by Bryan Knowles and Andrew Potter
Bryan: Welcome back to Scramble for the Ball where this week ... uh, we're not in. It's the holidays, after all, and being on opposite sides of the world from one another does slightly hamper our ability to co-write this week. That's alright, though; just because we can't react as easily as we normally would to the Steelers' crazy fake punt or yet another Chiefs loss in prime time doesn't mean we can't give you some quality reading material for your post-Christmas experience. Whether you're bored with your gifts already or are just trying to duck out of family obligations for a few minutes, we have a look back on the season for you.
For NFL teams, Christmas comes in April with the NFL Draft, and some teams have been very, very good this year. Fans across the league, from Cleveland to Indianapolis to Denver, have been celebrating draft classes that they hope shape their franchises for years to come. We're not here to talk about the lumps of coal in your stocking (though uh, Kolton Miller has the faint whiff of charred carbon), but the studs and stars that have made splashes in their debut appearances. Everyone is here, from highly-touted first-rounders to Day 3 picks who fell through the cracks. We have combed the ranks of the NFL to find our All-Rookie Team -- the best of the best of the youngest of the young.
Note that most of the stats listed here will be through Week 15; with the deadline on this one falling during the holiday, not all of Week 16's stats were available at time of writing. Rest assured that had Josh Allen thrown for 23 touchdowns against New England, we would have gone in and added that in.
Bryan: There's not a lot of debate to be had here -- the winner is fairly obviously Baker Mayfield. In fact, you could argue that the top two rookie quarterbacks of the year were Mayfield, the pre-Hue Jackson firing edition being runner-up to the Freddie Kitchens era version.
|First Year Quarterbacks (Weeks 1-15)|
Since Hue Jackson was fired, Mayfield ranks third in DVOA and fifth in DYAR. That's not among rookies, that's among all qualified quarterbacks. Credit some of that to Kitchens, who has revamped the Cleveland offense to better take advantage of the skills of the players involved, including Mayfield. The Browns have thrown quicker passes to make reads easier and take pressure off of the offensive line, and used interesting and diverse formations to open up the playbook and keep the Browns in more manageable third-down situations. The added confidence Mayfield has had since the changeover has been immediately visible on the field, with Baker being more willing to hang in against pressure and deliver key strikes.
Also, credit the advantage of having more time under center; remember that Jackson did not give Mayfield any first-team snaps during training camp or the preseason, as he was sticking with established veterans and letting Baker come along slowly. This was widely mocked at the time and only looks worse since. Had Mayfield been anointed the starter early and placed in an offense that maximized his skills, I honestly believe the Browns would be currently leading the AFC North. Mayfield and the Browns' offense have been that good over the second half of the season.
Sam Darnold is our runner-up; he has shown marked improvement since coming back from a foot injury, appearing more decisive and comfortable, both in the pocket and on the move. By the raw numbers, Nick Mullens has had a better year than any of the non-Mayfield rookies, but A) he has benefitted from a ton of YAC and Kyle Shanahan's scheme, and B) while this was his first year on an active roster, he was on the 49ers' practice squad for all of 2017. We decided that that made him ineligible for our list, hence the asterisk in the above table.
Andrew: Though, like Mayfield, Nick Chubb has become a superb player for the Hue-gly improved Browns, this position ultimately came down to two players at opposite ends of the draft process.
Saquon Barkley was much-maligned as the Giants' choice with the second overall pick. The criticism had nothing to do with Barkley's unquestionable talent, but simply his position: even great running backs are less valuable in the modern game than ever before, and even great running backs are easier to replace adequately than an aging, declining quarterback such as Eli Manning. Still, none of the value arguments diminish the fact that Barkley has immediately become one of the very best players in the league at his position: in 15 games, Barkley has tallied 2 yards short of 1,200 rushing -- a figure he will almost certainly beat, possibly on his first carry, against the Cowboys in Week 17 -- while adding 688 yards and counting in receptions. Though some of that is a function of volume -- Barkley's 223 rushing attempts were fourth-most through week 15, and his 106 targets ranked third among running backs -- he also ranks 14th in DYAR and has a positive DVOA both rushing and receiving. With Manning declining and Odell Beckham hurt, Barkley is very much the focus of the Giants offense.
Our second option brings the draft value argument into sharp focus: Phillip Lindsay was not drafted, despite setting the school records for yards from scrimmage and all-purpose yards at the University of Colorado. He signed with his hometown Broncos after the draft, earned the starting job in the preseason, and became the first ever undrafted rookie offensive player to make the Pro Bowl. Before leaving Denver's Week 16 defeat in Oakland with a wrist injury, Lindsay gained enough on the ground to surpass the 1,000-yard mark in his debut campaign. He has the highest DYAR and DVOA of any qualifying rookie, and the fifth-highest DYAR among all running backs. This despite running behind a makeshift interior line since November, when starting center Matt Paradis and right guard Max Garcia were placed on injured reserve in consecutive weeks.
Though we did ultimately settle on Saquon Barkley as our all-rookie running back, the fact that this is even a conversation shows just how skewed the argument is in favor of drafting positions other than running back, even a "generational" talent like Barkley (though that, like many such terms, is now overused to the point of redundancy), at the top end of the first round of the draft.
Andrew: Our first two rookie receivers were easy to pick. Calvin Ridley leads all rookie receivers in DYAR, in large part because he leads all rookie receivers in targets, receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Atlanta's 2018 season has been a massive disappointment in almost all areas, but Ridley's debut campaign is by far the biggest positive from this otherwise lost year. Ridley was an easy choice as the top receiver on our team, even if he will likely have to wait quite some time to supplant Julio Jones for that distinction in Atlanta.
Ridley does not lead all qualifying rookie receivers in DVOA, however. (Qualifying, for wide receivers, means a minimum of 50 pass targets.) That spot belongs to Cam Newton's new No. 1 receiver: D.J. Moore. Moore got off to a slow start in his debut campaign, pulling in only two of four targets in his first three games, but since Week 4 he leads the Panthers in receiving yards by a hair over Christian McCaffrey, and he currently leads all Panthers wideouts for the season by over 150 yards. Moore's speed makes him an effective deep threat well suited to Newton's long ball, and his short-area quickness makes him effective in space and on misdirection plays out of the backfield -- he has 172 rushing yards to go with his 707 yards through the air. Moore has the highest catch rate of any rookie receiver with at least 30 targets, and gains the fourth-most yards per target. Ted Ginn has been a much-maligned player over his NFL career, but his role was important in the Panthers offense; in Moore, the team has not only replaced Ginn, but upgraded with a younger, better edition.
Bryan: Our third receiver slot is a little more wide open, with quite a few interesting names on the list. In small sample sizes, Tre'Quan Smith, Dante Pettis, Robert Foster, Equanimeous St. Brown, Keke Coutee, and Tim Patrick have all had their moments; Foster actually leads all rookies in receiving DVOA if you're willing to drop down to the secondary tables,, despite being undrafted out of Alabama. It's always worth noting when someone falls through the cracks to contribute at the NFL level. However, none of them have enough targets to actually qualify for our main receiving leaderboard, and we do value rookies who immediately jump into larger roles.
That leaves us with a pair of second-round picks to choose between. Courtland Sutton is currently third among rookie wideouts in yards; he has become more and more important to Denver's offense as the season has gone along, with Demaryius Thomas now in Houston and Emmanuel Sanders on the injured list. He has cooled down a little without the veterans to work with, however, so we're going to give the final spot to Christian Kirk. It can't be stressed quite enough how valuable Kirk was to a fairly terrible Arizona offense before going down with a broken foot. Arizona has only had 22 explosive plays of 25 yards or longer, and Kirk had seven of them, including the two longest plays for the Cardinals. He's averaging more yards per game than Sutton, thanks in large part to a higher catch rate and more yards after the catch. For putting up superior numbers in an inferior offense, Kirk's our captain.
|First Year Wide Receivers (Weeks 1-15)|
Andrew: For much of the past half-decade, the tight end position has been a bit of a black hole for the New York Jets. Since Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow combined for almost 800 yards in 2013, only Austin Seferian-Jenkins last season had managed even 350 receiving yards from the position; in 2016, the team's leader at the position was Seferian-Jenkins with 110 yards, and in 2015 it was Cumberland with 77. All of that changed this season with the arrival of a new quarterback in Sam Darnold, and a new target in fourth-round pick Christopher Herndon.
Herndon had only nine targets in the team's first five games, and four of those came against Miami in Week 2, but he has since grown into one of Darnold's favorite weapons; he has racked up 44 targets across the past nine games, including six catches for a career-high 82 yards and a touchdown against Green Bay this past weekend. Herndon ranks second on the team in both touchdowns and receiving yards behind only Robby Anderson. He has become only the tenth rookie tight end (alongside 2018 draft classmate Mark Andrews of the Ravens) in the past decade to eclipse 480 receiving yards for any team, and needs only six more yards to surpass 500. Add in Herndon's value as a blocker, which in our estimation lifts him above Andrews, and the Jets have a potential star at the position for years to come. Not bad for a fourth-round pick.
Andrews and Philadelphia's Dallas Goedert both merit honorable mentions, with Goedert generally considered the better blocker and Andrews the better pure receiver, but a big part of the value of a tight end is the ability to perform both jobs well, which is what ultimately gave Herndon the edge.
Bryan: Mike McGlinchey is already one of the best run-blocking tackles in football. Starting every game after Trent Brown was traded to New England, McGlinchey has consistently and enthusiastically used his power and technique to bowl over opposing run defenders. The 49ers average 5.5 yards per carry when running right tackle or right end, the seventh-best mark in the league. You can credit McGlinchey with plenty of that; the 49ers have been besought by injuries at running back, being limited to their fourth-string rusher for significant chunks of the year. McGlinchey still has some work to do against pass-rushers, especially those with overwhelming power, but he has had a very, very good rookie season on balance and looks like a potential heir apparent to Joe Staley.
Andrew: Our second tackle also plays on the right side, as we consider both of our right tackles to merit inclusion over any of the rookie left tackles. This season's Indianapolis Colts offense is nothing like its predecessor; though the quarterback and primary receiver are the same, the system and results are drastically different. Perhaps the starkest illustration of the difference is shown simply by looking at Andrew Luck's sack numbers.
Research, both on this site and elsewhere, demonstrates time and again that sacks are a quarterback statistic far more than an offensive line statistic. Still, the difference in Luck this season, with NFL-caliber blocking in a much more quarterback-friendly offense, compared to previous years with Pep Hamilton and Chuck Pagano is striking. Despite being on course to set a career high in pass attempts, Luck is being sacked at a rate almost half his previous career average, and on course to have by far the fewest sacks of any season in which he has played the majority of his team's games.
One part of the reason for that is the team's investment in the aforementioned NFL-caliber blocking. After picking Notre Dame's Quenton Nelson in the first round (more on Nelson shortly), the team doubled down on the front five with Auburn's Braden Smith in Round 2. Smith started at guard in Week 1, then vanished until Week 5, when injuries and the compassionate leave of absence of Denzelle Good forced him into the linup at right tackle. He has been ever-present since, anchoring the right side of a Colts line that has held opponents without a sack in six of 11 games. Indeed, the Colts have allowed fewer sacks in the 11 games since Smith came into the lineup at right tackle (eight) than they did in the previous four (nine). Not all of that is Smith, of course, but he has made a significant difference to the stability of a Colts offensive line that, for most of Luck's professional career, consistently looked like it was one play away from breaking the former Stanford quarterback beyond repair.
Andrew: The other key investment on that Colts line is sixth-overall draft pick Quenton Nelson of Notre Dame. When Nelson was selected to the Pro Bowl last week as a rookie offensive guard, Brian Baldinger put a video breakdown of Nelson's play on the NFL website. We can't add further to Baldinger's expertise, but will draw attention to the fact that the very first play he highlights, from the opening drive of the season, features Nelson flattening none other than perennial Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins. Teammates have raved about how Nelson sets the tone for the entire offensive line, culminating in this viral video from the Jaguars game in November:
— Yahoo Sports NFL (@YahooSportsNFL) November 14, 2018
Though Nelson later admitted that the audio was dubbed from a different play, and the block in the clip resulted in a $26,000 fine from the league office, the entire incident served only to enhance the young guard's reputation as one of the meanest, strongest, and most powerful linemen in the league. Nelson is a deserved Pro Bowl player in his debut season, and may well have been the easiest pick of this entire article.
Rookie Frank Ragnow has rebounded to be a solid player after what was an absolute disastrous start to the year. I think he's going to be a big-time run blocker in this league for a while, and his pass protection has improved as the year went along as well. Very few rookies have a completely smooth transition from the college to pro ranks, and Ragnow wasn't one of those guys, but there were enough flashes in 2018 that Lions fans can feel excited about their first-rounder moving forward.
We eventually settled instead on Giants second-round pick Will Hernandez, who not only started the season much better than Ragnow but likewise improved as the year went on. The Giants offensive line has been one of the messier units in the league over the past few seasons, but gradually improved along with its young guard as the 2018 season progressed. Saquon Barkley's streak of four straight 100-yard rushing performances came against some of the league's toughest defensive fronts -- Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and Washington have all been poor against the run this year, but all have Pro Bowl-caliber talent on their interior line, while the Bears boast the league's best run defense -- but Hernandez more than held his own against the gauntlet of opponents. Though things have slowed considerably in the past two weeks -- only 74 rushing yards total against the Titans and Colts -- the Giants do at least have reason for optimism on the offensive line this year, for the first time in quite a while. The performance of Hernandez is a big reason for that.
Bryan: Some positions are tough because of the sheer number of candidates -- linebacker, for example, is an extraordinarily deep class this year. Other positions are tough because, well, no one has exactly covered themselves in glory this year. There have been two rookie centers who have started a significant portion of the season: Mason Cole, the last man standing on the shattered Arizona line, and Billy Price, Cincinnati's first-round pick. Price has had real growing pains so far this year; he's tied for third among centers in penalties despite only starting eight games and has had real troubles in run protection. We'll give it to Cole then; he was forced into action when A.Q. Shipley hurt his knee in the preseason, and has had to deal with the entire line around him changing due to injury. That's a tough situation for a third-round rookie to find himself in, and if Cole hasn't exactly shined, he also has quite frequently been the best lineman Arizona has. That's more of a slight on Arizona's line than anything else, but it's still something. This is the weakest spot on the team by a significant margin.
Bryan: Not much argument about our top rookie here: no one has matched the combination of both production and usage of Bradley Chubb. Chubb has 31.5 pass pressures this season, which places him squarely in the top 20. That may be even more impressive than his 12.0 sacks -- he's not just getting production on a handful of plays, he's consistently getting into the backfield and disrupting even when he doesn't get all the way there. The rookie record for sacks in a season, by the by, is 14.5, so we may be looking at the most productive rookie season for a pass-rusher since they started recording these stats. It's also impressive that Chubb is an every-down player; rookie pass-rushers are often used situationally for a few years as they work on developing an all-around game, but not Chubb. No one is going to mistake him for a shut-down run defender or anything, but he can more than hold his own as a three-down player. Denver got a good one.
Andrew: Our second spot is far more debatable. Marcus Davenport (Saints), Harold Landry (Titans), and Lorenzo Carter (Giants) all sit within touching distance of each other as rotational pieces and situational rushers. Davenport has the most sacks (4.0), Landry the most quarterback hits (13), and Carter the most solo tackles (28) and tackles for a loss (6). All have contributed as situational players in their rookie seasons, but none have really pulled away as a clear No. 2 opposite Chubb -- as evidenced by the fact that all three edge rushers are within a single sack of each other heading into the final game of the season. We decided on Harold Landry as a more important piece of the Titans pass-rush rotation, on a defense that gets few opportunities to truly unleash the hounds, but either of the other two have a solid case to usurp him for the spot.
Bryan: Da'Shawn Hand fell to the fourth round because of a perceived lack of production compared to his physical traits. Draft analysts questioned his fire and urgency, accusing him of dogging it at times at Alabama. All he has done in Detroit is immediately take a starting role in the defensive line rotation and become a force in the pass rush. Hand had 15 pass pressures in his 13 games before going on injured reserve, as well as a 91 percent success rate in the run game. Thanks to Hand, Damon Harrison, and A'Shawn Robinson, the interior line has suddenly become one of Detroit's strengths. Hand looks like the interior disruptor the Lions needed.
There are a number of linemen we could go for in our second slot. Maurice Hurst has been one of the bright spots of a terrible Oakland season; Harrison Phillips has been a steady contributor for the Bills; B.J. Hill tied the Giants' rookie sack record; and Bilal Nichols has been a useful piece on Chicago's terrifying defense. There's such a thing as overthinking this, however, so we're sticking with Da'ron Payne. Five sacks for any interior lineman is a good year, especially one who plays more of a straight-up nose tackle role like Payne. Before the injurypocalypse, Washington was a legit playoff contender, buoyed by their strength in the trenches. Payne is a major part of that, and he and Jonathan Allen feel like blocks Washington can build around on defense.
Andrew: As Bryan mentioned above, this year's crop of off-the-ball linebackers is exceptionally deep. Roquan Smith leads an outstanding Bears defense in tackles and is third on the team in sacks, but does not make the cut. Tremaine Edmunds is Buffalo's leading tackler from the middle linebacker spot, and his 11 pass deflections are tied with Cory Littleton and Bobby Wagner for the most among all linebackers this season, but he does not make the team either. That is because our two all-rookie linebackers are both already absolute studs.
Darius Leonard leads the NFL in tackles, 23 clear of second-place Blake Martinez. There is a bigger gap between Leonard and Martinez than there is between Martinez and 18th-place Eric Kendricks. Leonard's 7.0 sacks lead all off-the-ball linebackers. His 12 tackles for a loss are surpassed only by Luke Kuechly (19) and Lavonte David (13). He and Bobby Wagner are the only two players in the top eight of that leaderboard to have missed even a single game. The 11th-ranked Colts defense has been one of the surprises of the season, holding a third of their opponents to 10 or fewer points, including a remarkable shutout of the Dallas Cowboys in Week 15. Leonard has been the lynchpin of that success, and already looks like one of the cornerstones around which that franchise can build for the long term under Frank Reich.
Leighton Vander Esch has a more clearly defined role on the Dallas defense, but it is no less demanding: be the player that Sean Lee's hamstrings have recently prevented Lee from being. Vander Esch was drafted in the first round as Lee's eventual replacement, but not necessarily expected to take over this quickly. He has surpassed expectations to the point that his 2016 All-Pro teammate was inactive in Week 16. Vander Esch has the third-most tackles of any player this season despite only starting three of the team's first eight games, and was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in November after hauling in interceptions in back-to-back games against the Eagles and Falcons. He may not be the blitzer that Roquan Smith is, or the centerpiece of the defense like Darius Leonard, but Vander Esch has already become one of the league's most consistent and reliable second-level defenders. He and Jaylon Smith look set to be one of the league's best linebacker tandems for quite some time.
Bryan: There have been two cornerbacks this year who have been regular contributors at a high level as rookies. Denzel Ward ranks fourth in success rate at 63 percent, as well as currently being in the top 10 in yards per pass allowed (subscription required). While Pro Bowl voting can often be harsh to rookies, Ward was deservedly given the nod in a very deep AFC field. Ward burst onto the scene with a pair of interceptions in the first game of the year, and has already established himself as one of the league's top corner covers.
Joining him on the outside is Jaire Alexander, the Packers' first-round pick out of Louisville. Alexander's charting stats aren't quite as high as Ward's, but he ranks a very respectable 23rd in success rate and squeaks into the top 40 in yards per pass and YAC allowed. Both Ward and Alexander are in the top 30 in passes defensed, too -- they're not quite at the level where quarterbacks are avoiding them on principle, but they've both assembled quite the track record of making plays when targeted. It's a little bit boring to pick the first two corners taken as our top two players, but hey, sometimes chalk is chalk for a reason.
Andrew: In writing this column both last year and this, we have tried to ensure that our 11th rookie defender is a true slot defender in keeping with the modern "nickel base" defensive standard. That can throw up an awkward question: should we look for a true slot cornerback, as we did last year with Desmond King, or a "big nickel" safety such as 2016's Vonn Bell? But why take either, when we could have both? Versatile first-round defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick has started games as a true safety, an outside cornerback, and most often as a prototypical nickelback. Fitzpatrick has not yet been the standout star we expected from the No. 11 overall pick, but he still looks like the best fit for this specific spot, and he has established himself as a high-level starter on a disappointing Dolphins defense.
Bryan: If we picked you for our Pro Bowl roster, there's a good chance you'll also end up here. So welcome to the team, Derwin James. I'm writing this separate from Andrew, but James would be my pick for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and I suspect Andrew would either agree or place him in the quick runner-up category. James a versatile player who looks equally comfortable in man-to-man coverage, delivering shots in the open field, or pinning his ears back and going after the quarterback has been a perfect fit in the Chargers' secondary. I'd call him the prototype for a defender in this new offensive age if I thought there were many more players out there who could match what he can do.
Andrew: I would indeed agree with James for Defensive Rookie of the Year, though Darius Leonard has a strong case as the centerpiece of the Colts defense and was a ridiculous snub for the Pro Bowl.
Our other safety's better-known sibling still grabs more headlines off the field, but Houston's Justin Reid -- brother of Panthers safety Eric -- is well on his way to carving out his own reputation as a high-caliber starting defensive back. A third-round pick out of Stanford, Reid took over the starting free safety spot on the Texans defense earlier than expected so that Kareem Jackson could return to cornerback after the early-season losses of Kevin Johnson and Kayvon Webster to injured reserve. The Texans do not regret that move: a 101-yard interception return touchdown against Washington helped bring him into the national spotlight, but Reid was already playing his way onto the fringes of the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation -- though always as the longest of long-shots -- before a couple of rough outings in December. A tough and powerful hitter with good ball skills and terrific agility, Reid has the potential to be a star on one of the AFC's best defenses if he can get a slightly better handle on some of the mental aspects of the position.
Andrew: This spot usually comes down to one of only two or three players. Michael Badgley appears to have finally solved the Chargers' kicking woes, but Badgley has only played three-fifths of the season in Los Angeles. Greg Joseph and Daniel Carlson were both cut after repeated failures on their first team, only to find more success with their second. Brett Maher is technically in his first year in the NFL, but he left college in 2013 and has kicked around on various practice squads and in the CFL for the past five seasons. Of the true rookies, only Jason Sanders has stuck in the same spot since opening day, consistently making kicks for a middling Dolphins squad. Sanders leads our true rookies in points, with only one more miss than Badgley from three additional kicks. This is not a tough contest, but Sanders is our all-rookie kicker.
Bryan: Michael Dickson remains the only punter I've seen single-handedly win a game, in the 2017 Texas Bowl. While he hasn't had a day quite so memorable in the NFL, he has done the unthinkable and made punts a much-watch play in Seattle. He leads the league in both gross and net average thanks to a broad arsenal of punting styles, including a drop kick that we had better see be used on a field goal attempt in Week 17 -- you hear me, Seahawks?
Our two return men are easy picks. Tremon Smith leads all rookies in kick return yards by a fairly substantial margin; only Richie James even gets within half his total. We'll also have Christian Kirk do double-duty as our punt returner; he's the only rookie with over 100 punt return yards, so he wins by default. It has not been a good rookie crop here.
Bryan: Leading the Bears to their first playoff appearance since 2010 would likely be enough in and of itself to give this title to Matt Nagy, with the general platitudes of "changing the culture" and "getting buy-in" and so on and so forth. My favorite thing about Nagy, though, is how you can't mistake his offense for anyone else's. In any given Bears game, you're liable to see a few formations and plays that simply aren't in other teams' playbooks, from T-formations to the ultimate in Jumbo packages to two-QB sets, as well as your standard slate of end-around halfback passes and the like. Sometimes, maybe, he gets a little too cute for his own good, but you can't knock a system that has helped turn a team with four straight years of double-digit losses into one of the best in the NFC. If he's in the running for coach of the year, he's definitely our rookie coach.
We create a list of rookie coordinators before the season starts to keep an eye on for this award, but, well ... none of the offensive guys have really stood out. The Chiefs have a rookie OC in Eric Bieniemy, but Andy Reid calls the plays. The Rams have a rookie passing game coordinator in Shane Waldron, but that's Sean McVay's offense. Randy Fichtner is new in Pittsburgh, but the Steelers' offense hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders and, besides, that's Big Ben's offense and the rest of us are all living in it. We'll go off-list, then, and celebrate Freddie Kitchens. All you need to see is the stark difference between Todd Haley's Browns and Kitchens' squad. From Weeks 1-8, the Browns ranked 30th in offensive DVOA (-22.5%), 30th in passing DVOA (-26.1%), and 21st in rushing DVOA (-11.9%). Since Kitchens took over in Week 9, the Browns rank fourth in offensive DVOA (17.9%), third in passing DVOA (42.2%), and 17th in rushing DVOA (-4.1%). It's a small sample size, for sure, but you can't argue with numbers like that.
Andrew: Our final coach had a rather rocky introduction to life as a defensive coordinator: Matt Eberflus was hired by the Colts at the behest of one Josh McDaniels, who then backed out of taking the head coaching job to leave the newly hired coordinator in limbo. General manager Chris Ballard immediately insisted that the staff who had been hired for McDaniels would have their commitment honored by the Colts, and reiterated that commitment when they hired Frank Reich from the Eagles instead of McDaniels. That decision could hardly have gone better: the young Colts defense (Indianapolis consistently starts five players who are 26 or younger, with a further five players under that age who have at least four starts) ranks in the top third of the league by DVOA. As we noted when discussing Darius Leonard, the Colts have held five of 15 opponents to ten points or fewer this season. If the DVOA rank of no. 11 holds up, it would be the highest rank for the Colts in exactly a decade -- a remarkable achievement considering both the circumstances of his hire and the fact that Eberflus had to overhaul almost the entire defensive roster in one offseason. His players love him, and there are already whispers that the 48-year-old might be one of the hot head-coaching candidates this offseason. Not bad for a guy who was left in the lurch by the boss he intended to work for in 2018.
Bryan: We said we looked high and low for the best players but, well, this year, you sort of had to just look high. Of our 22 starters on offense and defense, a full 13 came in the first round, with five more in the second. Only Chris Herndon and Da'Shawn Hand came from Day 3, so it's a very top-heavy grouping. This was far from intentional -- last year, we had UDFAs like Keelan Cole and late-round picks like Carl Lawson and Desmond King on the team, as well as a higher proportion of second- and third-rounders.
Early picks always have a major advantage on lists like this, as not only are they theoretically more skilled, but also get more opportunities to demonstrate that skill during games. A seventh-rounder may shine in practice, but he's just not going to get the same opportunities as a struggling first-rounder. This year seemed to take that to the extreme, however. Only eight Day 3 rookies have started eight or more games so far this year; we named two of them to the team and we considered a third. I suppose that means we should give a general kudos to scouting departments around the league; they've appeared to have done a very good job of sorting the available talent. Kudos!
Loser League Update
Quarterback: There is no Blake Bortles. There is no Cody Kessler. There is just Jaguars Quarterback. It was, in fact, Kessler under center for most of Jacksonville's win over Miami, so he's the one to rack up the (lack) of points this week. With just 106 passing yards, as well as a lost fumble, Kessler scores you just 3 points.
Running Back: Josh Adams almost scored a touchdown against Houston, but it was called back by a holding penalty. On downs that weren't negated by penalties, Adams gained just 21 yards and lost a fumble, ending up with a robust 0 points.
Kicker: Jason Sanders may have won our rookie kicker award, but he didn't exactly have a fantastic week. The Dolphins rarely got into scoring range, with Sanders getting only one shot at a field goal. He missed it, and thus ends up with -1 points.
Check your team's score and the Part II leaderboard here!
Keep Choppin' Wood: Somehow, this past Sunday, this was called pass interference:
What an egregious pass interference call on Joe Haden pic.twitter.com/D4gyFERek5
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) December 23, 2018
That may be the most blatant and impactful obvious officiating error your Scramble crew can recall witnessing this season; a 33-yard penalty on fourth down that converted a turnover on downs at the 34-yard line into first-and-goal from the 1. The Saints offense does not need this kind of assistance, but gladly accepted the early Christmas gift and scored on the following play. Pittsburgh had led until that point, but never again, and the Steelers are left hoping that results go their way in Week 17 lest they miss the playoffs entirely. We try to stay away from officiating controversies in this spot, but cannot ignore this: Craig Wrolstad's crew, Keep Choppin' Wood.
John Fox Award for Conservatism / Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win The Game: If ever one game epitomized the difference between these two categories perfectly, it was this past Sunday's Texans-Eagles contest. In the red corner, the Texans were coached by frequent Foxie winner Bill O'Brien. O'Brien called the game so conservatively that even the Houston Chronicle drew attention to it, pointing out the play-calling sequence following Benardrick McKinney's interception in Eagles territory (a pass behind the line of scrimmage to DeAndre Carter for a loss of 1, a D'Onta Foreman run on second-and-long that also lost a yard, and a pass short of the line to gain on third-and-12), the ensuing punt on fourth-and-5 from the Eagles 41, and the punt on fourth-and-2 at midfield on the following drive. Most teams will be aggressive following a turnover in opposition territory, there is little reason to pass short of the sticks on third down unless you plan to go for it on fourth, and both of those fourth-down situations are obvious go-for-it situation for an increasing number of teams. O'Brien instead played conservatively on both occasions, and conceded possession far too easily for a minimal field position gain.
On the opposite sideline, in the green corner, Doug Pederson displayed the aggressiveness on fourth down and in two-point situations that has made him the winner of multiple Hermies. On the Eagles' very first drive, they faced fourth-and-2 at the Houston 37 in long field-goal range. Instead of attempting the long kick, Pederson had his offense go for it -- and go for it they did, resulting in a 37-yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles to Darren Sproles. Three drives later, trailing by two points after a Jadeveon Clowney strip-sack gave the Texans a 5-yard touchdown drive, the Eagles faced fourth-and-3 at the Texans' 8-yard line. Again they went, and again they converted -- then drove to fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, where again they went, and again they converted. On four drives, three fourth-down attempts had led to 13 points (the Eagles missed the two-point conversion after the second touchdown). Pederson was not aggressive for the full game -- he settled for attempting a game-winning field goal at the end when the Eagles had first-and-10 at the Houston 19-yard line -- but his aggressive early decisions played a huge part in the Eagles keeping their season alive. O'Brien's conservatism stood in sharp contrast as the Texans fell out of pole position for a bye in the AFC playoffs.
Hue Jackson Award for Confusing Coaching: This may be the last time Mike Tomlin is featured here, and boy, was it a doozy. Late in the fourth quarter, up four points, the Steelers faced fourth-and-5 from their own 42. It looked like they would line up for the punt, try to pin the Saints deep, and hope they could keep them out of the end zone. Instead, well…
Roosevelt Nix a GOOFY celebrated thinking he got 1st down on fake punt pic.twitter.com/87WDunIcUD
— BLACK SPORTSCENTER (@VersaceBoyEnt) December 24, 2018
Ignore Nix for the moment. Was the fake punt the right call? I think there's a strong argument for going for it, actually. Converting there likely at least drains the clock to the two-minute warning, gives you a great chance at kicking a field goal to go up a full score, and opens up the possibilities of a touchdown or just running out the clock. It's not like the Steelers were deep inside their own end; it's a borderline decision, but not at all an unreasonable one. Giving Drew Brees the ball anywhere on the field can lead to a quick score, so if anything, you'd want them to get the ball closer to the end zone to save time for your counter-attack (and, indeed, the Steelers got the ball back with 1:25 on the clock needing a field goal to tie -- football in 2018, everyone!) So, while I wouldn't have been shocked by the punt, going for it is an entirely justifiable decision…
... with your offense. Going for it makes sense with your offense. Your playoff hopes are on the line, and you're trusting Roosevelt Nix over Ben Roethlisberger? You came into the game with the fifth-ranked offense. Both Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster have double-digit receptions and over 100 yards today. For the love of everything, go with your stars when your season's on the line! Now the Steelers have to win AND hope the Browns can knock off the Ravens to save their season and, in all likelihood, Tomlin's job. You have to root for the Browns. Look what you've done, Mike Tomlin.
'Merry Christmas' Fantasy Player of the Week:: Most of your fantasy decisions should be based on, you know, logic. Scouting matchups, looking at past performance, calculating usage rates. Things like that. Or you can just wing it and start a thematically appropriate team. After all, starting Ol' Saint Nick Foles and Kyle Rudolph, the Purple-Nosed Tight End would have been a potentially championship-winning strategy this week. Add them to Sterling Shepard's 11 points and add in some usual studs like Christian McCaffrey and maybe Dan Bailey while you watch It's a Wonderful Life for the 37th time, and you may have just dunked on your fantasy rivals with a stupid gimmick team, as all of these players were in the top 10 at their respective positions this week. Congratulations.
Blake Bortles Garbage-Time Performer of the Week: Zay Jones' receiving stats when the Bills-Patriots game was within two scores: zero receptions on three targets. Jones' stats when the Bills-Patriots game was a three-score deficit: five receptions on six targets for 67 yards and a touchdown to pick up the Bills' backdoor cover. If that isn't the definition of a true Garbage Time stud, I don't know what is.
— Alex Brasky (@AlexBraskyBDN) December 23, 2018
'Comfort in Sadness' Stat of the Week: After a horrible loss in Oakland -- in a Christmas Eve game between two eliminated teams, that we are assured actually occurred despite basically nobody watching it or acknowledging its existence -- the Denver Broncos have now suffered back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since 1972. The one crumb of comfort? As mentioned above, hometown undrafted rookie running back Phillip Lindsay passed the 1,000-yard mark in his debut campaign. Lindsay left with a wrist injury that may prevent him from playing in Week 17, but his debut campaign at least gave Broncos fans something to cheer during their worst two-year stint in over 45 years.
Game-Changing Play of the Week: The Chargers were having a bit more trouble with the Ravens than perhaps people expected on Saturday night, but the game was far from over. Down six points with just under three minutes to go, Los Angeles was driving into Baltimore territory. As has happened so many times before, Philip Rivers turned to Antonio Gates for a big gain, when suddenly…
Tavon Young 62-yard fumble return for the touchdown pic.twitter.com/zPk5Ow4QOe
— Heart of NFL (@HeartofNFL) December 23, 2018
That's Patrick Onwuasor with the strip, Tavon Young with the touchdown, and the Baltimore Ravens with a probable playoff berth? Sure seems like it -- the sudden change in fortunes iced the game for the Ravens and altered the fates of four teams in about 12 seconds.
Flip the Chargers' loss to a win, and they're at 12-3 with a one-game lead over the Chiefs for both the AFC West title and home field throughout the playoffs. They'd just be a Week 17 win over Denver away from having the road to the Super Bowl travel through a tiny soccer stadium on the campus of noted football powerhouse CSU Dominguez Hills (go Toros!). Instead, they'll now need a shocking Raiders upset to avoid having to go on the road in two weeks and take on ... well.
Flip the Ravens' win to a loss, and they're sitting at 8-7, still half a game back of Pittsburgh for the division and out of the wild-card picture altogether. They would have needed what was left of the Bengals' beat and battered squad to pull out a win over the Steelers to even have a chance of taking home the division title. Instead, they sit in the fourth seed, needing just a win to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 -- and they even have an outside shot of getting a bye week, should both the Texans and Patriots fall in Week 17. It's hard to find one play that had a bigger impact than that fumble return there.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date
Andrew: So few meaningful games this weekend makes the general betting lines difficult to evaluate. The Saints are set to rest starters against the Panthers, who have already shut Cam Newton down for the season. Will the Bears do likewise against the Vikings, and what impact should that have? What about the Rams, if the other results begin to fall their way? Two teams who will definitely not rest starters are the Colts and Titans, who go head-to-head in a winner-take-all showdown that will decide a playoff berth and maybe even the AFC South title if the Jaguars can upset the Texans. The line opened at Colts +1, but with Marcus Mariota's status murky the game appears to be off the board as I type this. As we discussed in last week's column, I generally expect the Colts to make the playoffs at Tennessee's expense: as long as the line doesn't shift too far in their favor, I'm happy to put my imaginary money where my metaphorical mouth is. Indianapolis (-2.5) at Tennessee.
Bryan: With the quarterback situation in Tennessee still up in the air as of this writing, I will look elsewhere. Look, Buffalo. We haven't always been on the same page this year. I've picked against you time and time again in the Double Survival League. I've made a point of celebrating Josh Allen for his legs while mocking his arms. Most of us here -- though not yours truly -- had you pegged as the team most likely to be drafting No. 1. But that was 2018. Let's get off on a good foot for 2019 and finish this year on a strong note. Give me Buffalo (-3.5) at home against the Dolphins.
Double Survival League
Bryan: It's over! After trailing essentially wire-to-wire, I pulled off a remarkable come-from-behind victory to become the first ever Double Survival champion. And all it took was a little dash of Blaine Gabbert.
When I had saved Tennessee for the final week of the season, I was assuming Marcus Mariota would be leading them in the playoff race. But, no, Mariota left early with yet another injury, so my fate was down to Gabbert, which is not a sentence you want to ever hear. But Gabbert was more than able to rise to the challenge of, uh, Josh Johnson. Couple with the expected Patriots win, that got me to 23-9 which guaranteed at least a tie…
But the Detroit Lions proved our Achilles' heel this year. I punted them away two weeks ago, picking up a win for Detroit by picking both them AND their opponents. Andrew didn't have that luxury, and needed Detroit to pull off an upset of Minnesota to bring home the title. For a while it looked possible, with the Vikings offense having trouble getting out of neutral early. Once Kyle Rudolph came down with an end-of-half Hail Mary, however, things swung in Minnesota's favor. Even with the Rams' expected win, that wasn't enough. Andrew finishes a very, very close competition at 22-10 -- good show, old man, just not quite good enough.
And now, stats.
We had to pick each team once, so every team got chosen two times. Our big freedom, then, is who we got to pick against. Who did we pick on the most? The one team that neither of us had any faith in was the Arizona Cardinals; we combined to pick against them on 10 separate occasions and went 9-1 doing so. The one loss? I had the 49ers over the Cardinals back in Week 5; they lost 28-18.
In general, I was the one to hammer the same teams over and over again. In addition to my five picks against Arizona (4-1), I picked on Buffalo seven times (6-1) and went against Detroit (2-1), Oakland (3-0), and Tampa Bay (2-1) three times each. I only picked against 12 teams all year long. Andrew was much more open to a broad spectrum of bad teams, finding reasons to throw 17 teams to the wolves. He did go for Arizona five times (5-0), while also occasionally picking on San Francisco (4-0), Indianapolis (2-1), and the New York Jets (3-0). In general, Andrew was more successful than I was when going back to the same well over and over again; he just did it less.
Andrew picked against San Francisco, while I never did. Gee, I wonder how that happened. He also found games to pick against the Bengals, Cowboys, Texans, Colts, and Jaguars, none of whom I ever hit up. He went 8-4 with those teams, so maybe I was wise to stick away. Then again, I picked against the Falcons, Browns, and Chargers, none of whom Andrew figured would lose. I went just 2-2 there, so Andrew was probably even more wise to stick away there.
If we were playing best ball between the two of us, we would have gone 30-2. The two teams that escaped? Arizona and Jacksonville. The Cardinals were just really bad (they lost 17-3 when I picked them against Detroit and 45-10 when Andrew had them over Denver), but we just missed on the Jags. In Week 3, I had them beating the Titans -- they lost in a thrilling 9-6 game. Andrew tried his luck with them against Washington two weeks ago; they fell 16-13. Three points, both times. We'll get you next time, Jaguars.
No need for the full scenarios this week; they're all over the Internet. Instead, we dust off the classic Scramble for the Ball INTERESTOMETER (patent STILL pending) to figure out which of the playoff seeds look most exciting on Sunday.
No. 1 Seed: Kansas City, L.A. Chargers, New England, or Houston
A Chargers win on Saturday would have made this one really juicy. Instead, it's essentially a gimme putt for the Chiefs. Yes, they still have to beat the Raiders on Sunday to clinch it, but come on, it's the Raiders. The Chiefs should have no problems here. If they somehow stumble, things get interesting. The Chargers would be up next, with a win over the Broncos giving them the AFC West title and the top seed. Should they fall, the Patriots would be up next with a win over the Jets; their head-to-head wins over Houston and Kansas City would see them through. If they lost too, somehow, then the Texans would be next up with a win over Jacksonville; they already have clinched the Strength of Victory tiebreaker over the Chiefs in this scenario. If the Texans also lost, it falls back to the Chiefs. The Chiefs are going to destroy the Raiders, making the rest of this paragraph moot. Interestometer: 2/10.
No. 2 Seed: New England, Houston, Kansas City, Baltimore, or Tennessee
The Patriots likely have this one in the bag; a win over the Jets guarantees them at least a bye week regardless of what happens elsewhere. If they lose -- or the Chiefs and Chargers lose, sliding them up to the top slot -- things get a little more complicated. It would likely be the Texans here next, assuming they win. A Patriots loss would be enough to bump them up, or losses by the Chiefs, Chargers and then one of Baltimore, N.Y. Giants, Philadelphia, San Francisco, or Arizona. Any one of those five teams falling would give the Texans the Strength of Victory tiebreaker over Kansas City, and thus the bye at 11-5. All the other scenarios range from unlikely to very unlikely. The Chiefs need losses by KC, LAC, and then either only one of HOU or NE, or all of the opposite results from the SoV tiebreaker to end up at No 2. Baltimore needs a win and losses by HOU and NE to slip to No. 2 -- and that's assuming the Titans and Colts don't tie, in which case they'd have to find a crazy SoV win over Houston. The Titans need a win and losses by Houston, New England, and Baltimore. Those latter three teams ain't gonna do it, folks. Interestometer: 3/10.
No. 3 Seed: Houston, Baltimore, Tennessee, New England, Kansas City, or Indianapolis
Half these teams would hate to be here; the other half would consider it a triumph. Most likely, this will be Houston's spot; a win over Jacksonville guarantees them the division title and at least this seed. Assuming New England and Kansas City take care of business, that's exactly where they'll end up. Were Houston (or New England) to lose, then Baltimore could slide into this slot by beating the Browns. It's going to be one of those teams, in all realistic scenarios. If the Texans lose, and either Baltimore or New England slip up, then the Titans could jump up here by beating the Colts and winning the AFC South; their Week 10 upset over New England could be huge, there. The Patriots would salvage this spot if they lost to the Jets but either Baltimore or both Tennessee and Houston lost, while Kansas City would take this spot if both they and the Chargers lost but the Patriots or Texans won. The Colts are the longest shot, though their scenario is the simplest: beat the Titans, and have the Texans and Ravens both lose. Because the HOU-JAX and BAL-CLE games are more interesting than games involving the Patriots or Chiefs, this is actually quite an interesting group of scenarios. The third seed usually isn't a big deal ... but dodging the Chargers and Chiefs certainly is. Interestometer: 6/10.
No 4. Seed: Baltimore, Pittsburgh, New England, Tennessee, Indianapolis, or Houston
In reality, this is the AFC North showdown. If the Ravens win or the Steelers lose, Baltimore wins the AFC North; otherwise, it goes to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh would be locked in at No. 4 if they won the division, but as we saw earlier, Baltimore could still pop up to second or even third. That leaves a realistic chance for the Patriots to fall all the way down (NE loss + BAL win + HOU or TEN win). The Titans could be here too, if they win the division while Baltimore and New England both win, an entirely reasonable scenario. The Colts take the fourth seed as AFC South champs as long as the Ravens win as well. The Texans need to win the AFC South while losing to Jacksonville; that would require a Colts-Titans tie, which won't happen. A divisional battle is always worth tons of points, though. Interestometer: 8/10
No. 5 Seed: L.A. Chargers or Kansas City
Again, if the Chargers had beaten Baltimore, this would have been exciting. As it is, it belongs to Los Angeles unless they beat the Broncos and the Chiefs somehow fall to the Raiders. Yawn. Interestometer: 1/10.
No 6. Seed: Tennessee, Indianapolis, Houston, Baltimore, or Pittsburgh
Tennessee-Indianapolis is a play-in game, and in most scenarios, they win the sixth seed. That would be interesting enough, but the possibility of the Texans losing to the Jaguars make this real exciting. That would give Houston this slot and a road trip to, presumably, Baltimore on wild-card weekend, while the Titans and Colts played for the AFC South title and a home game. The Ravens and Steelers can also technically earn this seed, but only if there are ties. There will not be ties. A play-in game is a nigh-automatic Interestometer: 10/10.
No 1. Seed: New Orleans
New Orleans clinched this with their win over Pittsburgh. Hey, now we can see what it looks like when Taysom Hill throws passes, how wacky will THAT be!? Interestometer: 0/10.
No. 2 and 3 seeds: L.A. Rams or Chicago
The bye week will go to the Rams if they beat the 49ers or the Vikings top the Bears. The 49ers gave the Bears a scare, but they are clearly, clearly the least skilled team of this four. Plus, they have nothing to play for, while Minnesota very much does. Not much intrigue here. Interestometer: 1/10.
No 4. Seed: Dallas
In some ways, you'd rather be Dallas than Chicago -- they know they're not getting a bye week, so they can rest up against the Giants to prep for their wild-card game. Sure, it'll be against the tougher opponent, but they'll at least definitely be rested. Interestometer: 0/10.
No. 5 Seed: Seattle or Minnesota
The Seahawks' win on Sunday night took pretty much all the intrigue out of this one. A Seattle win over woeful Arizona or a Minnesota loss to bye-week-fighting Chicago gives the Seahawks the fifth seed and a trip to JerryWorld; otherwise, the Vikings get to go. Arizona should provide about 10 minutes of competition for the Seahawks, I would imagine. Interestometer: 1/10.
No. 6 Seed: Minnesota, Philadelphia, or Seattle
This is the only remotely interesting thing left in the NFC. If the Vikings clinch the fifth seed, Seattle will be No. 6. It gets interesting if ("when") the Seahawks beat the Cardinals, however. In that scenario, the Vikings would earn the sixth seed with either a win over Chicago or a Philadelphia loss to Washington. With the Bears at least starting all-out in an attempt to earn a bye week, and Washington lost to the injury gods, that's a much tougher draw for the Vikings. You'd still favor them for the slot, because they need one of two results rather than both, but this is far from a gimme. Interestometer: 7/10.
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