There’s little doubt that the AFC South comes into 2014 as one of the weakest divisions on paper. Outside of the defending division champion Colts, there’s not a whole lot of faith that the AFC representative in Super Bowl XLIX will come out of this quartet. Still, there’s plenty of potential loading the rosters of the three also-rans. As we’ve seen plenty of times before, the NFL is a league fueled by parity. So, it should come as no shock to the pundits if any of the Titans, Jaguars, or Texans emerge as playoff contenders behind their young, hungry rosters.

andrewluckThe one true constant for the better part of the last 15-years (with the exception of 2011) is that the Indianapolis Colts will sit near the top of the South standings come January. QB Andrew Luck (pictured) has certainly lived up to the hype that saw him become the #1 overall pick in 2012 out of Stanford. The former Cardinal gunslinger improved in nearly every facet of his game during his sophomore campaign with Indy, cutting his interceptions in half (from 18 to 9) and increasing his completion percentage considerably (from 54% to 60%).

Indianapolis made an effort to improve the weapons that Luck has to utilize this season, signing free agent WR Hakeem Nicks away from the Giants to join T.Y. Hilton and Coby Fleener as Luck’s go-to-guys. Nicks, injury plagued during his final few seasons in The Big Apple, showed up to camp in great shape and has really impressed during the preseason. His addition, along with a full season of RB Trent Richardson, should easily give Indy the best offense in the division.

Defensively, the Colts desperately wanted to improve their run defense. After resigning CB Vontae Davis, they achieved that goal by signing free agent LB D’Qwell Jackson away from Cleveland. Jackson was a captain and leader for nearly a decade by the coast of Lake Erie, and should give Indianapolis the muscle in the middle that they’ve lacked ever since Mike Peterson departed. Indianapolis may not have had a first round pick (Richardson deal). But, they certainly made the most of the offseason by landing impact talents at bargain basement prices. They should once again patrol the top of the mountain once the postseason begins in just over four months.

One team that has teetered between mediocrity and misery over the last five years is the Tennessee Titans. Under new coach Ken Whisenhunt (formerly of the Arizona Cardinals), Tennessee will look to build around their homegrown talent, with their sights set on 2015 as the year where they’ll truly contend for a division title. QB Jake Locker (pictured) was selected in the first round of the 2011 draft. Expectations have yet to be met, as Locker has spent more time on the infirmary report than he has under center. There’s no doubting his athleticism and talent. But, the former Washington Huskies’ last chance is upon him. If Locker can’t stay on the field in 2014, Whisenhunt will have no choice but to address the position next offseason.

jakelockerTwo of the longest tenured Titans, RB Chris Johnson and CB Alterraun Verner, packed their bags in the offseason. Johnson made his way to the Jets, while Verner signed a large free agent deal in Tampa. Tennessee is likely to feel the impact of Verner’s departure harder, as the team drafted rookie Bishop Sankey and signed former Chiefs’ speedster Dexter McCluster to cushion the impact of Johnson’s departure. Both of those players should combine to give Tennessee a talented duo behind Locker.

However, the loss of Verner could cause some problems in an uber-passing league like the NFL. Jason McCourty remains on one end. But, the team is going to be forced to rely on second year project Blidi Wreh-Wilson to start opposite him. The Malden, MA native was a 3rd round pick in 2013, so the team has faith in his talent. Still, cornerback is one position where youth is not ideal, and the Titans could have a big issue on their hands against the better aerial teams (see, Indianapolis).

While Tennessee does have a bright future ahead, there’s still too many questions to consider them anything more than the second best team in a weak division. If Locker can stay healthy, 8 or 9 wins is possible. Anything more than that is a pipe dream during Whisenhunt’s first season on the job.

For the Jacksonville Jaguars, success has been a long time coming. Now 15-years separated from the days of Mark Brunell and two AFC Championship appearances during the franchise’s first five years, Jacksonville continued their rebuilding process under coach Gus Bradley this spring. First round pick QB Blake Bortles (pictured) showed definite flashes of brilliance during the team’s preseason. But, the Jaguars aren’t expected to rush Bortles under center like they did with his predecessor Blaine Gabbert. Instead, Jacksonville is content with letting QB Chad Henne handle the lion’s share of the snaps in 2014. Bradley and Co. know that Bortles is much more raw than most first round signal-callers. Despite his unrivaled athletic prowess, Bortles still needs to learn how to be a quarterback in the NFL, so throwing him to the wolves with an offense devoid of firepower would likely do more to hurt the former UCF star than anything.

The most notable loss for the Jags this offseason was the departure of longtime workhorse Maurice Jones-Drew. Once blakebortlesconsidered a top-five back in football, injuries and age have brought Jones-Drew’s career to a standstill. He hitched his wagon and headed west for Oakland this spring. Replacing him will be former Minnesota backup Toby Gerhart, who mired behind Adrian Peterson for five years before finally getting his shot in The Sunshine State this fall. Gerhart is a bruising back, and should help take the load off of Henne early on while the young offensive line continues to gel. May draft picks Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson should provide depth at receiver, though exactly what type of impact the rookie WR’s have this season remains a mystery.

On defense, Jacksonville saw plenty of turnover. Their additions on the front-four of DE Chris Clemons and DT Ziggy Hood should provide depth for Bradley, who was considered one of the best defensive tutors in the game during his time in Seattle. MLB Paul Posluszny returns to anchor the heart of the D’. Second year safety Jonathan Cyprien continues to mature into one of the better young secondary players in the league. If Jacksonville’s defense continues to progress under Bradley’s leadership, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Jacksonville emerge as the second best team in this division.

Finally, we have the Houston Texans. My, how swiftly Gary Kubiak’s reign in The Lonestar State went up in smoke. Hired prior to the 2006 season as the second coach in franchise history, Kubiak led the Texans to their first two postseason berths in 2011 & 2012 (both division titles). Unfortunately, that success was short-lived, as the precipitous decline of QB Matt Schaub (who set a record for the most consecutive games with a pick-six in 2013) and the alarming lack of depth across the roster left an injury plagued Houston franchise at the depths of the NFL’s despair. Following back-to-back wins to begin their campaign, Houston lost 14 in-a-row to finish it off, leaving them with the worst record and first overall pick in May’s draft.

Despite clamoring to the contrary, Houston ignored their need under center and grabbed perceived generational talent Jadeveon Clowney with that #1 overall selection. The former South Carolina superstar has shown exactly why Houston made that decision. The defensive end’s ability to change the game with his talent was far too impressive to overlook, and new coach Bill O’Brien knew this when he grabbed him this spring. Speaking of O’Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator takes over for Kubiak after a two-year stint in Happy Valley as head coach at Penn State. Considering the rubble with which the program was left following the Jerry Sandusky scandal of 2011, the football world was gaga over O’Brien’s ability to turn that disaster into success with the wave of his figurative magic wand. He will be one of the bigger stories of the season, as he tries to turn the Houston sink hole into a success story overnight.

arianfosterOn offense, O’Brien brought in former Buffalo and Tennessee gunslinger Ryan Fitzpatrick to be his veteran leader in the short term. The Harvard graduate is one of the brightest players in the league. While he won’t wow anyone with his physical tools, Fitzpatrick has enough experience and talent to be a successful stopgap in the short-term while Houston finds their QB of the future. It’s possible that mid-round draft choice Tom Savage of Pitt is that guy. But, that remains to be seen. Surrounding these signal callers will be a still electrifying offense. Future Hall-of-Fame WR Andre Johnson returns to the only team he’s ever known despite rumbles to the contrary this offseason. He’s joined on offense by second year phenom DeAndre Hopkins and workhorse RB Arian Foster (pictured). The latter is expected to enjoy a rebound campaign after an injury riddled 2013 saw backup RB Ben Tate outgain the former. Tate is now in Cleveland, so Foster is the unquestioned #1 runner on a team likely to pound the rock more than anyone else in the division.

On defense, Houston was a mess a year ago. Their acquisition of Ed Reed backfired tremendously, as the future Hall-of-Fame safety was released before the end of November. Still, plenty of talent remains from the defense that ranked near the top of football in 2012. J.J. Watt returns as one of, if not the best 3-4 defensive end in the game. With Clowney and the return of Brian Cushing from injury, one could reasonably expect Houston to finish the season with a top-10 defensive unit. The secondary, which features Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson at corner, is suspect, and easily should be considered the weak point of the unit.

All in all, Houston should be considered a dark horse contender in 2014. While they don’t have a championship caliber QB at this time, Fitzpatrick has never enjoyed the amount of talent that he’ll have around him on the Texans once the regular season commences in two weeks. Contending with Indianapolis at the top might be a reach. But, expecting anything less than 2nd place out of these Texans is underrating them, especially considering their peers.

Clearly, this is a division on the rise. The Colts are still young, and are already a Super Bowl contender behind Luck. Meanwhile, the other three franchises that continue to chase them are hungry and exploding with talent. Come 2016, it shouldn’t be a shock to see the AFC South returning to the glory it experienced when it was still the AFC Central and teams like Jacksonville and Tennessee ruled the landscape with an iron fist.

Known far and wide as one of the toughest divisions in football, the AFC North once again figures to be a three-horse race in 2014. For the better part of the last five-years, it’s been a battle between the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Cincinnati Bengals for division supremacy. While Johnny Manziel and the Cleveland Browns may one day evolve into contenders, that time hasn’t arrived yet.

daltonIn 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals captured their second consecutive division crown. Behind third year phenom QB Andy Dalton (pictured) and his cast of weapons, Cincinnati has trumped the odds, becoming contenders after nearly two decades of incompetence. Marvin Lewis is the second longest tenured coach in football (trailing only Bill Belichick) despite having never won a playoff game (0-5). Last season, the Bengals found themselves once again on the short end of the stick come January, losing to the 6th seeded San Diego Chargers, 27-10. In that game, Dalton was picked twice and fumbled once, as Cincinnati’s postseason misery continued. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990.

Still, optimism is high in The Queen City. Dalton returns with a fresh, new $100 million contract stretching his wallet to George Costanza’esque proportions. He’s joined by a solid supporting cast, including AJ Green, Marvin Jones, Gio Bernard, and 2nd round pick RB Jeremy Hill. On defense, the 3rd ranked unit in the NFL a year ago should only improve after drafting CB Darqueze Dennard in the first round. The former Michigan State Spartan was considered by many to be the top corner in the draft before a poor combine performance lowered his draft stock. The Bengals should feel confident once again that they’ll be near the top of the North when January rolls around. Whether or not they’ll have enough to finally break their postseason winless drought is a tale for another day.

This time a year ago, the Baltimore Ravens were coming off their second Super Bowl title and Joe Flacco was a recently ngatarich man. Fast forward a season, and the Ravens are suddenly a forgotten bunch in the uber-competitive North division. Gone are the days when Ray Lewis and Ed Reed patrolled the Baltimore secondary. Their loss was certainly felt last year, when the Ravens tanked their final two regular season affairs to miss the postseason for the first time since 2007. The selection of LB CJ Mosley in round one should help aid the likes of Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata on defense.

But, what about the Ravens’ offense? Flacco suffered through the worst season of his career in 2013, throwing 22 interceptions (his previous career high was 12). The addition of WR Steve Smith should help. As should the health of TE Dennis Pitta and the return of Ray Rice following his early season suspension. Those weapons, coupled with role players like Bernard Pierce, Torrey Smith, and Jacoby Jones, should be enough to get Baltimore right back into the playoff hunt in 2014.

Gone are the days when Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers ruled this division with an iron fist. Since their overtime playoff loss to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos following the 2011 season, the Steelers have gone an unsatisfying 16-16. That may be enough to keep seats cool in Jacksonville. But, in Pittsburgh, where the trophy case is adorned with the most Lombardi Trophies in history, mediocrity is unacceptable.

lbellTo remedy this, Pittsburgh will have to rely on their youth movement to get them over the hump. The loss of Emmanuel Sanders (Denver) will allow young receiver Markus Wheaton to step into the starting lineup. The 2013 draft pick has wheels to burn, and should be an adequate replacement for Sanders. The recent arrests of Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount notwithstanding, the Steelers’ offense should be improved enough to the point where their defense won’t have to carry the load in 2014.

Finally, you have the Cleveland Browns, who made a lot of noise this offseason by hiring former Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as coach after their flirtation with San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh fell short. Pettine would then break the odometer by drafting Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel 22nd overall in May’s draft. Manziel won’t begin the season as the Browns’ starter. But, Brian Hoyer’s inexperience will likely lead to a midseason promotion for the former Aggies gunslinger.

When Manziel isn’t flipping off opposing sidelines or doing imaginary lines of cocaine in public bathrooms, he has the potential to be a franchise quarterback in this league. Still, his raw mechanics and haywire off-the-field mentality is what likely cost him the starting job to begin the year; and could plague him during his tenure in Cleveland. Let’s not forget that “Johnny Football” was selected in the same draft slot as recent Cleveland busts Brandon Weeden and Brady Quinn. The pending suspension to WR Josh Gordon will have a huge impact on the Browns’ usatsi_7921970_221200_lowresoffensive success this season. Currently, Gordon is suspended for the entire season due to multiple failures of the league’s substance abuse policy. But, it’s likely that Gordon will succeed in his appeal to get that suspension lowered. More on that to come.

On defense, Cleveland is among the up-and-comers in the AFC. CB Joe Haden is joined by first round pick Justin Gilbert on the outside. Joining them in Ohio will be veteran Karlos Dansby, who joins the team from Arizona. Nose tackle Phil Taylor is among the best in football at his position, and he’s joined by Desmond Bryant and Atyba Rubin to complete a nasty (and thick) 3-4 defensive front.

Any of these four teams could finish .500 or above if things break right for them. In August, the Bengals have to be considered the favorite based on last year’s success alone. Cincinnati got better as the season went on, and their defensive improvements over the offseason should only make them more dangerous in 2014. Despite this, it’s impossible to count out Baltimore or Pittsburgh, who both have playoff proven performers under center and improvements at the skill positions, as well. Always known as “the black and blue division,” the AFC North promises to give us yet another electric season of blood, bruises, and battles.

One of the few constants in the NFL over the course of the last 15-years has been the success of the New England Patriots. In 2013, that imperialistic dominance over the AFC East continued; as the Patriots conquered their division for the 11th time in 13 years. Also-rans Miami, New York, and Buffalo will set their sights on a rebellion of sorts. Their rise from the depths of the division will be predicated on the maturity and growth of their young quarterbacks. Regardless, it might not matter come January.

Like it or not, the AFC East still belongs to New England. Under the tutelage of Bill Belichick and the leadership of Tom Brady, New England has established a hegemony over their division for the better part of this century. How long can this dominance last? No one knows the answer to that question. One thing is almost certain; the Patriots will once again conquer the East in 2014.

Bill-Belichick-Tom-BradyWhen New England walked off the turf at Sports Authority Field in Denver last January, their mission was clear; improve the defense at all costs. After the Patriots’ porous secondary allowed Payton Manning and the Broncos free reign over the thin Denver airspace, Belichick knew that the only way to wash away the bitter taste of defeat was with the acquisition of game changers in the secondary. Enter Darrelle Revis, who was released by Tampa following one forgettable season in the Sunshine State.

Revis might not be the player that he was 5-years ago. But, New England doesn’t need him to be. By reputation alone, the former Pitt Panther will stiffen a formerly limp pass defense. The addition of Brandon Browner from Seattle should also prove critical; as the former Seahawks’ starter will be picked quite a bit playing opposite of Revis. These pickups allowed former starters Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan to assimilate to roles they’ll be more comfortable with as nickle and dime defensive backs.

The biggest question in New England this season may be the health of Rob Gronkowski, who has been seen more in dance clubs recently than on the field (as long as he’s not murdering someone afterwards like his former teammate, Aaron Hernandez, I think Belichick is okay with it). If “Gronk” can remain on the field for at least 13 games this season, there should be nothing standing between the Pats and a home playoff game or two at Gillette Stadium in January.

tnnehillMore people will remember the Miami Dolphins’ 2013 season for the Richie Incognito fiasco rather than their rather meteoric collapse down the stretch. With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the Dolphins were 8-6, needing just one win (or help from other teams) to clinch their first playoff berth since 2008. Instead, the team’s much maligned offensive line caved like Incognito at a buffet line. The Dolphins scored just one touchdown in their final two games against New York and Buffalo, being outscored 39-7 as their playoff hopes eroded.

In 2014, the Dolphins feature an improved secondary (with the signing of Cortland Finnegan and Louis Delmas) and a hopefully rebuilt offensive line. Their first round selection of JaWuan James coupled with the free agent signing of Branden Albert from Kansas City should serve them well after they allowed the most sacks in football a year ago. Still, the Dolphins’ biggest question might remain under center, where Ryan Tannehill has firmly established himself as the starter.

The 26-year old gunslinger improved in nearly every facet of the game in 2013, throwing 24 touchdowns to just 17 interceptions. However, his propensity to hang onto the ball too long has led to 93 sacks over his first two seasons, the highest amount in football over that time frame. He’ll need to learn to throw the ball away if the Dolphins are going to keep him under center for 16 more games this season.

For the New York Jets, winning has never been more important. In fact, there hasn’t been a more critical season for a Ryan since Rex’s father Buddy failed to win a playoff game in 1991 for the Philadelphia Eagles, leading to his unceremonious departure. After years of bloviating, the Jets’ coach may have finally learned to shut up and coach, as you’ll hear no guarantees about New York’s success in 2014.

If Ryan is going to keep his job, he’ll need to win at least 9 games. To do that, the Jets will need to see marked improvement from sophomore signal caller Geno Smith. The former WVU Mountaineer is certainly going to have to show that the turnover problems of 2013 were merely rookie growing pains, and not a sign of things to come. If Smith struggles early, expect the vociferous New York fan base to begin calling for Michael Vick, who was signed from Philadelphia over the spring. Take it from someone who’s watched him over the last four years, the last thing anyone should want is Michael Vick under center. Besides, it’s not as though he’ll finally be able to stay healthy for 16-games. Eagles fans were telling themselves that “this is the year,” during his entire tenure with the franchise. Smith/Vick is joined by Chris Johnson (formerly CJ2K, now just another washed up tailback) and Eric Decker; both of whom were signed away from fellow AFC rivals.

deemillThe Jets’ defense is as good as ever, with 2nd-year CB Dee Milliner expected to continue his growth into one of the better cover corners in the game. If the Jets’ offseason spending spree on offense pays off, they should find themselves once again in contention come December. If Smith struggles and/or Vick can’t stay healthy, expect the pink slips to be permeating throughout the Meadowlands come Christmas.

Finally, we have the ultimate cellar dweller, the once proud Buffalo Bills. It was a tough offseason for the Bills’ faithful. Not only did they lose their owner, as the death of Ralph Wilson put an ominous dark cloud over the future of the franchise in northern New York. But, they also saw their front office commit a large gamble to rookie WR Sammy Watkins, trading a 2015 first round pick for the draft pick to acquire him.

Now, Watkins could turn out to be the next Randy Moss. But, odds are that his rookie production levels will be more in line with the norm. That’s all well and good, especially if he eventually develops into a Julio Jones type talent. But, for a team with so Bills-Sammy-Watkins-Bill-Wippertmany question marks, was it really such a good idea to deal away a future first for the chance to select a receiver? Who knows? Perhaps the addition of Watkins will propel 2013 first rounder EJ Manuel to the Pro Bowl. He’d have to stay healthy first, as Manuel’s fast paced, scrambling style doesn’t exactly lay credence to that hope. Still, Buffalo’s offense under Doug Marrone is in the rebuilding phase. With CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson still in the backfield, they should be good enough to keep pace with anyone short of Denver in the AFC.

On defense, the Bills spent big to improve what was a calamitous unit in 2013. The loss of Kiko Alonso for the season due to injury will prove damaging. But, the additions of Brandon Spikes (New England), Corey Graham (Baltimore), and Keith Rivers (New York Giants) should provide the Bills with enough depth to get by. It should be noted that Spikes was rated the best inside linebacker against the run by Pro Football Focus in 2013, and that stopping the run was the Bills’ weak point last season.

All in all, the 2014 AFC East race looks to once again be a battle for second place. But, in a conference with so much competitiveness in the other three divisions, second place in the East might just be enough to take a wild card spot in the AFC.

 

ruben-amaro.p1Ruben Amaro Jr. has wasted his final trade deadline as General Manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it.

By now, the writing is more than on the wall. It’s splattered and strewn across the canvas like a Monet masterpiece. By failing to deal a single overpaid and under-performing asset at last month’s deadline, Amaro cemented his status as the most hated man in the City of Brotherly Love. He also likely set his fate in stone. By this time next year, the Phillies will have a new GM, and red pinstripe wearing fans everywhere will rejoice the demise of a once celebrated figure in this franchise’s often tumultuous history.

How did it come to this? Where did he go wrong? For all the vitriol targeted at Amaro, he has had his moments during his 6-year tenure as the team’s GM. Trading for Roy Halladay was one of them, as the move for Doc put the Phillies firmly in the center of Major League Baseball’s spotlight. Amaro’s re-signing of Cliff Lee was also considered, at the time, to be one of the most shrewd and unexpectedly brilliant transactions in team history. The contract he levied to Cole Hamels in 2012 is also considered a solid deal considering what hurlers like Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are expected to get this offseason.

Not all of Amaro’s moves were pitiful. But, it’s the failure of the Phillies’ executive to capitalize on opportunities that will ultimately lead to his demise. When the team originally traded Lee in December, 2009, their rationale was that they needed to replenish the team’s dwindling farm system following their acquisition of Halladay. In exchange for the Cy Young winner, Amaro landed the baseball equivalent of a pocket full of syphilis coated thumbtacks; Tyson Gillies (released), J.C. Ramirez (released), and Phillippe Aumont (most Phillies fans wish he would be released). A haul like that isn’t exactly replenishing anything; unless you’re referring to replenishing the unemployment line.

Two-and-a-half years later, Amaro’s ill-fated sale of Hunter Pence to San Francisco produced Tommy Joseph, Seth Rosin, and Nate Schierholtz; none of whom have produced anything at the major league level in Philadelphia. The move was made even worse by the fact that Amaro dealt future franchise cornerstones in Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, and Domingo Santana to land Pence just one year prior. Since he was shipped to the Golden Coast, Pence boasts a line of .275-49-193 in 334 games. Oh, and he’s got that 2012 World Series ring to serve as a reminder of what Amaro has yet to, and likely never will deliver, to Philadelphia.

It’s moves like these that scared Amaro away from making a deal last month; and it’s moves like these that will spell the end of his tenure as GM of the team. Did Amaro fail miserably as the team’s figurehead? No, he didn’t. But, only so many bad contracts can be charitably donated to player’s with bad knees or ruptured achilles before the fanbase’s patience is stretched beyond its limits. Like the knee ligaments of Chase Utley (another aging player awarded a massive contract), Amaro’s support has all but eroded and dissolved.

No one knows what direction team ownership will go in to find a replacement for Amaro. They’ve had a penchant for staying in-house with their executives over the years. Whether it be Amaro or Ed Wade, David Montgomery and co. haven’t been too keen on reaching beyond Citizens’ Bank Way to find decision makers. The one time they did scour the countryside for a GM was in 2005, when the team replaced Wade with Pat Gillick. Three years and many brilliant, under the radar moves later, the Phillies were world f’n champions.

Surely, they can do it again with the right puppeteer pulling the strings. Whether or not ownership is wise enough to realize this is a tale for another day.

gwynn

It was impossible not to notice Major League Baseball’s salacious lovefest for Derek Jeter at last night’s All Star Game in Minneapolis.From start to finish, the game was less about the superstars compiling both rosters and more about Jeter’s spectacular 18-year career.

That’s all well and good. But, what was easy to miss was the league’s celebration of two baseball legends who passed on this year, Tony Gwynn and Don Zimmer. That’s because the league and the game’s television network, FOX, completely and utterly dropped the ball, failing to recognize these goliaths of greatness at all during the four hour festivity.

Gwynn, who died from cancer at the age of 44 last month, attended 15 Midsummer Classics as a player, one more than Jeter. Recognized as one of the most feared hitters of all time, this gentle giant boasted a career .338 batting average and won eight batting titles. Elected into the Hall-of-Fame in 2007, Gwynn’s celebration was conspicuously absent from the evening. Was it because Gwynn played his entire career in San Diego, a much smaller media market than Jeter’s? Perhaps. Or, was it just further evidence that MLB has no idea what they’re doing when it comes to marketing their product to the masses?

Zimmer is perhaps best known to a younger generation of fans as Pedro Martinez’s punching bag. But, this legendary coach, who brought his contagious personality to 10 different clubhouses as a coach, was an All Star in his own right, attending the annual event as a Cub in 1961. The former Red Sox and Yankees coach passed away last month, as well. The failure of MLB to provide any sort of acknowledgement for Zimmer or Gwynn was inexcusable. zimmer

Was the nonstop infatuation with Jeter over-the-top? Yes, it was. But, it was most definitely deserved. The 40-year old shortstop has spent his entire career emitting class in a world devoid of it. However, the league’s failure to recognize its fallen heroes raises the question as to whether or not we put too much stock in media markets and money.

The last two seasons, we’ve seen Yankee legends ride off into the sunset with one last farewell tour. For Jeter and Mariano Rivera, MLB pulled out all the stops. But, what about for the last non-Yankee Hall-of-Famer to celebrate a season long finale? In 2012, Atlanta Braves 3B Chipper Jones was named to the NL All Star roster as a replacement for the injured Matt Kemp. Did Kansas City (the host of that year’s event) or the league celebrate for Jones the same way they have for Rivera and Jeter? No. Instead, Jones got a minor round of applause and a few gifts from the masses in attendance.

What MLB did for Jeter last night was appropriate. As one of the best of all time, the Yankees’ legend deserved one final hurrah. But, what wasn’t acceptable was the league’s failure to recognize the crowning achievements of those who have fallen. For Gwynn and Zimmer, there will be no more magical moments. For their loved ones, the league had a chance to immortalize their achievements one final time. Like they did with the 1994 player strike, the 1990s steroid saga, and the 2002 All Star Game, MLB once again dropped the ball.

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies

As the All-Star Game approaches, the Philadelphia Phillies’ season inches closer to its tipping point. Gone are the days when Ruben Amaro Jr. was the most active buyer on the market. Instead, the 37-51 Phillies and their GM need to prepare for D-Day. That moment will come on July 31st, when the MLB non-waiver trade deadline expires.

It’s unlikely that the Phillies will part ways with either Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels. The former because of arm trouble that has crippled his value. The latter due in large part to his gargantuan contract, as well as his role as one of the few home grown aces in team history. But, Philadelphia still has plenty of bargaining chips, and they’ll have to utilize them wisely if they hope to avoid the same mistakes that have set them down this path.

Remember Hunter Pence? The former Philadelphia right fielder is heading to another Midsummer Classic this month. He’s also a prime example of how not to operate at the trade deadline. Pence was acquired in July, 2011 in exchange for a collection of celebrated prospects, including RHP Jarred Cosart, 1B Jonathan Singleton, and OF Domingo Santana. All three of those youngsters are currently contributing on a surprisingly successful Houston Astros ballclub. A year after Pence arrived in the City of Brotherly Love, he was unceremoniously shipped to San Francisco for pennies on the dollar.

For a player that has won a World Series and been to an All-Star Game in orange-and-black, Amaro landed nothing of substance. Nate Schierholtz lasted all of two months with the club before being released. He’s now one of the best hitters on a mediocre Chicago Cubs team. Meanwhile, the two prospects that Amaro acquired from the Giants, Tommy Joseph and Seth Rosin, have yet to find success above the AA-level.

For Amaro to avoid another catastrophic fire sale, he’ll need to determine what the team’s philosophy is. Should they be willing to deal their veterans for measly returns so long as it means one less catastrophic contract on the books? This is the method that they took with Pence. Or, should Amaro hold off and wait for the perfect deal, even if it means paying a portion of the future contracts due to players like Jonathan Papelbon and Jimmy Rollins?

From this pundits’ perspective, here are the most likely Phillies to be dealt by the end of this month:

1. RHP Jonathan Papelbon

For a guy who everyone thought was done, “Paps” sure has done well for himself in 2014. The All-Star caliber closer may have lost a few MPH on his heater. But, that doesn’t mean that he can’t still provide top-notch relief at the back end of a bullpen. Having allowed just 1 ER in his last 10 appearances, Papelbon is hot at the right time. His contract ($13 million guaranteed for 2015 with a vesting option at the same price for 2016) might give some contenders pause. But, a team in need of a playoff proven closer should be willing to give the Phillies something of value, especially if Philadelphia eats a chunk of that salary. RHP Kenneth Giles’ emergence also gives the Phillies a young replacement in the likely event that Papelbon is no longer in red pinstripes come August.

2. RHP AJ Burnett

One of Amaro’s prime free agent acquisitions from last winter, Burnett has pitched just about as one would expect the veteran to. At 5-8, 3.92, his classic numbers aren’t beautiful. But, a lack of run support and a brutal bullpen early in April hurt the 37-year old righthander. Burnett has a modified no trade clause, so he’d be able to at least partially dictate where he ended up. But, a playoff proven, power pitcher who can go 7 innings nearly every start is something that contending teams would love to have. Add to that the fact that Burnett is unlikely to cost what an ace like David Price will, and Amaro should have teams lining up for a guy who still has some gas left in the tank.

3. OF Marlon Byrd

Another one of Amaro’s offseason signings, Byrd has had a mostly up-and-down campaign. But, on the surface, his power numbers are intriguing enough that if Philadelphia wanted to get out of the second guaranteed year of his contract, they probably could. It’s unlikely that the Phillies would get much short of salary relief for unloading the veteran. But, his .266-18-52 line coupled with an impressive .814 OPS (.982 vs. LHP) should make him an enticing acquisition for a contending team searching for a right handed power bat.

4. SS Jimmy Rollins

The franchise’s all-time hits leader is very unlikely to be dealt. But, he still makes this list for a couple of reasons. First, there’s a dearth of solid two-way shortstops in the National League right now. Outside of Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki, the NL is a barren wasteland of offensive talent at that position. While Rollins is far from the player that he was from 2005-2009, he still brings Gold Glove quality handiwork to the diamond and a professional approach to the dish. Rollins was apprehensive when asked if he’d waive his 10 and 5 no-trade provision prior to breaking the team’s hits record. But, when asked again after that achievement, the 35-year old appeared much more willing to oblige. His name and reputation would also help sell tickets at his new destination.

5. OF John Mayberry Jr.

I suppose that if the Phillies were ever going to get anything for Mayberry, they already would have. Amaro has had this veteran outfielder on the market for the better part of two years now, with nobody dumb enough to take a nibble on the bait. Let’s face it, Mayberry will never be more than a fourth outfielder at best (and more fittingly a AAAA depth outfielder). He’s no longer young (30-years old) and has never hit for average (career .242 hitter). Even worse, Mayberry is enduring one of the worst slumps of his career right now, as the former Texas Rangers prospect is 3 for his last 24. I could see the Phillies just cutting bait on this guy, but for what?

Don’t count on seeing Ben Revere or Domonic Brown dealt. The latter is at the valley of his value, and trading him now would be a new low for Amaro when it comes to timely decisions. Revere, meanwhile, is still relatively young and playing at an above-average level. Unless the Phillies can get something of significant value for him, I see Big Ben staying put for now. Pitchers like Kyle Kendrick and Antonio Bastardo are also possible candidates to be traded. But, the return on either would be so miniscule, that even mentioning them here seems like a waste of time.

Regardless, a lot is about to change at Citizens Bank Park. A month from now, many of the familiar faces that we grew up cheering for will be playing in other venues. For Ruben Amaro, the semester is almost over and the final exams are fast approaching. It’s time for the Phillies’ GM to prove that he’s the man for the job. If he doesn’t, then it might not be his job to perform for much longer.

Every year, NHL General Managers open their boss’ checkbooks on July 1st only to be let down by their investments months richardslater. In 2013, the Toronto Maple Leafs made the colossal mistake of spending $5.25 million per season for 7-years on grinding forward Dave Clarkson. The former New Jersey Devil rewarded them with a putrid 11 points in 60 games. The Philadelphia Flyers were also victims of a similar crime, spending $4.5 million for 5-years on Vincent Lecavalier. The veteran did tally 20 goals in his first season in orange-and-black. But, injuries, inconsistency, and a lack of fit in Craig Berube’s system will likely doom Paul Holmgren’s final major contract with the club.

But, some of today’s deals made Lecavalier’s look like chump change. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If this is true, then commissioner Gary Bettman is running an asylum. Below is a list of the top-5 best and bottom-5 worst deals from the opening hours of NHL free agency. All salaries listed are per-year:

The Best

1. Chicago Blackhawks sign C Brad Richards (1 year, $2 million)

Richards is no longer the player that he once was. Nor is he the player that the Rangers believed him to be when they signed him to a 9-year, $60 million contract three years ago. But, the 34-year old is still a productive, top-six center. After being bought out by New York following their Stanley Cup defeat, Richards moved swiftly to sign a team friendly, short-term deal with the Blackhawks. Chicago will likely place Richards on their second line. He’ll instantly add leadership and playmaking ability at a bargain price for a team that was already a contender for the 2014 Stanley Cup.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins sign D Christian Ehrhoff (1 year, $4 million)

Another buyout victim, Ehrhoff was sent packing by the Buffalo Sabres last month after three-years of relatively average play under a 10-year, $40 million deal signed during the same frenzy as Richards’ mammoth contract. The 31-year old is still a millerproductive offensive-defenseman, scoring 6 goals and adding 27 assists for the worst team in hockey a year ago. Pittsburgh needed to find a replacement for the departing Matt Niskanen (more on him later), and they did so without sacrificing future cap space.

3. Vancouver Canucks sign G Ryan Miller (3 years, $6 million)

No, Ryan Miller didn’t boost his stock with a porous performance in St. Louis last spring. But, the former Olympic goalie is still among the top-ten netminders in the NHL. After their brutal debacle a year ago, in which the Canucks traded both Cory Schneider and Roberto Luongo, Vancouver needed to find a franchise goalie in the worst of ways. Enter Miller, who still has a few good years left. The difference between Miller and Luongo at this point is minute. But, the disparity in their contracts is large. For a team that many believed to be heading for a dark ages of sorts, the Canucks had a very solid opening day of free agency.

4. New York Rangers sign D Dan Boyle (2 years, $4.5 million)

No one will confuse this iteration of Dan Boyle with the one that was an All-Star for a decade with Tampa Bay and San Jose. But, the Rangers should enjoy a phenomenal power play quarterback and leader in the locker room. The 2004 Stanley Cup champion can still put up points from the blue line, even if his speed and agility have taken a hit with age. At just 2-years and $4.5 million per season, New York could afford to risk signing the 37-year old.

5. Minnesota Wild sign F Thomas Vanek (3 years, $6.5 million)

One of the few impact forwards available on the open market, Vanek had his sights set on Minnesota since the season began. Despite stops in Long Island and Montreal, the 30-year old will best be remembered for his many years anchoring the Buffalo Sabres’ scoring line. Vanek can still score with the best of them, and he’ll make for the perfect compliment on the Wild’s first line across from Zach Parise. Getting him at just 3-years was a real coup for a Wild team that is a goalie away from being a true Stanley Cup contender.

The Worst

1. Washington Capitals sign D Matt Niskanen (7 years, $5.75 million)

Are you kidding me? I think we all knew that Niskanen would be overpaid this offseason. I also think we all now know who will be the first player bought out from this crop of free agent talent. Niskanen enjoyed a career year in Pittsburgh last season, tallying 10 goals and 46 points on an offensively loaded roster. New GM Brian MacLellan is picking up where his predecessor left off, providing fodder for the bloggers by giving out not one, but two (more on that in a moment) brutal contracts to veteran defensemen. Niskanen is only 27, so the length of the deal isn’t that atrocious. But, at $5.75 million per season, this deal promises to turn sour quicker than a Jay-Z concert at a CPAC convention.

2. Washington Capitals sign D Brooks Orpik (5 years, $5.5 million)

Washington had money coming into this offseason. They decided to spend it on two veteran blue liners whose best days are likely behind them. The 33-year old Orpik isn’t exactly a bad player. But, his numbers were quite pedestrian (2 goals, 11 assists) even for a defensive specialist on a loaded Penguins team. The financial terms are about right for today’s age. But, a 5-year deal for a 33-year old entering his 13th NHL season will likely ruin the Capitals in a few seasons. What else is new for one of the worst run franchises in the NHL?

3. Calgary Flames sign D Derek Engelland (3 years, $2.9 million)

Deryk+Engelland+Toronto+Maple+Leafs+v+Pittsburgh+b2pwzfq5vZjlWhat’s with these GM’s signing former Penguins defenders to absurd deals this afternoon? The Flames had tons of money, a product of not being competitive for over half-a-decade. But, signing a borderline 6th defenseman to a long term deal isn’t the right way to spend their riches. It would be one thing if Engelland brought anything to the table besides an ability to knock someone’s teeth out. But, this 32-year old middling blue liner just won the lottery, even if he’ll have to live in Calgary for the next few years to earn the payout.

4. Edmonton Oilers sign F Benoit Pouliot (5 years, $4 million)

It wasn’t too long ago that Pouliot was considered one of the league’s biggest draft busts. Now, he’ll soon be a massive free agent bust as well. Edmonton had a need for gritty forwards, as the majority of their top-9 is comprised of young, talented yet raw projects. Still, giving a player who tallied a mere 36 points in 80 games for New York a 5-year contract is the height of stupidity. I give it two years before Pouliot is right back on the market, a victim of Edmonton’s volatile buyout option in 2016.

5. Florida Panthers sign C Dave Bolland (5 years, $5.5 million)

Bolland is a nice player. The 2010 Stanley Cup champion will routinely tally 40+ points and play a solid, refined two-way game. But, that doesn’t mean he’s worth nearly $30 million on the open market. Florida’s made it a routine to sign former Blackhawks stars to bloated contracts since Dale Tallon left Chicago to become the Panthers’ GM. Whether or not this contract is as bad as it seems remains to be seen. But, it’s pretty darn clear that the Panthers spent this money merely because they had to, as hitting the salary cap floor is as difficult for some teams as staying under the ceiling is for contenders.