Mac Jones, Micah Parsons Highlight 2021 All-Rookie Team
NFL Week 17 - Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where, with COVID-19 once again ravaging the NFL landscape, we're relieved that we're in the reflective rather than the predictive segment of our article schedule. That means we can turn our attention away from the latest Monday night disaster novel, resuming normal programming with a look at the best of this year's new arrivals.
Bryan: The holiday season always gives us a much-awaited look at the Spirit of Superstars Yet to Come; a chance to acknowledge some of the guys who we'll be writing about over the next decade (and a few flashes in the pan, besides). It's nice, after months and months of pre-draft hype, to go back and look at who actually managed to succeed from the opening gun. Obviously, we do end up with a lot of ultra-hyped prospects on these lists, because they're the ones who get the opportunities from the word go, but it's nice to see high first-round picks mingling with late-round flyers—there's lots of talent to go around.
Andrew: As ever, we're picking an offense based on modern 11 personnel and a nickel base defense, and mostly eschewing the Pro Bowl front seven position designations in favor of interior linemen, edge rushers, and linebackers. We say "mostly" for reasons we'll get to soon enough.
Bryan: As a quick aside, one reason this article goes up at this time of the year is that it allows us to write around the holiday schedule. Several of the stats cited, then, come from before Week 16's action. That doesn't mean we weren't paying attention this weekend, and indeed, several of our picks were finalized during the games themselves, but that explains any statistical discrepancies you might see.
SCRAMBLE'S 2021 ALL-ROOKIE TEAM
Andrew: It's unfortunate that we're crowning him after his worst two-game stretch of the season, but this season's All-Rookie quarterback conversation came down to one player and one player only: new Patriots passer Mac Jones. Jones' 454 DYAR isn't just solid for a rookie, it has him on the fringes of the Pro Bowl conversation in a down year for the AFC. That's far and away the best performance from a class that has largely been a severe disappointment, lowlighted by No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence and No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson being No. 31 and No. 32 at the bottom of the DYAR table at the time of writing. Third overall pick Trey Lance hasn't played enough to qualify, and the fourth quarterback taken, Justin Fields, is fourth from bottom with a DVOA between Lawrence and Wilson. Somehow, that leaves third-round pick Davis Mills and his -131 DYAR as the second-best of the rookie crop behind Jones.
Conceptually, it shouldn't be a surprise that the rookie quarterback touted as the most pro-ready, stepping into an offense coached by Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels, should have the strongest season, but his success does have an extra edge when we consider that Jones was the fifth quarterback taken in the draft, and the one of the first-round picks that fan bases (including my distinguished colleague in this here column) appeared the most eager to avoid. Patriots fans will be glad that 14 other franchises obliged, as they look set at quarterback for the first time since Tom Brady flew south for the milder winters.
Bryan: As I have been called out here, I should remind Andrew that I would have been fine—if very, very unthrilled—had my favorite team drafted Mac Jones with the 12th pick. My issue was his lack of ceiling, which in my view, made him not worth trading three first-round picks for. The jury's still out on that, of course, but Jones' high floor was always his selling point, and he has exceeded most people's expectations with just how high that floor has been. I will also point out that Jones has shown more pop than expected as well. If you were to remove every play below zero DYAR—so every sack, interception, meaningless checkdown, etc.—Jones would still be third in DVOA among the rookie passers; Jones has brought more than just game management and avoiding mistakes to the table, even if that has been his forte as advertised. People can point to Lawrence's pre-draft pedigree, or the highlight reel plays that Fields has brought to the table, but so far, none of them can hold a candle to Jones.
Bryan: This one's a little tough this year. By volume, the pick is Najee Harris; he's the only back over 200 carries, leads all rookies in yards and touchdowns, and has generally been the most involved of any of the rookies this season. The trouble is, "most involved" doesn't mean "most effective;" Harris had 8 DYAR entering Week 16 and a -7.9% DVOA. Toting the largest workload is worth noting, but it doesn't give you the award in and of itself!
In terms of efficiency, the pick should probably be Elijah Mitchell, with 84 DYAR and a 3.6% rushing DVOA, not to mention 33 more DYAR in the receiving game in San Francisco. The problem is, Mitchell has only played in nine games as he has been dealing with a knee injury. His raw numbers are right up there among the top backs, but that's partially a token of being in the 49ers' run-heavy offense; the volume is a bit misleading. Plus, while it's not quite a plug-and-play offense in San Francisco, the fact that other running backs have come in and also played well does slightly take the shine off of Mitchell—a better candidate than Harris, but not our final pick.
Instead, we're splitting the difference with Javonte Williams, our Goldilocks selection. Williams entered the week second among freshmen in both attempts and yards behind Harris, so he scores highly in the workload category. Williams also had 87 DYAR and a -1.8% DVOA, very solid numbers for a rookie. Further, Williams is leading the league with 33 broken and missed tackles, per SIS charting, and his 3.5 yards after contact leads all running backs with at least 50 carries. He has excelled despite working with a lesser collection of blockers than Mitchell has had in San Francisco, and so he's our pick.
Bryan: There's a fairly clear top three here, but don't mistake clear winners for this being a shallow class; there's a strong second tier of receivers who easily could have grabbed a slot in a regular year.
We're just going to go straight DYAR and take Ja'Marr Chase, Jaylen Waddle, and DeVonta Smith as our starters. Chase, of course, is Pro Bowl-bound, and deservedly so. He leads the league with 11 drops, but when he does catch the ball, he has already proven himself as an exceptional playmaker and in the upper tier of deep threats in the league. If he's not a complete package yet, he's still absolutely off on the right foot. He was stronger in September and October than he has been recently, but he did more than enough in those first two months to ensure himself a slot on this list.
I can already tell Waddle is going to lead the league in failed receptions so long as he's in this Miami offense, but he turns enough of Tua Tagovailoa's RPOs into solid plays to more than deserve a nod here; he has 20 more receptions than any other rookie in the league this year, and 100 more yards than anyone not named "Chase." He leads all rookies with a +6.9 receiving plus/minus; that actually has him in the top 10 of all qualified receivers so far. So even though he has been fed a very steady diet of short passes, he's still catching more than you would expect.
Smith's stuck in something of a low-volume passing attack in Philadelphia, but he has been more up than down this year, and he has been coming on strong too. If we threw out the first two months of the season, it would be Smith, not Chase, leading all rookies in DYAR. He hasn't had the same volume of highlight-reel plays as Chase has, but he is becoming more and more integral to the Philly passing offense as they make a playoff push.
Those are your top three, but there's a solid second class. Amon-Ra St. Brown and Elijah Moore have become key parts of admittedly bad offenses. Rondale Moore's DYAR numbers aren't great, but that's in part because he has been given the Tavon Austin treatment with a zillion short passes; he gets back into positive DYAR when you include his rushing value, and he provides a horizontal aspect to the Arizona offense that the other receivers don't. And even after them, you have the likes of Rashod Bateman or Nico Collins, who have looked like NFL-caliber players from the gun, if not world-beaters yet. Even without a Justin Jefferson on top, this is a deep class!
|Qualified Rookie Wide Receivers, Weeks 1-15|
|Amon-Ra St. Brown||DET||65||601||2||48||-5.6%|
Andrew: Usually, the tight end spot in our All-Rookie team is a choice between the guy who had pretty decent receiving numbers and somebody else who's a better blocker but didn't have as many catches. Most rookie tight ends, even rookie receiving tight ends, don't make much of an impact in their debut seasons.
Kyle Pitts is not most rookie tight ends. Not only has he already obliterated Jeremy Shockey's 21st-century high of 894 receiving yards for a rookie tight end, he has Mike Ditka's all-time mark of 1,076, set in 1961, firmly in his sights. Pitts needs to average 64 receiving yards—a mark he has eclipsed five times this season, including each of the past two weeks—over his last two games to overtake Ditka. He has the fourth-most yards of any tight end and a top-10 receiving DYAR despite having just the one touchdown to his name. Pitts is already a Pro Bowl player and the cream of the crop of rookie tight ends not only this season, but so far this century.
Bryan: We're going with the top tackles drafted. Rashawn Slater has been a stud since day one; his 1.9% blown block rate is in the top 10 among all tackles this year and he has only allowed four sacks all season long. I'm not sure he's the best tackle in the AFC, which is what the Pro Bowl voting would indicate, but he's a major part of the reason the Chargers have jumped from 12th to third in adjusted sack rate this season. He looks like he'll be an anchor for years to come.
Penei Sewell, on the other hand, was not a stud from Day 1. He had some significant struggles early as he flipped from the left side in college to the right side in the pros. That, coupled with the fact that he was shaking off a year's worth of rust after sitting out the 2020 season, led to a fairly disappointing September. Since the bye week, however, Sewell has been rock-solid, first filling in for Taylor Decker on the left, and then returning to the right. He has been especially impressive as a run-blocker with just two blown blocks all year long; his pass protection had to catch up to the pro level, but he was carving out paths from the very beginning. It took longer to get there, but he looks like a great pickup as well.
Christian Darrisaw deserves an honorable mention, and there it is. He has been mentioned, honorably.
Andrew: One of the more debatable spots in our roster was offensive guard, where Eagles second-round pick Landon Dickerson had a strong case to oust one of our starters and Quinn Meinerz made a late push for inclusion. In the end, we settled on players from each end of the draft, on teams from each end of the AFC.
The first guard taken in April's draft may have justified his selection at the top of the class: Alijah Vera-Tucker has been one of the bright spots in another difficult Jets season. Vera-Tucker started slowly after missing a chunk of the offseason with a pectoral injury, but quickly established himself as one of the better run blockers at the position. His pass blocking isn't quite at the same level, but he improved significantly as the season progressed to become a borderline Pro Bowl candidate.
At the opposite end of the draft, but also the opposite end of the standings, Chiefs guard Trey Smith emerged from the sixth round to become an opening day starter on one of the best teams in the league, holding off unretired veteran Laurent Duvernay-Tardif during training camp to earn the spot. From there, he quickly established himself as a worthy starter and one of the steals of the draft. The Chiefs offense has had its struggles this season, but the offensive line is much improved from a year ago and Smith is a big part of the reason.
Andrew: The biggest reason for the improved Chiefs line play was the only reasonable choice for center. Creed Humphrey has not only been the top rookie center, but one of the top centers regardless of experience. His selection as a Pro Bowl alternate was seen as a snub, with several observers considering him the best center in the league. We wouldn't quite go that far, but he's definitely already in the conversation. Forget just centers, only four offensive linemen have a better rate of snaps per blown block, and all four are established Pro Bowl players. Humphrey has only allowed one sack all year, the fourth-lowest rate of sacks allowed of any center with at least 500 pass-block snaps. No other rookie even comes close to his level, and he was one of the easiest picks of this whole article.
Andrew: This is probably the weakest position on our All-Rookie defense as our rookie crop of interior defenders struggled to make an impact in 2021. Undrafted free agent Naquan Jones of Tennessee deserves a mention for claiming not only a roster spot, but a starting role on the Titans defense, even though he has struggled throughout the year. Cowboys third-round pick Osawaru Odighizuwa has a strong claim as a starter on a defense that is still flying somewhat under the radar as we approach the postseason.
However, our first pick is Patriots second-rounder Christian Barmore. Barmore fell out of the first round in April due to concerns about his coachability, but he has drawn strong praise from Patriots coaches for his role in their defense. A three-down interior lineman, his 38 tackles and 31 pass pressures lead all rookie defensive linemen. He was the natural choice as our top tackle.
Texans sixth-round pick Roy Lopez is not so heralded, but he has been a key component of a Texans defense that is better than conventional wisdom says. His numbers aren't as impressive as Odighizuwa's, but Lopez is much more rounded while playing in a much tougher situation. He's that rarest of rare beasts: a promising young player on the Houston Texans.
Bryan: There's some good competition, and we're not just taking the easy way out and going with the rookie leaders in pass pressures. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Jaelan Phillips, and Adetokunbo Ogundeji are all near the top of the leaderboards with over 30 pass pressures each. None of them are our picks; we can do better than that.
Odafe Oweh has been a stud in Baltimore with five sacks and 34 pressures. He also has a habit of making splash plays—remember his sack/forced fumble/fumble return trifecta against Cleveland? He hasn't put it together consistently enough, but when he flashes, he flashes. Seventh-rounder Jonathon Cooper has been asked to fill Von Miller's shoes in Denver, and while that's a tall task for anybody, he has been playing very well. If we were prioritizing value, he'd be a pick, for sure. But no, they're not our picks, either
We're instead going with Kwity Paye and Gregory Rousseau. Paye got off to a slow start as a pass rusher—he's up to three sacks and 29 pass pressures now, but September did not go well—and he has been a force against the run since the moment he put on a Colts uniform. Similarly, Rousseau is ranked 10th in ESPN's run stop win rate among edge rushers; he has been amazing at setting the edge for Buffalo's ninth-ranked run defense. Add in those run game heroics with very solid pass-rushing—both Rousseau's 11.2% pressure rate and Paye's 9.8% place them in the upper third of the lead—and you have our two choices, the most well-rounded rookie edge rushers this season.
Bryan: Yes, for all we complained about Micah Parsons being listed as an inside linebacker on the Pro Bowl ballot, we're squeezing him in here too. This is partially because there's more competition at edge rusher, so this allows us to fit more quality players onto the roster, but Parsons has spent more than half of his snaps off of the line of scrimmage. I will continue to insist that the only thing Parsons really does well at this point in time is rush the passer, but he does it so incredibly well that he has to make the All-Rookie team somewhere. We were talking about the rookie edge rushers in the 30-somethings for pressures; Parsons has 54. That puts him in the top dozen in the league, and again, the Cowboys haven't been using him as a full-time pass rusher all season long. I don't know if Parsons' coverage abilities will round into form and he'll become a roving defender in the middle of the field, or if Dallas will just transition him to full-time quarterback harasser, but regardless of his positional designation, the dude can make an impact.
(Ed. Note: For what it is worth, Parsons will be considered as a linebacker rather than an edge rusher for AP All-Pro voting. He has more snaps at linebacker than edge rusher, by a small margin. -- A.Schatz)
On draft day, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had a mysterious slide, with the Butkus Award winner falling down to the Browns in the second round after being projected as a first-round pick. A guy without a position, the whispers said. What was JOK, a big safety? An undersized linebacker? No clear role for the guy; what would he do in the NFL? Well, when healthy, he has just been a heat-seeking missile, the best rookie true linebacker in the league this year. Owusu-Koramoah flies over the field, filling gaps and dropping guys near the line of scrimmage in the run game, and he has six pass breakups to go with his very solid coverage metrics. In short, he does all the linebackery things Parsons doesn't do, as Parsons is too busy living in opposing backfields. We'll say they complement one another.
If we treated Parsons as an edge rusher, we'd probably go with Kansas City's Nick Bolton as our second linebacker, but we'd rather have Paye, Rousseau, and Parsons rather than leave one out for Bolton.
Andrew: Two top prospects and a third-day surprise make up our cornerback trio this year.
Patrick Surtain has emerged as a top prospect right from the start, an automatic choice as an opening-day starter on Vic Fangio's Broncos defense. He was the AFC Defensive Player of the Week in late November after intercepting two Justin Herbert passes in a victory over the Chargers, one of which he took back for a pick-six. He was even an outside bet for the Defensive Rookie of the Year earlier in the season, though Micah Parsons ran away with that in the end. With Jaycee Horn's injury taking him out of the equation, Surtain has been easily the top rookie cornerback.
That's not to say that Eric Stokes has been a slouch. Far from it. When Jaire Alexander went to injured reserve with an AC joint injury in Week 4, Stokes became Green Bay's No. 1 cornerback. He has responded by allowing less than 50% of targets against him to be caught, with 12 pass breakups and one interception versus three touchdowns allowed. Only Anthony Brown of the Cowboys is allowing a lower completion percentage while being targeted at a higher rate, and Brown is playing opposite interception leader Trevon Diggs. Stokes hasn't been perfect, but he has everything the team could hope for as a replacement while Alexander has been out. If Alexander can make it back onto the active roster by the time you're reading this, he and Stokes could form a formidable pairing in the postseason.
Our third cornerback is a surprise package. When the Raiders drafted Nate Hobbs out of Illinois, they were hoping for scheme-specific depth at a position that has caused them some difficulty in recent years. What they got is an opening-day starter in Gus Bradley's favored Cover-3 who ranks among the top 32 in yards allowed per target—comfortably in starter territory—with not a single touchdown allowed all season. His ball skills could use some work—he allows a completion on 73.3% of targets, sixth-worst of any starter; he has as many dropped interceptions as completed interceptions (one of each); and he has just three pass breakups all year. That said, his coverage is good enough to keep his target share down, and he has shown strong potential as a sixth-round pick and deserves his spot on our All-Rookie select.
Bryan: Many, many things have gone wrong for Las Vegas this season (he said in a massive understatement). The secondary is not one of those things, as we're adding a second Raiders player to our All-Rookie defensive backfield: Trevon Moehrig. He doesn't have a ton of splash plays; just one interception and not a lot of balls thrown his way. That's the point, though. Moehrig has been such a good coverage safety that opposing quarterbacks are choosing to go elsewhere; he has only allowed 90 receiving yards. He has also been a very solid tackler, but it's his strong start as a cover safety that gets him on this list.
But he's only the second-best rookie safety this year, as we may have a budding superstar in Miami. Jevon Holland has shown some incredible range from the free safety position, with an ability beyond his experience to diagnose deep routes and to help shift coverage calls. He's one of seven players to have two sacks and two interceptions this season, and he has a couple fumble recoveries to boot; the guy knows how to get into position to make plays. He has more pressures and QB hits than any other defensive back this season, rookie or otherwise. Moehrig has been very good for a rookie. Holland has been one of the top safeties in the league, period.
Andrew: In true rookie kicker fashion, this contest comes down to a straight shootout between Evan McPherson of the Bengals and Matt Ammendola of the Jets. That's not much of a battle, really: McPherson has made 26 of 31 field goals (83.9%), including 9 of 11 from 50-plus yards, and 42 of 44 extra points. Ammendola has made just 13 of 19 kicks, is 0-for-3 from 50-plus, and has made 14 of 15 extra points. McPherson's average kickoff is longer, too, and his touchback rate is much higher. He's more accurate and has a bigger leg, so he's the clear choice.
Andrew: Technically, Pressley Harvin of Pittsburgh is the only rookie punter who remotely qualifies for this spot, so he wins it by default. That's unfortunate, because Pittsburgh has the fourth-worst punt unit in our figures. Harvin's distance and hangtime are inconsistent, often allowing his longer punts to be returned or shanking his shorter punts out of bounds, and he has four games this season in which his average punt travelled less than 40 yards. He may be the weakest pick on the entire roster, but a win by default is still a win, and he's our All-Rookie punter.
Bryan: We're going straight with our numbers on this one. Fourth-round pick Kene Nwangwu hasn't just been the best rookie kickoff returner, he has been the best kickoff returner, period, by our numbers, with +15.4 return points. He only has 12 returns, but he took two of them all the way for touchdowns; the rest of the league combined only has five. His 37.2 yards per return would lead the league if he had enough returns to qualify. Nwangwu has also begun to get some looks on offense in Minnesota because of the ability he has shown with the ball in his hands, but he's on this team strictly because of those two touchdowns.
Bryan: Our numbers give Tampa Bay's Jaelon Darden the nod at the top of a notparticularly deep class. Darden's 7.7 yards per punt return is nothing to write home about, much less to write an article about, but at least he has a 43-yard return to his name, so he's the only rookie punt returner to show any sort of burst. Again, a win by default is still a win.
Bryan: We gather here to honor Urban Meyer…
OK, seriously, this became a two-horse race. Meyer and David Culley are flops. Dan Campbell, Robert Saleh, and Arthur Smith have had moments, but their teams are very bad; they have a lot of work to do to get their squads to respectability. We considered Nick Sirianni for coach most exceeding expectations—heck, I thought the Eagles would draft first in 2022, and instead they're fighting for a low wild-card slot. But no, in the end we're going with Brandon Staley. Not just for putting his team in contention (having Justin Herbert gives him a wee advantage over his compatriots), but for embracing a strategy of fourth-down attempts and aggressive playstyle to maximize his team's potential over the course of the season. He has taken a few lumps—it turns out that a high-variance strategy will occasionally produce bad results in individual games, even if it's the right call over the course of the season. But he hasn't let those problems dissuade him from what the math tells us is the best way to run an offense. For achievement in the field of fourth downs, we give Staley our Rookie Coach of the Year nod.
Andrew: The Carson Wentz we have seen in Indianapolis this season is not the peak Carson Wentz of 2017, but neither is he the error-strewn disaster we saw in Philadelphia last year. Credit for that belongs to rookie offensive coordinator Marcus Brady, who has aptly focused the Colts attack around a dominant run game and a powerful offensive line. When the Colts have thrown, they have mainly targeted big receivers such as Michael Pittman, Zach Pascal, and Jack Doyle in addition to halfbacks Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines. That keeps Wentz comfortable, enjoying the lowest sack rate and second-lowest interception rate of his career. Sometimes, the biggest praise you can give a coach is that he plays to the strength of his personnel. Brady has done exactly that in Indianapolis.
Andrew: This past preseason, a lack of talent and recent declining production led us to project the Tennessee Titans as the worst defense in the NFL. Don't look now, but despite issues with talent, they're currently ranked on the fringes of the top 10 in DVOA, and their pass defense ranks exactly 10th. Despite big-name free agent Bud Dupree being in and out of the lineup, rookie coordinator Shane Bowen has fashioned an effective pass rush from 2020 disappointment Harold Landry (11.0 sacks), veteran Denico Autry (8.0 sacks), and interior disruptor Jeffrey Simmons (7.5 sacks). Star safety Kevin Byard is once again near the league lead in interceptions, and a number of younger players are making an impact in significant roles across the roster. It remains to be seen whether Bowen's crew can sustain their success, but right now this is the best Titans defense of the Mike Vrabel tenure in Tennessee.
Andrew: We don't usually name a special teams coordinator, quite simply because we don't always have reasonable candidates for it. This season, however, one of the few bright spots in Houston is the performance of the special teams. Frank Ross has overseen the first Texans kickoff return touchdown in over a decade, along with the second-best punt unit in the league according to our numbers. Ah, if only Urban Meyer had lived up to his own billing in Jacksonville, we might be talking about a clean sweep of AFC South coaches in the rookie awards.
Keep Choppin' Wood
We'll get to Baker Mayfield's performance against the Packers on Saturday night in a minute. On Sunday, it was Matthew Stafford who made his latest bid to claim the worst interception of the season.
Ugly INT by Matthew Stafford, throws it right to Anthony Barrpic.twitter.com/OWtOrDg3BV
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) December 26, 2021
That was Stafford doing what he has done multiple times already this season: barely evading a sack, maneuvering in the pocket, and slinging a laser to wide-open ... err, linebacker, this time Anthony Barr. Of course, it was Stafford's proficiency with the deep ball that attracted the Rams to him over Jared Goff in the first place, and at least that was on display against his former division rival.
— Pro Football Culture (@proftblculture) December 26, 2021
Still, at least he learned from those earlier mistakes and kept the ball away from Vikings linebackers on subsequent plays.
Matthew Stafford handing out Christmas presents a day late with his third interception of the day pic.twitter.com/0Zyj2hXRug
— USA TODAY NFL (@usatodaynfl) December 26, 2021
Fortunately, the Rams are not Stafford's previous employer, and so his team escaped with a 30-23 victory—the first time in Stafford's career that his team has won a game where his passer rating was below 50.0.
John Fox Award for Conservatism
In a week largely devoid of outcome-altering conservative decisions, we're instead going to award season-long champion of conservatism Mike Tomlin. Tomlin had only two notable conservative decisions against the Chiefs: kicking the time-honored "not a shutout!" field goal down 30-0 with three minutes and change remaining in the third quarter, and punting on fourth-and-4 down 14-0 in the first. Though we suspect most coaches would have made both decisions, Tomlin ranked dead last in our Critical Call Index in our most recent coach rankings, suggesting that he has gone above and beyond the call of conservatism throughout the current season.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
By contrast, Bill Belichick broke his extremely conservative tendency in CCI against the Bills. Belichick's team went for it in no fewer than four fourth-and-short situations against Buffalo, including twice in the third quarter while the Patriots were trailing 7-0 and twice in the fourth while they were down 20-7. All of those attempts were successful, netting the Patriots two touchdowns that just about kept them within touching distance of the Bills until Buffalo's final meaningful drive put the game out of reach.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
The Cleveland Browns' rushing attack could not be stopped. Averaging 8.8 yards per carry—the 55th-best running game in the history of the NFL, mind you—Cleveland could run the ball nearly at will against the Green Bay Packers, who were gassed, gashed, and gobsmacked by Nick Chubb and company. So why, Kevin Stefanski, did the Browns rush 25 times compared to 41 dropbacks? And for that matter, with the Browns sitting on all three time-outs and needing only a field goal to win the game, why did the runs dry up entirely on the last Cleveland drive? The Browns got the ball with 2:05 left. They ran for 4 yards, 10 yards, and 4 yards to move the ball just about to midfield—call it 20 to 25 yards before you have a chance to try the game-winning field goal. There was 1:22 left on the clock, and again, the Browns had all three time-outs. They never attempted a run again. Baker Mayfield completed a dump-off to Chubb, threw two incomplete passes, and then tossed the game-ending interception. If there was ever a time to just pound the rock…
'Depth Reception' Fantasy Player of the Week
Isaiah McKenzie flashed at the end of last season, but he has been mostly buried on the depth chart this year. With Cole Beasley and Gabriel Davis out on the COVID list, however, McKenzie got his shot—11 receptions, 125 yards, and a score in the biggest game of the Bills' season to date. McKenzie may get a chance to repeat those numbers, as Beasley and Davis may not be activated in time for Week 17, though that remains in flux as policies change.
— Roto Street Journal (RSJ) (@RotoStJournal) December 26, 2021
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
Mark Andrews has been on a tear in recent weeks, with back-to-back-to-back games with over 100 yards receiving with three different quarterbacks. This week, he was helped just a little bit by Cincinnati throwing the ball all over the yard at will, forcing Baltimore to play massive amounts of catchup just to try to keep the score in the same ZIP code as respectable. Seven of Andrews' eight catches came with the Ravens down three scores or more, including his touchdown. He was unstoppable. If only that were true of the rest of the Ravens…
TUNE IN ON CBS. pic.twitter.com/3jFHX8Naju
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) December 26, 2021
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
The Panthers, Giants, and Seahawks became the latest teams eliminated from the playoffs in Week 16, so let's find a comforting stat for each. Carolina has invested heavily in its pass defense over the past couple of seasons, and they rank in the top 10 in pass defense DVOA despite major injuries at cornerback. Giants safety Xavier McKinney and Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs both have five interceptions, which ties them (along with Kevin Byard, Justin Simmons, and several others) for the league lead at the position. There are definitely pieces to build around in the defensive backfield of all three teams, however all three require serious work elsewhere on the roster.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
There isn't a great choice this week; most of the critical games were either blowouts or long marches towards a result, rather than some back-and-forth affair. So we'll go with a player who came up big in arguably the biggest game of the week. Micah Hyde had a pair of interceptions against the Patriots, including this tip-drill number in the second quarter:
— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2021
It's hard to argue that that play was the difference in the Bills-Patriots matchup, especially because Buffalo failed to turn it into points, but the Bills defense harried and hurried Mac Jones all day, and so they get sort of a group award exemplified by that one play.
That was essentially the AFC East title game. While it's still possible for the Patriots to win the division, it would require the Bills slipping up against the dregs of the NFC—unlikely to say the least. Flip the results, and New England is your second seed at the moment, challenging the Chiefs for the top slot in the AFC, while Buffalo would be on the outside looking in. Instead, the Bills look to host a home playoff game and the Patriots will likely have to travel during wild-card weekend for the first time in Bill Belichick's tenure.
Records to Date:
Andrew: Ugh. Carolina let me down badly last week, and here they are as the most tempting line this week too. What's that saying about the definition of insanity? Is a better definition of insanity simply having faith in the Carolina Panthers? Is there any point making picks five days out when COVID is on a rampage through the league and everything could change overnight anyway? For the answers to this and other questions ... Carolina (+7) at New Orleans.
Bryan: While I would very much like for your unfounded Carolina love to become founded, I have serious doubts. But, considering my record in picks this year, that probably means you'll be right on the money.
Instead, I'm going with Indianapolis (-6) over Las Vegas. I have watched as this line has fallen from Colts -7.5. Why? Because they might be without their entire starting offensive line against the Raiders—Ryan Kelly is still dealing with his personal tragedy; Eric Fisher has knee, toe, and pec injuries; and Quenton Nelson, Mark Glowinski; and Braden Smith are all on the COVID list. I'm gambling on the NFL accepting the CDC's new protocols, which halve the quarantine time for asymptomatic players. Even getting one or two of those linemen back would likely be more than enough to beat the Raiders, and swinging the line back under a touchdown is a little extra juice.
Late Tuesday Edit: Wellity wellity wellity, it turns out the reason the line was dropping was not the offensive line situation. Carson Wentz has gone on the COVID list, and as he's not vaccinated, that means he's definitely out for the Raiders game. You know what? I'm sticking with my pick, as I need to put my money where my mouth is. I have been desperately unimpressed by Wentz all season long, so if a few linemen come back, I think the Sam Ehlinger Colts might not be that big of a dropoff. That being said, if I had a more respectable record this season, I probably would make a safer pick here. But meh! Meh, I say!
Double Survival League
Records to Date:
Andrew: NO, SEA
Bryan: BUF, CHI
Bryan: All tied up going into the final picks week—who could ask for more? The Texans' upset over the Chargers and the Falcons failing to Falcon against the Lions have brought things even-steven with two picks left to go.
Obviously, there's no selection to be made here; we're stuck with whoever we were left with. In my case, that's the Buffalo Bills hosting the Falcons and the Chicago Bears hosting the Giants. Both are coming off of big victories, though the definition of "big" varies wildly between each team. The Bears should be getting Justin Fields back, and I don't like either Mike Glennon or Jake Fromm to be able to move the Giants one iota. The Falcons are always a threat to cause problems, but the Bills should be able to just outclass them. I like my odds of going 2-0 here.
Andrew: The traditional unfathomable Chargers loss has put me in quite the predicament; I was relying on only needing one of this week's two games to come through, and now I probably need both. That means the New Orleans Saints hopefully not relying on a second start from the first Ian ever to play quarterback in the NFL against the Panthers, and the Seattle Seahawks giving Pete Carroll any justification at all for believing they don't need a reboot this offseason. Bryan's odds are slightly better than mine in this one.
Bryan: If we were to tie, then the tiebreaker goes to the player who found wins for the worst teams; the worst win-loss percentage wins the day. At least at the moment, that's advantage: Andrew. He found wins for the Panthers and Patriots where I could not, while I could only trump him on the Ravens and Chargers. Still, I'll take tied with a shout over where I was a few short weeks ago.