Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where this week sees us looking over the devastated hellscape that 2020 has wrought on what is usually a season of celebration. No, I'm not talking about Christmas, because Humbug. I mean our usual end-of-season celebration of all the great things first-year players have achieved in the NFL.
Bryan: Andrew's heart may have not grown three sizes this year, but perhaps being visited by the Ghost of Superstars Yet to Come will have some sort of positive effect on him. Our annual All-Rookie team is a chance for us to acknowledge some of the guys we'll be writing about for the next 10 years, as well as the flashes in the pan who briefly grab everyone's attention. After all the pre-draft hype and whatnot, it's fun to go back and see who actually managed to perform the best when given a chance in the big leagues.
Andrew: It has been a challenging year, overall, for rookies. We have seen a lot of young players on the sidelines when we would usually expect them to have larger roles. Some positions have definitely taken that hit more than others, and I have the subjective impression this may be one of the weakest All-Rookie selections in recent seasons. It would be interesting to compare those across years, but that is beyond our remit for today. Our usual selection rules apply, meaning we use modern 11 personnel and a nickel base defense. Players in bold are the picks, look to the writeups for honorable mentions, and be sure to send any complaints in writing to Bryan.
Bryan: I do think the lack of a traditional preseason and training camp did a number on rookie development this year, especially in the trenches. While we have seen great performances from the skill positions and out of the secondary, the more meat-and-potatoes guys up front haven't been holding up their end of the bargain. I think this year's team would struggle against more physical All-Rookie teams of the past -- not so much in terms of a lack of superstars, but in terms of a lack of depth at key positions. I doubt the class as a whole will be seen as a bad one once all is said and done, but 2020 has been uniquely difficult for tons of people, and this year's rookie class is no exception.
Scramble for the Ball 2020 All-Rookie Team
Bryan: With all due respect to Tua Tagovailoa, who is doing a decent enough job on a playoff contender, this was a two-horse race. Top pick Joe Burrow's season ended in injury, so his counting stats aren't as high as some others, but he was looking very much like the guy the Bengals hoped he would be when he drafted him. His -7.7% DVOA isn't great, of course, but he's still playing for the Cincinnati Bengals -- compare it to the -33.9% DVOA of Brandon Allen and the -84.2% DVOA of Ryan Finley and you begin to get a clearer picture of just what Burrow was able to do on a rebuilding team.
But no, our pick is Justin Herbert. There was some skepticism of Herbert before the season started, with Scouts Inc. listing him as the fourth-best passer in the draft; he didn't exactly lead a dynamite passing offense at Oregon. For what it's worth, QBASE had him as the second-best prospect behind Burrow, and the Chargers are likely more than satisfied with their selection. Herbert was in the top 10 for passing DYAR until Drew Brees came back this week. Even if he doesn't finish in the top 10, he seems like a lock to finish with the most DYAR for a rookie quarterback since Dak Prescott in 2016, and that's despite starting the season on the bench behind Tyrod Taylor. Herbert's tendency to make uncatchable throws has almost vanished in the pros; he has developed faster than even his most fervent supporters would have guessed before the season started. And, perhaps most significantly, he has been good enough that I have stopped accidentally calling him "Justin Hebert." The Chargers may have a new coach and offensive coordinator next year, but whoever does end up on the sidelines for Los Angeles looks to have their most important building block in place.
Andrew: We have seen a lot of strong performances from rookie running backs this year. Second-round pick Jonathan Taylor has impressed since quickly taking over the top role in the Colts backfield after Marlon Mack's injury. Third-rounder Antonio Gibson has put up several standout individual performances in Washington. First-round selection Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a sought-after fantasy commodity for his role in the Chiefs offense. However, our winner came pretty much out of nowhere, and his emergence has everything to do with the crisis that has consumed most of our lives in 2020.
After the release of Leonard Fournette, most observers expected Ryquell Armstead to be Jacksonville's top rusher. However, Armstead came down with COVID-19, suffered a number of complications, and even ended up in hospital more than once with respiratory issues. He ended up missing the entire season. That handed the role of lead back to undrafted rookie James Robinson. What did Robinson do with that opportunity? Only set a new record for combined scrimmage yards by an undrafted first-year player, surpassing the mark Dominic Rhodes set for the 2001 Colts with still another two games to play. Robinson ranks fourth in scrimmage yards for any player this season, has over 1,000 yards on the ground alone, and has been one of the few bright spots on a 1-13 Jaguars squad in pole position for the top pick in April's draft.
Bryan: Justin Jefferson is the Rookie of the Year. I know it will be hard to ignore a quarterback playing well for those honors, but Jefferson is having a season for the ages. He leads all wide receivers in DYAR and is third in DVOA; these are not the sorts of numbers rookie receivers are supposed to put up. Jefferson needs 63 receiving DYAR in his last two games to break Michael Thomas' rookie receiving record of 431 DYAR; he needs 60 to break Randy Moss' rookie franchise record of 428. He even has an outside shot of taking down the Vikings overall franchise record, set at 515 by Moss in 2003; 147 DYAR in two games would be a hell of an ask, but it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility just yet. You can point out that Moss was an immediate superstar on a more relevant team, and when you're talking about the best of the best, context matters, but we don't need Jefferson to be strictly better than Randy Moss to be the best rookie of 2020. Even if you don't like advanced stats -- and if not, what are you doing here? Are you lost? -- Jefferson is just the sixth rookie named to a Pro Bowl team since Moss's rookie season in 1998. Dude is a stud.
Two other rookie receivers have topped 100 receiving DYAR this season, so we'll just stick with them to fill out our top three. Andrew's choice for second-best rookie receiver is Cincinnati's Tee Higgins, second among rookies with 123 receiving DYAR. Higgins has had at least three catches in every game since he became a starter in Week 2, and while he has cooled off a little since October and November, some of that can be chalked up to Joe Burrow's knee imploding. Higgins has seven drops, which is his biggest remaining issue, but what he does when he does hold on to the ball is more than worthy of a nod.
My choice for second-best rookie receiver is San Francisco's Brandon Aiyuk. He is behind Higgins with 108 receiving DYAR, but goes in front of him when you add in his 56 rushing DYAR, always an important factor to consider in Kyle Shanahan's offense. Aiyuk needs 104 more yards to break Jerry Rice's franchise record for receiving yards by a rookie, and while some of that is just a sign that passing games are more prolific in 2020 than in 1985, anytime you can add "broke a record previously held by Jerry Rice" to your resume, you're doing alright.
We strongly considered Dallas' CeeDee Lamb; he's ahead of Higgins and Aiyuk in yards, if not DYAR. Chase Claypool and his eight receiving touchdowns deserves a mention as well, even if Pittsburgh's offense is heading towards a crater, and I have been impressed with Jacksonville's Laviska Shenault's combined rushing and receiving totals as well. The much-touted 2020 receiving class may not be quite as deep as last year's rookie performances, but you have got quite a few players making splashes in their rookie seasons.
Andrew: All-rookie tight ends are often tough to select. Sure, we have the occasional big year from a Jeremy Shockey, an Evan Engram, or ... er, John Carlson. More commonly, we end up with a year like this, in which nobody really stood out as a major contributor. Only Harrison Bryant of the Browns has even hit 200 receiving yards, and his -17.5% DVOA is not good at all. It took Cole Kmet of the Bears until Week 10 to play 50% of offensive snaps, though he has since grown into a significant role on the improved Bears offense. The other two noteworthy contributors, Adam Trautman of the Saints and Albert Okwuegbunam of the Broncos, are tied at just 121 receiving yards and one touchdown apiece. In the end, we settled on Bryant as the player with both the largest role and the greatest production, but this pick just serves as further evidence that nobody should judge the quality of a rookie class by its tight ends.
Bryan: This is a position where we disagreed somewhat on value versus volume. It's hard to argue that Bryant hasn't played a more significant role for the Browns than Trautman did for the Saints; he's a TE1 compared to Trautman's TE2 role. But Trautman's real role is primary run-blocking tight end behind Jared Cook as the receiving tight end. I would argue that Trautman does his job better than Bryant has done his to this point. Whether a backup run blocker is more valuable than a guy catching 1.5 passes a game is open for some debate. But, as always, rookie tight ends never produce; this is always a weak spot.
Bryan: We're cheating just a little bit with our tackles to ensure the best offensive line possible.
At right tackle, we're going with Tampa Bay's Tristan Wirfs, who has been a very good pass-blocker this season, winning reps a rookie has no right to be winning. He has allowed just three sacks on the year, per SIS charting, and most of those came early in the season as he was ramping up to speed. He certainly hasn't been perfect; a blown block on 1.8% of his pass snaps is a better-than-average rate, but not quite enough to justify some of the lofty grades or Rookie of the Year consideration he has received elsewhere. But when he's on, Wirfs looks like a franchise tackle, a building block on the line for years to come.
We then debated Mekhi Becton of the Jets and Jedrick Wills of the Browns for the left tackle spot. Wills is an excellent pass-blocker who struggles to hold his own in the running game; Becton's more all-around solid without excelling quite as much in any one aspect of his game. In the end, we decided to go with the winner in blown block rate. Willis has a blown block on 2.4% of his snaps, per SIS charting; Becton just 1.6%. Becton wins in a close race.
But aren't we forgetting someone? Ah, well, you see...
Bryan: ... New England's Michael Onwenu started the season at guard. He may have found his home at right tackle now, but the sixth-round pick first entered the starting lineup by filling in at both guard positions, so we're cheating a little bit and slotting him here. Onwenu deserves a starting position somewhere on the offensive line. He has allowed just three sacks in the passing game and one stuff in the running game, per SIS charting; he's arguably been the best rookie offensive lineman regardless of position.
We're moving him to guard in part because there's only one true rookie guard who has played well. That would be Damien Lewis in Seattle, who was plugged into right guard right from the start. Seattle ranks sixth in middle/guard rushing yards, and Lewis has been a big reason why -- he even filled in at center one week when injuries forced a reshuffling of the line. Not a bad season at all for the rookie.
If we couldn't use Onwenu, we probably would have gone with Minnesota's Ezra Cleveland for the other guard spot, but Cleveland has only started half the season and hasn't lit the world on fire when he has. Putting Onwenu here gives us a solid set of guards … and our team will need it, considering the options at center.
Bryan: Two rookie centers have played at least 400 snaps: Lloyd Cushenberry in Denver and Tyler Biadasz in Dallas. Zero rookie centers have played well this season, so we're left with picking the best of the worst. Cushenberry has played the more significant role, starting all 14 games to this point, but he leads all centers with 29 blown blocks; that's somewhat less than ideal. Biadasz has only started four games, coming in as an injury replacement before being injured himself. His 1.7% blown block rate was significantly better than Cushenberry's 3.5%, so Biadasz is our guy, but let's just say this does not represent a strength.
Andrew: 2020 was not a vintage year for front seven defenders, with the notable exception of Chase Young. Carolina's Derrick Brown leads the class of interior defensive linemen with a meager 20 solo tackles and 2.0 sacks, but he also has solid numbers against the run, is among the leaders leaguewide at his position in defeats (including tied for third-most run defeats), and has started 13 of 14 games for the Panthers since they took him with the seventh overall pick. He's the clear statistical leader of this underwhelming rookie class.
Our second choice came down to two Florida residents. Miami's Raekwon Davis ranks second in tackles and has 10 starts at the heart of the interior rotation on the improving Dolphins defense. Jacksonville's undrafted rookie Doug Costin took longer to get started, only making his debut in Week 4, but he has since gone from strength to strength, working his way into a starting role and dominating the snaps on the interior of the line over the past couple of weeks. The Jaguars defense has been worse than our projections this year, for a variety of predictable reasons discussed at length in the Almanac chapter, but Costin's emergence as part of a youthful core gives reason for optimism in the future.
Bryan: Chase Young had a strong argument for his Pro Bowl spot, not just the defensive captain on the All-Rookie team. Young has gotten stronger as the season has gone alone, with 11 of his 18 quarterback hurries coming in his last six games -- remember, he had a groin injury in September which slowed him down a bit during the first half of the season. He has the ability to take over a game on his own -- the win over San Francisco which put Washington into the driver's seat in the NFC East was basically all Young. He'd be our choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year, and is a fine first edge rusher in any year's class.
Unfortunately, we need two. The only other two edge rushers who have played significant roles throughout the season are Jacksonville's K'Lavon Chaisson and Minnesota's D.J. Wonnum and, with all due respect, no. Instead, we're going with Pittsburgh's Alex Highsmith. Highsmith only became a starter in Week 13, forced into the lineup due to Bud Dupree's torn ACL, so he doesn't have the breadth of resume that some of the other candidates have. Despite that, he has 11 pass pressures this season -- that compares favorably to Wonnum's 16 and Chaisson's 15 when you consider Highsmith has only played about two-thirds of their snaps due being a rotational guy for three months. We'd love to give this second spot to someone with a more substantial role, but Highsmith's work in relatively limited time outshines anyone else this season.
Andrew: Linebacker is another position at which this year's rookie class has underwhelmed without the benefit of a normal offseason. Fortunately, positional ambiguity gives us a clear first pick: Carolina's Jeremy Chinn was considered a safety when he was drafted, but the Panthers themselves listed him at outside linebacker on the Pro Bowl ballot, so that's good enough for us to include him here. Chinn made headlines for his two fumble-return touchdowns on consecutive snaps against the Vikings, but he has been a dynamic and versatile every-down player all season for the youthful Panthers defense. Chinn has started 13 of 14 possible games, playing at least 89% of snaps in each, ranking second in the class in solo tackles behind only Baltimore's Patrick Queen, and adding an interception against Chicago to his two forced fumbles and two fumble return scores. He's good enough that he would be in contention at safety, too. The team listing him as a linebacker made this pick too easy.
At first glance, including the aforementioned Patrick Queen would be the easy choice, as the player with the most solo tackles in the class who has also added 3.0 sacks in his role as a blitzing off-ball linebacker. However, that requires overlooking the prevailing opinion that Queen might be the worst full-time starter in, at the very least, the playoffs this season. Though he has shown flashes of ability as a blitzer, he has often been a liability in pass coverage, and his impressive tackle total is mainly a function of his role, not his ability. Next on the list is Kenneth Murray of the Chargers, and if we had picked this team a month ago, we might have said the same about him as we did about Queen. However, Murray has grown into his challenging role at the heart of the Chargers defense over the past few games and is finally beginning to look at home in the NFL. He picked up his first career sack in a strong individual performance, despite the result, against the Patriots. He also looked at home in wins against the Falcons and Raiders, perhaps finally emerging as the every-week starter the team hoped for when they traded up to take him in the first round of April's draft.
Atlanta's Mykal Walker and Arizona's Isaiah Simmons were honorable mentions here as players in smaller roles who have shown potential to grow into regular starters.
Andrew: For whatever reason, the class of defensive backs made a much stronger impression than the front seven defenders even though usually the front seven roles usually allow a much smoother transition to the professional game. We had at least five contenders for our three spots here, and that list didn't even include Broncos third-round pick Michael Ojemudia or Detroit's now-injured Jeff Okudah. The two contenders we ultimately decided against were Jacksonville's CJ Henderson (who exploded onto the scene with two picks on opening day but has since been part of the worst pass defense in the league and is now out injured) and Dallas' Trevon Diggs (who also missed a chunk of the season injured but finally returned to the field in Week 15).
Our top two picks were Minnesota's Cameron Dantzler and Atlanta's A.J. Terrell. When you think of the recent Falcons teams, strong secondary play is not usually the first attribute that comes to mind, but the Falcons defense has not only been better than advertised this year, it has been better than the Falcons offense. Terrell has stepped straight in as the unquestioned starter, playing at least 97% of snaps in all but three games. He has the lowest average yards allowed per target of any rookie cornerback with at least 12 starts, has contributed 12 defeats despite only a single interception, and helped to shore up a unit whose reputation for blown leads has usually overshadowed its reasonable overall performance. Dantzler, meanwhile, was given the less-than-enviable task of replacing Mackensie Alexander as the second cornerback on the Vikings, and with fellow rookie Jeff Gladney opposite him rather than former All-Pro Xavier Rhodes. It would be overegging the pudding a little to say that Dantzler has excelled, but he has looked like a worthy Day 2 draft pick and a solid starter and has broadly outperformed the more heralded Gladney in Minnesota's retooled secondary.
Our third pick is more of a surprise, even to us. You may be surprised to learn that Jaylon Johnson of Chicago's 14 defeats are not only the most of any rookie defensive back, but the third-most of any cornerback in the league this year. He also leads the league in pass breakups while allowing only a 50% completion rate and 7.8 yards per target. That suggests he's being targeted plenty, but he is holding his own in coverage at the heart of a top-10 pass defense.
Bryan: No rookie safety has played a larger role for his team this year than Tampa Bay's Antoine Winfield. A perfect rookie safety would have a few more plays on the ball than Winfield; he has five pass breakups and one interception, which is good but not great for a full-time starter. What Winfield is is a sure tackler, willing to stick his nose up at the line of scrimmage in the run game when need be and very rarely missing. He has eight broken or missed tackles this year, per SIS charting, and his resulting 8.7% broken tackle rate is tops among qualified rookies in the secondary. If you catch the ball against Winfield, you're not going to picking up gobs of YAC against him. Plus, Tampa Bay likes using Winfield to blitz frequently, and he excels there as well.
The second safety pick was harder to choose, with both Washington's Kamren Curl and Indianapolis' Julian Blackmon being strongly considered. Either would be a fine choice, but we went with Curl, in part because we like acknowledging when late-round picks have stellar seasons. Curl, a seventh-round pick out of Arkansas, surprised enough in training camp to allow Washington to cut Sean Davis outright before the season began, and he has backed up that decision with very solid play. When Landon Collins tore his Achilles in October, it was Curl who stepped up to fill in the gap -- he has played both safety positions and covered the slot as needs be. He's a great tackler and solid cover guy, and most importantly, always seems to be in the right place to make a play, even if he doesn't always succeed. He's a great find as a third-day flyer.
Andrew: Their advanced numbers are nothing to write home about, but Colts kicker Rodrigo Blankenship and Buffalo's Tyler Bass are the joint second-highest-scoring kickers in football this season alongside Daniel Carlson of the Raiders. Blankenship has slightly higher accuracy, with only half as many missed field goals, but Bass adds significantly more value on kickoffs with more kicks, a higher touchback rate, and a better average distance. That, added with a marginal edge in field goal value due to the difficulty of his kicks, is enough to swing us toward Bass over Blankenship in a highly competitive contest.
Andrew: A 2019 undrafted free agent who is technically a rookie as he didn't play at all last year, Jack Fox made the NFC Pro Bowl team in this, his first active season. Now, he shouldn't have -- Washington's Tress Way was the superior choice -- but the fact that he did, and it wasn't a complete affront to good sense, tells you all you need to know about the fabled Rookie Punter of the Year battle. Fox and the Detroit Lions had the third-most added value of any punt team in our figures, and he was the unanimous choice of the voters.
Andrew: Indianapolis' Isaiah Rodgers versus Baltimore's Devin Duvernay was also a very competitive race. Both number among the very few men who have scored a kick return touchdown since the kickoff was moved up to the 35. Indianapolis ranks second in our kickoff return figures, but Baltimore ranks first. However, Rodgers has the third-highest average return distance, whereas Duvernay ranks fourth ... by 0.4 yards, or roughly one foot per return. Ultimately, we settled on Isaiah Rodgers, because his 692 yards on 24 returns significantly outstrips Duvernay's 539 on 19 returns, but almost all of the difference between their averages is accounted for by the difference in the length of their touchdown returns. This could easily have gone either way.
Bryan: There shouldn't be a rookie punt returner on this team. All rookies combined have 804 punt return yards, and no one has exactly blown the roof of the proverbial joint. We're going with Baltimore's James Proche; the Ravens rank 12th in our punt return stats and Proche has been their only punt returner so far this season. 8.6 yards per return isn't exactly something to write home about, but the only rookies who can top that have 10 or fewer punt returns all season.
Andrew: Not only is Kevin Stefanski the rookie head coach with the most wins this season, he has achieved that feat with the Cleveland Browns, the franchise where nobody has success in recent seasons. The Browns have 10 wins and will assuredly make the playoffs for the first time since George W. Bush was president, Football Outsiders was merely an article concept in Aaron Schatz's head, and "advanced statistics" meant dividing total yards by number of attempts. Now if only they can maybe win a postseason game, the analytically minded Browns can finally join the rest of us* in the 21st Century.
* Not you, Detroit.
Andrew: As a rookie offensive coordinator, Carolina's Joe Brady has fashioned a top-10 offense out of a No. 1 receiver who spent last season on the Jets, a quarterback with only six starts in the previous half-decade, and a star running back who spent most of the season out injured. He did so in one of the most challenging divisions in the sport, operating under a rookie head coach, amid historically challenging circumstances. Brady is likely to be one-and-done as an offensive coordinator, because he is already being touted near the top of the wish list of every fanbase that sees their team as a potential head coaching vacancy this January.
Bryan: Wade Phillips leaves some very big shoes to fill, but Brandon Staley has done an exceptional job filling them in Los Angeles this year. Staley was a key part of Vic Fangio's staff for the past three seasons, and that was specifically cited by Sean McVay as a reason for hiring him -- Fangio's swarming defenses had been in a thorn in his side, and the side of the McVay/Shanahan style of offense in general, and he wanted a piece of that for his own team. Under Staley, the Rams have vaulted up to fourth in DVOA, and are in the top 10 against both the pass and the run; it's the best Rams defense since 2001. The most impressive part of Staley's performance might be how he has prevented opposing offensive coordinators from making second-half adjustments; Rams opponents have scored an average of just 6.6 points in the second half, second-best mark in the league. Staley didn't throw out everything Phillips did, but he made several important tweaks, using fewer players in the box and running more zone coverage to take advantage of his strong-tackling secondary. It has worked like a charm, and Staley has found himself in the conversation for a head coaching gig in 2021. Not bad for someone who was coaching in Division III just a few years ago.
Keep Choppin' Wood
This is the most amazing rep of pass protection I have ever seen.
scat back "pass pro" LMAO
for real Trent Brown is a good dude to hide behindpic.twitter.com/L8G5otE8gE
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 18, 2020
We have seen players whiff on blocks before. We have seen players be knocked flat on their backs before. We have seen players be driven butt-first into their quarterback's face before. We're not sure we have ever seen a player just flat-out hide behind a teammate to avoid taking on a rusher before. The, ahem, blocking effort did not result in a sack, and probably had a negligible impact on the game, but that was a standout effort from Theo Riddick, for all the wrong reasons.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
Look, the play call was terrible, but we are not going to fault Joe Judge for going for it on fourth-and-5 from the Cleveland 8-yard line on the opening drive on Sunday night. Judge, in fact, went for it twice in that area of the field in the first half, failing on both that doomed Riley Dixon pass and a Wayne Gallman plunge on fourth-and-2. We would have liked to see some consistency, instead of a meek punt on fourth-and-4 in Browns territory in the second half, but the aggression in the first half was admirable. Just ... maybe have your quarterback attempt the pass instead of your punter, next time, Judge?
John Fox Award for Conservatism
By contrast with the Giants, on the opening drive against the Dolphins, the Patriots drove to Miami's 39-yard line, but a couple of incompletions and a short run brought up fourth-and-9. This is broadly considered No Man's Land: the field position win of even a good punt is minimal, it's slightly too long for a comfortable field goal, and the distance is a bit long to go for it. Still, the punt is by far the most conservative of the options, so it was disappointing to see Bill Belichick send on Jake Bailey in that situation. Even if the Patriots were doomed to go down against the Dolphins, we'd have liked to see them put up more of a fight.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching
Any failed fake special teams play looks bad in hindsight -- we love them when they work and catch their opponents totally by surprise, but a sniffed-out fake usually ends up as a lame fail. As such, we're not going to call Joe Judge out on his fake field goal, though we would question why the primary target for Riley Dixon was a triple-covered offensive lineman. But that play call came in the first quarter in a close game, where a field goal would be a believable, if conservative, choice; there was some chance of fooling the Browns. Not so much for Darrell Bevell and the Detroit Lions, who opted to run a fake punt down 14 points in the fourth quarter against the Titans. Even that might not have been enough to win this award, except Brayden Coombs, the special teams coordinator, did not clear the fake with interim coach Darrell Bevell. Nor did he inform all 11 players on the field that they would be running the fake. It would seem these would be among the basic requirements for calling and running a fake punt in a critical situation, especially considering the Lions were still technically in playoff contention at the time, but what do I know? I know that Coombs got fired, because when you take play calling into your own hands, that usually does not end up well.
'Thank You, Gruden, But Your Quarterback is in Another Castle' Fantasy Player of the Week
If you were counting on Derek Carr to lead your fantasy team to victory in the playoffs, you were out of luck -- Carr pulled his groin on the Raiders' second drive. Instead, Marcus Mariota ended up under center and pulled off one of the best performances of his career -- 226 yards passing with a touchdown, and 88 yards and another touchdown on the ground. Mariota's 96 DYAR had him ninth in the league in Week 15, and we saw a version of Mariota we haven't seen in years -- solid accuracy and a willingness to run that sometimes vanished in Tennessee. With Carr out for at least another week, Mariota will get another chance to strut his stuff, putting some more potential on film before he becomes a free agent after the 2021 season. Still only 27 years old, there's time for Mariota to revive his career.
— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2020
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
In Audibles at the Line, Vince Verhei suggested the 49ers' late Hail Mary from C.J. Beathard to Kendrick Bourne would win this award, but that's depressing. Instead, for the second week in a row, let's talk about Gardner Minshew. 212 of Minshew's 226 yards and both of his touchdown passes came with the Jaguars down at least three scores to the Ravens; that's a nearly impossible percentage of garbage-time production from someone who was in the starting lineup. Minshew has now gone over 1,000 career passing yards when trailing by three-plus scores in just his 20th NFL game, a worthy successor to Blake Bortles' throne as king of meaningless production.
Minshew has 677 garbage-time yards this year, making him the leader in the clubhouse as we go down to the wire. His closest rivals are Tom Brady, sitting on 656 passing yards when down by three scores, and Nick Mullens at 613. With the Buccaneers in theory a decent football team and Mullens not guaranteed to start over Beathard the rest of the way, Minshew's path to the season-long crown looks safe.
A DIME from Gardner Minshew to James Robinson for a Jags TD! #DUUUVAL
— NFL (@NFL) December 20, 2020
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
Five teams were eliminated from playoff contention in Week 15: the Panthers, Broncos, Lions, Patriots, and 49ers. As Christopher Price of the Boston Globe notes, the Patriots are about to play a truly meaningless game -- not competing for the playoffs, trying to secure seeding, or even resting starters to get healthy for the postseason -- for the first time since November, 2000. It is perhaps a mark of just how poorly the rest of their season has been that their punter, Jake Bailey, has become the first Patriots punter named to the Pro Bowl since Rich Camarillo in 1983. The Patriots yet again sit No. 1 in our special teams ratings, and their punt and punt return teams are the major reason why. It has been a difficult season in New England, but the specialists continue to be special.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
The Green Bay Packers did not play their best game against the Carolina Panthers. The second half, in particular, saw them somewhat lethargic, with Aaron Rodgers constantly under pressure. This ended up not mattering much in the long run, as the Packers coasted to a 24-16 win which wasn't quite as close as the final score indicated. However, it could have been a lot more interesting had Teddy Bridgewater been able to hold onto this football...
— Justin Groc (@jgroc) December 20, 2020
Drew Brees is the current master of the "stick the ball over the end line and immediately pull it back" play that Bridgewater is aping there; perhaps they went over it when both were on the Saints last season. I have never seen a play like this fail quite like that, with Krys Barnes basically spiking the ball straight out of Bridgewater's hands. Instead of a 14-10 Packers lead and a close game, Green Bay turned the turnover into points and took a commanding 21-3 lead.
The result doesn't matter for the Panthers -- they would have been eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday with the Cardinals' win, even if they had pulled off the upset here -- but the NFC bye week race would have looked quite different if the Panthers had pulled off the upset. The Saints would currently be sitting in first place in the three-way tie at 10-4, with the superior conference record putting them over the top. Instead, the Packers have sole possession of first place, a game ahead of their rivals in New Orleans and Seattle, and will win most three-way ties so long as they don't lose to the Bears in Week 17.
Bryan: It's over! I needed Andrew to lose out in order to stand a chance in the Double Survival league, so when the Browns closed out their win over the Giants on Sunday night, he officially became the champion. Or, at least, that would have officially clinched for him, had he not clinched on Saturday when the Broncos fell to the Bills; I needed a number of miracle outcomes to come out on top and, spoiler alert, they didn't happen. Well played, good sir.
Now, I just have to lean on my 4.5-game lead in the Lock of the Week for comfort. I suppose I shall survive.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
All picks are made without reference to the FO+ picks, while all lines are courtesy of Bovada and were accurate as of time of writing.
Records to Date:
Andrew: I ain't winning this thing anyway, and my picks have been woeful this year, so despite my opinion meshing with DVOA's assessment that these two teams are basically a toss-up, I'm breaking out a sentimental pick. I'm taking Washington (-2.5) over Carolina, not just as a division leader overcoming a fourth-place team, but as a meaningful win for former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
Bryan: I figure, if you're going to lose the No. 1 overall pick, you might as well play decent football for the rest of the season. I'm taking the New York Jets (+9.5) at home against the Cleveland Browns. I'm not picking them to win, mind you, good lord no, but they have been competitive in four of their last six games. The Browns still are being outscored on the season; they have improved in recent weeks but are still an average team wearing a good team's clothing. I think they win by a touchdown, but have a little more trouble putting New York away than the general betting public thinks.
Double Survival League
Andrew: HOU, JAX
Bryan: LAC, LAR
Andrew: CAR, CHI, CIN, MIN, NYJ, PHI, SF, WAS
Bryan: ARI, CAR, CHI, DEN, HOU, IND, JAX, MIN, NYJ, PHI, PIT, SF, TB
Bryan: Even if my picks hadn't been forced last week, I would have taken the Rams over the Jets, so I was pretty much screwed no matter what happened. Ah well. This has been a terrible year for me in Double Survival, so I'm hoping just to save some face with the Los Angeles Rams over the Seahawks in a battle for the NFC West and the Los Angeles Chargers over the Broncos in a battle for the basement of the AFC West. Not exactly the most inspiring selections, but at least I get to retire to L.A. to sulk after my defeat.
Andrew: My final two teams were carefully planned and chosen several weeks ago, which has worked to my significant disadvantage in one case. When I picked the Jaguars, which admittedly I only did because I had to, Nick Foles was the Bears starter and this looked like a good chance to grab an upset over a fading opponent. Now, Mitchell Trubisky is back and actually playing kinda well, and the Bears are back on the very distant fringes of the playoff hunt. Meanwhile, the Jaguars are in pole position for the No. 1 overall pick, presumably Trevor Lawrence, and can't possibly blow it now, can they? Still, Jacksonville is the team I have left, so Jacksonville is the pick.
Houston against Cincinnati has been the easy pick since the Bengals lost Joe Burrow, and I don't think Monday night affects my already middling confidence too badly. Neither team is any good, random things happen, but the Texans have a better quarterback than Ben Roethlisberger, played the Colts tougher than I expected in Week 15, and have the ability to win this one at home.