A.J. HOFFMAN

UFC 228 preview: Woodley's return highlights card

Tyron Woodley returns to the Octagon. Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

UFC 228 is one of those rare double-title fight cards. Beyond that it is a little sparse on competitive matchups, but there are a few fighters who are definitely worth watching. 

The main event is for the welterweight title, featuring the return of Tyron Woodley. Woodley hasn’t been the most beloved champion, as he has had awkward fights (draws and wins) over Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia. He has gotten away from his power-punching ways and has become more of a counter-striker, which isn’t exactly fan-friendly. His opponent, Darren Till, also holds a win over Thompson. Till’s fight wasn’t much more exciting than Woodley’s fights with Wonderboy. Till’s biggest issue to date has been his inability to make weight. He wasn’t close on the scale in his last fight, and if he misses again, he not only loses his title shot, but also will probably be pushed up to 185 permanently. Till may be the more aggressive of the two fighters, but I think going five rounds after a tough weight cut will be problematic for him. 

The co-main is for the women’s strawweight title. Nicco Montano holds the title, and most people aren’t taking her seriously. She won her title on The Ultimate Fighter, but to her credit, was an underdog in all of her fights on the show. Her opponent, Valentina Schevchenko, is much more experienced, much more successful and has seen significantly better competition. Montano will likely be the biggest underdog champion in UFC history, likely to open up around +850. While that number doesn’t accurately show what a live underdog she can be, I have a hard time seeing her being more than a footnote on a long Schevchenko title run.  

My must-watch fighter on the card is Zabit Magomedsharipov. He has been a force since his arrival on the UFC roster, and was supposed to see an uptick in competition on this card, but Yair Rodriguez pulled out of the fight. He is a high-volume striker who also throws in strong grappling and submissions. There really isn’t much he hasn’t shown to be good at. Instead of Rodriguez, Brandon Davis gets the call. He got to the UFC through Dana White’s Contender Series, and this will already be his fourth fight of 2018. He is aggressive and unafraid, which should lead to, at a minimum, an exciting fight with Magomedsharipov. 

While we are talking about exciting fights, Niko Price and Abdul Razak Alhassan is the top contender for fight of the night. Both men are power punchers and proven finishers. In his last fight, Price finished Randy Brown with hammerfists from his back, easily one of the highlight moments of the year. Alhassan has finished nearly all his fights by first round knockout, though his one loss came when Omari Akhamedov survived that initial flurry. Price has proven hittable, as Alex Morono had him nearly finished in the first round, before eventually getting the knockout himself late. It would shock me if this fight went the distance. 

The prelims feature Tatiana Suarez, Jimmie Rivera, John Dodson and a solid matchup between Aljamain Sterling and Cody Stamann. Texan Geoff Neal also has a spot on the early prelims. 

PREDICTIONS:

Woodley def. Till by DEC

Schevchenko def. Montano by DEC

Magomedsharipov def. Davis by SUB

Kowalkiewicz def. Andrade by DEC

Alhassan def. Price by KO 

Suarez def. Esparza by DEC

Sterling def. Stamman by DEC

Dodson def. Rivera by DEC

Byrd def. Stewart by SUB

C. White def. Sanchez by KO

A. White def. Miller by TKO

Aldana def. Pudilova by DEC

Brooks def. Sanchez by DEC

Neal def. Camacho by DEC

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It's easy to blame Bill O'Brien for the Texans woes. He is a lousy GM, a below average play caller and his offense is boring, predictable and ineffective. Not once has he had a top 10 offense in the league. So he does not get a pass here.

But Deshaun Watson shouldn't, either.

Last year, Watson was in the MVP conversation entering the game in Baltimore. Four of the nine games he played before that, Watson had an ESPN Total QBR over 85, which is playing at an elite level.

Since that 41-7 debacle (where his QBR was 13.6), Watson has played 10 games. He has topped 85 just once (and barely - 85.6) in the win over the Patriots. While QBR is not the be all end all, it shows a trend. And before you blame the talent around him or the ridiculously stupid DeAndre Hopkins trade, eight of those games were with Hopkins in the lineup.

Over his last 10 games, Patrick Mahomes has done it five times (and just missed last week at 84.7). Lamar Jackson has done it six times in his last 10. Russell Wilson is six for his last 10. Dak Prescott? Three. Aaron Rodgers? Three. Ryan Tannehill? Three. Josh Allen? Two. Lamar Jackson led the league last year with an 83 for the season. Watson was sixth at 71.3. To be a top 10 quarterback, you had to average 64.1. In two games this season, Watson sits 20th, about where he was over the last six regular season games and two playoff games last year.

In essence, Deshaun Watson - who often gets compared to those players - is not on their level. Yes, O'Brien has a lot to do with it, but it's also time to start looking at Watson's performance and regression as an NFL quarterback.

In 2018, Watson had four such games. In 2017, four in six starts. And now ONE since that Baltimore game. In fact, he has topped 80 just once in that stretch, and 60 just three times.

What it tells us is Watson has been an average quarterback over his last 10 starts. The Texans invested heavily in an offensive line to protect him. They have added depth at WR but a net loss without Hopkins. Elite quarterbacks turn in performances like that roughly half the time. Getting more consistent has always been an issue for Watson. But since that Baltimore game, he has not been close. And he is being paid to be elite.

In the end, O'Brien is still the main culprit. He has hand picked all the players around Watson, he designed the offense, and he controls everything.

But it's time to quit giving Watson a pass. Right now, he is part of the problem.

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