We’re hitting the home stretch. Thanksgiving has passed and all of a sudden the NFL playoff picture is beginning to clear up. Here are five things that have stood out to me this year.
Side Note: It was recently announced that Coldplay will be doing the halftime show at the Super Bowl. I will time my drinking and eating carefully so I can spend 45 minutes in the bathroom during halftime.
#1) Receiver play is at an all-time high, while Offensive Line play is at an all-time low.
I hate to use the term “elite” in regards to athletes. What does “elite” actually mean? Top 5 at their position? Top 10? So one’s list of “elite receivers” says more about one’s definition of the term “elite” than it does about the receivers mentioned. With that being said, there are plethora of receivers currently in the league who are simply impossible to cover on the outside for four quarters in simple one-on-one man coverage. My list, in no particular order:
Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, Odell Beckham Jr, DeAndre Hopkins, Dez Bryant, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson, AJ Green, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Marshall, Josh Gordon (when not suspended) Demaryius Thomas (despite his down year), Jordy Nelson (when healthy). That’s thirteen guys.
Factor in dynamic but developing young talents like Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, and Amari Cooper…as well as dominant slot players Larry Fitzgerald, Julian Edelman, Randall Cobb (when Jordy is healthy), Jarvis Landry, and Emmanuel Sanders…also accounting for vertically limited but quintessential possession/midrange guys like Michael Crabtree, Keenan Allen, and Eric Decker…on top of more-polished-than-you-think big play threats like Jeremy Maclin, TY Hilton, Brandin Cooks, DeSean Jackson, and Martavis Bryant…you’re looking at a HUGE list of weapons you simply have to gameplan for. That’s not even counting very good players like Allen Hurns, John Brown, Steve Smith, Vincent Jackson, and Stefon Diggs. These names, along with the way the game is officiated, have made times tough for defensive backs and coordinators.
In the offensive trenches, it’s the opposite. There’s simply a glaring lack of productive talent in the league right now. Part of this is NFL development. It’s not a coincidence that teams like the Patriots, Packers, and Bengals, who’ve done a fine job of developing line talent under their current regimes, all sit near the top of the pack. Another factor is the lack of contact allowed in practices under the new CBA. Then there’s a pipeline issue; offensive line play is just as bad at the college level right now. And finally, NFL personnel directors have been way too willing to spend a high pick on athletic but raw lineman, just assuming that the coaches will figure it out (no, I’m not singling you out Kansas City, but I kind of am).
#2) There could/should be as many as eight Head Coaching jobs open this offseason.
The list of coaches I personally don’t want to see back next year:
Dolphins interim HC Dan Campbell, Titans interim HC Mike Mularkey, Mike Pettine of the Browns, Gus Bradley of the Jaguars, Mike McCoy of the Chargers, Chip Kelly of the Eagles, Jim Caldwell of the Lions, Jom Tomsula of the 49ers, Jeff Fisher of the Rams, and Sean Payton of the Saints. That’s TEN. Obviously, some of these guys will be retained. And if Kelly and Payton were to leave, there’s a good chance an NFL team would hire them.
Just because you’re a great coordinator or a great college coach doesn’t mean you’re cut out for life in the NFL. But there’ll be a handful of those exact types of coaches who get shots next year. Same names being thrown around are Bengals OC Hue Jackson, Bears OC Adam Gase, Panthers DC Sean McDermott, and Stanford HC David Shaw.
#3) JJ Watt is the best defensive player the league, but the gap isn’t nearly as wide as most would have you believe.
Watt is very, very good. But any MVP talk surrounding his name is preposterous. Over the course of a 16-game season, how much does Watt really increase your chances of winning an extra game or two when compared to the following guys?
- All four Panthers defensive stars; lockdown corner Josh Norman, rangy Will LB Thomas Davis, prototype Mike LB Luke Kuechly, and versatile interior defender Kawann Short.
- The freakishly athletic and surprisingly strong three-techniques Geno Atkins (Bengals) and Aaron Donald (Rams), both of whom disrupt QB’s as much as anyone and also stuff run plays in the backfield on a regular basis.
- Broncos edge-defender Von Miller, who’s grown into one of the league’s best run stoppers on top of being a great pass-rusher.
- Saints edge savant Cameron Jordan, who just happens to play on a crappy defense.
- Vikings safety Harrison Smith, whose versatility allows Mike Zimmer do whatever he wants with his ten other guys on the field.
- Cardinals defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Corner, safety, slot corner. Call him whatever you want. He’s a terror.
- And then there are remarkably productive pass-rushers such as Justin Houston (Chiefs), Ziggy Ansah (Lions), and Chandler Jones (Patriots).
Again, none of these guys are quite as good at what they do as Watt. But this “clearly the DPOY”/”best of all-time” talk is just misinformed. I’m not sure if Hard Knocks, Pro Football Focus, and all the commercials have anything to do with it, but it’s annoying.
#4) Running backs don’t matter, and they should never be drafted in the first round.
Outside of the timeless Adrian Peterson (who may be the best ever, by the way) is there a single RB you could argue is even one of the FIFTY most valuable players in the league? The three best after AP- Marshawn Lynch and Jamaal Charles and Le’Veon Bell- have all gone down with injuries and seen their backups fill in and make up at least 80% of the production. Running backs are naturally fragile given their role and, in the modern game, the value of a bell cow RB if you can somehow find one isn’t nearly what is was even five years ago. Todd Gurley was picked 10th overall this year. While he’s slowed down after a blistering start, he still looks as good as advertised. But, again, is Gurley even one of the most ONE HUNDRED most valuable players in the league? And don’t even get me started on Chargers rookie Melvin Gordon, who got picked 15th overall despite not being able to actually carry the football or hit a hole without hesitating.
And we’re all about make the same mistake again. Those of you who follow college ball have surely heard the talk about how great Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, and LSU’s Leonard Fournette will be. They’re all good players who will probably be good in the league. But I wouldn’t want a team I’m a fan of, regardless of how the roster looks, to use a first round pick on any of them.
This extends to fantasy football as well. The general consensus has been “get your running backs early”. PFFFFFFFTTTTT. In my league, “standard” scoring with half a point per reception, the top 10 running backs this year are…
Deonta Freeman, Adrian Peterson, Mark Ingram, Doug Martin, Lamar Miller, Chris Ivory, Todd Gurley, DANNY WOODHEAD, LeSean McCoy, and DeMarco Murray. Seven of those ten (excluding AP, McCoy, and Murray) weren’t even considered first-round picks going into drafts. The next five features three backs who weren’t even primary guys on their teams to start the year (DeAngelo Williams, Giovani Bernard, Darren McFadden). In your draft next year, unless AP is there, do yourself a favor and take Rob Gronkowski or the best available WR in the first round. At least you can reasonably predict what’s going to happen with those guys.
#5) There are only five good teams.
New England Patriots. Carolina Panthers. Arizona Cardinals. Cincinnati Bengals. Denver Broncos. That’s it (probably in that order). I will take those five against the field to win the Super Bowl no matter what the odds are. They’re the only teams that have shown at least some consistency on both sides of the ball. Four of them, save for Denver, have top 5 QB’s this year. They can all rush the passer. They all have good secondaries. They’re not without their flaws, but those are clearly the five best teams in the NFL right now.
Some folks are living in 2014 and assuming the Packers are real contenders because of Aaron Rodgers and the Seahawks are real contenders because they’ve been to the last two Super Bowls. Don’t listen to those folks.