Scramble for the Ball: Third Annual Joe Thomas Memorial Draft
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where the regular-season finish line is in sight. With the traditional holiday season comes the traditional portion of our season: our weekly article topics are generally similar from year to year, with what goes where dictated largely by our (well, Bryan's) travel arrangements.
Bryan: I'm in enough hot soup for ducking out to watch at least six windows of games over the holidays! Besides, there's too much to talk about in December and not enough time to talk about it all, anyway. It's a good thing for us that the playoff picture crystalized as much as it did this last weekend, allowing us to do our usual look at playoff teams' needs and weaknesses with two weeks left to go.
Andrew: At this time for giving, we figured we could give each of our playoff contenders a small boon. At this time for reflection, we figured we could glance back on the great players who won't be gracing our screens this January. Combine the two, and you get this: the ... what are we at, third? ... Joe Thomas Memorial Draft Extravaganza.
And no, you didn't miss news of Mr. Thomas' untimely demise. The great left tackle was the inspiration for this series, as arguably the greatest player this century never to make a postseason appearance -- so often the only player on Cleveland's roster we could even consider worthy of a spot on a playoff roster.
Bryan: I don't think it's even arguable; we ran a series on the best players to never make the postseason the offseason after Thomas retired, and it's nigh-impossible for a great player in the modern age to stay at home over their entire career.
Of course, to have a draft for the playoff teams, we must first decide who the playoff teams actually are. Week 15 cleared up a lot of that uncertainty for us, at least in terms of who is in and who is out. Eight teams are mathematically in already: the Ravens, Patriots, Chiefs, and Bills in the AFC, and the Seahawks, Packers, Saints, and 49ers in the NFC. Last Sunday basically punched the tickets for the Texans and Vikings, too; while both teams could still miss the playoffs, theoretically, it would take minor miracles. That leaves two slots really competitive at the moment -- the NFC East championship between the Cowboys and Eagles, and the last AFC wild-card slot between the Titans and Steelers.
Andrew: We're using the broad definition of "competitive," there. The one that, as we often like to emphasize, doesn't necessarily mean "good." Whoever comes out of either of those races could very easily be 8-8 (though I think Pittsburgh will get their ninth win this week against the Jets) and every one has major flaws. Which is exactly what we're here to address!
Bryan: Rather than debate and argue about which teams will make it and which won't, and how the seeding will eventually break down, we're going to use the current standings as our guide. Sorry, Eagles and Titans; you're not dead in real life yet, but you're toast in our draft column. Personally, I think Philadelphia has a great chance to steal the division from the Cowboys, and the 49ers could fall down to the sixth seed, but no fingers on the scales here! That means, our current seeding is as follows:
AFC: 1. Baltimore; 2. New England; 3. Kansas City; 4. Houston; 5. Buffalo; 6. Pittsburgh
NFC: 1. Seattle; 2. Green Bay; 3. New Orleans; 4. Dallas; 5. San Francisco; 6. Minnesota
The odds of this exact order being correct at the end of the season is slim, but it's among the more probable options and, best of all, doesn't require us to make any arbitrary decisions about who is in and who is out. We'll take it!
Finally, a quick refresher of the rules:
- We have 12 playoff teams and 20 non-playoff teams.
- Every playoff team may pick, in reverse order of seed, one player from any eliminated team.
- Picks alternate by conference. The AFC picks first because we expect their sixth seed to have the worse record.
- Only one player may be selected from any eliminated team. If Julio Jones goes off the board, the rest of the Falcons go with him.
- Then, the eight teams who play on wild-card weekend (seeds 3 through 6) get one further selection each.
Andrew: One further note. We agreed beforehand that Bryan would pick the players from the East and West divisions, granting him his beloved 49ers, and I would pick from the North and South divisions, granting me the Saints and ... scratch that, just the Saints. Please ensure that your inevitable and entirely justified complaints are directed toward the appropriate Scrambler.
Bryan: Got it? Let's go.
Scramble's Third Annual Joe Thomas Memorial Playoff Transfer Draftapalooza ... Event. Challenge. Arama. Thing.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers select Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons.
Andrew: The clear and obvious weakness in Pittsburgh has been clear and obvious almost all season long, and certainly since Ben Roethlisberger was placed on injured reserve following Week 2. Roethlisberger couldn't throw properly in that game, and rumors traced the injury's origins to at least the previous game in New England. Since then, we've seen that Mason Rudolph is very unlikely to be the future of the Steelers franchise, whereas all Devlin Hodges has going for him right now is that he isn't Mason Rudolph. With a competent quarterback, Pittsburgh would be a genuine contender even as an AFC wild card. The greatest quarterback on an eliminated team is arguably Philip Rivers, but this year Rivers looks almost as toast as draft classmates Roethlisberger and Eli Manning. That makes the best remaining quarterback Matt Ryan. Though I sure would be tempted by Kyler Murray, Ryan's track record of excellence wins out here. I don't expect Murray will have to wait long, however.
Bryan: I think Ryan's clearly the best quarterback who will be staying home this January, making him a fairly easy pick here. He'd probably be an upgrade for half the playoff field, but no one needs one as badly as the Steelers do, for sure. That means I won't be able to grab Julio Jones later, who would be a perfect fit for any of the teams I have coming up, but a good quarterback is probably more valuable than a great wide receiver, in the grand scheme of things.
2. Minnesota Vikings select Jalen Ramsey, CB, Los Angeles Rams.
Andrew: The Vikings are surprisingly balanced this season, top eight in both offense and defense, though just No. 20 in special teams. Blowing the No. 2 pick on special teams seems a touch frivolous, so instead let's focus on their No. 23 rank against No. 1 receivers (subscription required). Jalen Ramsey has already been traded once this year, and has demonstrated in Los Angeles as he did in Jacksonville why he is considered one of the very best cornerbacks in the game. Cornerback has long been a strength of the Vikings, but Xavier Rhodes has endured a difficult season and Ramsey would be a significant upgrade at this point in their respective careers. That should be enough to propel the Vikings pass defense upward from its current rank just outside the top ten, and significantly improve the team's chances in the receiver-heavy NFC.
Bryan: Color me shocked that Aaron Donald isn't a pick in our draft -- he'd fit in nicely right next to Ifeadi Odenigbo on Minnesota's line, and I don't know how you would stop the trio of Donald, Everson Griffen, and Danielle Hunter. But the Rhodes/Trae Waynes combo needs more help than the front line, so going out and moving Ramsey to his third team of the year's a great pick.
3. Buffalo Bills select Fletcher Cox, DL, Philadelphia Eagles.
Bryan: If you had told me before the season that I'd have a chance to make an upgrade for the Bills, and that I wouldn't be looking to replace Josh Allen, I would have been surprised. While Allen has been below replacement level as a passer, it's only just, and he has been a threat with his legs all year long. If anything, he has been getting sharper as the year goes on. There's a quartet of quarterbacks still available that I'd take over Allen, but the benefit of going from Allen to, say, Carson Wentz or Derek Carr doesn't seem nearly as appealing as it did 18 months ago. Instead, I found myself being torn by three different names. Christian McCaffrey would be an upgrade for anyone, and neither Devin Singletary nor Frank Gore are a receiving threat of any kind. Instead, though, I'm going to bolster the front seven, which is middle-of-the-playoff-pack in terms of sack rate and pressure generated, and have allowed a broken tackle on 11.8% of their plays (subscription required), better than only Houston and Dallas among playoff contenders. I considered Khalil Mack, but I like Fletcher Cox here more. Cox's sack numbers have dropped this year, but put him next to Star Lotulelei or Ed Oliver and I think he massively disrupts an offensive line. He's a great fit for Sean McDermott's system, too.
... I was going to take Aaron Donald here, but that's not how this game works! Next year, I gotta make sure I grab me a top pick.
Andrew: Your turn to surprise me, that you didn't (yet) take Kyler Murray here. Murray's just as much of a threat with his legs as Allen, but a much more accurate passer. I guess you're maybe hoping that the lack of talent elsewhere on the Cardinals will keep Murray available later. It's a bold strategy.
Bryan: The Bills gets a second pick later! We'll see what happens!
4. San Francisco 49ers select Rodney Hudson, C, Oakland Raiders
Bryan: I half-hoped Julio Jones would fall here, because we saw last week that the 49ers' passing attack can sometimes crumble into George Kittle and George Kittle alone. There are more receivers in the sea, however, and the more pressing immediate issue for the 49ers on offense is replacing one of their injured starters. So, while McCaffrey or Keenan Allen are tempting, this came down to Luke Kuechly (replacing the injured Kwon Alexander) or Rodney Hudson (replacing the injured Weston Richburg). Fred Warner has been playing very well in Alexander's absence, however, leaving Ben Garland as the one real weak link on San Francisco's team. Hudson plugs that hole quite nicely, thank you, and we'll see if we can't upgrade the offensive weaponry on the second go-round. Hey, turns out there's a benefit to getting locked out of the top four seeds!
5. Houston Texans select Khalil Mack, EDGE, Chicago Bears
Andrew: There are teams who need front-seven help, and there are teams who need front-seven emergency reconstructive surgery. The Texans are in this latter group; the loss of J.J. Watt and trade of Jadeveon Clowney have turned what should have been a strong pass rush into Whitney Mercilus and scraps. Khalil Mack hasn't quite been the wrecking crew that he was last year, but he would be a massive upgrade as the top edge rusher on the Texans, sliding Mercilus back into the No. 2 edge spot and taking a major step toward redressing the section of the Texans roster that has seen the biggest talent drain between September and now.
Bryan: Picking the best player at the biggest position of need? Sometimes, these picks are too easy. I mean, who else were we going to grab off of the Bears?
6. Dallas Cowboys select Quenton Nelson, OG, Indianapolis Colts
Bryan: On reputation alone, perhaps this pick should go to Chris Harris to give the Cowboys a boost in the secondary; Dallas has the 23rd-ranked pass defense in the league, and bringing in an extra corner would really help the Cowboys on the back end. But no, that will have to wait -- Connor Williams tore his ACL after Week 13, and while Xavier Su'a-Filo isn't the worst option in the world, Quenton Nelson is one of the best possible options in the world. An offensive line of Nelson, Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, and La'el Collins is the best in the league. Plenty of blocking for Zeke Elliott, plenty of protection for Dak Prescott. So what if they can't stop anybody? 50-48 shootouts are far more entertaining.
Andrew: I'm frantically checking the rules to see whether we could maybe borrow a coach here instead, but no, we specified players. For all of their struggles this year, the Cowboys don't have a heap of weaknesses in the starting lineup so I like your decision to lean further into their strength.
7. Kansas City Chiefs select Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers
Bryan: While adding Christian McCaffrey to the Chiefs' offense would be both hilarious and unfair, it's Kansas City's defense that could use the help. Anthony Hitchens is playing nearly two-thirds of Kansas City's defensive snaps and I would argue that's about two-thirds too many -- his broken tackle rate has actually gotten worse this year, going from 14.9% to 18.9%. The Chiefs struggle against the run (again), and I'm not sure you could put together a worse run-stopping linebacker group than Hitchens and Ben Niemann. Enter Luke Kuechly, arguably the best all-around linebacker in football and certainly the best not going to the playoffs. Kuechly shores up the middle of that defense, helps the Chiefs line up against tight ends (where they rank 25th in DVOA), and generally just makes everyone around him better. Easy pick.
Andrew: I cannot believe you took a Panthers player here and didn't take McCaffrey. Your reasoning is sound, but MAN OH MAN would McCaffrey be fun.
Bryan: I know, I know! It'd be hilarious to watch! I'm just not sure McCaffrey is as big of an upgrade over LeSean McCoy as Kuechly is over Anthony Hitchens! You can't buy a Ferrari while your roof is leaking.
8. New Orleans Saints select Odell Beckham, WR, Cleveland Browns
Andrew: We've been banging on for a couple of years now, pretty much since Brandin Cooks left town, about the lack of a No. 2 receiver on the Saints. It hasn't exactly slowed Drew Brees, now the all-time record holder for career passing touchdowns, but the lack of a reliable No. 2 could be a significant issue in the playoffs. The only question for me is "which?" I'd take a healthy Chris Godwin without a second thought, but Godwin just suffered a significant-sounding hamstring injury -- as did Mike Evans the week before. There are a heap of other options here, so much so that I could probably leave this until the final pick, but I'm not taking the chance. His stock has fallen a lot this season, but I'll count on getting Odell Beckham's attention for a month and let other teams pick their poison between him and Michael Thomas.
Bryan: OK, you can have Beckham, but no more receivers until the 49ers come back around. Pinky swear.
9. New England Patriots select Brandon Linder, C, Jacksonville Jaguars
Bryan: I'm tempted to pick Kyler Murray here, leave, and watch the comments burn to the ground.
Andrew: I like to think our Patriots fans are too rational for that, but I also like to think even the 42-year-old version of Tom Brady is far from the biggest problem with the Patriots offense. This is where I would have picked Rodney Hudson, if he wasn't already on the 49ers in our imaginary universe.
Bryan: Exactly. If the 49ers were out, I'd take George Kittle here to try to replicate some Gronkness, but I don't think the Patriots can be at all happy with Ted Karras as their starting center. Remember, David Andrews was supposed to be the guy, but he was put on IR back in August with blood clots. Karras hasn't played great as a replacement, and he's dealing with a sprained MCL, to boot. Brandon Linder is the best center left available to us -- sorry, Frank Ragnow, and curse Jason Kelce and Alex Mack for seeing teammates taken before this! -- so he's the pick.
10. Green Bay Packers select Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
Andrew: The Packers are another team who would benefit from a big upgrade to their receiving corps, but the defensive personnel could also stand to be upgraded. I would have been tempted by Calais Campbell had you not just taken Brandon Linder. Former Lions foe Ndamukong Suh would also be a significant upgrade in the center of the front seven. Ultimately, though, I think I'd rather placate my former All-Pro quarterback, and to that end I love the idea of grabbing Kenny Golladay from the division rival Lions. Sorry again, 49ers.
Bryan: Yeah, I can't blame you wanting to upgrade over Geronimo Allison, currently 71st in DYAR and 72nd in DVOA -- and there are only 73 qualified receivers. Golladay has kept a top-10 DYAR even with David Blough throwing him passes; even the fading glory of Aaron Rodgers has to be better than that. One would assume.
... could have picked Murray here, too, if you love him so much. But I guess this column isn't being written by Ben Baldwin.
11. Baltimore Ravens select Chandler Jones, EDGE, Arizona Cardinals
Andrew: What do you get the team that has everything? The answer is usually another edge rusher, so that's our direction of travel. We still have quite a few options here, including Joey Bosa, Von Miller, and surprise sack leader Shaq Barrett. The best option, though, is probably Chandler Jones. Anybody who can be that productive on these Cardinals teams -- four straight years of double-digit sacks in the desert -- deserves another shot at glory on the best team in the league.
Bryan: Oh, if we're going edge rusher, I think I'm certainly going with Joey Bosa here. Jones is a great player, don't get me wrong; I just think Bosa has been more disruptive and destructive to this point in the year. If the Ravens have a weakness, it's on the defensive front, where they're just 18th in adjusted sack rate, so I can't argue with the position -- or frankly, with the player all that much, other than just for the sake of being contrary.
12. Seattle Seahawks select Ryan Jensen, C, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Bryan: As tempting as it would be to add a receiver here after the Josh Gordon suspension, the fact of the matter is that Gordon didn't make a huge impact in Seattle as is, catching just seven passes. And, more importantly, the Seahawks might have the single worst starter among all the playoff teams, with Justin Britt tearing his ACL in Week 8. Joey Hunt has not been doing well at all in replacement. The Seahawks are bringing Ethan Pocic off of IR, so maybe he slides in to center (as I don't believe either D.J. Fluker or Mike Iupati have any experience snapping the ball), but here, we'll just take the best center left available to us. That's Ryan Jensen over the likes of Mike Pouncey and Ben Jones. With three centers going in the first 12 selections, picking is getting slim here, but Jensen has been very good in pass protection this season and is serviceable in the running game, neither of which can be said about Hunt.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers select Saquon Barkley, RB, New York Giants
Andrew: Alright, time for the second pass at our wild-card round participants. Would it be too churlish of me to insert Le'Veon Bell here, after Mike Tomlin's comments this week? Yes? Oh well.
Bryan: Like we've ever held ourselves to a high standard before.
Andrew: Also, with James Conner ailing, we've seen that the Steelers would also benefit from a strong second option at halfback -- especially a strong target in the passing game, such as Bell. However, Bell is not option numero uno in that department. Now that he is well removed from his high-ankle sprain, Saquon Barkley is getting back close to his best, and he provides all of the passing-game playmaking ability the Steelers could ask for in the body of an every-down workhorse back. Tempted as I am by a big-name receiver, keeping Barkley away from the Chiefs makes this a potential double whammy for the Steelers.
Bryan: You really want to see the Chiefs upgrade over LeSean McCoy, don't you? Maybe I'll show you by drafting yet another center when they come back around.
Andrew: I swear, if you look at the Titans roster and the Chiefs needs and select Ben Jones...
14. Minnesota Vikings select Brandon Scherff, OG, Washington Redskins
Andrew: We already made a major upgrade to the Vikings defense, picking up cornerback Jalen Ramsey. While another defensive upgrade would be welcome on the front seven, a glance at the other line points us toward greater potential for improvement. Though this is not the disastrous Vikings lines of old, it is not the type of road-grading line Mike Zimmer envisioned. Step forward Brandon Scherff, as the one legitimate Pro Bowl option on the Washington offense. Scherff would be an immediate improvement on the interior of the Vikings offensive line, who would no longer have to rely so much on their elusive star halfback making them look better than they are.
Bryan: We're picking a lot of offensive linemen, aren't we? I guess we're looking forward to a postseason filled with sacks and run stuffs.
Andrew: I'm more of the opinion that we're looking at a lot of teams missing the playoffs who have a few good linemen but very little else around them.
15. Buffalo Bills select Joey Bosa, EDGE, Los Angeles Chargers
Bryan: Andrew, who do you like better: Von Miller or Joey Bosa?
Andrew: This season, in their current states of health? Bosa, and it's not particularly close.
Bryan: I was afraid you'd say that, and I'll explain why momentarily. The right pick for the Bills here seems pretty clearly to be a Charger, be that Bosa, Keenan Allen as a third receiver, or Philip Rivers to replace Josh Allen. Or possibly even Hunter Henry over Tyler Kroft, if you want to dig down a little farther. Of the four, Bosa is pretty clearly having the best overall season, so while edge rusher isn't the Bills' biggest remaining need, sometimes you just take the best player left and roll with it. Adding Bosa and Fletcher Cox to the Bills' defensive front is a terrifying prospect. So is the Bills' offense, mind you, but there's little that can be done about that at this point.
16. San Francisco 49ers select Jamal Adams, S, New York Jets
Bryan: The homer in me really, really, really wanted to find an excuse to take Miller over Bosa, because Allen was the last really good receiver available, unless you want to gamble on A.J. Green's health -- and he just announced he probably won't be playing in the last two games of the year. By DYAR, the best receivers remaining unpicked are Davante Parker, Courtland Sutton, and A.J. Brown. Maybe you can add Robby Anderson, Tyler Boyd, or Jamison Crowder to that mix, but none of the names there are super-exciting. Curse you for taking Matt Ryan first overall and preventing the Shanahan-Julio reunion! Curse you!
Andrew: And here I thought you were itching for a Bosa reunion. Also -- potentially controversial take incoming -- if you are looking at the Falcons roster and the 49ers roster and taking Julio Jones over Matt Ryan for the 49ers, you have way more faith in Jimmy Garoppolo than I do. But anyway, the best of those receiver options is Sutton, and you would be very happy with the results -- especially relative to whatever that was against the Falcons.
Bryan: I'd rather have Garoppolo throwing to Julio Jones than Ryan throwing to Kendrick Bourne. That's the issue here, not whether or not Ryan is better than Jimmy G (he is, for the record).
Actually, I'm happier with Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel than I would be with bringing in Sutton, or Parker, or Brown. Hopefully, the Atlanta game was something of a fluke -- compare it to the Saints game, for example, and you see what the 49ers' receiving corps is capable of. Sutton, Parker, and Brown would be an upgrade, don't get me wrong ... but I think I can actually do better.
Jaquiski Tartt has been out the last couple of games, and he's part of the reason the 49ers could not stop Julio Jones at all; his replacement, Marcell Harris, isn't terrible, but isn't great, either. So let's add strength to strength, bringing Jamal Adams in to that fantastic 49ers' defense and daring anyone to throw deep over the middle. If Tartt comes back, maybe the 49ers could move Jimmie Ward back to corner, or maybe Tartt becomes a big nickel. Either way, I don't think I can justify taking a Courtland Sutton, as solid as he's been this year, over a Jamal Adams, regardless of a team's relative strengths or weaknesses.
7-3 victories, here we come!
Andrew: I think, given the strength of the 49ers front seven, that I'd prefer a ballhawk such as Kevin Byard over a thumper like Adams, but I certainly agree with your positional reasoning.
17. Houston Texans select Kevin Byard, S, Tennessee Titans
Andrew: We've already made one pick for the Texans defense. As tempting as it is to switch units and go offensive line again, I think the defense would still benefit more from another addition. The Texans have the No. 32 DVOA against passes over the middle, particularly short passes over the middle -- I'm not sure how a team even GETS a 73.9% DVOA on short passes, which is more than twice as bad as No. 31 Jacksonville's 37.7% (subscription required). We could address that with a linebacker, but other than A.J. Johnson we lack options there. I prefer to deploy the aforementioned Byard in centerfield alongside Justin Reid, giving us a rangy and versatile safety pairing to deploy behind that imaginary improved pass rush.
Bryan: Just as you would have preferred Byard going to the 49ers, I think the Texans would prefer Adams, if they had the choice. Don't get me wrong, Byard's the right pick here, I think. It's just that like you think the 49ers need a ballhawk, I think the Texans need a thumper. Still, picking nits when it comes to thin pickings isn't particularly useful.
Andrew: I agree, and if I were picking both of these teams I would have swapped these picks, but sometimes it's as much about the luck of the draft order and who's making the pick as it is about the exact fit and need.
18. Dallas Cowboys select Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals
Bryan: Cowboys fans will be throwing things at the wall with Adams and Byard coming off the board in back-to-back picks -- or, at least, they would if they didn't have a love affair with Jeff Heath I've really never quite understood. With pickings beginning to get very slim indeed, I'll take the bright spot off of Cincinnati's roster, Geno Atkins. Atkins is certainly an improvement over Antwaun Woods in Dallas' base defense, and I like him better than Maliek Collins or Christian Covington, too. It's not the largest upgrade in the world, but we're talking Bengals, Dolphins, and Broncos here. There's a reason these teams were left for near-last.
Andrew: I think I'd have gone either Jessie Bates or Chris Harris here, because there is more to upgrade in the secondary than the front seven, but I won't dispute that Atkins is an upgrade.
19. Kansas City Chiefs select Von Miller, EDGE, Denver Broncos
Bryan: So, I'm left with the Broncos to find a replacement player for the Chiefs. Yes, the Dolphins are still around, but they've actively traded away most of their star players away over the course of the season, so I'll let Andrew pick through those relative dregs.
You could make an argument for Chris Harris, though he's having a down season. Justin Simmons or Kareem Jackson would be interesting options in the secondary. I could bow to your endless need to replace LeSean McCoy and take Phillip Lindsay here. But no, here's where Miller comes off the board. Maybe he's slowing down a little, but that means he's tied for seventh in pass pressures rather than leading the league. Kansas City's a top-10 team in adjusted sack rate, so another pass-rusher isn't a dire need, but they did just add Terrell Suggs, and Alex Okafor did just go on injured reserve, and Frank Clark does have a bizarre stomach illness. Better safe than sorry.
Andrew: For the record, I wouldn't replace McCoy with a bowling ball. I was specifically looking at guys who would be a threat to split wide and add to the formation diversity, as the Chiefs did with Kareem Hunt. Le'Veon Bell and Christian McCaffrey fit that profile far better than Lindsay, even though I do like Lindsay a lot.
20. New Orleans Saints select Christian Wilkins, DT, Miami Dolphins
Andrew: Can the weakest roster in the league, a team that is actively shedding talent, still contribute a player to arguably the strongest roster in the sport?
Bryan: Take Xavien Howard! Wait, no, he's hurt. Take Reshad Jones! Wait, no, he's hurt. Take Aqib Talib! Wait, no, he's hurt.
Andrew: I'm going to be persnickety and say "on injured reserve" in lieu of "hurt," in the case of the fish tank, but I wouldn't have taken those guys anyway. I love the Saints defensive backs, though I concede that a healthy Howard is a definite upgrade across from Marshon Lattimore.
Bryan: The question kind of becomes what pieces the Dolphins even have available still. DeVante Parker is their best active player, but you already added Odell Beckham. Ryan Fitzpatrick has Ryan Fitzmagic, but he'd be the fourth-best quarterback on New Orleans' roster. Who's left? Steven Parker? John Jenkins? Vince Biegel? I'm pretty sure I made at least one of those names up.
Andrew: I'd actually take Christian Wilkins, who I think would benefit a defensive line that recently lost Sheldon Rankins for the year -- and also lost edge rusher Marcus Davenport this month. Wilkins may not start ahead of David Onyemata and Malcom Brown, but he would be an extremely valuable situational player on a weakened rotation. Taco Charlton would have been another option if he had sustained his earlier form, but I reckon Wilkins would be the more valuable player right now.
So yes, even the weakest roster in the league does have something to offer one of the strongest, especially as injuries once again rear their ugly heads.
Bryan: I find it interesting to see how much stays the same year-to-year here, despite all the turnover in actual playoff teams. Luke Kuechly, Fletcher Cox, Von Miller, Odell Beckham, Rodney Hudson, Chandler Jones, Jamal Adams, and Geno Atkins were all taken last year. It's actually three years in a row for Hudson and Miller. And we were struggling to find a Dolphins player at the end of last year's draft, too!
Andrew: The more things change, eh? If we broadened our criteria from the Joe Thomas conversation above to include players who'd never won a playoff game, rather than just never played in one, Hudson would probably be the 2010s All-Decade center. Both of his appearances were losses -- the famous 45-44 Andrew Luck comeback game with the Chiefs and the infamous Connor Cook experience in Oakland.
Bryan: I'll also point out that, for the second year in a row, you selected Odell Beckham to join the Saints for the playoff push. Dude apparently wants out of Cleveland; maybe we could see that become a reality in 2020.
Andrew: For the second year in a row, that's the biggest weakness on the Saints roster ... but I don't see that move ever happening outside our wild imaginings. Looking at the circumstances of his previous teams, maybe that's for the best.
Also, the Falcons really need to get Matt Ryan back to the postseason, pronto. They have too much talent to be this bad. As we said last year. And the year before.
Bryan: I suppose I should be the last one to say anything about the Falcons' talent level at this point. But man, one year, that defense needs to stop underperforming. The worst thing about Atlanta's win on Sunday is that it might have saved Dan Quinn's job. This is, like, the fourth year in a row where Atlanta's defense has come on strong down the stretch, only for it to amount to nothing the next season.
Andrew: What's the expression? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, you probably play in the NFC South.
Bryan: Alright, final question, I suppose. Which team here improved the most, and which of these Joe Thomas-altered rosters is the best? The latter answer is probably still the Ravens; they're that far ahead of the rest of the pack
Andrew: Agreed. They don't have a clear weakness, as long as they can sustain this offensive output. Adding an elite edge rusher, regardless of who, would be silly. The team that improved the most is in the same division: there is no bigger upgrade on this list than the difference between the Steelers backup quarterbacks and Matt Ryan. We could have made ANY other move for any other would-be playoff team and not found a bigger upgrade.
Bryan: I think I'd have to agree there, too. If Keenan Allen had fallen to the 49ers' second pick, maybe you can make an argument there, but give the Steelers an actual, factual quarterback, and they're a far more dangerous wild card. They had plenty of room to improve, and you nailed it.
Of course, now watch the Eagles shred the Cowboys and the Jets clobber the Steelers, making our playoff draft moot. Oh well, such is the danger of doing this two weeks in advance.
Andrew: Durned holiday scheduling getting in the way of our carefully planned articles! We'll be back at some point over the festive period with our traditional All-Rookie team, and see you in the New Year for the playoffs. Happy holidays!
Keep Choppin' Wood
Hey Siri / OK Google / Salut Bixby / Dear friendly commercial wiretap name of choice, summarize the Cincinnati Bengals' season for me in one play.
Alguém consegue explicar esse onside kick dos Bengals?pic.twitter.com/0jvgwQEKuF
— Patriotas (@nepatriotas) 15 December 2019
Oh. That went well.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Between them, no pair of teams faced more fourth-down decisions this week than the Packers and the Bears. No team went for it more often than these two, either, as the former kept up the fight for a postseason bye and the latter scrambled desperately to remain in contention. Each team attempted to convert three times despite the relatively low-scoring affair. The first of those attempts brought the first score of the day, as Aaron Rodgers found Davante Adams for a 29-yard touchdown on fourth-and-4 in the first quarter. The Bears went next, in the second quarter with the score still 7-0, despite facing fourth-and-7 from Green Bay's 41. Alas, the pass fell incomplete, as did each of the four subsequent fourth-down attempts. The Bears remain plagued by the very same play-calling issues that afflicted Matt Nagy's very first game in charge, but at least they do appear to be trying to win. The Packers are simply better at it, despite well-discussed issues of their own. Matt Nagy and Matt LaFleur can share this award, despite their very different season outcomes.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
Our Audibles thread often features comments by one or other of the staff bemoaning a team's decision to kick a field goal to stretch a lead from a field goal to a touchdown. That decision is perhaps more excusable when the lead is only two points, but it is considerably less excusable when facing a potentially game-sealing fourth-and-1 against a terrible Falcons defense. Kyle Shanahan kicked, and the Falcons immediately drove for the game-winning touchdown -- and with it, the massive upset road win.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Facing fourth-and-10 from the Texans 37, with 1:14 left in the first half and facing a 14-point deficit, Mike Vrabel had a decision to make. Let's run his options down from best to worst, shall we? Likely best was keeping Ryan Tannehill and the offense on the field; fourth-and-10 is a long ask (though they could have helped themselves out by running a shorter play on third-and-10), but the Titans really needed some points before the half. They could have tried a 54-yard field goal; not ideal with Ryan Succop being 1-for-6 on the year, but at least that's a chance at points. They could have punted, giving up the chance to get points but at least pinning Houston deep. Or, I suppose, you could run a highly telegraphed fake punt. I suppose that's an option, too. Just keep your offense on the field next time, Mike.
— Houston Texans (@HoustonTexans) December 15, 2019
'Tampa Bay Wideout du Jour' Fantasy Player of the Week
Your WR1 for the fantasy semifinals? It wasn't Julio Jones' 13-catch day against San Francisco. It wasn't Michael Thomas going off on Monday night. It was Breshad Perriman, filling in first for the injured Mike Evans and then for the injured Chris Godwin (and Scotty Miller, for that matter). Perriman caught three touchdowns against Detroit, more than doubling his season-long total, and matching his previous season high. He topped 100 yards receiving for the first time in his career. He now has two career games with five catches, and two career games with at least 80 receiving yards ... and they've come in two of the last three weeks. Keep an eye on Godwin's and Evans' status going into the championship, and jump on Perriman if they're hurt and he's still available.
— NFL (@NFL) December 15, 2019
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Any touchdown down 29 points with less than a minute left in the fourth quarter is pretty much the epitome of garbage time. I'm not entirely sure why the Rams were still calling timeouts and getting the ball down the field when the game had essentially ended before the NFL could work out what to do about Dak Prescott's coin-flip calling prowess, but if you had Cooper Kupp in your fantasy semifinals, I'm sure you did not mind. All six of Kupp's catches came in a lost cause in the second half, including a touchdown which I'm sure sent someone into their fantasy championship.
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
The Denver Broncos were finally mathematically eliminated this week, but that was just a formality for a season in which success was never likely to be measured by postseason appearances. The continued competence of the defense is not news; it has long been the strength of the team. However, the recent success of the offense is very much news, and good news at that. Receiver Courtland Sutton entered Week 15 as the AFC leader in wide receiver DYAR despite spending half of the year catching passes from the likes of Joe Flacco and Brandon Allen.
Even Sutton is not the best news, however: since returning from injury, rookie quarterback Drew Lock has looked every inch the first-round quarterback he was initially projected as before eventually falling to the second round. Lock's 9.7% DVOA this season would rank higher than such household names as Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, and Tom Brady if he had enough attempts to qualify for the main leaderboard -- albeit the usual caveats apply. Though that DVOA took a serious hit after his team's 23-3 defeat in Kansas City, the Broncos finally have reasonable cause for optimism at quarterback for the first time since Peyton Manning succumbed to Father Time.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
The AFC South race isn't technically over just yet, but the Texans knew that they could all but seal the division up with a win over the Titans. Ever since Ryan Tannehill came in, however, the Titans have been the better team, and they were driving to open up the second quarter. With the ball on Houston's 5-yard line, it seemed inevitable that the Titans would score first. Then Justin Reid tipped a pass to Whitney Mercilus...
— NFL (@NFL) December 15, 2019
The pass defense by Reid was skill, a great play. The fact that the ball bounced right into Mercilus' arms was pure luck, but hey, you won't hear the Texans complaining. Houston scored two plays later, making this at least a 10-point swing in a game that was eventually decided by three points. Instead of scoring first, Tennessee never held a lead.
Had they won, the Titans would be sitting in the fourth seed today, a full game up on Houston. They would have had to either beat Houston again in Week 17 or have the Texans lose to the Buccaneers to hold it, but the opportunity was there. Now, however, the Titans will be knocked out of the AFC South race with a loss or a Houston win over the next two weeks, and they could see the Steelers take the sixth seed from them against a softer schedule (Jets and possibly resting Ravens versus Saints and Texans, both with something to play for). A nightmare loss that severely hampers their playoff push.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Bryan: I'm going to be busy for most of the holiday weekend, so let's get this over bright and early: Tampa Bay (+3) hosting Houston. The Texans can clinch the AFC South with a win, while the Buccaneers have nothing to play for but pride. That being said, the Bucs are on a four-game winning streak and are probably the best team with no chance of making the playoffs at the moment. Were they in the AFC, they'd be legit contenders for a wild-card spot, and possibly even the divisional crown if they were in Houston's shoes. I'm concerned about their lack of wideouts with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin both likely out, but I'll take Jameis Winston throwing four touchdowns and three interceptions to pull out an outright win here.
Andrew: We've already discussed Denver a little earlier in the article, under the heading "comfort in sadness." The Broncos may be well outside the playoff race, but they do have several things going for them on both offense and defense. It's a lot tougher to find comfort in the sadness of Lions fans. We asked all the way back after Matt Patricia's first game if it was too late to just un-fire Jim Caldwell, and time has not been any kinder to Detroit's decision to oust Caldwell for Patricia. There is a growing expectation that Patricia only has a fortnight left in Detroit -- it sure better be a more competitive next fortnight than we've seen over the last two weeks, but you won't catch me betting on that. Rather, I'll take the long-eliminated team with some real optimism for the future over the long-eliminated team with only ongoing rocket-fueled existential dread. Denver (-7) over Detroit.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this was written, the Lions have announced that Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn will both return in 2020.)
Double Survival League
Bryan: It's all over. While I got my needed two wins last week, with both the Ravens and Giants coming through easily, Andrew has held me off to claim victory in this one. Had the Panthers finished their comeback attempt against Seattle, or Philadelphia not managed to right the ship against Washington, then we'd still have a contest this week. As it stands, I'm two games down. That would be a loss for me no matter what -- Andrew wins the tiebreaker as his Detroit pick never technically lost, tying back in Week 1 to Arizona. Just to make sure there's no controversy, though, both of us saved Miami until the very last week, so I can only possibly gain one game on Andrew. Well played, sir.
Andrew: Gracias, comrade. Frankly, I'm just relieved we're both comfortably over .500 given the number of upsets we've run into along the way. We'll have a proper postmortem next week, where we try to figure out thorny issues like why we apparently can't trust any team in either South division.
That's for next week though; we still have this week's picks to get through first. Unlike Vanessa Williams, I deliberately saved the worst for last. First up, in the game between arguably the two worst teams in the NFC -- who also happen to both play in the conference's worst division -- I've gone with the Giants at home to Washington. Second, in the game between the two worst teams in the AFC: I'm taking the Dolphins at home to Cincinnati. I picked this game out way back at the schedule release, never expecting that the Dolphins would have the superior record at all, much less by multiple wins. Now, it looks obvious; then, it looked anything but.
Both games are winnable. All four teams are terrible. I'm glad I'm not relying on either result enough that I need to care about either game.
Bryan: For the record, I too saved Miami, favored for the first time in 15 weeks, for the Bengals matchup, and planned to all year long. At first, I thought it was the only game they had a chance of winning all season long. As the year went on and they improved, it simply became their easiest game on the schedule. A no-brainer pick. Seattle over Arizona wasn't always my plan, but I like to save a couple relatively easy matchups for the end. Maybe I'll re-think that next season.
Bryan: I know, I know. You have a busy life. You've got that early New Year's party planned for December 29 already, and can't spare time to watch Week 17 of the NFL. Here at Scramble, we have you covered. We have gone out and found the combination of results this week that produces the least interesting Week 17 schedule possible. A rooting guide for boredom, as it were.
In the AFC, first we want the Ravens to beat the Browns, clinching the top seed for Baltimore and eliminating Cleveland from the playoffs entirely. We'll then want the Patriots to beat the Bills and the Bears to beat the Chiefs. That locks New England into the other bye week position and Buffalo into the fifth seed. It does, sadly, mean the Chiefs will still have something to play for in Week 17, but the difference between the third and fourth seed is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.
The Texans beating the Buccaneers gives Houston the AFC South, and they'll be in competition with Kansas City for the third seed in Week 17. Add in Tennessee beating New Orleans to eliminate the Raiders, and we'll be down to just the Steelers and Titans for the sixth and final seed in the AFC. There are plenty of other ways to eliminate the Raiders, but we'll come back to why the Titans winning is a double bonus for us in a minute. Sadly, we can't lock in that sixth and final playoff team just yet, so you'll have to set an alert on your phone or something in case you want to know how that one ends up.
The NFC is a little trickier. We start off by having the Cowboys beat the Eagles, clinching the NFC East and the fourth seed. We also want the Packers to beat the Vikings to give Green Bay the NFC North, though that does nothing but complicate seeding in the long run. That means we also need San Francisco to beat the L.A. Rams, knocking out Los Angeles and allowing Minnesota to back into the playoffs, locked into the sixth seed.
The only other things we can do to settle the NFC comes with that Titans over Saints win we mentioned before. That, coupled with a Seahawks win over the Cardinals and the earlier 49ers win, means that the Saints would be eliminated from home field advantage.
That means, in Week 17, the 49ers-Seahawks winner would be the top seed in the NFC, while the loser held the fifth seed and would travel to Dallas in the wild-card round. If that game somehow ended up in a tie, and Green Bay won their game against Detroit, they would steal the top seed in one of the least probable things that has ever happened. Otherwise, it would be the Saints and Packers battling out for the second bye week and the right to avoid Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs. There's just no way to make Week 17 in the NFC entirely boring. Maybe duck out of the party after just one glass of champagne.
- Baltimore can clinch Home Field Advantage IF Baltimore d. Cleveland OR BOTH Buffalo d. New England AND Chicago d. Kansas City
- Baltimore can clinch a First-Round Bye IF Baltimore d. Cleveland OR Buffalo d. New England OR Chicago d. Kansas City
- New England can clinch a First-Round Bye IF New England d. Buffalo AND Chicago d. Kansas City
- New England can clinch a Top-Three Seed IF New England d. Buffalo
- Kansas City can clinch a Top-Three Seed IF Kansas City d. Chicago AND Tampa Bay d. Houston
- Houston can clinch the AFC South IF Houston d. Tampa Bay OR New Orleans d. Tennessee
- Houston can clinch a Playoff Berth IF Houston d. Tampa Bay OR New Orleans d. Tennessee OR N.Y. Jets d. Pittsburgh
- Green Bay can clinch a Top-Three Seed IF Green Bay d. Minnesota
- Minnesota can clinch a Playoff Berth IF Minnesota d. Green Bay OR San Francisco d. L.A. Rams
- Dallas can clinch the NFC East IF Dallas d. Philadelphia
- Seattle can clinch a Top-Five Seed IF Seattle d. Arizona OR Green Bay d. Minnesota
- San Francisco can clinch a Top-Five Seed IF Green Bay d. Minnesota
- Cleveland can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Baltimore d. Cleveland OR Tennessee d. New Orleans OR Pittsburgh d. N.Y. Jets OR Carolina d. Indianapolis
- New England can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Buffalo d. New England OR Baltimore d. Cleveland
- Buffalo can be eliminated from the AFC East IF New England d. Buffalo
- Kansas City can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Chicago d. Kansas City OR Baltimore d. Cleveland
- Kansas City can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Chicago d. Kansas City AND New England d. Buffalo
- Oakland can be eliminated from the playoffs IF L.A. Chargers d. Oakland OR Tennessee d. New Orleans OR Pittsburgh d. N.Y. Jets OR Carolina d. Indianapolis
- Houston can be eliminated from a First-Round Bye IF Tampa Bay d. Houston OR New England d. Buffalo
- Houston can be eliminated from a Top-Three Seed IF Tampa Bay d. Houston AND Kansas City d. Chicago
- Tennessee can be eliminated from a Top-Three Seed IF New Orleans d. Tennessee OR Houston d. Tampa Bay OR Kansas City d. Chicago
- Tennessee can be eliminated from the AFC South IF New Orleans d. Tennessee OR Houston d. Tampa Bay
- Green Bay can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Minnesota d. Green Bay AND EITHER San Francisco d. L.A. Rams OR Seattle d. Arizona
- Minnesota can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Green Bay d. Minnesota OR San Francisco d. L.A. Rams OR Seattle d. Arizona
- Minnesota can be eliminated from a Top-Five Seed IF Green Bay d. Minnesota
- Philadelphia can be eliminated from the playoffs IF Dallas d. Philadelphia
- L.A. Rams can be eliminated from the playoffs IF San Francisco d. L.A. Rams OR Minnesota d. Green Bay
- New Orleans can be eliminated from Home Field Advantage IF Tennessee d. New Orleans AND ONE OF:
- Seattle d. Arizona AND San Francisco d. L.A. Rams
- Green Bay d. Minnesota AND EITHER:
- Seattle d. Arizona AND ONE OF Washington d. N.Y. Giants OR Jacksonville d. Atlanta OR Dallas d. Philadelphia OR TWO OF Pittsburgh d. N.Y. Jets OR Cincinnati d. Miami OR Kansas City d. Chicago OR Cleveland d. Baltimore
- San Francisco d. L.A. Rams AND Philadelphia d. Dallas AND TWO OF Kansas City d. Chicago OR Cleveland d. Baltimore OR Pittsburgh d. N.Y. Jets OR Cincinnati d. Miami OR Atlanta d. Jacksonville
- SIX OF Seattle d. Arizona OR Cleveland d. Baltimore OR Kansas City d. Chicago OR Pittsburgh d. N.Y. Jets OR Dallas d. Philadelphia OR Washington d. N.Y Giants OR Cincinnati d. Miami OR Green Bay d. Minnesota OR San Francisco d. L.A. Rams OR Atlanta d. Jacksonville