Phil Steele ranks Aggies 31st, as Sumlin’s seat becomes hotter


Updated July 18, 2017


LLANO, Texas — Exactly one year ago, hoping to rebound from a season of edging the pro football betting lines by a single percent, I looked for help. I read every preseason pro football magazine on whatever newsstands I could find that were still in existence.

After devouring the data of experts, I built spreadsheets with numerical evaluations of every starting player and key special teamer. My offseason work was rewarded when I hit above 80 percent of my September 2016 NFL picks. Granted, I did not try to pick every game, which is folly, but called at least six games every week, attained 63% for the season.

This summer I’ve weeded out the publications that didn’t add much to my knowledge. I’m focusing on the two mags that were the most helpful last preseason and throughout the season: Pro Football Weekly Preview and Lindy’s Pro Football.

PFW Preview, which is all that remains of the once mighty PFW empire based in Chicago, offers concise commentary and numerical ratings of just about every above-average starter in the NFL.

Of course the brand is not what it was when the late Joel Buchsbaum was the evaluator. Buchsbaum, of Brooklyn, had a voice like Bugs Bunny, but he could assess and explain football talent as well as any Hall of Fame coach. He talked football better than anyone, because he listened better.

He had a photographic memory that was encyclopedic. When I interviewed him on the phone, he could provide details on the most obscure prospects without pausing to check his notes or data base.

Of course, someone who has no life cannot live long. Gaunt for years, Buchsbaum died at 48, in 2002.

Surprisingly, his successors have done him proud in their coverage of the NFL and especially the incoming freshman class and the ups and downs of free-agency.

For the eager fan gazing toward opening weekend, PFW cites Philadelphia as the best worst-to-first candidate in the eight divisions. The rookie quarterback of 2016, Carson Wentz, who pushed Sam Bradford to Minnesota, was better than his modest stats, a TD-to-picks ratio of 16/14.

Wentz was impaired by an O-line that for the most part was either injured, mentally depressed or suspended. Much worse than that, he was trying to connect with some of the most inept wide receivers in the league.

PFW sees the Eagles perhaps rising because “Wentz received two big-play WRs, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and a trio of explosive mid-rounders.”

Of all the mags I’ve seen, PFW offers the most useful data — stats, depth charts, rosters arranged numerically with columns for players’ measurements and age.

Television announcers these days are more committed to telling their vignettes than to telling us who made the tackle or stumbled in coverage. So I need to know more than the number on the back.

With Lindy’s you get lots more: a comment line for everyone who might make the team. So whenever there’s an injury, even if late in the season, you can find a reliable evaluation of the new starter. To beat the betting line, you have to know who’s ready to step into the O-line.

Lindy’s spears the overrated. Minnesota Vikings Pro Bowler Anthony Barr “needs to stop coasting.”

It’s not so important who they pick to win the Super Bowl, and I don’t see anyone picking against New England. The laws of probability tell me it’s likely to be someone else. There are always injuries.

The Lombardi Trophy will go to a team that has less than its fair share of injuries and has stalwart performance from backup talent. So if we’re planning to bet on these games, we need to know how good these second-teamers are. Who will be the next James White or Martellus Bennett or Marcus Cannon to rise from the bench and become a Super Bowl hero?

The coaches may know, but you cannot trust their evaluations. They play the media as much as they play anyone. Pardon me for shilling, but PFW and Lindy’s seem to be honest and hard-working.

As for the college scene, the must-buy is Phil Steele’s College Football Preview.   Never has the phrase too much information been so appropriate. There’s more history here than you can learn from most Texas high schools. Steele’s prose is burdened by lingo that reads like audibles: “VHT . . . PS#96 . . .”

It takes effort to plow through this thing, but if you’re interested in investing in college football predicting, Steele is worth the grind. He’s the best there is at tracking the transition from last season to this season.

He boasts of producing “the most accurate magazine for 19 years” and provides a page of analytics to support his case. When he ranked Texas A&M No. 31, the temperature rose a few degrees on Kevin Sumlin’s seat.

No surprise in picking Alabama No. 1, or Ohio State No. 2, or thinking national champion Clemson replaces Deshaun Watson well enough to be a top-10 team.

But Steele offers surprises elsewhere. He has the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, as his second-team All-America QB, behind the unwieldy, slow-delivering Sam Darnold of USC. Not that Jackson is losing skill, he’s losing most of his supporting cast.

In his list of top 44 QB’s – and contradicting his All-America selections, Steele ranks Jackson fifth, just behind Wyoming’s Josh Allen, who looks like an NFL linebacker – thick neck, 6-foot-5, 245 pounds. Though he completed only 56% last season, Allen is climbing on the draft boards. At this time he projects to be the first choice, as a junior, in the 2018 draft.

Steele presents enough data to establish each team’s preseason strength, and like Lindy’s on the NFL, he provides ample info on the second-teamers who could soon be starters.

It’s interesting that he sees a change in quarterbacking at College Station, with redshirt freshman Nick Starkel supplanting senior Jake Hubenak. Sumlin has refused to reveal his decision on QB1. But I have the feeling Phil Steele knows.


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