CeeDee Lamb TD vs Patriots in OT

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 6: Cowboys-Patriots classic featured two teams in wildly different places

The marquee ‘TV ratings’ matchup in the Sunday late afternoon window delivered a classic on Sunday.

Cowboys 35, Patriots 29, in overtime, in Foxboro, Massachussetts.

It was the Cowboys’ first win in six tries versus Bill Belichick’s Patriots, and it was Dallas’ first win over New England since a 12-6 victory over the Pats in 1996 when Bill Parcells was the team’s head coach, and Belichick was the club’s defensive coordinator.

There’s a lot to take away from a game like this:

— The Cowboys are not only ‘for real,’ they are a Super Bowl contender.

— Dak Prescott is an NFL MVP candidate, especially after his 445 passing yards (most ever versus a Belichick-coached team) and game tape exhibiting clutch throw after clutch throw in this primetime game against the Patriots. He was money.

— Mac Jones has shown glimpses of possible stardom in the future, be he, and this Patriots team are in transition. They have promise, and talent, but they’re blowing games late (fumbles, blocked punts, failures on ‘got-to-have-it’ plays) at a 21st-century Chargers-level since even the end of the 2019 season, with Tom Brady at quarterback (think: Week 17 home loss to Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Miami Dolphins with Brady in New England).

“We went toe-to-toe with them for 60 minutes,” Belichick said after the game. “They just made a few more plays than we did.”

Once thought of as a ‘moral victory’ equipped with silver linings, these types of losses are becoming too abundant for that term to be used any longer with these Patriots.

They have too many bullet holes in their foot, too many exhausted conservative-approach-infused decisions in major moments and an overall distrust of their young rookie quarterback, Mac Jones, in big moments.

The frustrating part about these Patriots is that they’ve played good teams well, for the most part, even going back to last season before they sort of gave up later in the year in losses to the Rams and Bills.

With Cam Newton, New England fell one-yard short of a major upset in Seattle, and a month or so later, Newton’s late fumble in Bills’ territory ended any hope of what was almost a major upset win in Buffalo.

This season, Damien Harris’ fumble was a self-thwart that ended any chance of a Week 1 victory over Miami, and despite keeping it close with defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (and Tom Brady) and now, Dallas, the Patriots failed to deliver, again.

“When you look at the big picture, you never want to say you’re close; it’s hard to do that,” Jones said. “But the games we’ve lost we’ve been two or three plays away. I guess that’s how the NFL works, and I’m learning that the hard way.”

The teams that consistently make those plays, like the Buccaneers, the Patriots of the 2000s and 2010s, and yes, these Cowboys, are the teams that find themselves playing deep in January.

Dallas has won just three playoff games in the last 25 years, and have failed to move past the NFC Divisional round since their last Super Bowl win in 1995.

They are a prime example for fans to witness just how hard a franchise can fall post-dynasty.

The Patriots, of course, had nearly 20 years of unprecedented success. Simply labeling them a ‘Dynasty’ almost does them disservice.

But however you want to label it, Belichick and Mac Jones have work to do, even if the Cowboys’ star QB, Dak Prescott, thinks Jones is in a great spot.

“You gotta be able to take a lick and not flinch and make the play when the hard hit’s coming,” Prescott said to NBC Sports‘ Peter King when breaking down Jones’ play after the game.

“And when you have a bad play or an interception and the game changes right there, you gotta have the water-down-a-duck’s-back mentality. Let it go. It’s over. Mac’s got that. I really like what I see out of him. He’ll be a good quarterback for a long time.”

Jones followed up his late pick-six to former Alabama teammate Trevon Diggs on Dallas, with a 74-yard throwing strike to Kendrick Bourne to take the lead before Prescott rallied the Cowboys through a 4th-and-4 and subsequent 3rd-and-25 to help them score nine points at the end of regulation and overtime to win.

The Cowboys have one of the NFL’s best offenses behind Prescott, his dynamic pass-catching duo of Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb (who scored the winning touchdown in overtime), running back Ezekiel Elliott, and a top-tier offensive line, which has returned to greatness this season.

Prescott dropped back to pass 51 times on Sunday, and was never sacked.

On defense, Dallas has improved from subpar to so-so. With guys like Diggs (seven interceptions in six games) and rookie linebacker Micah Parsons, the team at least has playmakers capable of forcing turnovers.

In an NFC with several contenders in undefeated Arizona (6-0), Green Bay (5-1), the Los Angeles Rams (5-1) and defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (5-1), the Cowboys are right there in the mix.

The Cowboys and Patriots, the NFL’s last two dynasties, are two teams in wildly different places at the moment.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). They move back to the top spot by default after the Bills’ loss. They should take care of the Bears at home this week.

2. Arizona Cardinals (6-0) (Last week: 3). They surprised many again by soundly defeating the Browns in Cleveland. They get a bye now to rest up.

3. Los Angeles Rams (5-1) (Last week: 4). I still think the Rams will be in the mix, probably in the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl, come January/February. But the NFC is a lot better than we thought, so this is a tougher task for them than I had imagined a few weeks ago.

4. Buffalo Bills (4-2) (Last week: 1). Josh Allen was stopped twice from reaching a key first down late in Tennessee, but I still think the decision to go for it was the correct call. The Bills will be OK.

5. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 6). Their 34-6 win over the Chargers may be the most impressive win of any NFL team this season. They ran all over LA, garnering 187 yards on just under five yards per carry.

6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 7). Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams alone make Green Bay a serious contender in the NFC once more.

7. Dallas Cowboys (5-1) (Last week: 10). Dak Prescott now finds himself near the very top in the beginning of the NFL MVP race after his performance in New England on Sunday.

8. Tennessee Titans (4-2) (Last week: 10). Derrick Henry (and maybe Adrian Peterson, as well) is this era’s Jim Brown.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (4-2) (Last week: 5). That was a humbling loss in Baltimore. Now they have their bye week to chew on it.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (3-3) (Last week: 11). They picked things up in Washington in the second half to look more like the Chiefs of old on Sunday.

11. Cleveland Browns (3-3) (Last week: 8). They’re much better than their record suggests, but here they are, and they have some major injuries, too. Will Baker Mayfield and Nick Chubb be able to suit up versus the Broncos on Thursday?

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: 12). They had their bye week this past weekend. They’ll be in the wild card mix all season.

13. Las Vegas Raiders (4-2) (Last week: 14). That was a huge win in Denver, for their first outing without Jon Gruden.

14. Cincinnati Bengals (4-2) (Last week: NR). Good teams beat up bad teams. The Bengals beat the Lions 34-11 in Detroit. Is this team actually…good?

15. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) (Last week: NR). Even in their “off” years, the Steelers find a away to finish around .500.

16. Minnesota Vikings (3-3) (Last week: NR). The Vikings have been a wild ride to start the year. They’re a team with talent. That win in overtime over the Panthers may decide the NFC’s No. 7 seed come January.

Next Up: San Francisco, Chicago, Carolina, Indianapolis, Atlanta 

Josh Allen vs Chiefs -- Week 5

NFL Friday Madness: Breaking down the AFC’s early-season contenders

Week 5 of the 2021 NFL season featured a slew of missed kicks, exciting finishes, and an overarching changing-of-the-guard storyline in the AFC, as the conference dominated by the likes of the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers for most of the 21st century, and the Kansas City Chiefs recently, will seemingly be lead by some of the league’s most talented teams in the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns (huh?!) in 2021.

Buffalo looks like the NFL’s best and most complete team after bolstering their pass rush this offseason, with rookie first-round pick Gregory Rosseau (6-foot-6, 267 pounds) leading the charge for that unit.

In Kansas City last Sunday night, Buffalo forced four Patrick Mahomes turnovers and Josh Allen amassed 374 total yards and four touchdowns and a 91.6 Total QBR with no turnovers and no sacks.

Buffalo manhandled Kansas City.

With the Chiefs driving, down 31-13 to the Bills with just under three minutes to play in the third quarter, Rosseau tipped a pass to himself at the line of scrimmage for a Bills interception, prompting the thought of the night by NBC‘s Chris Collinsworth.

“When we get to the end of the season, we’re going to look back on this night and say ‘this is the night a lot of things changed in the AFC,” Collinsworth said.

After losing twice to the Chiefs last year, including in the AFC title game, Buffalo has already leapfrogged the conference powerhouse in October as the conference’s lead dog.

Behind them, there’s the Ravens, where Lamar Jackson is carrying the Ravens to last-second, comeback wins, and throwing the ball with authority, pitting him with the likes of Josh Allen at the top of any too-early MVP award discussions.

Justin Herbert is having a similar, red-hot start to the season for the Chargers, who outlasted the Browns, 47-42 last Sunday, and defeated the Chiefs in Kansas City in a tight contest in Week 2.

The Browns, who also blew a Week 1 game in Kansas City in addition to their similar, late-game letdown to the Chargers, may be the most talented team in the conference.

Myles Garrett is the early-season leader for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Browns as a team lead the NFL in rushing (187.6 yards per game) with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt leading the way behind a monstrous, guiding-light offensive line that was put together in the 2020 offseason, and now on Year 2 of their dominance.

Really, the Chiefs, despite their 2-3 mark, lack of a running game, and porous defense from all angles, should still be considered a contender as long as Patrick Mahomes is leading the offense with Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill as his top targets.

But Kansas City is missing additional pass catchers, or a running game, to help take the pressure off Mahomes, who is seeing a litany of two-high coverages, whether it’s 2-man or Cover-2, that have taken away the Chiefs’ usual downfield chunk plays, forcing them to run the ball or produce long drives, while pressuring Mahomes and forcing him out of the pocket.

To put the Chiefs offense in perspective, they are still the No. 1-ranked offense by Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric, but Mahomes has less 20-yard completions than the likes of Mac Jones and Jared Goff.

The Chiefs are virtually three games behind the Chargers considering their Week 2 loss, but there is more than enough time to make up ground.

But really, they look like a wild card bunch at best this year, with a new basket of quarterbacks leading more complete teams to victory.

The Chargers do look primed to win the AFC West.

Herbert’s deep-ball has led to a Mike Williams renaissance as a perimeter receiver and deep threat. Running back Austin Ekeler and route-running genius Keenan Allen are mismatches for defenses in the shallow and intermediate levels of the field. And under new head coach Brandon Staley’s Cover-3 style defense brought over from the Rams, the Chargers have looked much better on defense, save for their game versus Cleveland. Joey Bosa is one of the best pass rushers in football, and Derwin James is the perfect roaming athlete for such a scheme in the secondary.

Still, while putting the Chargers and Chiefs aside, and with no mention of the still-tough Tennessee Titans, who look locked into the AFC South title, it still appears both the Ravens and Browns appear like the best long-term threats to Buffalo this season.

Each has a bludgeoning running game.

We mentioned Cleveland above, but Baltimore, with a sturdy offensive line and a litany of additional blockers (Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Patrick Ricard) at tight end, H-back and fullback, has the perfect mix of old-school blocking with and new-age finesse with Lamar Jackson shredding defenses on designed runs behind a traditional and yesteryear blocking front.

Despite the great coaching from the likes of Staley and Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland, John Harbaugh and the Ravens are more experienced. They’ve been one of the league’s most consistent franchises this century, and that seems to carry them to a Super Bowl run at least once per decade. That could be this year.

All this is said to lead to this — the AFC has regained power over the NFC as the league’s top conference overall. And this deep group includes talented teams of all types, with different schemes, concepts and strengths.

The Bills are in charge now, but there are several teams right there, and even with their struggles, it’s too early to fully give up on the Chiefs.

Let’s check back on this group after Thanksgiving.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (4-1) (Last week: 1). They’re the best team in football right now. No question. The only things missing last year were their running game, pass rush and ability to defend Mahomes and Kansas City. They’ve figured out all three things, it seems.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-1) (Last week: 2). Despite all the fuss regarding Allen, Jackson, Herbert, Kyler Murray and Matthew Stafford, it’s 44-year-old Tom Brady, who through six games has looked on a mission (2,064 yards, 17 touchdowns, three interceptions, two game-winning drives), that is the MVP leader at this point. It’s early, though.

3. Arizona Cardinals (5-0) (Last week: 3). Arizona faces a tall task in Cleveland this week. How well can this reimagined defense defend the Browns’ top-ranked rushing attack?

4. Los Angeles Rams (4-1) (Last week: 4). They should take care of the Giants this weekend. They were the talk of the league two weeks ago. Things change quickly. They’re a season-long contender in the NFC.

5. Los Angeles Chargers (4-1) (Last week: 9). They’re winning the close contests that used to bring them heartbreak. This is a different team.

6. Baltimore Ravens (4-1) (Last week: 6). They’ve escaped with wins over the Lions and Colts that they certainly should have lost. They’ll get it together. Lamar Jackson has been awesome as a passer so far this season.

7. Green Bay Packers (4-1) (Last week: 7). They’re kind of on autopilot at this point, but we know they can compete with anyone in the conference as long as Aaron Rodgers is under center.

8. Cleveland Browns (3-2) (Last week: 5). They easily could be 5-0. They certainly should be at least 4-1. They have the recipe to be a Super Bowl winner, but they need to figure out how to win those close games versus good teams. Baker Mayfield needs to do better in the clutch. They’ll be without Nick Chubb this weekend, but with Kareem Hunt, they have enough to beat Arizona. This is a big game for them.

9. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) (Last week: 10). The NFC East is clearly theirs, but the Cowboys haven’t beaten the Patriots since 1996, and they are 0-5 versus Bill Belichick. The TV-ratings game of the week will be a fun pitting of a successful pass offense versus a well-coached, usually-sound defense.

10. Tennessee Titans (3-2) (Last week: 14). Like the Packers, they feel very auto-pilot-y, but they, too, have the strengths (Derrick Henry, running game) to be a force come playoff time. They need to figure things out on defense, though.

11. Kansas City Chiefs (2-3) (Last week: 8). The offensive line and running game will improve as the season goes along, which will open things up for Mahomes and company for their deep passing game. It’s not time to panic, yet. They definitely don’t look like a Super Bowl team this season, though.

12. New Orleans Saints (3-2) (Last week: NR). They’re a solid football team that would be even better with a more consistent quarterback. They’ll mostly live and die with Jameis Winston.

13. Chicago Bears (3-2) (Last week: NR). The Bears have won three of four, and Justin Fields is now getting his reps. Things are going well, for now.

14. Las Vegas Raiders (3-2) (Last week: 11). With Jon Gruden out of the picture, what happens next? Will they fall apart? Or will they rally around their team?

15. San Francisco 49ers (2-3) (Last week: 13). Bad injury luck is mounting again. This is a good football team, but it’s tough competing in the NFC West. Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback in this past draft, and he still is, but he clearly needs time to develop.

16. Carolina Panthers (3-2) (Last week: 15). That was a rough home loss to the Eagles. That was maybe a sign that they aren’t quite ready to compete in the playoffs like we thought they were. Sam Darnold is still much better than we thought he was, but cracks are starting to reappear. They have a huge game at home this week versus the Vikings. This one could decide a wild card spot come January.

Next Up: Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati, Denver, Minnesota/Philadelphia

Tom Brady -- The Return

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness Week 4: Three leftover thoughts on Brady-Belichick, Mac Jones & Bucs-Pats

An hour or two after an emotional game that bookended a taxing, emotional week, Tom Brady summed up what we all expected was the case for him.

“I’m tired” the seven-time Super Bowl champion, and former Patriot, told NBC Sports‘ Peter King.

“I’m really tired. For a regular-season game, that was pretty intense…God is it hard to come in here and win a football game.”

The defending champs, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1), had withstood a gutsy (albeit erratic) performance from the New England Patriots (1-3), a team once known for their Super Bowl stardom, now rebuilding, and searching for a better identity.

The final score — Bucs 19, Pats 17.

Here are three takeaways from the conclusion of perhaps the most anticipated regular season game in NFL history:

The embrace between Tom Brady and the Patriots’ fans and the organization went as well as it could have. From the outpouring of love from fans leading up to the game, pre-game, while Brady broke the all-time passing yards mark (with previous record-holder Drew Brees in attendance) and after the game, to Brady’s embrace with former teammates, Josh McDaniels (before and after the game), Robert Kraft, and yes, even Bill Belichick, for a 23-minute conversation in the Tampa locker room, following the game. Everything went smoothly. It was a great moment.

“Very emotional week,” Brady said to the press afterward. “These guys are like my brothers.”

Brady did his best to remain poised throughout the contest. Overall, he made great decisions and floated some gorgeous passes later in the game as he settled into a contest surrounded by hoopla. But it was obvious from the start, Brady was emotional, and the overall tone and weirdness of the game was omnipresent throughout the battle.

But for all the talk over what transpired over the past few years, it appears Patriots fans can rest easy, that Tom still appreciates his time with New England, forever his football home.

“I’ll be part of this community for a long time…When it’s all said and done, and I retire, you know, I’ll be around, and they’ll get a chance to see more of me” Brady told NBC’s Michelle Tafoya after the game.

Prior to the game, Robert Kraft floated the idea of Brady returning post-career for what would be a fitting ceremony that should, and in all likelihood will happen.

In the end, I hope and believe he’ll come back here and we’ll give him his red jacket, and he’ll retire a Patriot,” Kraft told Willie McGinest and Kay Adams in an NFL Network interview prior to the game. 

Brady somewhat deflected the notion after the game, seemingly out of respect for the Bucs’ organization, their fan base, and his current obligation to focus in on his current team.

“Are you offering me a one-day contract or did he offer me that?,” Brady said to the media, jokingly, when asked about the scenario after the game.

“He didn’t offer me that, so…I still got some time left with the Bucs, and like I said, really enjoying that. We got a lot to accomplish this year. It’s a tough challenging year. It’s a marathon of a season. It’s only four games in. There is a lot football to be played. It feels good to win on the road, so happy we did that.”

Still, all night, it was clear that Brady is still emotionally invested in the Patriots organization and the New England fans, and that aspect of ‘The Return’ was perfectly executed by all involved. Bravo.

In the matchup of Brady vs Belichick, the Patriots coach devised a perfectly-schemed game plan versus the Buccaneers’ offense, that was executed well enough for the Patriots to win. I’ll look at the All-22 film to produce my first defensive film review piece of the season for Patriots Wire, if the film is out in time this week, so look out for that, since we’ll know more then, but it appeared New England stuck with pretty clear man-coverage assignments (J.C. Jackson on Mike Evans, Jalen Mills and Chris Godwin, Jonathan Jones and Antonio Brown) with a mixture of middle-of-the-field zone coverage in the deep, intermediate and shallow parts of the field, via safeties, linebackers and on-the-line rushers dropping back into coverage. On clear passing downs, Belichick was able to mask his looks with several “amoeba” formations with most rushers standing in front of the Bucs’ O-line, moving around pre-snap to disguise who was rushing, and who was dropping back into coverage.

Matthew Judon (one sack, two QB hits, four hurries, four run stuffs, two tackles for loss), the only big-ticket 2021 free-agent signing consistently producing for Belichick, was particularly effective, bulldozing past members of Tampa’s stout offensive line at times, while also getting to Brady with his speed and athleticism at other times, and doing his best on the edge in run defense. Jalen Mills was particularly stout on Godwin (three catches, 55 yards) and the Patriots’ zone brackets in general looked like they did an awesome job of cutting off Tampa’s in-breaking routes in the intermediate part of the field.

The Patriots played a ton of Big Nickel and Big Dime looks with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger each playing pretty well.

In all, Brady’s stat line (22-of-43, 269 yards, 6.1 yards per attempt, 55.3 Total QBR) is exactly what you want if you’re the Patriots. Without Rob Gronkowski, Cameron Brate had an ugly, key drop, and Antonio Brown couldn’t hang on to a beautiful Brady long-ball for a go-ahead touchdown late, but really, the Patriots defense played well enough to win this game.

This New England defense is a top-tier unit in the league, defensively, and they may have Stephon Gilmore returning soon.

Mac Jones almost had his moment. In a weird, old-school-feeling Giants-Patriots, Eli Manning-Brady era-looking contest, the Patriots were in position to win, but just couldn’t pull it off. Alas, two turnovers, some sloppy play, more letdowns in got-to-have-it-moments (an all too familiar part of the Patriots identity since late 2019) included a failed attempt to score a touchdown to take a 21-16 lead while inside the 10-yard-line late in the fourth quarter, instead settling for a field goal, their last points of the game. There were several moments to be dissected, including Belichick conservatively opting not to trust Mac Jones on a 4th-and-2 in Tampa territory late at the end of the first half, and then again on a 4th-and-3 in the final minute of the game, instead opting for a 56-yard Nick Folk field goal attempt in the pouring rain, in which Folk heroically almost came through with one of the great kicks of all time, that ultimately hit the left upright with a loud “thud.”

A thud, is sort of what the 2021 Patriots are at this point. There have been comparisons to this team and the 2001 Patriots, as the franchise begins anew under Mac Jones. And heck, that team started 1-3 before eventually winning the Super Bowl. But that team, a well-disciplined bunch, came through when it mattered. There would be no game-winning kick (a la Adam Vinatieri) on this night, just as there would be no game-winning drive. New England is now 1-3 and 0-3 at home, with two gut-wrenching losses to the Dolphins (Damien Harris’ late fumble sealed it) and now, the Bucs.

Still, Mac Jones played well enough to win this game, and has shown a lot of promise.

The rookie completed 19 consecutive passes in a period in the second half, which included a go-ahead touchdown drive culminating in a throwing score to Jonnu Smith, that saw Jones go 7-of-7 on that drive to give New England the 14-13 lead.

Really, Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, Mac Jones and the defense all played well enough to win this game, which is probably why this loss stings so much for New England.

The potential is there, even with Jones and the offense going just 2-for-9 on third down conversions, and Jones still being pressured by pass rushers (4 sacks, 12 QB hits on Jones by Tampa on Sunday), due to a disappointing O-line, which was met with Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ famous blitz-heavy scheme. The rookie also overcame the Patriots absolutely abysmal rushing performance, which saw the team run for -1 yards on eight carries versus Tampa’s top-ranked rushing defense, led by monster interior defenders Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh.

When given the time to throw, Mac Jones (31-of-40, 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) has proven more than capable, as the Patriots are beginning to find at least a small groove in spreading defenses out in empty, shotgun looks. Jakobi Meyers (eight catches, 70 yards) and Kendrick Bourne (five catches, 58 yards) are beginning to have their moments, but the team is still not getting enough out of their two tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, despite their two short touchdown catches on Sunday.

Still, there are brilliant flashes with Jones operations a Patriots/Brady-style offense.

Bourne called Jones a “baby Tom” after the game, and Tom Brady and several other Buccaneers praised the Patriots quarterback.

“I feel like he’s gonna be a good quarterback in this league,” Tampa star linebacker Devin White said of Jones postgame.

“He was poised. We hit him a lot of times and he stayed in the scheme and moved the ball for them when he had to move the ball for them.”

For now, as he learns behind a caving offensive line, a disappointing running game and the lack of a true No. 1 pass catcher, Jones will still learn a ton, find his resolve, and continue to improve. So far, he looks the part of a franchise quarterback.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Buffalo Bills (3-1) (Last week: 4). As each week passes, their Week 1 loss to the Steelers continues to be more of an aberration. They are the best team in football right now.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) (Last week: 2). Their secondary is an absolute mess right now, but a favorable upcoming schedule should help keep them afloat near the top of the NFC.

3. Arizona Cardinals (4-0) (Last week: 7). Kliff Kingsbury’s bunch is soaring after a month. They are the last remaining undefeated team. That was a helluva win over the Rams in Los Angeles. Is their defense good enough for them to be a contender this season? Will their offense keep this up all year?

4. Los Angeles Rams (3-1) (Last week: 1). They didn’t get up for their home match versus Arizona like they did versus the Bucs. They’re still the NFC West favorite. They have a quick turnaround for a game in Seattle on Thursday.

5. Cleveland Browns (3-1) (Last week: 3). They’re one of the most talented teams in the league, but they aren’t quite playing like it, week to week. They need to hit their stride.

6. Baltimore Ravens (3-1) (Last week: 5). That was a telling win in Denver. That’s 43 straight 100-yard rushing games for the Ravens as a team, which ties an NFL record.

7. Green Bay Packers (3-1) (Last week: 8). They’re coming along after that ugly Week 1 loss to New Orleans. Aaron Rodgers’ bunch are a Super Bowl contender, once more.

8. Kansas City Chiefs (2-2) (Last week: 10). They’re tied for second in points per game (33.5) and are ranked 31st in points per game allowed (31.3). That sounds about right.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (3-1) (Last week: 15). Justin Herbert already looks like one of the best quarterbacks in football, and Brandon Staley may be an early Coach of the Year candidate. But, these are the Chargers. They find ways to disappoint. Will they buck the trend this year? They’re next three games: versus Browns, at Ravens, versus Patriots. That’s tough.

10. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) (Last week: 16). They have a top-tier offense, and their defense, although not great, has enough blue-chippers (Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs) to make some plays.

11. Las Vegas Raiders (3-1) (Last week: 8). Their defense isn’t great, which puts a lot of pressure on Derek Carr and the offense.

12. Seattle Seahawks (2-2) (Last week: NR). They weren’t going to just lie down and fall to 1-3. That was a big win.

13. San Francisco 49ers (2-2) (Last week: 9). Trey Lance was my favorite quarterback coming into the 2021 NFL Draft. He still is. But even I think it may be too soon for him to take full control of the offense. Let’s see if Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy enough to play on Sunday.

14. Tennessee Titans (2-2) (Last week: 11). That was an ugly overtime loss to the Jets in New York. They did fight back though. They play down to their competition too much.

15. Carolina Panthers (3-1) (Last week: 12). That was a tough loss in Dallas. Their defense is legitimately talented, but they’re not quite the league’s No. 1 unit. Sam Darnold has been great, though, at quarterback.

16. Denver Broncos (3-1) (Last week: 13). A win there over Baltimore would have been huge. Now, they’re stuck up top the AFC West in that early-season logjam.

Next Up: New Orleans, Cincinnati, New England, Washington, Minnesota/Indianapolis

Cooper Kupp vs Bucs -- 2021

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 3: It’s September, but Rams are the league’s best

INGLEWOOD, Calif. — With three seconds remaining in the first half, and the Rams leading the Buccaneers 14-7 in an early-season NFC showdown, Tampa Bay kicker Ryan Succop attempted to cut Los Angeles’ lead to four points heading into halftime.

The kick sailed wide right.

Rams head coach Sean McVay seemingly unleashed his pent up energy via a moment of exuberance on the sideline.

The event was a clear example of McVay’s excitement regarding a roster he put together. It’s evident the organization believes this is a win-now, Super Bowl-winning team.

The outburst also showcased how bad McVay wanted this win, even if the coach’s answer on the matter felt plucked right from a Bill Belichick press conference transcript.

“It means we’re 3-0,” McVay told the media when asked what the Rams’ win meant.

It’s just September, but the Rams have laid claim as the NFL’s best team in the early going after a 34-24 defeat of the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

This is a squad with a beautiful new stadium (SoFi Stadium is also the host of Super Bowl 56 this February), a new star quarterback, one of the NFL’s best route runners and slot magicians, an all-time deep threat, and maybe the two best defensive players in the league.

The Rams are built like a top-heavy roster, but their stars showed out on Sunday.

Matthew Stafford went 27-of-38 for 343 yards, four touchdowns and no turnovers. DeSean Jackson is 34 years old, but showcased why he is one of the all-time best deep threats on a 75-yard score in the third quarter. Cooper Kupp put Bucs defensive backs in a blender, catching nine passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns, upping his total to five on the season and changing narratives regarding him, as he’s the No. 1-scoring fantasy football receiver through three weeks. And on defense, Aaron Donald posted a sack, destroyed a screen, and was overall menacing throughout, as was Jalen Ramsey, who added his confidence in swagger in defending Tom Brady passes from the slot and the perimeter.

When asked if this team can reach the Super Bowl, Donald told The Athletic: “It’s the only thing I’m chasing. It’s a long season, but I think we’re in a good position.”

That they are. This was the second year in a row the Rams had  beaten Tampa Bay, who had come into this game with 10 straight wins dating back to 10 months ago.

Los Angeles got ahead early and won 27-24 in Tampa last Thanksgiving, and that was with Jared Goff at quarterback.

The Rams match up versus Tom Brady’s bunch nicely.

They have a sturdy pass rush, but more importantly, they create inside pressure with Donald and Kenny Young (one sack on Sunday). The ability to push the pocket from the middle of the line, while containing on the outside is a good way of defeating a top-tier pocket quarterback, even if that QB is the greatest of all-time.

In the secondary, Ramsey is the league’s No. 1 cornerback, and his ability to play the perimeter and in the nickel/slot role as a “Star” gives Los Angeles the ability to move him around. One play he’ll guard Mike Evans on the outside, and in the red zone, maybe he’ll move inside versus Rob Gronkowski, like he did some in the 2017 AFC title game matchup between the Jaguars and Patriots.

Opposite Ramsey is burgeoning star No. 2 cornerback Darious Williams. Last year’s fourth-highest-graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus is on the J.C. Jackson fast track established in New England, where the No. 2 cornerback learned heavily from then best-in-the-league No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore.

The defense as a unit sacked Brady three times on Sunday, limited Tampa to 2.7 yards per rush, and allowed just seven points to the Buccaneers in about two-and-a-half quarters before taking a 21-7 lead and forcing Tampa Bay into air-it-out mode, which boosted Brady’s end-of-game stat line (41-of-55, 432 passing yards).

On offense, Stafford has the look of an MVP-front runner. The team’s wide receiver core compliments each other nicely.

Kupp, the team’s No. 1 WR, is 6-foot-2 but has the ability to stop-and-start almost like Wes Welker, while also being a downfield threat. Robert Woods is a solid veteran possession receiver, Van Jefferson is a young route-running maestro and the aforementioned Jackson can still get behind a defense.

The team’s Shanahan-y offense with McVay’s own twists, has been a force in the league for the last few seasons, but the unit became stale under Jared Goff.

Enter Matthew Stafford, who excels in the under-center, bootleg concepts and shotgun-spread looks. It hasn’t taken long for Stafford to prove the Rams’ brass right in trading two first-round picks (and Goff) to Detroit during the offseason to get their guy to run their offense.

“I was the new guy coming in and they embraced me,” Stafford told The Athletic. “I’m just trying to be myself every day, be my best every day, and see where that takes us.”

After 12 seasons of personal promise, but uneventful team success with the Lions, Stafford is in line to have it all this season.

He leads the league in Total QBR (82.8) through three weeks, has been sacked just three times in three games (great offensive line play and a solid scheme help), and is second in yards per attempt (10.0), passing touchdowns (9) and passer rating (129.8).

Everything is working.

But in a tough NFC West, the team knows they can’t let up.

The Rams host a division rival, Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals (3-0), next Sunday, which will pose a challenge defensively.

This is also a long season. There are several instances over the years where a playoff rematch leads to a win for the team that lost in the regular season.

Add in the fact that the Bucs have Tom Brady, and were missing Antonio Brown (COVID-19), who could have excelled in the middle of the field on Sunday, and there’s an avenue for another Tampa Super Bowl run in January.

But the Rams are keen on becoming the league’s top dog in 2021. They already are, so far. And they’re just enjoying the moment.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Los Angeles Rams (3-0) (Last week: 2). There’s deservedly a lot of Matthew Stafford chatter, which is fair, because he’s the spark plug, and most important player for this team now, but Cooper Kupp’s ascension with Stafford at the helm has been mesmerizing. He’s been awesome.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-1) (Last week: 1). They likely would have lost this game regardless, but missing Antonio Brown hurt. Now, it’s Tom Brady week. Brady returns home to New England versus the reeling Patriots. Only because of it’s prime storyline, this may be regarded as the most hyped-up regular season game of all-time. Check the ticket prices.

3. Cleveland Browns (2-1) (Last week: 5). Myles Garrett (4.5 sacks of Justin Fields on Sunday) is primed to win his first Defensive Player of the Year award this season. He’ll have to keep up that pace with Aaron Donald in the fold, though.

4. Buffalo Bills (2-1) (Last week: 7). So much for a regression year for Josh Allen (egg on my face), huh? The Bills’ franchise quarterback had five total touchdowns versus one of the league’s very best front sevens in Washington on Sunday.

5. Baltimore Ravens (2-1) (Last week: 6). That would have been a pretty bad loss in Detroit, but Justin Tucker saved them with a game-winning, longest-of-all-time 66-yarder to win. They have their momentary lapses of focus, and their defense is figuring things out, but there is something special brewing there. They are coming through in the clutch. Lamar Jackson converted a 4th-and-19, first-down pass to get the Ravens into position to win. His confidence is sky-rocketing.

6. Las Vegas Raiders (3-0) (Last week: 8). They tried to give the game away at times, but they persevered. This ultimately became a good sign for them. Derek Carr looks awesome. They have something here.

7. Arizona Cardinals (3-0) (Last week: 9). They are one of the most exciting offenses in the league. But this team has its limitations. We’ll see how they stack up versus a seemingly-superior Rams team on Sunday.

8. Green Bay Packers (2-1) (Last week: NR). What else needs to be said? Aaron Rodgers is a bad man.

9. San Francisco 49ers (2-1) (Last week: 4). That was a tough loss for them. Jimmy Garoppolo has his limitations, but he came through late on that touchdown drive. They just left too much time on the clock for Rodgers.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (1-2) (Last week: 3). Their defense is horrible, and they really should be 0-3. But with Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, we know they’ll make some sort of a run.

11. Tennessee Titans (2-1) (Last week: 14). It’s only Week 3, and it’s clear that the Titans can sleepwalk to an AFC South title.

12. Carolina Panthers (3-0) (Last week: 14). Sam Darnold looks comfortable, and their defense looks great. It’s early in the season, but they seem like a No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the NFC. Let’s see if they can keep this up.

13. Denver Broncos (3-0) (Last week: 13). They’re 3-0 versus teams with a combined 0-9 record, but they’ve looked like the much better team in these wins. This is a club with a lot of talent. Let’s suspend judgement on them for now.

14. New Orleans Saints (2-1) (Last week: NR). The Saints dominated the line of scrimmage versus the Patriots, then, they dominated everything else, including coaching and the New Orleans players just wanting it more than New England’s. They are a tough team.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (2-1) (Last week: NR). That was a hell of a win in Kansas City, even though they tried to give it away late. But the pass interference on Mike Williams was the correct call. They deserved this one. The AFC West is the clear top division in the AFC.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: 16). They should beat Philadelphia at home on Monday night, if they are the clear top team in the NFC East.

Next Up: Minnesota, Seattle, Miami, Cincinnati, New England/Pittsburgh

Derrick Henry vs Seahawks

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 2: Drama-filled Sunday provides extra excitment

Week 2 in the NFL this season had a flair for the dramatic, with the late afternoon window in particular featuring wild finishes out west in Los Angeles, Arizona and Seattle. There’s still a few weeks left to play before any rash conclusions or predictions can be made, as many call September the “extended preseason.”

The Cowboys and Chargers in recent years are known for their knack of blowing big games, but each team was fairly competent in a close contest that ended in a game-winning, 56-yard field goal by Dallas kicker Greg Zuerlien.

Dak Prescott delivered in the fourth quarter for the second-straight week, and the Cowboys came away with a win this time around.

In Arizona, Kyler Murray added five more touchdowns, bringing his total to nine on the season, and firmly placing him near the top of any way-too-early MVP talk, along with Tom Brady.

But the Cardinals were lucky to come away with a win, as Kirk Cousins marched the Vikings down into field goal territory late, but Minnesota lost on a missed game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt from Greg Joseph, giving Arizona a 34-33 win, and allowing them to keep pace with better clubs in the Rams and 49ers.

The Titans and Seahawks seemed destined to play a wacky, down-to-the-wire game. The DNA of both teams usually calls for multiple double-digit fourth-quarter comebacks and comparable, gut-wrenching losses throughout the season. Sunday’s game in Tennessee didn’t disappoint, with Tennessee rallying from down 30-16 late to win 33-30 in overtime.

Leading the effort was the league’s premier bell-cow back, Derrick Henry, who amassed 237 total yards and three rushing touchdowns on 41 touches (35 carries). Henry remains one of the league’s toughest players to stop, and Seattle learned the hard way as Henry shook off a rough performance versus Arizona, in helping the Titans to a much-needed road win.

The late window, equipped with cheering fans, brilliant announcing, excitement and heartbreak felt like something we haven’t seen since the 2019 season.

Then, all those games were topped, by the Sunday night affair in Baltimore.

The Chiefs led 35-24 late before Lamar Jackson (16 carries, 107 rush yards, three total TDs) ran his way to a 36-35 lead that Baltimore held, thanks to their rookie first-round pick EDGE defender, Odafe Oweh, who stripped Kansas City running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire late after Patrick Mahomes drove them down in game-winning field goal range.

The Ravens averaged 6.1 yards per carry, and ran for 251 yards in total against a still-soft-up-the-middle Chiefs defense that relies heavily on their all-time great offense. They got burned today, but even with their flaws, they remain Super Bowl material.

Baltimore is beginning what could be a tough season-long race with the Cleveland Browns for the AFC North crown.

COVER 2

(Throughout the season, I’ll include this segment as a side-by-side form of ‘double coverage’ (pun intended) of both Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots, and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

PATRIOTS 25, JETS 6

In typical Bill Belichick-versus-rookie quarterback fashion, the Patriots defense gave Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson a tough time, forcing the No. 2 overall pick into four interceptions, some ghastly, in a solid road win in the AFC East for New England. Defensively, J.C. Jackson (two interceptions) and Jonathan Jones were particularly impressive in coverage, and Adrian Phillips and Ja’Whaun Bentley stood out on the TV tape as tough, gritty players who seemingly have benefited from experience in the system, and seemed primed to take a leap.

On offense, Mac Jones (28.4 Total QBR to Wilson’s 8.7) had a more tame (and maybe even uninspiring) performance than his overly-competent (for a rookie) NFL debut versus the Dolphins. The Jets defense held Jones and the passing game in check for much of the game, as Jones often looked for his checkdowns an held the ball for far too long on other occasions. Hunter Henry grabbed a 32-yard catch downfield on a schemed play-action shot that saw him wide open, but other than that, he and fellow newcomer tight end Jonnu Smith were once again quiet. The Patriots leader in both receptions (6) and receiving yards (45) was pass-catching running back James White. New England has a solid blueprint as a top-tier defense and running game, but the passing offense needs to be more than just adequate if they are to compete with the NFL’s best. Rest assured, Mac Jones will improve as he gains more NFL experience.

BUCCANEERS 48, FALCONS 25

Watching Tom Brady throw five more touchdown passes on Sunday versus Atlanta make you wonder: Is this the best he’s ever played? His physical peak has passed, yes, but he’s still displaying unbelievable arm talent at his age (44), and statistically, he could be headed for a 2007-level of dominance, with a 2007-esque dominant team to boot.

Tampa has won a franchise-record 10 straight games dating back to 10 months ago (November 2020), which includes the organization’s second Super Bowl title (Brady’s seventh). Brady, himself, has thrown for 17 touchdown passes in his last four games, and Rob Gronkowski, perhaps his favorite passing target ever, has caught two touchdowns from Brady in each of his last three games, dating back to Super Bowl 55.

This team is absolutely loaded, but they’ll face a big, big test this week in Los Angeles versus the Rams. This is a possible NFC Championship Game preview. Can the Bucs keep Brady upright versus Aaron Donald and that inside pressure-creating pass rush?

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-0) (Last week: 1). When all is said and done, will Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski be the best, and most iconic passer-pass catcher combo in league history?

2. Los Angeles Rams (2-0). (Last week: 3). They showed their resolve by winning a wild back-and-forth affair in Indianapolis in the early window. Next up: Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. We’ll learn a bit next week.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (1-1) (Last week: 2). That offense masks a lot of issues, and if they don’t fumble late, it would have been much of the same on Sunday night. But they gave up an 11-point lead late to a team that ran the ball to re-take the lead, and win. Kansas City doesn’t need to have a Top-10 defense to win the Super Bowl, but the unit can’t be that bad.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-0) (Last week: 7). This is a team that will figure it out, and become much better as the season goes along. They’re still winning while they learn, though. That’s scary.

5. Cleveland Browns (1-1) (Last week: 6). They let the pesky Texans hang around for far too long, but a win is a win.

6. Baltimore Ravens (1-1) (Last week: 10). The fourth time’s the charm for Lamar Jackson, who finally defeated Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs. Baltimore has some defensive woes and mental lapses (occasional bad tackling, mistakes, etc.) to fix, but they are a real threat in the AFC.

7. Buffalo Bills (1-1) (Last week: 11). They took advantage of Tua leaving early, punishing the Dolphins 35-0. They were going to win this game no matter what.

8. Las Vegas Raiders (2-0) (Last week: NR). When he’s on, Derek Carr is one of the best pure passers in the league. That was on display in his de-facto game-clinching deep-heave TD pass to Henry Ruggs to beat Pittsburgh.

9. Arizona Cardinals (2-0) (Last week: 8). They are one of the league’s most exciting teams, and are led by one of the league’s most exciting players in Kyler Murray.

10. Seattle Seahawks (1-1) (Last week: 4). We mentioned Brady-to-Gronk earlier in here, but Russell Wilson to Tyler Lockett is another long-time dependable duo. They don’t get enough credit as a dangerous pairing. But still, that was a devastating loss for the Seahawks. That can’t happen.

11. New England Patriots (1-1) (Last week: 13). They’ll improve on offense as the season goes along. We’re still learning a lot about this team. Their defense is scary good.

12. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1) (Last week: 5). Their defense is still solid. They missed T.J. Watt late in this game. Their offense, on the other hand, is a mess. They’ll have to lean on Najee Harris, their rookie running back.

13. Denver Broncos (2-0) (Last week: 14). The Broncos are quietly a home win over the lowly Jets from beginning the season at 3-0.

14. Tennessee Titans (1-1) (Last week: NR). They badly needed that win. Derrick Henry is still a force to be reckoned with.

15. Carolina Panthers (2-0) (Last week: NR). Could their defense actually be one of the league’s better units? Also, Sam Darnold looks comfortable here.

16. Dallas Cowboys (1-1) (Last week: NR). Their offense is a machine. Dak Prescott may be enough for Dallas to take the NFC East this year.

Next Up: Miami, New Orleans, Green Bay, L.A. Chargers, Washington

Matthew Stafford vs Bears

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 1: Reflecting on 9/11 + NFC West makes a statement

Sunday marked the return of the NFL in full tilt for its 102nd campaign.

Stadiums filled with fans across the league after a pandemic-alerting season in 2020 blocked them from doing so this time last year. The last year-plus has been a tragedy due to the countless lives lost. And although it’s quite a sobering way to begin a post-Week 1 NFL column, I’d be remise if I didn’t mention the more important topic over the weekend, as millions across the country, and even around the world, reflected on the now-20-year-old tragedy that took place in Manhattan, New York on September 11, 2001.

The NFL, and several teams, honored those who lost their lives that day, with the league providing a memorial package (in the tweet above) featuring a touching narration by Steve Buscemi, and a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by Juliette Candela, that aired just before the early slate of games. (There was also an emotional story regarding new Jets head coach Robert Saleh, and his brother.)

Over the weekend, there was a glimpse of hope for those who believe the United States has the ability to band together in a time of need, to show compassion and empathy for others.

I’ve always thought of sports, especially the game of football, as both a hub for diversity, and a healing space. Although we are still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the virus regaining ground in many states, maybe there’s a chance that we band together once more to defeat a virus that has taken the lives of 660,000 Americans. The virus’ continuing grip on our country, due to many reasons, including those who don’t properly fear it, is as frustrating and demoralizing as it is devastating. This nation is currently a country divided, due to mostly political reasons. But to put a stop to this current tragedy, an effort to unite, and agree to strategize against a deadly virus, is much needed. Stay safe, everyone, and keep your wits about you.

Now…on to the NFL.

QUICK-HITS 

National Football Conference logo.svg    NFC West makes opening-weekend statement

The NFC West, widely regarded as perhaps the best division in football this year, may also be the most competitive. The entire group won their opening games.

Russell Wilson threw four touchdown passes, two to Tyler Lockett and one to D.K. Metcalf, as the Seahawks efficiently handled the Colts, a team with a talented roster, 28-16 in Indianapoilis. In Tennessee, the Cardinals showed a new side of themselves with a tough defense, mixing in 3-4 principles (like 2-4-5 looks), and led by Chandler Jones’ triumphant return for five sacks after missing virtually all of 2020 with a torn bicep. Team also held Derrick Henry to just 58 yards rushing on 3.4 yards per carry. Oh, and Kyler Murray added five total touchdowns, no biggie. The 49ers played staunch defense through three quarters to go along with a solid running game and a glimpse of what Trey Lance can do (short TD pass to Trent Sherfield on shotgun, plya-action fake).

Then, there’s the Rams. Los Angeles looked the best out of the four clubs, with their ball-hawking secondary, arsenal of wide receivers and smart play-calling. Everything looked complete with new quarterback Matthew Stafford at the helm. The former Detroit Lion showed off his clear fit in McVay’s scheme, and his incredible arm on a Rams offensive staple early on — an under-center, play-action bootleg play, turned-bomb 67-yard touchdown pass to Van Jefferson. It’s much too early to make a call, but give me the Rams, my predicted Super Bowl 56 winner, as the early favorite in the division.

Mac Jones   Mac Jones displays poise, smart QB play

In New England, the Patriots out-gained the Dolphins by 134 yards, produced eight more first downs, 51 more rushing yards, and were in the red zone down 17-16 in the game’s final minutes, before running back Damien Harris, who had a nice showing, lost the team’s second fumble of the day, sealing a 0-1 fate for Bill Belichick’s squad.

New England was in position to win thanks to rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who lost his debut, but looked poised, efficient and NFL-ready in doing so.

Jones showed why he was a perfect fit for the Patriots’ offense, going 29-for-39 for 281 passing yards and a touchdown to Nelson Agholor. Jones also went 14-of-18 for 129 yards versus the blitz, 7-of-10 (and his touchdown throw) under pressure, and 9-for-12 for 89 yards on third down, with seven conversions. He displayed a mastery and command of the offense that only improved as the game went along.

Former Alabama teammate, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, got the win, and made some impressive throws, but I thought Jones looked better than Tagovailoa, who produced more out of schemed plays, albeit with impressive designs.

The opening-day loss in a game they should have won will sting for the Patriots. But the bigger picture is: they have their guy at quarterback.

Jameis Winston   Jameis Winston did what?!

The Saints, playing in Jacksonville, Florida for a home game because of Hurricane Ida, throttled Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, 38-3. The defense forced two Aaron Rodgers interceptions and a 13.5 Total QBR from last year’s NFL MVP. On offense, Jameis Winston put an end to any debate between him and Swiss army knife Taysom Hill regarding who should start at quarterback. Winston efficiently threw for five touchdowns, with no turnovers, on just 148 yards passing, the lowest yardage total for a five-touchdown pass game in league history. The low-yardage total is a good thing. As the Saints defense continued to make plays, New Orleans needed Winston to manage the flow of the game, which he did perfectly. His 55-yard-touchdown heave to speedster Deonte Harris was a beautiful deep ball, which is a facet the offense had been missing in Drew Brees’ later years, which Brees joked about in his NBC debut. If Winston can limit turnovers on offense, they are a legitimate threat in the NFC.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0). Tom Brady, at age 44, looked as sharp as a quarterback, and as spry as a deep ball passer in Week 1 than he has since at least his 2017 MVP award-winning season. His connection with Gronk remains, but it’s the full offseason of work with Antonio Brown and Chris Godwin that has seemingly taken this offense to another level. One observation from Thursday, is that Brown may be Brady’s favorite target this year. Brady and his aforementioned trio of pass catchers combined for 22 completions for 316 yards and four touchdowns on Sunday. Wait until it’s Mike Evans’ turn, or when they get Giovanni Bernard involved. Look out.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). It was a sloppy game for the defense, but the NFL’s best trio saved the day. Final statlines: Patrick Mahomes (27-of-36, 347 pass yards, four total TDs), Tyreek Hill (11 catches, 197 receiving yards, two TDs) Travis Kelce (six catches, 97 receiving yards, 2 TDs). All three remain at the peak of their game. The Chiefs have a litany of holes and roster questions, but remain the team to beat in the AFC.

3. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). We talked about the NFC West above. The Rams combination of newfound moxie on offense, and tough defense with attitude, pits them as the prime opponent for the defending Super Bowl champion Bucs. They’ll face off in Los Angeles in two weeks.

4. Seattle Seahawks (1-0). That was a mighty-impressive east-coast, early-window win for the Seahawks. Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson will always bring a level of consistent winning to this club. It’s up to the defense to play up-to-par, if they are to compete with the heavyweights in this league.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0). Pittsburgh’s defense, with T.J. Watt and others, kept the high-flying Bills offense at bay for their entirety of their 23-13 win in Buffalo. They showed grit and toughness in outscoring last year’s AFC title game participant, 23-6, in the second half. They’ll get the offense sorted out. They should have one of the best defenses in football for the entire year.

6. Cleveland Browns (0-1). Despite the loss, the Browns showed why they are a team to be feared in the AFC. Baker Mayfield stumbled late, throwing the game-ending interception, but early on he flourished in the play-action passing game out of 12 personnel. Aaron Rodgers took a leap last season in Year 2 under Matt LaFluer’s heavy-12 personnel, play-action passing attack. Kevin Stefanski runs a similar scheme in Cleveland, and Mayfield already looks more comfortable within the offense in his second season. Overall, the Browns, with their rushing attack and pass rush, led by Myles Garrett, have the recipe to unseat the Chiefs, but they have to execute for four quarters. They got burned on Sunday.

7. San Francisco 49ers (1-0). They let up late versus the Lions, but it happens. For three quarters, they soundly handled an inferior team. This is one of the NFL’s best squads.

8. Arizona Cardinals (1-0). Kyler Murray and that offense is still explosive. Kliff Kingsbury even cooked up some things for dangerous new weapon Rondale Moore, a rookie second-round pick receiver out of Purdue, who can do a multitude of things. If their defense becomes a top-10 unit, they’ll be one of the league’s best clubs.

9. New Orleans Saints (1-0). It’s Week 1, but if the Saints play anything close to yesterday’s win for a good chunk of the season, Sean Payton will be a prime Coach of the Year candidate.

10. Baltimore Ravens (0-0). The Ravens will have to figure out their running back situation on the fly, and losing Marcus Peters will hurt, but this is one of the best-run franchises in the league. They’ll figure it out.

11. Buffalo Bills (0-1). We’ll hold off on panicking about the Bills, although Josh Allen is a prime regression candidate, with his style of play. Buffalo heads to Miami this week to attempt to even things up in the AFC East.

12. Miami Dolphins (1-0). Brian Flores’ aptitude versus his former boss is now becoming a trend. The Dolphins are a physical, tough team who now have won three of their last four versus the Patriots under Flores. Their nice blend of RPOs and inside-zone runs hurt the Patriots when it mattered. That looked like a game between two playoff teams, even if ranked at the back-half of the eventual playoff field. The Dolphins can create a pretty nice early lead in the division with a win over the Bills next week.

13. New England Patriots (0-1). The Patriots are now 7-10 since Brady left, but there’s a lot to be excited about after watching Mac Jones on Sunday. They have a solid running game and front seven. The Dolphins, who know them well, are a tough matchup. This is a fringe-playoff team, at minimum. They should be in the tourney come January.

14. Denver Broncos (1-0). They looked solid in a win over the Giants. They have one of the league’s better rosters. It’ll be up to Teddy Bridgewater to determine just how far they can go.

15. Los Angeles Chargers (1-0). They survived in Washington. Justin Herbert made some key throws late, particularly to Keenan Allen.

16. Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Yes, their defense is bad, but with rookie phenom Micah Parsons at linebacker, and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn implementing his Cover-3-based system throughout the year, maybe they’ll do just enough to help the Cowboys, and their incredible passing offense, win the NFC East. Dak Prescott is due for a monster season.

Next Up: Green Bay, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Carolina, Tennessee

Mac Jones Practice

Dawn of a new era: Can Mac Jones lead the Patriots back to the playoffs?

Twenty years ago, Bill Belichick was faced with a tough decision at quarterback. 

Taking over for an injured Drew Bledsoe in 2001, Tom Brady made it far too difficult for Belichick to return to the New England Patriots’ then-$100 million man in Bledsoe, when the presumed franchise passer was cleared to play. 

The tough choice to stick with Brady spawned a two-decade dynasty in Foxboro that totaled six Super Bowl wins, nine Super Bowl appearances, 13 AFC title game berths and 17 AFC East division titles.

Now, looking to pick up the pieces after a rough first season without Brady (who added to his Super Bowl total in Tampa Bay with the Buccaneers), ‘The Hoodie’ was tasked with another conundrum at QB.

Cam Newton versus Mac Jones. 

Belichick once again opted for the young, gangly passer over a former No. 1 overall pick when he decided to abruptly extinguish the Cam Newton era, releasing the 2015 NFL MVP before eager Patriots fans at Gillette Stadium ever got the chance to cheer for him in person. 

Now, the keys to the New England’s complex offense belong to Mac Jones, the franchise’s lone first-round pick quarterback (No. 15 overall) of the Belichick era, and first since Bledsoe in 1993. 

Cam Newton and Mac Jones
Mac Jones is a better fit for the Patriots’ offense than Cam Newton. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Comparing Jones to Tom Brady outright is a fool’s errand. 

Brady will forever be the face of the franchise. He’s the greatest player in NFL history. Even if Mac Jones’ career is everything the Patriots hope for, there will likely be a statue of Brady built outside the stadium in Foxboro midway through Jones’ New England career, which is something that probably won’t happen for the latter. 

However, it’s fair to say that Jones is of Brady’s mold. Shared attributes include a super-computer football mind, pocket presence, accuracy, poise, and shared “deficiencies”such as a lack of speed and the inability to make off-schedule plays consistently. 

Both have been described as having “adequate” arm strength, despite each displaying deep-shot ability and zip on the ball. (Seriously, go watch this Brady attempt to Randy Moss in Super Bowl 42, or some of his intermediate throws in his 2010 NFL MVP award-winning season.)

ESPN‘s Louis Riddick, a former player of Belichick’s and a brilliant evaluator/analyst amidst a sea of hot-take artists in the business, took to NBC Sports Boston’s ‘Next Pats’ podcast to praise the fit of Jones with the Patriots to Insider Phil Perry:

——-

“He’s known for being that cerebral, fast-thinking, risk-averse…but at the same time, calculated in terms of the big shots that he takes, type of quarterback. Last time I checked, that’s what wins in the NFL. 

…At quarterback, it’s always been about decision making and accuracy. It always will be about that. Everything else is a bonus. There’s a lot of quarterbacks in this draft that make spectacular plays with their legs. What is going to separate them from the rest, and put them in the category of being elite, is: can they make good decisions and be accurate with the football? It’s really that simple. And Mac [Jones] has shown the ability to do that. 

What did he do this preseason? He was throwing people open. 

His first preseason game, what did they do? They went up-tempo and no-huddle, because things were sluggish for him against Washington. So they go five-empty, and they are just like “zoom, zoom, zoom”. No other rookie quarterback was doing that.”

——-

The decision to go with Jones over Newton came down to Jones being the perfect leader for Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes and concepts. (As well as having the cap space to build a Super Bowl-winning team around Mac Jones’ four-year, $16 million cheap-as-hell rookie QB contract during Belichick’s presumed final coaching years). 

Many believed that New England “catered” their playbook to Newton last season, but really, Newton was asked to run the Patriots’ offense led by Brady in 2018 and 2019, with the only consistent “Cam-specific” addition to the offense being a small package of QB power-type plays utilized by Newton on the goal line and in short-yardage scenarios. 

Mac Jones and Josh McDaniels
Mac Jones is the prototypical style of quarterback to run Josh McDaniels’ offensive schemes in New England. (Photo: Mark Daniels)

Jones is the perfect fit to run any of New England’s offensive iterations in the Brady era: run-heavy and play-action passing out of I-formation and Singleback under center, quick-passing and timing-based throws out of shotgun empty and spread, and up-tempo attacks with versatile pieces such as New England’s two new tight ends. 

Jones is the type of passer who thrives before the snap and goes through his progressions quicker than most after the snap. Often times last year, Newton’s struggled in New England’s play-action reads from under center. He held onto the ball for too long when scanning the field. Sure, a lack of competent pass-catchers certainly had a lot to do with that, but Newton just didn’t seem to fit New England’s offense, and the Patriots didn’t seem willing to change, nor did they have the time to do so with no preseason and a truncated training camp in the Summer of 2020.

Bill Belichick's Prototypical QB
Mac Jones fits Bill Belichick’s prototypical quarterback template to a tee, as described by Belichick here in a 1991 scouting guide he presumably gave to his Cleveland Browns staff. (Photo by Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network)

Jones is the perfect fit for what the team wants to do. And in 2021, that’s best predicted as an amalgam of their early-dynasty offense from 2001 to 2006 (and again from 2018 to 2020), and their up-tempo, quick-passing, matchup-exploiting scheme from 2010 to 2012 with the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, paired with Brady at the end of his physical peak. 

Asking for Jones to be anything close to what Brady was from about 2007 to 2017 is incredibly unfair. It won’t happen. But Jones is absolutely capable of mimicking Brady’s early years, when New England won three Super Bowls with a solid team around him. 

Up front, New England has what should be one of the NFL’s four or five best offensive lines. The Patriots have returning starters in left tackle Isaiah Wynn, Center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and Michael Onwenu, who is moving over from right tackle to left guard, a more natural spot for him after he mostly played tackle last season, and excelled. 

The Patriots let their best offensive lineman over the past few seasons, Joe Thuney, walk in free agency for a big deal with AFC rival Kansas City based off the play of Onwenu, who as a rookie, was the eighth-highest-graded tackle (84.3) in the NFL in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus

Wynn, Onwenu and Mason are incredible run blockers, in particular. The Patriots will go heavy with pulling guards and man-blocking as a power running team once more. 

The unit may be the best run-blocking group in the NFL, and should be in the top half of the league in pass-blocking, with the latter being helped out by the last-to-be-named starting offensive lineman: right tackle Trent Brown

New England kicked off the offseason by trading back for Brown after his two seasons with the Raiders. Brown was an anchoring left tackle for New England in their 2018 Super Bowl run, which helped the 6-foot-8, 380-pound gargantuan earn a contract as massive as his size. 

Size is the name of the game with this group of front, as each starter is over 300 pounds, and the entire unit averaging a league-high 330 pounds. This is one of the bigger offensive lines in the league, if not the biggest. 

Running behind them often will be Damien Harris, who should be the team’s clear leading rusher now that Super Bowl 53 hero Sony Michel is battling for RB1 duties with the Los Angeles Rams. 

The team felt comfortable with Harris leading the charge as a traditional, downhill-running back who makes up for any talent deficiencies with his tough, and smart, ball-carrying style. 

But it’s only a matter of time that rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma, and J.J. Taylor, entering Year 2 out of Arizona, become significant parts of the offense. 

Taylor should be first up as RB2 as a Dion Lewis/Rex Burkhead hybrid who runs with a surprising amount of power for his size (5-foot-6, 185 pounds). 

Stevenson is a bigger back (6-foot, 246 pounds) that initially drew comparisons to LeGarrette Blount, only for many to find out that he is surprisingly agile as a make-you-miss runner who will excel in shotgun, inside-zone attempts, and is probably the second-best receiving back of the group behind James White. 

Speaking of White, the eight-year-pro, and longtime Patriots hero, stands the most to gain from the switch from Cam Newton to Mac Jones at quarterback. The Patriots can now turn to its quick-passing attack that historically feeds its pass-catching backs. That wasn’t really Cam’s game. So White, who had less receiving yards (375) and receiving scores (one) than he’s had since his rookie year (where he barely played) should have a resurgence on screens, as well as flat routes and option routes from the backfield on 3rd-and-5-and-under situations. 

The reimplementation of White as a factor in the offense is just one of a slew of factors that should help improve won of the most inefficient passing offenses of the 21st century last season. 

The team threw a league-worst 10 touchdown passes last season, and ranked 27th in passing in Football Outsiders‘ renowned DVOA stat. 

To help combat the issues, Belichick overhauled the tight end position by making headlines with not one, but two free agency splashes at the position in Jonnu Smith (4 years, $50 million, $31.25 million guaranteed) and Hunter Henry (3 years, $37.5 million, $25 million guaranteed). 

The offense will be led by rookie Mac Jones, but will revolve around the O-line, running game, and play-action passing to what should be two phenomenal chess pieces in Smith and Henry for McDaniels’ play-calling. 

12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) has long been a staple of New England offenses, but with limited personnel post-Gronk, the team has barely used the tight end position. The Patriots ran 12 personnel in just two-percent of offensive snaps (22 snaps) in 2020, according to Sharp Football Stats, a league low, and New England has only three touchdown receptions from tight ends in the last two seasons combined. Quite simply, they’ve ignored the position during games because they’ve had to, due to a lack of talent. Now, they likely will use more two-tight end sets than any team in the league. 

In Henry they have more of a traditional ‘Y’ tight end who is capable in-line as a blocker, and can spread out as a pass-catcher in looks such as a shotgun 3×1 setup, where the former Charger would project as a backside ‘X’ receiver a la Travis Kelce in Kansas City. 

Smith, a former Tennesee Titan, is more of a rare breed as a Swiss army knife-type player who can line up on the line, in the slot, as an H-back, fullback, or even running back. McDaniels will look to get him matched up on slower linebackers and smaller defensive backs in hopes of utilizing Smith’s incredible yards-after-the-catch ability, in which he has averaged 6.8 YAC for his career, by using a blend of power and finesse as a fully-aware, movement player with supreme ball carrier vision, athleticism and toughness for his position.

On the surface, it would seem lazy to compare the Henry-Smith combination to the great Gronk-Hernandez tandem from 2010 to 2012, but the archetypes seem similar. Sure, Henry isn’t as powerful as Gronk, and Smith, although a much better blocker than Hernandez, doesn’t quite have the body control of the former troubled Florida Gator product, who made defenders miss after the catch perhaps better than any tight end the game has ever seen.

But, there are similarities. The Patriots should be much better in the red zone with this tight end tandem. Smith, alone, had a career-high eight touchdowns in 2020. 

Additionally, look for each to run a myriad of routes out of play-action in I-Form and Singbleback two-tight end sets. In shotgun-spread, Henry will split out wide at times, and Smith should work heavily in the middle of the field, whether it be seam routes, or quick outs from the slot, or option-routes from the backfield. 

All of this leans on Jones’ ability to get these guys the ball, of course. The Alabama QB seems to thrive in both spread and under-center, play-action looks, and is accurate when throwing the football. A bigger cause for concern with the tight ends, is the health of Henry, who is coming into Week 1 possibly banged up, and has missed 24 games in four seasons. Henry has also never played a full season of games. 

If Henry does miss time, Devin Asiasi, a 2020 third-round pick, stands to fill his place as the Y-tight end, but it’s more likely that New England will then heavily mix in 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) and the common 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) to make up for Henry’s absence. 

Not yet mentioned, Jakob Johnson is a traditional fullback who lacks the power of James Develin, but is a capable lead-blocker in I-formation, strong, and weak looks. Even with Smith and Henry healthy, Johnson will get his fair share of goal-line and short-yardage snaps. 

At wide receiver, the Patriots paid Nelson Agholor (2 years, $26 million, $15 million guaranteed) and Kendrick Bourne (3 years, $22.5 million) to come in and help a wide receiver core that struggled mightily against man coverage in 2020. Last season, the Patriots passing offense was 31st in EPA/play versus man coverage and single-high looks.

Agholor’s contract suggests New England views him as their top receiver. The former Philadelphia Eagle was considered a bit of a first-round bust as a slot receiver, even if he burned the Patriots for a nine-catch, 84-yard performance as an underneath, quick-pass option in Philadephia’s Super Bowl 52 win over New England. 

Playing on a prove-it, one-year deal for the Raiders last year, Agholor reinvented himself as a speedy deep-threat and X-receiver, setting a career-high in receiving yards (896) and tying his high in touchdowns (8), all while ranking second in the league in yards per reception (18.7).

Agholor will be tasked as New England’s deep-shot playmaker who also runs intermediate, in-breaking routes such as crossers, from both the perimeter and the slot. There, Agholor can utilize his speed to break away from man-coverage defenders, allowing the rest of the team’s pass-catchers, such as fellow newcomer Kendrick Bourne, to work underneath. 

Bourne, coming over from San Francisco, will likely begin the season as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver who comes on the field in 11 personnel and third-down situations. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound receiver is not known for his speed, but rather his quickness, route-running, strength/toughness and ability in the clutch on 3rd-and-7-or-so scenarios. He will be a threat underneath, in the red zone, on third down, and in crunch time. Expect Bourne to be one of the team’s more improved players in the scheme by season’s end. He has the potential, along with James White, to be a third-down security blanket pass catcher for the team’s rookie QB. 

Then, there’s Jakobi Meyers. The former North Carolina State QB-turned-receiver continues to defy expectations, blossoming into one of the NFL’s more competent and productive possession receivers. He ranked 10th out of 111 qualifying pass catchers in receiving yards per routes run (2.24) last year, and led the Patriots in receiving yards (776) despite not starting in the team’s first few games of 2020. 

He’ll often play in the slot in both shotgun-spread and 11-personnel looks, and as a Z-receiver/flanker option on the outside in 12 personnel. Basically, despite having a bit of a different skill set, Meyers is taking over Edelman’s role in the offense. Meyers is on an early-career, Edelman-like progression track within the offense, too. He should be a focal point in his third year in 2021.

After that, there’s 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry, who will miss the first few games of the season on injured reserve, and look to produce as a moving chess piece on the perimeter, in the slot, and in motion as an athlete-type player at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, who may surprise some in Year 3 after gaining confidence and experience.

Rounding out the group is Gunner Olszewski, an All-Pro punt returner and backup slot option, and newcomer Malcolm Perry, a former Navy quarterback (right up Belichick’s wheelhouse) converted to a slot receiver-running back in Miami under former Patriots coach Brian Flores. Expect him to be a gadget-type player at first  who attempts to learn the receiver position, a la Julian Edelman. Perry does have incredible quickness. 

The offense will likely get back to its roots under Mac Jones, with McDaniels reverting back to his mix-and-match approach with game plans as Jones becomes more comfortable leading the offense. The team’s chameleon-like approach was renowned in the 2010s, and was a major factor in their success under Tom Brady. 

Expect the Patriots to lean heavy on 12 personnel, power-running and play-action passing at first, before eventually leaning more on Jones’ ability to run an up-tempo, spread offense that famously uses versatile players (Jonnu Smith, James White, etc.) to exploit matchups in a timing-based, quick-passing scheme.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Mac Jones

RB — Damien Harris

‘X’ WR — Nelson Agholor

‘Z’ WR/Slot — Jakobi Meyers

‘Y’/Traditional TE — Hunter Henry

‘F’/’Move’ TE — Jonnu Smith

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Michael Onwenu

C — David Andrews 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Trent Brown

Situational positions: 

FB — Jakob Johnson

WR3 (Underneath option, 3rd-down, etc.) — Kendrick Bourne

3rd-down back/receiving back — James White

RB2/Scatback — J.J. Taylor

RB3 — Rhamondre Stevenson 

‘Y’ TE/TE3 — Devin Asiasi

WR4 — N’Keal Harry

WR5/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski 

‘Gadget’/Slot WR — Malcolm Perry

Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste/Justin Herron 

* * * * * * *

For all the talk of the ineffective passing offense from last year, the Patriots defense stumbled down the ladder of the league’s top-ranked defenses, into a unit that resembled nothing of its staunch 2019 form. 

The team went from first in DVOA in total defense in 2019 to 26th last season, which included a ranking of dead-last in run defense DVOA. Those are catastrophic numbers for a Belichick-led defense. 

The unit struggled mightily last year after losing some of its key players both to free agency (Kyle Van Noy, Danny Shelton) and opt-outs (Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung), and missing Stephon Gilmore, New England’s current best player, for five games due to injury. 

The Patriots’ Spending spree in free agency included an initial wave of players on defense with Van Noy returning from Miami on a two-year, $13.2 million deal. The team also signed cornerback/safety-hybrid Jalen Mills (4 years, $24 million) and plucked nose tackle Davon Godchaux (2 years, $16 million) and defensive end Henry Anderson (2 years, $7 million) from AFC East rivals. 

But their biggest offseason addition was the the signing of former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker Matt Judon to a four-year, $56 million deal ($32 million guaranteed). Judon already looked the part in the preseason as a menacing edge setter. 

In addition to finishing last in run defense DVOA last year, the team was also ranked last in off-tackle yards per attempt, showcasing just how bad they were in setting the edge in the run game. Chase Winovich is one of the league’s better edge rushers, but coupled with the likes of John Simon, Shilique Calhoun and Tashawn Bower last year, the team was horrendous in stopping outside runs.

Adding Judon and re-adding Van Noy to set the edge in the run game, along with the additions of Godchaux and Anderson (3rd among interior lineman with a 43 percent run-stop-win rate in 2020) to plug up the interior will transform this front seven, and give the Patriots what they want: a tough, deep depth chart of defensive lineman and linebackers for their 3-4-style (mostly) defense that they’ve shifted too since 2019. 

 

Patriots defense -- 2020 trends
The New England Patriots have mostly moved to a 3-4 style of defense since 2019, employing a “base” Nickel 2-4-5, often with three safeties, as their most-used formation.

Expect the Patriots to run a boatload of 2-4-5 with Godchaux (6-foot-3, 311 pounds) and the returning Lawrence Guy (6-foot-4, 315 pounds) up front as a versatile lineman who can play both 4-3 defensive tackle an 3-4-style defensive end. Each of these men are excellent two-gapping lineman for this type of defense. The Patriots struggled last year with an endless supply of practice-squad type players and cast-offs rotating around Guy up front, which hurt the defense almost as much their deficiencies on the edge. 

This year on the edge, the aforementioned Matt Judon is probably New England’s best football player on the roster with Gilmore sidelined. He’s the strong-side, stand-up EDGE defender that is perfect for this scheme. The “Elephant” role, is what former Patriot Willie McGinest calls this role, according to CLNS Media‘s Evan Lazar

Matthew Judon -- Training Camp
Matthew Judon may be the Patriots’ best player in 2021. New England was in dire need of a player of his caliber as an EDGE defender. (Screenshot: New England Patriots)

Judon can use his 6-foot-3, 275-pound frame, athleticism and aggressiveness to stop the run, rush the passer and even play a bit of shallow pass coverage. 

Van Noy returns on the other side as the opposite EDGE on early downs, with the possibility to move inside as well. 

At off-ball linebacker, the return of Dont’a Hightower is one of the more under-the-radar, massively important stories of the entire league. The 10-year-pro is a leader on the defense, and New England missed his football wit, swagger and ferociousness up front. 

Depending on the scheme, the Patriots will have Ja’Whaun Bentley, who struggled in Hightower’s role last year, returning to his perfect fit as a “thumper” inside linebacker in 3-4 looks. 

New England also loves to employ three safeties, and the Patrick Chung role as a box safety/linebacker hybrid will certainly be utilized in some 2-4-5 looks. Last year, Kyle Dugger played mostly as a strong safety, and Adrian Phillips as a linebacker. This season, there’s a chance their roles switch, as Dugger’s tackling ability and sideline-to-sideline speed fit better in the box, with Phillips impressing many in pass coverage, specifically man coverage on tight ends, in training camp. Although, Phillips was tough up front tackling ball carriers in 2020, even with his smaller frame for the box. But the lack of run-stuffers up front meant more lineman coming downhill and blowing Phillips out of the play. That shouldn’t happen this season. 

Rounding out the safeties is Devin McCourty, who enters his 12th season at age 34 as a dependable free safety on early downs, and Cover 1 robber defender to stop crossers (think: yellow zone in Madden) on later downs. The “Duron Harmon” role as the team’s deep safety on clear passing downs (such as 3rd-and-long) is up for grabs, with slot cornerback Jonathan Jones looking like a frontrunner. 

The Patriots loved to run a heavy amount of man coverage, with Cover 1 being their speciality. Last year, Cover 1 and Cover 3 were once again their main coverage tendencies, but the split between man coverage and zone was roughly 51 percent to 49 percent last season, according to my film review and charting.

The increase in zone coverage from the previous season probably had a lot to do with the absence of No. 1 cornerback Stephon Gilmore for five games. 

The Patriots are vulnerable without Stephon Gilmore, who even at age 31 is arguably the best man-coverage cornerback in football on the perimeter. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is attempting to return from a torn quad, and will miss at least six weeks since he’s on the PUP (Physically unable to perform) list. Gilmore is also looking for a new contract, as he’s playing on just a $7 million base salary in 2021, much lower than top-of-the-market pay for his position. So his situation is murky, making New England’s cornerback situation a possible Achilles heel on an otherwise superb-looking defense. 

With Gilmore out, J.C. Jackson, who is playing on a contract year (he’s playing in 2021 on a cheap restricted free agent tender this season), moves up to No. 1 cornerback, a position in which he struggled some last year, particularly against Bills All-Pro receiver Stefon Diggs. 

Jackson is possibly the best No. 2 cornerback in football, but stands to improve as a No. 1 option. After gaining some experience in the role last year, expect him to be even better in 2021. He’s one of the best deep-ball defenders in the game on the outside. 

Jalen Mills, a struggling cornerback-turned-competent-safety with the Eagles is the type of versatile defensive player that the Patriots covet, but it’s worth wondering how he’ll hold up as the No. 2 cornerback on the outside. He best slots in as competition for Jonathan Jones as a slot or nickel-type who plays some safety.

The Patriots should also get a lot out their non-starters, as they look for their best pairings. 

In the secondary, Joejuan Williams and newcomer Shaun Wade, Baltimore’s fifth-round pick this past spring out of Ohio State who was once considered a first-round pick prospect, are gangly cornerbacks with safety potential who will get their fare share of playing time with Gilmore out. 

At linebacker, Harvey Langi returns to the Patriots to provide depth after a three-year-stint with the rival New York Jets that saw him in a starting role at times in 2020. 

On the defensive line, there’s Carl Davis as depth for Godchaux at nose tackle after earning his spot as the lone midseason addition who could stop the run last year. Then there’s newcomer Henry Anderson and the returning Deatrich Wise Jr., a Belichick favorite, will battle it out for snaps alongside Guy and Godchaux as a 3-4 defensive end in base 3-4 looks. Wise Jr. is more of a 4-3-style player but has molded his game over the past two years to fit the 3-4, and is a great locker room presence. 

Wise Jr. will also see time as an interior rusher in clear passing situations in the Patriots’ Big Dime 2-3-6 setup, a go-to look for them on third down. 

Next to him will be rookie Christian Barmore. New England moved up to get the 6-foot-4, 310-pound Alabama defensive tackle in the second round after he fell out of his projected spot as a back-half-of-the-first-round prospect. Barmore may one day be a starter in 3-4 and 2-4-5 looks on early downs, but he’ll begin his career in the Adam Butler role as perhaps the Patriots’ best interior rusher. He should also be the lone hand-in-the-dirt lineman in Big Dime 1-4-6 looks.

Rounding out the insanely-deep EDGE position is third-round pick Ronnie Perkins, who should get a bit of a redshirt year in a learning role, and the aforementioned Chase Winovich, who will return to his pass-rush specialty position as a third-down rusher and occasional base player.

And last but not least, there’s Josh Uche, one of the team’s most important players this season, along with Dugger at safety, considering the second-year “leap” each player is projected to take. 

Josh Uche -- Training Camp
Josh Uche is projected to have a breakout second season, and perhaps may overtake Kyle Van Noy as a starting stand-up EDGE opposite Matthew Judon in base defense looks later in the season. (Screenshot: Josh Uche Instagram)

Uche has the speed and athleticism to take over the 2019 Jamie Collins role as both an early-down EDGE defender and off-ball linebacker in passing situations who often blitzes up the middle. But Uche’s raw talent at rushing the passer, with his speed, quickness and ability to bend past offensive tackles make him a fit as a full-time EDGE, where he may be able to kick Van Noy to the inside. After all, Dont’a Hightower called Uche “little Judon” for his talent and overall ability as a stand-up EDGE defender. 

Uche, a 2019 second-round pick, will certainly play often, and the possibilities of mixing and matching these pass-rushing edge rushers on clear passing downs are endless. 

Could you imagine a 1-4-6 look on a 3rd-and-10 with Barmore on the line, and four out of five of a group including Judon, Hightower, Van Noy, Winovich and Uche all along the line as stand-up rushers? That’s a quarterback’s worst nightmare. 

The Patriots have the ability to go with a bulkier 3-4, a 2-4-5 with 3-4 principles (their usual base), or a Big Dime look (2-3-6, 1-4-6) as their main defense for the majority of a game, depending on the opponent. 

They can run three safety-looks, and can also use run-stuffing personnel, pass-rushing personnel and more, all with the perfect amount of player overlap and cycling of players with different skill sets. 

This unit has the ability to be a top-five group in both points allowed and efficiency metrics (DVOA, etc.).

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior/Nose Tackle — Davon Godchaux

Interior— Lawrence Guy

EDGE — Matt Judon

EDGE — Kyle Van Noy

LB — Dont’a Hightower

Box safety/LB— Kyle Dugger

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

CB1 — J.C. Jackson

CB2 — Jalen Mills 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

Interior/3-4 DE — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

Interior/3-4 DE  — Henry Anderson

3-4 Nose Tackle — Carl Davis

Interior pass rusher (Big Dime 2-3-6/1-4-6) — Christian Barmore

3-4 ILB — Ja’Whaun Bentley

EDGE/LB/3rd-down pass rusher — Josh Uche 

EDGE/3rd-down pass rusher — Chase Winovich

EDGE — Ronnie Perkins

CB1 (PUP, out six weeks) — Stephon Gilmore

CB4 (perimeter)/slot — Shaun Wade

CB5/S (‘Big’ TE, ‘X’ WR matchup CB) — Joejuan Williams

* * * * * * *

Projected record: 11-6 (AFC’s No. 6 seed)

In an attempt to reboot the team after a 7-9 transition season in a post-Tom Brady world, during a pandemic, Bill Belichick hurled an NFL-record $159.6 million of guaranteed money in free agency to attempt to fix his team on both sides of the ball. 

Some criticized the moves, calling some of the contracts “overpays,” but the moves were strategic, as the Patriots were one of just a couple teams with the available cap space in 2020 after the salary cap shrunk in an attempt to make up for lost revenue from a lack of fan attendance during last season. 

The salary cap will increase, swiftly and dramatically, I might add, which will make many of these deals closer to market value, or even below the threshold, which means the Patriots will have additional cap space after all, to build a team around rookie Mac Jones. 

Yes, it’s Jones who Belichick plucked from good friend Nick Saban’s team in Alabama, in the first round of the draft. It’s Jones, who Belichick has deemed worthy as Brady’s official successor, perhaps thanks to valuable insider info from Saban. 

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been 20 years since the tragic events of September 11, 2001. That season, it was fitting that the New England Patriots banded together as a team, built off a solid defense, top-tier play in the trenches (OL, DL), a tough power-running game, and a young quarterback leading the offense as a clutch, unafraid leader with much to learn. And let’s not forget, great coaching. 

The 2021 Patriots are a similar breed, perhaps not as sturdy in the secondary without Stephon Gilmore, but just as deep in the front seven, with a better offensive line, and perhaps, better offensive weapons, with two tight ends in Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith ready to become a focal point of the offense. 

Of course, times have changed, as the game is equipped with new rules today that were not in place in 2001. High-flying offenses and great quarterback play are more important than ever. 

So even with all of this, the comparisons to the 2001 Patriots and all, this team is not quite Super Bowl-ready, but they will surprise many, challenging the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East for all 18 weeks of the regular season, before earning a wild-card berth, and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since Super Bowl 53, three seasons ago. (I have them losing in the Divisional round.) 

There was a clear opposing of views between Brady and Belichick when it came to team-building philosophies. That was perhaps the main reason for Brady’s split to Tampa Bay during his final years. Brady has his high-flying offense, and now, Belichick’s vision for a more complete team has come to fruition.    

Aaron Donald sack, forced fumble on Patrick Mahomes

Brent Schwartz’s Top 100 NFL Players of 2021

After months of internal debate, research, strained eyeballs and sore typing fingers, I’m proud to share my fourth annual NFL Top 100 Players list with everyone. This is a joy to work on, and obviously is a subjective list, but as part of the exercise, I do my best to include statistical context and my own mini-scouting reports on these players, to show what makes them great. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I love creating it.

Before we dive into the list, let’s look at some important notes:

— As it’s always been with this exercise, 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 2021.

You’ll notice I left Deshaun Watson off the list, as the Houston Texans quarterback is facing numerous lawsuits over sexual misconduct, while also holding out in hopes of being traded to another club. Had I decided to put him on the list, he would have made my top 25. If he does indeed play again, the Philadelphia Eagles seem like the most logical suitor for 2022 and beyond.

One big change with this list is me now listing interior defensive lineman as ‘DI’ instead of ‘DT’ for defensive tackle. ‘DI’ stands for ‘defensive interior,’ and is a broad term that would cover nose tackles, defensive tackles, and 3-4 defensive ends who often take on multiple blockers. The distinction between ‘EDGE’ defender and ‘DI,’ or defensive tackle and defensive end, is a pretty important one in the league, as you’ll see below in Leonard Williams’ case. The franchise tag figure for defensive ends is more lucrative than that of a defensive tackle.

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

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7)

Tennessee Titans (7)

Kansas City Chiefs (6)

Green Bay Packers (6)

Cleveland Browns (5)

New Orleans Saints (5)

Seattle Seahawks (5)

Minnesota Vikings (5)

San Francisco 49ers (4)

Los Angeles Rams (4)

Los Angeles Chargers (4)

— As you see above, four teams (TB, KC, GB, TEN) account for more than a quarter of the players on my list, and over half of my Top 100 players come from just 10 of the NFL’s 32 teams. There are a lot of talented teams, which includes top-heavy, Super Bowl-ready clubs (KC, LAR, maybe TEN) and teams with both a boatload of talent and depth, like Tampa Bay, and perhaps, Cleveland.

— Here are the number of players selected for each position:

Quarterback (13)

Running Back (10)

Wide Receiver (19)

Tight End (5)

Tackle (5)

Guard (4)

Center (2)

Defensive Interior (9)

EDGE (13)

Linebacker (6)

Cornerback (7)

Safety (7)

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

Shaquil Barrett, EDGE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Adam Thielen, WR, Minnesota Vikings

Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

Courtland Sutton, WR, Denver Broncos

Jonathan Taylor, RB, Indianapolis Colts

J.C. Jackson, CB, New England Patriots

Bryce Callahan, CB, Denver Broncos

Demario Davis, LB, New Orleans Saints

Trey Flowers, EDGE, Detroit Lions

Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals

Noah Fant, TE, Denver Broncos

Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Denver Broncos

Fletcher Cox, DI, Philadelphia Eagles

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Derwin James, S, Los Angeles Chargers

Marcus Peters, CB, Baltimore Ravens

Darious Williams, CB, Los Angeles Rams

Marcus Williams, S, New Orleans Saints

Roquan Smith, LB, Chicago Bears

Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

Adrian Amos, S, Green Bay Packers

Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Football Team

Matthew Judon, EDGE, New England Patriots

Brian Burns, EDGE, Carolina Panthers

John Johnson III, S, Cleveland Browns

And now, without further ado, the list…

*******

100.T.J. HockensonT.J. Hockenson – TE, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)  

The list begins with a clear representation of my above-explained “70-30 rule” with a heavy focus on the latter number (30 percent potential). Sure, these are arbitrary numbers, and more of a loose guideline, but it represents why I would have Hockenson on the list, and not, say, Adam Thielen, or fellow tight end Mark Andrews, who has produced more than Hockenson as Lamar Jackson’s go-to guy in Baltimore.

Hockenson, the No. 8 overall pick in 2019, enters Year 3 in an upward trajectory that could place him among the game’s best tight ends after this season. Last year, he virtually doubled in every important pass-catching category from his underwhelming rookie effort the year before. Considering he should be the top offensive weapon for a Lions offense, and team, that should be bottom of the barrel, Hockenson should improve on his 67-catch, 723-yard, 6-touchdown season. He should be targeted much more than the 101 pass attempts thrown his way in 2020.

Really, he’s a three-down, complete-package tight end who thrives as an in-line, traditional guy, but he has the athleticism to split out wide, a la Rob Gronkowski, and make some plays. This is a vital season in his progression, and he will be up to the task. He should move up this list next summer.

99. Baker Mayfield Baker Mayfield – QB, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

Baker Mayfield is the first of 13 quarterbacks to make this list. His third season became his best campaign when he cut down on turnovers and lead the Browns to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, subsequently helping them garner their first playoff win since 1994 when Bill Belichick was Cleveland’s head coach and the Browns beat the Patriots (!).

The Browns’ new offensive scheme built around the running game and play-action passing proved to be the perfect fit for a maturing Mayfield. The former No. 1 overall pick will improve with more experience. Cleveland is one of the most talented teams in the league in 2021, and should compete with the likes of the Chiefs, Bills, Titans and Ravens in the AFC, so Mayfield will have ample opportunity to prove his worth on a big stage.

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

Harrison Smith, 32, hangs onto a spot on this LIST as a long-time, consistent force as a versatile safety for Minnesota. His play dipped some in 2020, but it was barely noticeable considering he tied his career-high in interceptions (5), and continued to move all around Minnesota’s defense with efficiency. Last season, Pro Football Focus charted Smith lining up as a free safety on 423 snaps, box safety on 355 snaps, and in the slot for 132 snaps. He truly can do it all, and he should continue being one of the league’s better defensive players for at least one more season.

97.Ryan TannehillRyan Tannehill QB, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

In his last two seasons, Ryan Tannehill has thrown for 55 touchdowns and just 13 interceptions, all while rushing for 11 touchdowns. Additionally, PFF graded him as the fifth-best quarterback (90.2 grade) in the league in 2021, just one season after they graded him as the league’s third-best signal caller (90.6) in 2020.

There’s shades of Josh Allen with his play (think: athleticism, size, running ability), even though Tannehill’s game is predicated more off play-action passing and other schemed/defined reads. With Julio Jones joining Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown, Tannehill now has one of the best trios of offensive weapons at his disposal. This could be his best season yet.

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

Byard had a bit of a down year in 2020, as the Titans struggled to defend the pass — Tennessee ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA — as a whole last season. But Byard remains an enforcer, and he’ll have to be sharp to lead a defensive backfield that will be asking a lot of their cornerback duo in 2021. (Janoris Jenkins will turn 33 in October, and rookie first-round pick Caleb Farley is attempting to begin his NFL career with some rust, after opting out of his last collegiate season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Titans have set themselves up as a pretty clear “win-now” team, and Byard is one of their most important players in this mission.

95. Jeffery Simmons Jeffery Simmons — DI, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

A third consecutive Titan clocks in here. Simmons was held to just nine games in his rookie season as he recovered from a torn ACL. In 2020, he showed why Tennessee snagged him with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, as he gave the Titans arguably a top-10 defensive interior presence.

Simmons is a better run defender than pass rusher, but should improve in the latter in 2021 and beyond. He does have pass-rushing skills, and opposing teams apparently know that. Last season, he was double-teamed the third-most (190 snaps) of any interior rusher (behind Aaron Donald and Grady Jarrett) on pass-rush snaps, according to ESPN

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

Despite being listed as a safety, Adams had more success as a pass rusher in 2021 (9.5 sacks, league-high for a safety) than he did as a coverage man or run defender.

He’s almost becoming sort of a unique safety/edge-rusher combo, as opposed to the more common safety-linebacker (box safety) type that is prevalent in today’s game. Often times, he acts like more of a 4-3-style linebacker in Seattle’s defense. Really, he’s an enforcer whose playmaking seemingly will come mostly from blitzing. Despite his poor PFF pass coverage grade (78.5, ranked 78th out of 93 qualifying safeties) in 2021, he belongs on this list for his rare skillset.

He wasn’t as bad as a cover guy with the Jets. In fact, he played ex-Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski pretty tough in some past instances.

If he can improve just a little in pass coverage, he should shoot up this list in 2022.

The Seahawks were sort of cornered into giving Adams a four-year, $70 million extension recently, seeing as they gave up two first-round picks to the Jets to acquire him, but the contract certainly is somewhat evident of Seattle’s faith in his future play.

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

Whether it was the lack of the Cowboys’ passing game when Dak Prescott went out, the dip in play (and injury problems to Tyron Smith) of Dallas’ offense line, or just a natural decline of a running back, Ezekiel Elliott had the worst season of his five-year career in 2020.

Whatever the reason (probably a mix of everything above), Elliott is still one of the league’s better running backs, and is capable of a major bounce-back season. Naturally, the Cowboys should have better success on the ground no matter what in 2021 with their Prescott back in the fold. The bottom line is Elliott is still capable of at least one more highly-efficient, 300-carry season for a team that will like to establish their ground game to compliment what could be a top-tier passing attack.

92. Quinnen Williams Quinnen Williams – DI, New York Jets (Last year: NR)

Quinnen Williams has the potential to become one of the NFL’s very best defensive tackles in 2021. Last season with the morbid 2020 Jets, Williams played well down the stretch, grading as PFF‘s fourth-best defensive tackle from Weeks 11-17, and eighth-best graded defensive tackle versus the run for the year, all while notching seven sacks while acting as a defensive lineman in more of a 3-4 scheme under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

With new head coach Robert Saleh bringing over his aggressive 4-3-style scheme that thrived in San Francisco, Williams is in perfect position to become the Jets’ DeForest Buckner. Williams is the total package up front as a player who can excel in both run defense and pass-rushing, but he should have more success in this defense than the two-gapping scheme he was stuck in for his first two seasons. There’s star potential here for the 2019 No. 3 overall pick.

91. James Bradberry James Bradberry– CB, New York Giants (Last year: NR)

In his first season with the Giants after signing his three-year, $45 million deal, Bradberry proved his worth as one of the game’s better No. 1 cornerbacks who is capable of lifting a unit.

After proving his worth with the Panthers for seasons, he had his best season yet in 2020, grading as PFF‘s seventh-best cornerback in both pass coverage and overall play. With Joe Judge creating a Patriots-style defense in New York, there’s a lot of weight on Bradberry to take away opposing team’s No. 1 pass catchers. Luckily, the addition of Logan Ryan, a versatile veteran defensive back, should help the growth and play of the soon-to-be 28-year-old Bradberry.

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

He hauled in 92 passes last year, and should be around that mark this year but with a higher yardage and touchdown total (974 receiving yards, three touchdowns in 2020).

Kupp is one of the league’s best slot receivers, and with Matthew Stafford in town to direct the Rams’ offense, the entire unit should see an uptick in efficiency and production. Kupp projects to be Stafford’s top receiving target, thriving in his route-running in any offensive concept or formation (shotgun, under-center, play-action passing).

89.  James Robinson  James Robinson – RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (Last year: NR)

In hopes of helping rookie franchise quarterback Trevor Lawrence adapt to the pro game, new Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer drafted his fellow Clemson running back Travis Etienne with the team’s second first-round pick. Still, James Robinson (1,414 total yards, 49 catches, 10 total touchdowns in 2020) will enter 2021 as the team’s top running back and offensive weapon after having a breakout first season as an undrafted rookie.

Meyer will look to bring some of his college concepts to the pros, so if Etienne projects as more of a Percy Harvin, “move” or motion-type player, it’ll be Robinson who gains the bulk of the carries, and continues to be the main option in screen plays, while also running routes from the backfield. He will play an integral part in Lawrence’s progression as a rookie, while the team looks to build a contender over the next few seasons. And let’s be clear, Robinson is more than a high-volume, “bulk” option as a fantasy football-type player. He’s a legit top-tier running back who can do it all.

88. Leonard WilliamsLeonard Williams – DI, New York Giants (Last year: NR)

Williams could be classified as either a defensive interior lineman or EDGE defender, considering he’s a 3-4-style defensive end. That makes his absurd sack total last season (11.5) all the more impressive.

That, along with his superb run defense, is what led the Giants to sign him to three-year, $65 million deal ($45 million guaranteed) in March. That forced Williams to drop his unresolved grievance in which he was hoping to get paid like a defensive end instead of a defensive tackle on the franchise tag (there’s almost a $2 million difference). (Seriously, classifying players’ positions is an important matter when money is involved.)

No matter what he’s listed as, Williams is the best defensive player for a Giants defense that should be damn good in 2021, which in turn makes the Giants a possible sneaky playoff squad in a 14-team field.

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

Some may scoff at this, but he showed shades of his former self last season (think: his two-touchdown performance in Super Bowl 55.) He’s still a top-tier threat as a red-zone pass catcher, and he remains one of the game’s best blockers at any position.

After sitting out a year, and then joining a Bruce Arians-coached offense that favors wideouts and downfield passing, Gronk predictably began the season with little production as a receiver. He had just two catches on four targets in his first two games of 2020, before picking up the pace as the year went on (which has been the trend for Gronk’s seasons since about 2014). Now, he’s shaken off the rust and has the potential to improve on his statistical output from last season (45 catches, 623 yards, 7 touchdowns).

Gronk’s days of consistently dominating as a pass-catching weapon were over even by his last year in New England (2018), but you’ll still see his old self in spurts, and he remains one of the game’s most complete tight ends.

86. Vita VeaVita Vea – DI, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

Vita Vea was limited to just five regular season games and missed the the Bucs’ first three playoff games, but returned for Super Bowl 55 and put on a solid performance.

“Once he got back in the playoffs [Super Bowl], they were different. You couldn’t do anything against them,” an AFC executive told ESPN‘s Jeremy Fowler.

Vea is a monstrous presence (6-foot-4, 347 pounds) up front in Todd Bowles’ defense. He fits as a nose tackle in 3-4 looks and as one of two defensive lineman up front (often with Ndamukong Suh) in their base Nickel 2-4-5 set. His importance to their scheme is evident when you watch film. He can take on multiple blockers, which in turn opens things up for Tampa’s league-best linebacker duo of Devin White and Lavonte David.

For the five games he did play last season, Vea graded as PFF‘s fourth-best interior defensive lineman (89.9 grade), fourth-best interior pass rusher (88.9) and one of the better run stuffers in football. He’s much more athletic than you’d think for his size (seriously, look at his high school highlights as a running back!), which is obvious if you watch him rush the passer. The Bucs picked up his fifth-year option in 2022, so he’s under contract for two more seasons before he most likely earns a lucrative contract from Tampa Bay, or someone else.

85. Corey LinsleyCorey Linsley – C, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

After seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Corey Linsley became the league’s highest-paid center when he signed a five-year, $62.5 million contract with the Chargers this offseason.

Linsley was the best center in football last year, grading as PFF‘s top center (86.4) while also earning first-team All-Pro honors. The soon-to-be 30-year-old veteran should help mightily by leading an improved offensive line (the Chargers also drafted Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater in the first round of this past draft) for second-year quarterback Justin Herbert this season.

84. DeMarcus Lawrence DeMarcus Lawrence – EDGE, Dallas Cowboys (Last year: NR)

He barely missed last year’s list, and he probably shouldn’t have. He’s been one of the most consistent pass-rushing forces on the edge over the last four seasons.

After combining for 25 sacks in 2017 and 2018, his sack total has been down the past two seasons (5 sacks in 2020, 6.5 sacks in 2021), but that’s a prime example of why QB pressures and others metrics should also be taken into account.

Lawrence again ranked as one of the PFF‘s top-graded overall EDGE defenders (4th, 88.7 grade) in 2021, while also grading in the top 10 in both pass-rushing and run coverage. He hasn’t always been as solid on the latter, but he improved his game last year.

He’s 29 years old, which means he should have a few more solid seasons left at his position.

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

He had one of his best seasons last year (92 catches, 1,114 yards, five touchdowns) despite only having Dak Prescott for five games.

He’s still the top dog of one of the NFL’s best wide receiver trios (CeeDee Lamb, Michael Gallup) entering this year. He does a little bit of everything well, with a special shoutout to his route-running ability. He’s just turned 27, meaning we may have yet to see his career year.

82. Justin Herbert Justin Herbert – QB, Los Angeles Chargers (Last year: NR)

He had a phenomenal rookie season (4,336 yards, 31 touchdowns, 10 interceptions) despite playing behind a bottom-tier offensive line. He’s clearly a pro-ready quarterback.

With an improved offensive line and a pretty solid set of offensive weapons, he should have a great second season.

Although, there is always the chance of a sophomore slump. I do expect Herbert’s statistical numbers to be less flashy, but he should be more efficient and the Chargers should improve on their 7-9 mark from last season, with much help from their young franchise quarterback, who looks like a bonafide star in the making.

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

Hunter, age 26, tallied back-to-back seasons of 14.5 sacks in 2018 and 2019, and 48.5 sacks in four seasons (2016-2019) before missing all of last season with a neck injury.

He returns in 2021 as one of the game’s best pass rushers who can also help out on the edge versus the run. The Vikings defense has waned over the past few seasons, so there’s a lot riding on Hunter’s attempt to come back from injury to be the player he’s been over the past four or five years.

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

Together with Russell Wilson, they make up one of the most efficient quarterback-receiver combos in the entire league over the past few seasons.

He’ll be 29 in September, and although he’s quite speedy, his game is predicated on superb route-running and quickness, so his mastering of the nuances of playing receiver (mostly in the slot), should lead him to two or three more fantastic years.

He’s coming off perhaps his best season yet, actually, garnering a career-high 100 catches for 1,054 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. It was his second season in a row of over 90 catches and 1,000 yards. He’s also quietly had 28 touchdowns over the past three years.

Wilson should continue to look his way on third downs and in other crunch-time scenarios in 2021. He’s both a high-volume, and big-play ability guy from the slot.

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

Although his 12 touchdowns were an increase from 2019, and he was slightly more of a threat in the passing game this past season, Jacobs suffered a slight dip in overall efficiency in Year 2, dropping to 3.9 yards per carry.

The Raiders are team with a solid offensive coach (Jon Gruden) but are sort of drifting into mediocrity with no clear vision of the future. Jacobs remains one of their better young players, and if Las Vegas wants to have success on offense, they’ll need him to produce alongside Derek Carr and the passing game.

The explosive young running back is primed for a solid third season, no matter what happens to the Raiders’ offense.

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

Simmons was graded as PFF‘s eighth and second-best safety these last two seasons, and he remains one of the best backend coverage guys in the game. The 2019 All-Pro has one of the better projected cornerback groups (Kyle Fuller, rookie Patrick Surtain II, slot CB Bryce Callahan) playing underneath him, so he should be flying around the field as a ball-hawking playmaker once more in 2021. He has nine interceptions in the last two years (five in 2021).

77. Allen Robinson IIAllen Robinson – WR, Chicago Bears (Last year: NR)

Robinson is one of the league’s most underrated perimeter receivers. He’s executed despite bottom-tier QB play in Chicago. In his last two seasons, he’s caught 200 passes, scored 13 touchdowns, and has averaged just under 1,200 receiving yards per year.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound matchup player is playing on the franchise tag in 2021, but with Justin Fields looming to unseat projected starter Andy Dalton at quarterback sometime this season, Robinson may finally team up with a passer who can help elevate his game and increase his production.

76. Grady Jarrett Grady Jarrett – DI, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: 44)

He’s still one of the best interior pass rushers in the league, and he’s worked hard to improve in run defense. According to ESPN, only Aaron Donald posted a better pass-rush win rate than Jarrett (20.4%) in 2021. Atlanta’s defense has leaned heavily on him for a few seasons now, and that won’t change this year. His presence up front mightily lifts up a lackluster unit.

75. Terron Armstead  Terron Armstead – OT, New Orleans Saints (Last year: NR)

Armstead, who just turned 30, has graded as a top-10 tackle by PFF in each of the last three seasons, and has twice been graded as the best tackle in the game (2015, 2018).

He and Ryan Ramczyk combine to give the Saints the best tackle duo in the NFL. They’ve spent years keeping Drew Brees upright, but with Brees now gone, they’ll be blocking for either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill, or both (most likely option).

Armstead is still an athletic presence on the left bookend of the offensive line, using his quick feet and physicality to keep blockers at bay. He’s still one of the best pass-blocking lineman in the league.

74. Terry McLaurinTerry McLaurin – WR, Washington Football Team (Last year: NR)

McLaurin is a burgeoning star who uses his speed/quickness, route-running ability and ball skills to work as a both a deep threat and underneath receiver.

PFF graded him as the NFL’s sixth-best receiver in his rookie season (2019), and in Year 2, he upped his statistical output (87 catches, 1,118 receiving yards), which he produced as the 12th-most targeted (134 targets) pass catcher in the league.

Washington now has Ryan Fitzpatrick as their projected starting quarterback, and although ‘Fitzmagic’ is a hit-or-miss style gunslinger, he should be able to assist in McLaurin’s growth.

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

Once touted as one of the NFL’s best receivers equipped with all-time potential, Odell Beckham Jr. has been trying to find his footing over the last few seasons, as he chases the early-career success and stardom he had with the Giants.

Injuries have certainly played a part in his decline, as he’s averaged under 10 games per season over the last four years, and saw his 2020 campaign end in Week 7 due to a brutal ACL tear.

He’s facing an uphill battle to return as the No. 1 wide receiver Cleveland hoped he’d be when they traded a first-round pick and more to the Giants in 2019 to acquire him.

He’s still just 28, and has the talent to make a comeback. And the Browns’ newfound, top-tier rushing attack, along with the maturation of Baker Mayfield, should provide an avenue for Beckham to have that bounce-back season he’s craving and working hard for.

72. Frank Ragnow  Frank Ragnow – C, Detroit Lions (Last year: NR)

The Lions were smart to lock up their All-Pro center with a four-year, $54 million extension that makes him the highest-paid at the position.

Ragnow is versatile (he can also play guard) and has well-rounded game, excelling in both run and pass-blocking, while also serving as a communicator at the line of scrimmage.

New head coach Dan Campbell has made it a main task to attempt to change the Lions’ culture into that of a tough, physical team. That starts up front with the offensive line. Ragnow should lead the charge in this effort, while also helping to mentor some of the younger guys, like rookie first-round pick Penei Sewell, who has the skills to become one of the NFL’s best offensive tackles.

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

It’s hard to believe he’s just 29, since it seems like he’s been in the league forever. He’s overcome his early-career injuries to stay on the field these past four seasons, but despite the breakout by rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, Allen suffered a bit of a decline last season, reeling in just 992 yards on 100 catches (9.9 YPC), despite tying his career-high in touchdowns (8).

His game is predicated on his route-running, where he continues to be one of the very best such technicians in the NFL. He received the fifth-most targets (147) of any pass catcher last season, and Herbert is in line to feed him often in 2021, as well. He should improve on both his receiving yards and yards per catch output this season.

70. Joe Thuney Joe Thuney – OG, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: NR)

In his five seasons with the Patriots, Thuney started every game, never missing a contest, and became the first player in NFL history to begin his career with three straight Super Bowl starts.

He was New England’s best lineman during Dynasty 2.0. Thuney was always fantastic at pass blocking, and over the past few seasons he became one of the better run-blocking guards in the game, as well.

Considering the Chiefs’ offensive line disaster (mostly due to injuries) in Super Bowl 55, ponying up for Thuney (five-year, $80 million deal) was certainly a smart move.

Thuney can play either guard spot, center and even offensive tackle when in a pinch. He played both guard and tackle at NC State, and has showed that he can play the latter in the pros, too.

69.Bud DupreeBud Dupree – EDGE, Tennessee Titans (Last year: NR)

Dupree, 28, had a solid 2019 season (11.5 sacks, four forced fumbles), and was well on his way to a repeat performance in 2020 (8 sacks, two forced fumbles in 11 games) before his season was cut short when he tore his ACL.

He’s been one of the game’s best stand-up edge defenders for awhile now, and he’s been overlooked by those assuming his production stems from playing opposite T.J. Watt, but Dupree is one of the best 3-4-style outside linebackers in his own right.

The Titans signed him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in hopes that he’ll provide the edge presence that Jadeveon Clowney failed to deliver for them last season. Tennessee is certainly in win-now mode, and counting on Dupree as one of their most important players is a smart move. He should return from injury to provide the boost they’re seeking.

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

After Smith left the Ravens in 2019 to test free agency, the Packers scooped him up, and Smith proceeded to have a monster year with 13.5 sacks and a league-leading 93 total pressures.

He’s a ferocious 3-4 outside linebacker who can even kick inside on clear passing downs to rush the quarterback.

He fell just a little bit back to earth in 2020, which means he was still one of the NFL’s very best edge presences. He tallied 12.5 sacks — bringing his two-year total to 26 — and forced four fumbles in 2021.

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

The Broncos enter this season with one of the league’s better rosters, but a lot hinges on their quarterback situation (Drew Lock, Teddy Bridgewater), and the health of one of the franchise’s all-time best players, Von Miller.

The 32-year-old, Super Bowl 50 MVP enters his 11th season after missing entirety of his 10th due to a devastating injury (dislocated peroneal tendon) suffered in practice just days before Week 1 last September.

The Miller of old is almost certainly gone. He was graded as a top-four edge defender by PFF during every one of his first eight seasons, but in 2019, at age 30, he suffered a slight dip.

He returns in 2021 opposite Bradley Chubb, a yet-to-breakout, stand-up EDGE presence who could team with Miller to form a nasty duo of 3-4 outside linebackers. In a perfect world, Chubb has a monster season opposite Miller, who plays an even better version of 2015 DeMarcus Ware when Ware was opposite Miller on Denver’s last Super Bowl team. Chubb’s level of ascension will have a lot to do with Miller’s ability to get to the quarterback and draw double teams.

I have a feeling there’s still some gas left in the tank for Miller to be one of the league’s better pass rushers, even if an All-Pro caliber year is unlikely.

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

If I’m being honest, even with the overflow of pass-catchers in Tom Brady’s arsenal, I still expected more targets and production from Chris Godwin this past season. He is a perfect fit for Brady as a fast and tough Z/slot receiver hybrid who can play both on the inside and the outside.

With plenty of balls to go around in 2020, Godwin was targeted 37 less times in 2020 with Brady then he was the year before, but I think he’ll see an uptick of passes thrown his way in 2021, which should put him back over 80 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards.

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

The Ravens will love to get Stanley back this season, after the 2019 All-Pro left tackle suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 8 of last season.

Just two days before that injury, the Ravens made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in football when they gave him a five-year, $98.75 million extension.

Stanley was one of the NFL’s best players at any position in 2019, grading as PFF’s second-best tackle overall, and posting one of the best pass-blocking grades (93.7) the site has ever seen.

He certainly is more of a pass blocker than a nasty run-blocking tackle, which is ironic considering Baltimore’s run-heavy offense under Lamar Jackson. But with Jackson’s ability to move, and the Ravens additions at wide receiver, Baltimore will need Stanley to return to form to handle some of the league’s best pass rushers on the edge.

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

He’s been one of the league’s best (if not, the best) linebacker in pass coverage over the past few seasons, and should be again in 2021.

He was Pro Football Focus‘ second-highest graded linebacker overall in 2019, and was third-highest in 2020. He also finished last year as the second-highest graded linebacker in pass coverage (90.7).

He’s the perfect specimen as a new-school, 4-3-style off-ball linebacker who can sit in zones and play opposite new-school passing offenses with both a whiff of finesse and toughness.

63. Jessie Bates III Jessie Bates – S, Cincinnati Bengals (Last year: NR)

The 24-year-old had a breakout season in 2020, earning a second-team All-Pro nod and grading as the top safety in the league (90.1) by PFF, all while snagging three interceptions, defending 15 passes, and notching 78 solo tackles.

He’s a complete player who is superb in both run defense (graded 5th among safeties by PFF) and pass coverage (graded 2nd among safeties).

Since Cincinnati drafted him in the second round in 2018, he’s played and started in all of the team’s 48 regular season games. He’s a budding star who will get his recognition in the coming years.

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

We already listed Saints left tackle Terron Armstead above, and now we’ll complete the duo here with right tackle Ryan Ramczyk.

The 27-year-old inked a five-year, $96 million extension with New Orleans earlier this summer for his play over the last few seasons. He’s been named an All-Pro in each of the last three years, and was PFF‘s highest-graded tackle in 2019. He’s a beast in run blocking, and is pretty staunch versus pass rushers, too. He’s a great all-around player.

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

Lavonte David turned 31 during the Buccaneers’ January Super Bowl run last season, yet showed no signs of slowing down.

The nine-year pro earned second-team All-Pro honors, and PFF graded him as the fourth-best linebacker in the NFL for the second year in a row.

He’s a complete player who is still spry and wily in coverage, with enough punch to still be physical in the run game. Even with the ascension of fellow linebacker Devin White, David is perhaps the heart beat of the defense. Tampa Bay gave him a two-year, $25 million extension this offseason that should ensure that he’ll retire as a Buc.

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

Michael Thomas is just two years removed from breaking the single-season reception record (149) while also leading the league in receiving yards (1,725 receiving yards). From 2017 to 2019 he tallied 373 receptions and 23 touchdowns while ranking second, second and third in PFF‘s grading of wide receivers. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, his contested catch and high-point ability make him the prototypical “big” slot receiver in today’s game.

But as always in this league, things can quickly change.

The two-time All-Pro was limited to just seven games last year due to a reoccuring high ankle sprain throughout the season. He was held to 438 yards and zero touchdowns (he did score a touchdown in a Wild Card victory over the Bears).

He’s opened this season — in which he will be his first without eventual Hall-of-Fame QB Drew Brees, who retired — by bashing the Saints on Twitter.

Thomas is still one of the better receivers in the league, and is only 28, but there are concerns regarding him as we enter this season. If he does remain with New Orleans, will he produce with Jameis Winston and/or Taysom Hill at quarterback?

59. Wyatt Teller Wyatt Teller — OG, Cleveland Browns (Last year: NR)

The Browns enjoyed what was probably their best season since 1989 last year when they were close to upsetting the Chiefs in Kansas City during an AFC Divisional Playoff loss. The main reason for their success was the change of leadership and offensive scheme under new head coach Kevin Stefanski, who came over from Minnesota and implemented a Shanahan family-esque system revolving around the outside zone running game and play-action passing with an assortment of running backs and tight ends.

None of this would work without the Browns’ lightning-quick rebuild of their offensive line from one of the league’s worst, to one of it’s very best in 2020.

Adding two quality tackles through free agency (Jack Conklin) and the draft (Jedrick Willis) to join their existing starters, center J.C. Tretter and guard Joel Bitonio, was a good start. But it was the random breakout season of guard Wyatt Teller that put the Browns O-line over the top.

Opposite one of the better, more consistent pass-blocking guards in the game in Bitonio, Teller, a 5th-round pick by the Bills in 2018, emerged as the best run blocker in the NFL last year for Cleveland.

In PFF‘s grading system, Teller not only led all guards, but all lineman in both overall play (92.3) and run blocking (93.6).

He stands to improve some in pass blocking, but the Browns’ owe a good portion of their rushing success to Teller’s punishing play.

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

We just mentioned the newfound success of the Browns’ running game in teammate Wyatt Teller’s section above, now here’s Cleveland’s workhorse running back, Nick Chubb.

Chubb is a downfield runner with some explosiveness. He rushed for 1,067 yards and 12 touchdowns in just 12 games last year, leading all 23 running backs with over 150 attempts in yards per carry (5.6). He also led all running backs in PFF‘s pass-block grade (91.3).

Cleveland has Kareem Hunt as a change-of-pace back who earns ample playing time, but it’s Chubb who is perhaps the offense’s focal point under their current scheme. If he can play a full, 17-game season in 2021, he should see himself near the very top of the league in rushing yards, like he was in 2019 when he finished second in that category behind Derrick Henry.

57. Darren Waller Darren Waller — TE, Las Vegas Raiders (Last year: NR)

Considering he was drafted by the Ravens in 2015 to play wide receiver, it’s no coincidence that the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Waller is the most athletic tight end in the game. He has great body control and basketball-like, power-forward skills that have become a reoccurring attribute in tight ends of the last decade or so. But he does it a lot better than most.

He can play in-line, but is best used in the slot our out wide, where he can use his wide receiver-ability at his size to overwhelm defensive backs.

Without a true No. 1 receiver in Las Vegas, Waller was targeted 145 times last season (tied with Travis Kelce for most among tight ends) for 107 catches for 1,196 yards and nine touchdowns. All were career highs. It was his second year in a row topping 1,100 receiving yards. He is in line for another monster campaign in 2021.

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

Entering his age-36 season, Matt Ryan has probably started to decline physically, yet he hasn’t seen a dip in production at an alarming rate.

Now, new head coach Arthur Smith will bring a Kyle Shanahan-esque offense over from Tennessee for a quarterback who had his best season (2016) under Shanahan, which resulted in Ryan winning the league’s MVP award and the Falcons being painfully close to winning Super Bowl 51.

Despite losing Julio Jones, Ryan has two very talented pass catchers in Calvin Ridley and rookie first-round pick tight end Kyle Pitts. If the Falcons can establish their running game, Ryan will have success in play-action looks and other concepts that best cater to his drop-back skills.

The Falcons are an under-the-radar team that could sneak into the NFC playoffs as a No. 7 seed, if you are a gambler. My prognostication for Atlanta is largely due to my trust in Ryan remaining one of the league’s better QBs this season.

55. Cameron Heyward Cameron Heyward – DI, Pittsburgh Steelers (Last year: 36)

We mentioned earlier in Leonard Williams’ blurb how 3-4-style defensive ends can be listed as both an EDGE defender and defensive interior player.

I had Heyward listed as an EDGE last year, but I switched him to ‘DI’ this year, which is where PFF categorized him as a dominating presence on the defensive line for another season.

At age 31 last year, he graded as the sixth-best interior player on defense, while also grading out as the fourth-best in run defense and 11th-best in pass rushing. Despite his age, he’s been near the top of the league, as far as defensive lineman go, for the past two seasons.

I’ve likened him to a 2010s-style version of former Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who could dominate as both a 3-4 defensive end and 4-3 defensive tackle. Well, Heyward has yet to slow down as we continue into the 2020s. Even if he declines a bit, he’ll still be one of the best 3-4 defensive lineman in the league this season.

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

His sack total and overall pass-rushing skills dipped some last year, but he’s still effective in getting after the quarterback, while also being one of the best run defenders of any defensive end in the game.

Like Cameron Heyward, he’ll enter this season at age 32, but should still be one of the league’s better defensive lineman. With Drew Brees’ retirement, the Saints have to become even stronger on defense if they are to compete in the NFC. They’ll be relying on Jordan.

53. J.J. Watt  J.J. Watt – EDGE, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: 30)

Our run on 32-year-old edge defenders continues with J.J. Watt, who will bring over his dominance as a versatile defensive end/defensive tackle to a team who needs to improve on defense to make the playoffs.

He registered only 5 sacks in 16 games this past year in Houston, but was still one of the better pass rushers in football. As he always is, he was double-teamed often last season. If Chandler Jones isn’t traded, and remains in Arizona, the two should form a solid veteran duo getting after the passer. But at this point in his career, Watt is a much better run defender. He was one of the best EDGE defenders in that category last year. He should be able to replicate that performance in 2021 now that he has extra motivation to play well with his new team.

52. Calvin RidleyCalvin Ridley — WR, Atlanta Falcons (Last year: NR)

With Julio Jones missing some time last season, Calvin Ridley stepped up to foreshadow his now-clear WR1 role within the Falcons offense.

Ridley was targeted the seventh-most (143) of any wide receiver last season, and produced career-highs in receptions (90), receiving yards (1,374) and touchdowns (9).

At his frame (6-foot-1, 190 pounds), he has the body type and skill set to play any of the wide receiver positions (X, Z, slot, etc.) within new head coach Arthur Smith’s offensive scheme centered around tight ends, the running game and play-action passing. Matt Ryan will heavily rely on Ridley with the rest of their wide receiver core somewhat lacking.

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

The Chiefs have been a pretty-top heavy and offensive-centric team throughout their run with Patrick Mahomes, which makes Tyrann Mathieu’s role as a Swiss army knife within the defense that much more important.

Kansas City asks him to do a variety of things, as evident by his 2021 snap splits on his Pro Football Focus profile: Slot (414), Box (399), Free Safety (287). He excels both in man coverage on tight ends and slot receivers, and as a robber who aggressively reads opposing quarterback’s eyes to make plays.

50.Kyler Murray Kyler Murray — QB, Arizona Cardinals (Last year: NR)

Murray was one of the NFL’s best playmakers in just his second season, despite the team’s shortcomings in November and December to miss the playoffs.

He threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns while rushing for 819 yards and 11 scores on the ground.

Like Lamar Jackson, Murray thrived in both designed quarterback runs and while scrambling in the passing game. His threat to run the ball overshadows his skills in the passing game, both as a natural thrower and off-script player. Arizona heavily utilizes 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE, 4 WR), which spreads things out for Murray in Kliff Kingsbury’s college-style Air Raid offensive scheme.

Like any young No. 1 overall pick quarterback, Murray has the potential to become much, much better.

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

Jones has been an excellent fit in Green Bay as a dual-threat, do-it-all running back that has upped his play under Matt Lafluer’s Shanahan-style, zone-rushing scheme. He can carry the duties of a traditional running back while also splitting out wide as a wide receiver.

He’s rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons (5.5 yards per carry in 2021) and has totaled 30 touchdowns (25 rushing, 5 receiving), which prompted the Packers to ink the former fifth-round pick to a four-year, $48 million deal this offseason.

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

The Cowboys finally paid Dak Prescott this offseason after viewing a glimpse of what life would look like without him when he was lost for the year (dislocated right ankle) after five games in 2020.

Prescott was on fire before his injury, keeping the Cowboys in games despite their horrid defense. The four-year, $160 million extension Dallas gave him included the highest singing bonus in league history ($66 million), which should help motivate Prescott to prove he deserves the deal while playing one of the most high-profile roles in sports. Seriously, the Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback role is like being the New York Yankees’ starting shortstop. There is a lot of added pressure. This is a big year for Prescott, who should thrive with a healthy offensive line, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and more.

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

Barkley is tough to place, since he’s coming off a torn ACL, which is an especially terrible injury for running backs. When healthy, he’s perhaps the most talented and complete back in the game, so there’s a chance he shoots back up near the top of the list in 2022 after a full season.

At 6-foot, 233 pounds, with his blend of power, finesse, and repertoire of strengths (power running, pass-catching, etc.) it’s not out of the question to suggest he could top 2,000 yards from scrimmage again (Barkley did so in his rookie year in 2018, and only Derrick Henry topped this mark in 2020). But there are reports suggesting he may not be ready to suit up for the Giants’ first couple of games, even though he returned to practice just recently. The team’s offense will mostly revolve around his health.

46.Justin JeffersonJustin Jefferson – WR, Minnesota Vikings (Last year: NR)

Jefferson’s superb route-running and smoothness from the slot vaulted him to one of the best rookie seasons by a wide receiver in NFL history in 2021. It wasn’t quite Randy Moss’ 1998 season, but over two decades later, the Vikings again hit the jackpot with a first-round pick wide receiver, albeit one of a different breed then the perimeter-working Moss.

Jefferson was fourth in the league in receiving yards (1,400) while being near the top in yards per catch (15.9) last year, and has plenty of hype heading into Year 2.

What makes Minnesota’s selection even more vital was that the first-round pick came from Buffalo, where they traded away Stefon Diggs. This became one of the rare deals where both teams seemed to flourish from the moves.

Jefferson suffered what looked to be a serious injury in practice last week, but reports have since said that he is just “day to day” with a sprained AC joint.

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

The 2019 First-team All-Pro has blossomed into one of the league’s best cornerbacks. Baltimore’s CB1 is pretty solid in man coverage in the team’s Cover 1 looks, and is simply brilliant patrolling his third of the field in Cover 3. He provides a nice contrast to the Ravens’ aggressive, boom-or-bust No. 2 cornerback, Marcus Peters.

Humphrey also has a unique, Charles Tillman-like skill of forcing fumbles. He led the NFL in that category last season with eight.

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

Like the Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu, Minkah Fitzpatrick (although mostly a free safety), does a bit of everything as a safety/nickel back hybrid for the Steelers.

In their battles with the Tom Brady-era Patriots over the years, Pittsburgh was killed by Rob Gronkowski down the seams. Now, they have the ability to defend both high-quality tight ends and the deep part of the field with the patrolling Fitzpatrick (along with strong safety Terrell Edmunds, a 2018 first-round pick), who in 30 games with the Steelers has nine interceptions, 20 passes defended, three fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. In an era where everyone is looking for a versatile combination defensive back or safety (like the Panthers’ grooming of Jeremy Chinn), Fitzpatrick heads into 2021 as the best player in the world of that mold.

43. Matthew StaffordMatthew Stafford – QB, Los Angeles Rams (Last year: NR)

Few players enter this season under more pressure than Matthew Stafford.

The win-now Los Angeles Rams are now scheduled to complete a seven-year stretch (2017-2023) without a first-round pick after dealing two first-rounders for Jalen Ramsey in 2019, and two more for Stafford this offseason.

This top-heavy squad is a perennial Super Bowl contender revolved around some of the league’s best players like the aforementioned Ramsey, Aaron Donald, and now, the former Detroit Lions quarterback.

If the 33-year-old passer still has a few prime years left, he should enjoy playing for a team that won’t require him to do things like he did in 2016 with the Lions — complete an NFL single-season record eight fourth quarter comebacks — for his team to compete.

Stafford spent years elevating a porous Lions squad, and although he’ll need to consistently play well for the Rams to go where they want to go, Sean McVay’s offensive scheme revolving around outside runs and play-action passing out of tight/bunch formations should make things easier for Stafford, considering his off-script and throw-on-the run ability.

Stafford has one of the best arms in NFL history, which should bode well for ageless deep threat wonder and newcomer DeSean Jackson, but the former Lions QB will need to display accuracy to mesh well with route-running technicians such as Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Van Jefferson.

The Rams lost running back Cam Akers for the season when he suffered a torn achilles in practice, but this Shanahan-style (ish) offense is capable of plugging in someone like Darrell Henderson or another free agent, and having success.

The Rams are on my short list of true Super Bowl contenders in the NFC, along with the Buccaneers, Packers and 49ers. The reason? I believe Stafford will be that much better than Jared Goff for McVay’s offense.

42.Xavien HowardXavien Howard – CB, Miami Dolphins (Last year: NR)

In my 2019 list, I had Xavien Howard at No. 53 after a seven-interception season in 2018. Howard followed that up with an injury-riddled, tumultuous 2019 campaign that knocked him off my 2020 version of this exercise. But last year, he played a full season while leading the league in interceptions (10) and grading as Pro Football Focus’ second-best cornerback in both pass coverage and overall play (Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander was first in both).

Howard enters this season as a top-five NFL cornerback for the Dolphins after Miami poured water on his trade request by restructuring his deal to add more incentives in 2021. He could be on the move after this season, though, making this a big year for him.

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

Gilmore’s DPOY-level play is probably gone as he enters his age-31 season, but he’s still the best man coverage defender in the NFL, and is the best player currently on the Patriots’ 2021 roster.

Bill Belichick would be wise to at least find a way to increase Gilmore’s salary to the point of him being happy enough to play in 2021, because his defense has all the pieces to succeed, except that ever-important CB1 role that Gilmore would again fill.

Like Aqib Talib, Gilmore has a chance to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league through his early thirties, considering his game is less predicated on speed, and more so on press ability, quickness, techniuqe, and physicality with opposing pass catchers.

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

Darius Leonard has impressively been named an All-Pro in each of his first three seasons in the league. So it came as no surprise when the Colts recently made him the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL recently via a five-year, $99.25 million extension.

At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he’s a prototypical present-era, off-ball linebacker due to his speed, quickness and range. He’s a sideline-to-sideline player capable of keeping up with high-octane spread offenses and outside-rushing schemes that are often seen today.

39.Fred WarnerFred Warner – LB, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

Like Darius Leonard, Fred Warner is a new-age linebacker who is lighter in size (6-3, 230 pounds) but makes up for it with athleticism and ball-hawking skills. And also like Leonard, Warner recently earned himself a massive contract extension (five years, $90.5 million) due to being an integral part of his team.

Warner has improved in each of his three seasons in the league, which includes playing and starting every game over that span.

In 2020, he was named First-team All-Pro and was graded as PFF‘s top linebacker in coverage (91.3) and overall play (88.6), while also grading seventh among his positional peers in pass rush.

He’s the maestro and most important cog of the 49ers’ defense, and heading into 2021 he’s slipped by the Vikings’ Eric Kendricks for the title of best pass coverage linebacker in the league.

He’s a rare breed of player who can rush the passer, stymie running backs on the ground, and excel in both zone and man coverage on tight ends, and sometimes, slot receivers. He’s only going to get better.

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

We already mentioned the Cleveland Browns’ successful transition to an outside-zone rushing team in the sections for Wyatt Teller and Nick Chubb. Former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski took his playbook over to Cleveland, propelling the Browns’ to the playoffs and winning him Coach of the Year in the process.

Stefanski’s old running back in Minnesota, Dalvin Cook, is still prospering within established scheme in Minnesota in Stefanski’s absence.

The two-time Pro Bowler improved on his monster 2019 campaign (1,135 rushing yards, 13 touchdowns) by rushing for 1,557 yards (second behind Derrick Henry) on 5.0 yards per carry and scoring 17 touchdowns (16 rushing, one receiving) in just 14 games.

There may be some that would say Cook’s gaudy numbers these past few seasons are elevated by a scheme that generally is kind to running backs, but what Cook is doing in Minnesota is far from a “plug and play” situation where any back could come in and dominate. His ball carrier vision and cutting skills on outside runs are unmatched. He’s one of the best backs in the game.

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

A.J. Brown has begun his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. His 11 touchdowns last year bring him to a total of 20 over the that span, while he’s also averaging 17.4 yards per catch for his career.

Last season, PFF graded him as the second-best wide receiver in the league.

Heading into 2021, he has passed Michael Thomas as the best “big” slot receiver in football, who can do much more than that. He can play inside and outside, and has a unique ability to garner yards after the catch with his bulky frame (6-foot-1, 226 pounds) for a receiver.

He had 159 yards after contact last year, which seems like a running back-level performance in that category. According to ESPN, Brown averaged 6.11 yards after catch per reception in 2021, which led all wide receivers with at least 80 targets. Quite simply, he is the best “YAC” wide receiver in the league.

Brown also specializes on in-breaking routes downfield, and should have more room to operate in the middle of the field with Julio Jones incoming as Tennessee’s No. 1 option on the perimeter.

He’s a unique player whose best seasons are yet to come.

36. Devin WhiteDevin White – LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Last year: NR)

He was ranked as the top off-ball linebacker in the league by Jeremy Fowler’s polling of league executives, coaches, scouts and players earlier this summer. Still, many would argue that he shouldn’t be above guys like Fred Warner or Darius Leonard.

I’d argue that White’s aggressive style and explosiveness catch your eye on both the TV broadcast and on game film, and that he is more potent as a playmaking linebacker than some of his peers, even if guys like Warner and Leonard have higher floors than some of the low points in White’s film.

He had nine sacks — a ridiculous number for an off-ball LB — in the regular season last year, and two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in the Bucs’ four playoff games.

I think White will patch up some of his weak spots and become much more consistent, and sharper, in the coming years. That’s a scary thought.

After Tom Brady, you could argue that he was the Buccaneers’ second-best and second-most important player down the stretch of their Super Bowl-winning run.

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

After becoming the third player in NFL history to go over 1,000 yards in both rushing and receiving in a single season in 2019, McCaffrey was limited to just three games last year due to a high-ankle sprain and shoulder injury.

Considering the missed time, it’s standard to wonder how spry he’ll look in his return.

When healthy, he is perhaps the best rushing-receiving combo player in football, narrowly edging out Alvin Kamara for that title. But Kamara is coming off a career year, which is why you’ll see him three spots higher, listed below.

With Sam Darnold now at quarterback in Carolina, the Panthers will heavily lean on McCaffrey in Matt Rhule’s college-style spread offense as both a runner and receiver. This offense is perfectly set up for him to climb back near the top of all fantasy football drafts. He should have a good season.

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

He was named a First-team All-Pro last year, which extends his streak of five consecutive seasons of being named an All-Pro (first or second team).

He was also graded by PFF as the league’s second-best tackle for the third time in his career (graded first in pass blocking, fifth in run blocking among tackles).

He is a consistent force as a blind-side protector for Aaron Rodgers, which forced Green Bay to make him the highest-paid offensive lineman in history at the time, last November (before Trent Williams’ deal in March), with a four-year, $105 million extension.

Without him, Green Bay’s entire offense would be in trouble. He’s been one of the league’s best offensive lineman since 2016. That won’t change in 2021.

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

White remains one of the best cornerbacks in football heading into 2021. He’s gone from 45th to 14th to No. 33 on my list, and has a really good chance of moving back up in 2022.

He had a slight down year (by his standards set in 2019) in 2020, in my opinion, but he was still named second-team All-Pro), which is good news for the Super Bowl-contending Bills, who could benefit from a bounce-back season from him. He’s a smart and quick player who can play both man and zone coverage. He’s grabbed 15 interceptions and deflected 54 passes since 2017.

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

The two-time All-Pro do-it-all back had his best season in 2020, scoring 21 touchdowns (a Saints franchise record for a season) on 83 receptions and almost 1,000 yards rushing. He also had an incredible six-touchdown performance versus the Vikings on Christmas, tying an NFL single game record.

He’s scored 58 touchdowns (43 rushing) since he entered the league in 2017, which is tops in the league. And in three of those seasons, Kamara has garnered more than 700 receiving yards. His reception total by the year has been: 81, 81, 81, 83.

He is a new-age running back who can run off-tackle, catch out of the backfield and play wide receiver. With Drew Brees retiring and some uncertainty surrounding Michael Thomas, Kamara enters this season as by far the most important player on their offense.

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

As the Bucs’ offense adjusted and began to mesh throughout 2020, Mike Evans eventually became Tom Brady’s top target, hauling in 13 touchdowns and 1,006 yards as a beasty, 6-foot-5, X-receiver on the perimeter.

Evans has gone for over 1,000 yards receiving in each of his seven seasons in the league, and last season, over a quarter of his catches went for at least 20 yards. He’s one of the league’s best downfield threats, and perhaps its best jump-ball extraordinaire. Still just 27 years old, he should have an even better season with Brady in 2021, now that they have chemistry from last season’s Super Bowl run.

30. DK MetcalfD.K. Metcalf – WR, Seattle Seahawks (Last year: NR)

Standing at 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, Metcalf enters this season as the most physically-dominant perimeter threat in the NFL.

He made a lot of 2019 draft evaluators look silly in 2020, breaking out for 1,303 yards and 10 touchdowns. He manhandled Stephon Gilmore in Seattle’s Week 2 meeting for the Patriots, and began dominating cornerbacks lined up in front of him throughout the season until the entire offense under Russell Wilson began to stall later in the year.

Wilson will continue to feed him downfield and on slants, so he remains an excellent fantasy option, and a top six or seven wide receiver in the league.

29.Julio JonesJulio Jones – WR, Tennessee Falcons (Last year: 19)

An injury limited Julio Jones to just nine games and three touchdowns in his swan song season with the Falcons, but even entering his age-32 season, Jones still has the size, technique and skills to remain one of the league’s best pass catchers in Tennessee.

For the Titans, he will essentially be a major upgrade at the X-spot once occupied by now-Jets receiver Corey Davis. He can work the perimeter, leaving holes open for both A.J. Brown in the slot, and Derrick Henry in the running game.

Ryan Tannehill will continue with his play-action passing concepts, as well, which should compliment Jones nicely as he runs deep crossers and deep post shots down the field.

And it’s worth mentioning — despite his shortened 2020 season, he was still on pace for about 1,400 yards receiving through nine games, and his 11.2 yards per target was tops in the league.

With something to prove, expect one more elite season from Jones.

28. Trent WilliamsTrent Williams – OT, San Francisco 49ers (Last year: NR)

At 32 years old, Trent Williams reestablished himself as the best offensive tackle in the league in 2020.

Last season was the third time in his career that he was graded as the top tackle in the NFL by Pro Football Focus (91.3).

The eight-time Pro Bowler will now protect the blind side of either (or both) Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance in his age-33 season. He doesn’t seem to be slowing down, which is why the 49ers made him the highest-paid offensive lineman in the NFL last march with a six-year, $138.06 million extension.

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

He’s 31 years old, but is still the best off-ball linebacker in the league. The Seahawks would be absolutely lost without him on defense.

PFF graded him as the best linebacker in both run coverage and pass rushing last year, and second-best in overall play (behind 49ers’ Fred Warner).

He’ll continue to do it all for a defense that has greatly declined since it’s Legion-of-Boom days. If the Seahawks are to make the playoffs, both Wagner and Russell Wilson will once again need to elevate a team that has more holes than you’d think (but could be re-improving).

26. Jaire AlexanderJaire Alexander – CB, Green Bay Packers (Last year: NR)

Alexander is a smooth operator as a No. 1 cornerback with quickness and technique that propels him to win battle after battle in both man or zone coverage.

He doesn’t have many interceptions, mostly because he’s blanketing defenders to the point of being targeted less by quarterbacks. He was named second-team All-Pro in 2020 and was PFF‘s top-graded cornerback in both overall play (90.7) and coverage (91.1).

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

After being traded from the Texans to the Cardinals prior to last season, DeAndre Hopkins didn’t miss a beat in Arizona, tying his career-high in receptions (115) for 1,407 yards and six touchdowns as Kyler Murray’s top target.

Oh, and we didn’t even mention his insane Hail Mary snag to beat the Bills last year.

He also dropped just one pass despite his insane amount of targets (159), and he led the league in receptions for first downs (75). He’s been named to the last four All-Pro teams, as well.

He has the best hands in football, which makes up for his lack of speed as a perimeter player. He’s still just 29, and has a few more elite seasons left.

24. Chase Young Chase Young – EDGE, Washington Football Team (Last year: NR)

Like Nick Bosa before him, Chase Young became the latest high-profile No. 2 overall pick defensive end out of Ohio State to dominate in Year 1.

Young surpassed the already-high expectations of being the No. 2 pick by winning the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award, and grading out as the sixth-best EDGE defender in the league by PFF. 

He’s a monstrous pass rusher and could be even better in setting the edge in run defense. His play helped launch WTF to fourth in points per game allowed (20.6) and second in total defense (304.6 yards allowed per game) in 2020.

He’s already gotten off to a good start this preseason with this display of dominance over Patriots left tackle Isaiah Wynn to sack Cam Newton.

Playing alongside fellow first-round pick defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, Da’Ron Payne and Montez Sweat (along with rookie first-round pick LB Jamin Davis), Washington is set to have a ridiculously-good front seven in 2021, led by Young.

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

He settled into his new home in his second season with the Rams, and has now re-established himself as the best cornerback in football.

This was his second time being named a First-team All-Pro, with the last time being his extraordinary second season with the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017.

The Rams traded two first-round picks to get him in 2019, and that was before they made him the highest-paid defensive back in league history with a five-year, $105 million extension right before Week 1 of last season.

He has the length, speed and athleticism to cover both wide receivers and athletic tight ends on the perimeter or in the slot. He is very good in man coverage, but is perhaps best utilized as a Cover 3 match cornerback that plays zone coverage with some man-match tendencies.

He basically has the talent to become a much-better Richard Sherman in the Rams’ scheme, while also having the ability to play superb man coverage, which was not a definite strength of Sherman’s. Ramsey might already be at that level. He is scary good, which is why the Rams have so much invested in him in their top-heavy, win-now roster plan.

22. DeForest BucknerDeForest Buckner – DI, Indianapolis Colts (Last year: 38)

Colts GM Chris Ballard has done a great job building up Indianapolis’ roster, with the defense needing special recognition.

They have a 4-3 style scheme that moves with speed and tenacity. They have toned down on some of their Cover 2/Tampa 2 concepts, and have even dabbled in an uptick of single-high schemes, but essentially have succeeded in everything they’ve done on defense over the past year.

Part of that is great coaching, drafting, and the play of rangy linebacker Darius Leonard.

The most important reason (although not sole) for the Colts recent success on defense, has been DeForest Buckner, who has continued his stellar pay since coming over from San Francisco before the start of last season.

Buckner is the best interior pass rusher in the league not named Aaron Donald or Chris Jones, and is versatile enough to line up all around the D-line.

He had 9.5 sacks last year and was named a First-team All-Pro just months after the Colts extended him for four years and $84 million.

He’s a linchpin player for one of the best ascending rosters in the league.

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

He was named an All-Pro in each of his first six seasons, but that streak was snapped in Year 7 when he missed the most of the last month of 2020 with an injury (calf strain).

Still, Martin showcased his skills last year, helping to be the only consistent force for a once-great Cowboys O-line that has since had its issues.

Pro Football Focus graded him as the second-best guard in the league (91.3), and second-best run blocker among all lineman (92.2), finishing only behind fellow guard Wyatt Teller in both categories.

Martin even started a game at right tackle last season, as the team suffered various injuries and needed someone to fill in at the spot.

With Dak Prescott returning, as well as left tackle Tyron Smith, Dallas should have a much better time on offense in 2021, and Martin will be there to keep Prescott up right and clear lanes for running back Ezekiel Elliott.

20. Chris Jones Chris Jones – DI, Kansas City Chiefs (Last year: 25)

Like the Rams, the Kansas City Chiefs are very top heavy, with an emphasis on a defense that heavily leans on both defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and defensive tackle Chris Jones.

Jones is the best interior pass rusher in the league after Aaron Donald, and has worked hard to improve in run defense.

According to PFF, he’s graded in the top seven of interior defenders in each of the past four seasons. His highest finish was second last year to Donald in both overall play and pass-rushing among defensive tackles.

He’s a menace who must be double-teamed, or else he’ll wreck a game plan for oppossing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks.

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

After dominating the league as a rookie in 2019, Nick Bosa’s sophomore campaign was cut short when he tore his ACL in Week 2 of last season.

It will be tough to pick up right where he left off in his rookie season without a little bit of rust, but modern medicine and a full year of rehab has assumedly put him on the right path.

He’s a superb athlete at defensive end. He’s dominating in both pass-rushing and run-stuffing, but it’s how he works his way into the backfield that is most impressive. He can use power moves, finesse tactics, or even a blend to make his way to the quarterback or stop a running play in the backfield.

He should re-assert himself as one of the best defensive players in the game in 2021.

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

The 2019 NFL MVP took a slight step back in 2020, but considering how incredible his sophomore season was, he was never going to duplicate that right away.

He’s one of the game’s best playmakers, and is a better passer than many give him credit for, but he still struggles to throw outside the numbers.

Of course, this could be chalked up to a chicken-and-egg type conversation with who deserves more blame for Baltimore’s passing woes with wide receivers. Did the team have enough talent and skill at WR? Or is Jackson just limited as a passer?

I’m a pretty staunch believe in the former, and the Ravens certainly may think that way too, as the team signed Sammy Watkins and drafted Rashod Bateman in the first round (Bateman may miss the team’s first few regular season games with a groin injury), leaving behind the days of Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and and a past-his-prime Willie Snead as Jackson’s only perimeter options.

Sure, the Ravens flourish behind a unique running game with multiple tight end sets with Mark Andrews as Jackson’s favorite pass catcher, but with the right weapons at receiver, Jackson absolutely could take his game to the next level. He’s still learning, and he’s still a top seven or eight quarterback (he’s ranked sixth among QBs on this list).

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

He was named First-team All-Pro and PFF graded him as the top receiver in the NFL last year.

He and Stefon Diggs can duke it out for the title of best route runner in the league, as both are super smooth, fluid, and nearly impossible to cover 1-on-1.

Aaron Rodgers predictably leaned on Adams in his MVP campaign, as Green Bay’s WR1 hauled in 115 catches (second in the league) for 1,374 yards and a league-leading 18 touchdown receptions.

It’s not just Adams’ league-best, press-beating release that stands out, he also led all wide receivers in yards after catch (533) last season. He’s a do-it-all player.

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

We can’t let brother Nick begin to take all the headlines from Joey Bosa, because the older brother enters 2021 as the better player.

Joey quietly had his best season last year from an efficiency standpoint. He needed just 12 games to earn his  second consecutive First-team All-Pro honors.

He was Pro Football Focus‘ third-highest graded overall EDGE defender, and he graded in the top five among his position in both run defense and rushing the passer.

He has perhaps the best technique at the position in the entire league, helping to throw off blockers with great hand usage and leverage.

He’s the highest-paid defensive player in the league ($27.5 million per season) and will continue to earn his pay with stellar play for the upstart (and talented) Chargers.

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

The Bills are now a Super Bowl contender thanks to the maturation of Josh Allen and last offseason’s acquisition of Stefon Diggs.

As mentioned in Davante Adams’ blurb, both he and Diggs can lay claim as the best route-runner in the league. Adams has a better release at the line of scrimmage, but Diggs is perhaps better as a downfield target thanks to his separation skills and quickness.

He was named a First-team All-Pro last year after leading the league in targets (166), catches (127), receiving yards (1,535) and NFL Next Gen Stats‘ receptions above expected metric (20.3).

In Buffalo’s shotgun-based, spread offense, Diggs will continue to work both and the outside and inside, obliterating opposing teams’ single-coverage tactics, until defensive coordinators wise up on his skills.

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

Although it wasn’t obvious, Khalil Mack had a pretty good bounce-back campaign in 2020.

He had nine sacks, a tepid total for him, but PFF had him graded as their top overall EDGE defender across the board (overall play, run coverage, pass rush).

He’s still one of the best players in all of football. He draws a ton of double teams, and is still a player that gives opposing quarterbacks nightmares.

He turned 30 right after last season ended, but still has some great years left.

13. Josh AllenJosh Allen – QB, Buffalo Bills (Last year: NR)

The only Josh Allen on my list last summer was the Jaguars’ young pass rusher.

Things have changed.

Allen’s swift ascension from a boom-or-bust prospect to top-five quarterback in his third season was the major reason (Stefon Diggs being the second) that the Bills took charge as one of league’s very best teams last season.

Allen was third in ESPN’s Total QBR metric (81.7) last year, while accounting for nearly 5,000 yards of offense, along with 45 total touchdowns.

Greg Cossell, a long-time, respected league guru, calls Allen “the most physically gifted quarterback in the NFL.”

He has a rocket arm, the ability to run, both with speed and power, the ability to throw on the run, and has improved mightily in both decision making, and even accuracy, which is the biggest knock on him.

He was masterful in Brian Daboll’s shotgun, spread offense.

The obvious question is: will Allen be consistently this good? It seems a little farfetched, considering his style, but maybe this is the start of a brilliant, Hall of Fame career. It’s early. For me, he’s a bit tough to place after 2020.

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

Garrett is the most athletically gifted front seven player in the league, and is on the cusp of a dominating, take-over-the-league season, which is what the Browns will need from him if they are to seriously compete with the Chiefs, Bills and Titans atop the AFC.

He’s tallied 35.5 sacks and forced nine fumbles in the past three seasons, despite missing eight games.

He’s been one of the best pass rushers in the league since his second year (2018), but he’s improved a ton in run defense since then, which is partly why he was named First-team All-Pro for the first time last season.

He’s due for a monster year in 2021, and should be one of the few favorites to win DOPY.

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

He’s still the best offensive lineman in football, and the gap may be almost as big as Aaron Donald compared to other interior defenders.

He’s been named First-team All-Pro in each of his three seasons in the league, and has been graded a top-three guard by PFF in each of those years.

There are virtually no weaknesses to his game, as he tramples over run defenders and stymies pass rushers on the regular.

He and new teammate Carson Wentz each had similar foot surgeries recently, and there is some speculation over whether they’ll be available for Week 1, but the latest reports say there’s a chance they’ll be on the field for Indianapolis’ first regular season contest.

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

Despite Derrick Henry’s outright dominance over NFL defenses over the past two seasons, I know this slot for him may produce some flack considering the league’s present-day devaluing of running backs.

But Henry is a unique case.

Last year’s OPOY became the eighth player in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards. He ran for over 1,500 yards the year before that (he led the league in rushing in both seasons) and has scored 47 touchdowns over the past three seasons.

The 6-foot-3, 247-pound back is unstoppable, even when opposing defenses know he’s about to carry the football. Despite leading the league in carries over the past two seasons, he’s averaged well over five yards per carry.

He has unique vision and quickness for a back his size, which compliments his power running and break-tackle ability. His 1,073 yards after contact last year was more than 300 yards better than the next closest running back.

At some point, a running back with this amount of workload (997 carries since 2018, including playoffs) will hit a wall, but I’d be willing to bet that he’s a few years away from that. He’s a physical marvel at the position.

His offensive line is solid, but not dominating, and it’s his rushing that sets up Ryan Tannehill’s dangerous play-action passing kills to A.J. Brown, and now, Julio Jones.

The Titans are sort of like the AFC’s Rams in that they are in win-now mode, and should be a Super Bowl contender.

It will be Henry bowling over defenders in January that will be the main ingredient to the recipe, if so.

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

T.J. Watt’s consistency over the past two years places him as the best EDGE defender in the game today.

He’s finished second in DPOY voting over the past two seasons, and is as complete of a 3-4 outside linebacker that we’ve seen over the past decade or two.

The two-time First-team All-Pro actually earned All-Pro honors at both defensive end and outside linebacker two seasons ago, and was graded as the top EDGE defender in the game by Pro Football Focus in 2019 before grading as the second-best at his position this past year in run coverage, pass rushing and overall play.

He’s notched 42.5 sacks and forced a whopping 16 fumbles over the past three seasons, and last year he led the league in pass-rush win rate (29.1%) and caused incompletions (40).

He’s currently playing on his fifth-year option, so he’s in line for a massive pay day.

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

Travis Kelce turns 32 during this season, but enters 2021 at the top of his game.

The five-time All-Pro set a single-season NFL record with 1,416 receiving yards as a tight end, and set career highs in receptions (105), receiving touchdowns (11), yards per catch (13.5) and first downs (79) in 2021, working the middle of the field as a “jumbo” wide receiver with unreal route-running, quickness, wiggle and hands for a 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end.

He’s the best route-running tight end of all-time, and when all is said and done, may challenge Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski for title of the best pass-catching tight end this game has ever seen.

He can line up out wide, in the slot, by himself on the Chiefs’ disturbingly-good 3×1 sets, and play in-line as a traditional tight end.

He’s been graded as a top-four tight end by PFF in each of his last five seasons, grading out as the top tight end last year in both overall play and receiving, while ranking fourth in run-blocking, which is a testament to his improvement in that area.

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

Another member of the Chiefs’ “big three” on offense lands in the top 10, with Tyreek Hill here.

I think it’s fair if the best “pure” wide receiver in the league debate currently is a toss-up between Stefon Diggs and Davante Adams, because Hill is a unique weapon who could be labeled as simply an athlete.

His combination of speed, agility, burst, route-running, hands and hold-onto-the-ball toughness is something this NFL has never seen.

Did you watch his first-quarter dominance of the Buccaneers’ defense in Tampa Bay last regular season?

He’s the most unique deep threat of all time, and already may be the best deep threat ever not named Randy Moss or Calvin Johnson (and maybe, DeSean Jackson). He has the most 50-yard-plus touchdowns (19) in the league over the past five years.

His 58 total touchdowns since 2016 have him tied with Davante Adams and Derrick Henry for most in the league during that span, except Hill has a more unique mix of scores, since he has five return touchdowns during that timeframe. (Yes, he’s also one of the best return men the game has ever seen.)

The three-time First-team All-Pro is most dangerous out of the slot, running deep and intermediate crossers out of Kansas City’s 3×1 sets, but he can line up anywhere in produce with his skill set, which includes coming in motion for reverses, where he is tough to stop.

It’s a toss-up trying to state whether him or Kelce is more important to the Chiefs’ offense going forward, but Hill is just 27 years old and squarely in his prime for at least the next two to three seasons.

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

This may be one of the most controversial decisions of my list, as I defiantly place George Kittle as the second-best non-QB in the league.

He was limited to just eight games last year due to a broken bone in his foot, but he is primed to return to glory in 2021, as are the 49ers.

Whether Jimmy Garoppolo or Trey Lance will be throwing him the ball, Kittle will be the focal point of San Francisco’s offense as a monstrous blocking tight end with top-of-the-line receiving skills and explosive after-the-catch ability.

Kyle Shanahan’s scheme features a ton of play-action and bootlegs, which compliments Kittle nicely, but the fact of the matter is, the two-time All-Pro would dominate no matter what the scheme.

Only Travis Kelce is a better receiving tight end, and I think Kittle is right there with him, while also being the best blocking tight end in the league, and perhaps slightly more important to San Francisco’s scheme than Kelce is to Kansas City’s, which says a lot, because Kelce’s skills are irreplaceable.

Another thing in Kittle’s favor, is his age. At just 28, he’s set up to be the top target for Trey Lance in the coming seasons.

He’ll top his 2019 season soon, mark my words!

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

Russell Wilson was the NFL MVP frontrunner at midseason last year before the offense began sputtering later in the year.

Still, he threw 40 touchdown passes and elevated a Seattle team that is now far removed from its championship days.

Wilson was able to temper his displeasure with the Seahawks’ roster-building and offensive scheme enough to stick around for at least this season.

He and Tyler Lockett have one of the best QB-WR rapports in the league, and Wilson’s excellent deep-ball passes and on-the-money slants are the perfect match for X-receiver D.K. Metcalf.

The Seahawks’ offensive line is slowly improving, but this team would still be cooked if not for Wilson’s ability to cook (I’ll see myself out) opposing defenses with his ability to create plays from outside the pocket when things break down.

If Seattle wants to continue their run as one of the league’s most consistently-good teams, they’ll need to do everything in their power to make Wilson happy going forward.

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

Like Wilson, Rodgers spent most of the offseason creating even more headlines than the Seattle quarterback when it comes to a possible departure from his long-time team.

It’s clear the Jordan Love selection in the 2020 Draft, among other personnel decisions, has not sat well with last year’s NFL MVP.

This is probably his last year in Green Bay, but the team is clearly a Super Bowl contender, as last year’s on-the-field play was a great example of Rodgers adjusting to Matt LaFluer’s Shanahan-style, 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) scheme to torch the league for an all-time season.

The now-17-year pro led the league in touchdown passes (48), touchdown-to-interception ratio (48:5), completion percentage (70.7%), passer rating (121.5), Total QBR (84.3) and PFF grade among QBs (95.1), all while playing with only one superb pass-catching target in Davante Adams.

His throwing skills are some of the best in league history, and he makes it all look effortless. He’s equally as dangerous outside the pocket as he is inside of it.

This could be his final season in Green Bay, and this team could very well reach the Super Bowl, despite heavy off-the-field headlines that will follow them, and Rodgers throughout his possible final year in Green Bay.

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

At age 43, he was second in the league in pass attempts (610) and PFF QB grade (93.3), tied for second in passing touchdowns (40) and was the most efficient deep-ball passer in the entire league (see below).

That is simply insane.

It’s safe to say his all-time best, maniacal work ethic and drive are a big help to his continued greatness.

He’s the smartest quarterback in the game today, and even though his arm isn’t exactly what it used to be, he can still sling the ball downfield with incredible accuracy, and after a slow-ish start, he adjusted to Bruce Arians’ let-it-fly passing scheme with ease.

Sure, Tampa Bay’s incredible offensive personnel is a big help, but how many of you truly expected him to be that good down the stretch, en route to winning his seventh Super Bowl (more than any franchise) and fifth Super Bowl MVP award?

The GOAT chase that Patrick Mahomes will inevitably travel may be too far of a journey to make up the ground after Brady’s Super Bowl 55 win over the Chiefs’ phenom.

Brady is the greatest football player ever, and is capable of winning another ring this year.

With a full season under his belt, and a pure pass-catching back now on the roster (Giovanni Bernard), Brady  should be even better in Year 2 in Tampa.

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

Aaron Donald — one of the best defensive players in league history — remains the best non-quarterback in the game today, and possibly over the past decade.

He won the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award for the third time in his last four seasons in 2020, and was named First-team All-Pro for the sixth straight year.

In his rookie year (2014), PFF graded Donald as the second best defensive interior lineman in the game, and from 2015 on, they’ve graded him as the best at his position for six straight seasons. Last year, he graded as the best interior defender in both run defense and pass rushing, in addition to his top overall mark at the position, and he was second in the league in sacks (13.5). His 85.5 sacks since 2014 are most in the league during that span, which is just outrageous for a defensive tackle.

He could play anywhere, including as a defensive end in both 3-4 and 4-3 sets, but the amount of pressure he puts on quarterbacks from the inside makes him the perfect interior dominator.

With help from Jalen Ramsey and a few others, Donald led the Rams defense to a No. 1 overall mark in both points per game allowed (18.5) and yards allowed per game (281.9) last season.

It’s mind-boggling to see all that he’s accomplished before he turned 30 before the start of this Summer. The one thing that’s missing from his illustrious career? A Super Bowl ring. The Rams are well-positioned to make a run at hosting Super Bowl 56 (the game is in Los Angeles), and will need Donald to be at his best to do it.

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

What more could you possibly say about Patrick Mahomes?

He tops this list for a second straight year after leading his Chiefs to a second consecutive Super Bowl.

In his three seasons as a starter, he leads the league in both touchdown passes (114 TDs to just 23 interceptions) and Total QBR (80.6), and without Aaron Rodgers’ all-time effort last year, he was well positioned to win his second NFL MVP award in three years.

Mahomes is 44-10 as a starter, showcasing that he clearly wins. Heck, it took 54 starts and a decimated O-line for him to earn his first double-digit loss in Super Bowl 55.

There’s no question that the Chiefs will remain the AFC preseason favorite every year for the foreseeable future, or least while him, Andy Reid, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce are together.

Mahomes makes the most difficult of throws look easy, and his creative style of play(sometimes called “backyard football”) look like a beautiful piece of art.

He is the best quarterback and player in the league, and is a joy to watch.

 

49ers select Trey Lance

NFL Monday Morning Madness: Lance, Jones are perfect fits for 49ers, Patriots

For weeks in the lead-up to this past weekend’s NFL Draft, the much-discussed topic was the 49ers’ quarterback preference for their No. 3 pick, which they recently traded for.

As the opening night of the draft finally came, other headlines took shape (Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay? The return of Tim Tebow?!).

But as the Draft finally began, everything else sank into the background, as over 12.5 million viewers (second-most, ever) tuned into the NFL’s annual spring spectacle, internally creating hopes and dreams based off their favorite team’s first-round selections.

Some stand-out notes on the draft:

— For just the second time in NFL history, five quarterbacks were taken in the draft’s top 15 picks (1999 was the other year).

— This draft also set a record when the first seven picks off the board were offensive players.

There are many takeaways from this draft, but we begin with what I think is the best situation of any of the first-round rookie quarterback destinations…

*******

Trey Lance enters the best situation of any rookie QB. No one likes a brag about, but I’m excited to see Trey Lance land with the 49ers because I thought he was the best choice for San Francisco at pick No. 3, which is why I predicted it in my mock draft

The North Dakota State quarterback is young, raw and inexperienced, but he has the potential to be far better in the Shanahan scheme than Justin Fields or Mac Jones if he reaches that potential.

Lance does have some accuracy issues, but he’s accurate enough. He’s also athletic with a big arm and has experience leading a run-centric offense with a fullback and tight ends, with a heavy number of under-center snaps (important for a Shanahan offense) and a healthy amount of shotgun ones. Lance is also a great match for the John Elway/Jake Plummer-esque play-action and bootleg passing concepts in this offense, and can even perform designed runs like QB Power. He’s an incredibly unique talent. 

Former NFL scout Matt Manocherian also debunked some uneducated theories on Lance’s style of play in his podcast on Friday:

“This isn’t an off-schedule type quarterback,” said Manocherian.

“He very much played on schedule and within the frame of the offense, in what he was asked to do at North Dakota State. Just because you’re un-athletic, doesn’t mean you’re running outside the scheme all the time. And I think that’s the key there. It’s not that Shanahan doesn’t want a quarterback that can run. It’s that he wants a quarterback that is going to fit into the framework of his scheme.”

Some even viewed Lance as the smartest QB in the draft, stating that what North Dakota State asked Lance to do, in terms of pre-snap, was more of a responsibility than any of the other four top rookie quarterbacks had while running their college offense. Some evaluators called him a “savant,” meaning he’s just as much of an intelligent quarterback and football player as he is a burgeoning athletic marvel at the game’s most important position. 

Now, Lance will get to learn Kyle Shanahan’s system while Jimmy Garoppolo leads a Super Bowl-ready roster in 2021. It’s the perfect fit. 

 

The Patriots select Mac Jones as QB of the future, and continues to build bully-ball team revolving around running game, defense.  Most of the media (including me) had settled on the Patriots trading up for Justin Fields before selecting Mac Jones, but by letting the Bears jump them to select Fields, it seemed as if the Patriots were set on Jones over Fields all along. Former Belichick confidant Michael Lombardi (whose son, Mick, is New England’s WR coach), was pretty adamant that New England didn’t want Fields. We should have listened, but the potential pairing of Belichick with a young and athletic, new-age QB quarterback was an intriguing thought. Heck, that’s what I mocked, and wanted.

But instead, New England waited at No. 15 and let the Alabama pocket passer come to them. 

“Mac fits the style of offense that Bill [Belichick] has typically played for the past 20 years with Tom [Brady],” ESPN‘s Louis Riddick said. 

“It’s the kind of quarterback that Josh McDaniels is used to coaching from a physical skills perspective. It’s going to work perfectly for them.”

The knocks on Jones in the pre-draft process has been his lack of mobility/athleticism, adequate (at best) arm strength, and his unfair collegiate advantage of playing with Alabama and their seemingly endless supply of NFL first-round talent. 

But Jones’ strengths (football intelligence, pocket presence, accuracy, quick release, leadership) seem to place him as a perfect fit for just about any NFL offense, with New England a better fit than others. 

Jones was mostly a distributing point-guard out of the shotgun last season, often throwing vertically and mastering the RPO concept, so that’s a bit of a different offense from the under-center, two-tight end scheme that we’ll probably see New England run this season, but Jones should be able to adapt to any scheme, and his traits fit the type of offense that the Patriots ran under Tom Brady in the dynasty’s early years (2001 to 2006), and again in 2018 and 2019. 

 “Whenever Mac Jones is ready, he’s going to be able to operate the full facilities of the Patriots offense, which Cam Newton was never able to do last year, I don’t care what was around him,” said Boston Sports Journal‘s Greg Bedard via his podcast.

“Mac Jones is probably the most advanced college quarterback in terms of pre-snap, checks, reads, all the mental stuff that goes on at the line of scrimmage. I have not seen or heard of a quarterback as advanced as Mac Jones in terms of what is level of experience is.”

Jones will likely sit behind Cam Newton to begin this season, though. 

No matter who starts at quarterback for the Patriots will be leading a smash-mouth, bully-ball football team that has loaded up on the offensive line and tight end positions, as well as in the front seven on defense.

New England’s picks from Round 2 to 4 (Alabama DT Christian Barmore, EDGE Ronnie Perkins, RB Rhamondre Stevenson) seem to fit a certain style of football the Patriots are looking to get back to. 

Belichick had to give up two fourth-round picks to move up for Barmore, who was the only interior defensive lineman with a first-round grade on most draft boards. 

Perkins was a classic “best player available” pick, and Stevenson will fill the “thumper” running back role last occupied by LeGarrette Blount in 2016. 

Whoever wins the starting quarterback job for the Patriots in camp will be leading a tough, hungry football team that has been created by Belichick’s aggressive offseason and vision.

 

Justin Fields will need to embrace the “savior” role as the Bears’ QB. Fields is a fascinating prospect. Standing as a 6-foot-3, 230-pound, 4.4-speed guy, he also has a rocket arm and pin-point accuracy. 

It wouldn’t even be fair to call the Bears a quarterback purgatory because their main problem is developing/finding quarterbacks to begin with. 

But even if their trade-up to No. 11 (giving up a future first-round pick in the process) was partially an act fo desperation for GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy, I still think it was the right move, as Fields possess all the necessary skills to elevate the Bears’ offense, as long as the offense is schemed to his traits. 

“Theoretically, that’s the same offense [in Chicago] as Andy Reid runs,” said Greg Cosell via the Ross Tucker Podcast. 

“It’s the same playbook. We saw how well-defined that offense has worked for Patrick Mahomes. And Justin Fields is a high-level traits quarterback. So if you can really define the reads, the throws, through the use of personnel, formation, route concepts, based on your understanding of anticipating coverages, then I think it’s a really good spot for Justin Fields…To me, I think you should line the kid up on Day 1 and let him play.” 

The issue in Chicago is the Bears lack of offensive weapons. They have an OK tight end group, but their top two wide receivers are Allen Robinson (who is reluctantly on the franchise tag) and Darnell Mooney. Not a disaster by any means, because Robinson is a solid X-receiver who is deserving of a big contract, but the Bears should look to improve their pass-catching core while building around the young Fields. Adding Marquise Goodwin recently was a good start, but they need more. 

Fields will have heavy pressure to succeed right away from Nagy and Pace, considering their job status, and possibly the fan base, too.

He should start over Andy Dalton right off the bat, but Chicago should also be careful with his progression as a NFL QB. 

Regardless of what they do, Fields possesses a ton of mental and physical toughness, and should be up for the challenge. 

To me, the Bears made the right call to move up for him. 

 

Giants, Panthers were my favorite draft classes. Several teams, including the Dolphins, Jets, Patriots and Ravens, had stellar draft classes at first glance, in my opinion. Still, reactionary draft grades and takes are always just a means for content rather than a true prognostication, because the truth is, none of us know how any of these players will turn out. We’ll have to see it play out. That being said, I absolutely love what the Giants and Panthers did over the weekend. 

By trading with the Bears and acquiring another first-round pick for 2022, the Giants still came away with a stellar class of players (Florida WR Kadarius Toney, Georgia EDGE Azeez Ojulari, UCF CB Aaron Robinson) that will help the development of the team. 

The Giants pass-catching group is still pretty barren so adding a shifty, do-it-all slot playmaker like Toney should work wonders for QB Daniel Jones, and compliment recently-signed X-receiver Kenny Golladay nicely. 

On defense, GM Dave Gettleman and head coach Joe Judge seem to be building up a Belichick-style, 3-4 defense with big boys up front, and a stellar defensive back field.

Ojulari was a solid Round-2 pick, as he should provide value as a stand-up edge rusher in their scheme. 

With James Bradberry at outside cornerback, and the versatile Logan Ryan in the slot along with Adoree Jackson, the Giants again added to the group by selecting Robinson in Round 3, who can play both on the perimeter and in the nickel spot. 

It was a good value pick that solidifies a defensive backfield that already has Xavier McKinney and Jabrill Peppers at safety

The Giants are building a hell of a defense. 

In Carolina, the Panthers did their best to add talent to both sides of the ball. 

I do prefer Patrick Surtain II to Jaycee Horn, but in reality, both are lengthy, press-man cornerbacks who are virtually slam-dunk picks. 

Carolina knows they need to build up a defense that has needed help outside of EDGE Brian Burns and safety Jeremy Chinn. Horn should work well opposite A.J. Bouye, giving the Panthers a nasty and effective 1-2 punch at cornerback. 

The Panthers also made one of the great value picks in the draft by scooping up Iowa defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon in Round 5. Nixon was a Round 2 or 3 guy on many draft boards, but ended up falling over the weekend. He’ll be a three-technique or nose-tackle type for a team that needed some nastiness up front.

He should work well next to Derrick Brown, the defensive tackle Carolina picked in Round 1 last spring. 

On offense, the Panthers added Terrace Marshall Jr. in Round 2 as a big slot WR capable of working the seams and making tough catches via his ball-tracking skills. And in Round 3, they finally added an offensive tackle. 

Both the Panthers and Giants project as .500 teams in 2021, but each could surprise many, thanks to what they’ve done this offseason. They’re both building solid teams, and defenses in particular. 

 

Trey Lance, North Dakota State

2021 NFL Mock Draft: Who are the 49ers actually targeting at No. 3?

With just three days remaining until the 2021 NFL Draft, many questions remain regarding the top of the draft board, including which quarterback the San Francisco 49ers are favoring with pick No. 3. 

Despite the above report by Ian Rapoport late Sunday night, I still wonder if Justin Fields is in the mix for San Francisco. After all, any report this close to the draft may be a smokescreen.

The 49ers’ selection, along with the Falcons and Bengals after them, will create a domino effect for the rest of the draft. 

I give my answer to all three of those picks and more here in my first-round mock with some fun possible Round 2 and 3 fits mentioned at the end. 

Full disclosure, it’s hard, or nearly futile, to predict some of the trades that annually happen in the back half of the first round, so the only trades I mulled over for this first-round mock are move-ups for a quarterback, in which I have one. 

Without further ado, my lone mock draft of the offseason this year. Enjoy. 

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1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

There should be no qualms here. Lawrence is a generational prospect, joining Peyton Manning (1998) and Andrew Luck (2012) in their own category of No. 1 overall picks with the highest of expectations over the last 20 to 25 years. 

2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, QB, BYU 

It seems as if the Jets have been set on Wilson for a long time now. The kid from BYU has the ability to make difficult throws off-platform at a near Aaron Rodgers level. The quarterback position in the NFL is about much more than that, but still, it’s hard to witness Wilson’s arm talent and not become smitten with his play.

3. San Francisco 49ers: Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State 

Most of the media (because of their sources), and many former and current NFL personnel members believe the 49ers are eyeing Mac Jones here, but I don’t see it. At least not at pick No. 3. In giving up two future first-round draft picks to move up, I believe the 49ers are eying a more talented QB. 

To me, Trey Lance best fits the Kyle Shanahan offense. He’s lauded as a super-smart prospect with heavy experience in pre-snap recognition and full-field progressions in a run-centric offense. He’s also incredibly athletic, with a big arm, and is capable of executing play-action/bootleg concepts under the Shanahan scheme, which was at its peak under John Elway and Mike Shanahan in Denver in the mid-to-late 1990s. 

That’s why Lance was my initial pick here for San Francisco a few weeks ago, and after debating back and forth between Lance (who is raw), and the slightly-more-talented Justin Fields (who is also a more accurate thrower), I’ve decided to trust my gut and go back to Lance, despite him having some issues with passing accuracy, which is an uber-important characteristic for a quarterback leading a Shanahan offense. 

Drafting Lance to sit behind Jimmy Garoppolo in 2021 would elicit comparisons to the quarterback room of the 2017 Chiefs (Alex Smith, Patrick Mahomes) and the 2011-2012 49ers (Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick). The veteran leads a talented team for a season or so before the young, more athletic quarterback of the future takes over. 

4. Atlanta Falcons: Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida 

If the Falcons elect not to draft a QB here — I think Trey Lance is an excellent fit under Atlanta’s new regime but he’s unavailable in this scenario — this becomes an obvious trade spot for a team like the Broncos to move up from spot No. 9. 

But if Atlanta stays put, they have their pick of any top non-QB prospect of their choosing. The Titans led the league in 12 personnel (two tight ends) usage last season under offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who is now the Falcons head coach. 

10 years after the Falcons moved up to take Julio Jones with pick No. 6, the team now stays put to draft another rare athletic pass-catching talent in tight end Kyle Pitts, who’s receiver-like ability would pair nicely with Jones, Calvin Ridley and traditional tight end Hayden Hurst. 

Of course, there’s the possibility that the Falcons deal Jones for cap relief later this summer, which makes even more sense that they’d draft Pitts here. 

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon  

With Pitts off the board, the Bengals decision will basically come down to one of the top two tackles or wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who played with Joe Burrow at LSU. 

As enticing as it is to pair Chase with Burrow once more, the Bengals have to prioritize their franchise quarterback, who was pressured and sacked a ton last season in 10 games before tearing his ACL. 

The Bengals shouldn’t overthink this.

6. Miami Dolphins: Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU

Some are wondering if the Dolphins are interested in a tackle such as Northwestern’s Rashawn Slater, but Ja’Marr Chase would give the Dolphins a bonafide No. 1 receiver talent for Tua Tagovailoa. Miami traded back to No. 12 only to immediately trade back up to No. 6, most likely to land a top-tier pass catcher. 

7. New England Patriots (TRADE with Lions): Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

It’s time to get wild. 

For the Lions to trade back to No. 15, potentially bypassing their chance to pick a blue-chip player at No. 7, it will have to be worth it. The Patriots would likely need to give up this year’s first-round pick and perhaps next year’s first to move up. Detroit is going for a full rebuild under new head coach Dan Campbell, so accumulating another first-round pick next season would help that process. 

Although I think Lance is a better pure fit for New England (along with San Francisco and Atlanta), Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels are master adaptors who could easily transform their offense around a talented prospect such as Justin Fields, if the board were to shake up that way with Lance going No. 3 to San Francisco.

Fields is an accurate thrower with a talented arm who also possesses immense physical and mental toughness (see: Ohio State’s CFP semifinal win over Clemson in January). He’s also 6-foot-3, 228 pounds and ran an unofficial 4.44 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s pro day. 

In an interview with the media recently, Bill Belichick said this about the possibility of trading up: 

“I would say normally something will happen and there could very well be a player there that either you don’t expect to be there or maybe he is a couple spots — maybe at 12, 13 — he’s still on the board and you really thought that he’d be gone in the top six, seven picks,” Belichick said. “And then the question comes: Do move up and try to get that player that’s fallen a little bit?”

If Fields falls this far, I think the Patriots would make the call to trade up. 

8. Carolina Panthers: Rashawn Slater, OT/G, Northwestern

The Panthers could also trade back with a QB-needy team, or select a top-tier defensive player such as Patrick Surtain II or Micah Parsons, but Rashawn Slater is a slam-dunk pick here as a protector for new quarterback Sam Darnold.

If you watch any tape of Slater from college, let it be this film against Chase Young, who was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in Washington last season. 

Slater could end up being one of the two or three best players from this entire draft. 

9. Denver Broncos: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

The Broncos could opt to trade (or wait out his release) for Teddy Bridgewater to push Drew Lock at the quarterback position, but why not go with a smart distributor at QB here? 

Denver has a ton of offensive weapons with wide receivers Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy, tight end Noah Fant and running back Melvin Gordon. Jones would have to get used to the pro game after carving up college defenses with a slate of first-round talent at wide receiver, but pairing him with an arsenal of pass catchers would be a nice way of getting production out of Jones early. Denver can’t afford to let this roster go forward with a question mark at quarterback. Jones would be the ideal distributor-type at the position for all of Denver’s offensive talent. 

10. Dallas Cowboys: Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama 

For my money, Patrick Surtain II is the safest pick in the draft. The 6-foot-2, press-man cornerback should thrive in any scheme, but will best work in a man-heavy defense (like New England). 

Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn is a Cover-3 guy from his time as the defensive coordinator of the Seahawks during the Legion-of-Boom era, and Surtain can certainly thrive in that system as well. But Dallas would be wise to select him and let him take away opponents’ No. 1 pass catcher in man coverage. 

11. New York Giants: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

Jaylen Waddle is my favorite receiver in the draft. He possess more Tyreek Hill-ability than his former Alabama teammate Henry Ruggs, who went in the top half of the first round to Las Vegas in last year’s draft. 

This splashy pick doesn’t really fit into GM Dave Gettleman’s past, but he knows the Giants need to upgrade their offense around Daniel Jones. This is the way. 

12. Philadelphia Eagles: DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

It seems as if people are either doubting DeVonta Smith outright or comparing him to Hall-of-Fame receiver Marvin Harrison. 

There’s a middle ground at play. I think Smith will be closer to Harrison than an outright bust, but his weight (166 pounds) is not something to just gloss over. 

Luckily, Smith is an A+ route runner with silky smooth skills and pass-catching ability.

The Eagles could also use a defensive player like Parsons or Jaycee Horn here, but they are in dire need of a receiver for quarterback Jalen Hurts. I’m almost a little surprised they traded back from No. 6, but in this scenario, they get one of the talented young receivers. 

13. Los Angeles Chargers: Christian Darrishaw, OT, Virginia Tech 

Much like Joe Burrow’s situation in Cincinnati, fellow 2020 draft classmate Justin Herbert needs an improved offensive line in Los Angeles, too. 

Protecting Herbert, who already has a pretty good set of weapons on offense, should be priority No. 1. They go with one of the highest-rated offensive lineman in the draft here. 

14. Minnesota Vikings: Alijah Vera-Tucker, OT/G, USC

The Vikings could use some help along the offensive line, and Vera-Tucker is one of the top prospects up front. He’s versatile, and could play either guard or tackle in the pros. 

Here’s what NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former pro scout, had to say of the USC offensive lineman: 

“I also think along the offensive line, man, I mentioned his name a little bit, but Vera-Tucker, he’s one of my favorite players in the whole draft. He can play darned near anywhere,” Jeremiah said on his pre-draft conference call with the media. “I think he’s going to be an All-Pro guard. He can hold up at tackle if you wanted him to. But you want to get better along that offensive line, I think he’s just one of the cleanest, safest picks in the whole draft.”

15. Detroit Lions (TRADE with Patriots): Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State

The Lions move back and still get one of the three or four best non-QB prospects in the draft. Micah Parsons is a freak at the linebacker position. He’ll add range, speed and athleticism to a defense that needs it after failing to replicate a Patriots-style defense under Matt Patricia. 

16. Arizona Cardinals: Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina 

Horn is a solid, 6-foot-1 press man coverage specialist that would fit right in with longtime Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson now in Minnesota. 

17. Las Vegas Raiders: Kwity Paye, EDGE, Miami 

One of my favorite players in the draft, Kwity Paye can fit in any scheme, whether it be a 4-3-based defense, or one utilizing 3-4 principles. 

The Raiders have already invested in the EDGE position with the signing of pass-rush extraordinaire Yannick Ngakoue, but a complete player like Paye up front would come a long way in helping build up their defense. 

18. Miami Dolphins: Zaven Collins, LB/EDGE, Tulsa  

Brian Flores goes Belichick-ian here to select the bulking Collins, a versatile linebacker prospect with size (6-5, 260 pounds) a la Dont’a Hightower. This is also the first spot where Alabama running back Najee Harris may come off the board. 

19. Washington Football Team: Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State

Washington opts to build up the trenches along the offensive line with an excellent offensive tackle prospect who packs power. 

20. Chicago Bears: Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern 

The Bears stay close to home by adding a cornerback from nearby Northwestern. Chicago did sign Desmond Trufant this offseason, but I still think drafting the young Newsome will fully help ease the loss of Kyle Fuller. 

21. Indianapolis Colts: Jaelen Phillips, EDGE, Miami 

He’s had a rough injury past, but he’s still one of the top EDGE defenders in this class, capable of fitting right into a 4-3 scheme and producing. Indianapolis is a good fit for him. 

22. Tennessee Titans: Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech

His recent back surgery may cause him to fall down draft boards. The Titans stop the landslide here. They have a big need at cornerback. 

23. New York Jets: Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami 

They are not at all the same player, but the sheer size of Gregory Rousseau (6-foot-7, 265 pounds) makes me think new Jets head coach Robert Saleh (recently the 49ers’ defensive coordinator) may want a towering defensive lineman up front, like he had in DeForest Buckner in San Francisco. 

24. Pittsburgh Steelers: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Harris could go as high as No. 18 to running back-needy Miami, but I have him sliding to Pittsburgh here. Harris is a bruising, 6-foot-2, 230-pound back who possesses ridiculous speed, burst and athleticism for his size. He seems like the perfect 20-carries-a-game guy for the Steelers. 

25. Jacksonville Jaguars: Kadarius Toney, WR, Florida

At this point, the Jaguars should just be looking to add talent, but if that talent becomes a shifty offensive weapon for Trevor Lawrence, then that’s even better. Toney would fit nicely here with Urban Meyer’s bunch. 

26. Cleveland Browns: Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky 

Davis isn’t being talked about enough. He’s an incredible athlete with speed and range that is often needed in a marquee linebacker in today’s game (think: Devin White in Tampa Bay). If the Browns are to compete with an AFC powerhouse like the Chiefs, adding Davis to help patrol the middle of the field on defense makes a lot of sense.  

27. Baltimore Ravens: Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota

The Ravens can no longer sit idle and ignore the wide receiver position. Marquise “Hollywood” Brown has big-play potential, but he can’t do much when he’s the only receiver being keyed on by opposing defenses. 

Baltimore needs a legit possession receiver on the outside. Bateman very well could be the fourth-best receiver in this draft class. He’s an ideal X-receiver. 

28. New Orleans Saints: Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue

This draft is loaded with slot receivers. And we’re not talking about quick-but-not-fast, route technicians like Wes Welker or Cole Beasley. 

We’re talking about slot receivers that are almost of the Tyreek Hill mold. Blazing-fast playmakers who can take the top off a defense, while also making plays underneath, or on schemed plays (reverse, screens, etc.). 

The Saints are in need of wide receiver help, and above all, explosiveness on offense as they begin the post-Drew Brees era. 

Rondale Moore is small (5-foot-7, 181 pounds) but compact. He’s tough and has strength that compliments his 4.29 speed. 

Moore also thrives in underneath option routes and unique setups in which he could come out of the backfield. 

Sean Payton and the Saints would get a lot out of this explosive playmaker. 

29. Green Bay Packers: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB/SS, Notre Dame

The Packers could (and should) snag a receiver by Round 2 at the latest, but the athletic Owusu-Koramoah as a strong safety-linebacker hybrid may be too much to pass up here. 

Many teams are now rolling with three-safety packages in critical situations, and the Notre Dame defender can really be labeled as either a box safety or a pure linebacker in those looks. The versatility and athleticism in the middle of the field is a need for the Packers here. 

30. Buffalo Bills: Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

I like the possibility of North Carolina’s Javonte Williams here for Buffalo, but in this scenario Travis Etienne is still available, so the Bills grab him. 

Buffalo badly needs a running back, and the do-it-all back from Clemson would be a nice fit. 

31. Baltimore Ravens: Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State

Instead of rolling with one of the more raw tackle prospects that could fill up the board from late Round 1 to Round 3, the Chiefs opted to trade out of this spot to get the more proven Orlando Brown Jr. from the Ravens to play left tackle. 

With another late first-round pick handy, Baltimore adds to the EDGE position with Matt Judon now in New England. Jayson Oweh has the potential to be one of the best defensive players in this class. 

He projects as both a stand-up and on-the-line rusher in the Ravens’ scheme. 

32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss

With all 22 starters returning from their Super Bowl 55-winning team, the Buccaneers can do just about anything here. Many are predicting that the defending Super Bowl champions will go with Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore as an eventual replacement for Ndamukong Suh, but I think they may try to fill Antonio Brown’s spot here. 

Yes, Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson should receive more playing time this year, as both have potential and a rapport with Tom Brady, but the possibility of adding an explosive slot playmaker like Elijah Moore also makes a lot of sense for Tampa. 

Moore’s NFL.com draft profile even lists Antonio Brown as his pro comparison.

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Here are 10 fun fits for Day 2 (Rounds 2 and 3) on Friday. 

33. Jacksonville Jaguars: Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State

36. Miami Dolphins: Javonte Williams, RB, North Carolina

37. Philadelphia Eagles: Landon Dickerson, C/OG, Alabama

42. New York Giants: Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia

44. Dallas Cowboys: Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama

52. Chicago Bears: Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&M

55. Pittsburgh Steelers: Kyle Trask, QB, Florida

67. Houston Texans: Davis Mills, QB, Stanford

90. Minnesota Vikings: Jamie Newman, QB, Wake Forest/Georgia

96. New England Patriots: Anthony Schwartz, WR, Auburn (I couldn’t resist, plus he’s the fastest player in this draft. He has olympic speed.)