Scramble for the Ball: Digital All-Stars
Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week sees us into the most traditional portion of the season. We've already taken our usual December look at potential coaching vacancies. We'll have our All-Rookie team somewhere around Christmas, as well as the famed Joe Thomas Memorial Draft. This week, as is our custom, we sneak in ahead of the Pro Bowl fan voting deadline with this, the Scramble for the Ball Definitive Pro Bowl Ballot.
Well, kinda definitive. Pro Bowl voting is absurd nonsense this year.
Bryan: The Pro Bowl itself is always absurd nonsense, though I suppose we have to give some credit to the NFL for cancelling the actual game this year. Instead, the Pro Bowl will be virtual. It will be played in Madden NFL 21, and it won't be just one game -- it's a "weeklong series of matchups featuring celebrities, NFL Legends, current players, and streamers playing as the official Pro Bowl rosters," with a final "official" simulation at the end. You know what? It's not the worst idea I've ever heard of, though it's going to attract roughly the same percentage of my attention as the actual Pro Bowl would.
No, the problem is the voting. The NFL's official ballot is broken beyond belief. We've complained before about the NFL grouping 3-4 and 4-3 defenders together all willy-nilly, or the sparse number of safety positions, or fullbacks still being a thing, but they've gone above and beyond that this year.
You can vote for six players at each position. That's the new rule. You can vote for only six wide receivers or cornerbacks (down from eight apiece), but also six fullbacks or six long snappers.
Andrew: Only the NFL could come up with a system that reduces the number of receivers you can vote to the Pro Bowl, and in the same system triple the number of fullbacks you can vote for. In the 21st Century, no less.
Bryan: To add insult to injury, the names in each position are sorted by a specific stat that the NFL deems most relevant, because total tackles means a dang thing, of course. For positions without a stat, they simply list the players alphabetically. That means Chris Board and Nick Bellore are leading the vote for all-purpose special teams, because they are the first two players listed alphabetically. You can find the same bias at other less well-known positions. It's a total mess.
Andrew: Ordinarily, our (usually failed) quest for this article is to provide the perfect ballot, not to guess or pick the actual team. Suffice it to say, we are not doing that this year. A complete ballot would mean picking no fewer than 120 players. Vince would kill us. Nobody would read it. We probably couldn't find enough words to describe six long snappers; that would read like one of those "guess which player we made up" jokes people use in Week 4 of the preseason. I'm still not convinced there actually are six full-time fullbacks.
Bryan: Bold of you to assume people read us, anyway!
So, here's what we are going to do. The Pro Bowl rosters are 44 players, so we're going to pick 44-person rosters for both the AFC and NFC -- a total of 88 players. We are going to limit ourselves to six total receivers and six total cornerbacks, so that this ballot will in fact be legal to submit -- we'll add an extra tight end and safety to make up for it. We are NOT going to pick six fullbacks or long snappers or punters; we'll pick the appropriate number for each position based on how many spots they actually get on the team. And we'll moan and complain until the NFL fixes this for next season.
SCRAMBLE FOR THE BALL'S OFFICIAL 'MAKING THE BEST OF IT' PRO BOWL BALLOT
Bryan: Some picks are easy. Patrick Mahomes leads off the AFC quarterbacks, because we each have a pair of functioning eyes. It gets harder to fill out the rest of the team, though, with Ryan Tannehill, Deshaun Watson, and Josh Allen filling spots three through five in passing DYAR (and three, four, and six in DVOA, for that matter). One of them has to stay home.
Andrew: Outwith the halls of Scramble HQ, Allen and Tannehill are the most likely choices as the starting quarterbacks on playoff-bound teams. Allen's huge leap forward this season is well-publicized, as is Tannehill's turnaround since being freed from Adam Gase. Watson has more passing yards than the other two, naturally, as he has been chasing a lost cause most of the season while the others have been winning games. I suspect it'll be overlooked just how good he has been while doing so. Tannehill is, for me, the clear No. 2 behind Mahomes. I'm happy to give Allen the nod as the third guy despite him being very slightly below Watson in both DYAR and DVOA. It's quite incredible how quickly the young guys have taken over the AFC; Tannehill is the only one of those players who was drafted before 2017.
Bryan: It's close between the three of them, for sure, but I'm with you -- Tannehill has to be one of the three, and picking Allen will at least get me in some good graces with Bills fans before writing their chapter in next year's FO Almanac! I would love to pick all four of them, especially considering the state of the third NFC quarterback, but them's not the rules.
Andrew: When we first put this together, the NFC was similar, with a clear leader then a cluster of other candidates around the top 10 of DYAR. Week 14 went some way toward sorting that though: Aaron Rodgers remains the clear No. 1, Russell Wilson remains the most prominent barrier between the Seahawks defense and a top-10 draft pick, and Tom Brady has the Buccaneers likely to earn a playoff spot for the first time in over a decade. Kirk Cousins dropped back toward the pack with his team's flop against the Buccaneers and now nestles amidst a cluster that also includes Teddy Bridgewater, Jared Goff, and Matthew Stafford. That's not Pro Bowl company, at least not this year.
Bryan: Frankly, Brady hasn't always been living up to a Pro Bowl billing himself in his dotage, but he's actually well above Wilson in both DYAR and DVOA, and the only NFC passer other than Rodgers to crack the 1,000-DYAR barrier to this point in the season. Drew Brees has the second-highest DVOA in the conference, but after missing so much time, I don't think we could realistically give him the slot. Rodgers, Wilson, and Brady it is.
AFC: Josh Allen, BUF; Patrick Mahomes, KC; Ryan Tannehill, TEN
NFC: Tom Brady, NE; Aaron Rodgers, GB; Russell Wilson, SEA
Andrew: There's a clear running back leader in each conference, too: the yardage and touchdown leaders are also the DYAR leaders, so there's not much of a case against Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook.
Bryan: This is, however, the first position where the limit of one nominee per team does start to cause issues. Christian McCaffrey is the Panthers' nominee, not Mike Davis -- McCaffrey is better, of course, but he has been hurt more, and Davis deserves more of the nod for this year. Similarly, you can't vote for Jonathan Taylor; Nyheim Hines is the Colts' nominee. There are still plenty of worthy players to choose from, but a couple of solid candidates don't even get to be mentioned.
Andrew: Whoa, hold on, because that's really significant for Cleveland. Who got the nod out of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt?
Bryan: You're right, that would be really significant, with both of them heading towards 1,000 yards. The NFL has gotten around this by ... listing both Chubb and Hunt on the ballot, because consistency has never been one of their strong points.
Andrew: As ever, the people casting the votes have considerably less control than the people choosing the candidates. Fortunately, that's an issue that is entirely confined to the realm of professional sports. Phew.
Hunt-versus-Chubb is probably the first issue we need to resolve here, right? We want a Cleveland back, but not both. I favor Chubb: he ranks third in rushing DYAR and first in DVOA, and he laps the field in NFL Next Gen Stats' Rushing Yards over Expectation: he leads second-placed Derrick Henry in that figure despite having barely half as many carries.
Bryan: The argument for Hunt would be his superior receiving numbers, and the thought that Chubb's running success is aided more by Cleveland's excellent offensive line -- and we'll get to them soon enough -- than Hunt is. I think you can get bogged down in that sort of contrary reasoning, however -- Hunt has been a significant part of Cleveland's offense, but picking him over Chubb does require you to twist your brain into a few knots. We're not going for clickbait here, we're going for the deserving Pro Bowlers, so we'll take Chubb. I suppose the question, then, is if you take Hunt over someone in the rest of the AFC -- there's a big gap in rushing DYAR after Henry and Chubb, with NFC names taking up the rest of the top 11. This is a trend we'll see in quite a few positions, by the by -- the NFC is stronger across the board, possibly because the five worst teams by DVOA all play in the AFC. Less depth to choose from.
Andrew: The other interesting AFC name is James Robinson, as the only back other than Henry and Cook to pass the 1,000-yard rushing mark already. 1,000 yards isn't the, ahem, yardstick it once was, but it's still a figure that holds sway. Robinson's a guy who will have kudos from wily fantasy owners (yours truly included) as an every-down back -- he also has 326 receiving yards and two scores on 46 receptions -- and putting up 1,000 yards on that Jacksonville offense is no mean feat. The advanced stats aren't great, but a positive DVOA and 12th place in DYAR are entirely respectable. He also has a very strong shot at Dominic Rhodes' record for yards from scrimmage from an undrafted rookie: Robinson only needs 51 more yards from the final three games. That's going to count for something.
Bryan: Other possibilities include Josh Jacobs and maybe, if you squint, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, though I think "surrounded by the Chiefs offense" probably takes CEH out of the equation. I'm fine with going with Robinson, as a reminder that you can find running backs anywhere -- it's always fun to take a UDFA over a first-round pick.
The two open NFC slots probably go to some combination of Aaron Jones, Alvin Kamara, and David Montgomery. Kamara leads the league in receiving DYAR. Jones is fourth behind the Henry/Cook/Chubb trio in rushing DYAR. Montgomery is producing despite being on a Chicago offense with Tweedledee and Tweedledum under center; he has a combined 177 DYAR, which places him comfortably in the top 10, and is the third-highest NFC rusher in Sports Info Solutions' Points Earned metric.
Andrew: Of those, I'd favor Jones and Kamara -- Jones as the player with the higher rushing DYAR, and Kamara as the player with the highest receiving DYAR. For a while there, Kamara was the Saints offense even with Drew Brees under center. Jones is undoubtedly benefiting from his situation more than Montgomery "benefits" from his, but there's a big enough advantage in both traditional and advanced numbers that I'm comfortable with the Green Bay player. If anybody from this year's Bears offense gets in, I'd rather it be Allen Robinson (it won't be, because the NFC is stacked at wideout, but I'd rather it was).
Bryan: Yeah, again, picking Montgomery is the contrarian's stance -- justifiable, perhaps, but you're right in that Jones and Kamara have been the superior players, at least statistically. We're in agreement. No all-NFC North squad for us!
AFC: Nick Chubb, CLE; Derrick Henry, TEN; James Robinson, JAX
NFC: Dalvin Cook, MIN; Aaron Jones, GB; Alvin Kamara, NO
Andrew: Three wide receivers per conference, in the age of the three-wide base personnel, is ridiculous, but it sure makes the NFC choices easy.
Bryan: We should clarify that the teams themselves will likely have the usual eight receivers; it's just the ballot that only allows us to pick six, making it extra dumb.
And DOES it make the NFC choices easy? Davante Adams is a must-have, but then you have both Minnesota receivers, plus DeAndre Hopkins, Julio Jones, and Allen Robinson. A heck of a murderer's row.
Andrew: See, I would have named DK Metcalf even before Adams. Metcalf leads all wide receivers in yards, is one of only five players with double-digit receiving touchdowns, ranks second among receivers in DYAR, and ranks fifth in DVOA. Sure, he also has the most ridiculous fumble of the season, but that didn't exactly ruin DeSean Jackson's career. Metcalf has been pretty much uncoverable.
Bryan: Metcalf also has seven drops, fourth-most among receivers. It's a nitpick, for sure, but we only get three names, which is absolutely ridiculous in and of itself. I won't protest too much, but I don't think if I was picking the top three, I'd take Metcalf -- there are just so many talented wideouts out there, and not nearly enough slots to credit them all. Metcalf is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season in a conference where half a dozen guys can make that claim, which is nuts.
Andrew: I agree that the NFC is very deep, but I don't see how we overlook either Metcalf or this incredible debut season from Justin Jefferson. He doesn't quite have DeAndre Hopkins' raw yardage total, but he has two more touchdowns and leads the entire league in DYAR as a rookie. His 77 fewer yards than Hopkins have come on 37 fewer targets, and he's a dead cert for the non-QB offensive rookie of the year.
Bryan: The question is, how much of Jefferson's raw numbers come from playing across from Adam Thielen, who has Pro Bowl-caliber stats as well? If we're looking for tiebreakers to whittle down the list, that might be one of them; Jefferson is getting second-corner coverage compared to Hopkins. It's tough! That's what I'm saying, it's really really tough! I'd go with Jefferson given my druthers, but there are 40 or 50 different combinations where I would nod and go, "yeah, that makes sense."
The AFC isn't as top-loaded, but it's equally deep: both Buffalo receivers, Keenan Allen, Corey Davis, Will Fuller, Jarvis Landry, Tyreek Hill...
Andrew: The top two choices, for me, are quite easy again. Tyreek Hill is the third-leading wide receiver by yardage, tied with Adams for the lead in touchdown catches, and fourth in DYAR. Stefon Diggs' advanced stats aren't quite so impressive, but there's no argument that he has made the Bills offense better rather than the other way around. Just look at the difference in Josh Allen with and without Diggs. We can't leave off the conference's leading wide receiver by yardage, especially not when the No. 3 guy would have at least 200 fewer yards.
Bryan: I don't want to credit all of Allen's success to Diggs' arrival, but the chemistry between the two is undeniable, and both seem much happier with the other than they did in their previous situations, so I'll agree with that top two. Part of me really, really wants to put Corey Davis on the team, just because of how improved he has been. If there were four slots, I think I'd talk myself into it. But instead, maybe we have to go with Will Fuller -- first in DVOA, third in DYAR, but also out for the rest of the season. Or do we go for Keenan Allen, who has the volume but the negative DVOA to go with it? Allen's just one reception behind Diggs for the league lead, after all.
Andrew: I think the reason Fuller is out for the rest of the season, a contravention of the league's PED policy, is enough to disqualify him even before considering that he'd still be suspended at the time of the (thankfully imaginary) game. My third candidate alongside him and Allen is A.J. Brown. Though well behind Fuller in efficiency and 150-plus yards behind Allen in raw yardage, Brown is still top-10 in our figures, has double-digit scores, and seemingly makes highlight play after highlight play in Tennessee. If you wanted Allen ahead of him, I wouldn't be vociferous, but I think he's the best candidate for that third spot.
Bryan: I think we'll go with Allen -- Brown has the same issues we had in Minnesota, where the team has two receivers who work against one another's candidacy. Davis trumps Brown in both DYAR and DVOA, as well as receptions, and Brown has just a 2-yard advantage over Davis. It's hard to determine the more deserving of the two, while Allen is doing what he's doing with, what, Mike Williams as Los Angeles' second wideout target? Not to mention a rookie quarterback. His low DVOA is a factor of his situation, not his talent, so as we're limited to three players, he's my choice.
AFC: Keenan Allen, LAC; Stefon Diggs, BUF; Tyreek Hill, KC
NFC: Davante Adams, GB; Justin Jefferson, MIN; DK Metcalf, SEA
Andrew: Can we start by naming which teams even still have a dedicated fullback? There's, uh, let's see ... San Francisco. Baltimore? I'd guess the Patriots, but he's probably on IR. C.J. Ham on the Vikings...
Bryan: Sure. Four teams have had a fullback play 200 snaps -- San Francisco (Kyle Juszczyk), Minnesota (C.J. Ham), New England (Jakob Johnson) and Baltimore (Patrick Ricard). Lower it to 150, and you get Las Vegas (Alec Ingold), New Orleans (Michael Burton) and Atlanta (Keith Smith) as well. That's it. That's your list. None of 'em belong in the Pro Bowl.
Juszczyk is the only name on that list who makes his team better with him in the lineup than not -- not just in power formations, but in general. I'd go with Ingold from the list of AFC players -- Ricard and Johnson play more, but "more" is not equivalent to "well" in this instance.
Andrew: I might, if I actually knew more about fullbacks, dispute your pick of Ingold. I will not hear a single word against Juszczyk though, who has been one of my favorite players for years. Make it so.
AFC: Alec Ingold, LV
NFC: Kyle Juszczyk, SF
Bryan: Only two tight ends from each conference will make the Pro Bowl roster -- should we pick just two, or add a third to make up for our missing receiver? Normally, I'd be all in on picking three, but this is kind of a down year for tight ends in general. Or at least, tight ends not named Travis Kelce.
Andrew: Let's keep it to two, in what is an all-AFC West contest in the AFC. Kelce is not just the yardage leader among tight ends, he is the receiving yardage leader among all players, and is on record-setting pace. Waller is second, more than 400 yards behind. Those are the top two, not just in the AFC, but in the league.
Bryan: I should note that Mike Gesicki is third in tight end DYAR, and I rather like Mark Andrews as well, but I've got no problems with taking Waller over the other two; he's a much more significant part of Las Vegas' offense than Gesicki or Andrews are for their teams.
With no George Kittle on the ballot -- or the field for that matter -- the NFC race is much more wide open. Your volume leader is T.J. Hockenson, who is rounding into quite the player up in Detroit. But then you also have Robert Tonyan, first in DVOA. And that's before you get into Will Dissly, Dallas Goedert, or the return of the Gronk.
Andrew: Tonyan, as the player with easily the best advanced stats, and who is also second in traditional volume stats, is the easiest pick of the three, I'd say. After that, I don't see how we leave off Hockenson for a player who will have, at best, 80% of Hockenson's receiving total. I know that's not all tight ends are for, and I know his catch rate isn't even in the top 20 at the position, but Evan Engram and Rob Gronkowski have even worse catch rates and lower production, and after that we're picking somebody with under 500 receiving yards. (No, I did not mention Dalton Schultz. Should I have?)
Bryan: Hockenson is a better run blocker than Gronk or Dissly, and a better receiver than Goedert. I think he's the more well-rounded player, but this is one of those positions where the AFC has a comfortable lead over their NFC counterparts.
AFC: Travis Kelce, KC; Darren Waller, LV
NFC: T.J. Hockenson, DET; Robert Tonyan, GB
Bryan: I want to start by giving some praise to someone on a bad team, who might be overlooked. Garett Bolles received a contract extension that makes him the fourth-highest-paid left tackle in the NFL, and it's every bit deserved. Bolles went through the first three months of the season without allowing a single sack, and has just seven blown blocks all year long -- the second-lowest rate among tackles with at least 600 snaps. Bolles has had significant issues with penalties in his career, but he's getting that under control as well. He's one of the few players in the league who is excelling in both pass and run protection, and deserves his virtual trip to Orlando.
Andrew: I confess, when I got to this section in our planning document and saw Garett Bolles as the one definite on your AFC list, I was startled. I haven't seen that much of the Broncos this year, as my attention has been focused elsewhere. However, on further examination, the pick is entirely justified. Joining him on that imaginary magic carpet ride can be Browns tackle Jack Conklin, who has even fewer blown blocks this year as part of a revamped Browns line that is doing just incredible work for one of the league's best rushing attacks.
The third tackle spot is a bit trickier, with a few candidates behind our top two. SIS charting has Orlando Brown Jr. as their top tackle in the AFC.
Bryan: Ah, but they also have Michael Onwenu, listed as a guard, tied with Brown. Onwenu is a tackle on the official ballot; he's holding down right tackle for a New England line which is second in adjusted line yards. Onwenu is definitely a run-blocker first with only adequate pass protection; Brown is more of a good-but-not-great player without any real flaws.
Andrew: There's also Dion Dawkins, as a key component of a Bills line that started off as one of the best in the league, although it has declined a bit since there, and Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher. I think, of that lot, I lean toward Brown, but I wouldn't argue strongly if you wanted a casting vote.
Bryan: I'll go with Onwenu, then -- just because it will make the All-Rookie team that much easier to pick!
Over in the NFC, it's hard to imagine leaving either David Bakhtiari or Trent Williams off the list. Bakhtiari has just two blown blocks this season, which leads all tackles in the league. Williams' return to football after sitting out all of 2019 has been a joy to watch. He should reclaim the Pro Bowl slot he held down from 2012 to 2018; he is basically the prototypical Shanahan tackle. But that leaves us with just one spot for Duane Brown, Taylor Decker, or D.J. Humphries...
Andrew: Or Ryan Ramczyk, who would be my pick because of course he would. Of the three you listed, I would go for Decker without a doubt, but the loss of Andrew Whitworth hurts the NFC ballot almost as much as it hurts the Rams.
Bryan: It's a virtual game; they should let us vote for Whitworth anyway. Ah well; we'll go with Decker to finish our three.
AFC: Garett Bolles, DEN; Jack Conklin, CLE; Michael Onwenu, NE
NFC: David Bakhtiari, GB; Taylor Decker, DET; Trent Williams, SF
Andrew: The only argument we might have in the AFC is which of Shaq Mason and Joe Thuney joins Joel Bitonio and Wyatt Teller as the conference's third guard. Cleveland's rushing attack has done some ridiculous things this year, and the guards are a huge part of that success.
Bryan: Thuney has fewer blown blocks (three to nine); Mason isn't penalized as much (zero holds to Thuney's three). Mason's the better run-blocker, Thuney the better pass-protector. I'm tempted to side with Mason, just because running is the one thing New England has been able to do constantly well, so Mason's strengths are helping more than his weaknesses hurt, at least?
Andrew: I'm a little startled at the absence of Quenton Nelson from this year's choices, though Nelson has moonlighted a bit at tackle in recent weeks as Colts left tackles drop like Spinal Tap drummers.
Bryan: Nelson also has 11 blown blocks, per SIS' charting, though I don't know how many of those have come from playing out of position at tackle. He has also been caught holding five times -- it's a down year by his standards, which means he's still very good indeed.
In the NFC, Zack Martin is his usual lock, with just two blown blocks this year and zero, count 'em, zero penalties called against him. I like Brandon Scherff as guard No. 2 even with his missed time; maybe I'm biased because I just had to watch Washington run all over the 49ers, but Scherff can move mountains.
Andrew: The third choice is a little trickier. Ali Marpet was listed as a candidate, but I don't think his has been his best year for the Buccaneers. In fact, Alex Cappa would be the better choice from that line; the positional shuffling hasn't quite established Marpet as the top-tier guard he probably should be. Our No. 1 rushing team is the Rams, who rank second in power success rate and third in adjusted line yards behind mid/guard. I'm happy to give Austin Corbett the nomination from that Rams interior line, because neither the center nor either of the tackles is in contention for a spot.
Bryan: I'd put up a fight for Laken Tomlinson, but we passed over your Ramczyk pick without comment, so I'll do the same here.
AFC: Joel Bitonio, CLE; Shaq Mason, NE; Wyatt Teller, CLE
NFC: Austin Corbett, LAR; Zack Martin, DAL; Brandon Scherff, WAS
Andrew: Brandon Linder's most significant injury came too late to keep him off the ballot, but it has been a challenging year for the Jaguars center. He'd be a strong nomination most years, but I don't think this is the one for him.
Bryan: Really? Linder has just one blown block and one foul against him this year, per SIS' charting. You've watched the Jaguars more closely than I have, for some godforsaken reason, so if he's really having a down year, I'll cede to you, but the numbers seem to suggest he's doing well.
Andrew: It's not that he's having a down year as such. The offensive line is consistently the strongest unit on the Jaguars. It's that he has been banged up throughout the year, and there's a good chance he won't play again now that their season is well and truly over. If I was picking a center from the AFC South, I'd go with Ben Jones of Tennessee.
Bryan: In a real year, I might agree with keeping Linder out, but this is a digital year; Linder's Madden avatar is in fine form and ready to go. Let's stick in the South and go with Linder and Jones, with all apologies to JC Tretter and Rodney Hudson.
Andrew: Fair enough. If only the Jaguars could play every game on Madden instead of in the real world.
In the NFC, I am fully behind the pick of Frank Ragnow, even though it still feels weird to pick two players from the Lions offensive line. That unit went from a perennial liability to a strength pretty darn quickly, and it's ironic that the best two seasons of line play in Matt Stafford's Lions career have both been seasons in which he got hurt.
Bryan: Then we'll make it a one-division selection again, with Corey Linsley being the other. I actually like what Chase Roullier has been doing in Washington, but I can't leave Linsley out, and I have no objection to Ragnow filling the other spot. That was easy!
AFC: Ben Jones, TEN; Brandon Linder, JAX
NFC: Corey Linsley, GB; Frank Ragnow, DET
Bryan: Oh lord, the NFL is back on their positional bullshit again. Do we pretend 3-4 defensive ends are a thing and look to a Shelby Harris-type? Or do we do what the voters will do, see Joey Bosa, Myles Garrett, and J.J. Watt all listed here, and just run with the easy sackmasters?
Andrew: With the absolute greatest of respect to Shelby Harris, we go with the sack artists. That means Bosa, Garrett, and J.J. Watt. Even though Watt is also having a relative down year, he still leads all defensive linemen in defeats, which is a mark of just how good he is in an up year.
Bryan: The NFC ends are harder to sort out. I think DeMarcus Lawrence has to fill one slot -- his impact goes far beyond his already-high 34 pass pressures and 4.5 sacks. But then we've got some tough choices to make.
Andrew: Trey Hendrickson is the NFC sack leader at defensive end, with 10.5 sacks, but there's no viable argument to me that considers Hendrickson the best defensive end on his own team, never mind top-three in the conference. Cameron Jordan is opponents' first blocking priority for New Orleans, as the best defender on the best defense in the NFC. He has to be in here. My third pick would be Brandon Graham of the Eagles, but I'll hear an argument for another candidate if you have one you wish to make.
Bryan: I can make arguments for a number of candidates, though I think we'll end up sticking with Jordan and Graham. Chase Young looks like he'll be a wrecking ball for years to come; he has gotten better and better as the season went along. Washington actually has another candidate here in Montez Sweat, though I'd give Young the nod out of those two. Brian Burns is excelling in his sophomore season after a mildly disappointing rookie year; he looks like a keeper too. And, again, we could acknowledge that 3-4 ends exist and talk about Dexter Lawrence -- but Jordan and Graham are fine choices.
AFC: Joey Bosa, LAC; Myles Garrett, CLE; J.J. Watt, HOU
NFC: Brandon Graham, PHI; DeMarcus Lawrence, DAL; Cameron Jordan, NO
Bryan: Aaron Donald leads the NFL in sacks and is second in pass pressures. I'm not saying, I'm just saying.
Andrew: Leonard Williams, Fletcher Cox, and Javon Hargrave are the three candidates I have for the two spots behind Donald. Williams' 8.5 sacks makes him the clubhouse leader among that trio.
Bryan: Well, let me raise some other possibilities. It would seem criminal if we ignored Washington's defensive line entirely, and Jonathan Allen has been just as big a part of that Football Team defensive front that has propelled them to the top of their division. I'd also make a stump down south for Grady Jarrett or your own David Onyemata
Andrew: I think, with Washington, it's not so much that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, because the parts are very, very good. It's that they're all very good, without any one player being quite the very best at his spot yet. If they can keep this unit together, it's going to be ridiculous in a year or two. It's already close to that level even now.
Jarrett's hurt by the fact that his main reputation is as a pass-rushing defensive tackle, and he's behind too many guys in sacks to be picked on that alone. In fact, his biggest impact has come against the run this year, and part of that is how bad the Falcons have been. Onyemata is a good player having a very good year, but he's not quite on the level of the three I mentioned above.
Bryan: Now, normally what I'd do here is cede to Williams, who I agree is playing very well, and then argue for Onyemata over Cox and Hargrave. That's a harder argument to sell when the Saints fan is going "nah, I'll pass on him this year." So, if you're sure, then I'll go with Cox as the third defensive tackle.
Andrew: On closer inspection, Onyemata does lead all defensive tackles in defeats, and he's at the heart of the best run defense in the league. He's not a guy I would have picked, but I'm quite happy to have my mind changed.
Bryan: In the AFC, let me briefly mention Foley Fatukasi of the Jets. I've had to watch all the Jets games to prep for the almanac, and Fatukasi gets one of my rare, coveted "looks like a professional football player" awards. I've only got, like, three of them for the entire Jets team, so you know, thumbs up there.
Andrew: Quinnen Williams of the Jets is second among defensive linemen in defeats and tied for fifth in sacks, despite playing on one of the worst defenses in the league. Surely he also earns the coveted "looks like a professional football player" designation?
Bryan: One of the reasons Williams has so many defeats is that the Jets' opponents spend most of the second half running the ball over and over as they just try to get out of MetLife without horrible crippling injuries. Fatukasi's the better run defender of the two, but yeah, you could do worse than Williams. Neither Jet gets any of my three picks here, mind you.
I don't think Cameron Heyward or Chris Jones probably need much discussion for two slots. And DeForest Buckner gave us a great look at the Colts defense both with and without him, and boy howdy were they different beasts.
Andrew: Absolutely. While Buckner doesn't exactly dominate the stat sheet, his impact is very clearly seen when he isn't on the field. He's one of those rare defensive tackles who elevates the entire defense and makes everybody around him better.
AFC: DeForest Buckner, IND; Cameron Heyward, PIT; Chris Jones, KC
NFC: Aaron Donald, LAR; Leonard Williams, NYG; David Onyemata, NO
Bryan: We're picking just two inside linebackers from each conference. This is a problem for the NFC, as this might be the most unbalanced position in the NFL this year. The NFC might well have the five best inside linebackers in football -- Lavonte David, Demario Davis, Eric Kendricks, Bobby Wagner, and Fred Warner. And we have to pick just two of them? Criminal.
Andrew: This is where I put on my Saints fan spectacles and point out that Davis' impact is felt at every level of that New Orleans defense. He might be the best blitzing off-ball linebacker in football, against both run and pass. He allows only 50% completions in coverage, and only 3.1 yards per target. He's a ball-seeking missile.
Bryan: And I have to put on my 49ers fan glasses and say that Fred Warner is playing the Bobby Wagner role in that Seahawks-inspired defense to a tee. And, of course, Bobby Wagner is still playing the Bobby Wagner role just fine in Seattle -- the two had a mutual admiration society in the interviews leading up to and just after the 49ers/Seahawks game earlier this year.
Andrew: But we can't possibly leave Lavonte David off the ballot now that the Buccaneers defense is actually good, can we?
Bryan: And Eric Kendricks is the best coverage linebacker of the five! This is hell.
I will say that SIS' Points Saved metric ranks them David, Warner, Kendricks, Davis, Wagner, with Wagner being the furthest down the list by quite some ways. I think that's penalizing Wagner a bunch for the overall strength of the Seahawks' defense, but I see the argument.
Andrew: I think Wagner would be behind Warner on my list too, for this season at least, so we can count him out. For me, Davis is the most versatile of the trio, and he excels at everything he does. He'd be my top choice. Can we just cheat and pick four here?
Bryan: I mean, technically we could pick six, and just pretend the AFC doesn't exist. That does strike against our rule to find the One Perfect Ballot, though.
Andrew: If it's three, then I'll nominate Davis as the most versatile, Warner as the best at his primary, and David as the one with most defeats.
Bryan: I tell you what. Let's go with homerism as our tiebreaker for now, check out what our safety position looks like, and decide if Lavonte David gets the spot over our second NFC strong safety. And just stand back in a kind of awe at the five top NFC linebackers.
Andrew: Now, to the AFC ... um, are you sure we can't just pretend Kendricks and Wagner play in the AFC?
Bryan: Jayon Brown would be in contention here, but he's not on the ballot due to injury. So we're left with ... hrm. Darius Leonard, probably? Either of Vic Fangio's linebackers in Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell? Nick Kwiatkoski in Las Vegas might be a good option.
Andrew: The AFC's defeats leader is Myles Jack, who I should note wasn't on the ballot, but I am loathe to nominate anybody from this year's Jaguars defense.
Bryan: Myles Jack is listed as an outside linebacker, because the NFL is terrible at this.
Andrew: Well I guess that simplifies things, because he isn't getting in at that spot either.
Bryan: Oh, that's an argument to have in the next section. I know we're stalling to dig through this mess, but one position at a time.
Andrew: There is absolutely no way leading tackler Zach Cunningham is making any non-KCW selection this year. Darius Leonard is a solid choice, and I'll accept Tremaine Edmunds of the Bills. Patrick Queen is a PERFECT example of why listing players by solo tackles is a terrible idea.
Bryan: For a moment there, I thought you were trying so slide Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds here. I appreciate the pluck.
I would like to take one of the two Denver linebackers; they're so important to a Vic Fangio scheme and they're playing solid enough. Let's go with Johnson and Leonard, and just stand back and kind of weep at the state of the position.
AFC: Alexander Johnson, DEN; Darius Leonard, IND
NFC: Lavonte David, TB (pending safety selections); Demario Davis, NO; Fred Warner, SF
Andrew: I gave up trying to make sense of things and reopened the Pro Bowl ballot page in my browser. T.J. Watt is the easiest linebacker pick we could possibly make. It's after him that things get challenging in the AFC. Incidentally, outside of Pittsburgh, the NFC dominates this spot too.
Bryan: The NFC is just the better conference this year, on a top-to-bottom sort of level.
I think we can add Myles Jack to our AFC selections -- as you said, he leads the league in defeats, and I'd like at least one non-pass-rusher somewhere on the team.
Andrew: I'm really not sold on Jack, but there really aren't many great options. Kyle Van Noy?
Bryan: Jordan Jenkins gets one of those "hey, you're a football player!" awards for the Jets. If we really want to squeeze a Jets player on, this might be the last chance.
Andrew: Why on Earth would I want to squeeze a Jets player on? If you really want Jack, I'd just go with him and the two Steelers outside linebackers. Left to my own devices, it would be Watt, Bud Dupree, and either Kyle Van Noy or Bradley Chubb.
Bryan: Bradley Chubb is an interesting option for the third OLB slot as well; he has had to carry a ton of Denver's pass rush with Von Miller missing the season. Chubb is third among linebackers in pass pressures, just behind Watt -- 47 to Dupree's 43. That's very close, so if you want Dupree, I'm fine with it, but it's a least a conversation.
Andrew: Let's stick with one from each team, then. Watt, Jack for some reason, and Bradley Chubb.
Bryan: "For some reason" being justice for 4-3 outside linebackers, who may one day no longer have to compete against pass-rushers for plaudits.
Khalil Mack isn't as obvious a pick as Watt is, but we still start off the NFC with an easy selection.
Andrew: Which Buccaneers edge rusher do we pick? I feel like we need at least one. Jason Pierre-Paul has more sacks and defeats, and plays more snaps, but I consider Shaq Barrett the more impactful player.
Bryan: Comparing them is a bit difficult; SIS even lists them at different positions. For what it's worth, both are pass-rushers first and foremost. JPP has 31 pass pressures; Barrett has 50, and the superior pressure rate. I would have picked Pierre-Paul, but the numbers seem to back up your selection of Barrett. That really does surprise me! I think Pierre-Paul draws more offensive attention, which should matter, but if you want Barrett, I think you have enough of a case to back you up here.
Andrew: I do think we need to pick one, and leading in both sacks and defeats is a heck of a combo to overcome. Let's go with Pierre-Paul, with Barrett as an honorable mention.
Bryan: So the question is, do we fill up with more pass-rushers in Haason Reddick or Za'Darius Smith? Or do we give a 4-3 outside linebacker a chance in Deion Jones or K.J. Wright?
Andrew: We have two other options with double-digit sacks. I think we have to go edge rusher. Of those two, I'd go with Smith, because -- and this surprises me -- he outguns Reddick by just about every measure: sacks, pressures, defeats, stop rate, yards allowed per play...
Bryan: It doesn't surprise me, if only because I've had Packers fans yelling at me all year for saying that the 2019 Packers weren't as good as their 13-3 record. For what it's worth, Za'Darius Smith was that good, and still is that good. Three pass-rushers it is!
AFC: Bradley Chubb, DEN; Myles Jack, JAX; T.J. Watt, PIT
NFC: Khalil Mack, CHI; Za'Darius Smith, GB; Jason Pierre-Paul, TB
Bryan: Again, we're limited to only six players when the teams normally have eight. And again, there are player selection problems -- with each team only having two or three nominees, slot corners basically do not exist on the ballot. Sorry, Jimmy Smith and Brian Poole; you'd have to get in via the coaches' vote.
Andrew: Bryce Callahan and Xavien Howard are your automatic choices in the AFC. Howard leads the league in interceptions, whereas SIS credits Callahan with only 4.1 yards allowed per pass target, lowest of any defensive back with at least 40 charted targets, and no touchdowns allowed in coverage. Only Nik Needham has more targets without allowing a touchdown, and Needham gives up 6.8 yards per target.
Bryan: Callahan and Howard lead the league among qualified players in quarterback rating allowed, showing you can have success in two very different ways -- shut everything down, or gamble and hit big game-changing plays. No question they're one and two; now we just need a third.
Andrew: I suspect the third vote goes to J.C. Jackson, who was a high-profile late addition to the ballot when people protested that the then-league leader in interceptions wasn't an option. He wouldn't be my pick though, as not even the best corner on his own team, but SIS' total points saved metric agrees with the masses.
Bryan: Yeah. Compare him to Howard for a moment. Both of them have the splashy turnovers to draw the eye, but Howard has the underlying success to back it up. Howard allows just a 40% completion rate; Jackson has a 51% rate. Howard allows 6.4 yards per target; Jackson, 7.2. Interceptions are fun, but they've got to be backed up by every-down consistency.
Andrew: If I was going more subjectively for a cornerback from the AFC, I would pick Buffalo's Tre'Davious White. I don't think we can ignore the Bills secondary, I do think White's the best player on that unit, and I do think White is one of the very top cornerbacks in the conference.
Bryan: White is having a down year by his standards (6.7 yards per target allowed, when he was sub-six in each of the past two seasons), but a down year for White is still a very solid year. And as much as the Xavier Rhodes comeback story is fun, I think I might break out in spots if I said that I'd rather have Rhodes than White on the team. Kenny Moore is a Colts player that I might put over White, but if you want White, I'll give you White.
Andrew: Nobody has allowed a lower completion rate on at least 50 targets than Rhodes, though Bashaud Breeland skips ahead if you lower the threshold to 40 targets. Another honorable mention goes to William Jackson of the Bengals, quietly having another very good year on another very bad team, but on this occasion, I want White.
The NFC is Jalen Ramsey at the top, then pretty much whoever else you want after that.
Bryan: See, I was going to put Jaire Alexander at the top, and then say much the same thing. Hey, that's two slots taken care of!
I am going to make a bit of an argument for Jason Verrett here -- he's my comeback player of the year, non-life-threatening-injury division. After starting just five games between 2016 and 2019, Verrett has come back and been the 49ers' top corner, filling in for a defense that has been basically demolished by injuries. If I was just looking at the stats, the third corner is probably Janoris Jenkins. But I think what Verrett has done, considering the state of the team and the state of his career up to this point, is worthy of note, at the very least.
Andrew: Jenkins has been a very pleasant surprise for a Saints defense that began the year looking like it was back to its classic "tire fire" ways. Even when Marshon Lattimore missed a few games, for once the secondary didn't implode in his absence. I do think I'd put Carlton Davis in ahead of Jenkins, but Davis' play has dropped off a little in recent weeks after a couple of challenging opponents. Alternatively, we could double up on Rams cornerbacks.
Bryan: I could get behind going with Darious Williams as our third. This has been one heck of a breakout season for him, and while he isn't as big a name as some of his other rivals, 5.9 yards per target is a heck of a feather in your cap. Done!
AFC: Bryce Callahan, DEN; Xavien Howard, MIA; Tre'Davious White, BUF
NFC: Jaire Alexander, GB; Jalen Ramsey, LAR; Darious Williams, LAR
Bryan: We complain every year that we only get to pick one strong safety. Now we have the chance to pick more!
... maybe we should just pick one strong safety.
Andrew: Ah, but which one? Budda Baker is the position leader in defeats.
Bryan: I think Baker is my choice for the top NFC safety, and then it comes down to whether we want to go with three linebackers and Lavonte David over, say, Harrison Smith or Adrian Amos. What say you?
Andrew: I'm not sure I understand the question, but I actually think the answer is Eddie Jackson.
Bryan: Well, we said that we couldn't cut down to just two inside linebackers -- but we wanted to keep 44-man rosters. So, here's the other real option of where to put the extra roster spot given to us by the reduction in cornerback slots. Most years, we get four corners, two inside linebackers, and one strong safety. This year, we only get three corners -- do we use the extra spot on David or a safety?
Andrew: If it's a choice between Lavonte David and one of these guys, it's Lavonte David.
Bryan: Agreed. We still need two AFC strong safeties, though, because we're not dipping back into that inside linebacker pool. Never again.
Andrew: Jordan Poyer is my first pick as the second-leading safey in the AFC in defeats. Poyer has a couple of sacks, a couple of picks, and a couple of forced fumbles for a strong Bills secondary. Rayshawn Jenkins outdoes him in defeats, but I'd take Poyer ahead of him very comfortably.
Bryan: If we take Poyer -- and I'm fine with that -- we can kind of join the Broncos in cheating by taking Kareem Jackson. Is Jackson a safety or a nickel corner? The answer is "yes," but he's listed here, so that could help our lack of nickel defenders from the cornerback section.
Andrew: That's a feature of modern defense, as you could ask the same question about Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in New Orleans. The Panthers listed Jeremy Chinn at outside linebacker on the Pro Bowl ballot, whereas I suspect most observers would have listed him at safety.
The more important question, however, is … huh? Would you really take Kareem Jackson ahead of Tyrann Mathieu?
Bryan: Yes. Jackson leads Matheiu in run stop rate by a huge margin -- 42% to 26%. They're tied in pass stop rate, but Jackson allows 4.5 yards per target; Mathieu 6.6. Mathieu is a better pass-rusher, but he only has six hurries this year, so it's not like he's Jamal Adams out there … no, I'm comfortable taking Jackson there. You don't appear to be sold, however!
Andrew: I'm not. Mathieu is the more impactful player -- view his six interceptions, versus Jackson's nil points. Admittedly, he benefits from playing with a Chiefs offense that is building leads and forcing opponents to throw, but some of that is seen in the numbers you just quoted; it's a defense built to contain opponents, and Mathieu is playing his role the way it's designed to be played.
Bryan: Well, yeah; Matheiu has been targeted 64 times to Jackson's 39. Of course Mathieu has more interceptions; opposing quarterbacks are much more likely to target him. Jackson's receivers have a 78.6% deserved catch rate, per SIS. Mathieu's are at 92.3% -- that's the percentage of targets as the primary defender that the receiver either caught or dropped the ball when the pass was catchable. Throwing at Mathieu is a much better strategy than throwing at Jackson. I suppose you could argue Mathieu has faced better passers? Maybe? I'm not buying it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Mathieu isn't a good player. I just think Jackson has been demonstrably better this year, as part of his eighth-ranked pass defense, and not Mathieu's 14th.
Andrew: I'll concede to you on this one, but I disagree quite strongly.
Maybe we are better off when it's only one strong safety.
AFC: Kareem Jackson, DEN; Jordan Poyer, BUF
NFC: Budda Baker, ARI
Andrew: Part of the issue here is what exactly constitutes a strong safety versus a free safety in the modern game. The difference is not quite as defined as it used to be.
Bryan: For the purposes of this ballot, it's just wherever they're listed. It's dumb that the NFL splits 'em up, honestly; with so many interchangeable safeties out there, it makes far more sense to group them together than to judge them separately. We're in total agreement here.
Andrew: Which is a shame, because we are not in agreement about the identity of the two players, if the initial ballot is anything to go by. My two choices here would be Minkah Fitzpatrick and, quite shockingly, Marcus Maye, who I see as the most competent player on the absolute bumbling wreck that is the 2020 Jets defense.
Bryan: I'll give you Maye without an argument; I don't think he's the most competent player on the Jets' defense (that would be Fatukasi), but Maye is definitely worth a nod.
Jesse Bates would be my No. 1 if he had hands that actually worked; he has dropped four interceptions this season. His performance has been better than his results, if that makes sense. And I suppose you won't listen to Justin Simmons after we had that fight over the LAST Broncos safety spot! So we'll go with your two and move along.
Andrew: If it had been Simmons instead of Jackson, I'd have ceded without a fight. Justin Simmons is very good, and well worth a nomination as an AFC safety. I do think Fitzpatrick is better, though not by nearly as much as I preferred Mathieu over Jackson.
Bryan: In the NFC, I think we have to give one spot to John Johnson, even after giving the Rams two cornerback slots already. He also has a mild case of Bates-hands, dropping three interceptions, but he's allowing just 3.4 yards per target, which is crazy-low.
Andrew: I agree completely with Johnson; it's the second spot in this conference that's the headache.
Bryan: And again, we both have a homer pick -- Jimmie Ward for me, Marcus Williams for you. They're certainly not the only candidates, but they're good ones!
Andrew: Marcus Williams is, at least, no longer oscillating between tremendous play and ridiculous touchdown-conceding missed tackle. I don't know that it's Pro Bowl level, but it's better than he has been since the Stefon Diggs Incident.
Bryan: I think, as a peace offering, we need to go to a neutral party and pick someone such as Rodney McLeod out of Philadelphia -- he's out for the season now, but again, digital Pro Bowl. McLeod is fourth in SIS' Total Points Saved metric in the secondary, behind Jalen Ramsey, Budda Baker, and Bryce Callahan. Not bad company.
Andrew: McLeod would have been my choice four days ago, so if you want to pretend the torn ACL never happened, I'm perfectly comfortable doing that.
AFC: Minkah Fitzpatrick, PIT; Marcus Maye, NYJ
NFC: John Johnson, LAR; Rodney McLeod, PHI
Andrew: The best kicker in the NFL is Justin Tucker, but just for this season, Jason Sanders has outkicked him and deserves the nod. Miami has 11.9 points of expected value added on field goals and extra points; Baltimore a mere 9.2. Sanders has made eight field goals of 50 yards or longer, tied for the league lead.
In the NFC, Arbroath's finest, Graham Gano, is once again having a Pro Bowl year. He has missed only one kick, and has added 11.6 points of expected value, slightly ahead of Seattle's Jason Myers.
AFC: Jason Sanders, MIA
NFC: Graham Gano, NYG
Andrew: Where do we even begin with this?
Bryan: What, we don't have a database of long-snapper-specific statistics to go by?
This is a decision that should be made by special teams experts. The casual fan can't really be asked to differentiate between good and great long snappers. Hell, 95% of NFL analysts out there couldn't begin to answer this question.
Andrew: To be clear, we are firmly in that 95%, if you even deign to consider us analysts. The highest-paid long snappers in the league are Luke Rhodes of the Colts and Zach Wood of the Saints. That has to count for something, right? And hey, it gets another Saints player on the team. Bonus.
AFC: Luke Rhodes, IND
NFC: Zach Wood, NO
Andrew: Just to be clear, this isn't Ty Long, right?
Bryan: Let me just go check our punting statistics ... aaaand it negatively overflowed my spreadsheets.
Our punting value is a good place to start looking for winners here, but remember -- that measures the punt coverage units as well. Washington and New England are first and second in punting value
Andrew: I don't see that as a downside, personally. Part of the punter's job is to make sure the coverage team can do their job effectively. It's no good blasting the ball 70 yards every time if you're allowing 30 yards per return.
Bryan: Well, it's a downside if you're just picking a punter. If you're being bailed out by miracle tackles left and right because no one on your special teams knows how to make a tackle, that's no good.
That being said, there's no problem with just taking Jake Bailey of the Patriots; New England has a +14.8 punting value, while Bailey himself is second in the league in net average at 47.3 yards per punt.
Andrew: The conflict between our numbers and SIS charting is more of a factor in the NFC, where our numbers give the Washington Football Team a large lead, but SIS considers Seattle's Michael Dickson the best punter in the conference.
Bryan: Here's the relevant info -- Dickson has the better gross and net averages. Way forces more fair catches, while Dickson has more touchbacks. 49% of Dickson's punts end up inside the 20 compared to 37% for Way. I think the fair catches and touchbacks are more on the two coverage units than the punters -- you're less likely to try to run the ball back with Washington swarming around downfield, and Washington has done a better job downing balls before they roll into the end zone. In addition, if anyone's going to call for a punt from the opponent's 30-yard line, it'd be Pete Carroll, not Ron Rivera.
Andrew: I'd need to go to the film to make a distinction between the two, and I'm not about to spend an hour at five past midnight on a Wednesday morning watching 128 NFC punts. SIS numbers are close. Our numbers aren't so close. I favor Tress Way, but I won't get het up about it if you object.
AFC: Jake Bailey, NE
NFC: Tress Way, WAS
Bryan: Last year, we were flummoxed by the Bears' decision to nominate Tarik Cohen, not Cordarelle Patterson, as their choice here. Well, worry no longer -- Patterson is the nominee, he leads the NFL in average kickoff return, he has scored a touchdown, and is really fast. In the AFC, Isaiah Rodgers is second to Patterson in return yardage, has scored a touchdown, and is really fast.
AFC: Isaiah Rodgers, IND
NFC: Cordarelle Patterson, CHI
Bryan: We mentioned earlier that Nick Bellore was the leading NFC vote-getter because of alphabetical order. Well, that's actually OK in this case -- he leads the NFC in special teams tackles and return stops, per our stats, so three cheers for the alphabet! The NFL leader in both categories, however, is George Odum, and so he gets our AFC nod.
AFC: George Odum, IND
NFC: Nick Bellore, SEA
Andrew: So there you go, the definitive Pro Bowl selection. I'm sure nobody will find any reason at all to question our picks. Normally, we make the picks beforehand, and just write them up in the article. If this feature-length article has shown us anything, it's that we should go back to doing it that way. Which we will, very soon, for the Scramble All-Rookie Team.
Bryan: Preparation has been no one's strong point in 2020, as some of our coaching awards this week will show.
Keep Choppin' Wood
Whenever we think of teams from the past decade who were notorious for disastrous field goal kicking, three franchises come to mind: the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Minnesota Vikings. While the potential calamity of the Vikings travelling to the Buccaneers was justifiably overshadowed by the even-more-afflicted Falcons-Chargers matchup, it was the former game that lived up to its ominous outlook. Vikings kicker Dan Bailey had one of the most memorable forgettable days in kicking history, failing to make a single kick while missing an extra point and three field goals, including a 36-yarder, in a game the Vikings lost by 12. (Buccaneers counterpart Ryan Succop, we should note, also missed an extra point.) Although he made the overtime game-winner against the Jaguars in Week 13, Bailey also missed three of his six kicks in that game, meaning he has missed seven of his last 10 attempts, including three of his past four extra points.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Doug Pederson stated his aggressive intent early and often against the Saints, going for it on fourth-and-short three times in the team's first two drives. The middle attempt of the three, a Malcolm Jenkins stuff against his old team on fourth-and-2, kept the game scoreless, but on fourth-and-2 on the next drive, Jalen Hurts found Alshon Jeffery for a 15-yard touchdown to give the Eagles a second-quarter lead -- a lead they would never relinquish, as their defense shut down Taysom Hill and the Saints offense in the first half to build a 17-0 lead, then held on for a 24-21 upset victory.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
As noted below, neither of your Scramblers understand why any team would voluntarily start Mike Glennon over Gardner Minshew in the year 2020, but especially not a team as bad as the Jacksonville Jaguars. When Minshew replaced Glennon midway through the team's blowout loss against the Titans, the Jaguars immediately looked better for it -- albeit against a bad Titans defense that was also playing soft with a big lead. In yet another lost season, Jaguars fans need every reason you can give them to stay interested. Glennon is not going to provide that reason. Fan favorite Minshew at least might. Head coach Doug Marrone has stated that Minshew will reclaim the starting role in Week 14. That's at least two weeks too late, by our reckoning.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Anthony Lynn has never quite mastered the nuances of situational coaching.
I've never seen a team worse when it comes to clock management than this Chargers team under Anthony Lynn. This is inexcusable and happens every week. pic.twitter.com/P8B1060dvc
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) December 13, 2020
In the Chargers' defense, there was some confusion as to whether or not they had picked up the first down, and that can explain some of the difficulty running the field goal unit onto the field to attempt a kick as time expired at the end of the first half. Of course, they were only in that situation because, inexplicably, they called a running play up the gut with 22 seconds left and no timeouts. 22 seconds is probably enough time to call a run and then spike the ball, so you can see the germ of the plan there, though I don't think a run from 8 yards out is particularly likely to achieve anything significant. But on third down, even third-and-nothing, you can't count on your team to make the first; you have to be prepared to rush the field goal unit out there and scramble for the kick. "Prepared" is not the word I'd used to describe the Los Angeles Chargers this season.
'Lockstep' Fantasy Player of the Week
It had to be someone from Drew Lock's stunning four-touchdown day. But you may have actually been starting Lock, if for no other reason than necessity; he's rostered in 11% of Yahoo! leagues. You almost assuredly were not starting KJ Hamler, but he roasted Rasul Douglas on a pair of touchdown grabs, putting him in the top 10 fantasy receivers of the week, and putting him ahead of all receivers in DYAR. Hamler was drafted for his blazing speed and as a big-play threat, and Sunday was the first day we really got to see any of that actually in action; his two receptions were the two longest plays of his career so far.
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) December 13, 2020
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Long live the mustache; forever shall it reign.
— NFL (@NFL) December 13, 2020
Gardner Minshew saw his first action since Week 7 and immediately gave the Jaguars' offense a spark. Well, what passes for a spark in Jacksonville, at any rate -- three trips to the red zone, one of which ended in a score, and then two failed fourth-down conversions. Minshew, who went 18-of-31 for 178 yards and the touchdown, ended up with 38 DYAR on the day, 18th-most in the league and ahead of such notable names as Deshaun Watson and Kirk Cousins. Minshew only has a -12.0% passing DVOA this year, which is 25th in the league. But Jake Luton, his erstwhile replacement, was even worse, clocking in at -47.9%. Why was Minshew benched again? Doug Marrone needed a scapegoat for his offensive woes? Ah.
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Two teams had the meaningful portion of their season ended on Sunday of Week 14: the Houston Texans (sorry, Rivers) and the Atlanta Falcons. For Houston, consolation is tough to find: their draft stock is even more depleted than their roster. A first-ever full season from Will Fuller would have been great, but Fuller was recently suspended under the league PED policy. At least Deshaun Watson is still magnificent: Watson entered Week 14 ranked in the top four in both DYAR and DVOA. He is the sole reason for optimism in Houston, though that is reason for optimism that roughly three quarters of the league would love to have.
Atlanta's season has been just as bad as Houston's overall, but without the comfort of a quarterback at the top of his game. Fortunately, Calvin Ridley is nearing the top of his: Ridley's 124 yards against the Chargers also brought him the first 1,000-yard receiving season of his career, still with three games to go. With Julio Jones battling frequent, niggling injuries while posting his lowest per-game receiving tallies since his age-23 season, Ridley has taken over at the top of Atlanta's receiving charts.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
You were expecting this.
— NFL (@NFL) December 15, 2020
But instead, we're choosing this.
— NFL (@NFL) December 14, 2020
Lamar Jackson's Willis Reed moment and Taron Johnson's trip to the house both are worth mentioning, and so indeed we have mentioned both.
Jackson's pass was the bigger play by a not-insignificant margin. A fourth-down, fourth-quarter, come-from-behind score is about as huge as you can get, especially from 44 yards out, and that's before you factor in the style points for the quality of the throw and the drama of the return. If I'm picking between the two for best play of the week or most memorable play of the week, I'm taking Jackson every time.
But Ravens-Browns, as big as it felt, didn't have a huge impact on the playoff race. The Browns remain in the fifth seed, and the Ravens remain on the outside looking in, even if you flip the result. It may end up mattering a lot down the line, of course. Both Cleveland and Baltimore would be relatively weak 10-6 teams; the Ravens would have a fairly poor conference record, while the Browns would lose tiebreakers to the Dolphins and likely the Titans. But at the end of the analysis, we probably saw two wild-card teams shuffling seeds on Monday night.
Steelers-Bills, on the other hand, upset the balance of power atop the AFC. The loss knocked the Steelers out of the top seed -- which, remember, is the only bye week this year. The Chiefs are now overwhelming favorites to earn the top seed -- 93.9%, by our odds, and they could theoretically clinch it in Week 15. Even if the Chiefs lose to the Saints or Falcons while the Steelers win out, tying them at 14-2, the Chiefs will earn the bye week -- they'd have identical conference records and remember, the Chiefs beat Buffalo and thus are a perfect 5-0 against the two teams' common opponents. Flip the Bills game, and the tiebreaker between the two would have been strength of victory, which Pittsburgh almost certainly would have won. Losing this game basically cost the Steelers a bye week, like they needed any more of that happening this year.
Of course, none of that previous paragraph would have mattered if Johnson's play hadn't been huge in and of itself -- taking the lead before half, in a situation where there was no guarantee Buffalo would touch the ball again until the third quarter, is a huge deal. It's going to get outshined in the highlight reel by Jackson's heroics, but Johnson's play was more impactful on the shape of the NFL season.
Bryan: We're down to brass tacks in the Double Survival League, and it was the Panthers-Broncos game that really placed us here. Four touchdown passes from Drew Lock helped Denver to a 32-27 win, and that's double bad news for me. Forget that it broke my Lock of the Week streak; coupled with the 49ers' flop against Washington, it means that Andrew is now up four games with four to play in the Double Survival contest. That means to catch him, I need to hit all four of my last picks, he needs to miss all four, and I have to win the tiebreaker, which I suppose will be based on which of us found wins for worse teams.
That'd almost assuredly be me (I would have found wins for Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, and Washington; Andrew's unique wins are Arizona, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay), but to get there, I need eight games to go my way in two weeks. So what I'm saying is, there's a chance!
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date:
Andrew: I feel a little spoilt for choice this week, which probably means I should tread carefully with my selection. My favorites are all the favorites, with the sole exception of New Orleans at home to Kansas City. I hate to land my jinx on a game that also affects double survival, but Indianapolis is playing very well on offense right now, and the Texans have been shocking on defense. The Colts are better than the Texans in all three phases, are playing at home, and have a division title at stake whereas the Texans have nothing to play for except pride. The last game finished closer than this one will. Indianapolis (-7) vs. Houston.
Bryan: The Chiefs failed to cover last week against the Dolphins. And the week before that against the Broncos. And the week before that against the Buccaneers. And the week before that against the Rams. And the week before that against the Panthers. The Chiefs are currently being bid higher by the general public than their performance on the field really deserves -- don't get me wrong, they're my Super Bowl favorites at the moment, but they like to let teams hang around. Whether it's Drew Brees or Taysom Hill under center, I think they let the same happen once again. New Orleans (+3.5).
Double Survival League
Andrew: CLE, HOU, JAX, SF
Bryan: DEN, HOU, LAC, LAR
Andrew: CAR, CHI, CIN, MIN, NYJ, PHI, WAS
Bryan: ARI, CAR, CHI, IND, JAX, MIN, NYJ, PHI, PIT, SF, TB
Andrew: I am not a huge fan of this week's picks, but given the four teams I have left, they are probably the best I can do. I cannot possibly in good conscience pick either a seriously demotivated Houston on the road at Indianapolis, or the Jaguars in Baltimore. So even though I would prefer to grab them next week against the Jets, instead I have the Cleveland Browns in the first game of their MetLife deathturf doubleheader. The Browns have already far outperformed my preseason expectations and come in as favorites, but the Giants have suddenly become a tougher out in the second half of the year. They still have a legitimate chance to become the first team ever to make the playoffs after a 1-7 start. A wiser man would sacrifice the Jaguars to get Cleveland against the Jets instead, but if this season has proven anything, it is that I am not a wiser man.
I would have been confident in my second pick, until the San Francisco 49ers laid an egg at home to Washington in Week 14. Hopefully, that's just a bad matchup against a strong defensive front, and the much more pliable Cowboys front will be pulled apart by Kyle Shanahan's scheme.
Bryan: Well, those two picks really do lock me in place. You didn't pick the Houston Texans, so I must pick them this week to have any chance of catching you -- you have to lose out and I have to win out, so if we pick the same team at any point, I am officially boned. So I'm taking the Texans. Against the Indianapolis Colts. Fantastic. Um, alright -- it was a close game a couple of weeks ago, with the Colts escaping 26-20. Houston had the ball with the chance to win with 90 seconds left, until a low snap ended their hopes. I suppose there are worse underdogs to be stuck with, but this isn't a choice I would make if I had my druthers.
What I WANT to do next is pick the Rams over the Jets -- that seems like a clear win, right? But there's a problem -- that would leave me with the Denver Broncos and the Los Angeles Chargers, and they play each other in Week 16. They can't both win and, again, I need to hit all four of my remaining teams to have a chance. That means the Rams need to wait until next week for their Seahawks game, and I have to try to pick between Denver against Buffalo and Los Angeles against Las Vegas. Joy. I think both teams will lose, and lose fairly handily. I suppose the Chargers are more likely to beat the Raiders than seeing the Bills drop one to Denver -- Las Vegas did nearly lose to the Jets and just fired their defensive coordinator, after all -- but I also think the Chargers are more likely to beat the Broncos in two weeks than vice versa. So, with that being the one pick I'm happy with in three games, I'll save the Chargers for next week and hope the Denver Broncos can somehow, someway find it in them to upset Buffalo. Four more touchdown passes from Drew Lock, please?