• West Virginia WR Tavon Austin is the head of a class of Big 12 players with bright NFL futures

    Of the 22 Big 12 players selected last week in the NFL draft, several are expected to make immediate impacts. Here are some safe bets.

    Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia (St. Louis Rams)

    I believe that Austin will be the top NFL player from the 2013 draft class. He is only 5-foot-8 but runs a 4.34-second 40-yard dash, which seems to translate in game situations. He racked up 574 all-purpose yards in a loss to Oklahoma (2nd-most in FBS history), and in the process showed his versatility as a receiver, running back and return man. I really like what I saw from him in college, and think he has a chance to excel in a Percy Harvin-like utility role in the NFL. He will do it all for the Rams, and will have a stellar career if he proves to be durable.

    Arthur Brown, ILB, Kansas State (Baltimore Ravens)

    When the Ravens lost Ray Lewis to retirement this offseason, inside linebacker became a question mark, as did who would be his replacement. The Ravens took Brown in the second round, and should be fine at the position. Brown racked up at least 100 tackles in each of his two seasons in Manhattan.

    Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma (Philadelphia Eagles)

    Johnson is a very versatile player who should fit perfectly in Chip Kelly's offensive system. Johnson was a quarterback as well as a track star in high school and played some tight end as well as defensive end before moving to the line at OU. He runs a 4.72-second 40-yard dash, and was one of the most athletic linemen in the class of 2013.  He should be a staple of the Eagles offensive line for years to come, and give Michael Vick some much needed protection on either side of the line.

    Alex Okafor, DE, Texas (Arizona Cardinals)

    Maybe its just the Texas homer in me, but I was shocked to see Okafor drop into the fourth round like he did. He was one of four players in the FBS to record 12-plus sacks and force four or more fumbles in 2012, and ended his career with one of the greatest defensive performances I have ever seen live (behind only Ndamukong Suh in the 2009 Big 12 Championship). In the 2012 Valero Alamo Bowl, Okafor was credited with a game record 4.5 sacks and even made his assigned blocker cry by the end of the game, although he was probably just as sad that his Oregon State career was coming to an end as he was with his performance. Okafor could be one of the biggest steals in the draft, and should help anchor the Cardinals defense for years to come.

    Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas (New Orleans Saints)

    Vaccaro is a testament to the fact that hard work in college trumps a high star rating out of high school. He was ranked the 18th-best safety out of high school, according to rivals.com, but was chosen at No. 15 overall, the first safety chosen in a very stron class. Vaccaro is a hard hitter who can cover the field and shut down receivers as the nickleback. If Texas didn’t struggle against the run upfront like they did in 2012, Vaccaro could’ve played more in-position and had a better senior season. But he is exactly what the Saints need to help improve a last place Saints defense from 2012. 

  • 2013 NHL Playoff Predictions: Who will win the Stanley Cup?

    The 2013 NHL regular season officially concluded Sunday and the playoffs are set. Here are my picks:

    WEST

    (1) Chicago Blackhawks vs (8) Minnesota Wild

    Minnesota is coming into these playoffs on one leg, having been destroyed in three of their last six games and nearly choking away their playoff appearance. The consolation prize is a date with the best team in the league. They'll play tough but the Wild will head home early.

    Prediction: Blackhawks in 5

    (4) St. Louis Blues vs (5) Los Angeles Kings

    The Blues were up and down all season but after winning six of their last seven to end the season, they might be the league's hottest team at the right time. This should be a heavy, pounding series - the best one in the West's first round.

    Prediction: Blues in 7

    (3) Vancouver Canucks vs (6) San Jose Sharks

    Prediction: Should be a dandy of an offensive series with these west coast teams. I'm expecting to see goals galore. That said, the winner will be the team with better goaltending. That's the Nucks, who can throw in Schneider or Luongo in goal and get equal results.

    Prediction: Canucks in 6

    (2) Anaheim Ducks (7) Detroit Red Wings

    Boy, are those Ducks "mighty" once again.  They haven't been this good since they beat Ottawa for the 2006 Stanley Cup. Detroit on the other hand, had an unusually off season, but their 21 year playoff streak is intact. That doesn't stop them from going home early though.

    Prediction: Ducks in 6

    EAST

    (1) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (8) NY Islanders

    The Isles played valiantly this year and have some elite talent (Tavares, Moulson, Nielsen) but the Pens are too much, even if you take away Crosby. Malkin won the Hart trophy last year, just in case Crosby is out.

    Prediction: Pens in 5

    (4) Boston Bruins vs (5) Toronto Maple Leafs

    The Leafs are in for the first time since 2009, and have new talent pool. Kadri, van Riemsdyk and Co., will only lead them to two wins against the much bigger, more bruising Bruins squad.

    Prediction: Bruins in 6

    (3) Washington Capitals vs (6) New York Rangers

    The Caps are red-hot right now, led by Alex Ovechkin, who will very likely take home this year's Hart trophy for his efforts in turning this team around 180 degrees. The Rangers eliminated their superstar ego problem by trading Marian Gaborik, but they might think twice about that now.

    Prediction: Caps in 6

    (2) Montreal Canadiens vs. (7) Ottawa Senators

    Good news for the Sens: word is that D man Erik Karlsson might somehow be back for the playoffs. They'll need him to match up with the Habs' mammoth forwards. Until (or if) he returns, the Sens are putting this series in the hands of their elite net minder, Craig Anderson. He will win them games by himself.

    Prediction: Canadiens in 7

    WEST Semis

    (1) Blackhawks vs (8) Blues (CHI in 7)

    (2) Ducks vs (3) Canucks (VAN in 7)

    EAST Semis

    (1) Penguins vs (4) Bruins (PIT in 7)

    (2) Canadiens vs (3) Capitals (WAS in 6)

    WEST Finals

    (1) Blackhawks vs (3) Canucks (CHI in 6)

    EAST Finals

    (1) Penguins vs (3) Capitals (PIT in 5)

    STANLEY CUP Finals

    West (1) Blackhawks vs East (1) Penguins (CHI in 7)

    Prediction: The Hawks will win the 2013 Stanley Cup in one of the most epic finals in NHL history.

  • Sports much more than just a game for recovering Boston

    “We are Boston. We are strong.”

    These words have been echoed through the streets of Boston ever since the tragic events at the Boston Marathon on April 15. Words that have never been more true.

    In a city founded by patriots and revolutionists, not much can change the spirit of its people. Boston is a proud city — some could even argue too proud — and that cannot be seen more than in its sports.

    Following the tragic events, sports became more than just a game for Boston, my hometown. Sports became a healing process and, even more so, a bonding process.  

    “[Sports in Boston] helped bring us altogether, not necessarily to forget, but to bring us Bostonians closer together as a family,” April Feeney, a Boston area native, said. “Our sports are what we live by and by being at these sporting events we show just how much we love our city and how we are not afraid.”

    At the first professional sports game in the city after the events, the Boston Bruins hosted the Buffalo Sabres in a game that would eventually clinch the home team a playoff spot. A pregame ceremony was held that consisted of a tribute video to the marathon victims followed by a tear-jerking national anthem in which the sold out crowd of 17,565 sang America’s song.

    Both Feeney and Lieutenant Steven Ford of the Revere, Mass. police department attended that game.

    “It showed how much they [victims] are cared for and loved,” Lt. Ford said. “That we are not alone in this and will get through it and be a better country for it.”

    At the Red Sox game the Saturday following the capture of the second suspect, another ceremony was held in which first responders were honored. The team stitched out the classic ‘”Red Sox” on the front of their jersey and replaced it with one word — “Boston.”

    While Bruins players gave the jerseys right off their backs to first responders and citizens that were part of the events, the Celtics held a ceremony of their own this past Friday during their first home game since the marathon. Doctors, nurses and first responders were recognized as “Heroes among us.”

    “Honestly, being a Boston native and growing up in and around Boston I wouldn’t expect anything else from this city and especially from our sports teams,” Feeney said. “Personally it just makes me proud to be a Bostonian.”

    President Barack Obama said it best.

    “Boston is a tough and resilient town. So are its people,” Obama said.

    A game became much more than just a game for Boston. It became a symbol of the inspiration and devotion surrounding the capital and all of Massachusetts itself. 

  • Two rookie running backs you can expect to put up big fantasy numbers in 2013

    Here are two rookie running backs whom I believe will put up huge numbers next fall:

    1. Eddie Lacy, Green Bay Packers

    The Packers drafted Eddie Lacy late in the second round, which is much later than most experts had projected he would be selected. Nonetheless, this was an excellent pick by the Packers, who filled a serious need in the running back position by drafting Lacy. He is a downhill runner who can break tackles and punch the ball into the end zone at the goal line. At 5 feet 11 inches and 231 pounds, Lacy can still switch gears and pick up speed quickly in the open field, so he will be a load for even the best NFL defenders to take down. Lacy may not be a huge big-play threat in the NFL, but he is an every-down back that can carry the ball 20 times a game. The Packers will most likely use him as their red zone back as well, so he will surely have many opportunities to put up big fantasy numbers.

    2. Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Le'Veon Bell was a mid-second round selection for the Steelers, and just like the Packers selecting Lacy, this pick helped fill a serious need for the Pittsburgh team. Bell is a big back, listed at 6 feet 2 inches and around 240 pounds, and he fits the Steelers' running back brand perfectly. With the departure of Rashard Mendenhall, Bell should see immediate playing time, which means quality opportunities to shake the NFL learning curve early on and start producing. If Bell can learn to use his size and become more of a downhill runner, fantasy owners can expect him to rack up goal line and red zone touchdowns and put up monster fantasy numbers. If the Steelers use him the right way he will definitely produce some big stats for a rookie.

    Both of these guys are big backs that may not produce a huge amount of rushing yards, but like I mentioned above, they will both get a number of opportunities to score touch downs at the goal line, which in the end accounts for the most fantasy points. In addition, I believe these two players have more fantasy potential than other running backs selected in the draft because they fell to the right teams — teams that are in desperate need of production in the running game. 

  • Alex Okafor chosen by Cardinals as 103rd overall pick

    Alex Okafor is trading burnt orange for bright red. 

    Okafor, a defensive end, was chosen by the Arizona Cardinals as the 103rd overall pick in the fourth round of the NFL Draft Saturday morning.

    “Alex was so unselfish,” head coach Mack Brown said.  “He played anywhere we asked him to.  When we were short on the defensive line two years ago, at 260 pounds he played all year and never griped one bit. He became a great team leader.”

    He follows a line of Longhorns picked by the Cardinals, including center Lyle Sendlein, defensive end Lance Wilson, offensive guard Leonard Davis and fellow defensive end Sam Acho, who was also the 103rd pick, in 2011. Acho and Sendlein are currently both on the Cardinals roster.

    Okafor played four years for the Longhorns without redshirting, leading the team in sacks, quarterback pressures, forced fumbles and tackles for loss in his senior season. By the end of his collegiate career, Okafor had played in 52 games with 33 starts.  He was a two-time first team All-Big 12 choice and the 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year by CBSSports.com. 

    A shining moment for Okafor came during the 2012 Alamo Bowl, during which he managed eight tackles and 4.5 sacks, effectively helping Texas set the Valero Alamo Bowl record for sacks. 

    “I think his [best football] is ahead of him because he is going to get bigger and stronger,” Brown said.  “He has a lot of upside.”

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