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…

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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.)

Cam Newton vs Dolphins — 2020 Week 15

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 15: Where do the Patriots go from here?

When Cam Newton was sacked on 4th down late in New England’s 22-12 loss in Miami on Sunday, the Patriots already-slim playoff chances went down with him.

Technically, the Patriots entered Sunday’s contest with just a three percent chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index, but the NFL community has certainly taken solace in their wicked witch being officially dead.

The mood surrounding Bill Belichick and some of the few remaining Super Bowl heroes was as you’d expect.

“It stinks to lose,” Devin McCourty said after the loss, “but I think the way we have played has been most disappointing. It just really hasn’t developed for us all year. It’s just felt like that throughout the whole season.”

“Obviously it hasn’t been our year,” said Matthew Slater, the Patriots’ longest-tenured player (since 2008). “Obviously we haven’t done enough to be the type of team we thought we would. As to why that’s the case, it’s really hard to put your finger on it.”

Now, the Patriots will play their last two games versus AFC East opponents at home (vs Bills, vs Jets) with them having nothing to lose, and not much to gain.

The New England offense under Cam Newton (5 TD passes, 10 INT, 11 rush TDs, 44.9 Total QBR), and a sub-par pass-catching core, has not only struggled, but they’ve set back the clock on modern offenses. The difference between New England’s pulling-teeth passing game and that of some of the efficient, new-age passing offenses (let alone the Chiefs) is stark.

Soon, NFL talk will shift toward the playoffs, and the deserving teams in the postseason field.

The defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs. The AFC East-champion Buffalo Bills. Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 New England will enter the offseason with many questions needed to be answered, including one at quarterback, which is a topic that will have its time for deep dives in the next few weeks and months.

As expected by many sensible figures before the pandemic-altered season, the Patriots did not have the team to compete, especially with their legendary quarterback of the past two decades now throwing passes in South Florida.

But in taking a big-picture look at the fraction, which side of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady wishbone would you prefer to hold if you’re Robert Kraft and the New England Patriots?

Brady could win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay and he’s likely going to call it a career in the next year or two (although you can never fully assume so when we’re talking about the GOAT).

Despite some questionable draft day decisions over the last few seasons, and a few blind spots in the entire process (evaluating wide receivers), Bill Belchick is a master team-builder, an innovative and brilliant strategist, and the best coach in the history of football, and maybe, sports.

The married football coach with young children who once stated he wouldn’t be “Marv Levy coaching in his 70s.” But things are different now. Belichick is now a man on a mission — to prove himself by sustaining consistent success without Tom Brady. “The Hoodie” is a revitalized 68-year-old coach with both sons (now adults) on his coaching staff. He’s since divorced but has been in a long-time loving relationship with partner Linda Holliday. Part of Belichick’s summers are spent at Cape Cod with Linda, but most of his life still revolves around football, where a big chunk of his heart undoubtedly resides.

Now, Belichick is tasked with rebuilding the New England Patriots.

The Pats are sufficient in a few important areas already (offensive line, defensive secondary), making the rebuild seem more like one of Bill’s classic “retools” (2005-2007, 2009-2010, etc.) as opposed to a full-on rebuild — if the quarterback position was more ingrained and not Brady-less.

But aside from QB — the obvious position that will be much-talked about in the northeast this offseason — New England obviously fields a skill-position arsenal (WR, TE) that simply must be addressed. Their defensive front seven also needs some offseason attention, as a team like the Dolphins, who came into the game ranked last in yards per carry (3.6), ran for 250 yards on 42 carries (6.0 YPC) versus the Patriots behind running backs Salvon Ahmed and Matt Brieda.

But despite a nightmare season congruent with the year 2020, there is reason for optimism in 2021.

The Patriots are projected to have at least $70-ish million in cap space, depending on the league’s cap number this Spring. They’ll also field a pick in the top half of the draft for just the second time since 2003, giving them a shot at a blue-chip player.

Then, there’s the small group of young players showing promise. Kyle Dugger, Josh Uche, Jakobi Meyers, Michael Onwenu.

As long as there are hard-working, young talents in the building reflecting with quotes such as Chase Winovich’s in the tweet below after Sunday’s loss in Miami, the “Patriot Way” is still in tact.

 Yes, New England’s young core is not that exciting on paper, but with Belchick, and an arsenal of offseason tools (cap space, draft) to reshape this team, it’s at least exciting to see which way Belichick goes.

They most certainly will address their receivers and defensive front seven.

At QB, do they re-sign Newton? Re-sign Newton and draft a rookie on Day 1 or Day 2 of the draft? Do they hope former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo is released outright by the 49ers? Everything is on the table, and until they figure it out at QB, the rest may not matter, that’s evident, but everyone from Foxboro to Portland, Maine knows Bill, Nick Caserio and the Patriots front office are already planning.

This was a year of poor play and bad luck for the Patriots. But as a new year turns, New England’s hopes are that of American citizens dreaming of a post-Pandemic world. Change is coming.

“Teams that don’t make the playoffs change,” said Devin McCourty. “The 2020 Patriots — it won’t be the same in 2021.”

There’s a void… a cavity waiting to be filled with more Patriots success. Belichick and the Patriots are just getting started.

NFL MVP RACE

  1. Patrick Mahomes
  2. Aaron Rodgers
  3. Russell Wilson
  4. Josh Allen
  5. Derrick Henry

The only change here is Josh Allen jumping into the top five. After a so-so midseason stretch, the third-year QB is revisiting his red-hot start to the season at just the right time. Still, he’s more in line with Russell Wilson than a true contender for the award. Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers are essentially in a two-man race with two weeks to go.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Kansas City Chiefs (13-1) (Last week: 1). We, as a collective non-Kansas City NFL community needed a Saints win over the Chiefs to prove that Kansas City can be beaten. It didn’t happen. The Chiefs are a collective cyborg. They are a well-oiled machine and Patrick Mahomes is a football god.

2. Buffalo Bills (11-3) (Last week: 2). With their scorching-hot play as of late, and their first AFC East title since 1995, the Bills have emerged as perhaps the most obvious challenger to the Chiefs in the AFC.

3. Green Bay Packers (11-3) (Last week: 3). It seems the Packers will go as far as Aaron Rodgers takes them, but that’s really not the case. Rodgers is solid, and will remain so. It’s up to his supporting cast. Is their defense ready?

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (11-2) (Last week: 4). The Steelers should win tonight in Cincinnati, but it’s pretty clear a once-clear contender is floundering a bit in December. Injuries on defense are certainly mounting, too. Still, you wouldn’t want to see this proud franchise in January.

5. New Orleans Saints (10-4) (Last week: 5). Defensively, the Saints beat up Mahomes at times. They had a swagger and look of a Super Bowl contender that would not play afraid. Still, they lost. Drew Brees played fairly well down the stretch but it’s still pretty clear that these are his last days. Can he do enough for one last Super Bowl run?

6. Tennessee Titans (10-4) (Last week: 8). The Titans are the ultimate dark horse in the AFC, a spot in which they filled admirably last season. Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown are players you just don’t want to see in an outdoor playoff game. Their defense, and lack of a pass rush, may make it too tough to repeat their playoff run from last season, though.

7. Indianapolis Colts (10-4) (Last week: 9). The Colts again survived Deshaun Watson and the Texans via a Houston goal-line fumble late in the game. That’s the second such occurrence in two weeks. But any division wins are welcome.

8. Seattle Seahawks (10-4) (Last week: 10). The Seahawks are slowly working their way back into contender status in the NFC. They have a big one on Sunday versus the Rams (9-5). If they win, they clinch the NFC West. The playoffs essentially start now for Russell Wilson’s bunch.

9. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-5) (Last week: 11). Ho hum, another 17-point comeback for Tom Brady. And against Matt Ryan’s Falcons, no less. TB12 looked like a product of his method on Sunday, zinging the ball around to complete the come-from-behind win. In all, Brady threw for 320 yards in the second half on Sunday, the most of any QB in the second half this season.

10. Los Angeles Rams (9-5) (Last week: 6). They were rolling before this home loss to the all-time inept New York Jets (1-13). What the hell happened?

11. Baltimore Ravens (9-5) (Last week: 13). Their cake-walk of a closing schedule should put them at 11-5 and in one of the AFC’s wild card spots, but there’s much to like about Lamar Jackson and this Ravens team that is surging at the right time, albeit against lesser competition. They’ll be a tough out in January.

12. Cleveland Browns (10-4) (Last week: 7). Their Sunday night win over the Giants in New York was a solid, hard-earned win after their taxing loss to the Ravens last week.

13. Miami Dolphins (9-5) (Last week: 12). They did what they had to do to survive the Patriots (6-8) at home with a decimated pass-catching core. If the Dolphins make the playoffs, Brian Flores really may win the Coach of the Year award, leapfrogging Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, who had the lead on the award for most of the year.

14. Arizona Cardinals (8-6) (Last week: 15). That was a mighty fun game in Philadelphia, with Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts battling it out. The Cardinals should be able to hold on to the NFC’s No. 7 spot.

15. Washington (6-8) (Last week: 14). We’ll leave Washington on the list for keeping it close with Seattle, and because of the ineptitude of everyone below them here.

16. Chicago Bears (7-7) (Last week: 16). I guess the Bears go here? It feels wrong to have them in the rankings, but they earned it in Minnesota. Or at least, they earned this spot.

Next up: Minnesota, New England, Las Vegas, L.A. Chargers, Dallas

DeAndre Hopkins Hail Mary TD

NFL Tuesday Morning Madness: 10 thoughts from Week 10

Week 10 in the NFL supplied us with a Thursday night AFC South bludgeoner, a game-winning 59-yard field goal, a slew of late afternoon games scheduled around The Masters, a Sunday night upset in a monsoon, and a game-winning hail-mary pass that will likely have major playoff seeding implications.

But we begin in Arizona, where two young, new-age quarterbacks (Josh Allen, Kyler Murray), relied on their team’s prized wide receiver acquisitions (Stefon Diggs, DeAndre Hopkins) to trade scores in the final 34 seconds of an edge-of-your-seat, 32-30 Cardinals win over the Bills.

Of course, Diggs’ touchdown was more routine, with his league-best route-running skills — and brilliant throw by Allen — leading to a late Buffalo lead.

Hopkins’ jackpot-esque jump ball snag over three defenders — accentuated by the quality of defenders, including Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White, and it-writes-itself Air Jordan commercial material — was miraculous, with an improbable, on-the-run assisting throw by Murray to boot.

The look on Arizona offensive tackle D.J. Humphries above says it all. The immaculate play was the signature moment of a weekend that included an incredible capper performance by Masters champion Dustin Johnson, a heartwarming, just-short comeback effort from Alex Smith, and more.

But looking forward, Hopkins’ catch did more than just give the Cardinals a come-from-behind win.

I begin listing my 10 thoughts from Week 10 with a look at the crowded NFC West.

1.NFC West logjam makes for possible photo finish. Because of Hopkins’ catch, and the Los Angeles Rams’ home win over the Seattle Seahawks, the NFC West now features three teams (Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks) tied atop the standin gs after 10 weeks. Arizona currently holds the tiebreaker thanks to their spotless division record (2-0), but with many more intradivision games to take place, things may quickly change. Seattle (6-3) has a chance to exact revenge over Arizona (6-3) when they host the Cardinals this Thursday, and the Rams (6-3) will likely have trouble in Tampa Bay next Monday night. Both Arizona and Seattle feature a top-tier, high-flying offense and a poor defense, while the Rams are more centered in their ways as a pretty good offense that relies on their foundation, and rarely steers off course, and a defense that is solid statistically, revolving around superstars Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. Los Angeles seems to struggle on the road in games in which defenses force them to try new things, or veer off course (see their loss to the Dolphins in Miami this season), which is a major cause for concern, and reason to doubt their chances of being a true NFC contender this season. Likewise, Arizona, although one of the most fun teams in the league, lacks the defense and overall consistency to make a three or four-game run versus good teams to make the Super Bowl. They feel like a team in the midst of a 10-win season that is heading in the right direction before reaching true contender status. That leaves the Seahawks, who live or die with Russell Wilson. That’s certainly not a bad approach, but Seattle’s defense is so far removed from the Legion-of-Boom days that it is unlikely that they’ll win a slew of consecutive 34-31-type games in January en route to a Super Bowl victory. Luckily for the Seahawks, their remaining seven-game schedule is fairly easy. Thursday’s game versus the Cardinals will give us a slightly clearer picture in the division. If Seattle wins at home, they are the likely favorite to retain their lead in the division, and win it down the stretch. But if the Cardinals sweep the Seahawks, we’re likely headed for a photo-finish between all three teams.

2. Russell Wilson slides behind Patrick Mahomes in MVP race. Sticking with the Seahawks, it was just weeks ago that Wilson was looking like a shoe-in to win his first NFL MVP award. But now, the player who has never received an MVP vote has suffered some damaging losses partly by the way of his reckless turnovers. Wilson, who still leads the league in touchdown passes (28), has thrown for seven interceptions in his last four games, and has committed 10 total turnovers in that span. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Patrick Mahomes’ 25-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio compliments the Chiefs’ somehow-quiet 8-1 start. It’s just business as usual in Kansas City, and although Mahomes does have an all-time offensive coach and the league’s best set of offensive weapons outside of Tampa Bay, it’s hard to penalize the reigning Super Bowl MVP too much when he’s playing as efficiently as is. There’s more games to play, and a NFC West title with the Seahawks’ defense as is may swing the votes back in Wilson’s favor, but after 10 weeks, he is no longer the lead dog in the MVP discussion.

3. Saints, Buccaneers are class of NFC thus far, ahead of Packers, NFC West clubs. With the NFC West fielding three good-not-great teams, and the NFC L-East (I’m sorry) as is, that leaves the Green bay Packers (7-2), New Orleans Saints (7-2) and Tampa Bay Buccaneer (7-3) as the NFC’s three best teams by record. Yes, Green Bay has Aaron Rodgers, but theIR struggles versus teams such as the 2019 49ers has seemingly crossed over to this season (see: their losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay) as well as their affinity for playing down to their competition, which almost cost them versus Jacksonville (1-8) this week. They have a great young cover cornerback (Jaire Alexander) and the talented Smiths’ as a pass-rushing duo, but they struggle mightily against the run, and outside of Davante Adams, the lack of an effective No. 2 receiver — despite some big plays by Marquez Valdezs-Scantling this season — is a big issue versus better teams. With the Packers looking like the NFC’s No. 3 best team, their best bet is to earn the No. 1 overall seed over the likes of the Saints and Buccaneers, who are simply better teams. New Orleans is starting to come around with their defense playing like one of the league’s best units, and Drew Brees steadily improving. But with news of Brees now out for three or more weeks with multiple rib fractures and a collapsed lung, the savvy offseason decision to bring in Jamies Winston will need to pay dividends to keep the Saints afloat. The Bucs, Jameis’ old team, and apparently New Orleans’ punching bag, are simply a hard team to predict, with their variance of play as is. Sandwiched between wins over admittedly-bad defenses in the Raiders and Panthers, Tampa Bay struggled on offense moderately versus the lowly Giants, and mightily in their 38-3, embarrassing home loss to the Saints. If you go back further, the prior two weeks before the aforementioned stretch features the lowly, “is-it-4th-down?” loss in Chicago and a 38-10 beatdown of the Packers in Green Bay. Certainly, a lack of a real preseason and truncated training camp and offseason workout plan has stunted Tampa Bay’s growth. But pretty soon, a flurry of consecutive A-plus offensive performances is coming, and it may been January. Antonio Brown looks spry and Rob Gronkowski is gaining momentum. Plus, Brady and Mike Evans seem to be building a connection, and lest we forget, Tampa Bay has a solid defense that should get back on track after back-to-back sub-par outings. For New Orleans, Brees’ injury and the fact that only one of them and Tampa Bay can win their division, gives Green Bay a leg up for the NFC’s top seed, especially with the Packers’ early-season win over the Saints. But with a No. 1 seed or not, New Orleans and Tampa Bay are clearly better teams at this point in the season. Expect one of them to be playing in Tampa in February.

4. Where do Bills, Dolphins fit in AFC? The AFC is comprised of two obvious favorites in Pittsburgh (9-0) and Kansas City (8-1) and what I think is a clear No. 3 team in Baltimore (6-3), despite the latter’s issues when playing the former two, and losing two of their key players (offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, blocking tight end Nick Boyle) for the season. After that, there’s a mishmash of six more three-loss teams in the conference, but both Buffalo (7-3) and Miami (6-3) should be viewed above the rest at this point. First off, the Browns (6-3) and Raiders (6-3) aren’t serious contenders, and glaring issues remain for the Titans (6-3, defense) and Colts (6-3, Philip Rivers’ consistency), despite the latter’s sound defense. The Bills were a Hopkins miracle catch away from reaching 8-2, but now must fend off the upstart Dolphins in the race for a vital AFC East title. Both teams have talent, but Buffalo is more succesful Run-N-Gun on offense with a disappointing defense, while the Dolphins are clearly better in two of three phases (defense, special teams) of the game. Miami head coach Brian Flores has brought a Belichickian attitude and team style to Miami, and after a rough start, his defensive principles are beginning to instill in the team. The fish have now won five straight and are 3-0 under rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa, which is a reason for confidence skyrocketing in South Florida. Although not exactly a “win-now” club, the Bills are operating with urgency while Allen is in the third year of his rookie deal, meaning he has a limited cap figure on Buffalo’s books. The Bills have the team to compete with the likes of Pittsburgh and Kansas City, but their inconsistencies may be too much to overcome, at least for a Super Bowl run. In Miami, the Dolphins appear to be a team of the future prematurely — and welcomingly — playing at a high level, like the Cardinals in the NFC. Both teams will be a tough out in January, and yes, both teams will make it. And both should be good in 2021 and beyond, even with the unpredictability of the league.

“We have a mentally tough team,” Flores told NFL.com after the game. “This is a hungry group. They fight for each other, and it’s important to them. They’re competitive, so they work at it and understand the fruits of that labor out on the field. It wasn’t perfect; we’ve got a long way to go.”

Miami’s next three games are versus the lowly Broncos (3-6), Jets (0-9) and Bengals (2-6-1), giving them a clear shot at 9-3.

“We know it’s hard to win in this league, and we just take it one game at a time,” Flores said.

5. Patriots find a rhythm in monsoon-filled win over Ravens. Just when the Patriots’ season seemed dead before thanksgiving, New England (4-5) upset Baltimore (6-3) 23-17 in a rainy contest on Sunday night. In their meeting last season, Jackson and the Ravens ran for 210 yards en route to a 37-20 home win over the then-undefeated Patriots, sending their season, and the dynasty, into a downward spiral. It appeared Bill Belichick certainly had been game planning for this rematch. Of course, the weather helped, but the Patriots were the better team, bulldozing over Baltimore’s No. 1 ranked rush defense for 173 yards on the ground (122 by Damien Harris), and limiting Jackson and the Baltimore offense to just two touchdown drives, which surrounded several other stagnant ones throughout the game. New England could still use some improvement through the air, but elevating wide receiver Jakobi Meyers to starter status has helped tremendously. The addition of Carl Davis at nose tackle also helped the run defense tremendously on Sunday. The Patriots have a good chance of reaching .500 when they play the Houston Texans (2-7) on the road next week. But even with their upset win, their AFC East chances are likely over and it seems like too much of a uphill battle to suggest they’ll earn a wild card spot, seeing as there are six 6-3 teams ahead of them in the race. It’s a lot to ask for the Patriots to finish the season winning six of seven from this point, while a few of those teams (not just one), goes 3-4 down the stretch. It’s not impossible, but tough. It is clear, however, that Belichick is not tanking, but simply playing, and trying to win, with the cards he has been dealt in 2020, all while evaluating his roster and certain players — including Cam Newton at quarterback — so he can make informed decisions regarding who will stay and who will go in the offseason, where New England will undoubtedly create a much different-looking team to put on the field in 2021.

6. What’s wrong with the Titans? After a 5-0 start, Tennessee (6-3) has lost three of four games, and has allowed 29 points per game during that stretch. Their 34-17 home loss versus Indianapolis (6-3) on Thursday puts them behind the Colts in the AFC South due to head-to-head tiebreaker. To make matters worse, he Titans have a tough three game stretch (at BAL, at IND, vs CLE) ahead, with their rematch with Indianapolis sticking out. But falling to 6-4, which is likely considering they are on the road versus Baltimore, would most likely kick them out of the playoff race all together, temporarily. There’s of course, many more games to play, and time for the Titans to right the ship. But it starts with their defense. Their pass rush is still abysmal. And though the air on offense, despite throwing for eight touchdowns and just one interception over their last four games, Ryan Tannehill has had accuracy issues, and is averaging just 190 yards per game during that stretch. Their shaky defense and Tannehill being unable to carry the Titans when they need him are Tennessee’s biggest worries, and they are seemingly biting them in the arse at the moment. For the Titans, continuing to rely on Derrick Henry in the running game to set up play-action passes (to A.J. Brown and tight end Jonnu Smith) to shorten games is the way to go, while hoping for a few lucky turnovers on defense.

7. Will the Steelers go undefeated? No, they won’t. I’ve been high on Pittsburgh since last season ended with them going 9-7 despite some of the worst QB play I’ve ever seen from Mason Rudolph and “Duck” Hodges. I picked them to make the AFC Championship Game before this season started, and I’m obviously sticking to that with them sitting at 9-0, with a meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-8) upcoming. Pittsburgh should move to 10-0, and may even go to 11-0 after a home rematch on Thanksgiving night with the Ravens. After that, they face lowly Washington at home before going to Buffalo to face the Bills. That’s where I believe they’ll falter, and if not then, it will come two weeks earlier to Baltimore, or even in Cincinnati, versus the team they just bludgeoned 36-10 on Sunday, on Monday Night in Week 15. It’s difficult to sustain this type of play all the way through December without having a reset both mentally and physically for the playoffs. Should they shoot for the undefeated season? Absolutely. We saw the eventual karma given out by the football gods to the 2009 Colts (Tracy Porter pick six off Peyton Manning in Super Bowl 44) after they rested starters halfway through a game that would have brought them to 15-0. But late in the season, these losses just, happen, to undefeated teams. The 2011 Packers were 13-0 before falling to Romeo Crennel’s defensive game plan lifted his then 5-8 Chiefs to a win over Green Bay. In 2015, Cam Newton and the Panthers were 14-0 before falling to the Falcons, 20-13, just two weeks after defeating them 38-0. Only the 2007 Patriots were able to run the table in the regular season in this era, and they ran out of steam down the stretch. So Pittsburgh, who has the best defense in the league and a rejuvenated Ben Roethlisberger, will not go undefeated, but a 14 or 15-win season and the AFC’s No. 1 seed, which they need to stave off Kansas City (8-1) for, is likely, and that’s certainly good enough.

8. Washington-Detroit featured two heartwarming stories. If you can look past the obvious ugliness of a game between two bad teams, you can at least examine the product as NFL RedZone football at its most fun. It’s likely neither of these teams are making the playoffs — although Washington has a chance of winning the lowly NFC East — but the game featured a 21-point comeback by Washington, with trading field goals in the game’s final minutes, ending with a 59-yard game-winning field goal by Matt Prater. But the two most fascinating stories were Alex Smith, who has incredibly returned from one of the most gruesome leg injuries in league history, leading undermanned Washington back from 21 down to almost win, and former lockdown cornerback Aqib Talib making his NFL broadcasting debut. Is Smith, 36, the future for Washington at QB? Absolutely not. But watching Smith fighting his own battle to prove he could return from his injury is a noble battle worth glueing your eyes to screen. And what better way for your ears to follow suit with receiving some fun of their own? No, Talib is not your typical broadcaster. He’s not polished, obviously, but he was informative from the defensive side of the ball somewhat in the Tony Romo-mold in explaining offensive tendencies to viewers. And let’s face it, his fun attitude and style is a breath of fresh air amidst the usual coverage we get. So if you were able to tune into this game, or catch a good chunk of it via RedZone (like I did), than you were in for a treat.

9. The NFC East is worse than we thought. Coming into this week, we already knew this year’s NFC East was historically bad, but it’s no longer funny and cute, now, it’s just sad. The Eagles (3-5-1) were perhaps the division’s only hope at a somewhat competent victor. I pegged Philadelphia for a team that could make a mini run to 8-7-1 to take the division, and the unrewarding home playoff game that comes with it. But after their 27-17 loss to the Giants (3-7) in New York, it’s clear there is no saving this division in 2020. The television networks know this, too. They already moved Sunday’s Packers-Colts tilt into the late afternoon slot so we weren’t forced to watch the Dak Prescott-less Cowboys (2-7), normally a television cash cow, take on the Vikings (4-5) in their “America’s Game of the Week.” As it stands, I still believe Philadelphia will take the division, but the Giants do appear to have a good shot, as the team seems to be responding to head coach Joe Judge, even if they aren’t very good. But if you made me guess, I’d say Eagles take the division at 6-9-1. Yikes.

10. A unique NFL Sunday format that won’t be standard anytime soon. For those who weren’t aware, The Masters finished up on Sunday, with Dustin Johnson setting a course record, supplanting his claim, and ranking, as the world’s best golfer. Of course, The Masters is usually played in the Spring, but as the same with other events this season (NBA playoffs, etc.) the pandemic caused a unique set up in which Jim Nantz would need to take off a Sunday of football to call the final round on Sunday on CBS, which coincided with the early slate of NFL games. Because of that, the league scheduled just five games for the 1:00pm ET window, all on FOX, leaving more games (six) for the late afternoon window, which usually holds just two or three contests. Many have clamoring for an even split of games between these two windows for years, but that will never happen. You know why? It’s the same reason CBS wanted all eyes on the Masters, effectively making the NFL invert their usual format. In their current deals, CBS and FOX switch off each weekend airing a marquee, late-window game that is near-nationally televised to ensure they have a chance at a big chunk of viewers. Do you think they’d welcome everyone plopping over to NFL RedZone for both windows? No sir. So for those who enjoyed the format this weekend, don’t get used to it.

THE BETTER HALF

(Because of my detailed breakdown of many of these teams above, I decided to simply rank the teams this week, without an ensuing take. I’ll return to the old format next week!)

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-0) (Last week: 1).

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). 

3. New Orleans Saints (7-2) (Last week: 4). 

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) (Last week: 8). 

5. Green Bay Packers (7-2) (Last week: 5). 

6. Baltimore Ravens (6-3) (Last week: 3). 

7. Buffalo Bills (7-3) (Last week: 7). 

8. Miami Dolphins (6-3) (Last week: 10). 

9. Arizona Cardinals (6-3) (Last week: 11).

10. Indianapolis Colts (6-3) (Last week: 14). 

11. Los Angeles Rams (6-3) (Last week: 12). 

12. Seattle Seahawks (6-3) (Last week: 9). 

13. Tennessee Titans (6-3) (Last week: 6). 

14. Las Vegas Raiders (6-3) (Last week: 13). 

15. Cleveland Browns (6-3) (Last week: 15). 

16. New England Patriots (4-5) (Last week: NR)

Next up: Minnesota, Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta

Kyler Murray — Vs Seahawks, 2020

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 7: Cardinals rally to beat Seahawks plus Brady, Cam, Jimmy G and the Patriots’ QB situation

Week 7 gave us perhaps the most exciting weekend of this NFL season to date. From fantastic finishes to a battle of the undefeated clubs and an exciting NFC West showdown. Plus, I think there may have been a controversial pickup that everyone is talking about? And what about Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Cam Newton and the New England quarterback storyline?

So that’s why I’m using my piece to tackle multiple storylines over the weekend, starting with the Sunday night NFC West showdown in Arizona.

Kyler Murray, Cardinals down Seahawks in nail-biting NFC West contest

After Zane Gonzalez missed what should have been a 41-yard, game-winning field goal well into overtime on Sunday night, it appeared we all were witness to a similar story.

An upstart division team playing the consistent division rival juggernaut to the end, scratching and clawing, fighting, just one play away from victory, before the wheels on the engine that could came off, partly due to self-inflicted harm (like Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury icing his own kicker).

But just a few plays later, NFL MVP leader Russell Wilson throws his third interception of the night, Cardinals mighty-mouse QB Kyler Murray scoots Arizona back into field goal range, and Gonzalez redeems himself on a game-clinching 48-yarder with seconds to play in overtime.

Arizona 37, Seattle 34. And just like that, the NFC West is that much tighter.

“Don’t ever be conservative again,” Murray said he told his coach after the game. “I got you.”

Sure, the conservative approach to the missed field goal almost downed Arizona’s NFC West title hopes, but the Cardinals rallied through adversity. And we all know, there’s at least been nothing conservative about the aggressively successful way Arizona has become a threat to the league in just short time.

What Kingsbury and GM Steve Keim have done with this Arizona team in just a season and a half is honorable. Just two years removed from a dismal 3-13 year, partly with rookie first-round QB Josh Rosen, the team hired Kingsburgy in 2019, used the No. 1 overall pick to select another QB, Murray, and now have the look of at least a wild card team (maybe more) in the NFC in Year 2 of this process.

Kingsbury has fielded a unique offense that spreads out defenses across the field by using four-wide receivers sets more than any other club. With those looks, they get the ball to DeAndre Hopkins (a great pickup via a trade with the Texans), Larry Fitzgerald and other play-making receivers, while running up the gut with shifty running backs, or even Murray, when the defense spreads thin to cover the pass catchers.

And that’s just what Arizona did in their win on Sunday. Murray threw 48 passes for 360 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another score on 14 carries for 67 yards on the ground.

Predictably, the game turned into a wonky shootout, a Seattle Seahawks special, with Russell Wilson and Tyler Locket connecting for three scores, and the Seattle QB phenom throwing the ball 50 times, with three key interceptions, but still fielding a pretty good 74.7 Total QBR, which usually signals enough for a win.

Wilson made the best throw of the day (a beautiful deep bomb TD to Lockett) and some of the worst, including his last interception. It’s clear Seattle has major issues on defense, and on a night where Wilson was still superb, but far from perfect, Arizona was able to take advantage behind a daring effort by Murray, which included a 10-point 4th-quarter comeback reminiscent of some of Wilson’s herculean efforts over the past almost-decade.

Arizona has some defensive problems of their own. They allowed 572 total yards and failed to stop Wilson on a key 4th-down touchdown pass late that almost put the game away. But defensive coordinator Vance Joseph designed a few key zone blitzes that befuddled Wilson late, which is a rarity. Quite simply, after that aforementioned 4th-down, 4th-quarter score by Wilson to Lockett, Murray played better than his Seattle contemporary, and the Cardinals outscored Seattle 13-0 the rest of the way.

“These are the games you honestly dream about growing up, watching Sunday night football, last week playing on Monday [night] — these are the type of games you want to be a part of,” said Murray after the game. “To be a part of these games you’ve got to win and keep winning. I’m super proud of the team, the way we fought, not giving up. No matter the circumstances, just keep battling and keep battling.”

The Cardinals are probably a couple defensive pieces away from being a true contender with the likes of Tampa Bay, New Orleans, Green Bay and Seattle in the NFC in 2020, but they’ll certainly be a tough out.

With Murray, and Kingsbury, they’re certainly trending upwards.

The New England QB carousel takes center stage

Just one year ago, the battle of the the 49ers and Patriots in New England in 2020 would seemingly revolve around Jimmy Garoppolo returning to Foxboro to battle Tom Brady, the man many thought he’d succeed as the Patriots quarterback, before he wasn’t.

Since then, we know what has happened. Brady in Tampa. Cam Newton in New England. Blah, blah. We don’t need to regurgitate, but we do need to re-assess what we now think of the Patriots’ current QB situation, just weeks after it looked like both Brady and the Patriots were going to win with their respective cases.

That can no longer be said about the Patriots. At least not right now.

Cam Newton (9-of-15, 98 yards, three interceptions) was abysmal for the second straight week, this time posting a laughable 3.5 Total QBR as the Patriots dropped their third straight game for the first time since 2002, 33-6 to Garoppolo’s 49ers.

Jimmy was solid, going 20-fof-25 and efficiently leading San Francisco’s unique, spread-you-thin-with-pre-snap-motion offense, save for a bad interception in the first quarter.

Still, when we talk about winning with their decision, we’re talking about New England signing Cam Newton, and trotting out their once-again, slow and not-with-the-times offense of 2019 once more, just with a different QB.

The decision by Belichick to trade Garoppolo to San Francisco for a second-round pick in 2017 is still a sound one. They were’t going to be able to keep both Brady and Garoppolo. Garoppolo was a free agent after the season, so they got something for him, and proceeded to make two more Super Bowls with Brady, winning one. But the fact that Brady simply outlived Garoppolo in New England is probably not a consolation to Jimmy, but heading to San Francisco, reaching a Super Bowl in your only full season as a starter, and downing the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in your next year, will probably do.

As for Newton, he’s been bad these past few weeks. Is it his comeback from COVID-19? A lack of practice time? A deep void of playmakers in the offense?

It’s probably all those things, coupled with the fact that Newton has also just played bad. He’s missed open receivers, held onto the ball too long, and doesn’t look comfortable.

Still, Belichick told the media that Cam would remain the starting QB going forward.

At 2-4, and with a tough game in Buffalo awaiting, the Patriots are perhaps awaiting a cold and dark football winter not seen before since 2000, Belichick’s first year in New England as head coach.

And perhaps that’s what we’re dealing with here — a “gauging-of-the-roster” season from Belichick, in which he can make trades, sign free agents (they have ample cap space next offseason) and make sound draft decisions (although their last few drafts have been bad) to put New England back in the thick of things in 2021.

It is starting to feel like Brady made the right decision in leaving the Patriots, who are at least in need of a re-tooling, if not re-build. And at age 43, chasing never-seen-before history, I don’t blame the best football player of all time creating a South Florida super team in his twilight. Heck, we didn’t blame LeBron James for it in Miami?

It adds salt to the wound that on the bleakest day of New England football this century, Brady was as sharp as we’ve seen him since perhaps 2017. He threw for four scores, including an unreal, outside-the-numbers deep ball to Scotty Miller, ran for another touchdown, and passed Drew Brees to sit atop the all-time touchdown pass list in the process.

Now, with Antonio Brown’s arrival imminent, Rob Gronkowski rounding into form as a pass catcher, and the offense catching fire to compliment one of the league’s top defenses, a seventh ring for Brady certainly seems obtainable.

Just weeks ago, Tampa’s ceiling appeared to be the NFC Divisional Round, while New England looked like it may round into the “nobody-wants-to-play-us” team of 2020, like the Titans of last season.

Instead, the Patriots are in a dark place, while Brady and Garoppolo lead surging NFC teams.

Still, even if this season continues on its path for these three teams, it’s too early to solidify a take on Belichick’s approach. This team simply needs more weapons, and Belichick the GM is up for the challenge this offseason to piece this puzzle back together.

But as for Brady, and Garoppolo, no matter what happens with Belichick’s Patriots, they’ve already won in their own way.

We’ll see if New England can eventually join the party with Cam Newton, or someone else at quarterback.

Antonio Brown joins Tom Brady, Bucs

Despite winning a tough road game in flashy fashion while passing Brees for the passing touchdown record in the process, the major news out of Tampa Bay over the weekend is still the imminent signing of Antonio Brown to a one-year deal.

Brown, 32, who may be available in Week 9 for Tampa’s rematch with the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints, has yet to post on social media in regards to his reunion with Tom Brady, but the deal should become official sometime this week or next.

Predictably, the move was followed by a storm of well-written articles on the moral stance of the Buccaneers signing Brown, and Brady’s advocacy for him.

“I’m not getting into personal conversations we’ve had together,” Brady told the media of his relationship with the controversial wide receiver.

“He’s a tremendous football player. I played with him for a brief period of time. I’m looking forward to working with him again. He’s a very hard-working guy.”

Although it feels a bit wrong to get excited at the pure football prospect of Brown and Brady connecting on the football field again in South Florida, there’s no denying that Brown fits the bill of Brady’s favorite type of receiver — the quick, shifty, route-running archetype.

Of that mold, Brown is the best receiver to ever live.

Pairing AB with an already-crowded pass-catching group of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and others seems like overkill, especially considering Tampa’s love of running the football with their staple of veteran backs (Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette, LeSean McCoy), but from a QB-to-receiver standpoint, Brady to Brown is a dream connection of football IQ, talent and fluidity. Even with the two former Patriots sitting at ages 43 and 32, respectively.

But that won’t (and shouldn’t) drown out the absurdity of Brown finding work again, Brady’s continued friendship with Brown over the past year, and TB12’s call to criticized (and famous) life coach and guru Tony Robbins to help get Brown back on track.

To harken back to the bevy of national media takes on the signing, I think NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling had the most on-point take when criticizing Brady — and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson, who was also wooing Brown to come to Seattle — in their misguided attempts to become friendly with Brown for pretty obvious, see-through football reasons. But alas, the prospect of a talent like Brown for a near-minimum deal on the most “all-in, win-now” football team in history is tough to pass up, especially when the two-fold move keeps Brown away from another wooing NFC contender such as Seattle.

Moral reasons, and a naive sense of confidence that Brown will remain inline, aside, this is the type of move that this type of team should make, for football reasons only.

Connor Orr, a brilliant writer for Sports Illustrated, delivered a take that I believe had the right intentions (condemning why Brown is being signed) while venturing too far into the outrage sector by first criticizing Tampa’s decision to bring in Brown, but then later insinuating it may have been too risky to bring in Brady on a farewell tour to pair with this burgeoning, lasting defense of the now and future.

I don’t see the sense in that. While fielding an up-and-coming top-tier defense and a star-studded offense, you try to find the QB that will maximize that talent, now. If you have the ability to chose between the roulette of the draft, some younger, only capable free agent (Teddy Bridgewater) or Tom freaking Brady, you take Brady if he’s available. The 43-year-old’s performance on Sunday is further proof of that.

For better or worse, Tampa is Tom’s team now. And don’t believe Arians’ post-game quote from Sunday suggesting Brady “didn’t have anything to do” with the signing of Brown. It was just months ago that Bucs head coach Bruce Arians adamantly shot down any chance of the former Steelers great coming to Tampa.

“I think he’s matured,” said Arians. “I believe in second chances.”

Now that may be true (meaning Arians’ stance, not that Brown may have matured).

But let’s call this what it is — Brady getting his wish. And with the GOAT playing as is, and the deal itself so risk-averse monetarily, it’s hard to chastise Tampa for obliging. Yet, off-the-field, there is ample reason to do so.

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-0) (Last week: 1). The last undefeated squad, and overall best team in football, resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Every few years, at least for a fleeting moment, this seems to be the case. This is a well-run franchise.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (6-1) (Last week: 2). With the contrast of Tom Brady and the Bucs versus the lowly Patriots drawing the most eyes in the late afternoon window, the Chiefs quietly dismantled the Broncos in snowy Denver. Le’Veon Bell (six carries, 39 yards) looked good in the KC offense.

3. Baltimore Ravens (5-1) (Last week: 3). Baltimore would find themselves virtually three games back (with the tiebreaker) of Pittsburgh in the AFC North if they can’t beat the Steelers at home this Sunday. This is a big game.

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-2) (Last week: 10). It’s time to give them their due. Their defense is superb and Brady and the offense is rounding into form, with Antonio Brown on the way. Good luck to the rest of the NFL. Tampa’s ascension appears imminent.

5. Seattle Seahawks (5-1) (Last week: 5). As great as Russell Wilson was for much of Sunday night’s game, those three interceptions were killers. He’s still the clear MVP favorite, but with the Seahawks as is, you can’t make those mistakes versus opposing teams with stellar offenses. We’re beginning to see how Seattle’s season will go — they need Russ to put up a great game virtually every week to win.

6. Green Bay Packers (5-1) (Last week: 6). That was a nice bounce-back effort on the road, no matter how defunct this Texans team is. It’s a treat to see the Aaron Rodgers-Davante Adams clicking like that.

7. Tennessee Titans (5-1) (Last week: 4). They almost came from behind again, but let’s stay grounded and admit that there is some worry in Ryan Tannehill’s ability to go against the league’s best teams (equipped with the best QBs), no matter how much he has improved as a passer. Still, they are a legitimate contender in the AFC.

8. Buffalo Bills (5-2) (Last week: 7). That was an ugly showing in New York, but they did enough to beat the Jets. They have an opportunity to provide the knockout-punch to New England’s 2020 AFC East title hopes on Sunday.

9. New Orleans Saints (4-2) (Last week: 8). They’re starting to get going on offense, but their defense has been disappointing thus far. I believe the issue is fixable, though.

10. San Francisco 49ers (4-3) (Last week: 13). Just like that, here come the Niners. That blowout win over the struggling Patriots in New England had to be cathartic for Jimmy Garoppolo, who has played well these past two games. San Francisco is a team on its way back to contention in the NFC, injures and all. But they have the Seahawks in Seattle this week. That’ll be telling.

11. Arizona Cardinals (5-2) (Last week: NR). That was an incredible comeback win that proved Arizona can hang with Seattle. They’re quite similar teams, really. Two exciting QBs that make plays while proving height doesn’t matter like we thought when it comes to quarterbacks. Then, there’s the defenses, which could be the downfall of each club. Both teams make for exciting television.

12. Chicago Bears (5-1) (Last week: 9). If the Bears do win tonight, we can move them higher, but I don’t see it.

13. Los Angeles Rams (4-2) (Last week: 11). With the NFC West heating up, the Rams will have to keep pace by beating the Bears tonight.

14. Indianapolis Colts (4-2) (Last week: 12). We’ll put them here during their bye week. They are a clear AFC Wild Card hopeful in a tough conference. We’ll see how far Phillip Rivers can take them.

15. Cleveland Browns (5-2) (Last week: 14). They had trouble with the lowly Bengals, but it was encouraging to see Baker Mayfield lead his team down the field for a game-winning score. The loss of Odell Beckham Jr. hurts, though.

16. Miami Dolphins (3-3) (Last week: NR). Let’s move up the Dolphins to this spot during their bye. Sitting at .500, with Tua Tagovailoa set to take his first start versus the Rams on Sunday, a new era dawns for them.

Next up: Las Vegas, Carolina, Detroit, New England, Philadelphia

Arrowhead Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cam Newton -- Week 1 vs Dolphins

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

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

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

Still, it’s tough to refrain from overanalyzing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

QUICK-HITS 

Rams stymie Cowboys’ talented offense 

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

 Lamar Jackson thrives from pocket versus Browns

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

Respect for Gardiner Minshew

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Belichick 2020 Patriots Training Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ll find out this Sunday.

Week 1 Projected offense:

QB — Cam Newton

RB — Sony Michel 

FB/H-Back — Jakob Johnson/Dalton Keene

‘X’ WR — N’Keal Harry

‘Z’ WR/Slot — Julian Edelman

TE — Devin Asiasi 

LT — Isaiah Wynn

LG — Joe Thuney 

C — David Andrews 

RG — Shaq Mason 

RT — Jermaine Eluemunor

Situational positions: 

Scatback — James White

WR3 — Damiere Byrd

WR4/Slot WR — Gunner Olszewski 

WR5 — Jakobi Meyers 

RB2/Scatback — Rex Burkhead 

RB3 — Damien Harris 

Scatback — J.J. Taylor

Blocking TE — Ryan Izzo 

Swing Tackle — Yodney Cajuste 

* * * * * * *

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

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

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

Nickel 2-4-5 (26.7%)

3-4 (16.4%)

Big Dime 1-4-6 (15.4%)

Big Nickel 2-4-5 (12.7%)

Big Dime 2-3-6 (10%)

Dime (4 CBs) (6.1%)

Quarter 1-3-7 (4.1%)

Nickel 3-3-5 (2.2%)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 1 Projected defense:

Interior — Lawrence Guy

Interior — Adam Butler

EDGE — Chase Winovich 

EDGE — John Simon

LB/EDGE — Josh Uche

LB — Ja’Whaun Bentley 

CB1 — Stephon Gilmore

CB2 — J.C. Jackson 

Slot CB — Jonathan Jones

S — Kyle Dugger

S — Devin McCourty

Situational positions:

3-4 Nose Tackle — Beau Allen

Interior  — Bryan Cowart

Sub EDGE/Interior Rusher — Deatrich Wise Jr. 

LB — Brandon Copeland 

EDGE/LB — Anfernee Jennings

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

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

CB3 — Jason McCourty

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

* * * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

Lamar Jackson vs Rams

Brent Schwartz’s Top 100 NFL Players of 2020

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

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

Before diving into the list, here are some notes:

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs (6)

Tamps Bay Buccaneers (6)

Minnesota Vikings (6)

Baltimore Ravens (5)

New Orleans Saints (5)

Philadelphia Eagles (5)

Los Angeles Chargers (5)

San Francisco 49ers (4)

New England Patriots (4)

Dallas Cowboys (4)

Seattle Seahawks (4)

Pittsburgh Steelers (4)

Tennessee Titans (4)

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

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

Quarterback (13)

Running Back (11)

Wide Receiver (19)

Tight End (4)

Tackle (5)

Guard (2)

Center (1)

Defensive Tackle (6)

EDGE (16)

Linebacker (4)

Cornerback (8)

Safety (11)

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

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

Kyler Murray, QB, Arizona Cardinals 

Matthew Stafford, QB, Detroit Lions

A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals

Arik Armstead, EDGE, San Francisco 49ers

D.J. Moore, WR, Carolina Panthers

Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington

Kirk Cousins, QB, Minnesota Vikings

Marshon Lattimore, CB, New Orleans Saints

Xavien Howard, CB, Miami Dolphins

Darius Slay, CB, Philadelphia Eagles

T.Y. Hilton, WR, Indianapolis Colts

Trey Flowers, EDGE, Detroit Lions

Mark Andrews, TE, Baltimore Ravens

Allen Robinson, WR, Chicago Bears

Bradley Chubb, EDGE, Denver Broncos

Joe Thuney, OG, New England Patriots

Demarcus Lawrence, EDGE, Dallas Cowboys

Demario Davis, LB, New Orleans Saints

La’el Collins, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Tyron Smith, OT, Dallas Cowboys

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Dallas Cowboys

Chris Harris Jr. , CB, Los Angeles Chargers

Deebo Samuel, WR, San Francisco 49ers

D.K. Metcalf, WR, Seattle Seahawks

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

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

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

And now, without further ado, the list…

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basically, he can do it all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cam Newton vs Patriots -- 2013

Why Cam Newton And The Patriots Always Made Sense

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

March 17th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Newton can also play in the pocket.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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