite the Jets and Jaguars’ recent ineptitude…the two united for three wins last season…this will be an attractive game for the rookie throwers alone.  But there’s so much young talent from the past few drafts that the game should probably be called by Mel Kiper and Todd McShay. Wilson is aided by Moore, Denzel Mims, and Michael Carter, while the Jacksonville side is further repped by DJ Chark, Laviska Chenault, and Travis Etienne.

On top of it all, it well could feature Tim Tebow’s return to MetLife Stadium, the site of some of his most recent NFL regular season action. But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

3. Buffalo Bills

The divisional rivalry loses a little luster with the loss of Darnold, Josh Allen’s fellow 2018 draftee. But Buffalo tightened its grip on the hearts of Empire State football with a downright historic season that ended in the AFC Championship Game. Divisional rivalries tend to get priority placement when it comes to the national TV schedule and the Bills would be the most attractive opponent to place in the slot with the New York connections in mind.

4. New England Patriots

The Jets-Patriots rivalry is at an interesting point in that both teams are reeling from losing seasons. But even in their unfamiliar squalor, the Patriots managed to sweep their yearly pair with the Jets last season. A new chapter of the rivalry begins with both teams boasting first-round quarterbacks: Wilson emerges for the Jets while the Patriots counter with Mac Jones.

New York-Boston rivalries always get national attention and the Jets-Patriots matchup has received a Monday Night date in each of the last two seasons. But the two teams’ status as AFC East also-rans, not to mention the uncertainty around the idea of Jones starting (you know Cam Newton won’t go down without a fight) could raise some red flags.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Just when you thought the Tom Brady nightmare was over, the seven-time Super Bowl champion returns for (at least) one last scare in the form of an interconference game with the defending champions. Networks have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with New York schadenfreude, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see Brady’s reunion with his old metropolitan buddies get the national treatment.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills’ Orchard Park stadium gets another new name

The establishment formerly known as Ralph Wilson Stadium undergoes another name change, as the Buffalo Bills reached a naming rights deal.

The Buffalo Bills added a little more blue to their repertoire this week.

The team announced the selling of naming rights to Bills Stadium this week through a partnership with Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York. Orchard Park’s football palace will now be officially known as Highmark Stadium. 

“We are proud to welcome Highmark to the Buffalo Bills family and we are thrilled to partner with them on a new naming rights deal for our stadium,” Bills Owner/President Kim Pegula said in a statement on the team website. “We are confident that Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York is committed to maintaining their status as a healthcare and philanthropic leader in our region.”

“We look forward to many years of working together with their team creating great memories at not only NFL football games but at many other health and wellness events and community celebrations.”

Though financial details have not been disclosed, Ben Fischer and Terry Lefton of Sports Business Journal report that it is a ten-year deal.

Highmark Stadium has hosted Bills football since 1973 and has gone under several different monikers. Its original status as Rich Stadium (1973-97), named after Buffalo-based Rich Products, was one of the earliest examples of stadium naming rights in American sports.

The stadium’s most famous identity arrived in 1998 when it was named Ralph Wilson Stadium after the then-Bills owner. Many fans continue to refer to the stadium as “The Ralph” and have expressed their plans to do so on social media upon the new name announcement. Another Buffalo business, the New Era Cap Company, purchased naming rights in 2016 but backed out of their agreement in July 2020. The stadium was thus known as Bills Stadium last season during Buffalo’s run to the AFC title game.

Other notable events to take place on the stadium’s turf include the inaugural NHL Winter Classic in 2008 and Erie County high school football playoffs.

With the naming rights in Orchard Park sold once more, Paul Brown Stadium (Cincinnati) and Soldier Field (Chicago) are the only two NFL stadiums without an official corporate sponsor name. The Kansas City Chiefs’ dwelling is now officially as GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium after inking a deal in March.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Free agent J.J. Watt spurns Buffalo Bills for Arizona

New York Giants, JJ Watt

Despite a supposedly promising social media update earlier in the day, J.J. Watt will not join the Buffalo Bills.

A promising lead involving J.J. Watt’s supposed Peloton profile veered off course for the Buffalo Bills on Monday.

Bills fans were enthused by a report from ESPN’s Field Yates, who claimed a Peloton profile belonging to Watt narrowed his free agency destinations down to Buffalo and two other contenders from Cleveland and Green Bay. However, Watt refuted ownership of such an exercise bike on Twitter and later revealed that he would instead be signing with the Arizona Cardinals in a separate post. The latter image shows the former Houston Texan lifting weights, clad in Cardinals gear, and is accompanied by the captions “source: me”. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, the deal is worth $31 million over two seasons with $23 million guaranteed.

With this move, Watt joins fellow disgruntled former Texan DeAndre Hopkins, who united with quarterback Kyler Murray for 1,407 yards through the air.

Yates owned his refuted report, later threading the original Peloton tweet with a GIF of animated character Homer Simpson awkwardly disappearing into shrubs. It likely does nothing to soothe the blow dealt to Bills fans who wanted to see Watt in Western New York. Some Bills-supporting social media users, perhaps desperate, got their hopes up for such a union when Watt posted a tweet about “mitochondria” last week, reasoning a local medical research center in Buffalo bore the same name.

Though the Bills will miss out on Watt, he of three Defensive Player of the Year awards and 101 sacks over a ten-season career with the Texans, there are plenty of options available to them on the free agency front to bolster their pass rush, including Leonard Williams, Matt Judon, and Shaquil Barrett.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

3 Carolina free agents Brandon Beane and the Buffalo Bills could target

New York Giants, Curtis Samuel

General manager Brandon Beane’s past with the Carolina Panthers could lead to a brighter future for the Buffalo Bills.

In just four years, Brandon Beane is turning into one of the finest architects Buffalo has ever welcomed…and this is a city well-versed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work.

Over his first four years as the general manager of the Buffalo Bills, Beane, 44, has ended the longest active playoff drought in the NFL and turned it into a strong Super Bowl case. But if January’s AFC Championship Game proved one thing, it’s that more is needed to truly compete for a Super Bowl. Thus, the Bills will look to pull out all the stops this offseason in searching for a way to topple the Kansas City Chiefs.

Beane has a source of untapped potential at his fingertips, one he hasn’t been afraid to approach before…the Carolina Panthers.

Over nearly two decades (1998-2017), Beane held a variety of roles in the Carolina front office. Several former Panthers have played roles in Buffalo’s resurgence. The overseer of the project, Sean McDermott, was a defensive coordinator clad in teal for six seasons. This season, Daryl Williams proved to be a serviceable replacement after the Bills’ blocking corps was decimated through injuries.

Who might Beane and the Bills target this time around? ESM investigates…

T Taylor Moton

After Williams worked in a pinch last season, it feels like Moton could be a similar case but with an eye on the future. One of Beane’s last Carolina acquisitions, chosen in the second round in his last draft, Moton would be a good candidate to take over the right tackle spot with both Williams and Ty Nsekhe both up for free agency. But the thing that could scare off the Bills, and other suitors, is the fact that Carolina has placed the franchise tag on him, which would lead to a pricy contract…one the Bills might not be able to afford that with the 20th-best cap space in football. They can add to that number and move up the ranking by bidding some veterans farewell, like John Brown (over $6.3 million) and Jerry Hugest (over $5 million).

WR Curtis Samuel

Even the briefest looks at the Bills’ stat ledgers and highlight reels shows that they’re well situated with their receivers for the foreseeable future. While the top three producers (Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis) are locked up for 2021 at least, the aforementioned Brown could be let go for the cap money and Isaiah McKenzie is up for free agency. The Bills might be looking for depth at receiver, but Gabriel could provide another top target for Josh Allen. One of Beane’s final moves in Carolina was overseeing the draft that brought in Samuel with the 40th choice, 24 picks before Moton. He’s emerging from a career-best season earned while Carolina deals with an unstable quarterback situation. It’s likely Gabriel’s looking for a long-term contract in a top target’s role, but his connection with Beane could warrant at least a meeting with the Bills. Buffalo has far bigger needs to fill, but Gabriel would be a weapon worth splurging on.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kp4Lw-69jis&ab_channel=NFL

DT Kawann Short

It didn’t take long for Short, a second-round choice in 2013, to make an impact in Buffalo. He was one of the defensive faces of the Panthers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2015-16, earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors. Short was recently granted his release by the Panthers on February 16 and has stated that several teams have inquired about his availability. It wouldn’t be a shock in the slightest if the Bills were one of them, as they can use all the front seven they can get. The knock against Short is that he turned 32 earlier this month and injuries have dominated the latter half of his career. Short hasn’t played a full season since 2017 and has partaken in a mere five games in the last two years. A short-term for a guy who could not only provide talent to the line but mentorship to young guys like Ed Oliver would be one of the more effective, under-the-radar deals we could see in the AFC East this offseason. In addition to his familiarity with McDermott and Beane, Short has also worked with defensive line coach Eric Washington, who took over the position in Buffalo after nearly a decade in Charlotte.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Wide receivers

The Buffalo Bills have found some reliable top receiving targets, but will need to analyze the options behind them this offseason.

The Position: Wide Receiver
On the Roster: Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah Hodgins
Free Agents: Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie
Reserve/Future: Tanner Gentry, Jake Kumerow, Duke Williams

Stefon Diggs’ first year in Western New York led to the Buffalo Bills’ single-season record book, at least the receiving chapters, to be completely rewritten.

The (Minneapolis) miracle worker made an immediate impact in his red and blue debut, earning 1,535 yards on 127 receptions…each establishing new team records and led the NFL. Buffalo had their passing weapon in Josh Allen but they now appear to have a strong tandem that can cause Kelly-to-Reed-style levels of offensive destruction. Few can question the potential future Diggs has created in Buffalo. An enduring image of the 2020-21 AFC Championship Game is Diggs watching the Kansas City Chiefs’ celebration from afar, the lone man clad in white to remain on the field.

Diggs wasn’t the only one to enjoy a breakout with the Bills. Cole Beasley likewise earned career-best numbers (967 yards on 82 receptions) while Gabriel Davis established himself a valuable day three find, as he was among four others first-years tied with seven touchdown receptions, second-best amongst rookie competitors.

Yet, the unprecedented success the Bills found last season was tough to celebrate because of the lack of Super Bowl at the end. Startling as such a leap would’ve been, Davis admitted that the semifinal heartbreak made it difficult to watch the Big Game.

“I couldn’t watch it because it made my stomach hurt. I feel like we should have been there,” the Central Florida alum told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel. “That’s our standard, obviously, now. We set the standard and we’re playing to be above that standard every single year. So our guys are going to get back to work and we’re going to be ready to go, and hopefully, we get a big one next year.”

While the Bills are obviously pleased with the output from the top of their depth chart, they’ll have to analyze their alternative options this offseason. In addition to McKenzie and Roberts’ expiring contracts, the team also has a decision to make on John Brown. The former Baltimore Raven was unable to capitalize on a career-best season in 2019 as he missed several games due to injury. Buffalo would save over $6.3 million if they were to move Brown through either a release or trade.

Free Agents-to-be

Isaiah McKenzie

In a year where seemingly every Bills receiver was setting new career-bests, McKenzie was no exception, albeit on a smaller scale. He put up 282 yards and became a reliable red zone target with five scores. The man of many talents also earned a passing score through trickery and took a punt back for a score during Week 17 proceedings.

Andre Roberts

Roberts has been a consistent Pro Bowl representative for the Empire State, making the last three and the most recent two as a member of the Bills (he notably caught a touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson in the 2019-2020 game). Roberts continued to make himself a valuable special teams commodity in 2020, despite getting deeper into his 30s. Appropriately, Roberts led the league with a 30-yard average on kick returns.

Will They Draft?

If they do, likely not until the latter stages. Their top three receivers from last season are all back, and they also might try to develop Isaiah Hodgins, a sixth-round choice in 2020 who missed all of his rookie campaign with an injury. Their reserve/future signees could be diamonds in the rough as well. Kumerow and Williams have extensive professional experience (Williams being a CFL All-Star in Edmonton) and Gentry, a draftee of the XFL’s New York Guardians, was Allen’s favorite target during their shared tenures as (Wyoming) Cowboys. Late projects on day three could be Davis’ former UCF teammate Tre Nixon or Michigan’s Ronnie Bell, who could be a slot-mate for Beasley.

Veteran Possibilities

Curtis Samuel, Carolina

The idea of more offensive firepower in Buffalo is the subject of nightmares in East Rutherford, Foxboro, and Miami. But Samuel is an elite target that’s a realistic option for Buffalo (which likely would require Brown’s release). One of general manager Brandon Beane’s final moves in Charlotte was taking the Brooklyn native with the 40th pick in the 2017 draft. Samuel will likely be looking for some stability with his second contract, but he well could be the proverbial “one move away” from truly pushing the Bills into the aura of Super Bowl contention.

Breshad Perriman, NY Jets

If the Bills wind up letting both Brown and McKenzie walk, Perriman would be a solid consolation prize in terms of speed and experience. It was clear last season that Perriman isn’t the type of player who can headline your receiving corps, but there’s hope he can create a good NFL career as a solid support man.

Chad Beebe, Minnesota

In some ways, it’s almost fate for Beebe to don red, white, and blue. Born in Buffalo and the son of a Bills legend (Don), Beebe can be the veteran depth option the Bills need if they’re forced to part ways with Brown or lose McKenzie.

Outlook

Overall, the Bills are more or less set with their top-heavy receiver depth chart. It’s unfortunate that Brown’s Buffalo journey might not continue, but that cap space earned with his moving (Buffalo currently ranks 20th in available cap space going into free agency) might be too much to resist. Expect the Bills to bring in a free agent or two to compete for a roster spot, as well as someone with return skills if both Roberts and McKenzie walk.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags