Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 6: Brady-Rodgers, AFC over NFC & first look at MVP race

Every few weeks a weekend’s slate of NFL games sets off more conversations than a simple lead story can handle. Sunday was one of those weeks. Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers, the dominant NFC, the Steelers, the Titans, and more.

Here is a bullet-version of this week’s NFL Morning Madness, where I attempt to collect all my thoughts in a coherent format:

 The Tom Brady-Aaron Rodgers argument has always been somewhat silly. The Packers (4-1) perfect start to the season went undone in Tampa Bay, as both Brady and Rodgers’ performances couldn’t be more different. Rodgers posted a dismal 17.8 Total QBR, throwing two interceptions (one pick-six) as Green Bay failed to score any points after the first quarter. Conversely, Brady committed zero turnovers, posted a superb 96.1 QBR, and finally found his rhythm with old friend Rob Gronkowski (5 catches, 78 yards, TD).

Despite Brady’s effort, it was Tampa Bay’s underrated defense that sparked Tampa’s 38 unanswered points, and essentially, the win. Brady moved to 2-1 versus Rodgers, which seems ridiculous that they’ve only faced off three times since they’ve both been starters in the league since 2008.

But that’s just that. The great “debate” (which isn’t that much of a debate) has always been a difficult, and somewhat silly one that poses some similarities to two NBA player conversations — Lebron James vs Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan vs Shaquille O’Neal.

Like LeBron and Kobe, Brady and Rodgers have often been compared but they rarely faced off, seeing as they were in different conferences. And like LeBron and Kobe in 2009, the two QBs came dangerously close to facing off in a few Super Bowls (2014, 2016) but the all-time player showdown never materialized. Additionally, unlike LeBron and Kobe, who truly did face off when they played each other, we know Brady and Rodgers don’t exactly touch the field at the same time, unless one of them accidentally wandered onto the field drunk when their defense was on the field. Still, that doesn’t deter me from QB conversations, which I believe are the most fun debates in sports.

And in these debates, we tend to get silly when discussing reasons why one should be better. First off, the argument isn’t simply Brady’s six Super Bowl rings versus Rodgers’ one. Brady had stable help for 20 years in the form of greatest coach in sports history, a perfectly-balanced, when-to-meddle-if-at-all owner, and a cast of championship-caliber players for reasons both tangible and intangible. But at the same time, success in the form of six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances and 17 AFC East division titles signals a greatness in more than just a head coach, and the way some of those rings were one hosts Brady into a well-earned Michael Jordan-like stratosphere. Simply put, both Brady and Belichick are individually the best ever at what they do, no matter how much that triggers the gag reflex in sports fans outside of New England.

That’s not to say Rodgers isn’t one of the best QBs to ever play. He is. He’s probably one of the seven or best right now, and a seemingly successful twilight and stat-earning may very well thrust him into the top five. Heck, two more rings in his late 30’s would put him in the GOAT conversation with Brady, depending on how they were won (Peyton Manning and the 2015 Broncos are an example of critical thinking here).

But what Rodgers is now, is one of the best QBs ever (but not the GOAT, that’s Brady) and perhaps the most talented we’ve ever seen with maybe Dan Marino. But that was before Patrick Mahomes came along, who I think no holds that distinction.

Look, Rodgers can do things Brady simply can’t do. Him and Mahomes can run RPO’s, scramble, throw 60-yard touchdown throws across their body, and simply make some throws that Brady cannot make. And that’s all fine and well, but it doesn’t overcome Brady’s relentless consistency and success (now into his mid 40’s), dissecting coverages, fitting the ball into tight windows, elevating sub-par pass-catching groups, performing in the clutch, and most importantly, winning.

Rodgers’ throws may be sexier, but to bring back the second of two NBA player arguments, were Tim Duncan’s 30-point, 20-rebound performances less dominant than Shaq’s because he was fundamentally shooting short and mid-range shots (and hook shots) as opposed to dunking over his defenders? Of course not. And as much as I love Shaq, I have Duncan one spot above Shaq on my all-time NBA player rankings. But that conversation is for another day.

For now, let’s set the record straight on Brady-Rodgers, a fun conversation that never really was one, at least on a macro-level. And that’s okay. We have to talk about something on Mondays, don’t we?

 The AFC is significantly better than the NFC in 2020. Throughout my time closely following the NFL since 2000, the shift of conference power has teeter-tottered. The AFC ruled much of the 2000’s with 2004 being an NFC low point. That quickly changed in the 2010’s, which began with new-age teams such as the Jim Harbaugh 49ers, Legion-of-Boom Seahawks, and Cam Newton and Luke Keuchly Panthers leading the charge over an AFC that really featured just Tom Brady and Peyton Manning with a few solid Steeler seasons mixed in.

Now, it appears the AFC has re-taken charge. It’s not too surprising considering Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, the two best young quarterbacks in football, reside there. But teams such as the Steelers (5-0), Titans (5-0) and Bills (4-1) have single the change in power. Tennessee and Buffalo both feature QBs who can scramble, make plays and run unique offenses, one with a solid, old-school rushing attack (thanks Derrick Henry) and the other with a top-flight receiving core (Stefon Diggs!) and both feature up-and-coming, Top-5 or Top-10 coaches who are aggressive, confident and harbor athletic defenses. Both teams are tough and will continue to be. These sort of new-age teams remind me of the way the NFC had those Seattle and San Francisco teams that signaled a trend to a different era of football in the 2010’s, even though I think those NFC teams were on another level.

And for the NFC, it wouldn’t be fair without mentioning Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury, the injury-ridden Eagles and 49ers, and Drew Brees’ apparent decline in New Orleans, which all have limited the potential of the conference thus far.

But as of now, the NFC’s best teams are just two well-run franchises led by two of the three or four best QBs in football, but both teams have significant holes. We’re talking about Seattle and Green Bay, which you’ll see below, are the top two NFC teams in my Week 6 rankings, but both are behind four AFC teams.

Two of those teams, the Titans and Steelers, will face off on Sunday for the leading conference, the AFC. I’ll talk more about that here in this next bullet.

— Steelers-Titans on Sunday is 2020’s best matchup so far. Despite a travesty-laden 1:00 pm ET start for a game of this magnitude, most of the country should get a top-billing matchup between Pittsburgh (5-0) and Tennessee (5-0) next week, and if you don’t, you better at least have NFL RedZone. 

I still believe Pittsburgh is the best team in football, and that they proved that once more in their usual beatdown of the Browns at home on Sunday. Their defense is the best in football, period. Which makes for an excellent matchup next week as the Titans intend to most likely establish the run with Derrick Henry, the best running back in football by far. Then, Vrabel’s bunch would like to get into play-action passes to the likes of A.J. Brown and Jonnu Smith, which is a duo that is up there with the best WR-TE, one-two punches in the league.

But Ryan Tannehill will have to look away from middle-of-the-field protecter Minkah Fitzpatrick, who victimized Baker Mayfield for a pick-six in a robber assignment early on Sunday.

Then there’s the Steelers’ offense. Tennesee’s defense actually hasn’t been that good, and can be had. Big Ben Roethlisberger will need to buy time to find play-making rookie receiver Chase Claypool, tight end Eric Ebron, and others downfield.

Expect a heavy-hitting, high-energy and aggressively, somewhat-high-octane matchup next Sunday. My prediction? Steelers 26, Titans 24. 

NFL MVP RACE

Here is my first look at the NFL MVP race, which is a section for after Week 6, Week 9, Week 12 and every post-weekend column after Week 14.

1) Russell Wilson — I don’t think this is much of a conversation at this point. Wilson makes up for a lackluster defense and continuously creates plays, both designed and broken, and wins games in the clutch in extraordinary fashion. Additionally, for you “you’re not allowed to be the best if you only throw short passes!” buffoons, Wilson has been the best deep passer in football as well. Despite the bye this week, he has five more touchdown passes than any other QB (before tonight’s Chiefs-Bills tilt) and his passer rating (129.8) is roughly 15 points higher than the next man. Yeah, this isn’t that close.

2) Derrick Henry — Despite having the most rushing attempts (123) in football by a wide margin, Henry has averaged 4.8 yards per carry. He’s the only RB averaging more than 100 yards per game and he’s average 117.6. He has 99 more rushing yards than any other player, and the Titans have already had their bye. I know a running back will probably never win MVP again, so let me just say that Henry should at least be in the lead for OPOY. But I know if you wanted to place Wilson there, as well, I wouldn’t have too much of a qualm.

3) Ryan Tannehill — It’s hard to place these Titans in the race, and I’ll take all the flack for having Henry ahead of Tanny. I think both are about equal in terms of being the engine of the offense, but as the team’s quarterback, Tannehill bares the most burden. He’s won 13 of his past 15 games, and overall has been superb this season. But in last year’s playoff run, the team relied more on Henry, and when they relied on Tannehill, they faltered. That was just in January. I bet Tannehill remembers his critics from that period, and uses it as fuel. It’s worked thus far. He’s been awesome.

4) Patrick Mahomes/Lamar Jackson — Here is where I start to cheat. Yes, maybe I should have included the Titans guys in one slot, but I needed to give Tennessee some love. And yes, I’m adding two guys here in what will probably become the inaugural “they could win every year” slot reserved for the likes of LeBron James in the NBA and Bill Belichick in the coach of the year (or coach of the worst team that does OK) award. The voter fatigue slot, essentially. Mahomes and the Chiefs have been a bit sluggish overall, but their lighting up of the Ravens in Baltimore was something to see. Conversely, Jackson has been predictably great in almost every game once more, but his performance in the home loss to KC has caused some over-arching concern. He needs to win some of these bigger games.

5) Aaron Rodgers/Josh Allen — Here is where I continue to cheat. Yes, my Top 5 in the race is essentially a Top 7. Turn me in. Both Rodgers and Allen were nipping on Wilson’s heels before each put up a duck in their last contest. Going forward, Rodgers has much more of a chance of winning the award. Allen has a lot to work with, but Rodgers has played well in Year 2 in a Matt LaFluer’s QB-limiting (MVP-wise, somewhat) offense, and has done it mostly without Davante Adams, meaning essentially no one at WR.

Honorable mention: Aaron Donald, Ben Roethlisbeger, Tom Brady, Alvin Kamara, Stefon Diggs 

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (5-0) (Last week: 1). Still the best team in football, and maybe their next two games (at Titans, at Ravens) are a chance to prove that.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) (Last week: 3). Kansas City has another chance to come into an opposing AFC contender’s house and lay the smack down tonight.

3. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 5). Any non-playoff, non-marquee game for the Ravens is entering almost-meaningless territory. And not because those games don’t tell us anything, they do. Baltimore is damn good, but they’ll be judged on their bigger contests.

4. Tennessee Titans (5-0) (Last week: 6). If the Steelers have had the best start to the season, the Titans have had the most special. I was wrong about this team. Mike Vrabel and company are a super tough bunch. Football as it should be.

5. Seattle Seahawks (5-0) (Last week: 4). Russell Wilson is the the MVP, and he’ll need to continue to be just that for Seattle.

6. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 2). That loss sparked PTSD from last season’s bouts with San Francisco. Is this the same story for Green Bay?

7. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 7). The Bills have a chance to make statement tonight versus KC, and put the AFC East race in the back burner for now.

8. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 8). I’m still waiting for them to click on offense. They’ll need Michael Thomas back for that.

9. Chicago Bears (5-1) (Last week: 13). How in the world are they 5-1? Impressive.

10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2) (Last week: 14). Their defense is special, and the offense is just getting going. Gronk looked somewhat like Gronk finally and the re-addition of Chris Godwin to the offense was much-needed.

11. Los Angeles Rams (4-2) (Last week: 9). They are 2020 NFC Wild Card material at it’s purest level.

12. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 12). Being down 17 at home to the lowly Bengals is concerning, but credit to Phillip Rivers and company for the comeback win. Avoiding losses like that, while teams like the Patriots fall at home to the Broncos, will be huge when it comes to time to place AFC postseason field in January.

13. San Francisco 49ers (3-3) (Last week: NR). Jimmy Garoppolo finally found his groove, just in time for a return to New England next Sunday.

14. Cleveland Browns (4-2) (Last week: 11). Same ole Browns? That was ugly. Baker Mayfield can’t seem to get it going. They can run the ball, but what happens when they can’t? Will we always see an ugly performance like that? To take the next step, they need to be more consistent through the air.

15. New England Patriots (2-3) (Last week: 10). That was perhaps their worst loss since the Monday night massacre of 2014 in Kansas City that sparked “On to Cincinnati.” All of the sudden, they are in trouble. I still think this is a wild card team, and I still think Cam Newton is the man, but they desperately need some talent at wide receiver and tight end.

16. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 15). We’ll keep them here for now. The AFC is such a deep conference this season.

Next up: Miami, Carolina, Dallas, Arizona, Denver

Chase Claypool vs Eagles

NFL Friday Morning Madness Week 5: Steelers are league’s best team thus far

In the most unconventional NFL season in history, the league managed to get through its first three weeks of the regular season almost unscathed. That quickly turned when COVID-19 predictably infiltrated some of the league’s clubs. First, it was the Tennessee Titans, whose situation turned rampant, eventually forcing the NFL to play schedule-altering dominoes with ramifications weeks down the line. Then, Cam Newton, and later, Stephon Gilmore, marked the NFL’s first two star-studded, in-season cases of the year.

Since then, a few other cases have risen among a few teams, with both players and staff testing positive. Today, the Colts shut down their facility due to several positive cases. Yesterday, the Falcons shut down their facilities for the same reason.

Pandemic protocol and overall handling of the virus aside, the league has been able to successfully alter their schedule thus far — at least for them — but that will become increasingly difficult moving forward.

Now, without further ado, here is my extended look at each of the league’s top 16 teams (in my opinion) after five weeks, in power rankings form.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-0) (Last week: 4).

Let it be known that the Steelers are the best team in the NFL after five weeks, and that they will do damage in January’s AFC postseason field.

Pittsburgh has the NFL’s best defense — no, not statistically, at the moment, but they are the best defensive unit in football going forward — equipped with stars at all three levels, and several other solid complimentary players helping to form a cohesive unit.

Cameron Heyward has enjoyed a stellar twilight to his career as a big-bodied presence in the interior of the team’s Nickel 2-4-5 scheme. Playing next to nose-tackle type defenders like Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, Heyward helps occupy offensive lineman up front for the likes of Devin Bush at off-ball linebacker, and the terrorizing EDGE combo of T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the outside.

T.J. Watt
T.J. Watt will be in the mix for the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award once again in 2020. (Screenshot: NFL on CBS)

Watt, who rightly finished second in defensive player of the year voting last season, is the top-ranked EDGE defender (92.4 grade) by Pro Football Focus thus far. He’s continued his mastery as both a pass rusher and run stuffer, while also helping out in coverage.

Then there’s the secondary, which has solid players in cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton (slot) as well as safety Terrell Edmunds. But it’s safety Minkah Fitzpatrick who is the best in the backend. The former Miami Dolphin has been brilliant as a safety and nickel back in the Steelers’ scheme.

But we knew they’d have one of the NFL’s best defenses. Last season, Pittsburgh went 9-7 and nearly made the playoffs despite inept play from QBs Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. All credit goes to Mike Tomlin, his coaching staff, and the defense there.

Now, Ben Roethlisberger, 38, has returned looking more slender and energized than he has since his early years, helping to lead an offensive unit that has a top-tier offensive line and yet another up-and-coming wide receiver group.

The Steelers are simply the kings of pro football when it comes to scouting, drafting and developing wide receivers. From first-round talents such as Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes, to mid and late-round receivers like Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh continuously breeds top-end wide receivers.

Chase Claypool, the Steelers’ second-round pick last Spring, looks like their next great pass catcher. The 6-foot-4, 230 pound looks like a receiver in a tight end’s body. Claypool scored four touchdowns versus the Eagles on Sunday, with a penalty negating a possible fifth score.

He joins JuJu Smith-Schuster, Dionte Johnson, Eric Ebron and James Conner as the team’s leading men in the skill position slots. If Claypool is the real deal as an X-type receiver — and it appears he is — the Steelers have enough fire power on offense to compliment their defense in matchups against some of the AFC’s best teams — Kansas City, Baltimore, Tennessee, etc.

And on top of that, they have a two-time Super Bowl-winning QB to lead them, giving them a sense of comfort that teams like the Titans, Bills, and even Ravens don’t have come January. The point is, Pittsburgh can hold their own with the Chiefs.

With a brutal three-game schedule ahead (vs Browns, at Titans, at Ravens), it’s tough to imagine Pittsburgh staying undefeated, meaning some will right them off, especially if they drop two of three, but this will be an awakening from the NFL public when Pittsburgh gets an increase in TV exposure with these upcoming games. Soon enough, the Steelers will have more than just a few analysts buzzing, they’ll be known as a top tier team by the public and casual fans, too.

2. Green Bay Packers (4-0) (Last week: 2).

Aaron Rodgers has been terrific, and is squarely in second place in the way-too-early-MVP race behind Russell Wilson. It looks like they’ll get Davante Adams back this week, which is big news because their game in Tampa Bay may turn into a shootout. These are the games the Packers will have to steal if they are to get the NFC’s No. 1 seed.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (4-1) (Last week: 1). Whether it be their offensive performances in wins over the Chargers and Patriots, or last week’s defensive meltdown versus the Raiders, the Chiefs have had a sluggish start to the season by their standards. But we know they’ll be fine come playoff time, with their beatdown of the Ravens in Baltimore as proof of their always-burgeoning, tangible potential.

Now, they add Le’Veon Bell to compliment rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the backfield. The rookie back has been a wonderful addition, and should remain a top option, but it’s easy to imagine Bell with a few 20-plus carry games in January in cold weather games versus tough AFC defenses. Although Bell may not regain his Pittsburgh form, he is definitely one of the NFL’s top 10 running backs, even now. He’s just one more weapon that opposing defenses will have to game plan for when facing KC.

4. Seattle Seahawks (5-0) (Last week: 3). Russell Wilson is the league’s top story through five weeks. The Seahawks continue to play in extraordinarily weird and exciting contests, and they continue to pull them out. The Vikings were Seattle’s latest victim, when Wilson drove the Seahawks 94 yards in the final two minutes, converting two fourth downs to D.K. Metcalf in the process, to stun Minnesota on a game-winning touchdown pass.

The aforementioned Metcalf is in line to become the next super-specimen at the X-receiver position, joining the likes of Randy Moss, Calvin Johnson, Julio Jones and others before him. Then there’s Tyler Lockett in the slot and a rushing attack that’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry thus far.

But their success lies with Wilson, an MVP-frontrunner who will need to continue his pace to offset the Seahawks’ sneaky-bad defense, which may eventually be their undoing.

5. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). 

The Ravens beat up the bad teams every time. That’s a sign of a good team. But to be great, they’ll need to beat the good or great teams more often than not. Now that Pittsburgh is once again a real threat in the AFC, all eyes will be on Steelers-Ravens in Week 8, an AFC North heavyweight battle that begins a tougher stretch of games for Baltimore. Until then, let’s see how many mediocre teams the Ravens can power through before their next big game.

6. Tennessee Titans (4-0) (Last week: 7). 

That was a helluva win for the Titans after all that has happened with them over the past few weeks. They barely even got to practice, yet came out hot and destroyed the Bills. Mike Vrabel is a solid coach who you can always trust will have his team emotionally ready.

7. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 5). 

That was a train wreck loss for Josh Allen and the Bills, but on a Tuesday night game on the road versus the undefeated Titans, some is forgiven. Buffalo returns home to play the Chiefs in a few days in another weird time slot during dinner time on Monday. We should judge the Bills more off of this upcoming game than the one that transpired on Tuesday.

8. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 8). 

The Saints haven’t looked right yet, and as long as Michael Thomas remains out (this time because of disciplinary issues), that likely won’t change. But Thomas will return, the offense will get rolling despite Drew Brees’ diminished arm strength, and the defense will at least get a smidge better, because there is too much talent for them not to. Hold judgement on these Saints for a few more weeks.

9. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 11). 

Sean McVay’s club has fallen under the radar thus far as a tough 4-1 bunch. A silly 4th-down pass interference call in Buffalo a few weeks ago negated a miraculous 28-3 comeback that would have the Rams sitting at 5-0 right now.

Salary cap malpractice aside, the Rams have done an OK job of navigating around some of their bad contracts over the last few years (Todd Gurley, etc.) to boast a team with superstars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey on defense, and a solid offense ripe with underrated contributors picked outside of the first round. Their running back-by-committee approach isn’t sexy, but it has been effective, paving the way for Jared Goff to recapture success on bootlegs and play-action passing looks.

The 2020 rookie wide receiver class already looks like one of the best we’ve ever seen, and that’s without many talking about Van Jefferson, who should be a key piece for the Rams for years to come.

10. New England Patriots (2-2) (Last week: 9).

The Patriots are a work in progress, as we’ve only seen Cam Newton at the helm for three weeks, and the defense is still navigating through their somewhat-new personnel in the front seven. Bill Belichick usually gets his defense going after four to six games to start the season, and that can be expected again this year. They still have the NFL’s best secondary (we saw them in action versus Mahomes and the Chiefs) and up front, guys like Deatrich Wise Jr. and Chase Winovich appear to be making the jump to solid players.

11. Cleveland Browns (4-1) (Last week: 13).

Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr. and the passing game still seems a bit off, but no one is questioning the rushing attack, which has been near unstoppable thus far. The combo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt will continue to bludgeon most defenses as the season progresses, and Myles Garrett has fully evolved into a superstar on defense. They have the talent, but will need to continue to execute.

12. Indianapolis Colts (3-2) (Last week: 10). 

The Colts remain solid on defense and in the trenches overall, with their top-flight offensive line. But as expected, Phillip Rivers continues the trend of inconsistent quarterback play that has plagued the team over the last few years when Andrew Luck was out, or now, retired. They will be firmly in the mix for an AFC Wild Card spot, but they will likely be looking elsewhere at QB in 2021.

13. Chicago Bears (4-1) (Last week: 16). 

Like the Rams, the Bears are a pretty quiet 4-1. Even Nick Foles stepping in to win two of three for Chicago, the offense still struggles. To be fair to Foles, his first two Chicago stars have come against the Colts and Bucs, two of the NFL’s top defenses, but can anyone see them turning into a 30-plus scoring team consistently when they need to be? I actually can’t rule it out, since I like the fit of Foles in Matt Nagy’s offense. Still, it seems unlikely.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-2) (Last week: 12). 

Last week’s loss in Chicago was rough. Tom Brady deserves blame, but not as much as Bruce Arians, who can’t seem to bottle up the Buccaneers’ penalty problem. It’s the discipline instilled in his teammates that Brady likely misses the most from the Patriots. What he enjoys in Tampa is a superb pass-catching cast that has yet to see Mike Evans and Chris Godwin healthy and on the field at the same time. They can shut up a few critics with a home win over Green Bay on Sunday. I think they get it done.

15. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: NR).

Jon Gruden’s patience with Derek Carr, and successful scouting of offensive talent (Josh Jacobs, Henry Ruggs, Hunter Renfrow, Darren Waller) not only has the Raiders in the mix with a underrated and effective offense but also signals what could be an improbable victory in the Khalil Mack trade. Maybe not, but either way, it’s hard to question Gruden now.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: NR).

The Panthers have won three straight, which is a testament to new head coach Matt Rhule and Teddy Bridgewater. Without Christian McCaffrey at running back, the team refused to shy away from their ground attack, placing their trust in Mike Davis, and when they do throw the ball, D.J. Moore and Robby Anderson form an underrated receiver duo. They are predictably bad on defense but are much better than we all thought there with young players such as Brian Burns and others showing potential. They are probably not a playoff team, but they also aren’t a team primed to pick in the Top 5 of this upcoming draft, either. There’s hope for the future in Carolina.

Next up: Dallas, Arizona, Miami, San Francisco, L.A. Chargers

Arrowhead Stadium

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 4: COVID-19 issues first disruption

This space is normally occupied for the biggest story or game from the weekend’s slate. That won’t change this week.

The NFL dealt with its first batch of go-with-the-flow, hectic adjustments to their regular season schedule due to COVID-19 this week.

The circumventing seems to have worked thus far, but it would be a miracle if multiple scenarios similar to this week’s don’t pop up again. How will the NFL deal with it then?

Without a convenient plan such as moving the Steelers-Titans bout from this weekend to Week 7 (because of the teams bye weeks, etc.), to what drastic measures will the league turn to, to have a semblance of a normal season?

Will there be a Week 18? An extra week added at the end of the season for a few make-up games. Would the Super Bowl be pushed back until March? What about a 12-game regular season for all if more franchise-rampant cases such as the Titans pop up?

Not all cases will be as easy to deal with as the Patriots’ from this weekend. Just quarterback Cam Newton has tested positive for the virus (for now), and he is yet to show symptoms.

The rest of the team has taken a couple batches of tests — including after last night’s bout in Kansas City — and all results have came back negative. But with the incubation period reportedly being up to 14 days in some cases, how can we be sure that some Patriots players or staff members aren’t positive right now, and are simply getting false negatives?

There is so much at stake (family members of players, staff members, coaches or other with positive tests) in assuming that players are a 100-percent, good-to-go case for playing in these games.

The league already has set a precedent in having the Patriots and Chiefs play on Monday.

So far, the league has done an OK job at least in handling the few known cases they’ve had, but they certainly need to be more careful. The decision to play the game in Kansas City last night was not the wisest. 

The NFL has found a way to keep a 16-game regular season in tact after their first battle with COVID-19, but each ensuing battle won’t be won so easily. And they most likely will be ensuing, but we should all hope for the miracle that they won’t.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (4-0) (Last week: 1). The Chiefs have had some sluggish struggles on offense in two of their last three games, but they’ve won them both. Honestly, this is a scary thought for the rest of the league. We know they’ll regain focus as the season goes on, or when a major matchup awaits, like their beatdown win over the Ravens in Baltimore in Week 3.

2. Green Bay Packers (4-0) (Last week: 2). With all the talk of Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, Aaron Rodgers’ incredible month has partly slipped under the radar. It looks like he’s acclimated to Matt LaFleur’s system.

3. Seattle Seahawks (4-0) (Last week: 3). It’s always tough to get up for an early road game after you’ve traveled from the opposite corner of the country, and thee Miami Dolphins are a pretty tough bunch. That was a good win for the Seahawks. This team has some holes on defense, but this is Russell Wilson’s best chance to get back to the Super Bowl in over five years.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) (Last week: 4). The Steelers get their bye earlier than expected after COVID-19 ran rampant through the Titans organization. They still seem like the sleeper team in the AFC, and they aren’t really a sleeper, people just aren’t talking about them enough.

5. Buffalo Bills (4-0) (Last week: 6).  Josh Allen is playing the QB position on a level field only occupied by the likes of Wilson, Mahomes and Rodgers right now. This talented Bills team is solid.

6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) (Last week: 5). That was a nice bounce-back win in Washington, but we know the Ravens are solid. They’ll now be judged on how they fare versus the AFC’s top teams.

7. Tennessee Titans (3-0) (Last week: 8). Their big bout with the Steelers has been postponed, so we’ll have to push back that big-time litmus test for this bunch. Luckily for us analysts, another awaits this week as the Bills come to Nashville. 

8. New Orleans Saints (2-2) (Last week: 9). The Saints still have all the talent in the world, and although his arm talent has greatly diminished to perhaps its last breath, Drew Brees can still win games. The Saints will be in the NFC mix come December and January.

9. New England Patriots (2-2) (Last week: 7). The Patriots have technically lost their last two meetings with the Chiefs, but it sure seems like Bill Belichick has won the battles of his defense pitted against the Andy Reid-Patrick Mahomes offense. Pittsburgh or Buffalo may ultimately fill this role, but this New England team — led by Belichick and Cam Newton — is the squad that KC would likely most not want to see in January.

10. Indianapolis Colts (3-1) (Last week: 13). Their defense is right with Pittsburgh’s as tthe league’s best, and Phillip Rivers is steadily improving. They are a solid, tough bunch. GM Chris Ballard has done an unbelievable job over these past few seasons. But Indy will live and die with 38-year-old Rivers at QB. Will he be enough to make them a contender? They have the roster to be just that.

11. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 10). The Rams obviously have some talent (Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey, etc.) but they kind of seem just…there. It’s too early to get a sweeping read on them.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) (Last week: 12). Anytime NFL Twitter eagerly assumes Tom Brady is cooked, he cooks defenses. At one point, he went 14-for-15 for 225 yards and four scoring strikes during the Buccaneers’ 17-point comeback victory over the Chargers.

13. Cleveland Browns (3-1) (Last week: NR). It was the three-touchdown day from Odell Beckham Jr. that garnered the most headlines, but the Browns won this game behind an absurd 307-yard rushing day, and that’s without Nick Chubb, who left with an injury after six carries. The Shanahan-like, outside-zone-heavy rushing scheme that Kevin Stefanski has brought to Cleveland is working. With Chubb out at least a few weeks, the Browns should be fine leaning on Kareem Hunt.

14. Philadelphia Eagles (1-2-1) (Last week: NR). This may seem like a silly jump for the Eagles after an ugly road win in San Francisco over the injury-ridden 49ers, but Philadelphia is injury-ridden themselves, dealing with emergency options at wide receiver and along the offensive line. Carson Wentz deserves some criticism, but look what he is working with. The talented Cowboys will surely get things going soon, so Philly will need to improve even to win the lowly NFC East.

15. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) (Last week: 11). Injuries are derailing their season. Had this team been healthy, they would have been in the mix in the NFC, even with the vaunted Super Bowl loser’s curse. But it seems the curse is alive and well, unfortunately.

16. Chicago Bears (3-1) (Last week: 15). Maybe Nick Foles isn’t the answer? That was an ugly home loss for a team that looks nothing like a 3-1 club.

Next up: Las Vegas, Dallas, Carolina, Arizona, L.A. Chargers

Lamar Jackson — 2020 vs Chiefs

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 3: Ravens’ big-game issues conjured up by Chiefs

Three plays into the most hyped-up Monday Night Football matchup in years, Lamar Jackson was doing Jackson things — taking off and scampering down the sideline for a 30-yard run. Five plays later, the Ravens had a red zone first down, and were ready to begin what should have been a demon-exercising night with an emphatic touchdown drive.

They settled for a field goal. Then, Patrick Mahomes happened. 517 total yards, five total touchdowns and an absurd 97.7 Total QBR helped lead the Chiefs to a 34-20 win in Baltimore that resembled just about every other win by Kansas City in the Mahomes era.

This is nothing for these Chiefs, who are clearly not only the defending Super Bowl champions, but the league’s front runner once more after three weeks.

Who will stop the Chiefs? Will it be Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on Sunday?

We know it won’t be the Ravens. Not until they fix their big game woes.

Jackson’s Ravens aren’t just 0-3 versus the Chiefs, they are also 0-10 when trailing at halftime since Jackson was drafted in 2018. Jackson mounted somewhat of a comeback on Monday, and drops by tight end Mark Andrews and others plagued him, but the reigning unanimous NFL MVP’s numbers — 97 passing yards on 28 attempts (3.8 average) — in a game that was going to need much more than that through the air is telling.

It’s not all on Jackson. Baltimore has a good group of tight ends, and Marquise Brown is a capable deep threat, but after that the Ravens are relying on the likes of Willie Snead and Myles Boykin on the perimeter.

Similar to what the Titans did in Jackson’s most devastating defeat last January, the Chiefs began flooding the line of scrimmage, forcing Jackson to throw beyond the numbers on the outside to beat them. Jackson scrambled for some good gains, but he also scrambled when he didn’t need to.

The Ravens’ chaotic what-do-we-do-now offense was met by a QB who calmly leads a 500-yard offensive day like it’s nothing, even in big games. This wasn’t necessarily a big game for the Chiefs. It was for the Ravens. And Baltimore emphatically fell short in the spotlight yet again.

The Ravens will be in the postseason in January, where they’ll once again be met by a stellar opponent on a national stage in a must-win contest. What then?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (3-0) (Last week: 1). Can they be stopped? This offense is literally unfair. Let’s see how Bill Belichick and the Patriots fare this Sunday.

2. Green Bay Packers (3-0) (Last week: 4). With guys like Russell Wilson and Josh Allen stealing the headlines, it’s easy to overlook how special Aaron Rodgers has been through three games — 9 TD, 0 INT, 90.6 Total QBR. The Packers are quietly the best team in the NFC as we enter October. Of course, that doesn’t mean much, but it’s a start. Just think of how we viewed Rodgers and the Packers just two months ago?

3. Seattle Seahawks (3-0) (Last week: 5). The defense is more of a problem then people are realizing, but who cares when Russell Wilson — 14 TD, 1 INT (not his fault), 76.7 completion percentage — is playing as is. It’s too early, but it feels like this could be the year Wilson gets back to the Super Bowl.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-0) (Last week: 6). Ben Roethlisbeger looks pretty spry for an oft-injured, 38-year-old QB coming off a season-ending injury. And then there’s the defense. Don’t sleep on the Steelers.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 2). In case you missed the lead at the beginning of the column — Lamar’s Ravens are not only 0-3 versus Mahomes’ Chiefs, Baltimore is also 0-10 when trailing at halftime since Jackson was drafted in 2018. When they fall behind, they have trouble winning through the air. Jackson is improving as a passer, so this isn’t a complete indictment on him. They need help at the WR position. This loss certainly hurt their morale. They’re too good not to be in the mix come January, but there’s a pattern with the Jackson-era Ravens thus far. Can they win in January? They have much to prove.

6. Buffalo Bills (3-0) (Last week: 7). Josh Allen has been otherworldly these first three weeks. The Bills seem eager to prove themselves as contenders in the early going.

7. New England Patriots (2-1) (Last week: 9). Cam Newton and the defense got off to a rocky start, and then all of the sudden the Patriots are doing Patriots things again — forcing turnovers, scoring defensive touchdowns, rushing for 250 yards — even without Tom Brady. The fact that New England could blow the Raiders out that way on a B-/C+ day for them says something. They’ll need an A+/A effort to win in Kansas City next week. They can do it.

8. Tennessee Titans (3-0) (Last week: 12). Three weeks, three game-winning field goals for kicker Stephen Gostkowski. The Titans are proving to be one of the league’s toughest teams once again — both physically and mentally.

9. New Orleans Saints (1-2) (Last week: 3). It’s becoming clear this should be Drew Brees’ final season, but we can’t rule them out just yet. Not with all that talent. Let’s wait until Michael Thomas comes back into the fold.

10. Los Angeles Rams (2-1) (Last week: 8). They should have won the game in Buffalo, but anytime you go down 28-3, there’s room for concern. They are a good-but-not-great team.

11. San Francisco 49ers (2-1) (Last week: 11). The 49ers are about as injury depleted as it gets. Kyle Shanahan is one of the NFL’s top coaches, so maybe they stay afloat until Jimmy Garoppolo returns to give them some sense of normalcy. It just doesn’t feel like their year, but they won’t go down without a fight.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) (Last week: 14). The offense is slowly gaining steam. Tom Brady looked good in Denver. But they’ve beaten up on bad or severely injured teams these past two weeks. We’ll pass on any rash judgements on their season for now.

13. Indianapolis Colts (2-1) (Last week: NR). Phillip Rivers has been much better these past two weeks. The Colts have one of the league’s better rosters. If Rivers isn’t completely washed, they have a good shot at an AFC wild card spot. They’ll be in the mix.

14. Arizona Cardinals (2-1) (Last week: 10). The Lions are tough, so this wasn’t as bad a loss as it seems, but it was telling. Three more touchdowns by Kyle Murray were with met with three ugly turnovers. Let’s see how they respond after a bad loss.

15. Chicago Bears (3-0) (Last week: 16). The Bears are definitely the flimsiest 3-0 team in the league, but with Nick Foles now at the helm, perhaps anything is possible.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-2) (Last week: 13). The offense showed up to the party late the last two weeks. It’s clear they have the talent to get going as the season progresses with that star-studded unit. Their defense, however, has been a major disappointment.

Next up: Las Vegas, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, L.A. Chargers

Russell Wilson — Week 2 vs. Patriots

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 2: Wilson or Mahomes? Plus, Cam deserves praise despite loss

Leading 35-23 with just over four minutes to play, it appeared the Seattle Seahawks would skate by the New England Patriots behind five touchdown passes from Russell Wilson.

A bit over four game-time minutes later, Cam Newton and the Patriots were a yard out from a near incomprehensible 36-35 comeback victory before the Bobby Wagner and the Seahawks defense stuffed the 6-foo-5, 250-pound Newton on a play that has been near unstoppable for the Patriots through two games — QB Power.

Another Seattle-New England thriller. Another goal line stand involving the two most prominent teams of the past decade, in the first year of the new one.

Wilson improved to 3-1 in his career versus Bill Belichick’s squad, and is dangerously close to 4-0 save for an incredible Malcolm Butler interception in Super Bowl 49. Wilson could also very well be 0-4, as each game involved incredible completed or near comebacks, and came down to the wire.

One thing is for certain, Wilson has played well enough to win each of those games versus Belichick and New England, which is a feat in itself.

Earlier this week, Belichick mentioned Wilson was underrated by the media and the fans, and said “I don’t see anyone better.” Belichick’s theory may have been confirmed after the loss.

“They have a great quarterback,” Belichick told the media after the game. “Glad we only have to play him once every four years.”

The initial snapshot is Wilson’s absurd ability to play the quarterback position. He throws the prettiest deep ball in the league. He’s mentally tough, astute, highly accurate and just so happens to be the most elusive quarterback in history when it comes to controlled chaos.

But there are many takeaways from this incredible game, and I’ll list the two most important ones here, starting with a bigger picture take on the Seahawks’ franchise QB.

1. Is Russell Wilson the NFL’s best player? 

The question should be pegged as: “Is Wilson better than Patrick Mahomes?”

Many plausibly — including me in my recent Top 100 Players list — list Mahomes as the greatest QB and player in football, but there’s a arguable defense for Wilson, who now plays with a few prime offensive weapons (D.K. Metcalf, Tyler Lockett, etc.) and a solid running game, but nowhere near the offensive firepower that Mahomes has.

Wilson has had a better start to this season — 11 incompletions, NINE touchdown passes — than Mahomes, despite the fact that Kansas City boasts the best offensive coach of this century (Andy Reid), the most unique deep threat in league history (Tyreek Hill) and possibly the best route runner at tight end (Travis Kelce) the game has ever seen. Add in a solid offensive line, and new weapon Clyde Edwards-Helaire at running back, and it’s no secret that Mahomes’ all-time talent is maximized behind a video-game like offense.

Mahomes deserves all the praise he gets. He hasn’t played a fully bad game in his career through two-plus seasons of starting in the league. He’s already won an NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP before the age of 25 (he turned 25 days ago) and just like he did versus the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, Mahomes is 6-0 (including playoffs) since 2019 when the Chiefs are trailing by 10 or more points at any time during a game.

Rookie Justin Herbert was a surprise start for the Chargers. He was poised early, and showcased his rocket arm and passing ability to help the Chargers get out to a 17-6 lead over the defending champs. Nick Bosa and the Chargers had success pressuring Mahomes, which led to an off game for a period before the KC phenom took the game over late, punishing Herbert and the Chargers for failing to score a touchdown instead of a field goal late in the 4th, and then punting in OT on a fourth-and-short. Harrison Butker’s onion-filed 58-yard, game-winning field goal gave the Chiefs a 23-20 overtime road win.

Patrick Mahomes — Week 2 vs. Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes readies for an incredible 57-yard touchdown throw to Tyreek Hill. (Screenshot: The Checkdown)

Mahomes and Reid are a match made in heaven. The Chiefs have tailored this team around his strengths, bolstering up the offense and doing what they can behind two or three solid defensive players. This team has thrived off of supplying Mahomes with talent to win by producing points, and it’s worked out thus far.

Wilson and Pete Carroll are a good match themselves, but Carroll’s philosophy to over-establish the run, and tendencies to do so on early downs have somewhat limited Wilson over the past few seasons, despite Seattle’s success on the ground. After switching up that strategy to “let Russ cook” last week, Seattle somewhat returned to the running game on Sunday, with a 30-to-28 run-pass ratio, but Wilson connected on 21 of 28 passes for an aforementioned five scores, effectively winning the game.

Despite the addition of Jamal Adams on defense, Wilson and Seattle were once again reminded that the is not the Legion-of-Boom defense, as Newton picked apart the Seahawks late with an unheralded supporting cast. The Patriots were one yard out from a devastating defeat that would have certainly not been on Wilson — a type of game that has plagued Seattle somewhat in the post-LOB era.

But Wilson has helped Seattle stay afloat the past few seasons by channeling his Tom Brady (think 2006 and 2013 Patriots seasons) and Aaron Rodgers (think 2016 Packers season) and making up for a lack of production in other areas.

He doesn’t have the weapons Mahomes has, but he’s been a top-five quarterback since his ghastly Super Bowl 49 mistake, which should be remembered as a fine play by Butler as opposed to Wilson or Carroll’s gaffe.

In a powerhouse NFC West, Seattle will need to win more of these types of contests versus close teams as the year moves along. He has a bit more pressure than Mahomes does in Kansas City and the so-so AFC West.

Mahomes’ incredible start to his career makes it impossible to just thrust him out of the top spot. The Chiefs QB is yet to play a bad game. The proof is there.

But Wilson is right there with him, with a bevy of QB-centered wins and a Super Bowl ring of his own. And if you wanted to make the case that in any team/personnel situation, that Wilson would be your safest bet, I’m not sure I’d argue.

2. The Cam Newton-New England marriage has gracefully arrived

For all the success that Newton has had on the ground through two games with the Patriots, New England was one yard out from one of the more memorable comebacks in perhaps NFL regular season history, and a QB Power call to the left side fell short.

A bad time for the Patriots offensive line to lose the pushing battle, or a fine time for the Seahawks’ defense to step up for Seattle. Whatever you want to call it, it stings for Newton, who threw for 312 of his 397 passing yards in the second half, and nearly led New England to an improbably victory.

“This is a disgusting taste in my mouth,” Newton told the media after the loss.

“It’s humbling in that situation to have the ball in my hands. I just need to deliver.”

But the bigger picture suggests Newton did deliver. The former NFL MVP has put the Patriots back on the map as an AFC contender, despite a loss that saw the league’s best secondary resemble Swiss cheese through a shredder, if that shredder was named Russell Wilson.

Between the defense’s performance, Newton’s offensive skill position arsenal, and the late deficit, the former NFL MVP calmly kept his cool, delivering downfield strike after strike to keep his team in the game.

Three of his receivers put up career-best performances in terms of statistical box scores, including 34-year-old Julian Edelman, who hauled in eight catches for 179 yards.

Newton and Edelman almost connected on the game-wining score with nine seconds to play, but Edelman couldn’t get his hands on Newton’s perfectly placed laser.

Asked by the media why he kept targeting Edelman late, Newton responded: “He’s Jules. That’s why.”

Newton has clearly built a rapport with Edelman and others, including players and coaches, on the Patriots.

This morning, on ESPN’s Get Up, Mike Greenberg and former NFL safety Ryan Clark suggested the Patriots are better off with Newton than Tom Brady with this current set of offensive personnel. Considering this is something I said last week, I obviously tend to agree.

Newton has gotten some production out of N’Keal Harry (eight catches, 72 yards) and former Carolina Panther teammate Damiere Byrd (six catches, 72 yards) and should only build off of this performance.

To be stopped at the goal line in the midst of an incredible comeback victory will cause some pain. Just ask Russell Wilson and Seattle, who suffered the same fate versus the Patriots on a bigger stage over five years ago.

But there’s much to be optimistic about in Foxboro after Sunday’s performance.

The Patriots will return home, putting this loss behind them, and perhaps, the game of football momentarily. The game seems unimportant when placed next to the tragedy that struck running back James White, a surprise inactive on Sunday after we learned of the passing of his father — and critical condition of his mother — after a car accident in Miami yesterday — an unspeakable tragedy.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (2-0) (Last week: 1). The Chargers did everyting right through three quarters, but it was apparent that they would need more than 20 points in regulation to stave off Mahomes and the Chiefs. The Chargers scored 20, and it predictably wasn’t enough. Another comeback for the incredible young superstar QB. Next week — Kansas City at Baltimore on Monday night. Oh boy.

2. Baltimore Ravens (2-0) (Last week: 2). The Ravens are a more complete team than the Chiefs, but it’s Mahomes and Kansas City who are not only the defending champs, but 2-0 in their meetings with Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. This game may not only settle the race for home field advantage in the AFC, it may boost or cripple Jackson’s confidence in big games. At face value, it isn’t necessarily a must win for either team, but mentally for Jackson and Baltimore, it sort of seems like it, even in Week 3.

3. New Orleans Saints (1-0) (Last week: 3). If you’re a Saints fan, you’d like to see Drew Brees look more comfortable tonight in Las Vegas than he did versus Tampa Bay last week. It’ll be tough to do that without Michael Thomas, though.

4. Green Bay Packers (2-0) (Last week: 4). Aaron Rodgers has been red hot through two weeks. Jordan Love, who?

5. Seattle Seahawks (2-0) (Last week: 6). Their defense is better with Jamal Adams, but still needs some work. Russell Wilson is the NFL’s top player through two weeks in 2020, though.

6. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-0) (Last week: 8). The Steelers seem to be grooming another set of fine wide receivers. Rookie Chase Claypool seems like another great draft pick at the position. Their defense also looks like the NFL’s best. They’re a quiet threat to Baltimore and KC in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (2-0) (Last week: 7). Josh Allen is no Trent Dilfer or Rex Grossman. He makes plays. But he is a bit of a wild card. Luckily, the Bills are loaded enough on both sides of the ball to offset some of his mental errors and wonkiness. The Bills are great, Allen is good but unpredictable. His consistency is where Buffalo will live or die when it comes to December and January. Allen has been solid so far, through two weeks. He was great in Miami on Sunday.

8. Los Angeles Rams (2-0) (Last week: 9). Like the Steelers in the AFC, Sean McVay and the Rams have reemerged has a quiet threat in the NFC.

9. New England Patriots (1-1) (Last week: 5). You don’t expect Belichick’s defense to play that bad again. Russell Wilson is a bad matchup for any team, but apparently worse for New England. Ironically, Newton (2-0 versus Brady and Belichick) was another tough New England opponent. Now, the former is a franchise QB in the northeast, who may pick up right where Brady left off with the Patriots. New England will be in the mix in the AFC. We’ll know more in two weeks after their game in Kansas City.

10. Arizona Cardinals (2-0) (Last week: 12). Speaking of QB-coach combos, Kyler Murrary and Kliff Kingsbury are the next great thing. They are mighty fun to watch.

11. San Francisco 49ers (1-1) (Last week: 10). It appears the Super Bowl loser curse will not go into the good night, a la the Madden curse. The 49ers are a solid bunch, but they’re already decimated with injuries. Losing Nick Bosa for the season, and Jimmy Garoppolo for maybe a month, are insurmountable. They are in trouble.

12. Tennessee Titans (2-0) (Last week: 14). I was skeptical about Ryan Tannehill’s chances to repeat last season’s success. I remain skeptical, and I realize that I currently look like a fool.

13. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: 11). Yeah, they won, but they allowed 39 points at home and needed an incredible onside kick to win. They have had a bad start to the season, but that could be a season-alerting win over the Falcons.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-1) (Last week: 13). They’re still learning each other on offense, but one thing is for certain — Tom Brady still has some juice left. As for Rob Gronkowski? Not so much.

15. L.A. Chargers (1-1) (Last week: NR). If you’re Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn, I think you have to roll with rookie Justin Herbert from here on out. No offense to wiley veteran Tyrod Taylor.

16. Chicago Bears (2-0) (Last week: NR). I’m not very confident in what I’ve seen from the Bears, but Mitch Trubisky seems to be slowly regaining confidence. Maybe they are an NFC wild card team. It’s way too early to tell, though.

Next up: Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Cleveland, Houston, Philadelphia

Cam Newton -- Week 1 vs Dolphins

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 1: Breaking down Cam, Brady + Lamar’s passing masterclass

A Week 1 game in the NFL should follow with this disclaimer — “Do not overanalyze, as often times things are not what they appear.”

And in a NFL season during a year in which the world is turned upside down, the words above should ring even more clear. Heck, there were no preseason games and the offseason was severely shortened and unorthodox. We often talk about the first week or two of the regular season as an extended preseason, but we could be talking about each team’s first six to eight  games in that way this season. Right now, we just don’t know. Things will change.

Still, it’s tough to refrain from overanalyzing.

There’s been more skepticism surrounding the possible success of Cam Newton and the New England Patriots than Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And at face value, there’s good reason for that.

Brady — and former Patriot Rob Gronkowski — joined Bruce Arians’ high-flying offense, equipped with some of the league’s best skill position personnel. But some of those offensive weapons, Mike Evans and Gronk in particular, failed to find a rhythm Sunday for a team that looked every bit as undisciplined Sunday as it did last season with Jameis Winston at quarterback.

Tom Brady -- Week 1 vs Saints
Tom Brady voices his frustration after a third-down incomplete pass to Chris Godwin failed to draw a flag for defensive pass interference. (Screenshot: NFL on FOX)

And so TB12 sat opposite Winston, Tampa’s old QB turned Saints backup, and suffered a 34-23 defeat to New Orleans in a game that raised many questions about just how efficient Tampa Bay’s offense will be.

But for all the mistakes, including a ghastly pick-six, Brady — 23 for 36 for 239 yards, three touchdowns — showcased some zip and overall arm strength that many thought he left back in 2017 or earlier in New England. He found some success targeting the likes of Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller downfield.

Still, the disconnect with his teammates was stark and a reminder that things better change quick if Tampa Bay is to compete with some of the league’s top teams.

There’s no need to abandon what they view as their offensive approach — pass catchers and pass attempts galore, including formations with multiple (and capable) tight ends, as well as the occasional shotgun draw to keep the defense honest.

There’s something here with what they have, and what they view as as budding firecracker in their personnel. Brady and these weapons? You betcha.

That offense will look much different than Brady’s old unit in New England, however.

As expected, Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels ran Newton on a bevy of zone-reads, QB powers and bootlegs. In all, Newton rushed 15 times (second most of his career) for 75 yards and two touchdowns. The formations weren’t too unfamiliar to Brady-era lovers, but there was some pistol formation worked in.

The Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins, 21-11, in a game that seemingly ended while the rest of the 1:00pm ET time slot contests were entering the fourth quarter. New England ran the ball 42 times for 217 yards and won the time of possession battle by roughly 35 minutes to Miami’s 25.

It’s a bit early to think on this level, but if New England is to go far in the AFC postseason, they’ll likely use this form of bully ball to do it. Newton looked sharp through the air, particularly on his first throw of the game, a downfield drop by Edelman on a beautifully placed play-action pass. The 2015 NFL MVP went 15 for 19 for 155 yards. But the Patriots lack an adequate arsenal of pass catchers to compete in a shootout with the likes of Kansas City, or even Seattle, their next opponent. Still, New England’s top-tier offensive line and a unique group of versatile running backs give them something to work with.

Comparably (or not really), Brady has Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Gronk, O.J. Howard, Leonard Fournette and more. Things didn’t go well for Tampa on Sunday, but there’s reason to believe that it might as the year goes on. Saints QB Drew Brees got the win but rarely threw downfield, which could be a skill that the Saints now look to Taysom Hill for. It’s not farfetched to claim that Brady looked better than Brees on Sunday, despite the mistakes. Tom looked livelier than the 41-year-old New Orleans, but the precision and timing with his new teammates was not there.

Without a preseason, there would be an expected learning curve with this “Tompa” Bay offense, especially with a Week 1 opponent such as New Orleans. Brady will find a rapport with a few guys and things will begin to click. The six-time Super Bowl-winning passer has Tampa head coach Bruce Arians to turn to — a known QB whisperer.

But Cam now has Belichick. And in turn, Belichick has Cam. There’s more creativity to come in New England, and success will surely come to Tampa this season, in some form.

These two — very different — offenses will certainly be compared and contrasted all season. If you look passed the cheap, soon-to-come “Bill 1, Brady 0” takes, there’s a fascinating football story brewing in both the evolution of the Patriots offense and the experiment of Brady in Tampa Bay at age 43.

QUICK-HITS 

Rams stymie Cowboys’ talented offense 

Despite all the hoopla surrounding the Dallas Cowboys and their high-octane offense, the Rams were able to corral America’s Team in their inaugural game in the beautiful SoFi Stadium. On offense, Sean McVay stuck with the ground game, which looked a lot more punishing than their stat line of 3.8 yards per carry suggests. Los Angles ran the ball 40 times for 153 yards, and went to play-action with Jared Goff when they didn’t. But this game was won by the Rams’ defense, particularly their pass rush. Aaron Donald was his usual self, posting a few highlight-worthy, trench-dominating moves from the interior, and Los Angeles sacked Cowboys QB Dak Prescott three times by a unit that many thought would be subpar at the EDGE position heading into the season. The current construction of Los Angeles’ roster is well-known. Contracts for players like Jared Goff, Cooper Kupp, Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey take up a good portion of the cap, so they’ll need help from the rest of their roster, such as Bears castoff Leonard Floyd, a former first-round pick who virtually depreciated in Chicago but looked better than advertised on Sunday. It’s been just two seasons since the 2018 Rams entered the season as an all-in team, and even though their cap situation suggests they are still in that mode, the Rams may quietly have a plan to quietly return as a contender behind some quieter acquisitions.

 Lamar Jackson thrives from pocket versus Browns

The Baltimore Ravens began their quest for Super Bowl 55 (and they are one of the few teams in which it’s not too early to talk like this) with a 38-6 beatdown over the Cleveland Browns. Sure, it seems as if the Browns may remain lowly in 2020, even with a new head coach, but that shouldn’t take the air out of a superb performance from Lamar Jackson through the air. Last year’s unanimously-voted NFL MVP was brilliant as a passer on Sunday, going 20 for 25 for 275 yards and three throwing scores. Those marks helped him post a 152.1 passer rating and 94.1 Total QBR. Even for a Week 1 game versus Cleveland, those are absurd numbers. If the Ravens are to reach (and win) Super Bowl 55, they will have to show improvement in two key areas that doomed them in the postseason last year — run defense (which was so-so despite the win on Sunday) and Jackson improving as a passer. Luckily, Jackson was able to do most of his work in the middle of the field, which will forego the critique of his much-needed improvement outside the numbers, but Jackson looked even more comfortable than last year from the pocket on Sunday. His only matchup-winning targets are “Hollywood” Brown and tight end Mark Andrews, but Jackson’s ability to not only run, but read the field should be good enough to lift this supporting cast to Tampa Bay in February. He was already much better as a passer than critics would give him credit for in 2019, but it seems as if he’ll be even better in that aspect in Year 3.

Respect for Gardiner Minshew

The Jacksonville Jaguars certainly won’t be a playoff team this year. They are still in contention for the No. 1 overall pick in my eyes, and if they do end up in that slot, I suspect they’ll take Clemson wunderkind QB Trevor Lawrence. But after a 27-20 Week 1 win over the Indianapolis Colts, I felt obligated to give Gardiner Minshew some respect. Just one week after former Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette slighted him, Minshew went 19 for 20 for 173 yards for three touchdown passes with a barren set of skill position players versus one of the AFC’s best rosters. If the Jaguars do end up around 4-12, it’s worth wondering whether Minshew would be capable of starting elsewhere after Jacksonville turns to a top draft pick at quarterback. Teams like the Bears and Colts instantly come to mind. Jacksonville may not see a future with Minshew, but there may be a future for Minshew as a starter in the NFL.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). The Chiefs played on Thursday, so it’s easy to forget how dominant they looked while also looking a bit sloppy. They will play much better than they did on Thursday for much of the season, and they looked like the best team in football anyway versus Houston. That’s scary.

2. Baltimore Ravens (1-0). If Jackson is going to be this good through the air in 2020, look out.

3. New Orleans Saints (1-0). There are some concerns with Brees’ ability to push the ball downfield, but with offensive weapons such as Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara and Taysom Hill, that may not be too alarming.

4. Green Bay Packers (1-0). I suspected Aaron Rodgers would play angry and well this year. That was a superb start in Minnesota.

5. New England Patriots (1-0). There are major concerns with this pass-catching group, but with what Belichick appears to have in store for Cam Newton and this offense, that may just be a wart, as opposed to an Achilles heel.

6. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). Russell Wilson was as sharp as a QB possibly could be in Week 1. Maybe it was the pandemic that threw things off, but Seattle certainly didn’t look like a team heading west to east for an early start time on Sunday.

7. Buffalo Bills (1-0). Josh Allen had some good, some bad, and everything in between on Sunday. This Bills team is immensely talented, but there’s not much to take away after a Week 1 win over the New York Jets, who may have the worst roster in pro football.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers (0-0). The Steelers will undoubtedly field one of the NFL’s best defenses. If they can get anything out of their offense, they’ll be in good shape.

9. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). The Rams looked impressive on Sunday night, and they can play much better.

10. San Francisco 49ers (0-1). San Francisco is lacking at wide receiver, so you can imagine the feeling when it looked like George Kittle may have suffered a serious leg injury. He appears fine, however, and returned to the field. The 49ers are a team that will improve as the season goes along. They’ll need to figure out something at wide receiver until Deebo Samuel returns, though, and even then, they need some more help there.

11. Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Good things will come for Dallas’ talented offense, but I worry that prognosticators have overvalued them yet again this preseason. Are they really Super Bowl contenders?

12. Arizona Cardinals (1-0). Arizona was able to down the defending NFC champs while also not playing their best on offense. They at least got DeAndre Hopkins (14 catches, 151 receiving yards) involved. That’s a good sign.

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-1). That was an ugly start, but they’ll certainly improve on offense. Don’t jump ship just yet.

14. Tennessee Titans (0-0). The Titans are one of the toughest teams in football. They’ll need to utilize that skill for a tough Monday night matchup in Denver to kick off their season.

15. Washington Football Team (1-0). They belong here. That front seven is talented, and will be getting after quarterbacks all year. Rookie EDGE defender Chase Young could easily follow Nick Bosa’s 2019 route by becoming the next No. 2 overall pick from Ohio State to dominate up front as a rookie.

16. Houston Texans (0-1). It’ll take some time for this offense to click, and the pass blocking of their offensive line is still a mess, but the Texans still have Deshaun Watson. They have another tough test this week, though. Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are coming to town.

Next up: L.A. Chargers, Denver, Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas

Bill Belichick 2020 Patriots Training Camp

New beginnings and old trends: What can we expect from the 2020 New England Patriots?

Last January, in the final minutes of a tight AFC Wild Card matchup in Gillette Stadium, Super Bowl 53 MVP Julian Edelman dropped a key third-down pass in a clutch situation, and Tom Brady failed to deliver.

Tennessee Titans 20, New England Patriots 13. Welcome to 2020.

This was simply an odd beginning to a mostly catastrophic and unprecedented year up to this point.

Now for New England, weird will be the new normal as Brady is in South Florida with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Patriots’ hopes on offense rest with former Carolina Panthers franchise quarterback Cam Newton.

Yes, Cam Newton is the starting QB for your New England Patriots, in a world where Brady is not retired and still playing pro football with the same burning desire that fueled an unprecedented 20-year run of success in the northeast.

So far, the Newton-Belichick pairing has been met with cheery optimism. Both Belichick and Newton have done nothing but overly praise each other to this point, and Newton appears as happy as he is motivated.

Instead of allowing him to play out the final year of his contract, the Carolina Panthers jettisoned the 2015 NFL MVP after failing to find a willing trade partner. Newton was hurt, and angry, but has seemed to have bottled that despair in the form of grueling training and recovery geared toward proving the Panthers and other doubters wrong via a bounce-back performance.

Belichick and the Patriots are surely the perfect facilitator for such a journey.

As previously mentioned, Newton took the league by storm in 2015. He was the league’s best player that year, leading Carolina to Super Bowl 50 — and subsequent loss to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.

But that’s likely not the level of play the Patriots will be getting at quarterback in an unconventional 2020 season. Past shoulder and foot injuries, multiple surgeries, additional wear and tear, and a shortened offseason — with no preseason games — make it difficult to imagine Newton ever reaching his 2015 level again.

This leaves Belichick, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and new quarterback coach Jedd Fisch hoping for the 2018 version of Newton, before a shoulder injury caused the former No. 1 overall pick to drop his last eight starts heading into this campaign.

In 2018, under Norv Turner, Carolina began the year 6-2 behind a quick-passing game that saw Newton move on from his previous downfield passing barrage of earlier seasons with ample success. His ability to adapt to a new offense, and thrive while throwing precision-type passes to the likes of D.J. Moore, Christian McCaffrey and others prove that Newton is willing and able to adapt to a new scheme.

At that point in his career, Newton’s completion percentage was 58.5 heading into his eighth season, but after the aforementioned 6-2 start, Cam had a 67.3 completion percentage, and was squarely in another MVP race before Steelers pass rusher T.J. Watt obliterated Newton’s throwing shoulder.

Cam Newton and Julian Edelman -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
With Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, can Cam Newton pick up where the GOAT left off in targeting Julian Edelman? (Screenshot: Patriots)

The difference here is that there is no McCaffrey or Moore on the roster. There are, however, James White and Julian Edelman, two wiley veterans in the roles of pass-catching running back and No. 1 wide receiver. Both are clutch, both are postseason heroes with a combined seven Super Bowl appearances and 1,096 career receptions (including playoffs).

After, that there’s not much in terms of experience and big-play potential at the skill position.

A wide receiver group that ranked dead last in average separation according to NFL Next Gen Stats has not been altered much since the end of last season.

N’Keal Harry returns as the top option at X-receiver along the boundary. Harry ranked 143rd (dead last) in the NFL last season in average separation at throw on all routes for receivers who ran at least 100 routes.

The 2019 first-round pick is listed at 6-4, 225 pounds but displays quickness and shiftiness of that of a smaller receiver. He can run reverses and use his power and running ability to create yards after the catch. But ironically, despite his size, he doesn’t appear to have the skill set for a dominating No. 1 type receiver on the outside.

Newton, of course, hasn’t played with such a player, but he has found a niche of throwing slants, 10-yard outs an hitches to bigger receivers. He had flashes of success on such passing patterns when targeting the likes of Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess. Newton’s throws those routes possibly better than any QB I’ve seen over the past 20 seasons, and perhaps Harry can become a factor on such plays.

He’ll need to, because 34-year-old Edelman — who will presumably get the most targets — can’t do it all, and certainly not at his age.

Julian Edelman -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
Julian Edelman, 34, will be heavily relied on by Cam Newton this season. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

After Edelman and Harry, Damiere Byrd projects as the Patriots No. 3 WR with WR2 production potential. Byrd played four seasons with Newton in Carolina before a one year stint with the Arizona Cardinals last season. He ran a 4.28 40-yard dash coming into the draft, and projects to fill a Phillip Dorsett-type roll for New England, with much better potential on underneath routes.

After that, second-year undrafted men Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers return as project players that likely will be thrown into the fire once more.

The pass-catching group is far from scary to opposing defenses. New England at least drafted two tight ends in the third round — Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene — in attempt to fix perhaps the worst position group on any team last season, and that’s not a hyperbole.

Asiasi (6-3, 260 pounds) has pass-catching potential as an athletic ‘Y’ who should find some success in the seams as well as the middle of the field. Newton’s No. 1 target for much of his tenure in Carolina was tight end Greg Olsen, and although that’s way too high of a production projection for Asiasi in Year 1, the rookie could find a role as a security blanked for Newton at times. His potential is burgeoning as an NFL tight end after a so-so college career at Michigan and UCLA.

Keene, 6-4, 251 pounds, projects as more of an off-line, H-Back option with fullback potential.

Believe it or not, Keene could be the biggest indicator of where the Patriots see this offense going with Cam.

When New England drafted Keene out of Virginia Tech, not to toot my own horn, I immediately thought of him as an H-back that fit in shotgun and pistol formations that were heavily utilized in some of Newton’s best seasons in Carolina.

But as months went by without an announced New England-Newton pairing, many, including myself, began to wonder if the Patriots were building a Kyle Shanahan-esque offense around second-year man Jarrett Stidham.

Think of San Francisco and Minnesota. An offense revolving around the running game, with under-center formations featuring outside zone, pulling guards, an athletic pass-catching fullback, tons of pre-snap motion and play-action passes designed to freeze linebackers after they’ve been gashed by the run. An easy game plan for a young quarterback, essentially.

There may still be some of that with Newton under center, but that doesn’t seem like a productive staple with a QB that athletic and talented.

At the time, the Patriots were also expecting “Superback” Danny Vitale to be the team’s fullback, but he has since opted out.

Now, New England fields Keene and second-year man Jakob Johnson, who is from Germany and is part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program.

Neither is a bulldozing lead-blocking extraordinaire a la James Develin, but Johnson should improve as a capable traditional fullback in Year 2.

As for Keene, his presence to me indicates that New England is envisioning using a lot of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) or 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), depending on how Keene is viewed, or used. Keene may not even play often to start, especially with the offseason as it was, but eventually, expect the Patriots to use him at both fullback and H-Back/wingback.

This puts Newton and the Patriots tinkering with a heavy dose of shotgun, pistol and other formations featured around multiplicity and Newton’s ability to run the football both in designed plays and when improvising on passing downs.

Sure, New England will still utilize a traditional 11 set (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) at times. Edelman will likely see a slight down tick in snaps due to his age, but he should be on the field for most of the game, leaving Harry and Byrd fighting for time in 2-WR sets and both being used, with Edelman, in 11 personnel. Both Olszewski and Meyers each factor in as Z-receiver (flanker)/slot hybrids behind Edelman.

In 2018, the Panthers ran 11 personnel on 69 percent of snaps. Only eight teams used it more. But because of the Patriots’ current personnel, and lack of talent at wide receiver, expect Belichick to only use principles of Norv Turner’s Panthers offense from 2018. This will only be a slice of the pie, like the potential limited usage of Shanahan offensive concepts.

New England does field a diverse set of running backs, even if they are banged up some heading into the season. Sony Michel and Damien Harris should battle for lead back carries when Harris returns from injured reserve. White will be the third-down back, and Rex Burkhead will factor in both in the running and passing game as a do-it-all option who may be heavily utilized early (September) and late (December, January…February?) as a safe option in big games because of his versatility. But New England will likely limit his playing time to keep him fresh. And then there’s undrafted rookie J.J. Taylor, a 5-foot-5 mighty mouse who is currently on the roster.

Here are two interesting notes from a recent episode of The Athletic Football Podcast via NFL’s Next Gen Stats:

With Michel on the field, New England ran the football 67 percent of the time in 2019. That’s the highest percentage for such a stat among running backs with at least 200 snaps last season.

Additionally, with White on the field, the Patriots ran a passing play on roughly 82 percent of snaps last season, which was good for fifth-highest among running backs.

If the offense is going to become less predictable by personnel, Michel will have to improve some as a pass catcher. But at the very least, you’d like to see him run wild in cold weather like he did down the stretch in 2018.

Basically, look for the Patriots to run the heck out of the football in 2020, and for them to do it out of a variety of formations, including many unique looks out of the shotgun. They may even roll with shotgun formations with both Burkhead and Michel in the backfield. Or Burkhead and White. Or all three.

Really, everything revolves around Belichick and Josh McDaniels once again to design a new offense with unique concepts, this time around a different QB.

Luckily for Newton, his NFL home is now full of men more adept than any other when it comes to tailor-made offensive game plans revolving around quarterbacks. And even better, Belichick and McDaniels have done this at a chameleon-like level of versatility, and they have done it on the fly.

Zone-reads, RPOs, designed QB runs. The Patriots will likely try to do it all with Newton. In a perfect world only in Belichick’s mind, the Patriots would run the football at a 2019 Baltimore Ravens level, plowing over teams on the way to the end zone.

No one really knows how Newton will fare as a runner in 2020. But you can bet that New England will look into it.

Additionally, Newton’s ability to tuck and run will encourage teams to play more zone coverage this season. Gone will be the days of 2019 where teams used man coverage across the board, doubling White or Edelman and blanketing New England’s passing game.

Newton should be able to buy time and find the open man, which will often be zone coverage spatial awareness mastermind, Edelman.

The Patriots will do this all behind an offensive line that will return center David Andrews to provide a stout interior core with guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason. Isaiah Wynn should improve as the team’s left tackle and with long-time right tackle Marcus Cannon sitting out this season, it looks like the Patriots may be relying on former Ravens guard Jermaine Eluemunor to play right tackle.

There is slightly less pressure on these tackles’ ability to pass block with Newton than there would be with Brady because of Newton’s ability to scramble, but the Patriots are still looking for strong play out of their O-line. This unit needs to be the constant. I suggest minimal problems with run blocking, at least.

The most exciting thing about this Patriots season is the offense under Newton. With no preseason games and a limited offseason, no one really knows what we’ll see. But we can make educated guesses, like I have here.

When Evan Lazar of CLNS Media asked what the offense will look like with him at quarterback, Newton smirked and gave this response: “Nobody knows, and nobody is going to know. You’ll just have to tune in and see.”

We’ll find out this Sunday.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Cam Newton

RB — Sony Michel 

FB/H-Back — Jakob Johnson/Dalton Keene

‘X’ WR — N’Keal Harry

‘Z’ WR/Slot — Julian Edelman

TE — Devin Asiasi 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — David Andrews 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Jermaine Eluemunor

Situational positions: 

Scatback — James White

WR3 — Damiere Byrd

WR4/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Scatback — J.J. Taylor

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste 

* * * * * * *

Unlike the offense, which will see somewhat of an overhaul, New England will likely use some of the same concepts on defense, just with different personnel.

By now, everyone’s aware of key opt-outs in linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung. New England should be able to get by without Chung, but losing Hightower could be a breaking point for a front seven that already lost linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts, as well as nose tackle Danny Shelton.

This offseason, I watched every snap from the Patriots’ defense last season for a research project. Here are the formations the Patriots used for over two percent of their defensive snaps on the 2019 season, and how often they used them (rounded up to nearest tenth of a percent):

Nickel 2-4-5 (26.7%)

3-4 (16.4%)

Big Dime 1-4-6 (15.4%)

Big Nickel 2-4-5 (12.7%)

Big Dime 2-3-6 (10%)

Dime (4 CBs) (6.1%)

Quarter 1-3-7 (4.1%)

Nickel 3-3-5 (2.2%)

The Patriots switched to formations with 3-4 principles in 2019 because of their personnel. Because of their current personnel and shortened offseason, it’s worth wondering if Belichick will switch to more of a 4-3 concept, like he did when the NFL last had a shortened offseason in 2011 due to CBA discussions. Obviously, teams mostly use Nickel as their base in today’s game, but depending on how the Nickel defense is utilized, it will feature principles from the ole 3-4 or 4-3 looks.

In the front seven, only Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler return as consistent, sure things. Guy is versatile and has proven his worth by taking on multiple defenders up front, and Butler is a solid interior rusher who is steadily improving as a run defender.  After that, it’s a mystery.

Beau Allen was brought in to replace Danny Shelton at nose tackle, but Allen is currently on IR, ensuring he’ll miss at least the first three weeks. Deatrich Wise Jr.’s playing time decreased in 2019 due to a poor scheme fit, but the fourth-year defensive lineman has had a solid camp, and apparently has beefed up, meaning he may be able to slide into an interior role. Then there’s Byron Cowart, a fifth-round pick from last year who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation out of high school in 2015. The talent is there for Cowart, who could surprise as a fixture next to Guy up front in Nickel 2-4-5 sets.

Last season, New England generated a pass rush schematically by using Guy and other defensive lineman to eat up blockers up front, allowing Van Noy, Collins, Hightower and others to shoot the edge and gaps to rush the passer. If New England is to do the same this season, they’ll need a big second-year jump from EDGE Chase Winovich, who tallied 5.5 sacks on limited snaps as a rookie sub rusher in 2019.

Winovich is a little light to stop physical rushing attacks, but opposite him is strongman John Simon, who is entering his third season with the Patriots in sort of a Rob Ninkovich role. He is a strong-side EDGE defender who is versatile enough to play both stand-up or on the line. New England often switched their Nickel 2-4-5 into a 3-4 look last season in pre-snap. They’d bring Chung up into a linebacker role and have Simon play stand-up 3-4 defensive end, which looks unusual but was very effective for Belichick’s defense last season.

They’ll need Simon and rookie Anfernee Jennings to set the edge in the run game. Jennings projects to fill Van Noy’s in run defense only, but most likely won’t produce a pass rush anywhere near Van Noy’s 2019 level, nor will he play as many snaps as Van Noy did for New England last season.

In the middle of the defense, Ja’Whaun Bentley will need to evolve from part-time thumper linebacker to a full-time role as the front seven’s leader. He’ll essentially slide into Hightower’s role, but will be used a bit differently. And former New York Jet Brandon Copeland should factor in as an off-ball option, and perhaps the same with rookie sixth-round draft pick Cassh Maluia.

Josh Uche -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
There’s pressure on Patriots rookie LB/EDGE Josh Uche to catch on quick to the pro game. (Screenshot: Josh Uche (Twitter))

Then there’s Josh Uche, the team’s second-round pick out of Michigan. Uche played limited snaps in Michigan, but was a superb pass rusher, where he was opposite Winovich at one point. New England loves versatile players, and Uche will bring just that as a defender who will likely spend time as an off-ball linebacker on early downs and EDGE defender on passing downs. He’ll rush from both spots, and play some middle-of-the-field zone coverage, and perhaps, cover running backs.

Essentially, Uche will be used in Collins’ role from last season. Because of the lack of experience and depth at linebacker and EDGE, the Patriots are banking on Uche to learn quickly.

The linebacking core also signals that the Patriots will likely have instances where they use a ton of safeties on the field at the same time. Like last season, they’ll use a lot of three-safety packages in the form of Big Nickel and Big Dime. They’ll use multiple safeties in the box as psuedo-linebackers, and turn around and use those same players as traditional safeties.

In the 2018 playoffs, the Chargers shut down Lamar Jackson and the Ravens offense by using seven defensive backs on 98 percent of their defensive snaps in an AFC wild card win. Adrian Phillips, one of the Chargers’ extra safeties in that contest, is now a member of the Patriots.

New England’s versatile set of safeties — Phillips, rookie Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks, Devin McCourty — can all play in the box, in attempts to field a faster defense congruent with some of the spread offenses in today’s game.

May this group, and the league’s best set of cornerbacks, limit high-flying spread offenses such as the Chiefs? Yes. Could they slow down Jackson and the Ravens by utilizing a ton of safeties at once (like the Chargers did in 2018) as opposed to last season’s unsuccessful heavy, stack-the-box personnel? Possibly.

But a team like the Titans could make mince meat out of this type of defense behind a 30-carry performance from bruising back Derrick Henry. Like always, Belichick will mix and match defensive game plans by the week.

In that case, it helps to have a constant in the league’s best group of cornerback and overall secondary. The Patriots should continue to rely on man coverage. According to PFF, New England has used Cover 1 more than any other franchise since 2015. Last year, they nearly perfected it with their versatile group of pass defenders.

Stephon Gilmore -- 2020 Patriots Training Camp
Stephon Gilmore returns as the NFL’s best cornerback, and perhaps the best non-QB in the league outside of Rams DT Aaron Donald. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Stephon Gilmore, 30, remains the game’s best cornerback and perhaps the NFL’s best non-QB, non-Aaron Donald football player. He’ll continue to shut down opposing receivers in given assignments.

Opposite him, J.C. Jackson should overtake Jason McCourty as the team’s No. 2 cornerback on the outside, but both will get ample playing time, with Jonathan Jones manning the slot and occasionally playing two-deep safety, which he has done over the last two seasons (see: Super Bowl 53). Then there’s last year’s second-round pick, Joejuan Williams, a 6-foot-4 matchup piece that is learning the safety position.

It will be interesting to see how New England plays in the back end. The Patriots primarily used Duron Harmon as the lone deep safety last season, with McCourty moving up as a robber.

This season, New England can opt to keep McCourty as the free safety in Cover 1 or use Dugger in Harmon’s place. Dugger, and Phillips, are each certainly capable of filling Harmon’s old role. But it’s Dugger, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound athletic force, who may fit best there. Still, Dugger may find himself in man coverage on the likes of Travis Kelce and other tight ends who are  unleashed as jumbo wide receivers out of the slot.

Like the offense, there is a sense of mystery on how the defense will line up, but you can bet a lot of Belichick’s old trends will factor in. The only wonder is whether the front seven will rely heavily on a Nickel 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles, or more of a Nickel defense with 4-3 principles, but in the secondary, the Patriots will continue to play to their strengths by applying man coverage and often using three-safety packages.

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Lawrence Guy

Interior — Adam Butler

EDGE — Chase Winovich 

EDGE — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Josh Uche

LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

S — Kyle Dugger

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Beau Allen

Interior  — Bryan Cowart

Sub EDGE/Interior Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

LB — Brandon Copeland 

EDGE/LB — Anfernee Jennings

S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Adrian Phillips

S/LB (‘Big Nickel’ and three-safety packages) — Terrence Brooks

CB3 — Jason McCourty

CB4/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

* * * * * * *

Projected record: 10-6 (AFC’s No. 3 seed)

Despite Brady’s departure, the mass exodus in the defense and the possible ascension of the talented Buffalo Bills, the Patriots still have Belichick and a former NFL MVP at quarterback.

The defense will need to remain a top-five unit and Newton will need not only to be healthy, but also capable of elevating a sub-par group of pass catchers. He’s done this before in Carolina. If the Patriots can establish a solid and unique rushing attack, Newton should be able to make enough plays for the Patriots to surprise many on offense.

Prognosticators have been a bit harsh on New England’s chances this season. Yes, the Bills are more talented, but there’s a good chance an inferiority complex kicks in as soon as the Patriots establish an offensive identity and begin to roll, in which they will at some point this season — most likely down the stretch after a tough early-season schedule.

For these Patriots, a 12th straight AFC East title is in play, as well as a trip to the AFC Divisional Round. After that, the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and Pittsburgh will make it tough for them to go any further. Divisional weekend seems like a good bet for this team, which isn’t bad for a re-tooling (not re-building) year.

Lamar Jackson vs Rams

Brent Schwartz’s Top 100 NFL Players of 2020

For the third straight year, I bring you, my Top 100 players list. Well, I made a Top 50 in 2019, but since increased my strenuous research project by double, as I watch film, sort players and give my takes on a piece that I begin around March or April every year, finishing up in the summer.

As we enter uncharted territory with the beginning of team training camps this week in a COVID-19 climate, there’s no telling if this season can safely be played, or if it will be, at this moment. This aims to be the weirdest season in NFL history, but it appears we will have a season nonetheless.

Before diving into the list, here are some notes:

— As it’s always been with this list, my criteria in ranking players is what I like to call the 70/30 rule. 70 percent of my decision to place a player on my list is based off that player’s last two or three seasons of play, and 30 percent is based off their potential in 2019.

— Here are the teams with the most players on my list: 

Kansas City Chiefs (6)

Tamps Bay Buccaneers (6)

Minnesota Vikings (6)

Baltimore Ravens (5)

New Orleans Saints (5)

Philadelphia Eagles (5)

Los Angeles Chargers (5)

San Francisco 49ers (4)

New England Patriots (4)

Dallas Cowboys (4)

Seattle Seahawks (4)

Pittsburgh Steelers (4)

Tennessee Titans (4)

 The Kansas City Chiefs are also the team featuring the most top-tier players. They have four in my Top 26. The Saints are the only other team with more than two players in the top 30, with three in my Top 24.

Here are the number of players for each position, on the list:

Quarterback (13)

Running Back (11)

Wide Receiver (19)

Tight End (4)

Tackle (5)

Guard (2)

Center (1)

Defensive Tackle (6)

EDGE (16)

Linebacker (4)

Cornerback (8)

Safety (11)

The stand-out positions of this list are EDGE defenders (16), wide receivers (19) and running backs (11). There is a nice blend of over-30 veterans (Cameron Jordan, Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Calias Campbell, etc.) mixed with promising young talent (Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt, Joey Bosa, etc.) when it comes to edge setters, making it one of the most exciting positions. Few athletes are as exciting as NFL wide receivers, which is the group with the most volume on my list. I had to squeeze out some second-year players at the position. Last year was a promising rookie class (Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin, D.K. Metcalf, etc.), but only the Titans’ A.J. Brown made my list. This year’s rookie wide receiver class is projected to be even better. As for running backs, most in the NFL world agree that it is not wise to pay one after he’s been heavily used for a few seasons. The position has been devalued to that of a phone booth or horse and buggy in today’s game, but I see sort of a renaissance mixed with new-school flavor at the position. In all, 11 running backs made my list, which includes old school-style runners (Derrick Henry, Ezekiel Elliott), new-age, dual-threat wizards (Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara) and everything in between (Saquon Barkley).

— Here were the 25 players that nearly made my list, but were squeezed out in the evaluation process:

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals 

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Arik Armstead, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers

D.J. Moore, WR, Carolina Panthers

Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington

Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints

Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins

Darius Slay, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

Trey Flowers, EDGE, Detroit Lions

Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears

Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Denver Broncos

Joe Thuney, OG, New England Patriots

Demarcus Lawrence, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Demario Davis, LB, New Orleans Saints

La’el Collins, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

Chris Harris Jr. , CB, Los Angeles Chargers

Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers

D.K. Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks

— As you’ll notice, I have A.J. Green — Green missed all of 2019 — barely missing the cut, but have Rob Gronkowski, who sat out in 2019 and has since returned from retirement, narrowly making the list. Although the shear talent and fit of A.J. Green with Joe Burrow, combined with my 30 percent aspect (potential) of the rule above, suggests Green should be heavily considered, there are more deserving players due to their respective play the last year or two, combined with their potential going forward. Considering his age and position, I’d like to see Green on the field first. Green is a soon-to-be-32-year-old wide receiver who sat out last year. Gronk, who is 31 years old himself, makes the list mostly for his consistency as possibly the best blocking tight end of all-time, combined with his rapport with Tom Brady. I’ll explain more in the list.

— I also decided to leave Philadelphia Eagles stalwart guard Brandon Brooks off the list. Brooks, who turns 31 next month, had the best year of his career last season. He was graded as the top guard in the league by PFF, with emphasis on his run blocking grade, which also led the league. When I began conducting research, watching film, and generally molding this list back in April, Brooks was initially in my Top 50. However, Brooks tore his left Achilles in June during an offseason workout, and is now expected to miss the entire 2020 season. The Eagles guard also tore his other Achilles back in 2018, and already had underwent shoulder surgery this offseason. Brooks is certainly one of the best guards in football, but considering he won’t be playing this season, I decided to leave him off. Considering his age and injury status, it will be tough for Brooks to return to his past level of play, but I wouldn’t count him out. Brooks is already looking forward to 2021.

— Another curious case, and omission, is Antonio Brown. There is no doubt in my mind that Antonio Brown could sign with a team next week, suit up this season, and be a top-five wide receiver. He’s THAT talented. If his situation weren’t as is, I’d probably include him in my top 25 or 30. That being said, considering he’s not signed — and even if he were, he would be facing a suspension — and he recently announced his retirement (again) before turning back on his decision (again), I decided to leave him off for now. It doesn’t necessarily feel like he’s a part of the NFL community at the moment, even if he’s been seen working out with Russell Wilson, garnering interest from the Seahawks and Ravens, and together with Tom Brady, holding out hope for a one-year deal with Tampa Bay.

And now, without further ado, the list…

*******

100. Cooper Kupp Cooper Kupp – WR, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: NR)            

A slot magician, Kupp has proven valuable to Sean McVay’s offense in Los Angeles. In 2018, the offense struggled down the stretch when Kupp was lost to injury. For an offensive unit that once held Todd Gurley, Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods as playmakers, Kupp is perhaps the most important to Jared Goff’s success. Kupp is Goff’s safety blanket. He caught 10 touchdowns in 2019 in a comeback effort.

99. Lavonte David Lavonte David – LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneeers (Last year: NR) 

David was one of the league’s best off-ball linebackers last season under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The 30-year-old was in the honorable mention portion of this list last season, but deserves to be here now. He has another year or two of dominance left in him. Last season, he ranked third among linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus

98. DeVante Parker DeVante Parker – WR, Miami Dolphins (Last year: NR) 

After four lackluster years, Parker finally pulled through as a legitimate No. 1 receiver in Year 5, just in time to ink a lucrative extension with the Dolphins. The 6-foot-3, X-type receiver pulled down 1,202 yards and nine touchdowns last year, and gave Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore — the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 — fits in a Week 17 performance that saw Parker snag eight catches for 137 yards on 11 targets, mostly working against the NFL’s best cornerback. To mention a fw extraordinarily hard omissions on the list, Parker essentially edged out Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green, a three-time All-Pro X-receiver who will turn 32 at the end of July, and Panthers up-and-coming No. 1 wide receiver D.J. Moore. That’s saying something. Whether it’s Ryan Fitzpatrick or Tua Tagovailoa throwing him the football, Parker should continue to improve.

97. Jadeveon Clowney Jadeveon Clowney  – EDGE, Tennessee Titans (Last year: 42)

Clowney, 27, still has the potential to be a game wrecker, but only shows it sparingly. He had a couple of monstrous games in Seattle, but ultimately finished the season with just three sacks, as the Seahawks ranked 29th in total sacks. It was a close call, but Clowney edged out Jaguars EDGE Yannick Ngakoue, a player with a lot of potential that should continue to flourish elsewhere (he won’t be in Jacksonville much longer) but his best season remains his 2017 campaign. Ngakoue has tallied 37.5 sacks in his four seasons, but was a mess against the run last year, ranking 95th out of 103 EDGE defenders in PFF’s run defense grade (51.6) in 2019. Clowney was stellar against the run last year, garnering a 80.8 grade in the same stat. And it’s worth noting that Clowney has had major success pressuring the quarterback (58 pressures in 2019), regardless of his sack numbers. Judging EDGE defenders solely off sacks will leave you with misleading information on said player.

96.Casey Hayward Jr. Casey Hayward – CB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 96)

Hayward turns 31 in September, but remains one of the most reliable players in football. He was expected to take a dip in 2019, but instead finished as the No. 3 cornerback in football according to PFFAlthough he will decline at somepoint (maybe this season), he’s still one of the better cover men in the NFL.

95. Zach ErtzZach Ertz – TE, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 76)

Ertz will turn 30 in November, but remains one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. He’s capable of playing in-line, flexed in the slot, or out wide. He’s brought in 204 catches the last two seasons, and remains one of the more reliable third-down converters in football.

94. Shaquil BarrettShaquil Barrett – EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR) 

After being franchise tagged by the Bucs this offseason, Barrett will look to duplicate his success from last season, where he led the league in sacks (19.5). He has room for improvement as an edge-setting run defender, and will have to show that he is a consistent force as a stand-up pass rusher in 2020, but it’s clear the talent is there to continuously improve.

93. Rob GronkowskiRob Gronkowski – TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Gronk’s dominance as a pass-catcher finally came to an end in 2018, but there’s little doubt that he’ll still be a threat in the middle of the field. He certainly should at least regain his claim as the best blocking tight end in football. Even at age 31, and while coming out of retirement, he’s a top-three tight end. Thanks to their chemistry, Gronkowski’s potential is maximized with Brady throwing him the football.

92. Devin McCourtyDevin McCourty – S, New England Patriots (Last year: NR)

Even entering his age-33 season, McCourty remains one of the most reliable safeties in the league. He’s classified as a free safety, and although he does often defend the deep end, McCourty also spends a lot of time in the box in Bill Belichick’s three-safety scheme. His free safety-to-box-safety snap count in 2019 was 467 to 343, according to PFF. McCourty has also thrived as a man coverage defender against athletic tight ends, at times. It’s no wonder New England decided to extend the veteran on a two-year deal, even at his age.

91. Harrison Smith Harrison Smith – S, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 66)

In 2017, Smith was the top-graded safety in the NFL by Pro Football FocusTwo seasons later, Smith remained the third-highest graded safety in the league at age 30. Entering his age-31 season, he remains a consistent force in the Vikings’ defense, capable of playing as a deep-defending free safety, or in the box.

90. Marcus PetersMarcus Peters – CB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Known for his aggressive, play-making style — often with the risk of allowing big plays — Peters has found the perfect home in Baltimore. Peters was PFF’s No. 3-graded cornerback in 2019, and second-best man coverage cornerback, while also leading the league with three pick-sixes. His seven career defensive touchdowns are the most in the NFL since 2015.

89. Kenny Golladay Kenny Golladay – WR, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)

Former NFL safety and current ESPN NFL film analyst Matt Bowen says Kenny Golladay has top-five upside as a WR1 in fantasy leagues this season. Pro Bowl stats or not, the 6-foot-4 receiver has proven to be a valuable piece on the perimeter for the Lions, showcased by his 18.3 yards per catch (third best in the NFL) last season. He’s one of the more underrated pass catchers in the league, as he’s not often talked about despite also garnering two consecutive 1,000 yard seasons and a 11-touchdown campaign in 2019.  His best is yet to come.

88. Anthony HarrisAnthony Harris – S, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Harris was PFF‘s top-graded safety last year (both overall and in coverage) as well as their No. 3-graded safety the year before (2018). With Smith playing more of a strong safety role, Harris mans the deep end as one of the NFL’s best free safeties over the past two seasons.

87. Dak Prescott  Dak Prescott – QB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

After a last-minute scramble for a long-term contract fell short before the July 15th deadline (contract extension for franchise-tagged players), one of the league’s better quarterbacks will now be playing on the franchise tag.

With a steady offensive line, Ezekiel Elliot, and a projected top-tier wide receiver trio (Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb), Prescott is in position to have a career year. He ranked fourth in ESPN‘s Total QBR stat (70.2) last year. Dak also ranked among the top four in 2016 and 2017.

86. Josh Allen Josh Allen – EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: NR)

As a rookie, last year’s No. 7 overall pick tallied 10.5 sacks on a morbidly-deteriorating defense. There’s much room for improvement, and if Yannick Ngakoue doesn’t suit up for the Jaguars, there will be even more attention on the talented Allen, but his skill set puts him in great position going forward. There’s a superstar wave of young EDGE defenders in the likes of Nick Bosa, Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt, who all shine in both pass rushing and run defense. There’s potential for Allen, and maybe the Broncos’ Bradley Chubb, to soon join that group.

 

85. Julian Edelman Julian Edelman – WR, New England Patriots (Last year: 74)

Even entering his age-34 season, Edelman remains one of the NFL’s best slot receivers and reliable options on key third-downs and other clutch situations.

Last season, in a bottom-level passing offense in which he was the only reliable non-James White target, Edelman’s stat line was almost identical to DeAndre Hopkins, with 100 catches for a career-high 1,117 receiving yards and six scores (and a passing touchdown!). It’ll be interesting monitoring Edelman’s production with likely new starter Cam Newton now at the helm in New England.

84. Austin Ekeler Austin Ekeler – RB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

Ekeler wowed analysts and fantasy football owners alike in 2019, garnering 993 receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns on 92 catches. Ekeler also showcased his rushing ability in a four-game stretch to begin the year in which he filled in for Melvin Gordon as the Chargers’ starting running back.

Ekeler is certainly capable of slotting into a Christian McCaffrey-type role within the Chargers offense, as a do-it-all offensive weapon worthy of 20-plus carries a game, and the ability to be a factor in the passing game, even when aligning as a receiver in shotgun formations.

83. Jimmy GaroppoloJimmy Garoppolo – QB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

In 27 starts with the 49ers (including playoffs), Jimmy Garoppolo is 21-6 as a starter, while also leading his team to a Super Bowl in his first full season as an NFL starter.

Many may quibble with Garoppolo making this list, but he only stands to get better as he further removes himself from a torn ACL he suffered early in the 2018 season. Normally, it takes a quarterback a year to get back into the swing of things, in terms of pocket presence and mobility, after such an injury — See: the difference between Tom Brady’s 2009 and 2010 seasons after his brutal opening day ACL tear in 2008.

As Garoppolo gains experience in Kyle Shanahan’s system, the team will begin to rely more on his right arm, as opposed to some of the run-heavy game plans we saw during the 2019 playoffs, which includes a 49ers win in which Garoppolo attempted eight passes.

Despite the success of Shanahan’s outside zone rushing scheme, there were times where Garoppolo carried the team in the clutch, like in San Francisco’s 48-46 win in New Orleans.

Yes, he was underwhelming down the stretch of Super Bowl 54, which includes a missed throw on a possible touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders, but he only stands to learn from such an experience. His best days are ahead of him.

82. Tyler LockettTyler Lockett– WR, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: NR)

Since becoming one of Russel Wilson’s top targets as a rookie in 2015, only Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski has been a more efficient connection than Wilson to Tyler Lockett.

As a quick route technician working out of the slot, Locket caught an absurd 74.8 percent of his passes in 2019.

Additionally, last season Wilson had a 125.9 passer rating when targeting Lockett, which was the second year in a row that number was above 125. When a play is needed, the most underrated quarterback in the NFL looks toward perhaps the league’s most underrated wide receiver.

81. A.J. Brown  A.J. Brown – WR, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

The only 2019 rookie wide receiver to make this list, Brown hit the ground running as a bonafide No. 1 WR with size (6-foot-1, 226 pounds) and shiftiness. He led all wide receivers in yards after catch (YAC — 8.9) in 2019, demonstrating his ability to make plays with the football. That number, and his receiving ability in the intermediary part of the field on in-cutting routes, helped shape his phenomenal yards per catch (20.2), which was the league’s second-best mark (behind the Chargers’ Mike Williams).

As the best receiver out of a fun 2019 wide receiver class (D.K. Metcalf, Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, etc.), Brown is player with All-Pro caliber potential going forward. Notice I said All-Pro, not Pro Bowl. There is a major difference between the distinctions, with the former being much more noteworthy.

80. Earl Thomas III Earl Thomas– S, Free Agent (Last year: 93)

Thomas found success in his lone season in Baltimore, holding down the backend as a free safety in the Ravens’ Cover 1-heavy scheme. Because of a training camp altercation with Chuck Clark — and presumably more conflict — the Ravens recently released Thomas, making him a quality free agent. He’s older now (age 31), but is still one of the best safeties in football in terms of range. His ability to go sideline to sideline while reading the quarterback is second only to Ed Reed this century.

79. Amari CooperAmari Cooper – WR, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 67)

Cooper remains one of the better playmakers at wide receiver due to his route-running ability. In his first full season with Dallas, he had the best season of his career. His rapport with Dak Prescott is something the Cowboys would like to capture for the long-term.

Dallas will attempt to lock up Prescott after the season after rewarding Cooper this offseason with a hefty five-year extension worth $100 million.

78. Carson WentzCarson Wentz – QB, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 59)

Wentz has yet to recapture the magic he had during his 2017 campaign, but he was certainly not in the best position to succeed last year. Due mostly to injuries, Philadelphia fielded a wide receiving core that rivaled New England’s as one of the more slower, inefficient groups.

With the return of DeSean Jackson, and additional speed at receiver (drafting of Jalen Reagor, John Hightower) added through the draft, Wentz is better equipped for success in 2020. We should expect him to improve mightily.

77. Akiem Hicks Akiem Hicks – DT, Chicago Bears (Last year: 32)

After having the best season of his career in 2018, Hicks’ play fell back from phenomenal to just, good, in 2019. He’s still one of the best overall defensive lineman in the NFL in the interior. He was great against the run last year for a defense that regressed some.

76.Cam Newton Cam Newton – QB, New England Patriots (Last year: 58)

Newton’s inconsistency, recent injury history and recent play are enough to leave him off this list.

But alas, the potential (30 percent!) of a 31-year-old, highly-motivated Newton with Bill Belichick is too strong. The 2015 NFL MVP signed perhaps the biggest bargain-bin contract in league history last month — a one-year, incentive-laden deal worth $7.5 million if all stipulations are met, but is otherwise a near-league minimum deal with a base salary of $1.05 million (550k guaranteed) for just the 2020 season.

Of course, he’ll technically need to beat out Jarrett Stidham in August for the starting job, but the job of replacing Tom Brady in New England — which sounds crazy to say — is essentially Newton’s. Look for a mix of Brady-era staples and some new principles (QB power, zone-read, pistol formation, etc.) from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this year.

Despite losing in his last eight starts, Newton is set up for success in New England and belongs on the list.

75. Justin SimmonsJustin Simmons – S, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

Simmons was a Second-team All-Pro in 2019, as well as the No. 2-graded safety in the NFL in both coverage and overall play, according to Pro Football FocusJohn Elway and the Broncos would be wise to lock him up to a long-term deal next offseason. Simmons is a cornerstone player for Denver, who has benefited greatly from his play in the backend. He’s a major part of their swift rebuild that may net a playoff spot in 2020.

74. Byron Jones Byron Jones – CB, Miami Dolphins (Last year: 88)

Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, a Bill Belichick disciple, is paying Byron Jones big money to fill the Stephon Gilmore role in Miami as a man coverage-based, No. 1 cornerback opposite fellow shutdown corner Xavien Howard (who is off the list in 2020 after a rough, injury-ridden 2019). Jones’ size and coverage skills make him the idea fit for this role. The UConn alum will help the lead the charge of the Dolphins’ new identity on defense.

73. Courtland SuttonCourtland Sutton  – WR, Denver Broncos (Last year: NR)

The 6-foot-4, 216 pound beast on the perimeter is the perfect No. 1 wide receiver for Drew Lock, who also has rookies Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler, and tight end Noah Fant, to form a promising pass-catching nucleus behind the second-year quarterback and capable running back duo (Phillip Lindsay and Melvin Gordon).

Still, it’s Sutton who is the top playmaker on the team. He only played a few games with Lock down the stretch, yet still grabbed 1,112 receiving yards and six scores mostly with sub-par quarterback play throughout the year. He’s a prototypical, big-bodied X-receiver.

72. Ben RoethlisbergerBen Roethlisberger – QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 35)

After missing virtually all of last season, Big Ben returns at age 38 to write the final chapter of his storied career. Will this be his last season? Or will he play a few more? His soon-to-be seventeenth season as quarterback with the Steelers put him tied for second all-time for most seasons at QB with one team, trailing only Tom Brady’s 20 years in New England.

But enough with the theatrics. Why does Ben belong on this list? Because he’s still a capable starting quarterback with top 10-value. He doesn’t need to be anywhere near that for the Steelers — a team that went 9-7 with awful QB play in 2019 — to succeed in 2020, but expect him to have a moderately successful comeback season nonetheless.

71. Chris GodwinChris Godwin – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Godwin, a 6-foot-1 playmaker who lines up mostly in the slot, was PFF‘s top-graded wide receiver in the NFL last season (90.7). Only Michael Thomas had a better PFF receiving grade.

With Tom Brady now at the helm in Tampa, it’ll be interesting to see how the 43-year-old works with Godwin, who is more of a downfield, Z/slot receiver with deep and intermediate ability, as opposed to a possession slot receiver that Brady is accustomed to working with. The GOAT’s arm will be tested.

Still, Godwin can also produce underneath, as evident by his 591 yards after the catch in 2019, a mark that led all wide receivers. At 24 years old, and entering just his fourth season, his best is likely to come.

70. Keenan Allen Keenan Allen – WR, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 44)

With 303 catches in the last three seasons, Keenan Allen has shaken off early-career injuries to remain one of the most consistent playmakers in football.

At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, he works mostly out of the slot as a route-running extraordinaire despite sub-par speed — at NFL standards —  for the position. He’s seems like an older age 28, considering he’s entering his eight season and has suffered some gruesome knee and kidney injuries, but he still has much more left in the tank.

He should once again be among the most-targeted pass catchers in football in 2020.

69. David Bakhtiari David Bakhtiari – OT, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 39)

Bakhitiari remains one of the most reliable tackles in football. He ranked second in pass blocking grade in 2019, according to PFF. He’s one of the Packers’ cornerstone players, and will continue to be a force this season, as well as a reliable pass rush safeguard to Aaron Rodgers.

68. Marlon HumphreyMarlon Humphrey – CB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 100)

The Ravens, a team rich in defensive tradition, were able to build yet another formidable unit with much help from Humphrey, who has developed into one of the best young cornerbacks in the NFL. Last year he was one of the top cornerbacks in man coverage, both from the slot and the perimeter. The Ravens and the Patriots were in a tier of their own last season in terms of Cover 1 efficiency. But where New England often used a “robber” to take away crossing routes, Ravens cornerbacks often did not have that luxury, as Baltimore blitzed on 60 percent of their Cover 1 snaps. Humphrey proved his worth as a an excellent cover-man in 2019, earning him First-team All-Pro honors. He should only improve from here.

67. Mitchell Schwartz Mitchell Schwartz – OT, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 63)

Schwartz, who has been named an All-Pro in each of the last four seasons, was snubbed from ESPN’s Top 10 tackles list (voted on by NFL scouts and front office personnel) despite remaining one of the most reliable offensive lineman in football. The 31-year-old is a fixture up front. As the great Tony Reali pointed out on Twitter recently, on 834 pass blocking plays in 2019, Schwartz allowed Patrick Mahomes to be touched just five times.

66. Stefon Diggs  Stefon Diggs – WR, Buffalo Bills (Last year: NR)

Diggs is on a short list with the league’s best route runners that includes Keenan Allen, DeVante Adams and Antonio Brown when playing. Diggs will now be Josh Allen’s No. 1 receiver in Buffalo after partly forcing himself out of Minnesota. Allen’s accuracy is not his strong suit, which could spell problems for Diggs and his fluid route-running and awareness. Still, it’s impossible not to improve with the addition of Diggs to a pass-catching core. Diggs ranked 4th last year in yards per reception (17.9) and remains one of the better intermediate and deep threats in the league.

65. Jason KelceJason Kelce – C, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 61)

Kelce remains the best center in football for a team that prides themselves in steady offensive line play. The soon-to-be 33-year-old has been named a First-team All-Pro in each of the last three seasons, while also being PFF’s top-graded center in all three years.

64. Danielle Hunter  Danielle Hunter – EDGE, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Hunter notched 14.5 sacks for the second year in a row last season working as a terrorizing EDGE deFender along the Vikings defense line. He was also one of the top pass rushers in terms of overall pressures. Now that his production has skyrocketed, his praise should soon catch up. He’s underrated.

63. Eddie Jackson Eddie Jackson – S, Chicago Bears (Last year: 51)

His play dipped last year, but so did Khalil Mack’s and the majority of the Bears defense’s. Don’t let last year fool you, he’s one of the best safeties in football. He’ll pick it back up this season.

62. Joe MixonJoe Mixon – RB, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: NR)

It’s hard to produce or stand out league-wide on a team such as last year’s Bengals squad, but Joe Mixon did just that. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he’s one of the bigger feature backs in football. A nice blend of old-school, hard running and new-age athleticism, Mixon should help take some pressure of Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow in 2020.

61.Alvin Kamara Alvin Kamara – RB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 20)

After a booming 2018 season, he wasn’t quite the same in 2019. Injuries certainly played a part. Still, he remains one of the most dynamic players in football, and best pass-catching running backs after Christian McCaffrey. Kamara has notched exactly 81 catches in each of the last three seasons, and averages an insane 5.0 yards per carry on the ground. He has 37 total touchdowns in just three seasons, but his number of scores dropped from 18 to six in 2019. He’s set to bounce back this season.

60.Adam Thielen Adam Thielen – WR, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: 43)

An ankle injury derailed his 2019 season. He’ll be 30 by the end of August, but is set up for a monster season as the Vikings’ No. 1 receiver once more. With Diggs gone, expect a boatload of targets to come his way. He can play on the perimeter and as a “Big” slot receiver.

59.Za'Darius Smith Za’Darius Smith – EDGE, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Smith was a monstrous offseason addition for the Packers last season. With the exception of maybe Nick Bosa in San Francisco, no other defensive newcomer transformed a defense like Smith did in 2019. He notched 13.5 sacks, led the league in total pressures (93) and notched one of the highest-graded seasons in terms of pass rushing and coverage as an EDGE defender, according to PFF.

58. Tyrann MathieuTyrann Mathieu – S, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 86)

Last year’s list showcased a trend in the rising importance of players who work out of the slot, on both offense and defense. As a safety/nickel back hybrid, Tyrann Mathieu showed his worth by picking up the slack in a lackluster secondary, making things difficult for quarterbacks over the middle. The Chiefs likely wouldn’t have had enough talent on defense to win the Super Bowl without him.

57. Lane Johnson Lane Johnson – OT, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: NR)

Johnson has been consistently great as the Eagles right tackle over the past few seasons. In 2019, he allowed just one sack and posted the highest run-blocking grade for a tackle, according to PFF.

56. Josh Jacobs Josh Jacobs – RB, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: NR)

In just 13 games last season, Jacobs posted 4.8 yards per carry while averaging 88.5 yards rushing per game, which was good for third in the league. The Raiders relied heavily on the rookie to produce on offense. That’ll be the case again in 2020, as the franchise opens up their new stadium in Las Vegas. At least they have one of the game’s best young running backs.

55.Eric Kendricks  Eric Kendricks – LB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

He was PFF‘s second-highest graded off-ball linebacker last year. Kendricks excels in pass coverage in an era in which teams rightly covet linebackers of that variety. He’s no slouch in run coverage, either.

54. Nick Chubb Nick Chubb – RB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

Chubb ran for 1,494 rushing yards last season while averaging 5.1 yards per carry, a ridiculous feet. New Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski (former Vikings OC) should be able to use multiple tight ends and an outside zone rushing scheme to further Chubb’s excellence in 2020. Chubb excels in fighting through contact and breaking tackles to gain extra yardage. He’s a workhorse back. He was also PFF‘s top-rated running back (88.7) last season.

53. Derwin JamesDerwin James – S, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 30)

James missed all but five games last season due to a stress fracture in his right foot. The Chargers’ defense suffered without him. James is one of the most versatile players in the NFL, capable of playing as a deep safety, box safety, linebacker or cornerback. He can play both man or zone coverage in any scheme. Let’s hope NFL fans don’t have to suffer, too, and we get a healthy Derwin on the field in 2020.

52. Mike EvansMike Evans – WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 68)

It’ll be interesting to see how Evans, a 6-foot-5, giant X-receiver meshes with a 43-year-old Tom Brady. Brady excelled in his prime with Randy Moss as a deep threat, and later turned back the clock at age 40 with Brandin Cooks as a speedy downfield option. Evans is more of a jump ball machine with excellent hands and underrated route-running and awareness. Considering Brady’s work with Gronk over the years, Evans’ top-notch catch radius should help Brady adjust to Bruce Arians’ offense. Regardless, Evans is one of the best perimeter receivers in the game.

51. Ronnie Stanley Ronnie Stanley – OT, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Stanley, the No. 6 overall pick in 2016, came into his own in Year 4 as the left tackle for one of the best rushing offenses of all time. He was rightly named First-team All-Pro last year, but ironically, it was mostly his pass blocking that earned him the honor. Stanley notched one of PFF‘s highest-graded pass-blocking seasons (93.7) by a tackle ever, and was the second-best graded tackle overall in 2019.

50. Darius Leonard Darius Leonard – LB, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 65)

Leonard is a do-it-all force, and perhaps the best off-ball linebacker in football after Bobby Wagner. His light frame and quickness make him perfect for today’s game. He excels in sideline-to-sideline play and zone coverage.

49. Kevin Byard Kevin Byard – S, Tennessee Titans (Last year: 83)

Byard has 17 interceptions in the last three seasons, one of the top numbers for a safety. His five-year deal last offseason was the richest contract in NFL history for his position. Byard has proven to be a tough player to play against for all types of quarterbacks, stemming from Tom Brady to Lamar Jackson. He picked off Jackson early in last year’s shocking AFC Divisional Playoff where the Titans upended the Ravens, setting the tone for Baltimore’s night of misery. He’s an enforcer who helps lead the way for Mike Vrabel’s tough Tennessee squad with attitude.

48. Aaron JonesAaron Jones – RB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Jones’ 19 total touchdowns tied Christian McCaffrey for the highest mark last season. He’s dual-threat running back who not only excels in the passing game, but can line up on the line as a receiver in shotgun spread formations. But under head coach Matt LaFluer, the Packers now use more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) and zone-rushing schemes from the Shanahan tree. Jones has proven the ability to flourish in multiple offenses over the past two years, and remains an valuable offensive asset for Green Bay.

47. Minkah FitzpatrickMinkah Fitzpatrick – S, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR) 

Pittsburgh traded their first-round pick to Miami for the versatile Minkah Fitzpatrick last year, and the decision ultimately was a sound one. The Steelers pick (No. 18 overall) was essentially used to select the 23-year-old defensive back Swiss army knife who changed the landscape of the Steelers defense. He can play free safety (where he played the majority of snaps in 2019, according to PFF), as a box safety, in the slot, or even out wide in man coverage. It’s that kind of versatility that’s sorely needed in any NFL defense because of the style of today’s game.

46.Davante AdamsDavante Adams – WR, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 64)

Adams notched 83 catches on 127 targets in 12 games last season as the Packers’ No. 1 receiver. Considering the lack of talent across the rest of their pass-catching arsenal, what Adams has done recently in Green Bay has been extra impressive. He remains one of the best route-runners in football. Everything he does is fluid.

45.Jamal Adams Jamal Adams – S, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 47)

Seattle traded a massive haul — including two first-round picks and a third-round pick — to the New York Jets in exchange for perhaps the best safety in the NFL. At face value, the trade suggests the Seahawks will look to partly recreate their Legion-of-Boom defensive glory days by using Adams in the Earl Thomas role as a rangy, Cover 3, deep safety. However, Adams actually played more snaps in the box (401) than he did as a free safety (297) last season. As great as he is in deep coverage, he is also a capable man coverage defender versus athletic tight ends, and is also one of the best pass rushing safeties in football. He’s an all-around playmaker. Look for the Seahawks to move him all around the board, especially since Quandre Diggs capable of handling free safety duties.

44. Grady JarrettGrady Jarrett – DT, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 46)

He doesn’t get enough credit as one of the best interior defenders in the NFL. He’s been of the better pass rushers at defensive tackle for quite some time, but it’s his improvement in run coverage that has made him a complete player. He was just one of four interior defenders to grade above an 80 in both pass-rushing and run defense last season for PFF. The Falcons are in need of help around him (and Deion Jones) on defense, but having Jarrett is a good start.

43. Matt RyanMatt Ryan – QB, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 38)

The Falcons were riddled with injuries in 2019. They began the season 3-9 before winning their last four games. According to PFF, Matt Ryan had his worst season since 2009. The year was a mess overall, but by the end of the season, there were reasons for optimism. The consistency of Ryan, who has been one of the better quarterbacks or the last decade-plus, is one thing Atlanta should be thankful for. The 35-year-old is in position to bounce back in 2019, as he enters perhaps the tail end of his career. With Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and newcomers Hayden Hurst (TE) and Todd Gurley, expect there is a capable arsenal for Ryan to thrive with his passing prowess. I sense a good season coming from him. He’ll need it in a tough AFC South that now features Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

42. Richard ShermanRichard Sherman – CB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR) 

In a bounce-back effort for the ages, Sherman adjusted to life as a veteran by regaining his position as an outspoken team leader for an NFC champion team, a familiar role for him. Sherman finished the season as the top-ranked cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (90.3 grade). He’s lost a bit of speed and quickness, but he’s still a technician as a press-coverage boundary cornerback in San Francisco’s Cover 3 scheme.

41.Chandler Jones Chandler Jones – EDGE, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 54)

Since coming over to Arizona from New England in 2016, no one has had more sacks (60) than Chandler Jones. The two-time All-Pro can thrive as a stand-up EDGE in a 3-4 or as a 4-3-style defensive end on the line. Only Tampa Bay’s Shaquil Barrett (19.5) notched more sacks than Jones’ 19 last season. There are EDGE defenders that are perhaps more complete players, but you could make the case that Jones has been the best pure pass rusher at that spot over the last three or four years.

40. Dalvin Cook  Dalvin Cook – RB, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

The thing with a Shanahan-style offense (in which Minnesota runs under OC Gary Kubiak) is that the outside-zone rushing scheme treats running backs well. Heck, Rueben Droughns, a fullback, ran for 1,240 yards in 2004 under Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos. So, there’s room for skepticism when gauging running back’s production in a Shanahan scheme.

That being said, we can throw that notion out the window here.

Dalvin Cook is one of the best running backs in football, utilizing his talents as a superb cutback runner who dazzles with quickness and tackle-breaking efficiency. On top of Cook’s 1,135 rushing yards and 13 rushing scores in 2019, he also caught 53 passes. He’s the perfect do-it-all player for Minnesota’s scheme.

39. Odell Beckham Jr.Odell Beckham Jr. – WR, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 16)

Kudos to Odell for tweeting out that there’s “unfinished business” in Cleveland. That’s certainly true. Last season was a mess for the hyped-up Browns. But when you can call a 74-catch, 1,035-yard season a disappointment as a wide receiver, we know we’re talking about a special player.

With a new head coach and scheme coming to Cleveland, expect a bounce-back season for Beckham, Baker Mayfield, and the Cleveland offense.

38. DeForest BucknerDeForest Buckner – DT, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 91)

One of the more under-appreciated players in pro football, Buckner is a force along the interior. The Colts traded their No. 13 pick from this past draft — an extremely valuable piece — to the 49ers n order to obtain the 26-year-old. Last season, Buckner’s presence in the interior allowed the likes of Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford to feast in one-on-one matchups along the edge. With Buckner, Darius Leonard and linebacker Bobby Okereke now in the front seven, Indianapolis GM Chris Ballard has done a great job of building up his defensive unit.

37. Ryan Ramczyk  Ryan Ramczyk  – OT, New Orleans Saints (Last year: NR)

Ramczyk is the highest-ranked tackle and third-highest ranked offensive lineman on my list. The two-time All-Pro has been a beast at right tackle since joining the Saints as a first-round pick (No. 32) in 2017.

He was PFF‘s highest-graded tackle (90.9) in 2019, and his 91.8 run-blocking grade was the best among lineman who played most or all of the season. He also didn’t allow a single sack.

36. Cameron Heyward Cameron Heyward – EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 85)

In last year’s list, I detailed Heyward’s game as sort of a 2010’s version of Richard Seymour. Heyward can act as a 3-4-style defensive end or 4-3-style defensive tackle. He mostly plays as an interior defender in Pittsburgh’s Nickel 2-4-5 scheme with 3-4 principles — sort of like New England’s base defense last season. I also noted that Heyward’s best years may be behind him.

I was wrong.

Heyward, 31, had his best season in 2019, tallying nine sacks and the highest grade (91.5) of any interior defender not named Aaron Donald. He was phenomenal both against the run and rushing the passer. With fellow interior defender Stephon Tuitt out of Pittsburgh’s lineup for 10 games, Heyward stepped up to the plate. His inside presence was key in allowing T.J. Watt to have a career year as an EDGE defender.

35. Jalen RamseyJalen Ramsey – CB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 24) 

As the Rams attempt to reverse course on their over spending by cutting bait with others, they appear to be content with spending a boatload of money (and two first-round picks in a trade to Jacksonville) on Aaron Donald and Ramsey, figuring they have the NFL’s best non-QB and a top-three cornerback. They’d be right on both fronts, even if their trade for Ramsey was steep. The former Jaguar can play any coverage, but also thrives in Cover 3. The COVID-19 pandemic may hinder his ability to feel comfortable entering his first full season as a Ram, but with half a season already under his belt out in LA, that shouldn’t be a problem for the boisterous cornerback, who happens to be the most talented in the league at his position. Ramsey struggled last year, adjusting to his new team, but I don’t seem him continuing down that path going forward. He’ll return to his old self, or close to it.

34. Zack Martin  Zack Martin – OG, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 40)

Martin has played six NFL seasons and has made six All-Pro teams. Quite simply, he’s an animal up front.

Last season he was the third-highest graded guard on PFF. He’s been among the top-five graded guards every year he’s been in the league. His pass-blocking grade (90.8) was the top mark by far for his position. He will continue to be a mauler at guard for years to come. He’s the second-highest ranked offensive lineman on my list.

33. Fletcher Cox Fletcher Cox – DT, Philadelphia Eagles (Last year: 19)

Another defensive tackle who qualifies for the “not-talked-about-enough” list is Fletcher Cox.

He’ll turn 30 in December, but should continue to shine as a do-it-all force that creates a ton of inside pressure on the quarterback, even if his sack numbers don’t show it.

32. Calais CampbellCalais Campbell – EDGE, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: 49)

If Cam Newton to New England is the “How did the NFL let this happen?” storyline on the offensive side of the ball, Calias Campbell being traded from the Jaguars to the Ravens for a measly fifth-round pick wins defensive honors.

Sure, he’ll be 34 years old by the time the season starts, but his versatility and run coverage will make a huge difference along a Ravens’ defensive line that was gashed by Derrick Henry and the Titans in their playoff loss last January.

Campbell does work as both an interior presence and EDGE rusher, and fits base defenses with both 3-4 and 4-3 principles (most teams now use Nickel personnel with five defensive backs as a base, but still employ principles of the 4-3 and 3-4).

His PFF run blocking grade (90.6) in 2019 was best among all EDGE defenders and second for interior defensive lineman. His overall PFF grade was third-best among interior lineman. Furthermore, Campbell’s veteran presence should elevate him to a team-captain-ish role on the team if he isn’t literally elected as a captain. The addition of both Campbell and Derek Wolfe will work wonders for the Ravens both on and off the field. It’s Super Bowl or bust for Baltimore.

31. Ezekiel Elliott Ezekiel Elliott – RB, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: 12)

After earning his mega-extension before last season, Elliott became the fifth running back in NFL history to rush for over 5,000 yards before the age of 25. The two-time All-Pro finally turned 25 last week, and should continue his ascension up the all-time rushing list. He ran for 1,387 yards and 12 scores last season with a 4.5 average per rush. That was somehow overlooked, as he stills chasing the magic that came with his rookie year in 2016. The Cowboys offensive line remains one of the league’s best  units, but is not quite as good as it was in 2016. Great offensive line or not, Elliott is one of the best downhill runners in football with excellent vision and stamina.

30. J.J. Watt  J.J. Watt – EDGE, Houston Texans (Last year: 8)

Watt again missed valuable time with an injury after tearing his pectoral halfway through last season. But in eight games, he notched an 88.9 PFF pass-rushing grade, good for sixth-best among EDGE defenders.

Watt’s last full season (2018) was a First-team All-Pro sensation, hence his high rank on my list last season, but the problem is his three seasons surrounding that campaign (2016, 2017, 2019) have added up to just 16 games total, meaning he’s missed 32 regular season games to injury since 2016. That’s two full seasons in four years. He’s 31 years old now, but can still be a force up front.

29. Derrick Henry Derrick Henry – RB, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

Simply put, Henry is a dominant force at the running back position. With size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds), strength and power, the 26-year-old bell cow back is the perfect antidote for smaller and quicker defenses often employed in today’s game.

Despite his downhill running ability, Henry has enough speed to get to the edge, putting fear in opposing defensive backs. If he reaches the second level behind the front seven, he’s likely to break past safeties for a big gain. He ran for a season-high 1,540 yards on 303 carries last season, good for a whopping 5.1 average, while also adding 18 touchdowns (16 rush, two receiving). He was the only player in the NFL to rush for over 100 yards per game (102.7) and also gained a whopping 1,268 yards after contact in 2019.

Things quickly improved for the Titans when they replaced quarterback Marcus Mariota with Ryan Tannehill, but it was mostly Henry’s running down the cold weather stretch that led to Tennessee to an unlikely AFC Championship Game appearance. Henry ran for 446 yards on 83 carries (5.4 average) in the Titans’ three playing games.

In an age where teams are passing on paying their star running backs to long-term deals  — and rightfully so, for the most part — you have to feel good for Henry, who signed a four-year, $50 contract with $25.5 million guaranteed, a few weeks ago.

28. Von Miller Von Miller – EDGE, Denver Broncos (Last year: 9)

After finishing among PFF‘s top-four graded EDGE defenders in each of his first eight seasons, Miller slipped to 22nd in 2019. Could his best years as a pass rusher be behind him? Possibly. But I’d be willing to bet we see a bounce-back season from the 31-year-old with a healthy Bradley Chubb rushing from the other side.

With Drew Lock and an offense with a lot of potential, and a defense fielding Miller, Chubb and newcomers Jurrell Casey (DT) and A.J. Bouye (CB), the Broncos have sort of a pre-season 2019 49ers feel to them. If Denver is to meet expectations, they’ll need a big year from Miller, and he’s certainly still capable.

27. Deshaun Watson  Deshaun Watson – QB, Houston Texans (Last year: 80)

Watson is one of the more promising young quarterbacks in football, and is one of a few talented young field generals (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray, etc.) that has helped usher in a new era of football featuring forward-thinking coaches and front offices building around dual-threat quarterbacks.

Unfortunately, Bill O’Brien the GM has had issues surrounding Watson with a talented squad that can consistently stand up to the likes of Kansas City, Baltimore and perhaps, New England, in the AFC.

Even with left tackle Laramey Tunsil, the Texans’ offensive line is a mess, often sending Watson into a frenzy that includes making plays on the move while running for his safety, away from a pass rush.

Houston’s 16-point comeback win over the Bills in their AFC Wild Card matchup was a good illustration of Watson’s capabilities as a franchise quarterback. Despite DeAndre Hopkins’ departure, a trio of Will Fuller IV, Brandin Cooks and Randall Cobb, along with running back David Johnson, is a sneaky-good lineup. Watson and O’Brien the coach (not to be confused with O’Brien, the GM) should be able to parlay this into another AFC South title, but will that alone be enough to comfort Watson into taking a long-term, big-money deal to stay in Houston? Certainly, money talks, but Watson’s future in Houston may be something to monitor in the next year or two.

26. Travis Kelce Travis Kelce – TE, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 36)

Kelce topped 1,200 yards receiving for the second consecutive season last year, with his 97 catches garnering a total of 200 in his last two seasons.

He’s improved some as a blocker, but his strength is ability as a “jumbo” wide receiver with ridiculous shake-and-bake agility and route-running smoothness for someone of his size — 6-foot-5, 260 pounds. Considering the way he moves, there hasn’t quite been a ‘Y’ playmaker like Kelce. He’s a special pass catcher. Kelce turns 31 in October, but should continue to produce big numbers for the next season or two.

25. Chris Jones Chris Jones – DT, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 71)

The Chiefs were wise to lock up Jones this offseason as a cornerstone piece (along with Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill) for years to come. He’s the best interior pass rusher in the NFL after Aaron Donald, and has improved some as a run defender. His knockdowns on some of Jimmy Garoppolo’s passes late in Super Bowl 54 were a major part of the Chiefs’ comeback victory. He’ll only get better. The Chiefs can build around him up front.

24. Cameron JordanCameron Jordan – EDGE, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 28)

Jordan, 31, is another overlooked EDGE defender in the mold of Fletcher Cox and Grady Jarrett in the interior. In his nine seasons, he has yet to miss a game, while garnering five double-digit sack efforts in the last nine years, which includes a career-high 15.5 takedowns in 2019.

He is just about equally effective both against the run and rushing the passer, and has remained consistent enough to be named to the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade Team, opposite Calias Campbell on the EDGE.

23. Joey Bosa Joey Bosa – EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: 25)

After missing time with a foot injury in 2018, Joey Bosa quietly returned to forming 2019, notching 11.5 sacks en route to being PFF‘s fifth-graded EDGE defenders. His brother stole most of his thunder last season, but only T.J. Watt and Myles Garrett notched a better PFF pass rush grade (90.3) at his position. Joey is just turned 25 years old, and has room for improvement. That’s a scary thought.

22. Tyreek HillTyreek Hill – WR, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 26)

With a never-before-seen blend of speed, agility, burst and tough-it-out, hold-on-to-the-ball catch ability, Hill is the definition of a mighty mouse playmaker with peak explosiveness.

Hill, 26, already owns the most 60-yard-plus touchdowns (16) in NFL History, and averages a whopping 40.8 yards per touchdown. He’s on a short list with the likes of Randy Moss and prime DeSean Jackson as one of the greatest deep threats of all time. Additionally, he has otherworldly after-the-catch ability. He’s the most unique wide receiver in the NFL, and when paired with perhaps the best pass-catching tight end and the most talented quarterback of all-time, the Chiefs are virtually unstoppable on offense when everyone is clicking.

21. DeAndre HopkinsDeAndre Hopkins – WR, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 13)

Hopkins was my highest-ranked receiver last season, and remains in my top three heading into 2020 with his new club. He doesn’t have the explosiveness or speed of a Tyreek Hill, or ridiculous size of a Mike Evans or Julio Jones, but he makes it work with some of the best hands this game has ever seen.

Having just turned 28 this summer, he has ample time to continue climbing up the receiving record books as a reliable No. 1 target for young phenom Kyler Murray in Arizona.

20. Bobby Wagner  Bobby Wagner – LB, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 10)

He had a subpar year by his standards in 2019, but was still one of the best off-ball linebackers in the game. He just turned 30, but remains in the back-end of his prime as the NFL’s premier linebacker and field general. Seattle hasn’t quite hit on their draft picks over the last few years, but they were still wise to build their team around both Russell Wilson and Wagner in the post-Legion-of-Boom era.

19. Julio JonesJulio Jones – WR, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 22)

Entering his age-31 season, there is still a viable case for Jones being the best receiver in football. In a rough year for the Falcons, Jones quietly posted a 99-catch, 1,394-yard season that somehow is his worst campaign since 2013, in terms of statistical production. That’s absolutely insane.

Over the past six seasons, Jones has averaged 103 catches and 1,565 receiving yards per year. Expect him to continue that pace in 2020.

18.Saquon Barkley Saquon Barkley – RB, New York Giants (Last year: 17)

It’s hard to dock Barkley because of his subpar offensive line and lack of an overall offense. All eyes are on him. Yet, he produced almost 1,500 total yards and eight scores in 13 games last season.

At 6-foot, 233 pounds with size, speed and power, the 23-year-old has yet to scratch the surface of what he can accomplish. He’s the most talented running back in football, and one of the most physically-gifted athletic freaks in all of sports.

17. Myles Garrett Myles Garrett – EDGE, Cleveland Browns (Last year: 34)

In hopes of putting last year’s debacle with Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph behind him, Garrett enters 2020 with a massive new contract and a renewed sense of purpose.

Garrett somehow notched 10 sacks in 10 games played last year, and was the No. 1 pass rusher in terms of PFF‘s grading system before being suspended for the rest of the year after the incident. Like the 2019 Cleveland Browns in general, Garrett and the reset of the talented players on that squad are ready to leave the past where it belongs in hopes of reaching the postseason in 2020 with new head coach Kevin Stefanski.

16. T.J. Watt  T.J. Watt – EDGE, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: NR)

Watt, 25, finished second in DPOY voting last year for good reason. He increased his sack total (14.5) for the third year in a row, giving him 34.5 in his first three seasons. He was also graded as PFF‘s top EDGE defender both overall (91.3) and rushing the passer (91.7).

He’s a monster in all facets as a Nickel 2-4-5 stand-up EDGE in Pittsburgh’s base defense, which uses 3-4 principles from their 2000s days. He is in line for a massive contract extension, perhaps next offseason.

15. Khalil Mack Khalil Mack – EDGE, Chicago Bears (Last year: 5)

Khalil Mack’s “off” year was a season in which he notched 8.5 sacks, but still ranked among the top EDGE defenders in both run coverage and pass rushing, according to PFF.

Entering his age-29 season, Mack is well positioned to return to his monstrous ways as a stand-up rusher opposite newcomer Robert Quinn. Expect him to notch double digit sacks in 2020 as he feasts off the edge.

14. Tre'Davious White Tre’Davious White – CB, Buffalo Bills (Last year: 45)

It’s ironic that the Bills parted ways with man coverage extraordinaire Stephon Gilmore, only to draft Tre’Davious White in the first round of that same offseason.

Bills GM Brandon Beane has done an excellent job in building Buffalo’s roster into one of the better teams heading into 2020, and no player represents that more than the 25-year-old White. The 2017 first-round pick has become the second-best cornerback in football with the inclination that he may be become the premier player at his position in due time.

White primarily plays a lot of zone coverage in the Bills’ scheme, but also excels when asked to play man coverage. He also plays the majority of his snaps out wide on the perimeter. But in 2017 and 2018, White often shadowed Rob Gronkowski, and gave him fits.

Basically, he can do it all.

13. Christian McCaffrey Christian McCaffrey – RB, Carolina Panthers (Last year: 37) 

The Panthers ponied up to hand McCaffrey a four-year deal upwards of $16 million per season, with over half of the contract guaranteed. That’s the most lucrative contract for a running back in NFL history. He earned the deal by becoming the first running back in league history to accumulate over 2,500 rushing yards and 2,500 receiving yards in his first three seasons, while also playing the highest rate of snaps for a running back (1,004 snaps, 93.4 percent) in 2019, according to Next Gen Stats. He’s not a running back of the traditional mold. Instead, he’s a phenomenally versatile offensive playmaker who is perfect for today’s game, as evident by his 1,387 rushing yards and 116 catches last season.

“I don’t look at Christian [McCaffrey] as just a running back,” Panthers first-year head coach Matt Rhule told WFNZ in March. “We see him as a weapon. We see him as a person that can be a receiver, a running back, can be a returner. As important as anything else is the true leader [McCaffrey is] on the team and he does everything the right way. I don’t think he’s the type of player you can pigeonhole into one position.”

12. Quenton Nelson Quenton Nelson – OG, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 33)

The 24-year-old, two-time First-team All-Pro has already became the best guard, and offensive lineman, in all of pro football.

He was the second-highest graded offensive lineman by PFF (91.2) last season (behind Eagles guard Brandon Brooks), and allowed just three sacks on 1,042 offensive snaps. He’s equally dominant in both pass blocking and run blocking. He will only get better. He’s already on track to become a Hall-of-Famer, and one of the best guards this game has ever seen.

 

11. Nick BosaNick Bosa – EDGE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Nick Bosa, the second overall pick in 2019, was an absolute madman along the edge as a rookie. He entered the league with a lot of hype, and somehow exceed it by a hefty margin.

It’s true that the 49ers were absolutely stacked up front, fielding four other first-rounders along the defensive line, which included DeForest Buckner and Dee Ford, but the 22-year-old Bosa stood out among the group.

He’s a better pass rusher than run stuffer, but he also sets the edge exceptionally well in run coverage. On passing downs, Bosa utilizes a nice blend of power and finesse moves to get to the quarterback. Nick virtually overpowers tackles as one of the most athletic EDGE defenders in the game.

He ranked second among EDGE players in PFF grade (89.8) last season, and generated an absurd 80 pressures, which is the more telling stat than his nine sacks.

In all, he had one of the most impressive rookie seasons of any defensive player ever last year, and will only get better.

 

10. Michael Thomas Michael Thomas – WR, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 23)

In sports, when everyone knows something is going to happen and it still can’t be stopped, that speaks to the dominance of the player involved.

Michael Thomas on intermediate passing targets has become one of the surest bets in the NFL.

Playing both on the perimeter and as a “big” slot option, Thomas uses his fantastic hands, body control, and elite awareness to come down with all different kinds of catches. At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, he boxes defenders out, high points balls, and destroys both man and zone coverage.

He broke the single-season catch record with 149 grabs last season to go a long with a league-leading 1,725 receiving yards on 185 targets. He has 470 catches in just four seasons in the league, and should continue to dominate in 2020 with Drew Brees still at the helm.

He’s the top receiver on my list this year, and he’s earned it.

9. Aaron RodgersAaron Rodgers – QB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: 3)

There’s no question that last season was an acclimation season for Aaron Rodgers under new head coach Matt LaFluer’s system. LaFluer loves running ’12’ personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) with the quarterback under center in a Shanahan-type system that favors the outside-zone running game.

Add in the lack of secondary weapons outside of DeVante Adams and Aaron Jones — who are both supreme players who made my list, however — and you have a subpar season, by Rodgers’ standards.

Still, in his Age-35 season, Rodgers threw for over 4,000 yards with a 26-to-four touchdown-to-interception ratio, which eases the appearance of his 50.4 Total QBR mark. Plus, Rodgers helped lead the Packers to the NFC Championship Game for the third time in the last six seasons.

Now, he entered 2020 with something to prove after Green Bay drafted what could be his eventual replacement in the first round in quarterback Jordan Love. I expect Rodgers to respond by having a bounce-back campaign. This will only drive him.

8. Drew Brees Drew Brees – QB, New Orleans Saints (Last year: 6)

Like Tom Brady — before last season, at least — Drew Brees has enjoyed a fruitful twilight that perhaps includes his best play in his late 30’s and early 40’s.

Last year, at 40, he nearly broke is completion percentage record from the year before (74.4 percent in 2018) with a 74.3 percent mark, while also boasting a career-high 116.3 rating and nearly 3,000 passing yards in 11 games. Statistically, he is the most accurate passer of all time.

He enters 2020 with yet another prime chance to win a coveted second Super Bowl ring in what looks to be his final season. New Orleans has perhaps the best roster in football. They have a solid defense, the most productive wide receiver in football, and a dynamic playmaker at running back. They also added Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver and still have the versatile Taysom Hill as a Swiss Army knife.

Then there’s Sean Payton. Brees and Payton have been together since their dual arrival in New Orleans in 2006, and they know how much a second Super Bowl ring would mean to their run.

Last year, Brees took the lead as the all-time leader in touchdown passes, which is now a race that sees him leading Tom Brady by six. He also graded out as the second best passer (89.2) and overall quarterback (90.6) in PFF’s grading system.

For the Saints, anything less than a Super Bowl win is a disappointment. Luckily, they still have one of the best quarterbacks of all time, who is ready to write his final chapter.

7. George Kittle George Kittle – TE, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: 29)

Not only was George Kittle the top tight end in football last year, PFF ranked him as their top player overall in the NFL.

Kittle graded as a 94.4 overall, which is by far their top mark for a tight end last season, and the highest mark for a tight end ever, in their grading system.

As a prototypical ‘Y’ with devastating yards-after-catch ability, Kittle is simply too big for defensive backs, and perhaps too fast and too big for linebackers, as well. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Kittle broke 20 tackles (most for a tight end or wide receiver in 2019) and produced 622 yards after catch last season. The latter mark was more than any non-running back pass catcher, and good for third overall behind just Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler.

Furthermore, the 26-year-old is as good a blocker as he is a pass catcher. He’s filled the whole left by the departure of prime Rob Gronkowski as the man among boys at the position.

6. Tom Brady Tom Brady – QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: 1)

I suspect this will be one of the more scrutinized slots on my list.

No, Tom Brady was not great last season. At times, he was as inaccurate and frustrated as he’s ever been. As he enters unknown territory at age 43, there’s no doubt his physical skills have already begun to decline.

But in today’s game, where quarterbacks are protected, Brady at 70 percent, physically, and at his best-of-all-time peak, mentally, is still a dangerous combo. Add in the fact that he is as driven as ever to prove everyone wrong (again) and will be throwing to an absurdly-talented tight end trio and wide receiver duo, and you can bet there’s a better chance that we’ll see GOAT-level Brady for stretches in 2020.

Last year, he dealt with a receiving core that was last in the league by a mile in average separation. After a fun start, Josh Gordon was jettisoned, the Antonio Brown experiment imploded, Gronkowski, James Develin, Trent Brown and David Andrews were not there to block and Brady was left with 33-year-old Julian Edelman and not much else.

So with Brady, there’s a chicken and egg-type situation — Was New England’s offense subpar because of Brady’s decline? Or was it mostly his surrounding core? I think there’s a little bit of the former at play, but I would attribute most of last year to the latter.

Plus, are you willing to doubt the man this Fall?

5. Lamar JacksonLamar Jackson – QB, Baltimore Ravens (Last year: NR)

Lamar Jackson took the league by storm in 2019, rightfully becoming the second unanimous NFL MVP in league history (Tom Brady was the first in 2010).

He obliterated the single-season rushing yards record for a quarterback with 1,206 yards on the ground, good for sixth in the league overall. He did so with a 6.9-yard rushing average mostly on designed runs that defenses were anticipating, but could not stop.

Not only is Jackson the best quarterback at designed runs the game has ever seen, he’s also a competent passer who will vastly improve as he becomes more polished. In 2019, he threw for a league-high 36 touchdown passes with just six interceptions and and posted a league-best 81.8 Total QBR.

At times, he was simply unstoppable. I don’t see his game being “figured out” anytime soon. Sure, defenses will adjust, but you can’t mimic Jackson’s athleticism, and he’ll only get better as a field general. He may not post absurd, unanimous MVP-type numbers for many more seasons, but he’ll continue to be a star for years to come.

4. Stephon GilmoreStephon Gilmore – CB, New England Patriots (Last year: 15)

In Gilmore, the Patriots have the best shutdown, man coverage cornerback since Darrelle Revis from his early-career days as a New York Jet. Gilmore became the first defensive back in roughly a decade to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award by stymieing opposing No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis. His incredible play was at its peak during the middle of last season, when he held Cowboys No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper to zero catches on two targets, while also grabbing an interception. Bill Belichick is able to scheme up a pass rush in New England’s 3-4-type, Nickel 2-4-5 defensive scheme by sending blitzing linebackers while knowing Gilmore will blanket the opposing team’s top pass-catching option. He’s the best man coverage cornerback since peak Darrelle Revis, and the second-best defensive player in the league, and perhaps the most valuable in today’s game.

3. Russell Wilson  Russell Wilson – QB, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: 7)

Perhaps the most underrated player in today’s game, Russell Wilson’s value to Seattle rivals that of any other player’s value to their respective team as we begin the new decade.

Last season, he was the top-graded quarterback (91.9) by PFF, all while posting a 31-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. And although the drafting of D.K. Metcalf is a nice compliment to Tyler Lockett, the quarterback’s supporting cast is still a so-so affair compared to that of some of his fellow elite field generals.

His offensive line is shaky, and although Seattle has a decent running game, the team relies too much on it, often taking the ball out of Wilson’s hands. He’s one of the best clutch quarterbacks this game has ever seen, often using his ability to improvise or use his league-best passing touch to fit in downfield passes when the team needs him most.

After solids drafts that netted the Legion of Boom era, GM Jon Schneider has been just OK in recent seasons, appearing to whiff on the team’s last four first-round picks, and gambling by trading their next two to the Jets for safety Jamal Adams.

Wilson will continue to lead Seattle to seasons of 10-plus wins, but for the Seahawks to return to the big game, they’ll need to improve their defense and offensive line. Still, he’s a treat to watch, especially when he elevates this Seattle team.

2. Aaron Donald Aaron Donald – DT, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: 2)

It’s a shame Donald hasn’t reached the top spot on my list for the past three years, but as the league’s best non-QB over that span, he’s been in my top three on all three of my lists since I began this exercise in the Summer of 2018.

His PFF grades are the most impressive marks found on the website. He has been graded the top interior defender for the past five years, and was the second-best graded in 2014, his rookie season. He’s missed just two games in his career, and has averaged 16.5 sacks over the last two seasons as a defensive tackle, which is silly.

He’s a future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, and one of the most dominant football players of all time.

1. Patrick MahomesPatrick Mahomes – QB, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 4)

With less than two full seasons as a starter under his belt, 24-year-old Patrick Mahomes has twice reached the AFC Championship Game and has earned an NFL MVP award and Super Bowl 54 MVP honors. His ascension to this spot could come with a decade-long warranty. He has more to prove, but it’s clear he’s a legendary player who could be on path to challenge Brady as the GOAT, years from now.

A pass-catching offense featuring the likes of Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, a sturdy offensive line and mastermind Andy Reid is an excellent surrounding cast, but we saw the difference between Alex Smith and Mahomes leading this offense. Yes, even though he has tons of help, Mahomes is simply the most talented quarterback to ever play the game.

Cam Newton vs Patriots -- 2013

Why Cam Newton And The Patriots Always Made Sense

Perhaps when the dust settles on the upcoming 2020 NFL season (if there indeed is a season) the most important date of the league’s 101st campaign may end up being a day that has already passed.

March 17th.

On the start of free agency, and over a month before the draft, Tom Brady announced he would be leaving Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots after 20 seasons and six Super Bowl rings with the team.

On that same date, the Carolina Panthers botched their wishful-thinking-based PR move by taking to social media to announce that they were allowing Cam Newton, their NFL MVP quarterback of nine seasons, to seek a trade, which was news to Newton.

After the goodbyes and initial dust settled on Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, many wondered — “Cam Newton to New England?”

We speculated. We wished. We became enamored with the idea.

But as days turned to weeks, weeks turned to months, and that included a NFL Draft where the Patriots passed on drafting a quarterback. By then, most of the media and the Patriots’ fan base talked themselves into 2019 fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham as the heir to Brady’s throne, with Brian Hoyer, who is back in New England for a third time, as the backup and mentor.

Now, as of the very end of June, another former Auburn quarterback is the favorite to become New England’s first QB1 in their post-Brady era.

It was a weird time for this move to finally take shape. But these are weird times, indeed. Which is why New England, who reportedly had the least amount of cap space in the NFL before this deal (under $1 million), is somehow signing Newton to an incentive-heavy deal that caps out at $7.5 million over one season. This is during an offseason where the Detroit Lions signed Chase Daniel, a quarterback with five career starts, to a three-year, $13.5 million contract to backup Matthew Stafford.

New England will need to make moves via trades, cuts or extensions — Joe Thuney before July 15? — to be at a realistic cap figure by season’s start, but Belichick almost certainly has a plan.

And although the timing of this signing suggests Belichick simply gave in to the ultimate bargain in Newton, and was willing to ride with Stidham or Hoyer, it appeared New England was building an offense that fits a quarterback with Newton’s skill set.

In Carolina, the Panthers often used Pistol formations that often employed off-line tight ends and H-back/wing back-like players, and Carolina utilized many RPO’s and zone-reads to maximize Newton’s dual-threat skill set.

In the signing of uber-athletic fullback Danny Vitale, and drafting of do-everything H-Back Dalton Keene in the third round out of Virginia Tech, Belichick now has a couple players that fit a Pistol-type scheme.

Additionally, Sony Michel, whose name is a hotbed for controversy — was he worth a first-round pick in 2018? — among the New England fan base, had great success with shotgun, inside zone runs while at the University of Georgia. It would take some practice, but Michel and Newton could thrive a shotgun, zone-read system.

Either with Newton, or Stidham, New England was surely shifting their offense to where they’ll include a mix of Kyle Shanahan-infused concepts (outside zone, heavy motion, bootleg, heavy play-action). They may still lean that way with Newton, but perhaps with a touch of what Baltimore is doing with Lamar Jackson. There will be more designed runs, either via zone-read or by power rushing, to utilize Newton’s skills. We can’t forget, Newton forced more missed tackles (110), ran for more yards (4,806) and more rushing touchdowns (58) than any other quarterback in the 2010’s.

But Newton can also play in the pocket.

While under center, Newton is capable of running bootlegs and reading defenses on play-action concepts that work off a well-oiled rushing attack. In fact, Newton would bet set up for more success in those concepts than he ever was in Carolina, as the Patriots are poised to have one of the league’s better offensive lines with a stout interior, as long as they keep Thuney.

Julian Edelman and James White are the most reliable targets on offense in New England. Both players thrived with Brady. Newton and Brady are different types of passers, but the former 2015 NFL MVP could become successful with some of the timing routes that the veterans were accustomed to with Brady. We saw some of that with Newton throwing to McCaffrey on angle and option routes out of the backfield when the Panthers stared 6-2 in 2018, the last time Newton looked like, well, Newton.

The pass catcher who stands the most to gain with Newton is 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry.

One of Cam’s best qualities is his ability to throw the slant pass to bigger wide receivers. In fact, Newton is one of the best all time passers of that route, rifling the ball in to the perfect spot to the likes of Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin in the past. Harry, a big-bodied (6-foot-4, 2225 pounds) jack-of-all-trades receiver who projects as the Patriots’ top ‘X’ or boundry receiver, should receiver a big boost in his sophomore campaign with Newton, as he projects as a better fit with him than Brady, due to his skills.

Elsewhere, Mohamed Sanu, rookie tight end Devin Asiasi, Rex Burkhead and Damiere Byrd, Newton’s teammate for four years at Carolina, would also been the mix in a Newton-led offense, and each is a pass catcher capable of building a legitamite rapport with Cam.

In a league with unique talents of all kinds at quarterback (Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Aaron Rodgers) now, Newton at his best is uniquely like no other. His peak is perhaps a much more athletic, and better version of Ben Roethlisberger, although he is not as consistent as Big Ben.

But his surrounding help by the way of front office, coaching and personnel, and injury luck had a say in his inconsistency.

In fact, Newton, 31, has lost his last eight starts, and has played just 16 games over the past two seasons, after missing just three games in his first seven seasons in Carolina.

He’s had multiple surgeries to correct a Lisfranc injury that derailed his 2019 season, and shoulder issues that that nagged him before that. In all, he’s had major surgery three different times since 2017.

But judging by his social media posts detailing his workouts and status, it appears Newton is ready to go. He’s eager to prove the Panthers, and the rest of the league that more MVP-level seasons remain in his future. And he’s joining the perfect team to do so. A team with the best head coach in the history of football, and an offensive coordinator in Josh McDaniels that changes offensive schemes and game plans on the fly like no other.

In fact, McDaniels drafted Tim Tebow in 2010 when he was the head coach of the Denver Broncos, and conduced a workout for Lamar Jackson himself during the lead up to the 2018 NFL Draft, in which the Patriots were reportedly interested in the dual-threat NFL MVP.

It appears McDaniels, and maybe Belichick, have been itching for this moment. A chance to show what they could do with a new-age franchise quarterback who is just as dangerous as a runner as he is a passer.

Even Newton at 70 percent effectiveness is an upgrade over Stidham, and is good enough to challenge, and defeat the Buffalo Bills for the AFC East crown, and perhaps, challenge the likes of the Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers (yes, Pittsburgh will be good) in the AFC, just as they’ve done the past 20 years with Brady at the helm.

Newton to the Patriots always made too much sense, even if New England seemingly wasn’t interested, and risked the chance of Newton signing elsewhere. Eventually, New England got their man. And with an offensive that has begun to lean more on the running game since the latter half of the 2018 season, adding Newton would solidify their move to power-rushing concepts and unique rush-heavy game plans that use concepts from San Francisco and Baltimore’s attacks. As the league has moved to smaller, faster players on defense, Belichick has loaded up on full backs, tight ends, and now, Newton, while passing on drafting a wide receiver, opting to stick with 34-year-old Edelman and 31-year-old Sanu as his top targets.

With last year’s No. 1 defense in both points allowed and total yardage returning on a slightly re-tooled front seven, the Patriots are competent quarterback play away from remaining one of the NFL’s top contenders, and with the chance of Newton being much more than just competent, there’s always a chance that this could become a special season.

Of course, the still-going pandemic of COVID-19 seems to be on the uptick once more, leaving the league vulnerable to a push back, or shortened season, if there is a season at all, no matter how many league statements are made in June in July. As it is, the current landscape makes it harder for newer players to get up to speed. There’s always the extremely slim chance that Stidham beats out Newton for the job, and New England cuts ties with Newton before Week 1.

But assuming the latter, and highly unlikely scenario happens, and the league finds a way to start on time during the Coronavirus outbreak, Newton and the Patriots now rival Brady, Rob Gronkowski and the Bucs as the two most interesting stories in the league, by far.

On March 17th, the Patriots were without a NFL MVP-level quarterback. It was an odd three and a half months. And now, the odd couple of Newton and the Patriots feels just right.

Patriots vs Steelers - Nickel 2-4-5

New England Patriots Defense: 2019 Film Review + 2020 Projections

The New England Patriots spent most of the 2019 season leaning on their defense, which posted league-best numbers in points per game allowed (14.1) and yards per game allowed (275.9).

With Tom Brady now in Tampa Bay, the 2020 team could be even more reliant on it’s defense.

Bill Belichick’s defensive prowess and long-standing expertise in the sport of pro football has the Patriots at the forefront of defensive ingenuity and versatile-driven schemes. The formations, personnel and strategy used by New England in 2019 were no different.

Here is a breakdown of the Patriots’ defensive game plan, and oft-used formations for each of their 17 games last season, with a separate section detailing 2020 projections for rookies and additional newcomers in this piece’s bookend.

*******

WEEK 1 (VS. PITTSBURGH STEELERS)

          

Most common formation: Nickel 2-4-5

DT — Lawrence Guy 

DT — Michael Bennett 

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

EDGE (stand-up) — Shilique Calhoun 

LB — Dont’a Hightower 

LB — Jamie Collins

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty 

FS — Devin McCourty 

SS — Patrick Chung

 

Key inactives/injuries: Kyle Van Noy, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: Patriots used six or more defensive backs on roughly 42 percent of snaps as the Steelers had four different wide receivers play over 52 percent of snaps. New England used three safeties on about 44 percent of snaps. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-The Patriots began with their Nickel 2-4-5 defense above for the team’s first six snaps, before adding Duron Harmon, Chase Winovich and Adam Butler to the mix for a Big Dime 1-4-6 set. 

 

-With Kyle Van Noy out, EDGE Shilique Calhoun was on the field for 82 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps, a season high for him. 

 

-Jamie Collins predominantly was used as an off-ball linebacker next to Hightower, but was secondarily used on the EDGE. At times, Collins was used as a stand-up edge rusher, and Patrick Chung took his spot as a linebacker next to Hightower in what could be described as a 3-4 defense or Big Nickel look. 

 

-Speaking of Chung, Jonathan Jones played more snaps (79 percent) than Chung (70 percent) as the latter received one of his lighter workloads of the season. Harmon (60 percent of snaps) was mostly used as a deep safety, which put Devin McCourty in the box for a good deal of snaps. 

 

-Despite being an active member on gameday, Elandon Roberts played zero defensive snaps. Semi-regularly, Ja’Whaun Bentley (37 percent of snaps) played alongside Hightower in the “thumper” inside linebacker role.

 

WEEK 2 (AT MIAMI DOLPHINS)

           

Most common formation: Big Dime 2-3-6 

DT — Adam Butler

DT — Michael Bennett

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

LB/EDGE — Dont’a Hightower 

LB — Jamie Collins

SS/LB — Terrence Brooks/Patrick Chung

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty 

S — Devin McCourty 

S — Duron Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Deatrich Wise Jr., Joejuan Williams

 

Interesting wrinkle: The Patriots ran some variation of their Big Dime defense (1-4-6, 2-3-6) with safeties about 48 percent of time. Some of the 2-3-6 looks were essentially their Nickel 2-4-5 scheme with Terrence Brooks or Patrick Chung playing in the box as an inside linebacker. They also used just one or two defensive lineman (hand in the dirt) on roughly 77 percent of snaps. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-New England began the game predominantly with different 3-4 looks, which varied from a traditional 3-4 with three down lineman all with their hand in the dirt, to Chase Winovich subbing in as a stand-up 3-4 defensive end on the line, essentially giving Bill Belichick three EDGE rushers. Patrick Chung also came up in the box with the linebackers for a good chunk of the early 3-4 snaps. 

 

-As mentioned above, the Patriots often used Brooks in the box as a linebacker in Big Dime 2-3-6 formations. This was one of just four games on the year that saw Brooks play at least 48 percent of defensive snaps. 

 

-Hightower spent some time as an EDGE defender in these Big Dime looks. 

 

-New England’s seemingly base (up to this point) Nickel 2-4-5 defense with three cornerbacks from Week 1 was hardly used until garbage time, ironically. 

 

-Lawrence Guy played a season-low 22 percent of defensive snaps as Danny Shelton, Byron Cowart and Michael Bennett rotated in along the line in different fronts. 

 

WEEK 3 (VS NEW YORK JETS)

             

Most common formation: Nickel 2-4-5 (“little” 3-4 hybrid)

DT — Lawrence Guy

DT — Danny Shelton

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

SS/LB — Patrick Chung

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty/J.C. Jackson 

FS — Devin McCourty 

 

Key inactives/injuries: Shilique Calhoun

 

Interesting wrinkle: Sort of like last week’s usage of Chase Winovich as some sort of stand-up 3-4 defensive end, the Patriots used John Simon in a stand-up spot on the line early, in what looked like Nickel 2-4-5 personnel with Jamie Collins moving all along the front seven (but mostly on the edge outside Simon), and Patrick Chung playing up in the box as a pseudo-linebacker. Really, this look can be described as a makeshift 3-4 in nickel personnel. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-When New England ran a prototypical 3-4 front, Shelton played as the nose tackle with Guy and Adam Butler as 3-4 defensive ends. One of the three usually came off for John Simon in the Nickel 2-4-5 front that was disguised as sa 3-4 (explained above). 

 

– Jamie Collins was used much more as an EDGE defender in both the Patriots’ Nickel 2-4-5/makeshift 3-4 set and traditional 3-4 look this week. Elandon Roberts was mostly used as an off-ball, ‘thumper” linebacker in New England’s traditional 3-4 set.

 

-For the second week in a row, Jonathan Jones seemingly played a couple snaps as a safety in two-deep coverage. Jones, a slot cornerback, prominently played safety for most of Super Bowl 53. Duron Harmon played less than last week as New England used much fewer three-safety packages. 

 

-Perhaps to take advantage of inexperienced Jets QB Luke Falk, Belichick implemented his “amoeba” defense, featuring all stand-up rushers on the line, a few times this week. 

 

WEEK 4 (AT BUFFALO BILLS)

         

Most common formation: Nickel 2-4-5 (“little” 3-4 hybrid)

DT — Lawrence Guy

DT — Danny Shelton/Adam Butler

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley

SS/LB — Patrick Chung

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty

FS — Devin McCourty 

 

Key inactives/injuries: Dont’a Hightower, Byron Cowart, Joejuan Williams 

 

Interesting wrinkle: With Hightower out, Collins and Van Noy played every snap on defense, while Ja’Whaun Bentley was primarily used in Hightower’s role in New England’s Nickel 2-4-5, while Elandon Roberts joined Bentley as an inside linebacker in the Patriots’ traditional 3-4 look. Collins moved all along the front seven, playing a good deal of snaps in the slot and as an of-ball linebacker in coverage. Collins was in coverage much more than prior weeks.

 

Additional analysis: 

-New England stuck with their Nickel 2-4-5 look for much of the game, bouncing back and forth between their Week 1, base look with that personnel, and the “little” 3-4 wrinkle from Week 3. When Matt Barkley entered the game late for Josh Allen, the Patriots mostly used a Big Dime personnel in a 2-3-6 front to finish a close game.

 

-The Patriots opted to use single-high coverage with Devin McCourty deep for a good deal of their Nickel 2-4-5/”little” 3-4 looks, even when Josh Allen was operating under a shotgun spread offense in clear passing situations. When they went two-deep with the common personnel listed above, Jonathan Jones moved back a few times to play safety, while Chung remained in the box. On some of these two-deep looks, Jones was lined up over the slot receiver, and came up after the snap, anyhow. 

 

-Bill Belichick and company introduced a four-safety package in their Quarter 1-3-7 front in the third quarter. One one play, all four were in the box, then Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung played shallow middle zones, while Terrence Brooks played man coverage, and Duron Harmon sprinted back to play the deep half of the field.

 

WEEK 5 (AT WASHINGTON)

     

Most common formation: Dime (4 CBs)

DT — Adam Butler

DT — Lawrence Guy/Danny Shelton

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — Dont’a Hightower 

LB — Jamie Collins

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty

CB — J.C. Jackson

S — Devin McCourty 

S — Duorn Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Patrick Chung, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: With Patrick Chung out, the Patriots leaned heavily on traditional Dime personnel — a formation employing four cornerbacks — for much of the game. Each of New England top four cornerbacks (Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Jones, Jackson) played at least 75 percent of snaps, and rookie cornerback Joejuan Williams played his first defensive snaps (8) of the season late in garbage time. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-On a few plays, Bill Belichick used his Nickel 2-4-5 personnel in yet a different way. Collins, Simon and Van Noy were all along the EDGE on the line of scrimmage, while Dont’a Hightower was the only off-ball linebacker, and Devin McCourty was utilized as a box safety. These plays often had a two-deep coverage with Duron Harmon and Jonathan Jones as safeties, as McCourty took Chung’s role in the box. 

 

-New England ran with their four-cornerback Dime formation for most of the second half, as Washington tried to play catch-up, with each of their top four wide receivers logging at least 54 percent of offensive snaps throughout the game. 

 

-Hightower was used as an EDGE defender on a good deal of snaps in Dime personnel, opposite Van Noy, with Collins as the off-ball linebacker. John Simon was held to under 20 percent of snaps, a season-low by far for him. 

 

-Adam Butler, Danny Shelton, Lawrencee Guy and Deatrich Wise Jr. logged more snaps along the defensive line than Michael Bennett, who was used mostly late in the game in a pass-rushing role. 

 

WEEK 6 (VS NEW YORK GIANTS)

         

Most common formation: Nickel 2-4-5

DT — Lawrence Guy

DT — Danny Shelton/Adam Butler

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower/Ja’Whaun Bentley

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty

SS — Devin McCourty 

FS — Duron Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Byron Cowart, Joejuan Williams

 

Interesting wrinkle: The Patriots began the game with mostly a Nickel 2-4-5 look with Patrick Chung returning to the fold after missing the previous week, but Chung played just eight snaps before missing the rest of this game with an injury. From then on out, New England switched between a Nickel 2-4-5 or three-safety package in the form of Big Nickel or Big Dime personnel. New England used a three-safety package on roughly 42 percent of defensive snaps.

 

Additional analysis: 

-With Chung out for most of the game, Devin McCourty spent a lot of time in the box both in Nickel 2-4-5 looks and Big Nickel or Big Dime looks. In the three-safety packages, both Devin McCourty and Brooks were often in the box together, which made for an intimidating, crowded line of scrimmage for rookie quarterback Daniel Jones. 

 

-In New England’s traditional three-cornerback Nickel 2-4-5, Dont’a Hightower was mostly on the field, playing off-ball linebacker. Hightower often came off the field for Big Dime situations, and sometimes Big Nickel looks, mostly for either Terrence Brooks, who played roughly 48 percent of defensive snaps in the box as a pseudo-linebacker, or Ja’Whaun Bentley (36 percent of defensive snaps), who also received a healthy amount of snaps at linebacker. 

 

-J.C. Jackson played roughly 42 percent of defensive snaps, mostly coming on the field with Terrence Brooks in Big Dime personnel, but sometimes subbing in for Jason McCourty as the Patriots’ second boundary cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore. 

 

WEEK 7 (AT NEW YORK JETS)

     

Most common formation: Nickel 2-4-5

DT — Lawrence Guy

DT — Danny Shelton

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon/Chase Winovich

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty/J.C. Jackson

S — Devin McCourty 

S — Duron Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Patrick Chung, Michael Bennett

 

Interesting wrinkle: So far this season, this was Belichick and the New England defense at its most versatile, as the team never used one formation for more than roughly 27 percent of defensive snaps. Among the most used formations were: Nickel 2-4-5, Nickel 3-3-5, Big Dime, Dime (4 CB) and a 3-4 defense. The Patriots had seven defensive backs each playing roughly 57 percent of defensive snaps or more, as the team subbed members of the secondary in and out.

 

Additional analysis: 

-New England went to a Nickel 3-3-5 front on 11 snaps, after using the formation on just nine snaps in the previous six games. Terrence Brooks was used as the strong safety that often crept up into the box pre-snap on these looks. Danny Shelton was often the nose tackle and Dont’a Hightower was the lone, off-ball middle linebacker, but sometimes moved to the EDGE/outside linebacker spot in that front, with Ja’Whaun Bentley moving into the middle linebacker role.

 

-John Simon and rookie Chase Winovich each played on about a third of the team’s defensive snaps, showcasing the uptick in Winovich’s playing time as the season progressed. 

 

-New England finished the fourth quarter in mostly a 2-3-6 Dime formation with four cornerbacks, with Devin McCourty and Stephon Gilmore receiving some rest in garbage time in favor of rookie Joejuan Williams, and Terrence Brooks. The latter mostly played in the box, and often played man coverage on Le’Veon Bell or other Jets running backs coming out of the backfield. 

 

WEEK 8 (VS CLEVELAND BROWNS)

           

Most common formation: Big Dime/Big Nickel 

DT — Lawrence Guy/Danny Shelton/Danny Shelton

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon/Chase Winovich/Shilique Calhoun

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

LB/EDGE — Dont’a Hightower

LB — Jamie Collins

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty/J.C. Jackson

SS — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty 

FS — Duron Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Joejuan Williams, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: Just five players played more than 70 percent of snaps — Devin McCourty, Gilmore, Collins, Van Noy, Chung — as the line for defensive starters was blurred. The Browns attempted to play catch up in the second half, and New England mostly ran some variation of Big Dime, Big Nickel, or a four-safety Quarter package down the stretch. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-New England began the game mostly playing their Nickel 2-4-5 look, and if not that, their 3-4 formation. The second half was a lot different. 

 

-Jamie Collins spent many snaps as an off-ball linebacker either in the box, or out wide in man coverage on a tight end or fullback when the Browns went with spread formations. 

 

– The Patriots ran with at least three safeties for most of the second half, showcasing Duron Harmon’s importance to their defense when up against a talented pass-catching group. 

 

-Late in the game, the Patriots often employed Quarter personnel out of a 2-2-7 or 1-3-7 formation with four safeties. Duron Harmon was usually the deep safety in these looks, with Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Terrence Brooks all in the box. Brooks played sparingly, and only played late in the game. 

 

WEEK 9 (AT BALTIMORE RAVENS)

       

Most common formation: Big Nickel (2-4-5)

DT — Lawrence Guy 

DT — Danny Shelton

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Jason McCourty/J.C. Jackson 

SS/LB — Patrick Chung/Terrence Brooks

S — Devin McCourty

S — Duron Harmon/Jonathan Jones

 

Key inactives/injuries: Joejuan Williams

 

Interesting wrinkle: New England bounced around between a Big Nickel 2-4-5, traditional Nickel 2-4-5 and a 3-4 defense in an attempt to corral Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. 

 

Additional analysis: 

– When New England ran a Nickel 2-4-5 front, Collins was utilized as an off-ball linebacker. But when the Patriots went with a 3-4 look, Elandon Roberts or Ja’Whaun Bentley took his spot as an inside linebacker, and Collins moved to the EDGE spot, usually putting John Simon on the sideline. Adam Butler played as 3-4 defensive end and as an interior rusher in Dime formations. 

 

-Jonathan Jones played a season low 42 percent of defensive snaps, and when he was on the field, he was often used as a safety in two-deep looks. Devin McCourty played heavily in the box for much of the game, but still moved back to deep safety at times. Patrick Chung and Terrance Brooks played primarily in the box, often as a pseudo-linebacker. 

 

-At times, the Patriots used a 3-5 formation up front, featuring five linebackers, in an attempt to slow down the unique Ravens rushing attack. Van Noy and Collins were used as EDGE defenders in this front, with Hightower, Roberts and Bentley used as off-ball LBs.

 

WEEK 11 (AT PHILADELPHIA EAGLES)

       

Most common formation: Nickel 2-4-5/Big Nickel (2-4-5)

DT — Lawrence Guy 

DT — Danny Shelton

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

LB– Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — J.C. Jackson 

DB (slot CB or box safety) — Jonathan Jones/Terrence Brooks

S — Devin McCourty

S — Duron Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Patrick Chung, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: The Eagles used more 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) than any other team last season, and their tight end duo of Zach Ertz (89 percent of offensive snaps) and Dallas Goedert (81 percent of offensive snaps) were often used in this matchup. Without Patrick Chung, the Patriots still employed three safeties on 48 percent of defensive snaps. Belichick evenly mixed between a traditional Nickel 2-4-5 personnel, Big Nickel (2-4-5) and a Big Dime look (1-4-6). 

 

Additional analysis: 

-When the Eagles featured 12 personnel in situations that had a higher chance of being a pass play, New England often went to their Big Nickel 2-4-5 formation with Duron Harmon playing deep safety, Devin McCourty manning up on Goedert, and Terrence Brooks playing man coverage on Ertz. Gilmore was also used in man coverage on Ertz on third-down passing situations. 

 

-When New England was not in their Nickel 2-4-5 formation, they were in a Dime 1-4-6 look, where Adam Butler replaced Guy and Shelton along the defensive line for pass rush help. 

 

-As has often been the case this season, Collins was mostly used as an off-ball linebacker in Nickel 2-4-5 looks, and as an EDGE defender in 3-4 personnel. New England ran a 3-4 defense on roughly 11 percent of defensive snaps versus the Eagles. 

 

-In the game’s final minutes, leading 17-10, New England mostly went with Dime personnel with four cornerbacks. 

 

WEEK 12 (VS DALLAS COWBOYS)

         

Most common formation: Big Nickel 2-4-5 (“little” 3-4 hybrid)

DT — Lawrence Guy

DT — Danny Shelton

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

SS/LB — Patrick Chung

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — J.C. Jackson 

S — Devin McCourty 

FS — Duron Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Jason McCourty

 

Interesting wrinkle: Like their Week 3 game plan versus the Jets, the Patriots leaned on a makeshift 3-4 derived out of Nickel 2-4-5 personnel for much of the game. The only difference is the Patriots ran their ‘Big Nickel’ lineup for most of this game, employing three safeties. Harmon primarily played deep safety, Chung played in the box as an auxiliary linebacker, and McCourty moved around the formation at different variations of safety, who sometimes played man coverage. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-Belichick and company often employed Big Nickel 3-3-5 personnel in this game, but on every one of those snaps, the formation was essentially “little” 3-4 with Chung as an off-ball, inside linebacker, and Devin McCourty and Harmon as safeties. 

 

-With Jason McCourty out, and the Patriots’ high usage of three-safety packages, J.C. Jackson played significantly more snaps than Jonathan Jones, who was the 12th-most used defensive player versus Dallas, a rarity for the usually well-played starter. Joejuan Williams played nine snaps at cornerback. 

 

-On a couple of snaps in the final minute, the Patriots employed their amoeba defense with zero down-lineman, in an attempt to confuse and intimidate Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, as Dallas was trailing 13-9 late, and facing a 3rd-and-11 and subsequent 4th-and-long. 

 

WEEK 13 (AT HOUSTON TEXANS)

       

Most common formation: Nickel 2-4-5/Big Nickel 2-4-5 (“little” 3-4 hybrid)

DT — Lawrence Guy

DT — Danny Shelton

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

SS/LB — Patrick Chung

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — J.C. Jackson 

DB (slot CB or FS) — Jonathan Jones/Duron Harmon

S — Devin McCourty 

 

Key inactives/injuries: Jason McCourty, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: For their fourth straight game, the Patriots spent a good deal of time in their Nickel 2-4-5 base and Big Nickel version of that formation, with a third safety coming in to spell slot cornerback Jonathan Jones. When in their Big Nickel set, New England often turned their personnel into a makeshift 3-4 look with Chung at linebacker, a familiar scheme for them this season. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-With Jason McCourty missing again, J.C. Jackson stepped into a full-time starting role once more, playing every defensive snap alongside Devin McCourty and Gilmore. Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy were somewhat limited due to an illness, which lessened their snap count, allowing Ja’Whaun Bentley and Chase Winovich to receive an uptick in playing time. 

 

-Gilmore played coverage on Texans superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for roughly 79 percent of his defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus

 

-While mostly in some sort of a Nickel 2-4-5 look, Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton received much more playing time than Adam Butler, who is more of a pass rusher than run stuffer. 

 

-Like they have many times during the season, the Patriots utilized a four-safety package — Devin McCourty, Chung, Harmon, Terrence Brooks — in their Quarter 1-3-7 looks. 

 

WEEK 14 (VS KANSAS CITY CHIEFS)

         

Most common formation: Big Dime 2-3-6 

DT — Lawrence Guy

DT — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB/EDGE — Dont’a Hightower 

SS/LB — Patrick Chung

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — J.C. Jackson

S — Devin McCourty 

FS — Duron Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Joejuan Williams, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: The Chiefs went with 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) for most of the game, and the Patriots combatted that by using their Big Dime personnel 63 percent of the time, with their Big Dime 2-3-6 formation (43 percent of defensive snaps) being their most used. Their Big Dime 1-4-6 look (20 percent of defensive snaps) was their second-most used formation. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-There was an uptick in four-safety packages early on as the Patriots often went with McCourty (Devin), Chung, Harmon and Terrence Brooks in a four-safety, Big Dime 2-3-6 look, which they hadn’t really dabbled in up to this point. They went to their four-safety packages later in a Quarter 1-3-7 look. 

 

-The Patriots ran man coverage roughly 59 percent of the time and zone coverage 41 percent of the time. Their most common coverage was Cover 1, which they ran 48 percent of the time on Chiefs passing plays. Here, Harmon was often featured as the deep safety and Devin McCourty was used as a “rat” or “robber” playing zone in the middle of the field to stop crossing routes. Their second-most common coverage was a quarters, or Cover 4 scheme, which they used on 28 percent of Kansas City’s designed passing plays. 

 

-As for man coverage duties — Gilmore mostly covered Chiefs wide receiver Sammy Watkins, Jackson predominantly covered wide receiver DeMarcus Robinson, Jones covered Hill (with help often over top) and Chung or Devin McCourty often covered Kelce. J.C. Jackson also spent some snaps covering Kelce, which is a duty he partly dabbled in during the 2018 AFC Championship Game in Kansas City. Jason McCourty (four snaps) was eased back in, but was on the field to cover Robinson, replacing Jackson, on a few redzone snaps. 

 

-Deatrich Wise received his second-most playing time on the season, as he appeared next to Guy along the defensive line for many of the Big Dime 2-3-6 looks. Adam Butler was utilized as the lone defensive lineman for most of the Big Dime 1-4-6 looks. Danny Shelton was also in the mix on two and three-man lines. 

 

-The Patriots ran their “amoeba” defense with a cluttered mix of defenders at the line of scrimmage — but no down lineman — on 4 different defensive snaps, their highest usage of this look on the season.

WEEK 15 (AT CINCINNATI BENGALS)

       

Most common formation: 3-4

NT — Danny Shelton

DE — Lawrence Guy

DE — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower 

LB — Elandon Roberts/Ja’Whaun Bentley 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — J.C. Jackson

SS — Patrick Chung

FS — Devin McCourty 

 

Key inactives/injuries: Jason McCourty, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: The Patriots utilized their traditional 3-4 defense on a season-high 55 percent of defensive snaps. Deatrich Wise Jr., who is more of a 4-3 defensive end fit, played a season-high 70 percent of snaps. Elandon Roberts and Ja’Whaun Bentley shared the “thumper” inside linebacker role. When the Patriots weren’t running their traditional 3-4 defense, they were often utilizing their “little” 3-4 look. This was a 3-4 heavy game. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-The Patriots utilized their traditional Nickel 2-4-5 personnel on just seven defensive snaps, a season-low for them thus far. Because of that, Jonathan Jones (45 percent of defensive snaps) and John Simon (38 percent of snaps) played far less than usual. And a good deal of Jones’ snaps came with him as a safety, as opposed to his normal position of slot cornerback. 

 

-The Patriots ran a 4-3 defense on one defensive snap, bringing their total usage of the often-used formation by other teams to just three total this season for them. The defensive ends were Guy and Wise, and the defensive tackles were Butler and Shelton. The linebackers were Simon, Van Noy and Roberts (middle). 

 

-In the fourth quarter, Terrence Brooks played over Patrick Chung on pseudo-linebacker snaps in Big Nickel 2-4-5 and Big Nickel 3-3-5 looks that were virtually “little” 3-4 formations. Chung was in for most Big Dime 1-4-6 formations late in the game. 

 

WEEK 16 (VS BUFFALO BILLS)

       

Most common formation: Big Dime (2-3-6 or 1-4-6)

DT — Adam Butler

DT or EDGE — Lawrence Guy/John Simon

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

SS/LB — Patrick Chung

CB (slot) — J.C. Jackson 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — Joejuan Williams 

S — Devin McCourty 

DB (FS or CB) — Duron Harmon/Terrence Brooks

 

Key inactives/injuries: Jonathan Jones, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: Seven Patriots defenders played 91 percent of defensive snaps or more (three played every snap) as the Patriots heavily relied on their core players in a game they needed to clinch the AFC East. New England ran with their Big Nickel 2-4-5 formation 33 percent of the time, and utilized some form of their Big Dime looks on roughly 44 percent of defensive snaps. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-With Jonathan Jones out, and Jason McCourty (four snaps) leaving early after reaggravating his groin, rookie cornerback Joejuan Williams played a season-high 54 percent of defensive snaps. Williams covered pass catchers from the slot and played as a boundary cornerback, as J.C. Jackson filled the role of covering Bills slot receiver Cole Beasley with Jones out. The lengthy, 6-foot-4 Williams was often used on Bills wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, a diminutive, 5-foot-8 speed threat, or Andre Roberts. Stephon Gilmore mostly covered speedy Bills No. 1 receiver John Brown, who is one of the league’s better deep threats. Brown beat Gilmore and Devin McCourty over top for a touchdown during the game. 

 

-Terrence Brooks often played man coverage as a slot cornerback in this game. The Patriots improvised with an undermanned cornerback group. 

 

-Danny Shelton played on most Nickel 2-4-5 and Big Nickel 2-4-5 snaps, and Adam Butler often played in Big Dime personnel. Lawrence Guy played some in both, and played for almost all the Nickel and Big Nickel snaps. 

-At one point in the fourth quarter, Gilmore played a snap as a two-deep safety alongside Devin McCourty as the Bills attempted to tie the game in the final minutes — Buffalo was down 24-17. 

WEEK 17 (VS MIAMI DOLPHINS)

       

Most common formation: Big Dime 1-4-6

DT — Adam Butler

EDGE (stand-up) — John Simon

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

LB/EDGE — Jamie Collins

LB — Dont’a Hightower

CB (slot) — Jonathan Jones

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — J.C. Jackson

SS — Patrick Chung

S — Devin McCourty 

FS — Duron Harmon

 

Key inactives/injuries: Terrence Brooks, Jason McCourty, Byron Cowart

 

Interesting wrinkle: Even with Brooks and Jason McCourty inactive, the Patriots heavily leaned on a six-defensive back scheme, utilizing their Big Dime 1-4-6 personnel on 49 percent of their defensive snaps. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-Jonathan Jones (49 percent of defensive snaps) was eased back in after missing the Patriots last game. Joejuan Williams played 22 percent of defensive snaps, his second-most usage of the season. 

 

-The Patriots ran some form of their Nickel 2-4-5 (big or traditional) on 34 percent of snaps, so Lawrence Guy and Danny Shelton received a good deal of playing time, but they were outpaced by Adam Butler as the Patriots heavily relied on their Big Dime 1-4-6 personnel. Shelton subbed in for Butler at times in Big Dime 1-4-6 looks. 

 

-Bill Belichick and company again relied on their best players, as six members of the defense played at least 97 percent of defensive snaps. 

 

AFC WILD CARD (VS TENNESSEE TITANS)

       

Most common formation: 3-4

NT — Danny Shelton

DE — Lawrence Guy

DE — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

EDGE (stand-up) — Kyle Van Noy

EDGE (stand-up) — Jamie Collins

LB/EDGE — Dont’a Hightower 

LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

CB — Stephon Gilmore 

CB — J.C. Jackson

SS — Patrick Chung

FS — Devin McCourty 

 

Key inactives/injuries: Jason McCourty, Byron Cowart 

 

Interesting wrinkle: The Patriots basically split their time between a traditional 3-4 defense or traditional Nickel 2-4-5 look, as the Patriots attempted to stop Derrick Henry and the Titans’ power rushing attack. Dont’a Hightower split time between an off-ball inside linebacker role, and additional EDGE defender in New England’s 3-4 defense. Jamie Collins played a season-low 53 percent of snaps on defense, as he was limited to Nickel 2-4-5, Big Dime and Quarter looks. Ja’Whaun Bentley, Elandon Roberts and John Simon received playing time over him in a traditional 3-4 look. In all, the team ran a 3-4 defense roughly 47 percent of the time on defense, and a Nickel 2-4-5 defense on roughly 38 percent of snaps. 

 

Additional analysis: 

-The Patriots ran their 3-4 defense on nine of their first 10 plays, and once during that span, ran a 3-4 that was essentially a 4-3, with the line shifting and Simon coming up to essentially be a stand-up 4-3 defensive end over the left tackle.

 

-Patrick Chung (13 snaps) left the game early with an ankle injury. Terrence Brooks replaced him at strong safety, but after giving up a touchdown, his total snap count at the end of the game was a mere five. As a result, Devin McCourty played much more in the box in Chung’s role and Jonathan Jones played a bunch of safety snaps. 

 

-The Patriots had zero snaps with Big Nickel 2-4-5 personnel, which became one of their most popular formations in the second half of the season. Chung’s absence obviously played a role in this. 

 

2019 TRENDS — PERSONNEL, FORMATIONS, USAGE

 

-There were 1,025 possible defensive snaps for the Patriots this season, excluding pre-snap penalties (false start, etc.), 12 men on the field infractions and kneel downs. 

 

-Here are the formations the Patriots used for over two percent of their defensive snaps on the 2019 season, and how often they used them (rounded up to nearest tenth of a percent): 

Nickel 2-4-5 (26.7%)

3-4 (16.4%) 

Big Dime 1-4-6 (15.4%)

Big Nickel 2-4-5 (12.7%)

Big Dime 2-3-6 (10%)

Dime (4 CBs) (6.1%)

Quarter 1-3-7 (4.1%)

Nickel 3-3-5 (2.2%) 

 

-Bill Belichick and his staff, as well as the Patriots players, are known for their versatility and chameleon-like schemes on both offense and defense. New England normally shied away from using the same formation for the majority of two consecutive games, but the team’s traditional Nickel 2-4-5 defense was the closest thing to a “base” defense, with a traditional 3-4 look, or Big Dime or Big Nickel personnel (three safeties) as the next most-common looks. 

 

-New England utilized three safeties or more on roughly 47% of defensive snaps in 2019, which exemplifies their affinity and need for a deep safety depth chart. 

 

-When New England did opt for a Nickel 2-4-5 front, either traditional or “Big,” they often shifted the personnel into a makeshift, “little” 3-4 front with a safety — usually Patrick Chung — up in the box as an inside linebacker, while the strongside EDGE, or 3-4 defensive end — usually John Simon — moved inward as a stand-up 3-4 defensive end. 

 

-In Big Dime 1-4-6 personnel, Adam Butler was almost always the lone defensive lineman, an ode to his pass-rushing ability. Danny Shelton and Lawrence Guy were often used in Nickel 2-4-5 looks, with Deatrich Wise Jr. playing often as a 3-4 defensive end, which doesn’t appear to be his best fit. 

 

-Jonanthan Jones was mostly used as a slot cornerback, but like his usage in Super Bowl 53, he played a good deal of snaps as a safety in two-deep safety looks. Jones’ speed and versatility make him a key member of the New England defense, hence his lucrative contract extension last September. 

 

FINAL OBSERVATIONS/NEWCOMER PROJECTIONS 

With Lawrence Guy set to return as a 3-4 defensive end and defensive tackle in Nickel 2-4-5 fronts and more, newcomer Beau Allen projects to fill Danny Shelton’s role of a Nickel 2-4-5 run stuffer, and 3-4 nose tackle. Deatrich Wise Jr. was often used as a 3-4 defensive end, but that’s not his best fit. It’s worth wondering if he will still be on the roster come September. After somewhat of a red-shirt year, Byron Cowart could be in line for his snaps, with undrafted rookie Nick Coe out of Auburn having an outside chance to make the roster to play some snaps as an interior defender. Adam Butler will resume his role as a pass-rushing specialist, with a chance to see even more playing time in base looks in 2020. 

 

-New England seemingly liked to use Jamie Collins as a stand-up EDGE defender in their 3-4 defense, and as an off-ball linebacker in the middle of the front seven in their Nickel 2-4-5 scheme. Many have mentioned athletic rookie linebacker/EDGE Josh Uche as a replacement for Kyle Van Noy, but projecting him to fill Collins’ role seems more in line with Uche’s skill set. This would mean the rookie would move all along the front seven, perhaps blitzing from multiple spots, like Collins was used. Expect Uche to receive more playing time than any other defensive rookie. 

 

-With Elandon Roberts now in Miami with Van Noy, Ja’Whaun Bentley has an opportunity to fully seize the “thumper” role as an inside linebacker in the Patriots’ 3-4 looks. He split time with Roberts last season, even when Roberts was playing snaps as the team’s fullback later in the season. 

 

-New England may try to replace Van Noy with a team of 3-4 EDGE defenders. Rookie Anfernee Jennings is the team’s best bet as a strongside, edge-setting run defender in the mold of Van Noy, but may not have the pass rushing skills to make up for Van Noy’s production there. Chase Winovich will certainly get an uptick in playing time along the edge, and projects to be one of the Patriots’ key pass rushers next season. John Simon will continue to play on the edge as well, and newcomer Brandon Copeland should see some time there, in addition to his special teams play. The same goes for Shilique Calhoun as an EDGE, if he makes the opening day roster. The aforementioned Uche will also see EDGE snaps and will be heavily relied on to create pressure on the quarterback. 

 

-Bill Belichick’s defense often turned Nickel 2-4-5, Big Nickel 2-4-5 and Big Nickel 3-3-5 personnel into a “little” 3-4 look. We use the term “little” since Patrick Chung or Terrence Brooks were virtually inside linebackers, and John Simon, Chase Winovich or Shilique Calhoun were used as stand-up, undersized 3-4 defensive ends. This was a unique look the Patriots went back too often all season. Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger may both be used in this pseudo-linebacker role, but Phillips is more likely to see these snaps, possibly taking playing time away from Brooks, and possibly making Brooks’ roster spot expendable in 2020. Brooks is a special teams standout, but so is Phillips, who was a second-team All-Pro special teamer in 2018. 

 

-With Duron Harmon out, and the Patriots’ high usage of three-safety packages, expect Dugger and Phillips to receive snaps in place of Harmon. Harmon was more of a free safety than Devin McCourty in these packages, with McCourty drawing “robber” duties in Cover 1. Expect New England to mix and match early on in the season to carve out ideal roles for Phillips and Dugger, meaning McCourty may become the free safety in Big Nickel and Big Dime situations, possibly leaving Dugger or Phillips playing the robber technique, with Patrick Chung playing in the box. Both Dugger and Phillips are capable of playing free safety, but Dugger is more likely to receive snaps there, with Phillips being utilized more in the box, which is where he spent most of his time (119 snaps) in 2019 with the Los Angeles Chargers, according to PFF.  Both Dugger and slot cornerback Jonathan Jones may see duties as a safety opposite McCourty in two-deep looks. Essentially, if Dugger can hit the ground running as a free safety-type, McCourty can continue to play a good amount of snaps as a robber in Cover 1 looks. Newcomer safety Cody Davis (previously with the Jaguars and Rams) could fit in as safety, but projects as more of a Nate Ebner replacement, and will almost exclusively play on special teams. 

 

-Joejuan Williams was given sort of a red shirt year, playing only seven percent of defensive snaps, with his first action coming in Week 5 versus Washington. ESPN’s Mike Reiss recently reported that Williams is learning the safety position. Although he should see some sort of uptick in playing time on defense in 2020, expect Williams to be buried on the depth chart once again. The best fit for Williams may be to utilize him as a man-to-man cover option on athletic tight ends, since it’s unlikely he’ll play as a traditional safety in two-deep packages.

 

-Dugger should also draw man coverage duties versus athletic tight ends, as well as Devin McCourty. McCourty often played man coverage versus the likes of Zach Ertz and Travis Kelce in 2020. 

 

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