October has flown by but there’s one more issue of NFLTR Review to get through before the end of the month! In this edition:
- Why the future actually looks bright for the Jets
- Top 10 players who need to step it up the rest of 2020
- A new 2021 draft sleeper that has QB analysts abuzz
- How some of the NFL trade rumor sausage is made
The Big Picture: The Jets’ Bright Future
Something is rotten in New York — in fact a lot of things. Little is going right for the Jets this year and there’s a real chance they don’t win a game this year. Both sides of the ball are abysmal. Jets HC Adam Gase will be fired and the only suspense is when the team will make it official. Between the shoddy relationships with star players and drama rife in the coaching staff and front office, Gang Green is the most dysfunctional team in the NFL right now.
But I’m not here to bag more on the Jets. I’m here to outline why after this nightmare of a season ends the Jets could have one of the brightest futures of any teams in the league.
Much of it hinges on the Jets continuing to be bad enough to lock up the No. 1 overall pick and the rights to Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, who belongs in the conversation with previous elite quarterback prospects like Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and John Elway. Bad organizations can ruin good quarterbacks but Lawrence is the type of player who could and should transcend that. Finding a quarterback is more than half the battle in the NFL and the impact of landing a potentially elite one like Lawrence cannot be overstated.
Obviously Lawrence isn’t a cure for everything that ails the Jets. Winning in the NFL is hard. But with Lawrence, it will look a hell of a lot easier than the team is making it look now.
As an aside, there’s a chance Lawrence could decide to stay in school. He left open the possibility this week. But if he does, it likely won’t be to avoid the Jets. No good teams get the No. 1 overall pick, that’s the point. And there are major opportunities for Lawrence outside of football in New York’s media market that should be appealing.
Now of course there’s still the matter of current Jets starting QB Sam Darnold who’s floundering with his current lackluster supporting cast. There’s a fair case to be made Darnold has never been put in an environment to succeed as a Jet, but the reality is Lawrence is more of a sure thing than Darnold even without taking an NFL snap. If the Jets get the No. 1 pick, it’s a safe bet they take Lawrence and trade Darnold for what they can.
Depending on how Darnold finishes out the rest of the year, that could be as much as a second or third-round pick to add to an already formidable cache of draft picks. New York has extra first and third-round picks this year from the Seahawks after dealing away Jamal Adams plus Seattle’s first in 2022, along with a fourth or fifth-round pick from the Giants for Leonard Williams. If Jets GM Joe Douglas can live up to his reputation as an excellent talent evaluator, the Jets will be able to restock their roster quickly. While the jury is out on his first class this past April, first-round LT Mekhi Becton already looks like a bankable stud.
In a year where the cap will be a big challenge for many teams as it drops to potentially as low as $175 million, the Jets have relatively infinite financial flexibility to work with in free agency. New York should have $90 million in space to work with once they roll over this year’s space and cut DE Henry Anderson. Douglas played hardball with player valuations this past offseason, so expecting a classic Jets spending spree might be unrealistic. But there’s plenty of room to go get anyone they want or need, whether it’s a pass rusher, cornerback or receiver, and set themselves up for the draft.
As for the current roster, it’s obviously not good. But there’s reason to hope it could be better in 2021. New York added five new starting offensive linemen and didn’t have the benefit of OTAs, a full camp or preseason to work them together. More time together could help. On defense, the Jets will finally get star LB C.J. Mosley back after an injury-riddled 2019 and an opt-out in 2020. It’s fair to expect some rust but he should be healthy at least.
Assuming he’s re-signed, S Marcus Maye would join WR Jamison Crowder and DT Quinnen Williams in the cupboard of assets, with more young players like second-round WR Denzel Mims, third-round S Ashtyn Davis, fourth-round RB La’Mical Perine, LB Blake Cashman and DL John Franklin-Meyers possibly joining them as pieces of the rebuild.
The Jets likely won’t leapfrog into the NFL’s upper echelon overnight. But if we spin things forward a few months, the Jets could enter 2021 with a brand-new coaching staff, future franchise quarterback, an intriguing mix of young players, free-agent additions and draft picks on both sides of the ball, and ultimately a renewed sense of optimism.
This Week In Football
- Every year, the trade deadline offers more speculation fodder than substantial news. That’s especially true for losing teams. NFL teams don’t embrace the teardown and tank quite like other leagues, at least yet. And there are financial realities to reckon with, like in the case of the Falcons and QB Matt Ryan and WR Julio Jones that will keep those stars tied to Atlanta this year and probably next. Others like DE Takkarist McKinley and C Alex Mack could end up being moved, though.
- That doesn’t mean there’s not drama, though. There was a report that indicated the Jets were open to trading DL Quinnen Williams just a year and a half after taking him No. 3 overall. And to talk about this, we have to talk about Manish Mehta, the author of the report and a beat reporter/columnist covering the Jets for the New York Daily News, and a little bit about how the trade rumor sausage is made.
- Mehta is not popular with a segment of the fanbase, as his roles as a reporter and opinion columnist often give him the appearance of having an agenda. The NYDN also is among the more tabloidy outlets, which doesn’t help. He’s also often contradicted by other members of the Jets beat, which happened with the Quinnen Williams situation. The Jets also publicly refuted the report. However, NFL teams lie all the time, publicly and privately. There are more reasons to believe Mehta’s report than not, especially considering his sources have proven strong on other stories. The Jets don’t gain anything by other teams having the impression they’re willing to part with Williams at a discount. They also don’t want to damage the relationship with Williams by exposing any back-room flirtations with a trade. In the end, their issue with the report likely comes down to how you define “shopping.”
- There was another terrific example of that the same day in the same division. A report indicated the Dolphins were listening to/exploring trade offers for CB Xavien Howard. Miami swiftly issued a statement attacking the reporter and explicitly saying, “We are not exploring any trades regarding Xavien Howard.” However, it turns out other teams had called about Howard, another outlet was aware of that and chose to hold the report for more details. Pro Football Talk outlined the situation well, explaining how Miami’s denial was probably rooted in semantics, as if they didn’t immediately hang up when another team called they were, by definition, listening to offers.
- In the end, the biggest trade that ended up happening this week came with its fair share of drama, as the Bengals ended a decade-long relationship with DE Carlos Dunlap by trading him to the Seahawks after he pitched a tantrum over his reduced role. Cincinnati gets C B.J. Finney and a seventh-round pick to help their offensive line, while Seattle gets a talented but aging pass rusher who should be highly motivated to perform.
- The Cowboys looked up the definition of insanity and decided to make some changes this week. First Dallas dealt DE Everson Griffen to the Lions for a conditional sixth-round pick. Then after failing to find a bidder, the Cowboys cut both DT Dontari Poe and CB Daryl Worley. With the season-ending injury to DT Gerald McCoy and the training camp release of S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, that means none of Dallas’ outside additions in free agency are still with the team.
- Browns WR Odell Beckham tore his ACL in Sunday’s loss chasing down a defender on an interception return. It’s the latest rotten break for Beckham who has had an absolutely snake-bitten second act to his career. The conversation instantly turned to whether the Browns would be better off without Beckham, which is an interesting question that has room for some nuance. But it’s worth remembering and not losing sight of just how talented Beckham really was at his prime his first three seasons with more than 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns each year before injuries started to derail a scintillating career.
- It’s true that the current science indicates most young people and athletes who encounter COVID-19 come away no worse for wear. But not everyone will. Jaguars RB Ryquell Armstead has been hospitalized twice and continues to deal with serious complications from the effects of the virus. He won’t play in 2020 and given what we know about what COVID-19 can do to a respiratory system, his career is in question. As cases continue to skyrocket, please do what you can to keep others safe. Wear a mask and social distance when around others, especially indoors. Get tested, even if you think it’s just a cold.
Top 10: Players Who Need To Step It Up
Last week we looked at 10 of the biggest surprise breakouts in the NFL so far in 2020. As we near the halfway point of the season, we flip to the other side of the coin. Whether it’s an established started underperforming or a player expected to take the next step who has instead stagnated, here are 10 players whose teams desperately need them to step up.
10 – Giants OT Andrew Thomas
This past draft, there were four offensive tackles pretty much seen as the consensus best available and top prospects. Picking fourth, the Giants made Thomas the first pick out of that bunch at fourth overall, with Jedrick Wills, Mekhi Becton and Tristan Wirfs going to the Browns, Jets and Buccaneers several picks later. Despite being seen as the cleanest prospect out of that bunch, Thomas has been by far the worst performer so far. Becton has shown his massive — pun intended — upside, Wirfs has been a stud and Wills has been superb as a pass protector. Meanwhile, Thomas’ technique has been horrendous. The Giants need him to get it figured out.
9 – Panthers WR D.J. Moore
Granted, Moore hasn’t been awful. He’s coming off a two-touchdown breakout this past Sunday against the Saints and is on pace to go over 1,000 yards receiving. However, consider what HC Matt Rhule said the expectations were going into 2020 for the third-year wideout.
“D.J. has to take another step this year and be that dominant, physical go-to receiver on third-and-5 that you’re going to, and in the red zone that you’re going to,” Rhule said via Steve Reed out of the Associated Press. “Take the best matchup of the other team’s best corner and just dominate it. That’s the step that he has to take.”
So far, Moore hasn’t quite seized hold of that role. Robby Anderson leads the team in targets and Curtis Samuel is the go-to third-down option. Moore is tied for second in the NFL with six drops per PFF. And while he’s flashed as a playmaker, he hasn’t quite shown the contested catch or separation ability to be the Panthers’ No. 1 receiver — yet.
8 – Lions CB Jeffrey Okudah
Widely seen as the top cornerback in the draft this past year, Okudah is another top pick who has been hammered by the leap from college to the pros. Pro Football Focus has him rated as their sixth-worst corner through Week 7. He has just one pick and one pass breakup while allowing 24 completions on 35 targets.
A rookie corner struggling isn’t exactly breaking news. But Detroit drafted Okudah to fill an immediate starting spot in the secondary and HC Matt Patricia’s defense relies heavily on being able to lock up in man coverage. Okudah being able to play up to the blue-chip potential he was pegged as having would go a long way toward improving the Lions defense and potentially even saving Patricia’s job.
7 – Saints S Malcolm Jenkins
By signing Jenkins after his release from the Eagles, the Saints thought they were rectifying a mistake from years ago when they let him leave. But the Saints have been plagued by blown coverages on the back end and Jenkins is not guiltless, as evidenced by this breakdown against the Chargers a couple of weeks ago.
This is the Mike Williams' play. Looks like supposed to be Cover 2, but the safety attacks down. pic.twitter.com/UQ51RR8wOR
— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) October 13, 2020
The Saints have big Super Bowl hopes, but they’ll need their defense to plug the leaks to be able to seriously compete with the other top teams in the NFC. Jenkins playing like the cagey veteran New Orleans thought it was getting instead of an inexperienced rookie would go a long way towards that.
6 – Giants TE Evan Engram
With the injury to Saquon Barkley, Engram is New York’s most talented, dynamic and versatile weapon on offense. But the former first-round pick is averaging a pedestrian 8.6 yards per catch. While he’s gotten in the end zone on the ground, he’s yet to score a receiving touchdown on the season. He’s not gotten much better as a blocker and also has four drops on the year, including one that could have sealed a win last Thursday.
There’s plenty for Engram to improve, but in fairness to him his usage by Giants OC Jason Garrett has not been optimal. Garrett’s never seen a curl route or shallow pattern he doesn’t like and Engram has mostly been confined to the short passing game rather than letting his speed be a mismatch further downfield. Engram has been able to stay healthy so far in 2020, which is itself a major development if it holds.
5 – Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith
The Cowboys cut a lot of other underperforming pieces on their defense this week. But Smith was supposed to be a cornerstone piece and a budding star. Instead, he’s had by far the worst season of his career as Dallas’ defense has put up less resistance than wet toilet paper to opponents. Smith has been as bad as any Cowboys defender against the run and been victimized in the passing game, allowing a 115.3 passer rating in coverage.
Smith does lead the NFL in tackles and shows well in some other metrics like missed tackles (just four) and the third-most stops in the league with 30. But he epitomizes the issues with the Cowboys defense in 2020 — talent with a lack of effort.
As the middle linebacker, Smith is supposed to be the heart of the defense. But plays like this show why the Cowboys defense has no heart.
Jaylon Smith when asked about his pursuit of DeAndre Hopkins on this play: “You know, no excuses. We all got to get to the ball. Myself included.”
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 22, 2020
4 – Raiders LB Cory Littleton
One of the top free agents this past offseason, Littleton was supposed to help rejuvenate the Raiders defense and push them out of the league’s cellar. Instead, Las Vegas is 26th in the NFL in total defense and 31st in scoring D. And Littleton has been a liability.
Coverage was supposed to have been one of Littleton’s strengths coming over from the Rams. He had five interceptions the past two seasons and broke up 22 passes. He has zeroes in both categories so far in 2020 and ranks near the bottom of PFF’s coverage grades. He’s allowing more than 10 yards after the catch per reception. And after missing just one tackle all of last season, per PFF again, Littleton has been credited with seven missed tackles already in 2020, tied for fourth in the NFL.
There’s the caveat of this being a hard year to change to a new team and new scheme. But the early returns on the Raiders’ free-agent investment in Littleton is looking awful. The veteran needs to turn it around, both for his sake and that of Las Vegas’ defense.
3 – Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott
Even when Dallas’ offense was rolling earlier in the season, Elliott was still hurting the team in a major way. There were the fumbles, five total and four lost to the other team. He has four drops, two of which resulted in interceptions, including in this past week’s low point loss to the Washington Football Team. That and more errors are included in this thread:
Zeke Elliott can't even pass block well.pic.twitter.com/7tGVYMiEJ5
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) October 25, 2020
It’s not just the foibles for Elliott. With Dak Prescott gone, Elliott is the core of the offense. This is exactly why Dallas made him the NFL’s highest-paid running back last year, to carry the load and the offense. He’s still one of the better backs in the league but he’s not playing anywhere near the peak of his abilities right now. For Dallas to turn this nightmare around, they need Elliott to prove that he’s a running back who matters.
2 – Bills LB Tremaine Edmunds
Entering his third season having just turned 22 in May, there were few players who were brimming with as much potential as Edmunds, an elite talent at a key position in the middle of a defense with Super Bowl aspirations. And while the Bills look like contenders, they have major problems on defense. Injuries have been a factor, including an early-season shoulder injury to Edmunds in fact, but he’s been a complete nonfactor, at best, this season as Buffalo currently ranks 21st in run defense and just 15th overall.
In six games, Edmunds has almost as many missed tackles (5) as defensive stops. His run stop percentage of 2.9 percent ranks 72nd out of 76 linebackers who’ve played at least 60 snaps of run defense this year. His 30 solo tackles are a pedestrian 37th in the NFL. He’s allowing a perfect passer rating in coverage and a staggering 16.8 average yards after catch per reception. He has no interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles or recoveries, and recorded his first tackle for loss this past week. When asked if he needs Edmunds to make more players, Bills HC Sean McDermott simply responded: “Yes.”
1 – Vikings QB Kirk Cousins
The Vikings are 1-5 and Cousins is tied for the most picks in the NFL with 10. That right there tells you things are bad. But what makes things so dire for Cousins and Minnesota is that the Vikings almost have no choice but to ride this situation out with the guy they hitched their wagon to with big-time guaranteed money contracts twice now. The team’s descent into rebuilding has again exposed how Cousins needs more optimal conditions than other quarterbacks to succeed. And if Cousins can’t pull out of this nosedive, his contract makes it almost impossible to trade or cut him this coming offseason.
A list of 10 underperforming players could be almost entirely quarterbacks given the massive expectations placed on the position. But I wanted to specifically highlight two more quarterbacks who aren’t necessarily meeting expectations. Wentz and Mayfield in fact were on a recent draft of this list until this past week when Wentz made a number of plays, including a game-winning dime for a touchdown, and Mayfield found his stroke and got hot.
But the NFL has the memory of a guppy and both passers will be evaluated intensely once again this week. Wentz is tied with Cousins atop the NFL with 10 interceptions and has taken 28 sacks, which is tied with Bengals QB Joe Burrow for the most. Philadelphia’s offensive line has dealt with injuries but Wentz’s proclivity to hold the ball is the bigger issue. Figuring out how to be a part of the solution to the problem that is the Eagles offense should be Wentz’s top priority as he looks to recapture the MVP-worthy form he had back in 2017.
Mayfield meanwhile has laid eggs against the top competition on Cleveland’s schedule while showing some competency in the other games. The Browns have to make a decision on the fifth-year option for their former No. 1 overall pick this offseason which entails guaranteeing Mayfield’s deal through 2022. He hasn’t necessarily proven worthy of that yet, but he has nine more games to do so.
Check This Out
- A little old but still super relevant, USA Today’s Doug Farrar goes in-depth on Tampa Bay’s defensive gameplan that shut down a Packers offense that had obliterated every opponent so far this season.
- We’re halfway through the third season after the 2018 draft class. Three years is usually used as the final yardstick to retroactively judge a class and the 2018 class offered a fascinating case study for the NFL draft’s hardest problem: evaluating quarterbacks. 538’s Josh Hermsmeyer takes a look at how some of the various disciplines, old-school and new-school, performed.
- Speaking of evaluating QB prospects, depending on how your favorite team is doing you may have already turned your eyes to the 2021 class. Every year it seems like there’s a quarterback who comes out of nowhere to become a huge sensation. North Dakota State’s Trey Lance doesn’t exactly qualify as a sleeper anymore, but the next riser could be BYU’s Zach Wilson. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler showcases some reasons why the kid some are calling the “Mormon Mahomes” is for real.
Nickels & Dimes
It flies under the radar because of his reputation as an offensive mastermind. But Rams HC Sean McVay is actually one of the more conservative coaches in the league. He admitted a few weeks ago to basically playing for a field goal against the Giants and it’s a semi-regular occurrence. His conservative bent also shows itself in other metrics, like second-and-long run rate and early down passing expectancy.
Pass rate over expected after Week 6 pic.twitter.com/0oVJMYaKIb
— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) October 22, 2020
Now the question is: how much of this is McVay’s identity as a coach? Or does he coach this way because he feels he has to in order to protect Jared Goff, his supposed franchise quarterback…
Mike Vrabel is staking a claim as one of the better head coaches in the league. His decision to deliberately take the extra man penalty on defense to stop the clock and save time proved vital in last week’s overtime win against the Texans and earned quite a bit of notoriety. He also had the intentional delay of game penalties in last year’s playoff win against the Patriots to keep the clock running. And outside of his game management, the Titans churned past the league’s worst outbreak with little to no hangover and have looked like one of the league’s best teams this year…
If the NFC East is going to be bad, it owes us this at least: M a X i M u M c H a O s
Remember back in August when the NFL had just one player on the COVID-19 list? Things have gotten much tougher and it coincides with the rise of the virus across the country. The NFL had just five cases from the start of September through the end of Week 2 of the regular season. Since then, 64 players have gone on the list. Meanwhile, the United State’s new cases per day have risen from about 37,000 at the start of the season to over 60 thousand and climbing rapidly…
You’ll never guess who leads the NFL in rushing yards over expected…
It’s Ronald Jones…
Travis Fulgham appreciation tweet. Every catch from his 10-152-1 day: pic.twitter.com/dD9ODbhpvY
— bring your hard hat ¯_(ツ)_/¯ (@britttlifts) October 15, 2020
Travis Fulgham has been the breakout receiver the Eagles needed. Big, physical and reliable, Fulgham has thrived in jump-ball situations and working against off and zone coverage. He still needs work against press coverage if he’s going to be the starting X, as he can be locked up in man coverage. Philadelphia runs him out of the slot a lot to help him get free releases. But his emergence has been welcome for an Eagles receiving corps starved for playmakers…
The Dunlap deal to the Seahawks is only the second in-season trade by the #Bengals since 1985. The other was Carson Palmer to the Raiders in 2012.
— Paul Dehner Jr. (@pauldehnerjr) October 28, 2020
This is how bad it got between the Bengals and Dunlap. A team that infamously never trades during the season was pushed to the brink for just the second time in over 30 years…
— Darren Urban (@Cardschatter) October 29, 2020
At the time, Budda Baker’s four-year, $59 million contract was questioned because while his resume was high on tackles it was low on other game-changing plays, particularly interceptions. That’s changed this year. Baker notched his first two career interceptions the past two weeks and continues to always be around the ball with two sacks, a forced fumble and three pass defenses in just six games…
ANY/A Value for actual rookie quarterbacks (not former USFL, etc.):
Matt Ryan +591
Herbert +281, in five games with 10 to go
At his current pace, Herbert is gonna have a top-5 rookie year ever for a QB.
— Virtual Bubble Justo (Day 234) (@JuMosq) October 28, 2020
Here’s how good Chargers rookie QB Justin Herbert has been. Per adjusted net yards per attempts — formula here, short version is quarterbacks are rewarded for yards and touchdowns while penalized for picks and sacks, this stat also highly correlates to NFL success — Herbert’s cumulative value over average is already one of the best rookie seasons ever…
Chris Jones on the Jets: "That's a very good football team. People forget that because they haven't won a game.''
— Adam Teicher (@adamteicher) October 29, 2020
Let’s end on a laugh…