The Schein Nine  

 

Eric Berry, Jen Welter among NFL folks I'm rooting for in 2015

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In sports these days, the negative is just so ... well ... negative.

It's late summer. That gives the football fan reason to hope, reason to tune out the gloominess and distractions. So for the remainder of this column, forget about all the suspensions and appeals and generally draining storylines. Let's get into some unadulterated fandom!

People ask me all the time who I root for ... Well, here are nine NFL folks I'm partial to in 2015:

1) Eric Berry, strong safety, Kansas City Chiefs

Berry's return to the practice field Wednesday -- less than eight months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma -- kicked off the feel-good story of the NFL in 2015. His incredible perseverance -- fighting cancer and dealing with chemotherapy while training to maintain athletic shape -- is breathtaking and courageous to behold. Berry finished his chemo in May and was deemed cancer-free on June 22. But the road back to the gridiron certainly wasn't an easy one. The 26-year-old three-time Pro Bowler told reporters, "There would be times I would work out and I'd end up just crying after the workout just because, first of all, I couldn't believe that I made it through the workout, but I couldn't believe it was that hard."

It doesn't matter if you root for a Chiefs rival -- you have to cheer for Berry. I know I am. It's a story that's way bigger than football. I hope he remains healthy and can live his life to the fullest once again. And I hope he accomplishes brilliance in his return to the NFL.

2) Jen Welter, training camp/preseason intern, Arizona Cardinals

I love this story. The Cardinals added Welter to their coaching staff this week, making her the first female coach in NFL history. Welter will work with the team's inside linebackers in training camp and the preseason.

No surprise that it's Bruce Arians who is helping to break the gender barrier here. Arians is a wonderfully open thinker. He talked this spring about how a woman could -- and should -- coach in the NFL, and then he put his money where his mouth was.

Players don't care about gender, race or religion. They just want a good coach to make them better. Look at what's happening in the NBA. After spending the 2014-15 season as a full-time assistant on Gregg Popovich's staff, Becky Hammon just guided the San Antonio Spurs to a Summer League title. Phoenix Suns head coach Jeff Hornacek recently told me on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," that he wants Diana Taurasi to work with his team.

I'm not surprised that a class organization gave Welter the chance. And I'm fully rooting for her to succeed in this historic role.

3) Tony Romo, quarterback, Dallas Cowboys

I've argued forever that he's a top-10 quarterback, a top-notch talent. In case you hadn't noticed, Romo posted the highest passer rating in the league last year at 113.2, and he boasts the second-best career passer rating ever (97.6, behind only Aaron Rodgers' otherworldly 106.0). And don't buy into that popular narrative that Romo folds in the clutch. His career fourth-quarter passer rating? 102.0. The guy logged five game-winning drives last season alone, including one against the Detroit Lions in the playoffs.

All that said, I have to admit that I'm worried about Romo and the Cowboys sans DeMarco Murray. Romo enjoyed the most efficient -- and best -- year of his career with a balanced ground game at his disposal. Now, with Murray in Philly, I'm concerned about the 'Boys getting back to their pass-happy/flawed ways. Jerry Jones just waxed poetic about Joseph Randle, claiming the third-year pro has "No. 1 back" potential. We'll see about that ...

One thing I'm sure about: I'll be rooting hard for No. 9. Romo has been misunderstood and tarnished forever, even by many Cowboys fans.

4) Tyrann Mathieu, defensive back, Arizona Cardinals

Mathieu did a fantastic job turning his life around after the Cardinals stole him in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. He was right in the thick of the Defensive Rookie of the Year race in his debut season ... before tearing up his knee in December. Consequently, he played at less than 100 percent last season, but he says he feels better than ever entering the 2015 campaign.

"Honey Badger" has worked hard to get back into top-tier shape, furthering the already-great reputation he's established in Arizona. (Dog-lover side note: Dug what Mathieu did recently, making a video for PETA that showed -- through the Honey Badger's immense perspiration -- why you can't leave a dog in a hot car.) On the field, this guy's a versatile cover man who just plain makes plays.

As a player, as a person, as an example of maturation, Mathieu gets nothing but love from me. Over the last few years, he's made it very easy to pull for him.

5) Peyton Manning, quarterback, Denver Broncos

Until proven otherwise, I will operate under the assumption that this is the final season of Manning's spectacular career. I want him to go out like the legend he is. But frankly, I'm a tad skeptical.

Manning was nicked up down the stretch last season, and obviously this significantly affected his play. I'm fascinated to see how he holds up this season. Denver has legit questions on the offensive line. Plus, Manning is learning a new offense under Gary Kubiak, and he lost tight end Julius Thomas -- a mismatch nightmare -- to free agency.

I'm rooting for a final glorious ride into the sunset, as opposed to -- as I've referenced many times before -- a disastrous campaign akin to Willie Mays sadly stumbling around the outfield in Shea Stadium.

6) Gus Bradley, head coach, Jacksonville Jaguars

Making the Leap
Around The NFL counts down the players we believe will "Make the Leap" in 2015.

I love talking to this cat. The Jaguars coach is filled with energy and positivity. And I believe in the Bradley/Dave Caldwell tandem in Jacksonville.

But they need to start winning and showing progress.

There is no doubt Bradley can coach defense. But after an encouraging second half in 2013 led to higher expectations in 2014, Jacksonville fizzled last fall. It's go time. Time for young quarterback Blake Bortles to take a step forward, time for Bradley's defense to get after the opposing quarterback (which, obviously, will be tougher without No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler).

I'm a big Bradley fan, but this is a results-oriented business. I'm hoping he gets some positive ones -- soon.

7) Jadeveon Clowney, outside linebacker, Houston Texans

Texans coach Bill O'Brien came to a passionate defense of Clowney and his work ethic on my SiriusXM Radio show. Now I want to see last year's No. 1 overall pick prove his coach right.

Clowney entered the NFL as a generational talent, a physical freak, a truly special specimen. But his rookie year went by the wayside due to injuries and, eventually, microfracture knee surgery.

Clowney will begin training camp on the PUP list. No surprise there. But I want to see him maximize his potential. I want to see what the Texans' defense looks like with J.J. Watt and Clowney at full throttle. I want him to make O'Brien look good and become the superstar everyone anticipated he would be. It would all be so good for the league.

8) Todd Gurley, running back, St. Louis Rams

I felt so terrible for the electric Georgia running back when he suffered a season-ending knee injury last November. But that didn't stop the Rams from rightly plucking him with the 10th overall pick in April. And now he's opening training camp on the active roster. Awesome.

Gurley is a fantastic competitor and an elite talent. Called the best RB prospect since Adrian Peterson by many folks, Gurley has the potential to be a true game-changer in this league. I wanna see it.

9) NaVorro Bowman, inside linebacker, San Francisco 49ers

Well, at least Bowman didn't retire or leave town, like seemingly everyone else on the 49ers.

With so many key players and one of the best coaches in football gone, Bowman's healthy return is absolutely vital to this team in 2015.

A third-round pick in 2010, Bowman quickly established himself as one of the NFL's elite defenders, showcasing the versatility and ability of a true three-down linebacker. Then he tore up his knee in the 2013 NFC Championship Game and missed all of last season.

The Niners and their fans are desperate for good news. I'm hopeful Bowman regains his form with another Pro Bowl season.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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