2019 Franchise Tag Candidates

The franchise tag period begins February 19th, when teams can officially start placing the tag on players they don’t want to lose in free agency. Each team is allowed one franchise tag, which locks a player in on a one-year deal worth the average of the top-5 cap hits at that players’ position, assuming that player doesn’t choose to sit out the season like Le’Veon Bell did in 2018. Not including players who would only be tagged to be traded (Bell, Earl Thomas, and Nick Foles) and kickers (Stephen Gostkowski and Robbie Gould), there are 9 serious candidates for the franchise tag this season.

DE Trey Flowers (New England)

In addition to Gostkowski, the Patriots also have left tackle Trent Brown set to hit free agency, but with 2018 1st round pick Isaiah Wynn expected to return from injury and compete for the left tackle job, Brown seems unlikely to be tagged at a one-year rate of 15.3 million. Instead, it would either be Gostkowski or Flowers if the Patriots decide to use the franchise tag. They may not choose either, but there’s a case to be made that Flowers is worth about 18.7 million annually, which is around where the defensive end franchise tag number is expected to be.

Flowers’ sack total doesn’t jump off the page (21 in 45 career games), but he’s added another 39 hits and 97 hurries on the quarterback and Bill Belichick knows the value of guys who can consistently disrupt the quarterback, even if they aren’t always getting the sack, and he knows the value of guys who can line up in different spots on the defensive line, which Flowers does. Flowers is also really their only consistent pass rusher and he plays at a high level against the run as well. The transition tag (projected at 15.7 million) is another option, but Flowers’ pass rush productivity isn’t a secret around the league and he’d probably get offers ranging in the 16-18 million annual range that they’d have to match. Either way, he’s going to get paid this off-season.

MLB CJ Mosley (Baltimore)

Mosley seems likely to end up back in Baltimore one way or another, but the franchise tag doesn’t seem like a great option for him. Because the linebacker tag value includes pass rush linebackers in its calculation, the projected franchise tag value for linebackers is 15.8 million, which would put Mosley far above the top non-rush linebacker in the league in terms of average annual salary, which is Luke Kuechly at 12.4 million. Mosley could still top that number on a long-term deal, even if issues in coverage suggest he’s not that caliber of a player, but the Ravens might not want to risk that much of their cap being tied up in a player who isn’t a huge factor in coverage or rushing the quarterback. Perhaps the transition tag (projected 13.6 million) is a better option.

OT Donovan Smith (Tampa Bay)

A 2nd round pick in 2015, Smith made all 64 starts at left tackle for the Buccaneers in 4 seasons on his rookie deal, but he was one of the worst left tackles in the league for the first 3 seasons, before improving in 2018. From 2015-2017, he allowed 34 quarterback hits, most among offensive tackles, and committed 33 penalties, second most among offensive tackles. Those numbers dropped to 9 and 7 in 2018 and evidently the Buccaneers expect him to continue improving, as they are reportedly considering the franchise tag to keep him for 2019. That be a smarter move than giving Smith a big long-term contract, but 15.3 million is a big cap number for a player of Smith’s caliber and it wouldn’t be that hard to find a comparable player for less. Perhaps the transition tag (projected 13.7 million) is a better option here as well.

DT Grady Jarrett (Atlanta)

The Falcons’ defense should be better when healthier in 2019, but they can’t afford to lose Grady Jarrett. Their defense was horrible in 2018, but they were even worse in the 2 games Jarrett missed. First and foremost a strong run stuffer on the interior, Jarrett also has 13 sacks and 28 quarterback hits from the defensive tackle spot over the past 3 seasons. The 15.6 million dollar franchise tag is around what he’d get annually on a long-term extension, so I’d expect this to happen in the absence of a long-term deal.

S Landon Collins (NY Giants)

Safeties have one of the cheaper franchise tags at around 12 million annually. While the Giants don’t have a ton of cap space and have other needs, they can’t afford to lose one of their few truly good players. Injuries have ended his last two seasons, but he’s missed just 5 games in 4 seasons in the league and has been one of the best safeties in the league for each of the past 3 seasons, so he’s fairly low risk and could keep getting better, only going into his age 25 season. Given that, it probably makes more sense for the Giants to extend Collins long-term and lower his 2019 cap hit. He could push to be the highest paid safety in the league, upwards of 13 million annually, but the Giants could still structure that in a way that allows them to still address their many other needs.

DE DeMarcus Lawrence (Dallas)

Lawrence was already franchise tagged by the Cowboys once, playing the 2018 season on a one-year, 17.143 million dollar deal. It was a smart decision by the Cowboys at the time, as Lawrence was a one-year wonder with an early career history of back problems, but now that Lawrence is coming off of another strong season, the Cowboys are in a tough position. They obviously don’t want to lose him, but tagging a player for the 2nd year in a row requires a 20% increase in salary, meaning the franchise tag would cost them about 20.57 million this time around.

That’s a huge number to commit to a non-quarterback, especially with players like Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Ezekiel Elliott also due pay raises soon, but Lawrence has 25 sacks and 23 quarterback hits over the past two seasons, while playing at a high level against the run, so he could command close to 20 million annually on a long-term deal anyway. At the very least, he’ll be looking to top the 5-year, 85 million dollar deal Olivier Vernon got two off-seasons ago.

DE Frank Clark (Seattle)

For many players, the franchise tag amount is more than they’d likely get on the open market in average annual salary. Teams pay a premium for the benefit of being able to go year-to-year without big signing bonuses and large chunks of guaranteed money. That’s not the case with Frank Clark, even at the 18.7 million dollar defensive end rate. Players with 33 sacks and 27 quarterback hits in 3-year stretch before their 26 season tend to get paid. He figures to get around 20 million annually on a long-term extension and the Seahawks have the cap space to make sure he doesn’t go anywhere.

OLB Jadeveon Clowney (Houston)

Clowney seems like a perfect fit for the franchise tag. Not only do the Texans get a slight discount because he’s listed as a linebacker in the Texans 3-4, rather than a defensive end (18.7 million vs. 15.8 million), but it also perfectly fits where he is in his development. Clowney hasn’t quite lived up to expectations as the #1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft and the Texans may be hesitant to give him a huge long-term contract, but he’s also shown flashes of dominance and could keep getting better, still only going into his age 26 season, so they don’t want to lose him either. I wouldn’t expect him to sign a long-term deal this off-season, but I don’t expect him to go anywhere else.

OLB Dee Ford (Kansas City)

The franchise tag is also a perfect fit for Dee Ford and the Chiefs, who will also benefit from Ford being classified as a linebacker in their 3-4 system. Ford’s 13 sacks and 17 quarterback hits in 2018 suggest a player worth big money, but the 2 sacks he had in 6 games in 2017 before back surgery suggest maybe he’s someone you should make prove it again before giving him a big long-term contract.

Top-10 Most Likely Antonio Brown Trade Destinations

After years of drama in Pittsburgh, perennial All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown has formally demanded a trade from the Steelers. Brown has been one of the best overall players in the league in recent years, averaging 114 catches for 1524 yards and 11 touchdowns per season since 2013, all best in the NFL over that 6-year stretch. However, he might not draw as much in a trade as you’d think. Not only do the Steelers have no leverage now that he’s publicly demanded a trade, but he’s also going into his age 31 season and could be on the downside of his career. His contract (39 million over 3 years remaining) isn’t a bad value at all, as the Steelers paid out 19 million of his 4-year, 68 million dollar extension in a signing bonus two years ago, but that raises another concern. Brown is quitting on his team less than 2 years after they gave him a 19 million dollar signing bonus and an additional 10 million in new money in the first year of the deal. That won’t be looked upon favorably around the league.

It’s tough to guess what the Steelers could get for Brown as there really isn’t a good recent comparison. Randy Moss was traded for just a 4th rounder in 2007 at around the same age, but he also was coming off of a 42/553/3 slash line in a season in which he didn’t try hard on a hapless Raiders team. Brown might not be the best teammate, but he always gives effort on gameday and is coming off of another strong season, leading the league with 15 receiving touchdowns. I’d imagine they can get more than a 4th rounder, but it may not be by much, given the circumstances. The Steelers probably won’t like the offers they get, but ultimately don’t seem to have much of a choice, as it’s hard to see this relationship getting repaired.

Given that Brown being traded is seemingly inevitable at this point, the question now becomes where will be play in 2019. While most teams might like to add Antonio Brown to their roster, that list gets much smaller when you remove teams that don’t have pressing needs at wide receiver, teams that don’t have the cap space to add him, and teams that the Steelers wouldn’t trade him to. It’s already been reported that the Steelers don’t want to trade him in the division or to the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, for obvious reasons, and I would imagine they wouldn’t want to trade him to any of the teams that are coming off strong years, as they still view themselves as contenders and wouldn’t want to give a fellow contender their missing piece. I excluded all teams that won at least 12 games in 2018, which eliminates the Rams, Saints, Chargers, Chiefs, and Bears.

I also excluded bad teams who are rebuilding and likely wouldn’t want to trade for a soon-to-be-31-year-old wide receiver, which eliminates the Cardinals, Raiders, and Dolphins, teams that currently have negative cap space, which eliminates the Jaguars and Eagles, and teams with limited cap space and more pressing needs elsewhere, which eliminates the Vikings, Buccaneers, Falcons, Lions, and Giants. The Seahawks and the Cowboys are also excluded because the former already has 2 wide receivers making 8 figures annually and the latter already made a big splash move for a receiver and won’t have much cap space left after extending Amari Cooper, Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Byron Jones, and DeMarcus Lawrence. That leaves 10 teams with a realistic shot of trading for Brown, with varying degrees of likelihood.

10. Green Bay Packers

I almost eliminated the Packers before this. They went just 6-9-1 last year, but that’s unlikely to fool the Steelers into sending Brown to Green Bay to team up with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. The Packers have plenty of incentive to trade for Brown and could easily be the highest bidder, as Rodgers struggled by his standards last year while playing with inexperienced receivers, but that’s precisely the reason why the Steelers wouldn’t want to see Brown in Packer green. He could easily be their missing piece, especially if they stay healthier on defense. This is still a possibility, but I’d consider this unlikely, especially since Rodgers and the Packers beat the Steelers in their most recent Super Bowl appearance. I doubt they’ve forgotten that.

9. Indianapolis Colts

At 10-6, the Colts weren’t good enough to be eliminated prior to this, but they were arguably the best team in the NFL in the second half of last season and adding Brown, who would fill a big need at wide receiver, would make them all that much better. While that gives them plenty of incentive to try to trade for him, it also would probably give the Steelers a lot of pause about trading him to them. Especially since the Colts will still have plenty of cap space to work with in free agency even after acquiring Brown, the Steelers could easily regret sending Brown to Indianapolis.

8. Houston Texans

The Texans are in a similar boat as the Colts in that adding Brown would help them immensely and they have the cap space to add him easily, but the Steelers might not want to send Brown to a team that looks like an annual playoff contender in the AFC with Deshaun Watson under center. If the Texans got Brown, they’d be able to play him, DeAndre Hopkins, and Will Fuller at the same time, which would be a nightmare for opposing defenses, including the Steelers.

7. Tennessee Titans

The Titans aren’t as good as the previous 2 AFC South teams, but they could become a contender in a hurry if they acquired Brown and Marcus Mariota stayed healthy for a full season. Corey Davis could be a budding #1 receiver, but he’s still young and they don’t have anyone proven opposite him, with both Tajae Sharpe and Taywan Taylor underwhelming last season. This is more likely than the Steelers sending him to the Packers, Colts, or Texans, but I still don’t see this as a strong possibility.

6. Denver Broncos

The Broncos have some promising young receivers, but their only proven veteran is Emmanuel Sanders, who tore his achilles in December, putting his status for the start of the 2019 season in doubt. Sanders’ 10.25 million dollar salary for 2019 is not guaranteed and the Broncos could save that entire amount against the cap if they were to let him go. They could release him and replace him with Brown via trade. Likely not true contenders in the AFC even with Brown, the only reason they aren’t higher on this list is they’ve been a thorn in the Steelers’ side in recent years, winning 4 of the past 5 matchups, including a pair of playoff games and an upset win in 2018 that ultimately caused the Steelers to miss the post-season, so the Steelers may not want to see Brown in Bronco orange.

5. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers rank relatively high because they are an NFC team and you have to believe the Steelers would prefer to send Brown to the NFC. They aren’t an obvious fit for him though because they have minimal cap space (about 19 million as of this writing) and a pair of talented young receivers in DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel who played well down the stretch in 2018. That’s not to say they couldn’t use a player of Brown’s caliber, but they might prefer to commit their remaining cap space to other parts of the roster.

4. New York Jets

The Jets were a bad team last year, but I think they are officially no longer in rebuild/teardown mode. Now that they have a quarterback of the future locked in, it’s time for them to start building around him and they have the second most cap space in the league to build with. With an underwhelming free agency class, the Jets may see acquiring Brown as a better use of their money than paying a similar amount to someone like Golden Tate, even if it means parting with a draft pick. The Jets don’t have a second round pick because of their trade up for Darnold last year, but they do have a pair of 3rds thanks to their trade of Teddy Bridgewater to the Saints, which could be intriguing to the Steelers. The Steelers also probably wouldn’t have to worry about the Jets becoming a contender purely from the addition of Brown.

3. Buffalo Bills

The Bills are similar to the Jets in that they have a young quarterback who needs a #1 receiver, while simultaneously not being good enough to scare the Steelers off from sending him there. They also have a ton of cap space, 4th most in the NFL. The only reason they are higher than the Jets is because they currently have 9 draft picks in 2019, while the Jets have just 6.

2. Washington Redskins

You could argue that the Redskins, who currently don’t have a quarterback, should have been eliminated with the other bad teams that are rebuilding, but owner Dan Snyder doesn’t know the meaning of the word rebuilding and trading for Antonio Brown when he probably wouldn’t even make them a playoff team is the exact kind of splash move he loves making. Given their history of acquiring expensive veterans, the Redskins could be the highest bidder for Brown and the Steelers would have no worries about seeing Brown in the Super Bowl if they sent him to Washington.

1. San Francisco 49ers

I thought about putting the Redskins first because of their history, but the 49ers are too good of a fit, as they check every box. They’re an NFC team that’s unlikely to make the Super Bowl in the next couple of years. They have plenty of cap space and a need at wide receiver. They’re also a team on the rise that has incentive to add a player of Brown’s caliber and free agency is an underwhelming option this year. Brown is also reportedly very interested in going to San Francisco and any team that acquires him will want to make sure he’s committed to them long-term, given how he quit on the Steelers just two years after receiving a huge extension and signing bonus.

2014 NFL Draft Redo

1. Houston Texans – DT Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh)

There was nothing wrong with the Texans’ original pick of Jadeveon Clowney, but the Texans can shoot a little higher in this re-draft with Aaron Donald, who is the best defensive player in the league. Donald and JJ Watt have won 5 of the last 7 Defensive Player of the Year awards. Imagine trying to block both of them. No thanks.

2. St. Louis Rams – DE Khalil Mack (Buffalo)

As good as Aaron Donald is, Khalil Mack isn’t much of a downgrade. The Rams miss out on Donald (originally drafted 13th overall), but Mack gives them a much needed edge rush presence and helps soften the blow of losing Donald.

3. Jacksonville Jaguars – WR Odell Beckham (LSU)

In a draft class filled with elite talent, the Jaguars reached on a quarterback, taking Blake Bortles 3rd overall. Quarterback was a huge need for them at the time, but Bortles hardly solved it, as the Jaguars are in the market for a new quarterback again this off-season. I thought about giving the Jaguars a quarterback here, but with several elite talents still left on the board, any quarterback would be a bit of a reach. Wide receiver was also a massive need at the time and the Jaguars originally added a trio of wide receivers in the 2014 NFL Draft, Allen Robinson, Marqise Lee, and Allen Hurns. None of those receivers are bad, but Beckham is an obvious upgrade and would have been a big boost to this offense.

4. Buffalo Bills – G Zack Martin (Notre Dame)

Guards don’t usually go in the top-5, but with Zack Martin you know you’re getting an annual All-Pro. The Cowboys were criticized by some for taking him at 16, but it turns out that wasn’t nearly high enough, as he’s arguably the top interior offensive lineman in the league and has been one of the best at his position since his first game in the league.

5. Oakland Raiders – DE Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina)

Jadeveon Clowney is the Raiders’ consolation prize for Khalil Mack going a few picks higher. He hasn’t been as durable or as consistent as Mack, but he’s shown stretches of dominance and was one of the younger players in this draft, so he could continue getting better, only going into his age 26 season in 2019.

6. Atlanta Falcons – OT Taylor Lewan (Michigan)

Jake Matthews, the Falcons’ original pick here, is a solid left tackle, but Taylor Lewan is a higher level player. Matthews’ 4th quarter hold in Super Bowl 51 is also a big part of the reason why the Falcons were not able to finish off the Patriots, so perhaps the Falcons would have been Super Bowl Champs if they had taken Lewan instead.

7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – WR Mike Evans (Texas A&M)

The Buccaneers stick with their original pick here, as Mike Evans has topped 1000 yards in all 5 seasons in the league, averaging a 79/1221/8 slash line and missing just 3 games with injury. Still only 26 in August, Evans is one of the top receivers in the entire NFL.

8. Cleveland Browns – QB Derek Carr (Fresno State)

The quarterbacks were tough to slot in this re-draft. Normally franchise caliber quarterbacks go high, but this draft is filled with top level talent at other positions, while the top quarterbacks have their warts. With much of the top level talent gone at this point, it makes sense for the Browns to take a quarterback. Derek Carr has been inconsistent, but he’s started 78 of 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and would have stabilized the Browns’ quarterback situation far earlier than Baker Mayfield eventually did. He would have been an obvious upgrade over Johnny Manziel, the quarterback they took with the 22nd pick, or Justin Gilbert, the cornerback they took with this 8th overall pick originally.

9. Minnesota Vikings – QB Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois)

Like Derek Carr, Garoppolo was tough to slot. At his best, he has a higher upside than Carr, but he’s much less proven, with just 10 career starts. After spending the first 3 and a half years of his career as Tom Brady’s backup, Garoppolo tore his ACL 3 games into his first full season as a starter in 2018. Signed to a 5-year, 137.5 million dollar extension last off-season, Garoppolo is  highly valued and productive quarterback when healthy.

The Vikings top quarterback at the time of the 2014 NFL draft was Matt Cassel. They did take Teddy Bridgewater with the 32nd pick and he was decent for a couple years, but then he suffered a devastating injury, forcing the Vikings to trade a first round pick for Sam Bradford and give a guaranteed contract to Kirk Cousins. At his best, Garoppolo is an upgrade over both of those quarterbacks and could have lead the Vikings to the Super Bowl in 2017, when the Vikings made the NFC Championship with Case Keenum. He comes with questions, given his lack of experience, durability concerns, and the fact that he might not have been as good if he didn’t start his career with New England, but he’s worth the pick here for Minnesota.

10. Detroit Lions – DE DeMarcus Lawrence (Boise State)

Eric Ebron, the Lions’ original pick here, never panned out for them like they wanted, so instead they get some much needed help for their defense. Lawrence had injuries early in his career, which is why he slides to 10, but he’s been one of the best edge rushers in the league over the past 2 seasons, with a combined 25 sacks and 23 quarterback hits, while playing stellar run defense as well. Unless he’s franchise tagged for a 2nd straight year at a price of 20.57 million, he’s expected to become one of the highest paid defensive players in the league on a long-term deal this off-season.

11. Tennessee Titans – WR Davante Adams (Fresno State)

The Titans have needed a #1 receiver for years, with Kendall Wright in 2013 being their last 1000-yard wide receiver. Davante Adams slides because he got off to a slow start to his career and because he’s benefitted from playing with Aaron Rodgers, but he also had a 74/885/10 slash line in 2017 with Rodgers missing most of the season with injury and his 111/1386/13 slash line was among the very best in the league in 2018.

12. New York Giants – WR Brandin Cooks (Oregon State)

Brandin Cooks has topped 1000 yards in 4 straight seasons, but falls a little bit in a strong wide receiver class. As consistent as he’s been, he’s never put up dominating numbers and he’s always played with a lot of talent around him, catching passes from Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Jared Goff in his career. The Giants take him as a consolation prize for losing Odell Beckham. Cooks is a slight drop off talent wise, but he’s more durable and less of a headache to deal with than Odell, so this isn’t a bad scenario for the Giants.

13. St. Louis Rams – OT Jake Matthews (Texas A&M)

The Rams can’t take Aaron Donald, their original choice here, but they took Khalil Mack at 2 instead of their original #2 overall pick Greg Robinson, who was a massive bust, and now they can take a better left tackle in Jake Matthews here at 13. As good as Donald is, the Rams might prefer to have both Mack and Matthews, who has developed into an above average left tackle. The Rams had terrible play at left tackle until they signed Andrew Whitworth two off-seasons ago and he could retire this off-season, ahead of what would be his age 38 season.

14. Chicago Bears – CB Kyle Fuller (Virginia Tech)

The Bears have had a weird ride with Kyle Fuller, their original pick here. He was a starter for them his first 2 seasons in the league, but missed all of his 3rd season with injury and had his 5th year option declined, as they felt he did not work hard enough to return from injury. Fuller ended up making the Bears regret turning down his option, playing at a high level in 2017 and parlaying that into a big contract. The Bears gave him the transition tag, giving them the right of first refusal on any contract offer he accepted, and ended up matching a 4-year, 56 million dollar deal he signed with the Green Bay Packers. Considering he had arguably the best season of his career in 2018 on an overall dominant Bears defense, I don’t think they regret that contract and ultimately they’d probably take him again if they could.

15. Pittsburgh Steelers – DE Stephon Tuitt (Notre Dame)

Stephon Tuitt was originally a 2nd round selection by the Steelers, but he’s played at such a high level that they’ll have to take him in the first round this time around. Their original first round pick Ryan Shazier was not a bad selection, but his career is in doubt after a terrible neck injury he suffered during his 4th season in the league in 2017.

16. Dallas Cowboys – DE Dee Ford (Auburn)

The Cowboys have already lost Zack Martin, their original pick here, and DeMarcus Lawrence, a 2nd round selection, but they still get a high level player in Dee Ford here at 16. Ford isn’t as good as Lawrence against the run, but he has 30.5 sacks and 40 hits in 67 career games, while Lawrence has 34 sacks and 36 hits in 64 career games, so there isn’t much drop off there.

17. Baltimore Ravens – MLB CJ Mosley (Alabama)

CJ Mosley was the Ravens’ original pick here and they would probably take him again if they had the opportunity. He has his issues in coverage, but he’s one of the best run stoppers in the league and has been a tackling machine for one of the NFL’s better defenses. His 579 tackles over the past 5 seasons combined rank 4th behind Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, and Lavonte David.

18. New York Jets – WR Sammy Watkins (Clemson)

Originally the 4th overall pick, Sammy Watkins was tough to slot in this re-draft. On one hand, he hasn’t played a full 16-game season since his rookie year and has only topped 1000 yards once, which puts him far behind the other top receivers in this class in terms of production. He hasn’t even topped 600 yards since 2015 and missed 15 of 48 games the past 3 seasons combined. On the other hand, he signed a 3-year, 48 million dollar deal with the Chiefs last off-season, making him the 6th highest paid wide receiver in the league in terms of average annual salary, so clearly his skill set is still in high demand. He was a bit underwhelming in 10 games for the Chiefs in his first season in Kansas City, but, still only in his age 26 season, he still has plenty of upside and at least one team would fall in love with him in the first round in a re-draft. The Jets, who only had one receiver with more than 409 yards in 2014, are one of the teams that could use him.

19. Miami Dolphins – WR Jarvis Landry (LSU)

The Dolphins chose not to retain Jarvis Landry as a free agent last off-season, instead franchise tagging him and trading him to the Browns for a 4th round pick, but that was mostly for financial reasons, as the cap strapped Dolphins couldn’t afford the 5-year, 75.5 million dollar deal the Browns ultimately gave him. That deal might be a little bit of an overpay, but Landry has still averaged a slash line of 96/1003/5 in 5 seasons in the league and has just 26 career drops, as opposed to 481 career catches. The Dolphins have to use their first round pick to keep him this time around, after originally taking him in the second, but he’s worth this spot, even in a good wide receiver draft.

20. New Orleans Saints – CB Malcolm Butler (West Alabama)

The Saints tried to trade for Malcolm Butler two off-seasons ago, even offering their original pick here, Brandin Cooks, in a trade for Butler, before ultimately sending Cooks to the Patriots for a first rounder when the Patriots decided to keep Butler. The Saints addressed their cornerback need by taking Marshon Lattimore with the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, but taking Butler in 2014 would have helped them sooner and he’d form a solid duo with Lattimore. There’s some concern that Butler was benched in the Super Bowl by the Patriots and that he wasn’t as good in his first season outside of New England, which is why he slips a little, but he’s still a solid starter and was still highly valued on the open market last off-season, signing for 61.25 million over 5 years.

21. Green Bay Packers – S HaHa Clinton-Dix (Alabama)

I went back and forth on putting Clinton-Dix here. On one hand, he was a solid starter for the Packers for the first four and a half years of his career, making 65 starts after originally being drafted here at #21 overall, but he was also traded mid-season to the Redskins for a 4th round pick this year. He was in the final year of his rookie contract, but the Packers were also in playoff contention, so it was surprising to see the Packers deal away their best safety. An above average starter at his best, Clinton-Dix is worth drafting again.

22. Cleveland Browns – G Joel Bitonio (Nevada)

The Browns missed badly with their two first rounders in 2014, taking Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel, but they did salvage their draft somewhat by taking Joel Bitonio in the 2nd round. Bitonio has developed into one of the better left guards in the league and would likely go in the first round in a re-draft, so the Browns have to take him here if they want to keep him. In reality, they kept him with a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension in 2017, so clearly they value him highly.

23. Kansas City Chiefs – G Andrew Norwell (Ohio State)

Originally undrafted in 2014, Norwell made 54 starts in 4 seasons with the Panthers, before signing a 5-year, 66.5 million dollar deal with the Jaguars last off-season. He’s talented enough to go higher in this re-draft, but falls because of lack of positional need. He’d fill a big need for the Chiefs and would be the most talented guard they’ve had in recent years.

24. Cincinnati Bengals – C Brandon Linder (Miami)

The Bengals originally took Russell Bodine in the 4th round of this draft and he made all 64 starts for them at center from 2014-2017, but he didn’t play all that well and the Bengals ultimately used a first round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on a center, taking Ohio State’s Billy Price. Linder, one of the better centers in the league, would be an obvious upgrade over Bodine and Price.

25. San Diego Chargers – C Matt Paradis (Boise State)

The Chargers have had offensive line issues for years, especially at center, which was an annual weakness until they signed Mike Pouncey to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal last off-season. Paradis, one of the better centers in the league, would have filled that weakness much quicker.

26. Philadelphia Eagles – OLB Anthony Barr (UCLA)

Anthony Barr hasn’t been as good in recent years as he was early in his career, but he still would have helped an Eagles team that had linebacker issues in 2014. A free agent this off-season, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of market he has.

27. Arizona Cardinals – OLB Telvin Smith (Florida State)

The Cardinals originally drafted Deone Bucannon here, a 6-1 211 safety that they eventually turned into a linebacker. Bucannon had some good years early in his career, but has struggled with injuries in recent years and likely will have to settle for a one-year deal on the open market this off-season. Telvin Smith, who signed a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension with the Jaguars in 2017, is a similar player at 6-3 215, but has been much more consistent in his career, despite originally falling to the 5th round. He’d likely go in the first in a re-draft.

28. Carolina Panthers – OT Charles Leno (Boise State)

The Panthers had serious issues at both tackle spots in 2014 and still have a weakness at left tackle even today, despite giving Matt Kalil a 5-year, 55.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago. If they had taken someone like Charles Leno, they could have avoided that. Leno, originally a 7th round pick, was a late bloomer, which is why he falls this far, but he’s one of the better pass protecting left tackles in the league.

29. New England Patriots – DT Timmy Jernigan (Florida State)

The Patriots used this pick on defensive tackle Dominique Easley in 2014, but he played in just 22 games for New England due to injuries. Timmy Jernigan would have been a better option for a team that had a big need at defensive tackle at the time, taking one in the first round in both 2014 and 2015. Jernigan missed most of 2018 after off-season back surgery, but he was a solid starter in 3 seasons with the Ravens and took his game to the next level in 2017, when he won the Super Bowl after an off-season trade to the Eagles, earning a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension in the process.

30. San Francisco 49ers – S LaMarcus Joyner (Florida State)

The 49ers didn’t have a lot of weaknesses in 2014, as this Jim Harbaugh team was coming off of its 3rd straight NFC Championship game appearance. They took a versatile defensive back in Jimmie Ward here originally, but LaMarcus Joyner, who fell to the Rams in the 2nd round, became a much better version of what they were expecting Ward to be, though it did take him until his 4th season in the league to breakout. Drafting him here not only gives them much needed talent on a defense that was depleted pretty quickly after 2014, but it also keeps him away from the division rival Rams.

31. Denver Broncos – CB Bradley Roby (Ohio State)

Bradley Roby was the Broncos’ original pick here and, while he never developed into a top level cornerback, I don’t think the Broncos really have too many regrets about getting a solid starter late in the first round. At this point, it’s hard to do much better than Roby, who will likely be one of the highest cornerbacks in free agency this off-season.

32. Minnesota Vikings – WR Allen Robinson (Penn State)

The Vikings got a quarterback at 9 and now get a receiving threat. Before the days of Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, had a real problem at wide receiver. The 2014 Vikings were led in receiving yards by the overpaid Greg Jennings, who was released the following off-season after a 59/742/6 slash line. Allen Robinson has been inconsistent and injury prone, but he’s shown #1 receiver ability for stretches. He falls because he’s part of a very deep wide receiver class.

2018 NFL Pick Results

2018

Total Against the Spread: 154-102-11 (59.74%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (61.76%)

High Confidence Picks: 21-13-2 (61.11%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 41-27-1 (60.14%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 72-46-4 (60.66%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-28-1 (55.47%)

No Confidence Picks: 47-28-6 (61.72%)

Upset Picks: 25-17-1 (59.30%)

All-Time (Since 2013)

Total Against the Spread: 845-710-47 (54.21%)

Pick of the Week: 61-40-3 (60.10%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 402-292-18 (57.72%)

Upset Picks: 132-153-1 (46.33%)

New England Patriots vs. Los Angeles Rams: Super Bowl LIII Pick

New England Patriots (13-5) vs. Los Angeles Rams (15-3) in Super Bowl LIII

By their standards, the Patriots had a down season. They finished with fewer than 12 wins for the first time since 2009 and were legitimately blown out in a few games. They lost as many games by double digits (3) as they had in the previous 3 seasons combined and their 34-10 loss to the Titans was their biggest loss since 2014. They also didn’t go on one of their typical late season runs, actually winning more games in their first 8 games (6) than their final 8 games (5). From week 9 to 15, they went just 2-3, starting with that loss to the Titans in week 10, which was their latest loss by that many points since back in 2000 before Brady became a starter.

They also showed stretches of dominance though, especially at home, where they went a perfect 8-0, with 6 of 8 wins by double digits. Their only home wins that were within double digits came against division winners in the Chiefs and Texans and they would have had the ball with a 14 point lead late in the 4th quarter against the Texans if not for a muffed punt that led to a late Houston touchdown.

They weren’t nearly as good on the road, but picked up another two double digit wins on the road against the Jets and Bills, giving them 8 double digit wins in the regular season, tied with the Saints for most in the NFL. They won in Chicago, where the Bears otherwise won all of their regular season home games en route to a 12-4 record. All in all, the Patriots went 4-0 against playoff qualifiers, the only playoff qualifier to have a perfect record against fellow playoff qualifiers.

The Patriots played down to their level of competition some this season, particularly away from home, but they’ve always brought their best for big games in the Brady/Belichick era, going a ridiculous 39-13 against teams with a better record than them since 2001, including an unfathomable 15-1 since 2010. That’s not even skewed by early season matchups where records don’t mean as much, as they are 17-5 against teams with a better record than them in week 11 or later, including 8-2 in the post-season. For comparison, the league average winning percentage against a team with a better record is 38.3%.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that they were able to beat the Chargers and Chiefs, who both finished 12-4, to advance to the Super Bowl, where they now face the 3-loss Rams. Granted, their win over the Chiefs was close to a 50/50 game that could have gone either way, but their game against the Chargers was over by halftime. They showed their top level for much of the season and securing a first round bye allowed key veterans like Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to get healthy for another playoff run. Now with another week off, I wouldn’t want to bet against them right now, especially only getting 2.5 points. The Patriots have been close to an auto-bet with Brady under center as underdogs or favorites of less than 3, going 52-24 ATS and 47-29 straight up.

The Rams will present a tough test though. Their offense hasn’t been the same since Cooper Kupp went down with a torn ACL, as they had a first down rate of 46.09% in the 8 games he played, as opposed to 39.60% in the 10 games he missed, but that’s still an impressive rate and they should have a healthier Todd Gurley after a week off, giving them a one-two punch at running back of Gurley and talented replacement CJ Anderson. They’ve also been much better defensively with cornerback Aqib Talib on the field, allowing a 33.10% first down rate in the 10 games he played, as opposed to 43.29% in the 8 games he missed.

Both teams have plenty of standout players, with Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Andrew Whitworth among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Rams and Julian Edelman, Trey Flowers, and Stephon Gilmore among those I haven’t mentioned yet for the Patriots. You could argue these are the two best coached teams in the league, with Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels on one sideline, facing off with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips on the other. Ultimately, it’s just going to come down to execution, which I know isn’t much of an analysis, but the talent gap between these two teams isn’t much. I’m going with the Patriots because I trust their experience over the experience of the Rams, who are in just their 4th playoff game with Jared Goff and McVay. I probably wouldn’t bet this on a normal week, but it’s the Super Bowl.

New England Patriots 31 Los Angeles Rams 24

Pick against the spread: New England -2.5

Confidence: Medium

2019 NFL Mock Draft

Updated 1/25/19

1. Arizona Cardinals – OLB Nick Bosa (Ohio State)

The Cardinals would probably prefer to trade down and pick up multiple premium picks to fill out their thin roster, but there isn’t a can’t miss quarterback prospect in this draft, so the Cardinals might not get any offers to their liking. If they stay put, Nick Bosa seems like the obvious choice. Not only is he considered by most to be the top prospect in the draft, but he also fills a major need for the Cardinals opposite Chandler Jones, who has 41 sacks in 3 seasons since arriving in Arizona. Markus Golden, who had 12.5 sacks in 2016, managed just 2.5 sacks in 15 games between 2017-2018, in part to due injury. No Cardinal other than Jones had more than 4.5 sacks last season. Without Golden now a free agent, the Cardinals can use this opportunity to find an upgrade. If Bosa develops into the kind of player he can be, the Cardinals will have a feared pass rush duo for years to come.

2. San Francisco 49ers – DT Quinnen Williams (Alabama)

The 49ers make even more sense as a candidate to trade down with a quarterback needy team, as the top available prospect Quinnen Williams doesn’t fill a need for them, with recent first rounders DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead both coming off of strong seasons inside in the 49ers’ 4-3 defense. Their preference may be to move down into the 6-10 range, accumulate picks in the process, and address more pressing needs at cornerback or defensive end. If they stay put, they could still take Williams, despite the lack of need, or they could reach for defensive end Josh Allen or cornerback Greedy Williams. I’m putting Quinnen Williams here for now. Both Armstead and Buckner can play some defensive end, so the 49ers can figure out how to use all three. Armstead is also going into the final year of his contract in 2019.

3. New York Jets – DE Josh Allen (Kentucky)

Allen is a candidate to go 2nd overall and makes a lot of sense to the Jets at 3. The Jets are desperate for an edge rusher and Allen is a clear top-5 talent. Nick Bosa may be the higher rated prospect, but Allen was the more productive pass rusher, dominating at the highest level in the SEC. He can play defensive end for the Jets in their new 4-3 defense under Gregg Williams and could easily lead the team in sacks as a rookie. The Jets haven’t had an edge rusher with more than 7 sacks since 2013.

4. Oakland Raiders – CB Greedy Williams (LSU)

The Raiders have three first round picks this year, which is good because this is a strong defensive class and they had one of the worst defenses in the league last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if they used all three picks on defensive players. Josh Allen would probably be their preference here, as they try to replace Khalil Mack, but he could easily go in the top-3. Instead, the Raiders could take Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, who is likely going to be the 2nd defensive end off the board, but he might be a little bit of a reach at 4. Defensive tackles Rashan Gary and Ed Oliver could be options, but the Raiders also used two draft picks on defensive tackles last year and got good play from both of them as rookies. That leaves cornerback Greedy Williams and middle linebacker Devin White as the most likely options, with both filling significant needs. I’m giving them Williams just because cornerbacks tend to go in the top-5 more often than linebackers, but White is an option here as well.

5. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OT Jonah Williams (Alabama)

The Buccaneers had one of the worst defenses in the league last season, but, with four defensive players coming off the board to start the draft, the Buccaneers could instead look to fill a major need on offense. Left tackle Donovan Smith turned into a decent starter in his 4th season in the league in 2018, but he struggled in his first 3 seasons and now he’s a free agent. The Buccaneers may not want to get into a bidding war for a player they watched struggle for years. Even if they do overpay to bring him back, right tackle Demar Dotson is going into his age 34 contract year. Williams has a huge upside and would be an upgrade over both.

6. New York Giants – QB Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State)

If I were projecting trades, I wouldn’t have Haskins available at 6, as some quarterback needy team, perhaps even the Giants, will trade up in order to secure the top signal caller in a weak class. The Giants took Saquon Barkley instead of a quarterback with the 2nd pick last year, a move that could still prove to be a mistake if any of the other first round quarterbacks develop into a high level quarterback and the Giants are unable to find one in subsequent drafts. Barkley is a great player, but he just had an incredible year and the Giants still went 5-11 and finished in last place. If they like Haskins, there isn’t a Saquon Barkley level player worth passing on him for this time around and they may see moving up for him as worth it. 

7. Jacksonville Jaguars – QB Daniel Jones (Duke)

The Jaguars are one of those teams that could move up for Haskins. If they don’t, they could stay put and take Duke’s Daniel Jones, a high upside prospect that could rise up draft boards throughout the process. The Jaguars are expected to move on from Blake Bortles this off-season and, even if they add a veteran quarterback like Joe Flacco, they could still use a young developmental quarterback behind him.

8. Detroit Lions – MLB Devin White (LSU)

The Lions used a first round pick on a middle linebacker in 2017, taking Jarrad Davis 21st overall, but he played better at outside linebacker last season. Devin White is a good value here at 8 and gives the Lions a legitimate three down inside linebacker. He would be a nice addition to a defense that was much improved in the second half of the season in Matt Patricia’s first year in Detroit.

9. Buffalo Bills – DT Rashan Gary (Michigan)

Long-time Bill Kyle Williams is retiring ahead of what would have been his age 36 season in 2019, but this is a good year to have a need at defensive tackle in the draft. Rashan Gary is a top-5 talent, but falls because of lack of need for the position among many of the teams in the top-8. The Bills will consider both him and Ed Oliver, but Gary seems to be the higher rated of the two right now. He would rotate with 2018 free agent acquisition Star Lotulelei and 2018 3rd round pick Harrison Phillips.

10. Denver Broncos – OT Jawaan Taylor (Florida)

With Jared Veldheer heading to free agency and possibly retirement ahead of what would be his age 32 season in 2019, the Broncos have a major hole at right tackle. They drafted an offensive tackle in the first round in 2017 in Garret Bolles, who has been a serviceable, but underwhelming left tackle in 2 seasons in the league, but this is a position they could easily address early in the draft again. If Taylor and Bolles both develop, they could be a talented bookend tackle duo. The Broncos could also look to move up for a quarterback if they decide they like one. Case Keenum is a free agent next off-season and does not look like the long-term answer.

11. Cincinnati Bengals – OT Cody Ford (Oklahoma)

The Bengals used a first round pick on an offensive lineman last year, taking center Billy Price with the 21st overall pick, but they need to continue building their offensive line. They could use upgrades at both right guard and right tackle and Ford can play both spots, though I expect he’d be given a chance at right tackle first. He could also gives them insurance for left tackle Cordy Glenn, who has missed 19 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons.

12. Green Bay Packers – OLB Clelin Ferrell (Clemson)

Clelin Ferrell could go to a few different teams in the top-10 and this is probably his floor. The Packers got a breakout year from 3rd year outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who had 10.5 sacks, including 5.5 in 7 starts, but they didn’t have a single other edge rusher with more than 3.5 sacks. Clay Matthews looked like a shell of his former self and likely won’t be brought back in a starting role as a free agent for his age 33 season in 2019, while Nick Perry has had just 8.5 sacks in 21 games in 2 seasons since signing a 5-year, 59 million dollar deal and might not be brought back at a non-guaranteed 10.75 million dollar salary.

13. Miami Dolphins – QB Drew Lock (Missouri)

The Dolphins are another team that could move up for a quarterback. If they stay put at 13, I could see them taking a quarterback like Drew Lock or even Kyler Murray, though I’m hesitant to put Murray in the first round until he guarantees he’s going to be playing football instead of baseball. The Dolphins seem likely to move on from Ryan Tannehill and his 18.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. With cap problems and several needs to address in free agency, the Dolphins could use a cheap young quarterback.

14. Atlanta Falcons – DT Ed Oliver (Houston)

Ed Oliver could easily go in the top-10 based on talent, but this is a strong defensive tackle class and there wasn’t an obvious fit for him in the top-10, with Rashan Gary going 9th to the Bills. The Falcons wouldn’t complain, as they have a massive need at defensive tackle next to Grady Jarrett, who will undoubtedly be franchise tagged as a free agent this off-season. If Oliver can develop into a high level player and Jarrett signs long-term, they’d be one of the best defensive tackle duos in the league.

15. Washington Redskins – MLB Devin Bush (Michigan)

The Redskins have a solid defense, but could use an upgrade on Mason Foster at middle linebacker. Bush profiles as a three down linebacker and can also rush the passer off the edge and blitz effectively. He’ll be a great fit in the Redskins 3-4 defense.

16. Carolina Panthers – DE Jachai Polite (Florida)

Mario Addison and Julius Peppers led Panther defensive ends in snaps in 2018, but they’re going into their age 32 and age 39 seasons respectively and the Panthers have next to no depth behind them. They could use a high pick on an edge rusher.

17. Cleveland Browns – DT Jeffery Simmons (Mississippi State)

The Browns need to upgrade starting defensive tackle Trevon Coley, who is arguably their weakest starter on defense. Fortunately, this is a good year to need a defensive tackle. Jeffery Simmons is a good value at 17. He’s a top-5 talent who slides because of off-the-field issues. Browns GM John Dorsey has been willing to overlook off-the-field issues in the past.

18. Minnesota Vikings – DT Christian Wilkins (Clemson)

Sheldon Richardson had a solid year in 2018, but he was only signed to a one-year deal and the Vikings don’t have much depth behind him, with Tom Johnson also not under contract for 2019, his age 35 season. They could dip into this deep defensive tackle class.

19. Tennessee Titans – OLB Montez Sweat (Mississippi State)

The Titans used a 2nd round pick on Harold Landry last year, but they need a long-term bookend for him. Brian Orakpo just retired ahead of what would have been his age 33 season and the declining Derrick Morgan is a 30-year-old free agent this off-season.

20. Pittsburgh Steelers – CB DeAndre Baker (Georgia)

The Steelers benched 2016 1st round pick Artie Burns and barely played him in the second half of the season, but that didn’t help their cornerback issues, as veteran journeyman Coty Sensabaugh and 2017 3rd round pick Cameron Sutton both struggled. Baker gives them an upgrade on free agent Coty Sensabaugh and insurance in case Joe Haden leaves as a free agent next off-season.

21. Seattle Seahawks – OT Greg Little (Mississippi)

The Seahawks used a first round pick on Germain Ifedi in 2016, but he’s struggled in 3 seasons in the league and it might be time for the Seahawks to give up on him, or at least move him inside at guard. Greg Little would be an immediate upgrade at right tackle and is a good value at 21. The 6-6 325 pounder fits what the Seahawks like in an offensive lineman and could ultimately move to left tackle in a few years, as Duane Brown is going into his age 34 season.

22. Baltimore Ravens – WR AJ Brown (Mississippi)

The Ravens can’t keep giving Lamar Jackson 15-20 carries per game and expect him to last the whole season, so they’re going to have to open up their passing game over the off-season. Unfortunately, John Brown is a free agent, Michael Crabtree could be a cap casualty, and Willie Snead is a free agent next off-season. Without a true #1 receiver, they could use a high pick on a wide receiver. This isn’t a good wide receiver class at the top, but this is around where I expect the first wideout to come off the board.

23. Houston Texans – TE Noah Fant (Iowa)

When Will Fuller and Keke Coutee are healthy, the Texans will have a talented trio of wide receivers, but they need a pass catching threat over the middle at tight end. They’ll have a couple tight end options to choose from late in the first round, so that’s a direction they could go.

24. Oakland Raiders – DE Brian Burns (Florida State)

The Raiders got this pick for Khalil Mack, so it would make sense for them to use it on his replacement, assuming they don’t go defensive end at 4. Brian Burns is undersized, but has a big upside and could immediately be the Raiders’ best pass rusher.

25. Philadelphia Eagles – DT Dre’Mont Jones (Ohio State)

Fletcher Cox is one of the best defensive players in the game, but Haloti Ngata is a 35-year-old free agent this off-season and Timmy Jernigan just missed most of the season after off-season back surgery. Jernigan definitely has bounce back potential in 2019 if healthy, but the Eagles like to rotate defensive linemen and, without many other pressing needs, could dip into this deep defensive tackle class. Jones gives them insurance for Jernigan and could potentially form a dangerous trio with Jernigan and Cox.

26. Indianapolis Colts – DT Jerry Tillery (Notre Dame)

The Colts’ defense exceeded expectations this season, but they could use more talent, especially on the defensive line. Denico Autry and Margus Hunt were a solid defensive tackle duo, but the latter is a 32-year-old free agent this off-season and they don’t have much depth behind them. This is yet another team that could take a defensive tackle in the first round. 

27. Oakland Raiders – S Deionte Thompson (Alabama)

The Raiders used a first round pick on Karl Joseph in 2016, but, despite decent play in his first two seasons, Jon Gruden decided he didn’t want Joseph to remain a starter in 2018, opting instead to use washed up veterans like Marcus Gilchrist and Reggie Nelson. Both are free agents this off-season, so the Raiders could look to the draft for another safety to compete with Karl Joseph and 2016 undrafted free agent Erik Harris, who also strangely saw action ahead of Joseph in 2018.

28. Los Angeles Chargers – MLB Mack Wilson (Alabama)

The Chargers’ 7 defensive back strategy worked against the Ravens, but it was largely out of necessity, with their top-3 linebackers Denzel Perryman, Jatavis Brown, and Kyzir White out with injuries. Brown and White will be back in 2019, but Perryman is a free agent. If he isn’t retained, the Chargers could look to the draft to replace him.

29. Kansas City Chiefs – CB Byron Murphy (Washington)

The Chiefs could upgrade at cornerback, where both Steven Nelson and Orlando Scandrick are free agents this off-season. Kendall Fuller is probably their best cornerback, but he only has one year left on his deal.

30. Green Bay Packers – S Johnathan Abram (Mississippi State)

The Packers weirdly traded HaHa Clinton-Dix to the Redskins at the deadline and subsequently had terrible safety play for the remainder of the season. They could address this with their other first round pick.

31. Los Angeles Rams – DT Dexter Lawrence (Clemson)

Ndamukong Suh had a solid year, but he was only signed to a one-year deal and the Rams might not be able to bring him back for cap reasons. They could find his replacement through the draft.

32. New England Patriots – DE Zach Allen (Boston College)

Even if the Patriots retain Trey Flowers in free agency, they need another defensive end. Zach Allen has the size that Belichick likes in a defensive end at 6-5 285 and can also line up inside in passing situations.

Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints: 2018 NFC Championship Pick

Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

These two met back in week 9 in New Orleans, but a lot has changed since then. At the time, the Rams were favored by a couple points, despite being the road team, because they were an undefeated 8-0 and seen as the early Super Bowl favorite. That changed when the Saints pulled the upset and subsequently went on to win 7 of their next 8 meaningful games, while the Rams went “just” 5-3 over the second half of the season. As a result, the Saints were able to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC before week 17, despite being a game and a half back of the Rams going into their week 9 matchup.

The Saints’ strong play is a big part of the reason why they overtook the Rams in the NFC, but the Rams also regressed a little bit down the stretch, particularly on offense after they lost slot receiver Cooper Kupp. The Rams still have a talented duo of receivers in Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but Kupp had been Jared Goff’s most effective receiver over the past 2 years. Goff completed 72.4% of his 152 targets to Kupp for 1,504 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a ridiculous 124.5 QB rating. Kupp has missed 9 games in total including playoffs, but was also knocked out of 3 games with injury this season. In the 5 games he started and finished, the Rams had a 46.96% first down rate. In the 3 games he was knocked out, the Rams had a 44.72% first down rate. And in the 9 games he missed entirely, the Rams had a first down rate of 40.54%.

That’s still a good number and would have ranked 6th in the NFL over the course of the season, but they’re not quite the dominant offense they were going into the previous matchup, one of the five games Kupp started and finished (45.76% first down rate in a 45-35 loss). Their passing game in particular has fallen back to earth. Goff completed 71.8% of his passes for an average of 10.33 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the 5 games Kupp started and finished, but just 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the 9 he’s missed completely. They’re still a strong offense, but they’re more reliant on the run than they were when Kupp was healthy.

Fortunately for them, the Saints also are missing a key player from the first matchup, with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins going down with a torn achilles early in last week’s win over the Eagles. Outside of Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore, Rankins was probably the Saints’ best defensive player this season, so that’s a big loss. Not only does losing him significantly hurt their chances of slowing down Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson on the ground, but he had a productive year as pass rusher as well, totaling 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 32 hurries on 450 pass rush snaps (10.2%).

On top of that, the Rams also have cornerback Aqib Talib healthy, which they didn’t have in the first matchup. In 6 games in which Talib has played more than half the snaps, the Rams have allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.45% rate, as opposed to 40.12% in the 11 games in which he was inactive or limited. The Rams faced a pretty easily schedule in those 6 games (Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Arizona, San Francisco, and Dallas), but it’s not hard to imagine how the return of the 6-1 209 Talib could have an impact in a rematch of a game in which the 6-3 212 Michael Thomas went for 12/211/1. I still have the Saints a little higher in my roster rankings, but I don’t think we’re getting enough line value here to bet on the Saints confidently.

New Orleans Saints 34 Los Angeles Rams 30

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Low