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FILE - Tennessee Titans tight end Jonnu Smith (81) makes a touchdown catch against Baltimore Ravens cornerback Brandon Carr (39) during the first half an NFL divisional playoff football game in Baltimore, in this Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, file photo. The Patriots have agreed to sign free agent tight end Jonnu Smith in their biggest move to date to fill the void created by the departure of Rob Gronkowski. Smith, who was selected by the Titans in the third round of the 2017 draft, agreed Monday, March 15, 2021, to a four-year, $50 million deal, his agent Drew Rosenhaus told The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, FIle)

NFL power poll

And poof, just like that, the NFL is back, center stage and in the front of our focus. Did it ever leave?

OK, Maybe that's only half the story. This is March Madness week of course. And baseball is warming up. Heck, golf is fun right now, and I'm sure J-Mac believes NASCAR deserves more attention.

But the NFL is always there. Lurking. Stoic. Knowing that the conversation will return sooner rather than later because like Otis to the 'shine or a catfish on the line, we're hooked.

With that admission and the fact that the NFL season officially opens Wednesday at 4 p.m., our Tuesday NFL top-five will explore the five biggest offseason moves so far and what they mean.

But before we get there, let's first just cover the never-before-seen QB shuffle that has happened across America's most popular endeavor.

Of the 32 teams, at least half will have a new QB, a QB competition in camp or a very serious QB conversation leading up to the draft.

Look around. In the NFC, with Russell Wilson pondering possibilities, the West's only certain returning starter behind center is Arizona's Kyler Murray. Half the QB jobs in rest of the NFC are in flux as the Saints, Panthers, Redskins and Bears ponder their next steps as well as the Lions and Eagles welcome new starters.

The same thing is happening in the AFC. As we wait to see how Houston handles its DeShaun problem, the Colts and Jags and Dolphins and Pats and Jets and Steelers and Raiders and Broncos all are asking themselves if they have the guy, can get the guy or win without a bona fide guy.

With that knowledge and the multitude of moves, let's make like the best tetherball player on the playground and get to the poll.

Realization No. 1 — Bill Belichick was TICKED watching Tom Brady win the Lombardi without him. Like overly. Like, OK, remember that girl you dated early in college and she was great but your eyes started wondering and you broke it off because you knew the grass was greener on the other side. Then that girl dropped the freshman 15, got her hair did and boom, she's a smoke show and you're hanging out in the card room at the fraternity house as your buddies mock you. Yeah, Bill is trying to get his hair did right now. (Side note: Anyone who was ever in a fraternity never says the abbreviation 'Frat.' Trust me on this.)

So Bill spent a ton of Robert Kraft's coins in search of his happy ending. Loved the addition of Jonnu Smith, the former Titans tight end who is athletic and multi-skilled. The Pats added vertical speed on the perimeter with Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne. And know this friends, with the addition of premier pass-rusher Matt Judon and some interior defensive linemen in free agency as well as the return of several defensive starters like Pro Bowlers Don't Hightower and Patrick Chung who COVID-ed out of 2020, the Pats defense is going to be as good as any in the league.

Side note: Bill may be the first guy embracing the spend everywhere but QB and roll the dice. And if Cam Newton has anything left in the tank, we are not as done with the Pats as most of us wish.

Realization No. 2 — The Titans are, at the very least,  self-aware. They saw their shortcomings and addressed it with a bona fide star. The Titans were 30th in the league in sacks with just 19. To make matters worse, the only teams behind them — Jacksonville and Cincinnati — faced the fewest pass attempts in the league because the Jags and the Bungles were always trailing. So the Titans nabbed Steelers standout edge rusher Bud Dupree, and paid a hefty sum for him. But know this: When Dupree was on the field the Steelers were the best defense in the league — by a lot — but after Dupree hurt his knee, that group was pedestrian.

Yes, the Titans addressed their biggest concern, but in a year that the salary cap shrunk, the addition of Dupree — who got $16 million a year — meant there was far less for Smith, who left for New England, and receiver Corey Davis, who agreed to a deal with the Jets. You have to believe that Jon Robinson and Co are eyeing this very deep and talented WR class with their first-round pick at 22. (Side note: With limited miles on the tires of your best player, and the realization that the window is always closing, if I'm in the Titans' war room, man oh man, I am begging teams with a top-10 pick to make a deal. Yes DeVonta Smith is a dude, but I don't think he's better than JaMarr Chase, and truth be told, in today's NFL, if I'm the Titans, the guy I want is Kyle Pitts. What a dude.)

Realization No. 3 — Urban Meyer is going to get his guys. And he's going to install his brand, and that brand is based on speed. Carlos Hyde becomes a sneaky fantasy value. And Phillip Dorsett can really run. Yes, those are minor moves, but you have to believe that Meyer's free agent pitch is based on three things: His track record of winning, Florida's lack of state income tax and playing with Trevor Lawrence.  

Realization No. 4 — The Jets just became the most interesting team heading into the draft. There are elite QBs in play to trade for. There are star-QB prospects in the draft. There are star prospects at several key positions like Chase and Smith as well as the tackle from Oregon. The Jets could keep Sam Darnold — or deal him, because the Texans are not going to do much better at this point than Darnold and No. 2 overall and other picks — and go a slew of directions. Man, the Jets have so many storylines that they may actually warrant half the time Mike Greenberg is going to spend discussing them. Plus, the additions of edge rusher Carl Lawson and Davis at receiver seem like solid moves.

Realization No. 5 — The Bucs are not going anywhere. By franchise-tagging pass rusher Shaq Barrett and re-signing Chris Godwin, Gronk and Lavonte David, Tom-pa Bay and the Brady-neers will return pretty much in tact. Plus, in a year in which the shrinking cap is going to create some casualties, here's betting a couple of veteran free agents who will be forced into discounted, one-year deals are going to look hard at playing with the GWOAT (greatest winner of all time) in Florida. Guys like a Will Fuller to replace Antoni Brown or a Chris Carson or a TY Hilton or      
   
 

Tournament time

OK, we're excited. Hopefully you're excited.

The Madness starts this Thursday.

First things first. Our annual First-Out, Last-in contest is up and running.

The rules are simple: Send in the No. 1 seed you think is going to be bounced first and the double-digit seed you think will dance the longest.

For example, here's mine: The first 1 bounced, sadly, will be Michigan, a team I love watching play. Granted if Isaiah Livers can play, that would change my position (and my pick would be Baylor if that happened) but I think Livers is done with a foot injury. And the absence of his 3-point acumen made the Michigan offense disjointed.

It was a perfect mixture of a dominant post presence, a skilled and selfless point guard and two elite wing shooters. Without Livers, that balance is disjointed, which is sad, because at full strength, Michigan is as good as anyone.

Give me Rutgers as the double-digit seed to last the longest. Yes, I think they will handle Clemson and I think they have a great shot against the worst 2 seed in recent memory.

Which brings us to a quick checklist of things to remember as you look at your bracket. (Side note: I hope you are going to fill out a bracket, and if you don't well, pull up a chair for the First-Out, Last-In contest.)

> Trust Big Ten teams. Yes, I picked against Michigan, but that was because of the injury. I also picked Rutgers to get to the Sweet Sixteen. I love Illinois (I think they have a legit shot to win it all, even with the toughest draw in the tournament) and Maryland is going to give Alabama fits in round 2 because Maryland guards folks at an elite level.  

> I do not trust the Pac-12. Sorry. Well not really. Oregon is OK. Colorado is too. But unlike the Big Ten, and in some ways the SEC, the game-in, game-out grind those conferences go through has made those teams tough. The Pac-12? More of a savory blend than Budweiser.

> The brackets will be down, but the gambling will be at all-time high. Book that.

> Count me as a Oklahoma State fan since Auburn is not in this thing. Man, that Cunningham kid is something special. What a joy to watch, and he has a better than average cast and certainly has the Danny Manning/Kemba Walker potential to put a team on his back and go. He's dynamite.

> My Final Four (and it's subject to change, especially if Michigan says Livers is good to go): Gonzaga over Iowa in a West draw that will be the most chalky (Side note: There's always that one part of the bracket that falls almost down the seed line, and I think this year it will be the West); Alabama over FSU in the East, provided that 'Bama gets by Maryland in Round 2 (Side note: Yes, an Auburn grad picking Alabama makes me feel like I need a shower); Illinois over West Virginia in the Midwest (Side note: We said it yesterday, but man Georgia Tech got hosed by the committee — Loyola is legit and Illinois and its interior defense is a rotten match-up if the Jackets get to Round 2); THE Ohio State over Baylor in the South.

Thoughts?

 

Not-so minor changes

For a lot of us, the biggest offseason baseball storyline was whether the Lookouts would be in or out. Thankfully, our Double-A team is still around.
(Side note: Gang, know this. When they open the doors to AT&T want to know who has two thumbs, will be in a seat with a CoCola in one hand and his wife's hand in the other? This GUY.)

But for those of us who will attend a few (or more) of those games, there was an announcement last week that, this side of the contraction news, that was pretty big.

Across various minor leagues there will be experimental rule changes, and I applaud baseball for trying to find ways to make the product better. Yes, those of us who grew up loving baseball know the game is great, but with that knowledge should come the realization that the product is slow. And in today's short-attention-span world, slow is a slow death.

Some of the rules are for safety, some are for pace, and some are for just looking at possible ways to make the product better, and baseball, big picture, deserves credit for exploring them.

Let's look at some of the rule changes and my thoughts:

In Triple-A, the base sizes  will be increased from 15- to 18-square inches. This one likely will be the most easy to transition to the bigs, and in a lot of ways, makes sense for safety reasons, especially at first.

In Double-A (yes, that's the Lookouts), teams will be required to position four players in the infield and each of those infielders must have both feet in the dirt. This is to eliminate the super shift with an infielder in short right field for left-handed pull hitters. You can still shift — there is no limit to the number of players on either side of second — you just can't play a rover in the outfield. While I see the reasoning here, I don't like rules like this that limit strategery in an effort for offense. I have wondered for years why there was not more bunts for hits, and a lot of baseball folks I respect say if you can't beat the shift, then you're not that good of a hitter anyway. Plus, the numbers form the analytics folks have a slew of charts and graphs that point to some serious flaws in the logic behind this move.  

In High-A, pitchers must step off the pitching rubber before attempting a pick-off. This is an effort to increase base-stealing, which is a good thing, but man, does this hurt some left-handers who have legit pick-off moves.

In Low-A Southeast League, select games will use an electronic strike zone. Hallelujah.

In Low-A West, a 15-second pitch clock will be used. That's five seconds faster than the clock used in Double- and Triple-A. OK, but this has to be a culture thing more than a big-league enforceable thing in my view.

In all of Low-A, pitchers will be allowed only two pick-off attempts per plate appearance. Any pick-off attempt after two, if not successful in picking off the runner, will be a balk. This one feels forced and strange.

Thoughts?

 

This and that

— Today's A2 discussion.

— Keyshawn Johnson announced on social media that his daughter Maia died. My prayers are with him and his family. What a nightmare for every parent.

— This is why we tolerate all the nonsense and vitriol on Twitter. Here's Michael Winslow — the sound effects guy from the Police Academy movies — doing an amazing rendition of the vocals, the drums and the lead guitar on Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." Holy Schnikes that is fantastic.

— You know the rules. Here's TFP sports editor and prep sports guru Stephen Hargis on the bids to host the state football championships in Tennessee.

 

Today's questions

True or false, it's Tuesday.

True or false, you like the minor league rules changes.

True or false, the Patriots make the playoffs this season.

True or false, a Big Ten team wins the national title in college hoops.

True or false, Chattanooga will get to host the TSSAA football title games.

You know the drill. Answer some T or Fs, ask some T or Fs.

As for today, March 16, let's review.

Happy birthday to Jerry Lewis, who would have been 95 today, and Flavor Flav, who is 62 but looks 95.

Rodney Peete is 55 today. He married actress Holly Robinson.

I don't think they make it, but Rushmore of famous brides of QBs. Go and remember the contest.

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