September 4, 2018

EPL FREE KICKS: Wat the heck is going on with Watford?

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

As we head into the first break of the English Premier League season, the top of the table looks sort of how we would expect it.

1. Liverpool

2. Chelsea

3. Watford

Wait, what?

Yes, the Hornets have surprised many by jumping out of the gate and picking up four wins in four games. They’re out of first place by just a two-goal margin in differential.

And it’s not just based on a weak schedule, either. Watford showed its credentials on Sunday with a comeback win over formerly undefeated Tottenham.

Spurs had looked good for most of the game and seemingly were cruising towards grabbing at least one point on the road, but the hosts at Vicarage Road quickly turned it around.

This is a team that lacks in star power, but gets it done with teamwork. Troy Deeney is a solid, but unspectacular target man up front. Roberto Pereyra had eight EPL goals heading into this season, but already has three in four games. Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue are just two solid workers in the midfield that will always put in a 90-minute shift. Ben Foster came over from relegated West Brom in the summer and has been solid between the sticks.

And then there’s Jose Holebas. The Hornets defender has been involved in five goals this season — a goal and four assists, including two against Spurs — which is the most in the league.

The immediate comparison that some will make is to Leicester City of 2015-16, the biggest underdog champion in history. There’s actually an incredible similarity between the two: The season before the Foxes’ improbable title run, they finished 14th in the league with 41 points and an 11-8-19 record. Last year, Watford finished 14th in the league with 41 points and an 11-8-19 record. Pretty shocking, I know.

Of course, we won’t go as far as to say that Watford will be competing for the title come May, but it’s always nice to see a new team up there in the standings.

Matches against Manchester United, Fulham and Arsenal are up after the break, so we’ll see just how good this Watford side is. But considering that we predicted it to finish 15th, we’d say the Hornets are well ahead of schedule.

Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku scored two goals against Burnley on Sunday. (GETTY IMAGES)

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

You’re not going to believe this, but Romelu Lukaku found his goal-scoring touch once again — all it took was a game against a club near the bottom of the table.

Lukaku’s goal-scoring plaudits are well-known: He’ll bag a brace — as he did against Burnley on Sunday — when the stakes are low, but he can’t seem to pull it off against the bigger clubs — like when he was blanked against Spurs the week before.

The Belgian forward will continue to pile up the numbers against lower sides, but when will he be able to do it against those big clubs? It would be incredibly interesting to see him head to a league with fewer top clubs and see just how rampant he could run.

Not taking any shots against the Bundesliga or La Liga, but with only two or three truly big clubs in each league, Lukaku might achieve legendary scoring status if he left England.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Its schedule certainly hasn’t been easy, but West Ham is the only pointless team in the league, going 0-4 so far. The last time that the Irons started the season with four losses, they were relegated … We should have known better to doubt Jose Mourinho. After weeks of doubting him and Manchester United, his team bounces back with a 2-0 win. We’re sure this won’t be the end of this saga, though … We know that new manager Unai Emery has set the priority at Arsenal to be all about offence, but at some point the Gunners will have to learn how to defend. This week, Cardiff scored its first goals of the season and nearly stole a point … Mesut Ozil was back in the lineup after being “sick” last week. We’re guessing that won’t be the only time that the ex-German international will be stricken this season … Kyle Walker’s winner against Newcastle was a stunner. The City fullback put everything he had behind that rocket … Leroy Sane wasn’t even included in the squad this week, reportedly due to some attitude issues. If this isn’t a wakeup call for last year’s Young Player of the Season, we don’t know what will be … Aleksandar Mitrovic scored yet again. That’s four goals in four games for the ex-Magpie striker … Crystal Palace could be in big trouble. Wilfried Zaha was hurt during the final training session before Saturday’s game and it could be really bad news. The Eagles attacker has no timetable for return, either … Alisson is the latest goalkeeper to be caught in possession, although it didn’t cost the Reds points. There’s more pressure than ever on keepers to be good on the ball, but sometimes you just have to put your boot through the ball.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah is a finalist for FIFA’s Ballon d’Or. (AP PHOTO)

THE LAST WORD

You wouldn’t think that seeing Mohamed Salah being a finalist for the Ballon d’Or would stir controversy, but somehow it has.

All that Salah did last season was set the record for goals in the season while being crowned Premier League player of the year and leading Liverpool all the way to the Champions League final.

But when you consider that Lionel Messi and Antoine Greizmann were left off of that list of three finalists, well, that gets some people upset.

Former Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric were the other two finalists along with Salah. Ronaldo had another stellar season in La Liga and lifted his fifth Champions League title scoring many key goals along the way. Modric was Madrid’s midfield leader for that run, but his shining moment was getting underdogs Croatia to the World Cup final in Russia and winning the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.

For Messi, this is the first time in 12 years that he hasn’t been a finalist for the award that he has won five times. He led Barcelona to the La Liga crown in a difficult year following the sale of Neymar.

Greizmann had another fantastic season with Atletico Madrid, leading it to the Europa League title and a second-place league finish — ahead of Real. Oh, and he won the World Cup with France. The striker was also given the Bronze Ball, but somehow wasn’t on the tournament’s Best XI — for the record, Ronaldo, Messi and Salah all underperformed in Russia.

So how do you fix a situation where so many players are clear contenders for the trophy? The answer is that you can’t and you don’t. There’s no need to expand the number of finalists because we had a banner year for superstars. There’s no shame in missing out to any of these guys for Messi or Greizmann.

And if you think that Salah, only the best player in the world’s most competitive league last year, wasn’t worthy of being a finalist, you’re crazy.

September 1, 2018

NFL FANTASY PREVIEW: Top 30 big board + some advice

by Dan Bilicki In: Fantasy, Football

TOP 30 BIG BOARD

Here’s the guys we’d expect to see get taken in the first three rounds of a 10-team draft.

1. Todd Gurley, RB, LAR

2. Le’Veon Bell, RB, PIT

3. Ezekiel Elliott, RB, DAL

4. David Johnson, RB, ARI

5.Antonio Brown, WR, PIT

6. Saquon Barkley, RB, NYG

7. Alvin Kamara, RB, NO

8. DeAndre Hopkins, WR, HOU

9. Odell Beckham Jr., WR, NYG

10 Kareem Hunt, RB, KC

11. Julio Jones, WR, ATL

12. Melvin Gordon, RB, LAC

13. Leonard Fournette, RB, JAX

14. Keenan Allen, WR, LAC

15. Michael Thomas, WR, NO

16. Dalvin Cook, RB, MIN

17. Davante Adams, WR, GB

18. Devonta Freeman, RB, ATL

19. Christian McCaffery, RB, CAR

20. Mike Evans, WR, TB

21. Jordan Howard, RB, CHI

22. A.J. Green, WR, CIN

23. Tyreek Hill, WR, KC

24. Doug Baldwin, WR, SEA

25. Rob Gronkowski, TE, NE

26. Jerick McKinnon, RB, SF

27. T.Y. Hilton, WR, IND

28. Adam Thielen, WR, MIN

29. Travis Kelce, TE, KC

30. Amari Cooper, WR, OAK

BEGINNER ADVICE

If it’s your first time in a fantasy football league, don’t fret, we have some advice for you to get through your rookie season.

-At the draft, you don’t have to fill out your roster spots before strengthening your bench. Just because you already have two RBs and a couple of receivers, doesn’t mean you have to take a QB or TE next. In most cases, that mid-round RB has a higher ceiling than a mid-round QB.

-Wait until the very end of your draft to take you defence and kicker. With the amount of fluctuation year to year with defences and the small overall gap between the elite at these positions and the low-end starters, it’s a safe move to hold off on picking them.

-Average Draft Position and projections are great tools for the draft, but don’t put all of your stock in them. If you have a gut feeling that Player A will outperform Player B, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger just because Player B’s ADP is 15 slots lower. These numbers often take into account very early drafts and players’ roles could’ve changed since those selections took place.

-Bye weeks, surprisingly, aren’t that big of a deal at draft time. In fact, in the long run, it can be beneficial to actually have the majority of your starters off the same week. You will also make trades and pickups in-season that will alter your strategy.

-Please, for the love of all that is holy, pay your commissioner early. There’s nothing worse for you or them than having to hound a deadbeat owner. And if you can’t afford to pay, maybe you shouldn’t be playing in the first place.

-Finally, remember to stay active in your league. We’re not saying that every fantasy player needs to scour the waiver wire every morning and constantly have trades on their mind, but please log in at least once a week to check on your squad. The least you can do as an owner is to set your lineup every week and not have injured, suspended or inactive players suiting up for you. It ruins the experience for others when you quit.

NFL FANTASY PREVIEW: Top 30 quarterbacks

by Dan Bilicki In: Fantasy, Football

We’re in an era where the pool for fantasy QBs is deeper than ever. There’s also plenty of fluctuation at the top, as no QB has repeated as the No. 1 fantasy QB since Daunte Culpepper did in 2013-14.

1. Aaron Rodgers, GB

1675 passing yards, 16 passing TD, 6 INTs, 126 rushing yards, 135.6 points.

A broken collarbone limited him to just seven games last season, but when healthy, he’s an elite-level fantasy QB, finishing as QB1 in two of the past four seasons.

2. Russell Wilson, SEA

3983 passing yards, 34 passing TDs, 11 INTs, 586 rushing yards, 3 TDs, 358.9 points.

Led all of fantasy in points last season and should have plenty of opportunity to do so again as long as he can stay healthy behind a subpar O-line.

3. Cam Newton, CAR

3302 passing yards, 22 passing TDs, 16 INTs, 754 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 315.4 points.

He’s a rushing TD machine, with at least five in each of his seven seasons in the league — the only player to do that over that stretch.

4. Tom Brady, NE

4577 passing yards, 32 passing TDs, 8 INTs, 28 rushing yards, 303.8 points.

Consistently one of the top QBs in fantasy, but his December numbers last season left something to be desired, averaging 13.5 ppg.

5. Drew Brees, NO

4334 passing yards, 23 passing TDs, 8 INTs, 12 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 270.5 points.

Death, taxes and Brees throwing for 4,000 yards. Even during his worst statistical season in a decade last year, Brees was fourth in the league in yardage.

6. Deshaun Watson, HOU

1699 passing yards, 19 passing TDs, 8 INTs, 269 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 176.8 points.

It would be impossible for him to sustain his incredible scoring run over a season, but there’s some definite potential to finish as a top QB.

7. Carson Wentz, PHI

3296 passing yards, 33 passing TDs, 7 INTs, 299 rushing yards, 288.7 points.

Health is the big issue coming off a torn ACL and it’s still uncertain if he’ll be back for Week 1. He should put up nice numbers on a per-game basis.

8. Jimmy Garoppolo, SF

1560 passing yards, 7 passing TDs, 5 INTs, 11 rushing yards, 1 TD, 91.9 points.

Last year’s late-season fantasy darling put up 17.4 points per game in his five starts, which would’ve been tied for eighth best over the season.

9. Matthew Stafford, DET

4446 passing yards, 29 passing TDs, 10 INTs, 98 rushing yards, 283.6 points.

Took the second most sacks in the league last year (47), but the Lions beefed up their line in the off-season.

10. Kirk Cousins, MIN

4093 passing yards, 27 passing TDs, 13 INTs, 179 rushing yards, 4 TDs, 290.6 points.

Moving to the Vikings has some positives and negatives: Cousins will have better receivers to throw to, but will be pressured more often behind a worse O-line.

11. Philip Rivers, LAC

4515 passing yards, 28 passing TDs, 10 INTs, -2 rushing yards, 280.4 points.

Led the NFL in 300-yard games last season and has 4,000 yards and 25+ TDs in nine of the past 10 seasons.

12. Marcus Mariota, TEN

3232 passing yards, 13 passing TDs, 15 INTs, 312 rushing yards, 5 TDs, 225.4 points.

Could be a huge beneficiary from a change in scheme that will feature more play-action calls to utilize his mobility.

13. Andrew Luck, IND

Did not play in 2017

Health is obviously an issue after missing an entire season due shoulder surgery. Had one of the best fantasy QB seasons ever in 2014.

14. Matt Ryan, ATL

4095 passing yards, 20 passing TDs, 12 INTs, 143 rushing yards, 240.1 points.

Took a huge step back from his MVP 2016 season, throwing for nearly 900 fewer yards and 18 fewer TDs under a new OC.

15. Patrick Mahomes II, KC

284 passing yards, 1 INT, 10 rushing yards, 11.3 points.

Takes over an offence that made Alex Smith the fourth-best fantasy QB last year. A solid, high-potential sleeper pick.

16. Ben Roethlisberger, PIT

4251 passing yards, 28 passing TDs, 14 INTs, 47 rushing yards, 274.7 points.

His home/away splits are no longer just a trend. Over the past three years, he has averaged 20+ points at home, but just under 14 on the road.

17. Alex Smith, WAS

4042 passing yards, 26 passing TDs, 5 INTs, 355 rushing yards, 1 TD, 300.1 points.

Had career highs in passing yards, TDs and YPA (8.0, second in the NFL) while finishing as a surprising fourth in fantasy points among QBs.

18. Jared Goff, LAR

3804 passing yards, 28 passing TDs, 7 INTs, 51 rushing yards, 1 TD, 262.2 points.

Made a massive improvement under new coach Sean McVay, but how much higher can he get?

19. Dak Prescott, DAL

3324 passing yards, 22 passing TDs, 13 INTs, 357 rushing yards, 6 TDs, 273.6 points.

Finished as QB10 last season despite dealing with O-line issues and Ezekiel Elliott’s ban, but his receiving corps might NFL’s worst.

20. Derek Carr, OAK

3496 passing yards, 22 passing TDs, 13 INTs, 66 rushing yards, 219.4 points.

Has yet to throw for 4,000 yards in a season and saw his numbers fall last year. Will Jon Gruden be able to resurrect Carr’s value?

21. Eli Manning, NYG

3468 passing yards, 19 passing TDs, 13 INTs, 26 rushing yards, 1 TD, 200.3 points.

With a decimated WR corps, threw for just 6.07 yards per attempt, which was the third-worst among qualified QBs.

22. Mitchell Trubisky, CHI

2193 passing yards, 7 passing TDs, 7 INTs, 248 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 141.5 points.

Threw for just seven scores in 12 games during his rookie season, but is bound to improve with a better WR corps.

23. Case Keenum, DEN

3547 passing yards, 22 passing TDs, 7 INTs, 160 rushing yards, 1 TD, 244.8 points.

Former undrafted free agent turned a fine run with the Vikings into another starting role with the Broncos.

24. Blake Bortles, JAX

3687 passing yards, 21 passing TDs, 13 INTs, 322 rushing yards, 2 TDs, 262.6 points.

Despite the Jaguars’ success, Bortles actually had a worse fantasy season in 2017, dropping four spots in QB points to No. 12.

25. Andy Dalton, CIN

3320 passing yards, 25 passing TDs, 12 INTs, 99 rushing yards, 222.7 points.

Had a career-low in yards per game and threw for under 200 yards in a game six times last year.

26. Jameis Winston, TB

3504 passing yards, 19 passing TDs, 11 INTs, 135 rushing yards, 1 TD, 212.6 points.

He’s suspended for the first three games of the season, his off-field issues aren’t worth his on-field inconsistencies.

27. Sam Bradford, ARI

382 passing yards, 3 passing TDs, 26.9 points.

Another QB that will likely just be a placeholder, Bradford could put up decent numbers with his short, accurate throws to Larry Fitzgerald.

28. Baker Mayfield, CLE

2018 rookie

Has looked great in the pre-season, but will the Browns want to expose him early on with a vet like Taylor aboard?

29. Ryan Tannehill, MIA

Did not play in 2017.

Was an average fantasy QB before missing last season and comes back to a much weaker team.

30. Tyrod Taylor, CLE

2799 passing yards, 14 passing TDs, 4 INTs, 427 rushing yards, 4 TDs, 226.6 points.

Had the best INT% in the league and should be a decent fantasy play until ceding the starting job to Mayfield.

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