Super Bowl 55, NFL Films shot

Brent’s Extra Points: Todd Bowles’ brilliance, Brady’s run + Chiefs’ future

A couple of days have now passed since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ complete mastery of the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 55.

As always, there’s more to uncover when the game tape is broken down and a there’s been some time since the result, allowing additional storylines to marinate.

Here are some of my thoughts on the Bucs, Chiefs and this year’s Super Bowl before we turn the page to the 2021 offseason.

🏈 TODD BOWLES’ BRILLIANCE

The awesome thing about Bruce Arians’ Tampa Bay coaching staff is that it is packed with a diverse array of men and women who are masters of their craft.

And among that championship-winning staff, one coach’s performance deserves extra praise.

Few defensive coordinators in NFL history have schemed up and executed a better game plan than Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles’ strategy to limit Patrick Mahomes to the worst game of his NFL career.

“I can’t give him enough credit,” Arians said of Bowles after the game. “You know, I think he got a little tired of hearing about how unstoppable they [Chiefs offense] were. I thought he came up with a fantastic plan just to keep them in front of us and tackle real well. Patrick [Mahomes] wasn’t going to beat us running …”

In Tampa’s 27-24 loss to Kansas City in November, Tyreek Hill victimized the Bucs via an historic performance, doing most of his damage in the first quarter versus single-high safety coverages with Tampa cornerback Carlton Davis in man or nearby zone coverage on Hill.

This time, with the state of Kansas City’s depleted offensive line, Bowles blitzed only situationally (Tampa blitzed on roughly 10 percent of KC passing plays, lowest for a Bowles defense in five years) and allowed his defensive front four (Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh) to feast on Mahomes and his undermanned blockers, which prompted Bowles to implement predominantly two-high coverage looks (Cover 2, Cover 4 or Quarters, 2-Man) to take away some of Kansas City’s staple offensive calls. Playing two-high safety looks would normally be an issue against Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce underneath and in the middle of the field, but knowing the matchup with KC’s offensive line, this became the best move. Mahomes had no time to find longer-developing routes to Hill and others, and despite a garbage-time level stat line for Kelce (10 catches, 133 yards), the Kansas City tight end was largely kept in check underneath by Tampa linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David, who also spent time chipping Kelce at the line of scrimmage (a strategy of Bill Belichick’s that seems to work versus Kelce).

Of course, pressuring Mahomes without blitzing makes any coverage look a lot better, but the two-safety shell implemented by Bowles was brilliant. Part of the reason Mahomes ran around the field for 497 yards on Sunday was because he was looking for pass catchers that weren’t open.

In all, Tampa played in two-high looks on 87 percent of Mahomes drop backs (according to NFL Next Gen Stats), pressured Mahomes a Super Bowl-record 29 times (52 percent of KC passing plays), and forced the Chiefs phenom into two picks, three sacks, a 49.9 Total QBR, and a meager nine total points without a touchdown. The loss was also the first double-digit loss of Mahomes’ career.

“Coach Bowles?” said Bucs linebacker Lavonte David. “We call him the Mastermind. We were playing great defense throughout the playoffs, and (people) still doubted us.”

It’s time to give Bowles his due, in form of both praise and attention as a head-coaching candidate in 2022.

🏈 TOM BRADY’S PATRIOT-LIKE, WINTER RUN TO ANOTHER SUPER BOWL TITLE

For Tom Brady, duck boats in February New England weather turned to actual boats in 80-plus degree Florida sun. So even though things are different for the GOAT down in Tampa, some things stayed the same. The championship parades continued, as Brady celebrated his seventh Super Bowl title with a new club, and judging by the hilarious videos on Twitter, it looks like Tom ditched the TB12 method, at least for a day, to celebrate his incredible run to another championship. 

Can you blame him?

After an up-and-down start to the season, the Buccaneers figured things out right after Thanksgiving, and Brady’s play went from uneven to spectacular for two straight months.

Of course, that’s a familiar story, as Brady’s Buccaneers took on a New England Patriots-like run in making necessary adjustments to go on a winter bludgeoning of the league’s best teams (and quarterbacks), with the Bucs looking much different in the months of December and January, as opposed to September and October.

The main reason for Tampa’s sketchy 7-5 start was the abnormal offseason, which consisted of a truncated training camp with extra rules, and no preseason, due to COVID-19. Considering the team was welcoming a new quarterback, and several other new faces, it was tough for them to gel in the way they wanted. Especially with the differentiating methods of Tom Brady’s calculated passing attack and Bruce Arians’ “no risk it, no biscuit” deep-ball-flinging jamboree.

Still, Brady proved that even at age 43, he could still throw the ball downfield, leading the league in air yards per attempt (9.6), throwing downfield to the likes of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller.

But somewhere amidst the Bucs’ valiant effort to make their last loss of the season (to the Chiefs in November, 27-24, in Tampa) a close one, CBS Sports‘ Tony Romo apparently figured out that the Buccaneers offense had found a groove that would later vault them to the Super Bowl.

Tampa would go on to win their last eight games of the season, culminating in their 31-9 beatdown of the Chiefs to win Super Bowl 55.

The offense averaged 33.9 points per game over that stretch, as Brady and Arians became synced and in tune with each other’s styles.

Sure, Brady’s downfield dart to Scotty Miller to stun the Packers at the end of the first half of the NFC Title Game, and Tom’s pass interference-drawing deep heave to Mike Evans late in the first half of the Super Bowl were Arians-like decisions, but in the Super Bowl, Brady reverted to his old ways derived in New England.

Despite having one of the league’s best receiver duos in boundary extraordinaries Evans and Godwin, Brady targeted them just five times for three connections on 40 yards in Super Bowl 55, compared to a combined 15 passes completed to Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Leonard Fournette for 135 yards and three touchdowns on 17 targets. (Fournette also ran in a score.)

Brady is especially efficient throwing in the middle of the field to tight ends, slot receivers and pass-catching running backs. Brady also excels in the play-action passing game.

With the help from his trusted pal (Gronk) and another old friend he brought in (Brown), Brady utilized play-action and quick passes to pick the Chiefs apart.

Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich even let Brady bring back some of New England’s staple play-action passing plays designed for Gronkowski (see second part of Bill Barnwell’s tweet below).

It was Brady’s highest play-action passing rate in a game since 2016, and all three of Brady’s touchdowns, and nearly half of his completions (he went 10-for-13 on play-action passes for 135 yards) and over half of his yards came on such passes.

After the game, Brady stood on the podium and deflected a Jim Nantz question regarding if this was his most special Super Bowl win.

We know of course, that it’s because he was being modest, or maybe even because he knows how special Super Bowl 51 was to him.

But maybe it’s also because this championship performance, and title run, was quite similar to some of his past performances as a Patriot.

For Brady, the motto was again figuring things out in December and January, trusting your most-trusted targets, and playing the game though the air on your own accord.

🏈 WHAT’S NEXT FOR MAHOMES, CHIEFS? ARE THE RUSSELL WILSON-ERA SEAHAWKS A VALID LOOSE COMPARISON? WHAT ABOUT PEYTON MANNING-ERA COLTS?

The Chiefs fell short in their quest to win consecutive Super Bowls, leaving a sour taste to another fantastic season for them.

Considering they’ll return next season with the NFL’s best player (Patrick Mahomes), and their core group still intact, it’s easy to envision them making a third straight Super Bowl. But if you look a little closer, the cracks, no matter how small, are visible.

To loosely compare, when the 2014 Seattle Seahawks were thwarted by Tom Brady in their attempt to be the first team to win back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-2004 Patriots (led by Brady), Russell Wilson’s playoff record went from 6-1 to 6-2, just like Mahomes’ recently did in this similar scenario. (And let’s be honest, Wilson came closer than Mahomes to winning his second Super Bowl title).

Since going from the young, clutch leader at quarterback to a top-flight field general who has elevated an undermanned team in recent seasons (I liken Wilson’s arc to a young Tom Brady in that way), Wilson has since become frustrated with the Seahawks team-building strategy and subpar win-loss success, compared to Wilson’s standards.

Sure, Mahomes’ career arc has been different, seeing as ever since he became the Chiefs starter, he immediately rose to a level of success and jaw-dropping-talent-meets-efficiency stardom that Wilson, and maybe no other young quarterback other than Dan Marino (without the Super Bowl ring), has achieved.

But soon, the older talent around him (Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Chris Jones, etc.) will dissipate in the form of erosion or retirement, leaving a whole new era for Mahomes to take on, without the all-time unique Hill (best speed WR ever, most unique deep threat ever) and Kelce (best route-running tight end ever) to throw to.

As it stands, the salary-cap strategy of these Chiefs can be likened to the Peyton Manning-era Colts of the 2000s.

In those years, Indianapolis filled up most of their annual cap space by spending on their core players — Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Tarik Glenn, Jeff Saturday, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis — leaving little cap space to sign top-tier or mid-level free agents or in-house players with expiring contracts.

For most years, this left those Colts as top-heavy squads lacking depth and competence on defense, save for a few players like Freeney and Mathis that could get after the quarterback, but still struggled in run defense. Because of this Indianapolis won just one Super Bowl during the Manning era, and often fell to the likes of more complete (and tougher) teams like the Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers or talented San Diego Chargers.

The Chiefs are in a similar position. As it stands, Kansas City is heading into the 2021 offseason with roughly negative-$20 million in cap space, according to Spotrac. And that’s without a set-in-stone cap figure for next year to account for lost revenue for the league in 2020, due to the pandemic.

Here is a list of the top 15 cap hits on the Chiefs roster next season, taken from Spotrac:  

 ———

Frank Clark ($25.8 million)

Patrick Mahomes ($24.8 million)

Chris Jones ($21.9 million)

Tyrann Mathieu ($19.7 million)

Tyreek Hill ($15.9 million)

Eric Fisher ($15. 2 million)

Travis Kelce ($13.3 million)

Anthony Hitchens ($10.7 million)

Mitchell Schwartz ($10 million)

Laurent Duvernay-Tardif ($4.8 million)

Harrison Butker ($3.9 million)

Damien Williams ($2.8 million)

Clyde Edwards-Helaire ($2.5 million)

Alex Okafor ($2 million)

Chad Henne ($1.6 million)

Mecole Hardman ($1.4 million)

———

Notice the gap between Schwartz and Duvernay-Tardif’s contract. The Chiefs are built very top-heavy, and with their structure, and Mahomes’ record contract over the next few seasons, GM Brett Veach will suffer some cap casualties, while also being strapped, in terms of signing free agents.

Like the Manning-era Colts, the Chiefs struggle mightily in run defense, and rely on a couple big names (Jones, Mathieu) to help elevate an underwhelming unit. The Chiefs are also built offensively-minded, like those Colts. To be fair, Kansas City was one win away from back-to-back titles, but still, this team setup is not sustainable long-term.

Kansas City will have to counter with impeccable drafting skills. The Colts drafted a bevy of defensive backs (Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, Kelvin Hayden, etc.) during those years that helped give them an improved secondary as the decade went on.

The Chiefs have already begun drafting well under Veach, with L’Jarius Sneed —a fourth-round pick from this season who had an incredible rookie year as a do-it-all boundary/nickel cornerback — being an example of the type of player that Veach will need to find once or twice per draft in the middle rounds.

Because of their hamstrung situation in terms of spendable cash, things will get more difficult, but it’s tough to blame the Chiefs for locking up players such as Hill, Kelce, Mathieu and Jones, who are all at, or near, the top of their respective positions.

The Chiefs have some great players, but they may lack in enough good ones to help give them a sustainable roster in the long-term. But like any franchise, things change quickly.

In three to five seasons, Mahomes will be attempting to get back to the Super Bowl by throwing to wide receivers and tight ends that are probably currently in high school, while the Chiefs attempt to build their roster with cap space that was once not there. For now, Kansas City will attempt to sustain themselves on the backs of a few. It’s worked so far, but how long will it last?

Super Bowl 55, Tampa Hotel

Super Bowl LV Preview: Brady, Mahomes to meet in legendary QB battle

Every February, there’s a rush to uncover both the biggest and unheralded Super Bowl storylines that surround and directly affect the NFL’s annual big game.

In terms of beyond-the-game storylines, it simply doesn’t get bigger than Tom Brady versus Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.

Although we’re now in the year 2021, this is still the 2020 NFL season, and leave it to 2020 to give us a pro football culmination of this oddity and magnitude. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, much of the surrounding “GOAT” talk can be exhausting — and a bit sensational — in today’s media landscape. But there’s no denying the real stakes at play in this Brady-Mahomes title bout.

It’s the greatest player in NFL history pitted against the game’s current best player, with the former setting a winning precedent beyond belief, and the latter beginning a pace that would one day place him as football’s greatest player ever, if he continues on this ridiculous path.

Even with Brady at age 43, this is primed to be the best Super Bowl QB matchup of all-time. (Note: It’s worth noting the same would have been true had Aaron Rodgers and the Packers moved on to play Mahomes’ Chiefs on Sunday.)

But despite the obvious appeal of Brady versus Mahomes, there’s the obvious underlying theme that will be brought up both immediately after this game’s result, and for years to come — Will Mahomes ever catch Brady to become the NFL’s greatest quarterback, and player, ever?

Since last year’s Super Bowl, I’ve personally compared the Brady-Mahomes debate to the NBA’s great Michael Jordan-LeBron James conversation.

Here are some anecdotes from my linked piece (above) from last February:

———

Fresh off a 10-point 4th quarter comeback for his first Super Bowl win, the talk around now-Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes is as expected — Will he become the GOAT? Is he the best quarterback we’ve ever seen? For the second question, I do think the answer is yes, from a talent standpoint. But in becoming the greatest quarterback of all-time, longevity (and a few more Super Bowl titles, at least) are major factors. 

Sometime in the next three to five seasons, Mahomes will enter a period of his career that most all-time great QBs will enter. With comfortable, early-career talent depleted or gone, and his massive cap hit limiting his team’s options to acquire talent, Mahomes will need to elevate an underwhelming, if not, abysmal supporting cast  — in the shape of a horrid defense, severe lack of offensive of weapons, or both — to the point of turning that 53-man roster into a Super Bowl contender. Brady has carried several versions of a depleted roster to at least the AFC Championship Game, and a couple of those squads to Super Bowls. This will be Mahomes’ true judgment time. But winning as many Super Bowl titles as he can during the early favorable period of his career (a la, Brady) also helps his lore.

…Tom Brady represents Michael Jordan. Jordan passed all his successors to be the unquestionable GOAT, but since then, the most-talented-of-all-time LeBron James has risen to the point of Jordan’s equal, creating the most heated greatest-of-all-time conversation imaginable. Think of Mahomes as LeBron James. He’s the most talented quarterback we’ve ever seen. Not Dan Marino. Not John Elway. Not Peyton Manning. Not Lamar Jackson. It’s Mahomes. He’s that great. But it’ll be tough to match Brady’s six (and counting) Super Bowl ring total, or his iconic moments of greatness on the biggest stage. It’ll also be hard to match Brady’s legendary Super Bowl 49 and Super Bowl 51 performances, which can be likened to some of Jordan’s iconic moments, like Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals.

In just two seasons, it appears the Chiefs’ franchise QB is at least on track to become the best of all-time. But that is certainly easier said than done.

———

With Brady now in Tampa, leading the Buccaneers to a home Super Bowl, an unforeseen wrinkle has been added to what will be an ongoing debate.

Whether it’s fair or not, the shear weight of this Super Bowl will likely engulf every other Mahomes career Super Bowl appearance, unless the Chiefs phenom earns as many rings as Brady.

For LeBron, unless he gets to seven or eight rings (I predict five for him), he’ll never be considered the unanimous or overwhelming consensus greatest basketball player ever. That’s how iconic Jordan’s legacy is. In NFL lore, Brady is Jordan, possessing a legacy equipped with moments such as Super Bowl 51, a comeback that will likely never be duplicated. And although both TB12 and Air Jordan are supremely talented in their own right, it would not be blasphemous to call LeBron and Mahomes the most talented players to ever play their respective sport.

But no one wants to be labeled “the most talented ever.” “Greatness” is what every athlete seeks.

For Brady, considering Mahomes is his Super Bowl opponent, there is a bit of pressure. Although Tom has accomplished more than any quarterback has ever dreamed of, winning a seventh Super Bowl at age 43 with a new club by beating the talented Mahomes is picture perfect. So, yes, a smidge of “can you win this?” pressure is now miraculously applied to a six-time Super Bowl winner.

But for Mahomes, he’ll face more than just an uphill battle to ever reach Brady’s legacy if he falls to Brady in both an AFC Championship Game at home, and a Super Bowl with Brady on a new team at age 43. The brutal (and probably slightly unfair) tarnishing that would come from those two losses would just be a secondary smidge compared to the 7-to-1 ring total that Mahomes would be tasked with reaching, or coming close to, to have a legacy equal or greater than Brady’s.

For Mahomes, this could be it. This may be the legacy game of his career, even 15 years from now. But as we saw with Brady post-Super Bowl 42, one can never be sure where things lead.

Mahomes’ career is just beginning, and despite Brady’s pummeling of Father Time in his age-related battle, Tom’s career is currentlly in one of it’s final (but not the final) chapters.

On Sunday, their paths will cross, before dispersing with an important result that will follow the debate between the two for decades. Let’s enjoy it.

*******

With the theatrics behind us, here are some of my biggest in-game storylines and matchups. I’ll provide my prediction for the game at the end of this piece.

Kansas City’s O-line vs Tampa Bay’s Pass Rush

The most impactful matchup of Super Bowl 55 will be Kansas City’s depleted, and therefore unheralded, offensive line pitted against Tampa’s effective pass rush, led by the monstrous, Super Bowl-experienced EDGE duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul.

This became an immediate thinking point after Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher tragically tore his achilles in the AFC title game versus the Bills, joining four-time All-Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz on the bench with injuries.

Due to this, Kansas City will move Mike Remmers from right to left tackle, and will slide right guard Andrew Wylie to right tackle, filling Remmers’ role as a fill-in for Schwartz. These two will need to hold up versus the Barrett-Pierre-Paul duo, as well as any other stunts that Tampa blitz-reliant defensive coordinator Todd Bowles throws at them.

“They got speed up the field and power down the middle,” Wylie told The Kansas City Star on Wednesday. “They got linebackers that can fly around and make plays. So this is an extremely talented group that we’re going up against against.”

The Buccaneers tallied 48 sacks this season (fourth-best), and blitzed (39 percent of opponents’ dropbacks) the fifth most of any team in 2020. But in the Chiefs’ 27-24, not-as-close-as-it-looks Week 12 victory in Tampa, Bowles blitzed Mahomes just 17 percent of the time.

The thinking there was to shy away from Mahomes’ league-best ability to destroy blitzes. But even with Mahomes’ brilliance, doing this requires at least somewhat-stable play out of their offensive line. The Chiefs had Fisher at left tackle in that game, and they won’t now.

So maybe Bowles inches a bit closer to his 39-percent, 2020 blitz rate on Sunday. But that’s a high risk, especially with the way the Chiefs have successfully countered their offensive line issues by abandoning their deep passing game entirely as of recent.

As Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar pointed out in his brilliant piece this week, Mahomes has attempted just two passes of 20 yards or more through the air this postseason. Just one per game in wins versus the Browns and Bills. Additionally, on Andy Reid-schemed RPO pass attempts, Mahomes leads the league this year on such throws with an absurd 21.7 Expected Points Added, according to Sports Info Solutions. (Tom Brady is second with 9.7 EPA on such throws).

Essentially, Tampa’s pass rush may be rendered moot if they can’t consistently stop the Chiefs’ running game, quick passes, RPO’s, or wide receiver and tight end screens to the likes of Mecole Hardman, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

Despite the Chiefs’ ability to pass the football, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy would love to have some success on the ground with the current state of their offensive line. But Tampa holds the edge there as well.

The Bucs have the second-best run defense in the league this season according to Football Outsiders‘ DVOA metric. Ndamukong Suh and rookie Vita Vea are the interior defenders tasked with corralling rookie Clyde Edwards-Heliare and former Steelers great Le’Veon Bell at running back for the Chiefs.

If Kansas City can miraculously find consistent success on the ground, then they’ll likely win this game, but that’s unlikely, leaving the game in Mahomes’ hands, as it should be.

As previously mentioned, maybe Tampa blitzes a few more times in this game than their last matchup with Kansas City. After all, linebacker Devin White has nine sacks this season. But most would agree that blitzing Mahomes still remains too much of a risk.

Tampa would like to get pressure on Mahomes with just their defensive front four, and the aforementioned edge rushers and Suh up the middle (Suh has six sacks, 19 QB hits in 2020) have a good chance of providing that, making things a bit tougher on Kansas City’s seemingly unstoppable offense.

Defending Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce

On Tuesday night, For The Win senior writer Steven Ruiz took to Twitter to ask this valid question:

In my football lifetime, I think an argument could be made for Tom Brady, Randy Moss and Wes Welker for one season (2007), Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne for multiple seasons (mid 2000s), or Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce/Torry Holt for the “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams.

However, the shear uniqueness of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce’s skill sets, along with their production with Mahomes at QB, make it hard to argue Steven’ point.

We’re all aware of Mahomes’ ability, but Hill and Kelce are also major cogs in this offense.

Hill is the greatest speed receiver of all-time (unreal speed and stop-start quickness/burst) and most unique deep threat ever. Kelce is the best route-running tight end of all time, and is making his case as the best pass-catching tight end ever, as well.

In the Chiefs’ win over Tampa in Week 12, the Bucs opted to leave cornerback Carlton Davis on Hill for a boatload of snaps. Hill historically ended up with 203 receiving yards (and two scores) in the first quarter, and finished with 269 yards and three touchdowns on 13 catches. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, 201 of Hill’s receiving yards came with Davis as the closest defender.

Tampa was running a lot of single-high looks and coverages (Cover 1, Cover 3) at that point in the season. Since that game, Bowles has had Tampa playing more 2-Man coverage, and more two-high safety looks in general, to greater results.

Tampa Bay GM Jason Licht has did an awesome job putting together this young, underrated secondary with boundary cornerbacks Davis (2nd round, 2019 NFL Draft) and Sean Murphy-Bunting (2nd round, 2018), safeties Jordan Whitehead (4th round, 2018) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (2nd round, 2020) and nickel cornerback Jamel Dean (3rd round, 2019).

Each of these players can have consistent success in man coverage versus certain opponents, but that’s not the case when defending Mahomes passing to Hill and Kelce, at least not when Tampa is aligned in single-high coverage.

Single-high coverage often leaves defenders on an an island with Hill downfield, where as two-high looks gives the team more downfield defensive options (2-Man, Cover 4/quarters) to defend Hill.

Of course, Mahomes’ downfield looks to Hill and others have come few and far between as of late due to offensive line issues, and although you can expect at least one or two downfield shots on Sunday, don’t expect a litany of them unless KC’s beat-up O-line miraculously wins their matchup.

The Chiefs will likely use a heavy dose of RPOs, WR screens, various quick passes, and intermediate crossers to target Hill. Even in man coverage, Tampa will need tackling help via linebackers Devin White and Lavonte David in defending all quick passes to Hill. The same could be said on crossers if White and David back up into zone coverage. Without pressure, the Tampa LBs would likely have no shot, even with White’s incredible range and tenacity, but with expected pressure, White has a good chance to notch an interception much like 49ers LB Fred Warner did off Mahomes in last year’s Super Bowl.

This is where Tampa should look to play more Cover 1 robber and Cover 3, even out of two-high looks. Yes, we know Tampa got burned on some of these staples in Week 12, but Tampa should generate more pressure on Mahomes this time around, and they’ll need a lurking safety like Whitehead or Winfield Jr. to come up to cut off the crossing routes.

If Tampa is to employ Cover 1 or 2-Man, they should use slot cornerback Jamel Dean (4.3 40-yard dash speed) to cover Hill this time around. Hill often lines up in the slot in KC’s 3×1 looks, anyhow. If Cover 1 is the coverage, Tampa would be using a faster, slot-savvy Dean on Hill (instead of Davis), while a robber comes down underneath.

Lining up on the other side of KC’s 3 by 1 sets as a boundary X-receiver is tight end Travis Kelce. Kelce had eight catches for 82 yards in the November matchup, and looks to be targeted even more in this game, as the Chiefs will look to give the Tampa defense a death by intermediate paper cuts, as opposed to downfield slashes.

Kelce’ extended route-tree, versatility (can line up as a ‘Y’ tight end, X-receiver, in the slot), quickness for his size and top-tier spatial awareness (to destroy zone coverage) make him almost impossible to defend.

As is the obvious and oft-stated case in this piece, whether Tampa is playing man or zone coverage, they must get pass-rushing pressure to stop Mahomes-to-Kelce.

The challenge of defending both Hill and Kelce is that single-high safety looks can be destroyed by Hill, where as two-high looks can be obliterated by Kelce.

Taking away a defender underneath allows Kelce to attack the middle part of the field. In zone coverage, Devon White (and Lavonte Davis) will need to keep his head on a swivel in the second level of defense by reading Mahomes’ eyes.

“It’s just going to take discipline,” Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David told the media on Tuesday. “Latching on to a man if we’re in man-to-man or if we’re in zone coverage. Matching onto a guy. Take away his zones and his reads. And you’ve just got to get to him. Quick as you can, fast as you can, any way you can. He makes magic outside the pocket, and that’s definitely something we’ve got to watch out for.”

But even then, Kelce is a master of finding the open crease in zone looks, and Mahomes is a master at finding or throwing him open. In both man and zone, Winfield Jr. may get the brunt of the job of defending Kelce. He should drop into the box on Cover 3 looks, even when Bowles’ defense lines up in a two-high design to start, and in man coverage, he should be tasked with guarding Kelce. (On top of this, the Bucs would be wise to knock Kelce off his route on the line of scrimmage via a linebacker, taking a page out of Bill Belichick’s playbook, which has had some moderate success versus this Chiefs offense.)

On paper, the Tampa Bay defense finished fifth against the pass in DVOA this season, but that doesn’t really apply to the air-it-out Chiefs.

The best thing Tampa can do to counter Mahomes’ best two pass catchers is to generate pressure with just their front four (surprise! sound familiar?) while mixing in some more two-high (more 2-Man or safety dropping down in Cover 3, as opposed to Cover 2 or Cover 4) looks, while also not totally abandoning their single-high, Cover 1 and Cover 3 coverages out of that pre-snap design. Also, be aware of screens and quick passes, and limiting those possible big gains with sound tackling at the second level (White, David).

Sounds easy enough, right?

Tom Brady vs Tyrann Mathieu, Chris Jones & Steve Spagnuolo

Venturing into the other side of the ball, a great chess match awaits in Tom Brady versus do-it-all defensive back Tyrann Mathieu.

Recently on Chris Collinsworth’s podcast, 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman compared the Chiefs’ Mathieu to an all-time great DB, as well a current stud in Arizona.

“He plays… and I hate to say it because it’s cliché and simple, and their games are totally different, but the tenacity and speed he plays with is similar to what Budda [Baker] does in Arizona, and what Tyrann used to do in Arizona,” Sherman said.

“The exception [with Mathieu] is in coverage. He is one of the most instinctual and gambling DBs I’ve ever seen, and he’s usually right. I’d compare him to Ed Reed in that regard, except he’s playing more in the box than single-high safety.”

There’s a famous clip in NFL FilmsA Football Life episode of Bill Belichick, where Brady and Belichick sit down in The Hoodie’s office to prepare for playing Reed when he was an All-Pro safety for the Ravens.

“You’re always so aware of where he is” Brady said of Reed in the clip.

“I remember playing him….five years ago…and every time you break the huddle, that’s where you’re looking at,” Brady said.

Although Mathieu is not quite at Reed’s peak level, he’s one of the game’s best defensive backs in present-day pro football, and Brady will likely treat Mathieu in the same mold.

But like Sherman said, Mathieu plays more in the box than as a deep safety, like Reed was. But Mathieu has the ability to line up anywhere, nonetheless. Pro Football Focus charted The Honey Badger lining up mostly as a slot CB (403 snaps) in 2020, while also playing a bevy of box safety (363) and free safety (275).

In a Patriots offense, Brady often looked to attack the short and intermediate areas of the field, which is where you would often see Mathieu as a robber defender reading the QB in both Cover 1 and Cover 3 looks.

Brady hasn’t abandoned the middle part of the field, but in Bruce Arians’ downfield passing scheme, the Bucs QB has magically become the game’s most efficient deep passer at age 43.

A lot of Brady’s throws are now targeting the perimeter to the likes of X-receiver Mike Evans and inside-outside receiver Chris Godwin, as well as sneaky-speed guy Scotty Miller. In theory, the added wrinkle makes Brady a bit more dangerous than he’s been since 2017, when he was a great deep passer in New England throwing to Brandin Cooks and company.

These throws can help Brady veer away from the chess match with Mathieu, who will often be reading Brady’s eyes, looking to snatch a middle-of-the-field interception.

But in the first half of the November matchup, the Chiefs made Brady and the Bucs offense look the quarterback’s age.

Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo blitzed Brady a ton in that game (see Matt Bowen’s tweet above), and played man coverage about two-thirds of the game. That’s a lot of man coverage for a Chiefs team that has an average pass defense (16th in pass defense DVOA), and has an unheralded DB group outside of Mathieu and underrated rookie cornerback L’Jarius Sneed.

Spagnuolo, the former Giants defensive coordinator in Super Bowl 42, has been an overall nuisance for Brady throughout his career. TB12 is 2-3 versus Spagnuolo-coached defenses, and has posted a meager 58.8 Total QBR in those games.

Kansas City has the power up front to get to Brady at times with just four. Especially with Frank Clark and Chris Jones up front.

Jones is an All-Pro caliber player who has had his fair share of jawing moments with Brady in games, adding to the mental side of their battle.

The Chiefs would like to key on Ronald Jones/Leonard Fournette runs and Brady passes by having their front four week havoc all game, but that level of consistent pass-rushing pressure is hard to come by if your D-line is not the 2007 New York Giants.

But like his Giants defense, Spagnuolo should continue using unique stunts and other pressure-tactics to keep the Tampa O-line guessing, while keeping pressure on, and sometimes confusing, Brady. They’ll also likely continuing blitzing the GOAT, but Brady, Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich will likely have some counter attacks for that this time around. That counter may be more pre-snap motion to give Brady a chance at deciphering man or zone coverage, like he often did in New England. 

Spagnuolo used some of his exotic blitz schemes from his Giants days on Brady in the November matchup, with defenders blitzing and on-the-line defenders backing up into coverage. They also ran a ton of Cover 0.

Brady will likely be thinking quick pass on these looks, but what Tampa would really like to do is establish the run game versus KC’s 31st-ranked run defense (DVOA), to set-up play-action throws.

This will anger some who rightly accuse Arians and Leftwich of leaning too heavily on the run at times this season, when you have Brady under center. But in this case, Tampa should look to find some success on the ground, which in turn keeps Mahomes and the KC offense off the field.

When KC undoubtedly loads the box up, Brady will look to Rob Gronkowski, yes, the “I mostly block now” Gronk should play a slightly bigger role in the passing game than other games this season. After all, he had a season-high six catches for 106 yards in the November matchup. 

For the Chiefs, this is where Mathieu comes into play. He should be the man-coverage option on Gronk on both play-action crossing routes and seam looks. Additionally, expect Spagnuolo to continue using weird coverages with defenders dropping back to clog up the play-action throwing lanes in the middle of the field.

This is where Brady’s improved perimeter, outside-the-numbers passing should come into play.

NFL Next Gen Stats — Tom Brady, Super Bowl 55
The table above by NFL Next Gen Stats shows Tom Brady’s improved downfield passing as the season went along. (Screenshot: NFL Next Gen Stats)

If Brady can throw well-placed balls on the outside, and if Evans, Godwin, Antonio Brown and others can win those 1-on-1 matchups, things will get difficult for KC. 

But expect Spagnuolo to use an insanely-wide array of calls versus Brady, while using more zone blitz than Cover 0, once Brady finds his prepared outlets to counter-attack Kansas City’s effective, man-coverage and blitz-heavy scheme from November. 

Let’s conclude — if Kansas City can limit Tampa’s run game, apply consistent middle pressure with Chris Jones, play solid man coverage and have Mathieu play well in his middle-of-the-field chess match versus Brady, the Chiefs will be in good shape defensively. 

If Tampa’s O-line holds up enough to give Brady time and produce a solid running game, then it’s just Brady and his talented core versus the Chiefs’ secondary and linebackers. Kansas City played solid man coverage last time around, but without pressure on Brady, they can’t expect to repeat that. Especially now that the past experience and film will lead to a slightly different Tampa game plan. 

Let the chess match begin. 

*******

PREDICTION: The legacy talk surrounds this game, but the key matchup is KC’s O-line versus Tampa Bay’s pass rush, and the key chess match is Tom Brady versus Tyrann Mathieu and the Steve Spagnuolo defense. The Chiefs defense is not very good on paper, but their stars have a knack for coming to play in the playoffs, making them a better unit than perceived. The Chiefs fared well versus Brady last time, but the Bucs did find a way to counter in the second half, almost coming back to win.

The great Tony Romo called that November game along with Jim Nantz and Tracy Wolfson for CBS, and the broadcast group will call Super Bowl 55 as well. Romo astutely forecasted this matchup at the end of their past meeting. 

“I think there’s a better than good chance…..that these two [Chiefs and Buccaneers] are going to be here in Tampa,” Romo said. 

“…I think they’re in the discussion after they evolved this offense today as the game was unfolding and Brady was getting upset.”

Romo proved to be right, as the Bucs haven’t lost since. Without a preseason or normal training camp, it took Brady longer than expected to adjust to Arians’ offense scheme, but here we are.

Tampa will likely play this game much differently offensively. But even with that, I would pick the Chiefs if not for the state of their offensive line. I think that becomes the biggest storyline, and I think it plays out as expected. Consistent pressure on Mahomes will do just enough, forcing a key turnover or two, and limiting Kansas City’s passing game, despite Mahomes’ worthy attempt to counteract a short-handed blocking group. 

On the other side, Brady will throw for two scores and 300-plus yards, winning his record fifth Super Bowl MVP award, while the Buccaneers celebrate their second Super Bowl title, becoming the first team to win a home Super Bowl after being the first team to host one. 

BUCCANEERS 30, CHIEFS 27. 

Tom Brady leaves Lambeau Field — 2020 NFC Championship Game

NFL Conference Championship Madness: Brady tops Rodgers, KC’s well-oiled machine moves along

And then there were two. Kansas City-Tampa Bay. Patrick Mahomes versus Tom Brady.

There will be time to do a deep dive on the fascinating Super Bowl 55 matchup that is to come ( you can expect my mega preview next week), so let’s use this space to tackle some of the initial takeaways from conference championship weekend.

Here are my thoughts, as I empty the internal football notebook in my brain…

*******

Tom Brady somehow adds to all-time best NFL legacy. Although many were aware in March that the GOAT was leaving New England for a very talented Tampa team, not that many forecasted a 43-year-old Tom Brady leading the talented (and apparently, hungry) Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a home Super Bowl.

As the great Ian O’Connor points out in the tweet above, the Bucs have been a downtrodden franchise, beat up by NFL powers for almost 50 years, save for a Super Bowl 37 victory in 2002, sandwiched between Brady’s first three titles in New England.

Brady joined the Bucs in March, just as a global pandemic made headway in the news.

There was a limited NFL training camp and no preseason. Hardly the perfect environment for a quarterback to learn a new city, coaching staff, set of teammates and a playbook.

Yet, after and up-and-down, 7-5 start that culminated in a 27-24 home loss (that wasn’t as close as the score indicates) to the Chiefs after Thanksgiving, Tampa has now won seven straight games, three on the road in the postseason, behind a reborn, steely-eyed Brady primed to win his seventh Super Bowl in 10 tries.

Now, Brady sits 33-11 in the postseason with wins over Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers, with Mahomes up next. A legacy that was cemented two Super Bowl wins (and three appearances) ago as the greatest resume in pro football history now has an opportunity for another unique accolade.

Afterwards, Brady deflected the praise toward his new head coach, Bruce Arians.

“I don’t think about what it means for me,” said Brady to NFL dot com. “I do think about what it means for everybody else. It’s an amazing achievement for BA. I’m so happy for him.”

Despite the humble move, make no mistake, Super Bowl 55, and this Tampa run, is about Brady first and foremost, even with a bevy of talented playmakers on offense and defense helping to push him toward the finish line once more.

There was a time in the second half, with Brady throwing three interceptions in three consecutive drives (with two being totally his fault, and as hideous of throws as you’ll see him make), where it seemed like the game would slip away. But Brady made some key throws late, which complimented his superb play in the first half and the hungry pass-rush duo of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, who combined for five key sacks on Rodgers.

Brady couldn’t do this without his teammates, and his coaching staff, but they couldn’t have done this without Brady, either. And now, Brady’s team is headed to the Super Bowl in his first season with his new club. Coincidence?

What’s next for Aaron Rodgers? Coming into the weekend, it was obvious that Aaron Rodgers was under more pressure than any other player playing on Conference Championship Sunday. But moments of greatness often come for players under the microscope, and during most of the second half, it seemed as if Rodgers’ shining moment of destiny (an 18-point comeback to beat Tom Brady to reach his second Super Bowl) was inevitable. That moment began to slip away after Rodgers, who had a fine game otherwise, seemingly panicked by not running for a touchdown on a 3rd-and-goal play late in the 4th quarter when down eight points, instead forcing an incompletion to Davante Adams into double coverage. The moment fully vanquished after an anticlimactic, but correct, flag on Packers cornerback Kevin King that effectively ended the game.

Much will be made about Rodgers’ comments after the game, which can be seen in the tweets above. That reporter, Matt Schneidman of The Athletic, later took to Twitter to say Rodgers wouldn’t say something like this if he didn’t mean it. We should trust the great local reporting in Green Bay, but it still seems farfetched that the Packers would want to move on from Rodgers in favor of Jordan Love at quarterback, just yet. Not after a season that will certainly net Rodgers his third career NFL MVP award.

So does this mean Rodgers wants out? If he does, what will it cost for a top-five or top-10 quarterback of all-time, entering his age 38-season? A first-round pick and change? If this bizarre scenario were to take place, I’d suspect the loaded 49ers (Rodgers’ hometown team) to be squarely in the mix, with the Patriots as a secondary option.

Still, this to me feels like a reflective, part-reactionary quote immediately after a yet another heartbreaking postseason loss, and nothing more. The best we can do is to monitor this when the offseason starts.

Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid lead the way in Kansas City, but Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill are vital cogs in the Chiefs’ well-oiled machine. Despite recovering from turf toe and a hit that knocked him out of last week’s AFC Divisional win over the Browns, Patrick Mahomes looked unaffected, even if a bit gimpy, on Sunday. Throwing for 325 yards and three scores on 29-of-38 passing, the reigning Super Bowl MVP did what was expected of him in the AFC title game — dispose of the Bills to reach his second straight Super Bowl. Mahomes and Andy Reid (and offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy) are a dangerous combination. Reid is one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history, and Mahomes is perhaps the most talented player we’ve ever seen.

Still, this offense wouldn’t be anywhere near what we’re seeing without one or both of tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill.

The two combined for 22 catches for 290 yards and two scores versus Buffalo.

Kelce is the best route-running tight end of all-time, and one of the two or three best pass-catching tight ends to ever suit up. Never before have we seen a tight end with shake-and-bake moves and this level of spatial awareness at his size (6-5, 260 pounds). He continues to be an easy outlet for Mahomes, whether the Kansas City QB sits in the pocket to decipher zone coverage, or rolls out of the pocket looking for a breakaway option from man coverage.

Hill is the most unique pass catcher in NFL history, harboring a skill set that pits him as one of the greatest deep threats ever, and the best speed receiver that’s ever played the game. Just take his 71-yard catch-and-run in the second half (see tweet below) that left the Bills moribund.

The pass-catching duo did even more damage to the Buccaneers in November. Hill historically went for 269 yards and three scores on 13 catches on that game, while Kelce added 82 receiving yards on eight catches.

There’s simply no stopping the unique duo of Kelce and Hill, and certainly not with Mahomes at quarterback. All Tampa can do in two Sundays is to hope to contain them, or generate consistent pressure on Mahomes.

Will the Bills be back? One of the more interesting things at the end of the AFC title game was CBS‘ Tony Romo’s comments at the end of the game (see tweet below).

When looking at Buffalo’s well-put-together squad, it’s difficult to imagine them sinking back to mediocrity, but the NFL is full of upstart teams that fall right back to the pack in years following.

So will the Patriots, or Dolphins, unseat them in the AFC East in 2021? Or will the Bills lessen to a 10-win division champion that will be ousted in the wild card round?

Only time will tell, but it’s pretty obvious the Bills have a good thing going here. They should remain at least a contender in the next two or three years following, even if not a 13-win team ever again.

The inconsistency of Josh Allen’s passing skills is apparent, which should should put some scare into Bills Mafia, but the game is changing, and quarterbacks with Allen’s chaotic play are finding consistent success.

Plus, Stefon Diggs still remains a top-five receiver with league-best route-running skills (or at least tied with Green Bay’s Davante Adams), and the Bills should improve on defense with the right pieces and offseason practice, seeing as that unit was slightly disappointing this season considering their talent on that side of the ball.

It’s too early to tell what Buffalo’s fate in 2021 will be, but let’s just say they’re well set up for success, but that’s hardly a given, even for younger teams that theoretically should continue improving.

Tom Brady — NO vs TB 2020 NFC Divisional Playoff

NFL Divisional Round Madness: Brady-Rodgers championship tilt finally materializes

Roughly 24 hours after Aaron Rodgers put forth the most efficient quarterback performance of the weekend, Tom Brady shook off some early rust to make the throws necessary to likely dispel Drew Brees from New Orleans (and the NFL) en route to joining the soon-to-be-named MVP Rodgers in the conference championship round — the 14th such berth for Brady in 21 years.

Sometimes, things come for those who wait.

So despite their now combined age of 80 years old, don’t you dare take for granted what could be the only Brady-Rodgers championship bout we’ll ever see, this Sunday at Lambeau Field.

This matchup has long been yearned, but has seemed anything but inevitable in recent seasons, as it seemed the time for these two great quarterbacks to meet in a big game had passed.

Shortly after Rodgers burst onto the scene, in 2010 — the season of Rodgers’ only Super Bowl win and Tom Brady’s unanimously-voted NFL MVP honor — Brett Favre’s replacement missed just one game during that campaign, a Sunday night tilt in December that saw Brady’s Patriots rally for a 31-27 win over Matt Flynn and the Packers.

That occurrence seems to be a microcosm of the missed opportunities for a Brady-Rodgers Super Bowl.

Green Bay would go on to win the Super Bowl over the Steelers in 2010, while New England, sporting a league-best 14-2 regular season record, was stunned by the Jets in an AFC Divisional matchup.

The next season, the Patriots would make the Super Bowl (and fall short to the Giants), while MVP Rodgers and the league-best Packers (15-1 in regular season) were stunned by a New York team in the NFC Divisional Round.

The NFL’s “final four” in 2014 and 2016 became the biggest teases, with 2014 being the year that got away. The Patriots beat the Seahawks that season by the way of Brady and Malcolm Butler in Super Bowl 49, but Seattle only got there after rallying from a 12-point deficit to Rodgers’ Packers in regulation to win that year’s NFC title game over Green Bay in overtime.

That 2014 postseason felt like the NBA’s version of the 2009 conference finals round, where the taxing debate of LeBron James vs Kobe Bryant never got it’s NBA Finals showdown, after LeBron’s Cavs failed to get past the gutsy and clutch Orlando Magic.

2016 is not a major indictment on Rodgers, as his undermanned Packers team was no match for the Atlanta Falcons in that year’s NFC Championship Game. And had Rodgers won, we would have never witnessed the masterpiece that is Brady’s “28-3” comeback in Super Bowl 51.

But now, the two quarterbacks so often compared (mostly on sports talk television) will meet with more than a regular season loss on the line.

To settle the Brady-Rodgers “debate,” it depends on what debate is being discussed.

The accolades and greatness that comes with being named the GOAT of your sport make it pretty clear who the greatest quarterback of all time is — that would be Brady.

The former Patriot quarterback won his 32nd career playoff game on Sunday, the best mark of all time. Second-place is Joe Montana with 16 postseason victories. Brady has lapped the field. If you take any two of the greatest QBs ever (Montana and Peyton Manning, John Elway and Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre and Dan Marino, Drew Brees and Terry Bradshaw…) and combine their amount of playoff wins, the mark would fall short of Brady’s.

So no matter what happens this upcoming Sunday, Brady is the greatest to ever live, and it will take a lot more then just one more Super Bowl win for the likes of Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes to change that.

But there are other debates — Would Rodgers have had the same amount as success as Brady with Bill Belichick’s Patriots? Who knows? Maybe. And who is the best quarterback right now? Like the GOAT debate, that mark has an easy answer, it’s Rodgers.

The Green Bay legend replaced another Lambeau legend, Brett Favre, before him, and by the end of the season, Rodgers will have matched him in MVP awards and possibly pass him in Super Bowl victories.

Really, for all the happiness that came from Brady besting Drew Brees in a battle of greats on Sunday, this still feels like Rodgers’ year.

And the fact that Rodgers’ worst game of his season is a 38-10 loss to Brady’s Bucs in October while posting an abysmal 17.8 Total QBR, fits right in with an in-season redemption chapter that would not only put Rodgers above his contemporary for a fleeting moment, but vault him to his long-awaited second Super Bowl.

It makes for a great story.

The game in general should be memorable, really, no matter who wins. Two legendary No. 12’s dueling it out in what could be a snowy championship game at Lambeau Field. Even the great “Ice Bowl” of 1967 won’t quite have the star power that is Brady and Rodgers in their twilight, dueling it out.

It shall be a treat, and we shouldn’t look past it. Savor it.

Drew Brees vs Saints, Week 9, 2020

NFL Monday Morning Madness Week 9: Saints rout Bucs, march into NFC’s top spot

With a Week 1 loss in New Orleans on their mind, and a furthering lead on the NFC South at stake, Sunday’s night tilt was primed for a coronation of what seemed to be the NFC’s soon-to-be best team, the Buccaneers.

That is, until the Saints came marching in.

If you can forgive the cheesy reference, you’ll see just how important New Orleans’ statement win was in the NFC. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a season-sweep clinching, 38-3 dismantling of Tom Brady’s Bucs by Drew Brees’ Saints.

“Give New Orleans credit. They kicked our ass in every phase,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said after the game.

That they did.

The Saints outgained the Bucs 420-194 in total yards, 138-8 in rushing yards, and Drew Brees threw for four touchdowns and earned a near-perfect 98.9 Total QBR compared to Tom Brady’s abysmal 3.8 mark, as the latter threw for three interceptions on just 5.5 yards per attempt. The 35-point loss was also the largest of Brady’s career, and perhaps, his ugliest.

“It’s about playing better and execution and we all have to do our jobs a lot better,” said Brady. “When you play good teams there’s little margin for error. They’ve been a great team for a long time. They’ve got a lot of good players. If we’re going to beat them we’ve got to play a lot better than we did tonight.”

The Saints do have a lot of good players, but the Bucs do too. Touted as one of the NFL’s best rosters, equipped with one of the league’s best defenses and up-and-coming offenses led by Brady, almost nothing went right for the Bucs. Even newcomer Antonio Brown (three catches, 31 yards) was unable to give the offense a spark.

The most telling moment of the night came early in the third quarter. New Orleans led 31-0 at halftime but the Bucs were able to drive down to the Saints’ one-yard line in their first drive of the second half. But Tampa was denied any points, as Brady threw three incomplete passes (one was a Rob Gronkowski drop) at the goal line, and the Saints took over on downs, effectively slamming the door shut on their victory.

“When things don’t go your way…sometimes they keep going that way,” said Brady. “We have to figure out how to stop it and turn it around, and we had our opportunities and we just didn’t do it.”

Opportunity was the word I was most thinking of heading into Sunday’s game. After the Seahawks lost to the Bills earlier in the day, it was clear what was at stake for both teams, but even more so for Tampa. A win would have not only given them bragging rights as the NFC’s best team at midseason, it would have put the Bucs at the top of the conference and a game and a half above the Saints in the NFC South, which now looks to be a wire-to-wire race.

If you’re the Saints, you have to feel good about this victory — a season sweep over the NFL team getting the most attention. Brees, who began the year as the league’s all-time leading touchdown passer, has been criticized and questioned as it appeared his play had declined, and his arm strength slipped even a little bit more. The former, at least, was not a concern on Sunday.

“Brady is still the second greatest quarterback for a reason,” Saints defensive end Cam Jordan said after the game, seemingly in a way of backing his own QB.

Stuck in an era with the likes of Brady, Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers, and with others like Patrick Mahomes soon to hog all-time glory, Brees has been forgotten among the league’s all-time best QBs. No, he doesn’t belong above Brady or Manning on any all-time lists, but Rodgers? Maybe. What about Brett Favre, Dan Marino and some others? Maybe them too, honestly. But he isn’t talked about as such.

Regardless of what’s being talked about, Brees extended his regained lead over Brady in all-time touchdown passes on Sunday, and moved to 5-2 versus the GOAT in their seven head-to-head meetings.

Ripe with talent and unique playmakers such as Alvin Kamara, Taysom Hill and Michael Thomas (who returned on Sunday), the Saints have enough offensive firepower to continue to play the game their way, without having to listen to any qualms some might have with their unwillingness to push the ball downfield.

The three aforementioned playmakers (Kamara, Hill, Thomas) are among the NFL’s best players in confined spaces, winning their battles by either finessing or bulldozing defenders, or catching contested catches over the middle. And they’re led by Brees, perhaps the most accurate quarterback in NFL history. They can win this way, despite what you think of Brees’ 41-year-old throwing arm.

And what about the defense? The talented unit has had some troubles in the first half of the season, but they’ve at least been sturdy against the run. Tampa ran the ball only five times on Sunday, as the game quickly got away from them, but it was clear they weren’t going to amass much on the ground, as the Saints swallowed up any attempts. That led to a flurry of Brady pass attempts early and often, mostly with a Saints pass rush in his face.

Now, the top of the NFC is jumbled. There’s a logjam with the likes of the Saints, Bucs, Seahawks and Packers in the race for the conference’s top seed, which is more important than ever with the new rules in place making it the only team in the conference to get a first-round bye.

But make no mistake, the Saints are now the NFC’s top dog, even if just by a slim margin. And the talent on their team suggests they’ll only get better.

NFL MVP RACE

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

1) Russell Wilson — That was a dud in Buffalo, but it was a dud in which the Seahawks were still able to score 34 points. But MVP voters should be able to see through this performance. That was his first bad game of the season. He was careless with the football. Still, he is your midseason MVP, but just by a hair. This next guy is now right there with him. Wilson is far from a shoe-in for his first MVP award. He’ll certainly need to earn it. I won’t doubt him, though. He’ll bounce back.

2) Patrick Mahomes — Mahomes causally has thrown for 25 touchdowns and just one interception during a 8-1 start and is barely mentioned in the MVP race. LeBron-like voter fatigue has already begun to minimize his accomplishments in just his third year as a starter. He’s right there with Wilson for the award at the season’s midway point.

3) Aaron Rodgers — Rodgers is definitely having an MVP-type season, but his egg-laying in Tampa Bay a few weeks ago places him soundly in third, looking up at Wilson and Mahomes as true lead candidates. Nonetheless, it’s impressive what he’s been able to do in Year 2 under Matt LaFeur’s offense, and that’s with a lack of pass-catching talent outside of Davante Adams.

4) Kyler Murray — Losses like Sunday’s in Miami put him more in the race for Offensive Player of the Year, but still, you can’t knock what he’s done in just Year 2.

5) Tom Brady — Barring an insane run these last seven weeks, both statistically and win-loss-wise, Brady lost any chance at this award with Sunday’s performance. Luckily for him, he did inspire what will be a huge list of doubters and off-the-wall takes, which is what he feeds off.

Honorable mention: Josh Allen, Ryan Tannehill, Derrick Henry/Dalvin Cook (RBs! — Let’s face it, these two are OPOY candidates only)

THE BETTER HALF

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (8-0) (Last week: 1). Dallas did everything they could to knock off the Steelers in a game that surprisingly became a slug fest. But good teams find a way to win, even on their off days. The Steelers did just that.

2. Kansas City Chiefs (8-1) (Last week: 2). They have some problems on defense, but we knew that. They win anyway. It seems Patrick Mahomes literally can’t play a bad game, or even an average one, really. And his stat line for the last two weeks? 788 yards, nine touchdown passes, zero interceptions. That’s silly. The Steelers may be the best team at the moment, but let’s be clear, the Chiefs are favored to repeat as Super Bowl Champions.

3. Baltimore Ravens (6-2) (Last week: 5). Fresh off another disappointing loss, the Ravens took their frustrations out on the Colts. That was an impressive showing in Indianapolis. No, the Colts aren’t an opponent on par with the Steelers or Chiefs, but they were a 5-2 team with a talented defense and solid coach, playing at home. For Lamar Jackson, that was as good of a moral victory as it was a real one. They can beat good teams, but we still need to see them beat a great one, particularly in January.

4. New Orleans Saints (6-2) (Last week: 6). Whether Drew Brees is starting to slip or not, the Saints have the talent to reach, and win, the Super Bowl. But we’re just getting started. Here comes the second half of the regular season. Will they get the NFC’s top seed? It’s way too early to tell. But that was quite the statement in Tampa Bay.

5. Green Bay Packers (6-2) (Last week: 7). The 49ers have been absolutely destroyed by injuries, so Aaron Rodgers’ fabulous performance on Thursday for a Green Bay win over San Francisco wasn’t exactly a demon-exorcising event, but they’ll take it.

6. Tennessee Titans (6-2) (Last week: 8). The Bears offense certainly isn’t scaring anyone, but that was an encouragingly sound win at home for the Titans. Desmond King Jr., a versatile former All-Pro defensive back coming over from Chargers, was a good trade for them. The Titans had been missing Logan Ryan in their secondary. King fills that role.

7. Buffalo Bills (7-2) (Last week: 9). That was a nice turn-back-the-clock performance from Josh Allen, who looked more like his September self in their win over the Seahawks on Sunday. They are soundly in tier 2 in the tough AFC.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-3) (Last week: 3). After his five-touchdown performance in Las Vegas two weeks ago, Tom Brady’s offense sputtered versus the Giants last week and came to a screeching halt at home versus the Saints on Sunday. Yes, Tampa’s defense, which has been touted as one of the NFL’s best, did not play well, but this was more on the offense. Three points? In that game? At home? They are simply too inconsistent on offense to be fully trusted. Doubt Brady at your own risk, but they didn’t look right on Sunday night. Bucs fans should be concerned, but not hysterical.

9. Seattle Seahawks (6-2) (Last week: 4). It’s not too surprising that the Seahawks lost a cross-country road game to a talented opponent, but the way in which they were beat is concerning. But we knew what they were. This season, Russell Wilson has been playing at an MVP-level in a run-n’-gun offense, while the defense has been one of the league’s worst, particularly in defending the pass and rushing the passer. As fun as they are, I’m not sure even Wilson can lead this team to a Super Bowl with the defense as is. They may not meet their demise until as late as the NFC title game or Super Bowl, but the Seahawks’ defense will ultimately be their undoing. They are not a good unit.

10. Miami Dolphins (5-3) (Last week: 12). The talk will be centered around rookie QB Tua Tagovailoa this week, and for good reason, he was awesome on Sunday. But I think it’s time to start talking about Brian Flores as a Coach-of-the-Year candidate. He’d probably be second on my list after Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin at this point.

11. Arizona Cardinals (5-3) (Last week: 11). As great as their offense has been, they were shutout 10-0 in the fourth quarter at home versus Miami with a chance to take the lead (via tiebreaker over Seattle) in the NFC West, had they won. That stings.

12. Los Angeles Rams (5-3) (Last week: 13). They move up during their bye week. Next up: a home game versus division rival Seattle. Can they make the NFC West even more of a tight-knit group?

13. Las Vegas Raiders (5-3) (Last week: 16). They withstood two dropped end-zone fades on the game’s final two plays to outlast the Chargers. They look like an AFC wild card team. Jon Gruden deserves a ton of credit.

14. Indianapolis Colts (5-3) (Last week: 11). Yes, the Ravens may be a better team, but that was a discouraging loss for at Colts club that feels like one of the league’s best overall rosters. Sadly, as expected, Phillip Rivers and the offense can’t be trusted in big games, and that falls mostly on Rivers.

15. Cleveland Browns (5-3) (Last week: NR). The teams below them were so bad this week, that the Browns, fresh off a 16-6, inept home loss to the Raiders, move into this spot after their bye week.

16. Chicago Bears (5-4) (Last week: 14). They go here for now because no other team below them seems like they have a chance for the playoffs, minus the NFC East-leading Eagles. It’s becoming apparent that Chicago is not a playoff-quality team.

Next up: Philadelphia, Minnesota, San Francisco, Atlanta, Carolina

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

Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NFL MVP RACE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BETTER HALF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.