Ryan Ramczyk Jersey

Ryan Ramczyk was still a question mark at this point last year.

Hard to believe now.

Ramczyk, the rookie who started out the season on the left side, moved to the right when Zach Strief went down and promptly established himself as one of the NFL’s best right tackles, still hadn’t taken a snap because of recovery from a torn labrum in his hip when the Saints broke for summer vacation.

“Initially, I didn’t think I’d be in the starting role,” Ramczyk said, “but I went in there and gave it all and worked hard.”

And as good as he was as a rookie, Ramczyk’s coaches said he could be even better in his second season.

Ramczyk spent training camp last season learning the nuances of the offense and getting his feet wet in the NFL. When he took the field as a starter against Minnesota, it felt like it was happening faster than he expected.

“It was kind of chaos, jumping into the mix,” Ramczyk said.

The Ramczyk that has been on the field this summer is a veteran.

“Now, you see a much more confident player, understands what he’s doing,” offensive line coach Dan Roushar said. “There’s growth mentally, there’s growth physically.”

Roushar saw it at the end of an organized team activity early this offseason.

As a practice wrapped up, Ramczyk made the comment that there were two parts of his game that he felt he needed to clean up, and he wasn’t happy with the results yet.

Roushar saw it as a sign of a veteran capable of getting himself ready for the challenges of an NFL season.

Ramczyk, who learned the trade from technicians like Strief and left tackle Terron Armstead, is simply ironing out the parts of the game that cost him in the few times he wasn’t locking down the right side of the line a year ago.

“Pad level in run blocking, staying square in my pass set,” Ramczyk said. “Little nuances like that, little details.”

Ramczyk’s athleticism is why the Saints drafted him.

His smarts and his professionalism are what allowed him to make an impact right away. In an era when NFL-ready offensive linemen are increasingly difficult to find in the draft — most need a little time to develop before they can contribute — Ramczyk fit right in with the veterans from the start.

“He’s a player that’s very steady,” head coach Sean Payton said. “He is extremely smart. When we work a ‘dog’ in blitz period or things start moving a little faster, he has a quick way about him to understand what he’s doing. I think he’s transitioned into our league exceptionally well for a young player.”

And he’s only going to get better.

The New Orleans offense is full of stars — big, bright stars who can take up the entire night sky.

Drew Brees is a legend, a future Hall of Famer. Alvin Kamara was the breakout star of the 2017 season, both on and off the field. Mark Ingram’s been in the spotlight since he won the Heisman Trophy, and Michael Thomas is the game’s best young receiver.

All of those stars shine so bright that they sometimes mask the mammoth giants who make it all possible.

New Orleans has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, not simply by lore or acclamation, but by production. Working with a group forced to battle through injury, the Saints finished second in the NFL in yards per carry and second in the NFL in sack percentage allowed.

None of those numbers are by accident.

“I think that, generally, when you look at a good football team, you’re seeing the team that has a good offensive line, both with the protection, and also with the running game,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It’s obviously a position group that we feel strongly about, whether it’s in free agency or in the draft, using resources to improve.”

Marshon Lattimore Jersey

The smoke has settled from the NFL’s divisional round, revealing this year’s final four. In the AFC, the Chiefs took care of business and dispatched the Colts 31-13, moving to a championship-round matchup with the Patriots, who blew out the Chargers 41-28. In the NFC, the Rams ran all over the Cowboys, 30-22, and the Saints came back from a 14-point deficit to beat the Eagles 20-14. Put together, this weekend’s action sets up a championship round that features the four top-scoring teams in the NFL.

The divisional round delivered plenty of excitement, but a few moments stood out as more critical or illuminating than the rest. Here are a handful of the biggest game-changing plays from the weekend, along with what they can tell us about both the teams involved and the implications for the postseason picture.

The first quarter couldn’t have gone much worse for the Saints, who came out of their bye week looking rusty on both sides of the ball. The Eagles intercepted Drew Brees’s first pass, and Nick Foles promptly picked apart the New Orleans defense, finding Jordan Matthews on a 37-yard touchdown strike on the Eagles’ first drive. The Brees-led offense gained zero yards and went three-and-out on its second possession, precipitating another Philly touchdown drive, and when the Saints punted the ball back to the Eagles on their third possession—setting Philly up at its own 30-yard line with a 14-0 lead in the final seconds of the opening frame—it felt like New Orleans was about to let the game slip away. The Saints needed a stop in a bad way. Lattimore delivered.

On a second-and-8 from the Philly 48-yard line, Foles dropped back and let go a deep shot toward tight end Zach Ertz. But Lattimore, who carried Ertz up the sideline on a wheel route, kept his eyes on the ball the entire way, leapt up, and plucked the pass from the air.

It was textbook technique—and, perhaps, the turning point of the game. Lattimore’s interception worked like a shot of adrenaline to wake the Saints up from their bye-week slumber. Brees and Co. mounted a 12-play touchdown drive on the ensuing possession, and the New Orleans defense stiffened up from that point on, forcing the Eagles to punt on each of their next five drives. The Saints’ epic 18-play, 11-minute, third-quarter touchdown drive gave New Orleans its first lead of the game, and Lattimore came up big again in the closing minutes, picking Foles off in a right-place-right-time play on Alshon Jeffery’s drop.

It felt apt that the Saints defense delivered such a pivotal play in this game—picking up the team’s sluggish offense—after watching that group come alive in the second half of the season. The Saints started the year as a one-dimensional offensive juggernaut who couldn’t stop anyone on defense, but have morphed into a complete team that can beat you on both sides of the ball. Over their final eight games, the Saints tied for the league lead with 16 takeaways, held opposing quarterbacks to an 87.8 passer rating (tied for 10th), and racked up a league-best 32 sacks. Along with a Brees-led offense that features big-time playmakers like Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Mark Ingram, and more, the team’s newfound balance could be the edge the Saints need to get past the Rams in next week’s NFC championship tilt.

New England’s offense set the tone from the start in this one. After winning the toss and surprisingly electing to receive, the Patriots matriculated down the field on an authoritative 14-play, 83-yard drive that ate up over seven minutes of first-quarter clock (the longest opening possession in head coach Bill Belichick’s time with the team). Play-caller Josh McDaniels scripted a brilliant set of plays against L.A.’s heavy-defensive back looks, jump-starting the run game while getting the team’s running backs involved through the air with a clever array of screens and dump-offs—including this shovel pass to White that picked up 17 yards and moved the ball into Chargers territory for the first time.

There was nothing too special about that one particular play, but rather the drive as a whole served as a prelude for what was to come. White and rookie running back Sony Michel were the clear early focal points for New England, with 12 of the team’s 14 opening-drive plays going to the versatile duo (Michel rushed for 15 yards and a score while White grabbed five passes for 45 yards). But that was just the start: The Patriots mercilessly attacked a Los Angeles defense that gave up more pass yards to running backs than any other team all year, and White finished with 97 yards on a playoff-record-tying 15 catches. Michel played his part as an effective complement, notching 129 yards and three scores on the ground. Perhaps most incredible about the team’s offensive performance is that New England barely even tried to hide its intentions:

In frigid 26-degree weather in Foxborough, New England finished with 498 yards of offense and dominated time of possession nearly two-to-one (38:20 to 21:40). The run game and running-back-heavy passing strategy helped protect Tom Brady from the Chargers’ top-tier pass rush—his time to throw clocked in at just 2.33 seconds per dropback this week, lowest among all eight starting QBs, and his 4.33 air yards per target was also the bottom of the bunch. But that kept him clean all game (he took zero sacks and was hit just twice), and the veteran signal-caller distributed the ball with cool efficiency, completing 34 of 44 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown. After a regular season in which the Patriots offense, and Brady himself, at times looked vulnerable, New England put together a completely dominant performance that served as a sobering reminder of why this team’s played in each of the past seven AFC championship games.

Rick Leonard Jersey

The New Orleans Saints drafted two offensive linemen in April, selecting a pair of prospects from major programs to develop behind the sterling line they have already assembled.

New Orleans used a fourth-round pick on Florida State’s Rick Leonard to address the edge, then used its final pick of the draft to select an interior player with local ties, former Brother Martin and LSU star Will Clapp.

Three weeks into their first NFL season, Clapp is ahead of Leonard as both rookies compete with a deep group of veterans for a backup role on the 53-man roster.

“We knew he was a smart football player, but he’s even smarter with field-application problems,” offensive line coach Dan Roushar said of Clapp. “He’ll solve problems that are out there that sometimes, that’s like a second or third-year player.”

Clapp’s football smarts have given him a grueling schedule in training camp.

Unlike Leonard, who has played only right tackle so far, Clapp has gotten work at three positions: both guard spots and center.

“He brings a work ethic to practice every day,” Roushar said. “He gets probably more snaps than anybody else out there when you start looking at roles and numbers, and he never misses a beat. He just keeps coming.”

Clapp’s stamina and consistency have made a key impression.

For the first time in years, the Saints no longer have Senio Kelemete to be the first offensive lineman off the bench in any situation — and although few linemen in the NFL possess Kelemete’s versatility, the team is looking for players who can mimic Kelemete’s best trait: an ability to play well immediately at more than one position.

“The versatility is important,” head coach Sean Payton said. “Those guys are competing to be lineman six, lineman seven, make the roster. If you can do more than one thing, it helps.”

Clapp, who played guard at LSU before moving into the middle in his final season, initially thought during the draft process that he’d be a better fit at center in the NFL.

Although he can play the position, Clapp actually projects as a better player at guard in the Saints’ system. When he’s at guard, he can take a little more of an angle to get to his block on the wide zone plays New Orleans favors, whereas he’s still learning to get those angles at center, where the nose tackle is often lined up over his face mask and there’s less space to operate.

“His set patterns, he’s better at guard, just because of how he gets his feet there,” Roushar said. “He can get a little long and a little forward.”

Whatever position Clapp is playing, though, he has impressed the Saints so far.

Leonard is clearly still raw.

Mentally, the rookie from Florida State has felt comfortable. Playing in Jimbo Fisher’s scheme was good preparation for Payton’s playbook.

“It’s a lot,” Leonard said. “I was fortunate enough to play in a pro-style system that had lots of similar plays, but it’s definitely more extensive here. A lot more calls, a lot more checks.”

For Leonard, the struggles have been more fundamental.

A talented athlete who began his career at Florida State as a defensive end, Leonard only played the tackle position for two years in Tallahassee. It has been clear in camp that he’s still learning the position.

While he’s been taking tips from former tackle-turned-broadcaster Zach Strief, Leonard has struggled to consistently apply the lessons he’s learned.

“I’m talking about just fundamental movement, learning to play with his knees bent, his pad level in a better leverage position, and that’s been real inconsistent,” Roushar said. “We’ve seen flashes where we’ve gotten excited, but more often than not, it’s not where he wants it to be, and it’s not the consistency we need him to have to play at a high level.”

Leonard is also learning what it takes to be a part of the Saints’ offensive line culture.

“His work ethic is improving, yet that again is still too inconsistent for our standard in that room,” Roushar said. “Yesterday, we soaked him with a ton of reps. We oversoaked him, just trying to see, mentally, how he’d respond, and felt like he was hanging in there pretty good, and just at the end, we wanted to see him fight through it better than he did.”

Being a fourth-round pick might mean Leonard has a little more time to develop than Clapp, and there’s a chance that he can still help this offensive line while he develops if he can play the role of sixth offensive lineman in the Saints’ jumbo packages.

Both rookies still have a lot of work to do during the preseason, and there’s a lot of time and opportunity left for improvement.

For the moment, though, the two players the Saints drafted to develop on the offensive line are off to different starts.

Tre’Quan Smith Jersey

METAIRIE — Not only did the Saints lose their last game at Dallas, 13-10, on Thursday, Nov. 29, after 10 straight wins. Then they had basically five days off to think about it.

“It’s been very different,” said Saints wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith, who did not catch a pass in the loss and had a drop at the goal line. “We were rolling going into that game. Then, a long time before we play again.”

The Saints (10-2) play again at noon Sunday at Tampa Bay (5-7), which is the only other team to beat New Orleans, 48-40, in the season opener.

“A lot more guys have been on their P’s and Q’s this week,” Smith said. “Guys are listening more and studying more. I know I had a drop. We had too many drops. I don’t know what it was. We weren’t ready. We weren’t clicking. Our defense played great, but we didn’t. And their defense played a helluva game.”

MORE: Saints’ defense did not get off to a good start in 2018

Since shredding the Saints’ defense for 417 passing yards on Sept. 9 as backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 21 of 28 passes for four touchdowns, Tampa Bay changed defensive coordinators from Mike Smith to Mark Duffner on Oct. 15 after three straight losses. And Jameis Winston, who was suspended for the first three games this season for violating the personal conduct policy, gradually got his starting job back.

But the Saints are far more concerned about themselves — particularly on offense as New Orleans’ 176 total net yards at Dallas was the worst of the era of coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees, which started in 2006. Brees threw for just 127 yards on 18-of-28 passing as he was sacked twice and harassed throughout the game by the Cowboys’ inside rush. He had been sacked just twice in the Saints’ previous six games.

“They had a good rush plan, a combination of really good rushers,” Saints center Max Unger said. “We just have to (get) better in protection and that really just boils it down. They had a good blitz package and they were able to get pressure on Drew.”

MORE: Saints had it going on against defending Super Bowl champions

Saints running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara managed just 27 yards on seven carries and 36 yards on 11 rushes, respectively, at Dallas.

“We’re just getting back to what we’re doing, getting back to our roots,” Ingram said as the Saints returned to full practices on Wednesday. “I’ve always said it’s on us, and I think that still applies. I don’t think we played our best football last time we were on the field. And so we’re grinding and working our butts off to put together a better performance on Sunday. It starts with us here just paying attention to our details so everybody can go play their best football on Sunday.”

And much is at stake.

The defending NFC South champion Saints can clinch the NFC South with a victory, and New Orleans has never won back-to-back division crowns in their history. The Saints are also fighting with the Los Angeles Rams (11-1) for the No. 1 seed and home field advantage in the playoffs.

MORE: 2018 looking eerily similar to 2009

“I think they all understand at the beginning of the week, ‘OK, here is what the playoff system means,’” Payton said. “But I think the most important thing is this team in front of us, this game in front of us, and finding a way to get to 11 wins period. Let’s get to 11.

“And they’re all smart enough to know that, ‘Hey you’re chasing other things that can enhance your possible opportunities down the road.’ And so it’s that simple. And so the focus is really getting to 11 this week, and how do we do that?”

The Saints will try to match where they were the 10 weeks before Dallas.

“We were rolling,” Unger said. “We were in a really good rhythm, and we just for whatever reason fell out of that. It’s up to us to look back and see what we had done well in the previous wins and kind of recover that momentum if you will. But that was a tough loss. It’s back to work and like Sean said that after the game, ‘Just examine everything. Get back to what we’re doing and kind of reload for the start of the fourth quarter of the season.'”

After Tampa Bay, the Saints play at Carolina (6-6) on Monday, Dec. 17, before hosting AFC North leading Pittsburgh (7-4) on Dec. 23 and Carolina on Dec. 30 to end the regular season.

“Dallas played well, but I’m more worried about our execution,” Brees said. “Our execution was certainly not up to our standards. There was a lot to be desired there. So it’s back to work, back to the details, back to our routine. Finally, we get a normal week. I think that will settle a lot of guys.”

Perhaps the abnormality of a loss will lead to a return of normalcy.

“Sometimes, you have to lose a battle to win the war,” Brees said. “You learn a lot from something like that. I think we honestly just had a bad day. You turn on the film, and it’s glaringly obvious where we failed. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

INGRAM UP FOR MAN OF THE YEAR: The Saints have nominated running back Mark Ingram for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award as Ingram’s Foundation has given gifts to children with parents who are incarcerated.

“It would be a tremendous honor — one of my greatest awards,” Ingram said. Ingram won the Heisman Trophy at Alabama in 2009.

INJURY REPORT: Saints receiver Michael Thomas (ankle) practiced fully Thursday as did defensive tackle David Onyemata (hip). The only Saints who practiced on a limited basis were offensive tackles Terron Armstead (pectoral) and Ryan Ramczyk (shoulder).

WEATHER REPORT: There is a 90 percent chance of thunderstorms for the Saints game at Tampa, Florida, Sunday afternoon.

“Well, it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain, it’s going to rain,” Payton said. “It’s a 95 percent chance of rain. There’ll be some wind, 10 to 12 miles an hour. We know the direction it will head from — their locker room towards the pirate ship. I think the footing is going to be important relative to the shoes that we’re wearing. We were outside today – wet ball drills, the whole nine yards. We’re understanding ball security, the conditions.”

Marcus Davenport Jersey

Late last week, the NFL announced it will host 22 prospects at the draft in Dallas. The list features most of the big names we’ve expected for the last year (with QB Baker Mayfield and OL Quenton Nelson being the most notable absences), plus one of this year’s biggest surprises, a WR-turned-DE who grew up and played four hours south of AT&T Stadium.

Marcus Davenport showed up at the University of Texas at San Antonio—which played its first game in 2011—weighing less than 200 pounds, having switched positions late in high school and viewing football as a means to a good education rather than a potential lifelong pursuit. But as a Roadrunner, he added 60 pounds while turning into a game-wrecking pass rusher who most believe has not yet hit his ceiling.

Davenport was not in Albert Breer’s heavily sourced first-round mock draft as recently as November, but sits at No. 12 in the most recent version, with other experts pegging him inside the top 10. Besides his lack of experienced polish, one of the biggest knocks against Davenport by old-school football thinkers is that he does not have a traditional football-obsessed, uber-confident mindset. Les Snead reportedly gave Davenport a book on thriving as an introvert after the prospect said he was nervous during their private meeting. According to USA Today, “He journals, writes poetry, watches Anime and is excited to wear the T-shirt his girlfriend bought him that says ‘We should all be feminists.’ “

While that might scare football purists—for whatever reason—it makes him a great ambassador for the game, proof of the sport’s on-the-field meritocracy. Clearly those in the league agree, as the draft invitation comes with an expectation that Davenport will speak to the media (something he’s been shy about in the past) and attend outreach events. The invitation also signifies the first formal recognition that he is truly one of the top prospects in this class as well as an easy player to root for as the draft nears.

“This is surreal, because I know this is what a lot of people dream for,” Davenport said at his pro day. “This wasn’t necessarily my dream, but it’s growing into one.”​
Not getting this newsletter in your inbox yet? Join The MMQB’s Morning Huddle.

Cameron Jordan Jersey

Many Cleveland Browns stories seem too good to be true, but New Orleans Saints defensive lineman Cameron Jordan swears this is a real one.

Appearing on Wednesday’s edition of The Dan Patrick Show, Jordan said the Browns tried to draft him on the second day of the 2011 NFL Draft — despite the fact that the Saints had already selected him in the first round.

Jordan claims he received a phone call from the Browns during the second day of the draft, where he was told he was going to be their next pick. He had already gone 24th overall to the New Orleans Saints the previous day. In reality, they were attempting to take tight end Jordan Cameron in the fourth round.

“I’ll take two signing bonuses, but I refuse to go to Cleveland,” Jordan said succinctly in recounting the story.

This happened under the team’s previous ownership, but a quote allegedly from the team’s current owner really sums things up nicely here. It’s a legendary Browns story if true.

New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan was born in Minnesota, but he doesn’t have too many memories from the six years he lived in the Twin Cities.

He remembers a time when it was so cold that he was locked out of a car and has another memory of jumping in some leaves on a fall day. He also recalls going into the Minnesota Vikings locker room and meeting his father’s co-workers, legendary football players like defensive Chris Doleman, safety Joey Browner and running back Darrin Nelson.

Jordan’s father, Steve, was a legend in his own right, making the Pro Bowl six times in his 13-year career as a tight end. And because the elder Jordan spent his entire career with the Vikings, that’s where he and his wife started their family, having three kids, including Cameron in the middle.

But, that doesn’t necessarily mean Cameron Jordan considers Sunday’s divisional-round matchup against the Vikings to be a homecoming.

“I spent the first six years of my life there, but my first kiss was in Arizona,” said Jordan, who mostly grew up in Chandler, Ariz.

Jordan said his father and brother will be at Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium. There will probably be some family friends there, too, but Jordan doesn’t really remember anyone that well from his youth in Minnesota.

And even though his dad has deep ties to the Vikings, Jordan has moved on from his connection to that team.

“You grow up and you get drafted by the Saints, and this is my team, this is my family and this is who I’m fighting for,” he said.

The Saints are surely glad to have Jordan on their side as they prepare for this win-or-go-home game. In the Week 1 loss to the Vikings, his performance was one of the few highlights for New Orleans as he had four tackles, one for loss, one sack and one pass defensed.

That performance proved to be a sign of things to come this season as Jordan proceeded to post career highs with 13 sacks and 11 passes defensed as well as tying his career-best 17 tackles for loss. In last week’s wild-card win over the Carolina Panthers, Jordan’s play lifted the defense as he had three tackles, one for loss, one sack, two passes defensed and forced quarterback Cam Newton into a costly intentional grounding penalty on Carolina’s final drive.

Michael Thomas Jersey

THERE IS A PASSION THAT BORDERS ON FURY when Michael Thomas plays football. The New Orleans Saints’ All-Pro wide receiver does everything with a heightened sense of urgency, whether going full speed in a walkthrough or all out in a game. Get between him and his goal of being one of the greatest to play the position and you could find yourself in the trainer’s room, as coach Sean Payton found out last season.

Thursdays are typically when the team installs its third-down package for that week’s game, and Payton sometimes lines up at cornerback to jam his receivers at the line of scrimmage, in preparation for press coverage they’re likely to see that weekend. In the past, he’d done it with Marques Colston, Joe Horn and many other receivers, so he didn’t think twice when he positioned himself opposite Thomas.

“When Mike released on me, I felt like I was in a car wreck,” Payton said late last month at the team’s practice facility in Metairie, La. “The physicality he displayed was different than anything I had ever felt. My finger went sideways, like it was dislocated, and my chest was killing me. I felt like I was in one of those 25-mph car crashes.

“Usually a receiver is going to use a swim move or make you miss, but Mike has one speed. His mentality is: Whoever is in front of me, you’re in my way. I was a faceless opponent to him. I haven’t pressed him anymore because I don’t want to break any bones.”

It’s been said that Thomas plays with a chip on his shoulder, driven by not being drafted until the second round in 2016, the 47th player overall and sixth receiver off the board. While there is an element of truth to that, those close to him say you must broaden your focus to see what truly fuels him. It is more of a desire to prove himself right rather than others wrong.

“If he had been the second pick of the draft, he was still going to be just like what we see right now,” Payton said. “It’s not this fury because others were taken ahead of him. It’s because this is his bar, his standard.”

Payton raised his hand to eye level and added: “It’s more about wanting to be the No. 1 receiver in the NFL than it is about where he was taken in his draft class.

His standard is much higher than that.”

It’s hard to know with Thomas because he doesn’t open the door wide enough for you to see all the way inside. He is soft-spoken and polite but clearly guarded. There is a conflict within him that wants to receive recognition for living up to his expectations but not liking what that attention can bring and how it can infringe on his privacy.

To get a better understanding of just who he is, we went to those who were present at different legs of his athletic journey — from undersized and underused child athlete to determined teenager to humbled collegian to NFL star. Their words paint a picture of Thomas that is simultaneously complete yet still developing.
MICHAEL THOMAS SR.,
MICHAEL’S FATHER

My brother is Keyshawn Johnson. When he was at USC, I used to take Mike to his practices and let him sit on the field and run around on the sideline. He was only 2 or 3 years old at the time, but he loved it. He would dress up as a football player for Halloween and always talk about the game. He first wanted to play tackle football when he was 5 or 6, but he was too young, so we put him in soccer.

When he was finally old enough to play, he was small for his age and didn’t get a lot of playing time. Some of his coaches might have been afraid he would get hurt. He was a must-play — one of those 5 to 10 kids on every team you must play at least a quarter each week because they paid their money to be on the team.

He didn’t become a starter until his senior year at Taft Charter High School, but the foundation for that was laid during his junior year. They weren’t playing him much, but he would still be out there every day because he loved the game. I used to tell him: “Practices are your games. Don’t worry about all these other dudes that are supposed to be this and that; you’re going to be better than them anyway. Let them have theirs.”

We used to talk about it driving home from practice every day, but I knew we had to come up with a plan because they were a running team and he wasn’t playing a lot.

Bigger, faster, stronger — that became the plan.

Once we figured that out, it was: “OK, we’re going to work. We’ve just got to change and make it work.” I built a weight room at our house and filled it with equipment. He would be in there at all hours. [Keyshawn] would come by at 11 or 12 at night and Mike would be in there working. I used to tell Mike, “I got you if this is what you want to do. I always wanted to play and didn’t, so now that you’re playing, I’m playing through you.”

He was driven. We kicked it into overdrive the summer after his junior year, with camps and 7-on-7 leagues. We went in with a plan to catch up to everyone else by the time the summer was over.
MIKE BERCOVICI,
TAFT CHARTER (CALIF.) HIGH SCHOOL QB AND TEAMMATE

We both transferred to Taft High School our junior year. I was ineligible that year and he was kind of in the same boat because he wasn’t playing. So we had a similar mentality where we were looking at each other like, We better be ready for our senior season because all of our dreams are riding on that one season.

During lunch time and after school, when you had a little bit of a dead period before practice, we would work out by ourselves. It was all about preparation with me and him. He was extremely competitive. All he needed was an opportunity to showcase his abilities.

Our school was kind of built on kids transferring in and transferring out, and the week before our first game, our star running back transferred to Crenshaw High School. The game plan from that day forward was that we were going to throw the football a lot. Our first game was against Dorsey High, which was a big rivalry for us because a lot of guys from our team were from that area. I think we lost the game, but there were a couple of throws I made to him. He was just staring at me the whole game like, Throw the damn ball at me every single time. That set the tone for the rest of the year. He was the No. 1 target in every game and, I think, he had 100 yards receiving in every one of them.

It was almost easy to play quarterback with a guy like him out there. I don’t think it was expected in the beginning that he would dominate, but you could see it coming in the summer. That was when camps started to become a real thing, and since we were on the same high school team, we would throw together when we went to camps. He dominated those camps, but since there wasn’t much film on him, people just said, “Oh, he’ll be a good wide receiver for you” — almost as an afterthought. They didn’t realize he was special.

Going into his senior year, he would walk around all day with those grippers that you squeeze to build up your forearms. People would kind of be like, “Dude, what are you doing?” He’d be like, “Just wait till you see what’s going to happen.” It was like he was plotting something. People would crack up because they had no idea why he was doing it, then you see him ripping the ball away from defenders. His catch percentage now is a reflection of how much he prides himself on having strong hands.

He’s built on hard work. Even though his bloodline is pretty incredible, with Keyshawn (the No. 1 overall pick of the Jets in 1996), he wasn’t just born this way. He’s all about hard work.

He’s always had big expectations for himself, but sort of silently. He’s not motivated by money; he’s motivated by the goals that he set for himself and kind of chasing them. They’re the kind of goals that people mostly laugh at — like his senior year, he wanted to have 2,000 yards receiving and 30 touchdowns. Even though he didn’t get that, he came awful close (with a state-leading 1,656 yards and 21 touchdowns).

He does a great job of working hard when no one is watching. That’s how he’s going to be remembered when it’s all said and done. A lot of guys make sure people are watching them when they’re working hard, but he’s not really like that. When we started out working out hard together in high school, it was truly when no one was watching. Film room at lunchtime, sixth period just playing catch and working on grip strength.

Mike is fueled by achieving his goals. His entire life, he has had Keyshawn next to him, and it’s like, Oh, Keyshawn is this, Keyshawn is that. That’s your uncle. You’re not going to be that. Then, (he) sets out to silently prove you wrong.

It was the same thing when he went to Ohio State: Oh, he’s just going to be another guy. Then he’s catching passes in the corner of the end zone in a [College Football Playoff game vs. Alabama].

I really do think he’s fueled by people who have told him that he’s not going to be his uncle, or he’s not going to be this. Especially when you’re from Los Angeles. There are a lot of people in Los Angeles that grow up that get labels put on them, like they’re never going to reach a certain point or they’re not as good as someone else from L.A. Mike is a perfect example of that.
CARDALE JONES,
FORK UNION (VA.) MILITARY ACADEMY ROOMMATE
OHIO STATE TEAMMATE

They paired us up as roommates because both of us had already committed to attend Ohio State. We didn’t really know of each other beforehand, and we really didn’t get along initially because, at times, we pulled the Big Man on Campus attitude toward each other when talking about Ohio State, as far as things we were going to do, how we were recruited, what number recruit we were. We really didn’t jell until later on in our careers at Ohio State.

During our one semester at Fork Union, Mike was a dawg from the first time we got on the field together. He and I had that Ohio State [recruitment] title behind our names, so everyone already expected us to be pretty good. But for the most part, everyone on the team was a baller.

At that time, Robert Lockhart was our best — not only receiver, but probably our best player. But when guys started to say things like that or make assumptions, I guess, it kind of got under Mike’s skin, and you could see him start to do little extra things, not just on the field but off the field. I would always see him going to the weight room earlier on our off days. He was so competitive.

When it came to trying to make big plays in a game, he wanted the ball.

One of his big [goals] was that he wanted to play as a freshman. At the time, Devin Smith was “the guy” at Ohio State, as far as receivers, and rightfully so. Mike and I went to the Wisconsin game one Saturday (in 2011, when both were still at Fork Union), and Devin caught the winning touchdown from Braxton Miller as a freshman. You could just tell Mike wanted that. He wanted to be the go-to guy. He wanted to be the guy you could look to for the big play in critical situations.

He used to try to get the best out of me by saying little stuff and inferring that Braxton was always going to be “the guy” at quarterback at Ohio State, that I would never play there. He didn’t say it in a way to try to hurt my feelings; he would say it to motivate me when he felt I wasn’t working as hard or I was slacking off.

I did the same thing to him. I said things like, “Devin had two touchdowns today. They call him Mr. Deep Threat. You know Ohio State is only known for fast receivers.”

Mike has great speed, but he’s not a burner. He’s not a guy you think of that’s going to take the top off the defense. I just wanted to get under his skin because he was always getting under mine by mentioning Braxton. You (could) tell it motivated him and pushed him that much harder.
MICKEY MAROTTI,
OHIO STATE STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING COACH

Our staff got here in January of 2012, and Mike had just arrived as a midyear transfer because he went to military school. When he first stepped on campus, he was 6-foot-2, 182 pounds, at 9 percent body fat with the skin calipers. That’s not real good.

After the winter program that year, I wrote this — word for word — in my report: “Needs to mature. Completely blindsided by this s—. Looks like a deer in headlights. Too much form running and not enough explosiveness. Needs to get strong, be tough and go.”

That was after two months. He wasn’t used to the way we were training. He wasn’t used to the tempo of how we were training. He wasn’t used to the intensity of training. He was used to accountability because he was in a military school, but he probably was evaluating everything, like, Ugh, this is too hard. Do I really want to do this? His picture of what it was supposed to be like was completely different than what it actually was. When stuff got hard, he gave in. We use the words grinding and toughness, and there was none of that with him. I don’t want to say he was scared, but …

The first year, he got some false hope of how good he was after being named Player of the Game in the spring game. He ended up playing sparingly as a freshman and was so not ready for [what we were doing].

We redshirted him his sophomore year. I’ve been doing this 30 years and I’ve never seen that happen to anyone after a healthy freshman season, but that’s how bad he was on the field. He wasn’t ready for it.

We lost a really close game to Clemson in the Orange Bowl that season, and afterward, a bunch of seniors got up — guys who had been in our program for two years — and said some really, really good things, like how they wished they had been [with us] since they were freshmen. Mike really was mesmerized by these seniors’ words in the locker room.

When we reported back in January, two weeks later, he and I had a meeting about goals and where you’re at and where you need to be and how to get there. Objective goals. Mike closed the door and sat down and said, “Coach, I’m going to be the best wide receiver to ever come out of here. And I’m going to work. So whatever you need to do to me, whatever extra I need to do, you won’t hear a peep out of me. I’m going to be a leader. I’m going to be a grown man.”

Right there was kind of an epiphany — at least for me — that he was going to take the next step in terms of training. I know he had the same meeting with Coach Urban Meyer, and Coach Meyer had a meeting with Mike’s dad and told him pretty much what we all thought: “He’s immature, he’s not ready, he’s not tough enough.” I think his dad and his uncle got in his grill a little bit, and Mike came back completely different. When I say completely different, I’m talking about possessed. What you see now is how he came back in the winter of 2014.

Possessed — possessed possessed.

Looking at his measurables in March of 2014, he made ridiculous improvements. He gained 18 pounds, all muscle. His body fat went from 9 percent to 4 percent. You’re talking about a complete metamorphosis of his body, and it was all attitude and effort and training toughness and determination that you’ve got to have. It’s almost like a switch went on.

Here we thought it was time for him to [transfer] — Hey, you’re not going to be able to play here; you don’t fit what we want wide receivers to be like. But that winter we saw a change. It was like he went to see the Wizard of Oz and got some new gears. He started to become a man, a grown man, in terms of football.

He’s possessed with being the best.
SEAN PAYTON,
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS HEAD COACH

The one thing I remember in his pre-draft evaluation was the physicality in his run after the catch. You just saw him break a lot of tackles, and you saw a physical nature to how he played, a rugged nature.

From Day 1 with us, he has been a passionate, passionate player. You can have a walkthrough and everyone is kind of trotting, but Mike is wired in such a way that he’s in tune with wanting to please, wanting to get the details down to where you notice it, so he goes full speed at all times. Darren Sproles was that way in walkthroughs. There was only one speed with him, and Mike is like that. He wants to get it right in the run game as well as the pass game.

In December, we were in that tough division game at Carolina. It’s low-scoring and when we need a big run, we shift the tight end over and we run “Press 32 X Duo.” We run it to Mike and he blocks the safety at the point of attack and Alvin Kamara goes 16 yards for the touchdown. You watch that clip (see video), and see Mike meet Kamara in the end zone, and he was so proud he was at the point of attack. The difference on the play was his block because you don’t have touchdown runs like that in our league unless you’re blocking the force correctly, and he did. It was significant.

He’s extremely prideful, which is a good trait, but sometimes he’s hard on himself. He has these quiet moments where he’ll just turn away and take a really deep breath. He’ll have these decompression moments. There’s such an expectation level because his standards are so high for himself that he wants to get it immediately.

His biggest fear and stress each week is the first day, when I hand him the game plan. There’s a pressure to learn it all again. It’s like the teacher says, “Your test on Sunday is going to include … ,” and by the end of the week, we’ll have a walkthrough and do 50 routes on air. And he will be like boom, boom, boom — like, “I got it.”

It’s a process and he recognizes it. On Wednesdays, I’ll get on him and say, “You’ve got to take a few more breaths now; it’s Wednesday. You’re going to get it.” But there’s something that burns inside him that’s different from a lot of guys.

I feel like we have a special relationship in that I understand him, and I know the pressure he feels each week when a game plan comes out. New game plan, some formations we tinker with a bit, and right away he wants to get those down and learn. He wants to please. If I tell him “hash plus 2” is your split, you’ll see him write down every detail and highlight it and come out and line up at “hash plus 2” because he knows it’s important to have that detail down. Sometimes it’s a weakness because this is a game that’s not played perfectly, and he’ll have some of those competitive moments because his standard is such that he feels he needs to be perfect to play at the level he desires. Each guy is different in how they approach that, and he knows his preparation has to be on point during the week. So he learns it, but he spends time grinding on it.

When it comes to a ceiling for him, you name it. This is his second Pro Bowl as a starter, and I’ve seen improvement each year. Year 1, you leave him at one [position], then you have him play over in the slot. His route tree has expanded, and he has exceptional traffic hands.

So when it comes to a ceiling, you name it.

Willie Roaf Jersey

No former NFL player had a worse time on the day of the league’s championship games than Hall of Fame offensive lineman Willie Roaf.

Both of Roaf’s former teams, the Chiefs and Saints, fell achingly short of advancing to the Super Bowl.

Roaf, who went to the Pro Bowl in all four season with the Chiefs from 2002-05, talked a bit about Kansas City while in a pair of appearances on Paul Gant’s “Go4It” podcast.

First, Roaf discussed the Chiefs’ 37-31 loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game.

“The Chiefs didn’t show up in the first half. … The Chiefs played catch-up and they got back into that game,” Roaf said. “The Chiefs took the lead in the game, so some of that is on them, too. That defense has to step up and make a few more plays and the Chiefs are in the Super Bowl. …

“And, again, the Patriots got luck on their side. They got some calls that went their way. There were some bad calls and you have the third-down situation with Dee Ford and here we go they are back in the Super Bowl. The Chiefs could have easily been in the Super Bowl, too.”

Despite that loss, Roaf believes the Chiefs are going to be good for quite a while thanks to quarterback Patrick Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce, receiver Tyreek Hill and the rest of the offense.

“They got Mahomes, who is a different quarterback than anybody,” Roaf said. “The offense has a bunch of guys and the best tight end in the league …

“I will tell you this: the Chiefs will be back a lot coming up in the future. If they add pieces to their defense and get more running backs and … mostly draft defense. The Chiefs will be knocking on the door, and with that young quarterback Mahomes they will be building some type of dynasty.

“So, this is this kid’s first year starting, and he is just now figuring things out … and Sammy Watkins was out most of the year. And then, they lost (running back Kareem) Hunt going into the playoffs, and he was still able to go up and down the field.

“So, you give me some more weapons, and you keep that young group intact, you tell me how good the Chiefs are going to be in the next few years? They got a chance to win a couple of rings with that young boy in Kansas City.”

Roaf, however, would like Mahomes to quit playing basketball. He had seen the video of Mahomes’ spin move and read of the Chiefs’ desire to have their star quarterback curtail that off-season activity.

In fact, Roaf believes his days of playing basketball in the offseason may have led to an injury that caused him to miss time with the Saints.

“I went to Duke and leaned up before the ‘98 season,” Roaf said. “I was playing a lot of basketball and the guy training me was an ex-basketball player … and I did have to get my knee cleaned out in the middle of the season. Being 300 pounds and running around and dunking, and jumping and doing that stuff, I had to get my knee cleaned out and I think that was directly because of me playing basketball.

“So he’s got to watch it running up and down. He’s young, but you’ve got to watch it running up and down that hardwood and changing direction and stuff. What if you come down the wrong way? They’re about to give you $200 million (contract), I don’t think they want you playing a lot of basketball.”

Roaf also talked about former teammate Tony Gonzalez’s who was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Kelce. You can listen to the podcasts here. Roaf talked about the Chiefs’ future Super Bowl chances in this podcast.

Sam Mills Jersey

Seems fitting that the most coveted football honor won by Mauro Altamura is named in the memory of Sam Mills.

Altamura and Mills are a lot alike. Both were unheralded linebackers coming out of high school (Altamura played at Hasbrouck Heights and Mills at Long Branch). Both developed into two of the best defenders in New Jersey Athletic Conference history.

As Altamura was selected the NJAC’s Sam Mills Defensive Player of the Year winner recently, the memory of Mills lives on.

Mills is the most revered player in Montclair State history. After starting for the champion Baltimore Stars in the USFL, the undersized linebacker played 12 seasons in the NFL, with the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers.

He was on Carolina’s coaching staff when he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer in 2003, passing away at age 45 two years later. The Panthers retired his number and recently promoted his son, Sam Mills III, to defensive line coach.

Altamura had a Mills-like season this year. The two-time all-NJAC player led the conference with 18 tackles for loss and was third in tackles, averaging 9.2 per game. He had four sacks and eight tackles or more in eight of Montclair State’s 10 games (the Red Hawks were 8-2).

Joe Koonce, an offensive lineman from Cliffside Park, was another MSU all-conference player. Rowan cornerback Travelle Curry, a senior from Paterson who played at Passaic Tech, was second team all-NJAC. The College of New Jersey quarterback Dave Jachera, a freshman from Pompton Plains who played at Pequannock, was the Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Altamura and teammate Stephen Gaffney, a junior offensive lineman from Oakland who played at Indian Hills, were further cited. Altamura was selected to the all-East Region team and Gaffney, a second team all-NJAC choice, was third team all-region.

Off the field, Altamura and Gaffney were chosen for the Google Cloud Academic All-Division team. Altamura majors in Business Administration and Gaffney, a three-time member of the Dean’s List, is a Family Science and Human Development major. Both players were also involved in Montclair’s charity initiative, the Keep Pounding Foundation.

Here’s a look at how other North Jersey athletes are faring in college:
Mark Fossati, Princeton

The former St. Joseph standout from Upper Saddle River is a first-team All-Ivy League linebacker this season. He helped the Tigers win the Ivy League title and achieve their first perfect season since 1964.

The senior linebacker was credited with 66 tackles, second best on the team. He twice won Ivy League Defensive Player of the Week honors, one after a game-clinching interception against Yale.
Kevin Wilkins, Rutgers

The redshirt senior defensive end from Mahwah is the co-winner of the David Bender Award as the Scarlet Knights’ best lineman.

The former St. Joseph star started all 48 games in his RU career before he was sidelined in the final game because of injury. He had 50 tackles, second most on the team, in his last season.
Tommy Sweeney, Boston College

The former Don Bosco star completed his career at BC by being named to the all-ACC first team.

The graduate-student tight end caught 32 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns, upping his career totals to 99 receptions for 1,281 yards and 10 TDs.
Joe Giles-Harris, Duke

The redshirt junior linebacker from Nyack, N.Y., who played at St. Joseph, was selected to the all-ACC first team for the second consecutive season.

His 81 tackles led the Blue Devils for the third straight year. Earlier in the season, he surpassed 300 tackles for his career.
Javon Turner, Lackawanna (Pa.)

The sophomore wide receiver from East Orange, who played at Paramus Catholic, caught a 67-yard touchdown pass as Lackawanna defeated Arizona Western, 17-10, in the El Toro Bowl in Yuma, Ariz.

Lackawanna completed an 11-0 season that included seven road victories and two on neutral sites. Turner had 10 touchdowns
Nasir Hooker, Lackawanna (Pa.)

Hooker, who starred in high school at DePaul, had two touchdowns this season for his 11-0 team, including a 26-yard TD reception in the El Toro Bowl victory over Arizona Western.

Morten Andersen Jersey

OAKLAND — The two men are linked by a record.

Nobody has ever scored more points than Adam Vinatieri and Morten Andersen.

Vinatieri, who spent the week rehabilitating the groin injury he suffered against Buffalo last week, made a 25-yard field goal at the end of the first half in Oakland on Sunday and passed Andersen to become the NFL’s all-time scoring leader with 2,547 points.

The field goal was set up by 38 yards from running back Nyheim Hines. Vinatieri already had 81 points the day Hines was born on Nov. 12, 1996.

The two men are linked by mutual admiration. Vinatieri, like every kid who was kicking in the 80’s and 90’s, grew up idolizing Andersen. He had a few favorite kickers, a few favorite teams, but Vinatieri remembers thinking of Andersen as the standard by which all other kickers should be measured.

Vinatieri’s feeling never left, not even after he became a peer. He played against Andersen three times — in 1998, 2002 and 2007, Andersen’s final season in the NFL. The first time Vinatieri played against Andersen, the young buck was finally established as New England’s kicker and had been through enough ups and downs to marvel at the marks Andersen had already set.

“I had the privilege to play against him a handful of times in my early, early years and his twilight years,” Vinatieri said. “Meeting him was awesome. He had 2,000-some-odd points, and his all-time stats and scoring numbers, I remember thinking nobody’s ever going to come close to that. It’s just so many points.”

Andersen, for his part, always expected the record to be broken.

A kicking connoisseur who has paid attention to any and every specialist of note for decades, Andersen thought it would be Detroit’s Jason Hanson for a long time. Hanson kicked for 21 years but ended up in third place, behind Andersen and the man he passed, Gary Anderson.

Andersen knew somebody else would be right behind Hanson.

“Listen, Michael Jordan doesn’t have all his records, Peyton Manning’s records were just broken,” Andersen said. “This is part of life, this is part of the intrigue of professional sports. You set the bar the best you can, and then somebody else sets the bar as best he can.”

For a long time now, Andersen has known it would be Vinatieri, a kicker he’s admired from afar ever since the long-time Colt won a pair of Super Bowls for the New England Patriots on the game’s final play, the play by which all kickers are measured.

“I know Adam has gotten to the point total a hell of a lot faster than I did,” Andersen said. “Whether that’s because he was more efficient or because they scored more points, I don’t know. I know his field-goal percentage is a little bit higher than mine is. When you play on successful teams, you’re going to get a lot of opportunities, and if you maximize those opportunities, you’re going to score a lot of points.”

The two men do not know each other well on a personal level, and they haven’t talked in the weeks leading up to Vinatieri breaking the NFL’s field-goal record against Houston, or the weeks leading up to Sunday’s record-breaking kick.

But there is plenty of mutual appreciation. A videotaped message of congratulations from Andersen to Vinatieri – filmed in Andersen’s Hall of Fame jacket and on the golf course – had been in the hands of the networks and the Pro Football Hall of Fame for weeks.

“He’s done it in big games, he’s done it in inclement weather, he’s done it away, home, he’s done it every which way you can do it, and he’s done it over a long period of time, with different teams,” Andersen said. “One of the greatest ever.”

The two men are linked by the city of Indianapolis, on opposite ends of their careers.

Vinatieri, obviously, has been a part of the Colts for 13 seasons now, part of the fabric of the most successful era in franchise history. Andersen’s career began in Indianapolis, a single season at Ben Davis High School in 1977, the year he discovered the sport of football and made a name for himself as the kicker for a team he still believes should have won a state title.

“My first year in the States as an exchange student,” Andersen said. “If it hadn’t been for that year, my American dream wouldn’t have been written the way it was.”

The two men will soon be linked by a Hall.

Andersen broke through an invisible but all-too-impenetrable wall in 2017, joining legendary Chiefs, Packers and Vikings kicker Jan Stenerud as the only pure kickers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Vinatieri, by all accounts, will be the third, as long as he doesn’t keep kicking into his 50’s and on into perpetuity, a goal Andersen once set for himself and missed by three years.

“Absolutely,” Andersen said. “I don’t know if he’ll be first-ballot. That’s always hard for specialists, that’s never been done, but clearly, he has the resumé to say, ‘Hey, I belong.’ He’s still playing, so he’s going to wait a while. We’ll see how long he wants to play.”

Long enough to put the record out of reach for at least another dozen years or so.