Andrew: Hello and welcome to Scramble for the Ball, where with one week of the regular season left, the playoff picture has just about finally cleared. And with a clear playoff picture comes one of our favorite articles of the year, one where we invariably manage to get the playoff field completely wrong, but we still have fun writing about the teams who should have made it.
Bryan: That's right, it's the annual Joe Thomas Memorial Draft! Thomas, of course, is not dead -- the draft is held in memory of his career, one of the most impressive in NFL history to never have reached the postseason. Every year, over half the league's teams have to stay home in January, depriving us of superstars who we would like -- no, who we deserve -- to see on the grandest stages of them all.
Andrew: This year, we'll see a number of decorated debutants. Lavonte David will finally make the playoffs after years of being the best player on bad Buccaneers defenses. His former teammate Gerald McCoy will not play a game if the Cowboys somehow steal a berth at the death, but he will at least have been on a playoff franchise. Ryan Fitzpatrick has never played in the postseason either, not even when his Jets team finished 10-6 in 2015. That year, his team needed a win against the Bills in the final game to squeak in ahead of the AFC North runner-up, but lost 22-17. This year ... huh.
And if Fitzpatrick's squad fails, they will be replaced by an entire franchise of virtual postseason strangers, as the Cleveland Browns try to squeak in for the first time since the relaunched franchise's 2002 heyday under, uh, Butch Davis. The Joe Thomas Memorial Draft allows us to imagine a landscape in which the league's best players don't spend a decade at the top of their game missing the playoffs on teams at the bottom of the standings.
Bryan: The Joe Thomas Memorial Draft allows each of the 14 playoff teams to draft players from the 18 squads which ended up not reaching the postseason -- the sixth and seventh seeds each get an extra pick at the end to give them the biggest boost. This lets us both highlight the weaknesses of the postseason teams and celebrate the strengths of the teams that have to stay home. Fun for the whole family!
Obviously, we do not have a crystal ball telling us who will and will not make the postseason. As an example, we originally planned this draft before Week 16, assuming that the Cardinals would earn the No. 7 seed in the NFC and thus get the first overall selection in our draft. They wouldn't lose to a beaten-up 49ers team with nothing to play for, right? Wrong, and we had to frantically rework a significant chunk of the picks to account for last Saturday's results. And then, when the Browns blew the un-blowable game to the Jets, we had to redraft again. This is the problem with doing a draft reacting to Week 16 in a week when we're unable to get together to write.
That's right, this conversation isn't really happening. It's just an amazing facsimile.
As added evidence that these halves of the conversation are being written at different times, I direct you to Andrew's claim that there is a "clear playoff picture." Ha! And double ha! And a triple ha to you, good sir. The AFC wild-card race is anything but clear, with five teams each having a good chance at claiming the last four AFC spots.
Updated AFC South / AFC Wildcard scenarios. The #Titans fail to clinch the division and, in the worst case scenario, could still miss the postseason. The #Colts, #Ravens, #Browns and #Dolphins will all be fighting for playoff position in Week 17, as well. pic.twitter.com/b3D8GZMXAA
— Bryan Knowles (@BryKno) December 28, 2020
Andrew: In my defense, the playoff picture is clearer now than it was last week, when the Raiders hadn't blown their game against Miami in highly improbable circumstances, your 49ers hadn't ruined Kliff Kingsbury's Christmas, and the Jets hadn't somehow beaten a second wild-card playoff contender in as many weeks. But yes, one of the difficulties we always face in writing this before Week 17 is working out who the playoff teams are. This year, that is genuinely a little more straightforward than usual, despite your temporally distanced pointed jabs.
Bryan: If we place a team in the wrong slot -- if, for example, the Steelers end up slipping past the Bills to claim the No. 2 seed -- it is far from the end of the world. But picking a team to make the playoffs who, in reality, is staying home? Well, that requires significant calculation to make as close as we can get to an educated guess.
Picking the Titans to win the AFC South and Ravens to win the No. 5 seed both seem relatively fair -- they're each over 50% in our playoff odds for those specific seeds, over 85% to make the postseason in some form, and each have clear paths to those outcomes (the Titans need a win or a Colts loss to clinch the AFC South; a Ravens win alone clinches them a top-six seed, while a Dolphins loss to the Bills gives them No. 5). That leaves the Dolphins, Browns, and Colts fighting for the sixth and seventh seeds, and all three of them have a greater than 50% chance to make the postseason. In the end, we decided to go with our Monday evening playoff odds and pick the Dolphins and Colts to make the postseason; losing to the Jets seems like sufficient tiebreaker to kick the Browns out of a close tie.
I'm specifying Monday playoff odds, because on Tuesday, the Steelers announced that they were resting starters, as the difference between the second and third seeds in the AFC is basically negligible. That news bumped the Browns back over the Dolphins in our playoff odds. We're OK sticking with Miami because A) we do not yet know if the Bills will be resting starters, which would presumably bump Miami back up again; B) if you lose to the Jets, I have full faith you can lose to Mason Rudolph, too; and C) we had already written versions of this article three times and for the love of God, we're not chained to our keyboards!
For the record, we also have the Rams and Bears over the Cardinals, and the Football Team over the Giants and Cowboys. Now that we've put these picks to paper, they're assured to be incorrect, but we have to pick something.
One final reminder of the rules:
- We have 14 playoff teams and 18 non-playoff teams.
- Every playoff team may pick, in reverse order of seed, one player from any eliminated team.
- Picks alternate by conference. The NFC picks first because we expect their seventh seed to have the worse record.
- Only one player may be selected from any eliminated team. If George Kittle goes off the board, the rest of the 49ers go with him.
- Andrew selected for the NFC; Bryan for the AFC -- send your ire accordingly.
Without further ado, let's unveil the..
Fourth Annual Joe Thomas Memorial Draft!
1. Chicago Bears: Deshaun Watson, QB, Texans
Andrew: When the best player in the draft matches the biggest need of the team picking first, it makes our jobs easy -- considerably easier than Ryan Pace's four years ago. It's incredible to think, with the benefit of hindsight, that in a draft class that included Watson and Patrick Mahomes, the Bears instead traded up for their embattled returning starter Mitchell Trubisky second overall. That adds a layer of what-might-have-been intrigue to our fantasy postseason.
Trubisky has spent this season floundering, being benched for Nick Foles, then returning an apparently better quarterback for the experience. That better quarterback is still nowhere near as good as Watson, who has absolutely no business missing out on the postseason. The hubristic folly of Bill O'Brien may have kept Watson out of the playoffs; not even the scorched wasteland he left behind in place of the Texans roster could keep Watson out of the top five in DVOA. Watson is the reason the Texans job remains attractive despite the dearth of talent and draft resources. The lack of a Watson of their own is the reason the Bears job doesn't.
2. Miami Dolphins: Kirk Cousins, QB, Vikings
Bryan: If you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. Brian Flores has now benched Tua Tagovailoa twice this season, bringing in World's Greatest Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa has remained the starter throughout and will start in Week 17, but the writing on the wall is fairly clear: Tua may be the Dolphins quarterback of the future, but he isn't necessarily the quarterback of the present. A DVOA of -4.0% isn't a disaster by any means, but it also is something we can improve on, and a moderate improvement at quarterback is more important than a massive improvement anywhere else.
With Deshaun Watson already off the board, the next-highest quarterbacks by DVOA are Derek Carr at 14.5% and Kirk Cousins at 11.1% -- and yes, both are higher than Fitzpatrick, before you start making that argument. It's a very tough call between them, essentially a toss-up, and at the end of the day, I'd be more than happy picking either of them. I ended up picking Cousins because he's the more mobile of the two, as well as generally a bit more consistent from game to game. Plus, this blocks anyone else from taking Justin Jefferson, leaving the Dolphins with one fewer problem to worry about.
By no means was quarterback the only possible way to go here, mind you. We could have given Tua help in the form of Trent Williams to buy him some protection, or Justin Jefferson to give him another target. Joey Bosa or Fred Warner would have shored up a defense that is a little soft up front. We could have paired Xavien Howard with James Bradberry and dared anyone to throw at us, or added Jessie Bates to create a nearly unstoppable secondary. All justifiable; none more important than finding someone reliable under center. Speaking of which...
3. Los Angeles Rams: Derek Carr, QB, Raiders
Andrew: The second edition of this draft we did, the one before the Browns browned themselves against the Jets, saw the Rams grabbing Cousins in this spot. At the time, I thought grabbing a quarterback for the Rams might be a touch controversial to some people, but that reuniting Cousins with Sean McVay would be easier to justify than picking, say, Derek Carr. Well, one hand-on-helmet impact later, it almost doesn't matter which quarterback is available. Assuming Jared Goff's injury is significant, any established starter is likely to be better than undrafted former Wake Forest and AAF star John Wolford.
Of those high-level veteran options, Carr is playing at the highest level right now. Admittedly, he is not on the level of Deshaun Watson, and not quite as neat a fit as Kirk Cousins would have been. Still, we have no doubt that McVay could make things work with a quarterback who, for all his flaws, is definitely an established NFL-caliber passer. Even if Jared Goff was healthy, Carr would probably be a significant upgrade. With Goff hurt, this is another easy choice.
4. Indianapolis Colts: Joey Bosa, EDGE, Chargers
Bryan: The Colts rank 16th in adjusted sack rate. That's not terrible, but it's certainly not the strength some have made it out to be, and it's not too difficult to see why. Edge rushers -- mostly Justin Houston and Denico Autry -- have accounted for just 46 of Indianapolis' 133 pressures; most teams are closer to a 50/50 split between their edge rushers and the rest of the defense. Houston himself has bemoaned his inconsistency to this point, which included a five-game sackless streak, his longest since his rookie season. Houston has not been a liability, by any stretch of the imagination; he just hasn't been a dominant force that causes offenses to scheme around him. There are a number of top-level edge rushers who look to be sitting home this year, and with a full board of them, I'm going with Joey Bosa. Bosa is second only to T.J. Watt in pressures this year per Sportradar charting; his 7.5 sacks are good, but his 41 pressures imply that he has been a little unlucky to not be somewhere in the double digits. Good luck to anyone having to stop Bosa, Houston, and DeForest Buckner from getting to their quarterback!
The Colts don't have a lot of glaring weaknesses that need to be fixed as a high priority; their low seed is more due to a lack of standout superstars than gaping holes. That means that there were a lot of choices that we could have gone for here. Defensively, the trio of Fred Warner, Jessie Bates, and James Bradberry were all considered, but it's hard to pick any of them over one of the top edge rushers in the game. We also considered DeAndre Hopkins to bolster the receiving corps, but the Colts will just have to make do with Michael Pittman as their underneath target. Sorry, Philip Rivers.
5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: James White, RB, Patriots
Andrew: What do you get for the quarterback who seemingly has everything? Even with a smattering of injuries earlier in the year, Tom Brady has spent the season throwing to an incredible cast of receivers: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Rob Gronkowski, and O.J. Howard. Even Scotty Miller and Cameron Brate (and arguably even Antony Auclair!) are probably better than the options he had during his final year with the Patriots. However, the one spot that Brady's passing has uncharacteristically lacked production this year is halfback: Leonard Fournette has the highest drop rate of any qualifying pass-catcher, Ronald Jones is in and out of the lineup with injury issues, and LeSean McCoy is not his younger self. Those three, along with a fleeting contribution from Ke'Shawn Vaughn, have combined for 519 receiving yards and just two touchdowns. White exceeded both of those figures by his lonesome in three of his past four seasons with Brady.
Brady has always enjoyed that reliable option out of the backfield, from Kevin Faulk, through Danny Woodhead, and more recently White. He hasn't had that in Tampa Bay. White hasn't had a vintage year either, for altogether more somber reasons. Reuniting Brady with one of his old security blankets would do both players the world of good. This is the only team I would make this pick for, but it seems to me to make a heap of sense.
6. Baltimore Ravens: Fred Warner, LB, 49ers
Bryan: The Ravens used their first-round pick on LSU's Patrick Queen. He profiled as a replacement for C.J. Mosley and the next link in the hallowed tradition of Baltimore linebackers. Well, we're not writing him off after one season, but Queen's rookie year hasn't exactly lived up to that lineage. Instead, Queen has been in the running for the worst regular starter in football this year -- or at least, among playoff teams. He doesn't take the best angles to the ball, nor has he been fantastic taking on blockers. His 21 missed tackles lead the league; he's someone you run at. We'll replace him with Fred Warner, who may well be the best inside linebacker in football, especially when it comes to covering tight ends and running backs. The last star standing on San Francisco's massively injured defense, Warner has stepped his already-impressive game to new heights -- a sure-handed tackler, a ballhawk in coverage, a leader as a playcaller. Yeah, he fits right in with Baltimore's tradition.
In earlier drafts, I went out and got Lamar Jackson the best receiver I could find, in this case DeAndre Hopkins. Replacing Ronnie Stanley with Trent Williams was tempting as well, as was bringing in Myles Garrett to help a pass rush which ranks just 15th in pressure rate. But the idea of giving the team of Ray Lewis and C.J. Mosley another great linebacker to lead the defense was too good to pass up.
7. Washington Football Team: Kyler Murray, QB, Cardinals
Andrew: Wait, really, a third quarterback in four picks? That is the lay of the land in the NFC playoff picture, I'm afraid. In his first season in Washington, Ron Rivera has set about creating a very close replica of his classic Panthers teams. That includes a dominant defensive line, a secondary assembled from spare parts and Day 3 draft picks ... and cameos from both Kyle Allen and, latterly, Taylor Heinicke after a succession of quarterback injuries. Even Alex Smith, wonderful though his return to the field has been, has been a bad quarterback in Landover this season.
Kyler Murray, on the other hand, combines all of Cam Newton's mobility with superior passing, and could very easily be the X-factor Washington needs to actually feel like a genuine playoff team rather than just the token NFC East representative. Assuming they get to, you know, represent. Of course, even if they don't, the pick of Murray would work just as well for Dallas or the Giants. Everyone's a winner! Well, except, Kyler Murray, in any of these scenarios.
8. Tennessee Titans: Myles Garrett, EDGE, Browns
Bryan: Tennessee's top pass-rusher, Harold Landry, has 28 pass pressures, and the much-touted Jadeveon Clowney has just 11 (and he's out for the year). The Titans rank dead-last in adjusted sack rate, the only team below 4.0%. There was really no question about what position to go for here; the question was, who was the best pass-rusher remaining? Carl Lawson, Brian Burns, Leonard Williams, and Bradley Chubb are all available, and all have more pass pressures than Landry. Instead, I'm going with Myles Garrett, who is just a couple of pressures below that quartet despite missing two games with COVID-19; he's putting up great numbers while not always being able to breathe. His 12 sacks are sixth in the league, and his 4.3% missed tackle rate is the lowest for any edge rusher with at least 20 pressures. There are few pass rushes that wouldn't be improved by adding someone with Garrett's talent; the Titans are certainly not one of them.
Were we to ignore the need at pass-rusher, I'd love to see Calvin Ridley joining A.J. Brown and Corey Davis in three-wide sets; moving Davis into the slot isn't the most effective use of talent there, but that would be a hell of a trio to try to cover. The Titans' offensive line is stronger on the inside than it is on the edges, so adding a Garett Bolles might be nice, as if Derrick Henry needed more help opening holes.
9. Seattle Seahawks: Demarcus Lawrence, EDGE, Cowboys
Andrew: For most of the past two seasons, the biggest concern about the Seahawks has been where the pass rush would come from. This year's team is slightly above average in pressure rate and hurry rate, but they achieve that by blitzing on over a third of pass plays and relying on the sure tackling of their back seven (only 88 missed tackles, eighth-fewest). Their 6.5% adjusted sack rate is bang-average, and their sack leader is a safety, albeit one having a historically great season for a pass-rushing defensive back. They have already seen the benefit of adding a veteran edge rusher with Carlos Dunlap's 5.0 sacks in seven games. A second reliable rusher off the edge would be a significant enhancement to a defense that still appears to be more adept at scheming pressure than winning individual matchups.
Demarcus Lawrence has only 5.5 sacks himself and 10.5 over the past two seasons, but those have come on some awful Cowboys defenses. Lawrence has racked up 53 pressures over those two seasons, so he is consistently getting close but not quite home. He remains a top-level edge rusher who would be far more productive with better teammates, particularly defensive backs who can hold their coverage a fraction of a second longer. Lawrence and Dunlap on the edge, with interior pressure from Jarran Reed plus occasional blitzes by Jamal Adams, would give the Seahawks the kind of pass rush that would strike fear into offensive coordinators throughout the NFC.
10. Pittsburgh Steelers: Garett Bolles, OT, Broncos
Bryan: To replace Ben Roethlisberger, or to not replace Ben Roethlisberger? That is the question, and a tough question it is indeed. A 0.2% DVOA is not exactly the profile of a champion, but with four passers already off the board, the pickings do begin to get slim. Deshaun Watson, Kirk Cousins, Derek Carr, and Kyler Murray have all been selected; Baker Mayfield and Justin Herbert have been blocked by pass-rusher selections. That leaves Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan, and Teddy Bridgewater as available quarterbacks with higher DVOAs than Roethlisberger, and none of them top 6.5%. I'm not sure any of that trio would be a significant enough upgrade to justify using the Steelers' only pick here on a quarterback, though I thought for ages about bringing Ryan in and giving Pittsburgh more of a live arm. It's not like we're passing up on Deshaun Watson here.
Instead, I'm going with Garrett Bolles, with the idea of slotting him into right tackle to replace Chukwuma Okorafor. Pittsburgh is ranked 31st in adjusted line yards and is worse running to their right than to the left. Bolles, one of the most egregious snubs from the Pro Bowl rosters, has only two blown blocks and allowed just two stuffs in the running game, per SIS charting -- and he has only allowed one sack, just in case you were afraid he was a one-trick pony. He has also severely cut back on the penalties that were keeping him from being an elite-tier tackle in his first three seasons; he's a great fit for Pittsburgh. If not Bolles, we would have given the Steelers someone to boost the skill positions; a Calvin Ridley perhaps, or a Mike Davis. Building the line seems like a safer bet, however.
11. New Orleans Saints: Calvin Ridley, WR, Falcons
Andrew: As a world-famous poet once wrote,
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!
This was written many years before the New Orleans Saints existed, but it could have been written about their careful plans inevitably coming undone over most of the past decade. One of the most consistent factors in recent years is the lack of a second receiver. The acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders this offseason was intended to fix that, but instead Sanders became something of a replacement for injured No. 1 target Michael Thomas, who has missed more than half the season following a high-ankle sprain. Drew Brees also missed a handful of games for the second time in as many years, likely costing the team a winnable game against the Eagles that would have kept them apace with the Packers atop the NFC. Instead, the Saints are likely to play on wild-card Weekend, hoping that Thomas will finally be healthy from his lingering high-ankle sprain, and that he and Sanders can provide the Saints passing attack with the depth it has lacked in recent seasons.
Over in Atlanta, Calvin Ridley has spent much of this season as the unexpected No. 1 target in the Falcons offense, with usual No. 1 Julio Jones battling injuries during September and October and now again missing time in December. Ridley has responded with over 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns across 14 games, averaging just shy of 95 yards per game. Ridley is good enough that no matter the health of Thomas, no matter the status of Sanders, he would be a huge upgrade over the flotsam behind those two on the Saints receiver chart. No, he can't singlehandedly rejuvenate Drew Brees' throwing arm, but Matt Ryan has dropped farther from his usual standard than Brees has from his, and Ridley is doing just fine.
12. Buffalo Bills: Brandon Graham, EDGE, Eagles
Bryan: The hardest pick I've had so far, and the toughest first pick for any of the 14 playoff teams, in my book. Over the second half of the season, the Bills have been a team without significant weaknesses -- they have ranked fourth in offensive DVOA and sixth in defensive DVOA since Week 7, so there's not a lot to complain about. Offensively, maybe they could use a more dynamic tight end, but there isn't one really available in the remaining field -- plus, when that's the biggest complaint you have on offense, you're probably doing alright. Instead, we'll break the "when in doubt, add pass-rushers" glass and bring Brandon Graham into the fold. Buffalo only ranks 12th in adjusted sack rate so there's room for another rusher to up their pass rush. Graham finally made his first Pro Bowl this season, though he should really have at least three or four by now. He can celebrate by joining arguably the hottest team in the AFC as the postseason approaches.
Other players were considered on each level of the Bills' defense. Foley Fatukasi might be the best run defender in football, Blake Martinez is having a renaissance year, and James Bradberry is the best corner still on the board -- adding a player from "New York" to the team from New York would have been fun. Adding a third receiver to go along with Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley would also be nice, but that's more a situation for a Calvin Ridley or a DeAndre Hopkins, not a DJ Moore or a...
13. Green Bay Packers: Tyler Boyd, WR, Bengals
Andrew: Speaking of great NFC offenses with a history of lack of production behind their clear No. 1 receiver, no team has a single wideout account for a greater slice of their receiving production than Davante Adams has for the Green Bay Packers. Adams has 1,328 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. The next-leading receiver on the Packers is Marquez Valdes-Scantling, with just 603 yards in 15 games. Valdes-Scantling has a catch rate of just 51.7%, reeling in 31 of 60 targets, and has dropped 10% of his pass targets this year. Aaron Rodgers is notorious for not suffering receivers who drop the ball, but both Valdes-Scantling and third receiver Allen Lazard (11.9% drop rate) have had issues in that department all year.
By contrast, despite playing a substantial portion of the year with remedial quarterbacks in Brandon Allen and Ryan Lindley, Tyler Boyd has posted over 800 yards for the third straight year, 43 receiving first downs, a catch rate of over 70%, and -- importantly for our purposes -- has dropped only one pass all season, for a drop rate of 0.9%. DJ Chark of Jacksonville may be a more explosive option, and DJ Moore more elusive in the open field, but Boyd is the most likely to quickly earn the trust of Rodgers, and thus be a productive player in Green Bay. Plus, Zac Taylor joined the Bengals from the same Sean McVay Rams staff that ultimately gave the Packers Matt LaFleur, so the transition into a new offense would likely be easier for Boyd than for either of those other players.
14. Kansas City Chiefs: Taylor Decker, OT, Lions
Bryan: Mitchell Schwartz is on injured reserve and is not expected to return for the postseason. His replacement, Mike Remmers, has missed time, and Eric Fisher has been banged up as well. With that in mind -- and without a lot of superstars left to pick from, if we're perfectly honest -- we're not taking any chances and bringing in Taylor Decker to play on the right side of the line. Decker, who hasn't missed a game this season, has only blown 11 blocks per SIS charting. That not only compares favorably to Fisher's 36 blown blocks, it's in the top 10 for tackles with at least 500 snaps. Adding Decker would also allow the Chiefs to kick Remmers back to guard in case they're concerned about Andrew Wylie's poor season -- not bad enough to justify picking a guard from the teams we have left, but enough to at least give the Chiefs reason to consider other options.
Obviously, it would be great to help out the Chiefs' defense, but neither Blake Martinez nor Marcus Maye really feel like they tip the scales. If Sammy Watkins' injury was more severe, taking a DJ Moore would be interesting, but I don't think Patrick Mahomes needs more offensive weapons. Replacement for an injured starter it is.
15. Chicago Bears: Brian Burns, EDGE, Panthers
Andrew: While it would be fun to give new Bears quarterback Deshaun Watson another receiving toy in Robbie Anderson, DJ Moore, DJ Chark, Darius Slayton, or even Jamison Crowder, Allen Robinson is already a star receiver and the options behind him are limited by the quarterback situation more than their own ability. Instead, we'll throw another important piece at the strength of the Bears: another top-10 DVOA defense. The Bears are another strong defense that doesn't have a notably impressive sack rate: they rank No. 13 in adjusted sack rate, and only Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks have double-digit hurries.
Brian Burns has 17 hurries on his own this season, and his 9.0 sacks are more than anybody on the Bears. He has achieved those numbers mostly on his own: nobody else on the Panthers has more than 4.5 sacks, or more than seven hurries. Burns also has 36 pass pressures this year, eight more than Mack. He has emerged as an elite edge rusher in his second season, and would help elevate the Bears from a very good defense to a unit to be feared in the postseason.
16. Miami Dolphins: Mekhi Becton, OT, Jets
Bryan: One reason I went with Cousins at quarterback for Miami in this draft is the relatively poor quality of their offensive line, which ranks 21st in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate. Thus, we'll raid our All-Rookie Team for Mekhi Becton. Geoff Schwartz says that Becton will be the best left tackle in football by the end of 2021. We're not that far out on him, but he has already been an above-average player for a team that is very much devoid of above-average players. As far as first-round rookies go, the Jets' future foundational tackle is an improvement over Miami's Austin Jackson, at least this year. We'll double down on offense for our seventh seed.
I mentioned James Bradberry back as an option during the Dolphins' first pick, and was tempted to bring him back for this one. The usual suspects for defensive improvements -- Marcus Maye, Blake Martinez, Foley Fatukasi -- were also considered. If we're looking for a skill position boost, that'd come down to Jamison Crowder, most likely. You can see why I stuck with the Jets rookie, all things considered.
17. Los Angeles Rams: Myles Jack, LB, Jaguars
Andrew: I am devastated that both Taylor Decker and Mekhi Becton went ahead of the Rams' pick here, because a left tackle that enabled them to avoid rushing Andrew Whitworth back would be an ideal match. Decker was my pick in previous editions of this draft, which had the Chiefs picking defensive help instead. Though I am a fan of Cam Robinson, neither the Jaguars nor the Giants have a left tackle worth picking ahead of more talented players in other spots. Instead, we'll double down on defense. The Rams have a history of getting production out of defensive players from the Jaguars. What they could do with a talented linebacker having a career year, with a history of impressive playoff performances (Myles Jack wasn't down!), is mouthwatering.
It may be lost in their league-worst defensive performance, but Myles Jack is indeed having a career year. Jack had 23 defeats ahead of Week 16, tied for fourth-most among linebackers. Those defeats are split almost evenly between run and pass, and his 4.5 yards allowed per play is substantially better than average for an off-ball linebacker. He is allowing a career-low 6.1 yards per attempt in pass coverage, and his 6.6% missed tackle rate (on 113 tackles) is also a career low. Incumbent Rams starters Troy Reeder and Micah Kiser are allowing fewer yards per target on a better defense, but both also miss more than 10% of their tackles and neither has close to the impact that Jack has. With other options such as Josh Allen already on injured reserve, adding Jack to an already-strong defense might be the one area the Rams could genuinely strengthen by adding a player from the Giants or Jaguars.
18. Indianapolis Colts: James Bradberry, CB, Giants
Bryan: So, with only the Giants to go, we can break this down somewhat. There are seven Giants who have played well enough in 2020 to be even considered for a pick in this draft -- quarterback Daniel Jones; receiver Sterling Shepard; defensive linemen Leonard Williams, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Dexter Lawrence; linebacker Blake Martinez; and cornerback James Bradberry. Jones would be a strict downgrade from Philip Rivers. The Colts already have DeForest Buckner on the inside, and while any of the three Giants linemen I mentioned would find a role on the Colts' defense, I don't think "second defensive tackle" is really a dire position of need. That leaves us with three viable choices.
Both Andrew and I were high on Michael Pittman's potential as a rookie, and while he has been far from bad, he has been in that below-average, above-replacement-level zone. That's still better than Shephard has managed; while Shepard is working out of a worse offense with a worse quarterback, there's not enough context in the world to justify him taking a role in Indy's three-wide sets. Bobby Okereke is having a down year compared to his rookie season, while Blake Martinez is having a nice bounce-back year, but I still think, when the chips are down, I'm more than fine with Okereke next to Darius Leonard. That leaves Bradberry, who may well have been the best cornerback available in the draft -- we put the Dolphins and Rams in the playoffs, so that crosses out Xavien Howard and Jalen Ramsey; Bryce Callahan is hurt and would be unlikely to return for the postseason; and I think I'd take Bradberry over the likes of Jason Verrett. Rock Ya-Sin can be relegated to dime formations as Bradberry takes over on the outside.
Wrapping Things Up
Bryan: Compared to recent years, we went a lot heavier on premium positions. I believe four quarterbacks sets a new Joe Thomas record, and three in the first three picks certainly does. A whopping five edge rushers is Crazytown! I mean, last year, we picked three centers and two guards; we're definitely in a more expensive bracket with this year's crop. Is that a 2020-specific factor, where the strengths and weaknesses of the various squads just happen to line up? Is it something that we'll see more of with seventh seeds in the playoffs, as they were responsible for two passers, an edge rusher, and an offensive tackle? Have our tastes just gotten richer this year for whatever reason? I don't know! We'd need more than one data point to really check that out.
Andrew: For me, it says something about the specific weaknesses of the NFC teams, and the strange landscape we're in this year. Despite the expansion to 14 playoff teams, four of the top 12 passers in DYAR, and five of the top 12 in DVOA, will miss the playoffs. (One of that latter group is Dak Prescott, who can be discarded for obvious reasons.) By contrast, Alex Smith (-30.3% DVOA, 32nd), Mitchell Trubisky (-10.7%, 27th), Ben Roethlisberger (-1.6%, 23rd), Jared Goff (0.7%, 21st) or his untried backup, and Tua Tagovailoa (2.3%, 19th) or Ryan Fitzpatrick (1.8%, 20th) will each start a playoff game in our scenario. In the alternative outcomes for the NFC East, Smith is replaced by Andy Dalton (-11.9%, 28th) or Daniel Jones (-24.1%, 32nd). That's a lot of average or below-average passers!
Bryan: Interestingly, there's only one holdover from the 2019 draft this year, after eight of our 20 picks last year were repeat offenders. Last year, we had Joey Bosa adding some extra oomph to a Buffalo pass rush that really didn't need the help; this year, he's packing his bags and heading for Indianapolis. We wish Bosa the best of luck dragging the Chargers out of the cursed graveyard they are founded upon.
Andrew: That does it for us for 2020. Happy Hogmanay, one and all. We'll see you all in the postseason, thankfully, in 2021.
Keep Choppin' Wood
In a week in which he expected to start for a playoff contender with a chance to clinch a division title, photographs of Dwayne Haskins in a strip club without a mask were published on Instagram. The team fined Haskins $40,000, and he issued a public apology. He then responded to the adversity by ... putting up possibly the worst half of football of his brief Washington career, resulting in the team benching him for recently signed backup Taylor Heinicke. Heinicke outplayed Haskins so comprehensively that the team flat-out released Haskins rather than leaving him inactive for the win-and-in season finale against the Eagles. Haskins is the first first-round quarterback in, at least, the modern history of the league to be released by his team -- not traded, released outright -- before the end of his second year. At just 23 years old, he has a chance to salvage a career somewhere, but he will need to show considerably more maturity and situational awareness than he did during his time in Landover.
Herm Edwards Award for Playing to Win the Game
That has to sting. The Las Vegas Raiders played the end-game situation against the Dolphins just about as perfectly as a team could, yet somehow still lost. Despite the Dolphins obviously trying to allow them to score a touchdown on second-and-goal with a minute and change remaining, Josh Jacobs had the awareness to down the ball at the 1-yard line. That enabled the Raiders to bleed the clock to just 19 seconds left before kicking the go-ahead 22-yard field goal. Yet somehow, Ryan Fitzpatrick completed a 34-yard strike to Mack Hollins while Arden Key attempted to unscrew Fitzpatrick's head, and the additional 15 yards from the penalty allowed the Dolphins to kick a game-winner with one second left. It's incredible to think that the Falcons lost a game earlier in the season by doing exactly the wrong thing in that situation, and now the Raiders lost one by doing the right thing. Who'd be a head coach in the NFL?
John Fox Award for Conservatism
The Titans probably weren't going to beat the Green Bay Packers in a snow game in Lambeau Field regardless, and conditions weren't exactly ideal for the field goal team, but even so, a punt on fourth-and-7 from the Green Bay 32-yard line on their opening drive against one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league was extremely conservative. Brett Kern's punt, predictably, went into the end zone, netting the Titans just 12 yards of field position. Aaron Rodgers picked up more than that on his very next pass attempt, and the Packers drove to take a 12-0 lead. As we noted, it was likely a lose-lose situation either way, but we'd like to see Mike Vrabel be a little more adventurous than that in the playoffs, given the relative strengths of his offense and defense.
Jeff Fisher Award for Confusing Coaching.
We know, at times, it seems like the Chiefs can do anything they want on offense. But, uh, Andy Reid, there is such a thing as getting too cute.
The Chiefs trick play turns into a Keanu Neal INT #RiseUpATL
— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2020
This wasn't a meaningless Week 17 game or something; the Chiefs hadn't yet clinched the bye week in the AFC. We're all for some razzle-dazzle, but in what ended up being a very competitive game, sometimes it's fine to just, y'know, run a regular play.
'Championship!' Fantasy Player of the Week
We obviously can't not give this award to Alvin Kamara. Anytime you tie a record from the days of leather helmets, you deserve all the plaudits you can get. Ernie Nevers was a great player; a true triple-threat as a runner, passer, and kicker for such old-timey clubs as the Duluth Eskimos and Chicago Cardinals. He scored all 40 points, including six rushing touchdowns, in the cross-town rivalry game between the Cardinals and the Bears in 1929, and that record stood until Kamara, decked out in festive red and green cleats, scored six touchdowns of his own against Minnesota -- and frankly, he should have had seven. With 56.2 fantasy points, he ended many a championship game before it began.
— NFL (@NFL) December 26, 2020
In normal circumstances, we would have gone with Brandon Allen, who rewarded the desperate among us with 371 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns. That's good, Brandon, but it isn't "breaking a 91-year-old record" good.
Garbage-Time Performer of the Week
The Jaguars know how to lock up a No. 1 overall draft pick, let me tell you; this is their third straight Garbage-Time award. They showed almost no life for the first three quarters of their game against the Bears in their quest to add Trevor Lawrence to the roster. Laviska Shenault wasn't going to let his fans -- or more importantly, his fantasy managers -- down, however. After catching four passes in the first 55 minutes of the game, Shenault broke through double coverage to make a spectacular grab for a touchdown, turning a 41-10 Bears lead into a 41-17 Bears lead. "Hey, Trevor!" he did not go on to say. "Let's do that, only in a more relevant situation, next year!"
I guarantee you someone won their fantasy championship because of this utterly meaningless play. Fantasy football is great, isn't it?
— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2020
Comfort in Sadness Stat of the Week
As the last few teams are eliminated from the postseason, crumbs of comfort in the sadness become fresher and more plentiful. Derek Carr ranks in the top 10 of DVOA and DYAR for the second straight year, and the top 11 for the fourth time in five years. He appears to have found his level as a fringe top-10 quarterback. In Minnesota, The Vikings can look to the performances of Justin Jefferson, surely the offensive rookie of the year, as the incredible replacement for Stefon Diggs. Meanwhile, the Eagles can look to Jalen Hurts as hope for the future. They're not in a prime position for success, in a difficult cap situation with an expensive former starting quarterback on the roster, but Hurts has shown enough flashes to give some reason for optimism in 2021.
Game-Changing Play of the Week
This throw is impossible.
— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2020
And don't take our word for it.
I know I'm late but best no look pass of all time
— Patrick Mahomes II (@PatrickMahomes) December 27, 2020
It seems impossible that the Raiders would let a Miami receiver slip behind them; they had just experienced a miracle win themselves when the Jets decided to play Cover-0 against them a few weeks ago. This was Cover-2, but there was no need for them to play so aggressively; play a soft shell, let the Dolphins complete a pass inbounds, waste their last timeout. Instead, they let Mack Hollins get wide open for a huge chunk play. That alone might have been alright, but Arden Key attempted to use Fitzpatrick's head like a screw top, wrenching his facemask so sharply that it's a miracle Fitzpatrick was even able to get a throw off, much less get it in the vicinity of a receiver. The 15 extra yards put Miami into range for the game-winning field goal, and the Raiders were eliminated from the playoffs.
The win likely saved Miami's bacon as well. While a loss wouldn't have eliminated them, they would have found themselves in a position where they would have needed to beat a partially motivated Buffalo squad and have at least one of their wild-card rivals lose to slip into the postseason. Instead, Miami punches their playoff with a win, or a Colts loss, or a Ravens loss, or a Browns loss. Four single tickets instead of a double feature is a much preferable situation to find themselves in. While it wouldn't take a miracle for them to miss out -- Buffalo's a tough draw, and both the Colts and Ravens should handle their inferior opponents -- it's difficult to overstress just how much better off Miami is because of this throw. FitzMagic indeed.
Bryan: It has been that kind of year. I gamble on the Jets to win, and they respond with a huge upset -- admittedly, one aided by a COVID disaster among Cleveland's receiving corps, but beggars can't be choosers. Meanwhile, Andrew backs an emotional highpoint -- Ron Rivera, bringing his Washington team to the playoffs with a victory over his old team -- only to see what hopefully was Dwayne Haskins' final start crumble beneath his fingertips. As such, I have a 5.5-game lead with five games to play. Good show, old man; better luck next year.
Money-Back Guarantee Lock of the Week
Records to Date:
Andrew: I despise guessing games, but at least the pressure's now off. In one of the few Week 17 games with playoff implications for both teams, give me the Steelers to cover the shockingly large money line in Cleveland. Pittsburgh (+7.5) at Cleveland.
Bryan: The wide spread there is due to Pittsburgh resting their starters, though once again, I think I would agree with you that the Browns are capable of Browning it up against any given opponent!
Given the added uncertainty present with Mason Rudolph under center, I'm going to skip PIT-CLE and instead take the New England Patriots (-3) at home against the New York Jets. I know the Jets are coming off of two shocking upset wins over wild-card contenders, and I know the Patriots have not looked good the last couple weeks. But I refuse, on principle, to pick a lame-duck Adam Gase over Bill Belichick. I don't care if Belichick is trotting out the Ahern Middle School junior varsity team; I refuse to believe it.