Happy Friday! Welcome to another week of NFLTR Review as we’re on the verge of hitting the quarter-mark of the 2020 season. In this issue, we recap some of the biggest revelations we learned from Week 3, including:
- Why Bills QB Josh Allen‘s hot start is legit
- Aaron Rodgers proving he’s still elite
- #TankForTrevor update
- Blockbuster trades paying off so far
Trends From Week 3
One game can be an aberration. Two is interesting and three is a trend. Now that Week 3 is in the books, we can officially say there are certain trends about the way the 2020 NFL season is unfolding. None are bigger than this:
Josh Allen is for real
Josh Allen has had more than his share of doubters since before he entered the NFL. I was one of them. I wrote in this space a couple months ago that Allen faced a pivotal season in 2020 and his long-term status with the Bills wasn’t above reproach if he ended up holding back the terrific team Buffalo built around him. And despite a torrid start to the season going into Week 3, Allen still had some questioning whether the improvement he showed was real or an aberration built against weaker opponents.
But after his performance in building a 28-3 lead against the Rams and holding on for a 35-32 win, Allen can’t be discounted anymore. Through three weeks, Allen has over 1,000 yards passing, 10 passing touchdowns to just one interception and another two rushing touchdowns. After recording completion percentages of 52.8 and 58.8 percent his first two seasons, Allen’s made a massive leap to 71.1 percent so far in 2020. That’s ahead of sharpshooters like Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.
And Allen’s not compiling that number by dinking and dunking. His 9.1 yards per attempt is second in the NFL and his 8.5 intended air yards per attempt are 10th. Under OC Brian Daboll, Buffalo has actually morphed into a full-on spread offense, running everything from the option to the pistol, with Allen as the centerpiece spreading the ball around to Stefon Diggs, John Brown, Cole Beasley and hurting the defense with his legs when he has an opening.
The Bills have used 10 personnel (1 RB, 4 WR) 50 times this year.
The rest of the NFL has used it 92 times
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) September 30, 2020
Sometimes NFL counting stats can be deceiving but Allen largely passed the eye test in Week 3 as well. One of the biggest criticisms levied against Allen is a lack of touch and accuracy. When he misses, he can miss spectacularly. But against the Rams, he had a few gorgeous throws that required both touch and velocity — one up the sideline to Beasley and another lofted over the head of a defender to Diggs in the fourth quarter. Daboll’s scheme has assisted Allen’s production but those were two legitimately great throws that show how much Allen has continued to develop since entering the league
That development, however, isn’t finished. Allen’s DNA as a quarterback is to play like he has a cement block strapped to his foot and smashed on the gas pedal. When the pressure is turned up, like it was in the wildcard loss to the Texans last year and as the Rams made their comeback attempt Sunday, Allen has trouble repressing those instincts and making smarter plays. He’s big, strong, fast and can get out of jams many other quarterbacks couldn’t. But that makes his internal clock a touch slow at times and the Rams capitalized on that in the second half with multiple big sacks and forced fumbles.
Take for instance one play on what ultimately was a game-winning drive for the Bills. Allen had a first and ten just across his own 40 after picking up a first down with the clock just under four minutes. He gets flushed from the pocket, spins away and resets. But instead of throwing it away, which would have been the prudent move with plenty of time and at least two more downs to work with, Allen tried to stiff-arm and spin from two more defenders bearing down. The ball is knocked from his hands and he ended up being ruled down as he tried to throw it away while in the grasp of a defender.
The play set Buffalo back into a third and forever and it’s something the Rams should have been able to capitalize on to end the game. But Allen and the Bills were able to convert that and overcome several other obstacles to complete the game-winning drive and escape with the win.
This shouldn’t completely invalidate Allen’s accomplishments so far, though. The growth he’s shown is real and Allen has proven the discussion around him needs to change from whether he’s capable of being competent as a starter to whether he’s capable of being a star.
But to do that, he has to continue to beat back his old, bad habits, things like cutting down on fumbles and becoming a better game manager. The Bills and Allen have many more litmus tests in 2020. They play the Chiefs in two weeks and have heavyweight matchups against the Steelers and Seahawks, not to mention the still-kicking Patriots in the AFC East. Allen still has growing to do to be the quarterback Buffalo needs him to be.
Rodgers is still elite
It started as just a whisper at first. But in the years since his last MVP in 2014, the idea that Aaron Rodgers was overrated slowly began to pick up more steam. There were injuries and bouts of inaccuracy. A simmering, passive-aggressive feud between Rodgers and former HC Mike McCarthy came to a head and ended up in the latter’s ouster. As Rodgers’ efficiency dropped last year, the think pieces questioning whether he still deserved to be called an elite quarterback became more common.
Finally it all seemed to crescendo when Green Bay traded up to take apparent successor Jordan Love in the first round this past April. The question instantly became how Rodgers would react and he himself acknowledged the franchise’s decision to draft Love and put a clock on his time with the franchise was a hard pill to swallow — one that had to be added by stiff drinks.
At some point, the Packers have to make a decision between Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love.
So what does @AaronRodgers12 think the franchise will do?
— The Ringer (@ringer) July 28, 2020
As the season began, for the first time in years Rodgers was ranked as a non-consensus Tier I quarterback in Mike Sando’s annual poll of NFL coaches and executives. The Packers were also one of the trendiest regression picks entering the season, including this column, despite finishing 13-3 in 2019.
So far, I’m one of a number of people who are looking at a hearty serving of crow. The Packers are unbeaten at 3-0, obliterating the Vikings and Lions and taking down the Saints. Green Bay leads the NFL in scoring with 122 points, more than 40 a game. And Rodgers has been at the center of it all, completing 67 percent of his passes for 887 yards, nine touchdowns and no interceptions. The heart of the on-field criticism against Rodgers has been his lackluster performance in EPA (expected points added). But so far in 2020, Rodgers is second in the NFL in ESPN’s QBR which has a heavy EPA component.
So what’s changed? Rodgers seems to be much more comfortable in HC Matt LaFleur’s scheme, and LaFleur has been dialed in as a play-caller. Even without Davante Adams, the Packers shredded a Saints secondary that’s supposed to be one of the best in the NFL.
But Rodgers himself also seems to be in a much better headspace. During training camp, he told the team website one of his focuses going into 2020 was having a more positive attitude. He did a good amount of self-scouting during the offseason that he credits as being productive. And by all accounts he’s been a tremendous mentor for Love, not allowing his initial reaction to the pick to sour that relationship.
Whatever the reason, three games into the season, despite all the speculation to the contrary, the Packers once again find themselves in a familiar space with Rodgers playing like an elite quarterback and Green Bay in contention as a result.
Falcons, Bears & luck, oh my
One play in the game between the Falcons and Bears Sunday pretty much captures everything about where those two franchises are right now. On third down with around 12 minutes left in the game, Bears QB Nick Foles rolled to his left and launched a duck deep downfield into double coverage. It’s a pass that deserved to be intercepted, but instead, it fluttered through a Falcons defender’s hands and into TE Jimmy Graham’s arms. Despite two fumbles between that moment and the end of the play, Chicago still somehow ended up with the ball inside the 10, leaving the Falcons empty-handed on three chances at a pivotal turnover.
Atlanta would go on to lose its second-straight game with a 99-percent win probability in the fourth quarter, and the Falcons can shoulder plenty of the blame themselves. There were dropped passes, a missed field goal, awful tackling, poor clock management and a series of overthrows by QB Matt Ryan culminating in the game-ending interception. On that particular drive, the Bears ended up turning it over on downs, so all Atlanta missed was a chance for a turnover and to maybe burn more time off the clock.
But that sequence remains emblematic of the choking gene that’s become the dominant characteristic of this Falcons franchise ever since their monumental Super Bowl collapse — and a perfect snapshot of the latest chapter of Foles’ angel-kissed career. Fortune has arguably never smiled more broadly on any player besides Foles, from his brilliant 2013 season with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions to his miracle run to the Super Bowl title in 2017 as an injury fill-in.
Now Foles comes off the bench as the starter again and we’ll see if his odds-defying run of good luck continues for the 3-0 Bears, who also had their share of good luck in their other two wins. Meanwhile, the 0-3 Falcons are running out of time to get what’s now the equivalent of a one-ton prehistoric gorilla off their back. Luck is supposed to even out over time but these two teams are pushing the opposite, extreme ends of the spectrum.
Vikings & Texans show signs of life
Both the Vikings and Texans entered 2020 with designs on being contenders even as they dealt with major personnel changes. Both find themselves at 0-3 and facing single-digit odds of turning it around to make the playoffs. Minnesota has been so bad in fact that some fans have mused about the possibility of landing Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, the prize that awaits the NFL’s worst team at the end of this season.
The reality is neither Minnesota nor Houston should find themselves in the top five picks of the draft come next April. Both showed encouraging signs of life this past weekend to suggest they’re closer to the middle of the pack than to the NFL’s cellar.
While the Vikings couldn’t get into the win column against the Titans, they appeared to take a step toward finding their identity as an offense. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak went back to QB Kirk Cousins’ roots and mixed in more play-action to the veteran passer’s benefit. Star RB Dalvin Cook got untracked with a massive game and a breakout from first-round rookie WR Justin Jefferson was also huge for a Vikings offense desperate for receiving playmakers.
Minnesota still has issues to deal with, especially on the offensive line. Starting G Dru Samia jumps off the tape and not in a good way. And while the defense made more plays last week, picking off Titans QB Ryan Tannehill, causing a sack-fumble and allowing just two touchdowns, the Vikings were still shredded by the Titans for 31 points.
Houston meanwhile has had the roughest schedule, by far, of any NFL team, opening up with the Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers back-to-back-to-back. The Texans were much more competitive against the Steelers, going back and forth for much of the day before a late touchdown and two-point conversion gave the Steelers their final 28-21 margin. Protecting QB Deshaun Watson and stopping the run remain the team’s two biggest weaknesses so far but the schedule does ease up considerably going forward.
That starts with a matchup against the Vikings, who also haven’t started with the easiest schedule against the Packers, Titans and Colts. Minnesota should find it easier the rest of the way with seven games total against the Lions, Bears, Falcons, Panthers and Jaguars. But the matchup against Houston ensures one of these teams will be stuck in the losers column for another week.
Tank For Trevor Update
Three weeks in and the chaff is starting to separate itself from the wheat. The Jets and Broncos faced off last night in an early-season toilet bowl and New York emerged as the clear, distinctive loser. The Jets couldn’t overcome the injury-riddled Broncos and the Giants failed in similar circumstances against the 49ers, completing the New York duo of futility.
Those two teams form the clear frontrunners for the No. 1 overall pick at this point. While the Broncos are facing a lot of adversity given how many key players are out due to injury, they picked up a win and should get more good news in a couple of weeks when starting QB Drew Lock returns.
As for the other teams, the Bengals didn’t get into the win column this week and the offensive line remains catastrophic. But No. 1 overall QB Joe Burrow has shown enough positive signs for the team’s overall outlook to be positive. The Panthers also have a better outlook going forward, as they’ve been competitive in every game and picked up their first win against first-round rookie QB Justin Herbert and the Chargers. The Jaguars and Washington have both taken steps back in recent weeks as their young quarterbacks have struggled, but there’s still enough for now to keep them ahead of the Jets and Giants.
This is one of the years having a pick at the top of the draft really matters. In addition to Lawrence, who’s widely seen as the best quarterback prospect to enter the league since Andrew Luck and probably should start looking at listings in the New York area, there are other talented quarterbacks like Ohio State’s Justin Fields and North Dakota State’s Trey Lance who could end up as picks in the top 5-10 range.
Even if a team like the Giants decides it’s happy with Daniel Jones as the franchise quarterback, the bounty of picks a team further down in the draft order could be willing to give up could go a long way in rebuilding a franchise. It’s a win-win, albeit after a lot of losing first.
This Week In Football
- The noise around Jets HC Adam Gase‘s job status reached a fever pitch this week, with some reports the Jets were starting their homework on other candidates and Thursday night’s game against the Broncos was a must-win. But it appears New York decided against firing Gase just four weeks into the season despite the 37-28 loss, which does make sense. Gase isn’t the only problem with the team and if things are ugly now, it would become exponentially worse under an interim coach. It would still be a massive upset if he lasted past this season. There aren’t many winnable games on the schedule.
- After months of terrific work, the NFL hit its first COVID-19 snag with a full-on outbreak on the Tennessee Titans. Seven players are currently on the COVID-19 list after confirmed positive tests and there are at least that many coaches and personnel staff who have tested positive. The NFL has postponed this week’s scheduled game between the Titans and the Steelers and will likely rearrange their bye weeks to have them play Week 7.
- The big takeaway from this is the virus moves fast and any relaxation by anyone on any team can have huge consequences. This appears to have started when Titans OLB coach Shane Bowen tested positive a week ago. The team caught it and left him home before traveling for a road game against the Vikings. But he’d already spread the virus to players and that wasn’t caught until Monday’s test results came back on Tuesday. This is also why the NFL has made such a big deal about things like masks on the sidelines. It’s not solely for optics, these measures add layers of protection to limit the spread of the virus when other parts of the protocol fail.
- The Bears’ leash for QB Mitchell Trubisky after he won the summer competition for the starting job was apparently not that long, as the Bears named Foles their starter after just two and a half games. Getting the comeback win likely played a huge role in HC Matt Nagy‘s decision to name Foles the starter. And while Foles tossed one pick and should have had more, he gets the ball more in the vicinity of Chicago’s pass-catchers than Trubisky does. There’s a good chance based on Foles’ injury and playing history, however, that Trubisky hasn’t taken his last snap as a Bear.
- The injury pace thankfully slowed down this past week but it still claimed Bears RB Tarik Cohen who went down with a torn ACL and will be out for the rest of the year. Thankfully Cohen was able to sign a deal and get his big payday before the injury. Others haven’t been as fortunate.
- The Ravens are known for getting deals done early whenever possible and they did it again by inking CB Marlon Humphrey to a five-year extension at $19.75 million per year. The deal slots him just under Rams CB Jalen Ramsey who paces the market at $20 million per year.
- It’s not surprising, but the Patriots and QB Cam Newton are likely to leave Newton’s bargain of a deal untouched until the offseason. New England has no incentive to rush given they can use the franchise tag to keep the veteran this offseason. Any deal they would offer would likely come at a huge discount, so Newton also has incentive to play this out and continue to prove himself, like he’s been doing.
- The Packers got bad news regarding WR Allen Lazard, as after his huge breakout game Sunday night he was diagnosed with a core muscle injury that required surgery. Lazard is out indefinitely, which is a massive blow to a Packers receiving corps that already lacks depth.
The Big Picture: Blockbuster Trades
During the pregame show on Fox Sports, the crew displayed a graphic showing the results for teams who had traded star players against the records of teams receiving them. The results were pretty stark. This offseason, Diggs, WR DeAndre Hopkins, S Jamal Adams and DT DeForest Buckner were dealt by the Texans, Jets, Vikings and 49ers to the Cardinals, Seahawks, Bills and Colts respectively. The records through Thursday night:
- HOU, MIN, NYJ, SF: 2-11
- ARI, BUF, SEA, IND: 10-2
Now to some extent, this is expected. Teams willing to part with high-round picks for star players are typically contenders looking for that final piece to help put them over the top. On the other side, teams willing to part with star players that they’ve invested a lot into finding often have much bigger holes across their roster.
This type of trade aggressiveness is also a relatively recent phenomenon in the NFL, as more teams have become willing to part with first-round picks in exchange for star players. Over the course of six weeks at the start of last season, Ramsey, LT Laremy Tunsil and S Minkah Fitzpatrick were dealt in blockbuster deals. Before that, WR Odell Beckham, DE Khalil Mack and WR Brandin Cooks (twice) were dealt for first-round picks.
It’s too soon to evaluate 2020’s blockbuster deals in totality, though they appear to be paying off for the buyers so far, but what happens if we look back. 2019 might also be too soon to properly evaluate, but the sellers, Miami and Jacksonville, have a combined 2-4 record so far. The Texans were buyers last year and sellers this year, so their 0-3 record is harder to judge. The Rams appear to be reaping the benefits of their aggression to get Ramsey right now and are 2-1.
If we stretch it even further back to look at the Mack, Beckham and Cooks deals, we see that trend continue. After the Raiders traded away Mack in 2018, they went 4-12. Conversely, the Bears went 12-4. But the two team’s fortunes have been much more similar since, with 7-9 for the Raiders last year and 2-1 so far in 2020 compared to 8-8 and 3-0 for the Bears in the same timeframe.
The Giants followed the pattern of selling teams and struggled after trading away Beckham. New York is 4-15 since making that move last offseason. But the Browns haven’t been able to take advantage as much with an 8-11 record since then. The individual context surrounding those teams, like the coaching staff foibles in Cleveland, have a huge impact on how effective the blockbuster deals can be.
Take the example of Cooks, who was traded from the Saints to the Patriots to the Rams for a first-round pick each time. The Saints haven’t skipped a beat since dealing him in 2017, turning in records of 11-5, 13-3 and 13-3 in the following three years. Cooks was a part of a Patriots team that went 13-3 but after New England dealt him the following season the Patriots were still 11-5 and 13-3 over the next two seasons.
The Rams undoubtedly got a boost by bringing Cooks aboard, going 13-3 and 9-7 in his two years on the team. Los Angeles also dealt a second-round pick for WR Sammy Watkins in 2017 and saw its record jump from 4-12 to 11-5 in HC Sean McVay‘s first year. But the Rams haven’t yet seen many adverse effects from letting Watkins walk and trading Cooks this offseason, as they’re 2-1 so far this year.
Ultimately, these types of blockbuster trades can make waves but they’re still just a piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a team, and the quality of each respective organization still comes through, good or bad.