NFLTR Review: Top 10 Things The NFL Is Thankful For In 2020

     

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! This week’s issue is a little shorter than usual because of the holiday. But there’s still plenty of great stuff to check out while you work past yesterday’s food coma:

  • Top 10 things to be thankful for in 2020: NFL edition
  • A sneak peek at the 2021 NFL Draft with a top-10 mock off the latest order from Thursday’s games

Top 10 Things The NFL Is Thankful For In 2020

Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, both on the past year and the upcoming future. So it’s only fitting we turn that same lens on what we’ve seen from the NFL in 2020 and reflect on who is thankful for what in the football world this season.

1: A bunch of teams but especially the Jets…

Are thankful for the 2021 quarterback class. The Jets picked a great year to absolutely bottom out, as the prize for the race to the bottom of the standings this year is Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, a rare prospect who will be a star the second he steps on an NFL field. There’s plenty of other things for Jets fans to be thankful for as they look to the future as well. 

But the good news for other teams who need quarterbacks is it’s looking like a deep and talented class. Ohio State’s Justin Fields is drawing rave reviews, in fact there’s no shortage of folks who think he’d have gone No. 1 in a number of other classes. After that, there are intriguing options like North Dakota State’s Trey Lance and BYU’s Zach Wilson, two players who have flashed a tantalizing skillset but will face questions about the level of competition they faced in college. 

Guys like Florida’s Kyle Trask and Alabama’s Mac Jones have also seen their stock soar, and while the general consensus doesn’t seem to regard them as first-round talents yet, they could provide some depth to this class and perhaps develop into starters like Derek Carr, Andy Dalton and Jimmy Garoppolo have. However you slice it, there will be no shortage of options for teams looking to draft a quarterback this year. 

2: The Vikings are thankful…

That Dalvin Cook is a hoss. At least for the past few weeks, Cook has mattered for the Vikings. He’s shouldering a huge load on offense, averaging close to 30 touches a game. He’s been a major reason the Vikings have leaped from the conversation for the top pick to having an outside shot at a playoff berth. He’s been the brightest spot on an offense that’s struggled considerably in 2020 and happens to be under contract at a very reasonable amount the next few years.

3: The Buccaneers are thankful… 

They won the Brady sweepstakes. It might seem weird to note this given how rocky the past few weeks have been in Tampa, but the Buccaneers still are in one of the most fortunate positions of any team in large part because they landed Tom Brady. Just zoom out for a second and think about how an organization that once was the symbol for ineptitude now has the greatest quarterback of all time leading a championship push.

Brady’s not the only reason to be thankful. The Buccaneers have a legitimately talented team, with no real glaring weaknesses right now. Putting it all together has been the biggest obstacle. Maybe they don’t figure it out and their season ends in ignominious fashion like it has their past two prime-time games. But are you really going to bet against a team led by Brady as the games begin to matter more and more?

4: The Panthers are thankful

For 2019 first-round DE Brian Burns. The Panthers defense hasn’t been good this year, but they’ve blown by the extraordinarily low expectations a lot of people had for them coming into this season. They’ve had some one-off outstanding performances, including shutting out the Lions this past Sunday. A big part of their success has been the breakout of Burns, who just melts by offensive tackles. 

Most of his six sacks this season involve Burns ghosting a tackle in some fashion. While he’s just 15th in the NFL in sacks, he’s been one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the NFL in 2020. He has the third-highest pass-rush grade among edge rushers per Pro Football Focus, and if his two sacks Sunday are any indication, he’s starting to learn how to convert pressures into sacks. Great news for the rebuilding Panthers. 

5: The Cardinals are thankful…

They had the guts to cut bait in 2019. Arizona made two unconventional bets, hiring a college coach with a losing record and dumping a rookie quarterback they’d traded up to take in the top ten just a year prior. Both moves were pretty much unprecedented for an NFL team to make, and GM Steve Keim took a fair amount of heat. But so far in 2020, both seem to be paying off, as the duo of HC Kliff Kingsbury and QB Kyler Murray have Arizona in the mix to make the playoffs and possibly even win the NFC West. 

There’s also reason to believe Kingsbury and Murray have some staying power. Murray’s blend of arm talent and pure speed has him on pace to set records at the position, and unlike some other elite running quarterbacks, Murray avoids taking a lot of punishment. Kingsbury has also shown a willingness to morph and adapt to changing circumstances, which is a promising indicator in a league that chews up and spits out fancy scheme changes from year to year. 

6: The Texans are thankful…

That Bill O’Brien is gone. Whoever the next Texans general manager will have a heck of a mess to navigate through but at least O’Brien can’t do any more damage. In just over a year, he stripped the Texans of nearly all their top draft picks and financial flexibility. His long list of questionable decisions includes: 

  • Trading a conditional fourth for RB Duke Johnson that became a third after Johnson was active for 10 games. 
  • Trading former third-round OL Martinas Rankin to the Chiefs after just one year for journeyman RB Carlos Hyde.
  • Trading two first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Dolphins for LT Laremy Tunsil and WR Kenny Stills. Also failing to agree on an extension for Tunsil before the trade. 
  • Trading OLB Jadeveon Clowney for a third-round pick, OLB Jacob Martin and OLB Barkevious Mingo
  • Trading that third-round pick to the Raiders for CB Gareon Conley.
  • Signing C Nick Martin to a three-year, $33 million extension.
  • Signing OLB Whitney Mercilus to a four-year, $54 million extension. His $13.5 million APY ranks 21st among edge rushers. Pro Football Focus grades him 107th out of 107 players in 2020. 
  • Signing DL Brandon Dunn to a three-year, $12 million deal. 
  • Signing K Ka’imi Fairbairn to a four-year, $17.65 million deal.
  • Re-signing backup QB A.J. McCarron for one year, $4 million. 
  • Signing S Eric Murray for three years, $18 million and WR Randall Cobb for three years, $27 million in free agency this offseason, both huge overvaluations in a market that cooled off quickly. 
  • Trading a second-round pick to the Rams for WR Brandin Cooks.
  • Signing Tunsil to a three-year, $66 million extension at $22 million per year, $4 million above the previous market high. 
  • Signing LB Zach Cunningham to a four-year, $58 million extension. His $14.5 million APY is third among off-ball linebackers.
  • And of course, the big one, parting with WR DeAndre Hopkins for a second-round pick and RB David Johnson

Some of these moves in isolation aren’t completely horrendous. But in totality, they show a head coach who was overwhelmed as a general manager and regularly paid a premium to fill short-term needs while failing to maximize the assets he traded away. The end result is a team that needs to rebuild in 2021 without its first or second-round pick and just the 25th-most cap space in the NFL. But O’Brien isn’t around to dig the hole any deeper. 

7: The Steelers are thankful…

For a healthy Big Ben. Last year was a miserable year for the Steelers despite the not-too-shabby 8-8 finish. It was clear that neither Mason Rudolph nor Devlin Hodges were enough to lead them anywhere after Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season because of an elbow injury. Now that Roethlisberger is back, the difference is evident as this Steelers team is undefeated and in the catbird seat for the No. 1 seed and the lone bye in the new playoff format. 

No one will mistake this version of Roethlisberger for the prime version that went to a couple of Super Bowls over a decade ago. But getting past him, his bevy of receiving weapons and the fearsome Steelers defense in Pittsburgh in January is going to be no small feat. 

8: The Chargers are thankful…

They know what they have in Justin Herbert. The entire tenor of the Chargers season could be much different if not for a slight slip of a doctor’s needle in Week 2. Tyrod Taylor’s accidental punctured lung ultimately ended up costing him the starting job, which is a tragic, brutal reality of life in the NFL sometimes. Just ask Drew Bledsoe who lost his job due to injury and never got it back from Brady. 

Los Angeles’ initial plan was to sit Herbert behind Taylor for most of the season. But thankfully, not only was Herbert ready to step in, he was ready to excel. He’s on pace for one of the best rookie seasons ever and the Chargers just might have a precocious young signal-caller of their own to try and match the Chiefs. 

9: We all should be thankful for…

Patrick Mahomes. There’s already a lot that’s been written about Mahomes but I’ll try and add some more. When the truly great quarterbacks get the ball late in the fourth quarter, there’s always a feeling of inevitability to what is about to occur. Think Brady, Montana — and now Mahomes.

When the Chiefs got the ball back with 1:43 left Sunday night against the Raiders, it almost felt too easy. That was proved a few minutes later when Mahomes zipped a pass back across his body to find TE Travis Kelce for the winning touchdown. That moment might not even make his top-10 career plays to this point, which is a sign of just how high the bar has been set.

Just like everyone who watched Jordan, Bulls fan or not, appreciated the basketball artistry on display, it’s not too early to start cherishing every magical Mahomes moment we’re privy to. 

10: I’m thankful for football

It’s been a hell of a year. There isn’t much that’s felt normal about 2020 and football hasn’t been unaffected, as evidenced by how often during the week I write the phrase “COVID-19.” But sometimes during the games with the fake crowd noise going and my different fantasy teams pulled up, I can fall into a sense of normalcy for a minute and forget the world isn’t falling apart. For however long that lasts, whether it’s through the Super Bowl or just a few more weeks, I’m really thankful. 

This Week In Football

  • One of the NFL’s brightest young stars was cut down on Sunday when a defender’s helmet smashed into the side of Bengals first-round QB Joe Burrow’s knee, causing major damage. Burrow ended up with a torn ACL and MCL. The nine-month recovery time puts his return right up against the start of next season. It’s not so much that Burrow’s 2021 season is in jeopardy, though many players say it can take a full year to really feel comfortable after an injury like that and that should be factored into expectations next year. It’s that Burrow already dealt with no OTA’s or preseason and limited practice time this year and now much of his time will be spent rehabbing instead of working to improve in the critical offseason between his first and second year. For a lot of players, that’s when they make their biggest leap. 
  • The situation with the Ravens can now be classified as a full-on outbreak, the NFL’s second after the situation with the Titans earlier this year, after QB Lamar Jackson joins several other players who have tested positive this week. There are some interesting details about how this outbreak started that the NFL will likely chase down. The game against the Steelers has been moved to Tuesday, which means the NFL will also need to change Week 13’s matchup between the Ravens and Cowboys that was scheduled for next Thursday. 
  • Saints QB Taysom Hill played pretty well overall in his first start, albeit against a shaky Falcons defense. But it’s worth noting there were people inside the organization who were hoping to see Jameis Winston this past Sunday. Don’t count Winston out as a potential Saints starter yet, either if Hill runs out of gas or as an option to be brought back this offseason to compete in 2021. 
  • No official announcement has been made, but it’s clear from reading the tea leaves, aka the practice injury reports, that Mitchell Trubisky is about to get another shot at quarterback for the Bears this week against the Packers as Nick Foles deals with a hip injury. If Trubisky can keep playing well, it’s hard to see HC Matt Nagy sending him back to the bench. 
  • The Bears aren’t the only team making a change at quarterback. The Jaguars, apparently still not confident in QB Gardner Minshew’s thumb, are giving Mike Glennon his first start since 2017 in Chicago. Meanwhile, the Bengals elected to promote practice squad QB Brandon Allen to the roster to start Sunday in place of Burrow, which is a bad sign for second-year QB Ryan Finley
  • The Raiders are quietly developing into a team no one will want to play in the playoffs. They beat the Chiefs once this year and gave Kansas City all it could handle in the rematch. The defense is the biggest question mark and Las Vegas took a couple of swings at some talented pass rushers, signing former Titans OLB Vic Beasley to the practice squad and claiming DE Takk McKinley off waivers. The two combined for 11.5 sacks last year with the Falcons but have picked up some baggage since then. But they’re low-risk, high-reward signings for the Raiders. 

2021 NFL Mock Draft: Top 10

Draft season isn’t here yet — unless you’re a Jets fan — but it’s peeking around the corner for a greater number of teams. So hopefully you’ve still got room from Thanksgiving leftovers, because we’ve got a quick top-10 based on our 2021 NFL Draft order through Thursday’s games to whet your appetite for the draft.

1. Jets: Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence

Sharpie. 

2. Jaguars: Ohio State QB Justin Fields

You can probably lock this one in, too. 

3. Bengals: Oregon LT Penei Sewell

After what happened to Burrow Sunday, they can’t in good conscience pick anybody else here. 

4. Cowboys: Alabama CB Patrick Surtain II

There’s a strong argument to be made for just about any defensive position. But the talent at cornerback is legitimately lacking where other areas of the roster are just underperforming. 

5. Chargers: Virginia Tech CB Caleb Farley

This is higher than where Farley is being mocked most places but if the 6-2, 207 Virginia Tech product runs as fast as some folks think he will, he’ll be a top-10 pick. 

6. Giants: LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase

The Giants don’t really have a No. 1 receiver for Daniel Jones. Veteran Golden Tate is probably toast this offseason as a cap cut, while Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton are just role players. If New York is really committed to letting things play out further with Jones, getting him a No. 1 wideout should be a priority. 

7. Falcons: Miami DE Gregory Rousseau

The dilemma for Atlanta, if they stay in this range, will be this: do they take advantage of drafting this high to nab a potential successor to Matt Ryan? Guys like Lance or Wilson could very well be available in this range. Or do they add a potentially elite prospect to keep chasing a ring with the core of Ryan, Julio Jones and others? A lot probably depends on the next regime. I flipped a coin. They’ll probably be more thorough. 

8. Eagles: Michigan DE Kwity Paye

If Howie Roseman is still in charge, it’s a decent bet a pass rusher is the pick this high. Roseman is a big believer in keeping the defensive line stocked and Philadelphia could be moving on from both Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett given their salary situation in 2021. Paye actually could remind the Eagles a decent bit of Graham as a former Michigan defensive end with less than ideal height. 

9. Lions: Penn State LB Micah Parsons

Like the Falcons, Detroit’s pick here will be heavily determined by the new regime and how much of a rebuild it believes is necessary. With so much unknown, I elected to go best player available which also happens to line up with a need. Parsons is the latest freak athlete to come out of Penn State and could become an elite NFL linebacker. 

10. Dolphins (via HOU): Alabama WR Jaylen Waddle

While this pick has slipped some with Houston righting the ship somewhat, it’s still a gift to Miami as they look to continue a rebuild that looks to be on a far quicker track than many anticipated. Building around franchise QB Tua Tagovailoa should be one of the Dolphins’ top priorities and getting him a speedy receiver he has plenty of familiarity with is a great way to do that. 

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