NFLTR Review: Away We Go

     

So What’s The Deal Here? 

Hi. 

First off, let me say thank you for reading here at NFL Trade Rumors. Seriously. Whether you’ve been with us for a while or stumbled across us recently, we greatly value your readership, especially during times like these. Despite all 2020’s uncertainty, you have helped us not just keep literal food on the table, but to continue to grow and launch what you’re reading now — the first of what we hope are many issues of NFLTR Review. 

We’re hardly the first outlet to launch a weekly column, so this concept isn’t new. But there are two things we believe give us something to bring to you, the reader, to make this something worth reading every week. 

1. We’re uniquely positioned to view the big picture as it relates to the NFL

Our goal is to be the fastest and most comprehensive aggregator of NFL news on the entire Internet. Every day we sift through the news from national outlets and a variety of sources covering each of the 32 teams. We write up major stories and transactions while also publishing notes in the evening. 

As a result, we take in a tremendous amount of information. Unlike a beat reporter focused on just one team or a national reporter looking at just the broad view, we’re like a satellite orbiting the NFL world, with the ability to zoom in or out to put together the big picture. That puts us in a position to connect dots from around the NFL landscape to bring insight to you, the reader. For example, our mock drafts this past year were among the most accurate in the industry. We aim to bring you similar high-level insights regarding the league’s biggest trades and free-agent signings as we move forward. 

2. We really really really love football

To me, football is the greatest game on earth, with almost infinite layers of enjoyment. It stacks numerous interlocking and interdependent matchups together on the field in a dizzying, beautiful test of mental rigor and physical skill. It appeals to our sense of intellect with sophisticated schemes and tactics, yet also stirs something primal in us that reacts at the sight of one person impose their will on another. It’s chess and bare-knuckle boxing. Ballet and monster truck derby. 

But what happens in the actual game is just a part of what makes football so wildly entertaining. There’s the entire team-building process — signing free agents, pursuing trades and all the resulting intrigue. There’s the NFL Draft, which is the biggest event of its kind and unique in its appeal across all sports. Anyone can find a niche to cater to their personal interests, from salary cap economics to fantasy football to uniform design. And then, like life itself, there’s people and their stories, from players, coaches and beyond. There’s drama, conflict, success, heroes, villains, inspiration and the rise and fall of the grand narrative arc across the league. 

Football is the greatest game, and there’s so much to talk about. Our hope is to make this column a place every week for people who love football as much as we do. 

So, with the most unique football season of our lifetime ready to lift off, let’s get started. 

Who’s In, Who’s Out?

A fun exercise I like to do before the start of each season is to take the playoff field from the year before and project which teams will fall off and which ones will take their place. Historically there’s around a 50 percent turnover rate from one year to the next, so I try to zero in on two or three likely suspects per conference. 

This year for the first time, the field will be expanded to seven teams, which could help some teams back their way in even if they fall off. It could also allow a team to crash the party without coming at the expense of one of last year’s participants. 

Here’s how it shook out last year:

2019 Playoff Field
AFCNFC
SeedTeamRecordSeedTeamRecord
1Ravens14-2149ers13-3
2Chiefs12-42Packers13-3
3Patriots12-43Saints13-3
4Texans10-64Eagles9-7
5Bills10-65Seahawks11-5
6Titans9-76Vikings10-6

 

Let’s start with the major players in the AFC. Barring some sort of Earth-shattering injury, the Chiefs and Ravens are clearly the favorites and should be vying for the top seed and a bye, which takes on added importance this year. The Bills seemed poised to take over the AFC East before New England’s addition of QB Cam Newton, but those two teams are still the clear frontrunners in the division for now. 

That leaves the two AFC South franchises — Houston and Tennessee — as the clear candidates to take a step back. Division rival Indianapolis had one of the best offseasons in the NFL, adding a proven veteran passer in Philip Rivers and a star defensive tackle in DeForest Buckner. As long as their bad injury luck stays in 2019, the Colts have the playmakers on both sides of the ball to seize control of the division in 2020. 

Conversely, the Texans transitioned away from several key parts this offseason. Most notably, they traded away star WR DeAndre Hopkins seemingly out of the blue early in free agency. Houston plans to replace Hopkins with a group effort from Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller and Randall Cobb, but will try to manage that with a first-time play-caller at the wheel in OC Tim Kelly. On defense, Houston was unable to re-sign DT D.J. Reader, who was a key player in the heart of their defense, and will also bank on the secondary improving through development after returning most of the same key players who were lit up at times in 2019. 

As for the Titans, they caught lightning in a bottle in many ways last year. A midseason switch to QB Ryan Tannehill, who started playing the best football of his career, galvanized the team, which rode hard-charging RB Derrick Henry and a spunky defense all the way to a spot as the No. 6 seed and a run to the AFC title game. It’s hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice. Henry has been exceptionally durable to this point, but he’s carried a heavy load the past two seasons. Tannehill could turn back into a pumpkin, especially if Henry goes down and he’s asked to shoulder more of the burden on offense. While the Titans aren’t in bad shape on defense, particularly if they can land DE Jadeveon Clowney, that might not be enough to keep them afloat if the offense falters. 

Out: Texans, Titans

In: Colts, Steelers, Browns

We’ve already discussed the Colts, but the Steelers are the other prominent AFC rebound candidate. Had the current playoff format been in effect last season, Pittsburgh would have snuck in at 8-8 despite the revolving door of futility on offense. The word from the team is that QB Ben Roethlisberger looks better than he has in years after last year’s elbow injury finally put an end to problems that had lingered for a while. If that’s true, Pittsburgh has enough weapons on offense and talent on defense to threaten the Ravens for first place in the AFC North. 

There’s a stiff field of contenders for the additional wildcard slot this year, but when you start stacking rosters up against each other, the Browns stand out as perhaps the most talented team in the AFC’s middle class. The new coaching staff is a wildcard, but the bar for coaching was set exceptionally low in 2019. Cleveland has all the pieces on both sides of the ball. If HC Kevin Stefanski and company can put it all together, the Browns should push for the postseason. 

Now to the NFC. The conference has been crazier in recent seasons, with a total of 15 new arrivals in the playoffs over the past four seasons compared to 11 in the AFC. However, there aren’t as many easily apparent candidates to take a step back this year. The Vikings are perhaps the most obvious, as they’re entering a transition year in 2020. 

Mainstays like WR Stefon Diggs, DE Everson Griffen, CB Trae Waynes, DT Linval Joseph and CB Xavier Rhodes have moved on, star RB Dalvin Cook isn’t happy with his lack of a contract extension and the team’s biggest free-agent addition, DT Michael Pierce, won’t play in 2020. If things start to go south, can QB Kirk Cousins hold it together in suboptimal conditions? All together, it’s a longer list of potential obstacles than some of Minnesota’s competitors in 2020. 

Both the Packers and Seahawks also stick out as two teams that were unusually lucky in one-score games in 2019. Green Bay was 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, while Seattle was 9-2. Close games tend to be a coin-flip over time, so when a team dramatically outperforms those odds one year, they historically tend to fall back toward the average the next year. 

It’s hard to bet against either Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson, but consider this. Since Wilson became the Seahawks’ starting quarterback, Seattle is 29-29-1 in close games once that 9-2 record in 2019 is set aside. Subtract three or four wins if that record regresses to the mean and Seattle’s looking at 7-9 or 8-8. Given the lack of proven pass rushers and offensive linemen, plus how tough the rest of the NFC West looks, that’s not a far-fetched drop. 

Meanwhile, though there’s a reason for skepticism surrounding the Packers using the 2018 Titans as their apparent team-building blueprint, who else is winning the division? We’ve already outlined Minnesota’s issues, and betting on the Bears means betting on some combination of Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles. A healthy year from QB Matthew Stafford could make the Lions dangerous, but how much better is the defense going to be? Green Bay could conceivably drop to 8-8 or 9-7 and still win the division in a rock fight. 

Finally, there’s the Eagles. Philadelphia did a good job of adding to its defense and acquiring more speed on offense during the draft. Trading for CB Darius Slay gives the team a bonafide No. 1 corner and the defensive line is stout. However, there’s a massive void at linebacker and potentially at safety with the departure of Malcolm Jenkins. On offense, the Eagles can’t bank on their speedy rookies instantly becoming major contributors given the pandemic and veteran WR Marquise Goodwin has opted out. If they don’t beat Dallas for the division title, that leaves them battling a crush of teams for a wildcard berth in the NFC. 

Out: Vikings, Seahawks, Eagles

In: Cowboys, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Falcons

The Cowboys are poised to awaken as a sleeping giant (while the actual Giants work through another rebuilding year) in the NFC East. Despite the challenges of installing a new system in 2020, new Cowboys HC Mike McCarthy should get more out of the team than his predecessor did. Dallas’ offense is among the most talented in the NFL and QB Dak Prescott has no shortage of motivation playing out yet another contract year. The defense took a step back in the secondary this offseason, but the front seven is still strong even without DE Robert Quinn. And the Cowboys have enough ammunition to win shootouts. Lastly, Dallas was 0-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less. That should rebound in 2020. 

For the Buccaneers, all I could say is Tom Brady and leave it at that. But I’ll expand a little. Last year was the first since 2011 Brady didn’t play in at least the conference championship game. And he landed on a good team, with a bevy of weapons and the NFL’s best run defense last year. Tampa Bay is more than just an offseason darling, Brady makes the Bucs a contender. 

The Cardinals are the other big offseason darling after poaching Hopkins to give QB Kyler Murray an elite No. 1 wideout. Murray seems poised to take a massive jump in his second season, the only caveat being the lack of OTAs this offseason could have blunted his growth. 

Regardless, the biggest question for HC Kliff Kingsbury in 2020 is going to be the same question he faced at Texas Tech — what about the defense? Arizona gave up the most yards in the NFL in 2020, but getting starting CBs Patrick Peterson and Robert Alford back should be a boon to the secondary. The duo missed 22 games combined in 2019. The Cardinals also added DT Jordan Phillips and LB De’Vondre Campbell in free agency, along with LB Isaiah Simmons and a plethora of defensive line reinforcements in the draft. Odds are against this unit finishing in the top ten, but if it holds its own it could put the Cardinals in the mix in a crowded NFC. 

As many as seven to eight teams could be battling it out the final few weeks of the season for the last three spots in the NFC. The margin between the Falcons, Rams, Eagles and Seahawks is incredibly tight. All four have definite strengths and quarterbacks who have played at an extremely high level. I’m giving a slight edge to Atlanta as the offense boasts 11 first-round picks and the defense came on strong to save HC Dan Quinn’s job last year.

But honestly, you could throw a dart at this bunch and probably have just as good a chance at predicting who gets the last spot. Which makes it all the more fascinating to — hopefully — watch how it all plays out this year. 

This Week In Football

Compared to your average NFL week in July, this past week was nuts. We’ve got quite a bit to recap for you from our coverage the past several days:

  • As of publishing this on noon Friday, 33 players had made the decision to take the NFL’s opt-out option for the 2020 season. That number could grow by a decent amount, as the 7-day window to opt out technically hasn’t even started.
  • Two big trends have jumped out so far — the Patriots lead all teams by far with six opt-outs and 17-30 opt-outs are from either offensive or defensive linemen. Given what we know about how COVID-19 puts people who are heavier or with underlying conditions at extra risk, that tracks. 
  • The Chargers blew up the top of the pass-rusher market, signing DE Joey Bosa to a five-year, $135 million deal. Browns DE Myles Garrett pushed the bar up from $23.5 million a year to $25 million, but that last just two weeks before Los Angeles gave Bosa $27 million a year. 
  • Last year Clowney didn’t sign his tag and report to Texans camp until the end of August, so NFL teams aren’t expecting the pass rusher to make up his mind soon.
  • Lamar Jackson is still pushing the Ravens to sign Antonio Brown. Baltimore hasn’t ruled it out, but team officials don’t sound as eager. The NFL has yet to rule on any discipline for Brown. 
  • The Bucs added a vet running back, plucking LeSean McCoy to a one-year deal for around the minimum. Tampa Bay was looking for a proven passing-down back for Brady, but it’s fair to wonder how much McCoy has left in the tank. He didn’t have a carry or target from Week 15 through the Super Bowl and was a healthy scratch a number of times. 
  • The Packers are apparently interested in former Vikings DE Everson Griffen. At first glance, it’s not a clean scheme fit. But Griffen would add another legit pass rusher, albeit one who is also lighter in the pants against the run. 
  • There’s a curious situation playing out in Tennessee with DE Vic Beasley. The Titans placed him on the did not report list and reports indicated the team hadn’t had recent communication with one of their biggest offseason additions. Then, Titans GM Jon Robinson issued a statement saying Beasley’s absence was unexcused but he had told them he planned to report soon.
  • A reporter from WDEF News 12 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, tweeted Beasley did have a death in the family and the funeral was Wednesday, but it’s unclear if his absence was related. It feels like there’s still more to come out on this story. 
  • Washington cleared QB Alex Smith to resume football activities, though stopped short of completely clearing him to play by placing him on the PUP list. I won’t link to pictures of his injured right leg, but it’s jaw-dropping he’s been able to get to where he is now. 

Check This Out

Like we said earlier, we read a lot of stuff during the week and some of it is too good not to get a shout-out. 

  • Future of football includes no live blocking or tackling in practice? — In his MMQB column, Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer talked to Dartmouth HC Buddy Teevens who has eliminated live tackling drills from his practices completely for the past decade. Players still practice tackling and blocking, just not on each other. The results have been outstanding. Dartmouth’s injuries went down and their winning percentage went up. Several NFL coaches have already talked about adding more live periods during camp this year to make up for the overall lack of practice time, perhaps that’s the wrong approach? 
  • Bruce Feldman’s 2020 Freaks List — Every year, Bruce lists 50 of college football’s most absurd athletes, this year for the Athletic. This is always a terrific primer for the next year’s draft given how obsessed with athleticism the NFL is. 
  • NFL’s 10-best running backs in yards over expected — Football still lags behind some of the other sports in the field of advanced statistics. But that gap is closing quickly, particularly with player-tracking data. NFL.com released its top-ten running backs who led the league in expected yards per carry. The metric works to separate what a back does apart from his offensive line, which could potentially help backs looking to get paid differentiate themselves in a better way than they can currently.
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