Matt Stafford/Jared Goff Trade Analysis

Trades can’t officially be accepted until the start of the NFL’s new league year in March, but the Detroit Lions have agreed to a deal sending quarterback Matt Stafford, who has made 165 starts in 12 seasons with the team, to the Los Angeles Rams, less than two weeks after Stafford made his request to be traded known to the Lions organization. I was expecting the Lions to maybe get a late first round pick, or a high second round pick and another pick, but instead they get back two first round picks and a third round pick in draft compensation. At first glance, that seems like a clear win, but this deal is much more complicated. 

With the Rams already not having their own 2021 first round pick from the Jalen Ramsey trade they made in 2019, the Rams are sending 2022 and 2023 first round picks to the Lions in this deal, so the Lions will have to wait for their premium draft picks, although the Lions do get the third round pick this year. This deal also doesn’t just involve Stafford going to the Rams, but a swap of these two teams’ starting quarterbacks, as now-former Rams Jared Goff’s inclusion in this trade was necessary for salary reasons. 

In evaluating this trade, it makes more sense to view it as a trade of starting quarterbacks with draft compensation included, rather than the other way around, even if the draft picks are the most important assets in this deal. I will get to a comparison of the two quarterbacks on the field in a little bit, but these two quarterbacks’ contracts also need to be taken into account. Signed to a 4-year, 134 million dollar extension in September 2019 by the Rams, Goff got a big chunk of his contract in a signing bonus (25 million), but is still effectively guaranteed about 53 million over the next 2 seasons. The Lions could cut him after this season and save some money, but they’d still be paying him 43 million for just 1 season, so that’s unlikely unless he really struggles.

Stafford, meanwhile, makes just 43 million over the next 2 seasons and none of it is guaranteed, though it’s obviously highly unlikely the Rams would cut Stafford at any point, given the overall compensation they’re giving up for him. The Rams could extend Stafford next off-season ahead of the final year of his deal and Stafford would likely command a pay increase on an extension, but that extension would kick in after the two years remaining on Stafford’s deal, so we can effectively compare these two quarterbacks on their pay over the next 2 seasons, with Goff being the higher priced quarterback by about 10 million. 

The Browns got a 2nd round pick from the Texans to take on the remaining 16 million guaranteed that was owed to Brock Osweiler, so it’s reasonable to expect 10 million to get you about a third round pick. Let’s assume the 2021 third round pick in this deal is compensation for the salary difference between the two quarterbacks and that the two future first round picks are compensation for the talent difference between the two quarterbacks. 

Pushing a year out a pick usually gets you the equivalent of an extra round in the draft the next year (2020 3rd round picks being traded for 2021 2nd round picks for example) and by that standard the Lions are only getting a second and a third round pick for Stafford, but it’s not quite that simple, as the Lions seem to be headed into a much needed multi-year rebuild and might not mind waiting a year or two for these picks as much as another team would, while the Rams are putting themselves into a situation where they will have traded away in pre-draft trades their first round pick in 6 in 7 seasons from 2017-2023, with the exception being a first round pick they traded down from on draft day in 2019 and their last actual first round selection being Goff, back in 2016. 

Is Stafford enough of an upgrade from Goff to justify that? The answer comes down to how much do you believe Goff benefits from playing in Sean McVay’s system with consistently good talent around him. Goff’s quarterback rating over the past four seasons is less than 3 points lower than Stafford’s and he’s 6 years younger with less of a recent injury history, but he’s played in a much better situation, while Stafford has consistently been held back by subpar supporting casts and coaching. 

Perhaps most telling is the fact that McVay, who is widely considered to have had a huge hand in Goff’s development from a raw rookie to a quarterback who can at least be effective with the right pieces around him, seems to think this team would be a lot better off with another quarterback. Despite that, this is still a very interesting return for the Lions. With a roster that was going nowhere, a quarterback who wanted out, and no financial flexibility ahead of free agency, the Lions rightfully seem to be taking the long-term view with this team. First they hired 44-year-old Dan Campbell on a 6-year contract to be their head coach and now they pull the trigger on this move. 

This deal doesn’t give the Lions more financial flexibility, but it resolves the quarterback issue in the short-term without the use of their 7th overall pick and it gives them much needed draft capital in 2022 and 2023, either to move up for a long-term quarterback option or to build out the rest of this roster. It’s highly unlikely Goff is going to find some untapped potential in Detroit that he didn’t have in Los Angeles with McVay, but he’s still only going into his age 27 season and could be a serviceable starter for a rebuilding team that likely isn’t going to win a lot of games over the next couple seasons regardless.

For the Rams, this is a continued bet on their ability to draft and develop players outside of the first round. Despite their recent lack of first round picks, half of the 26 players who played at least 450 snaps on either side of the ball last season are home grown, from the 2015-2019 drafts, outside of the first round. That doesn’t include the 2020 draft, which saw 6th round pick Jordan Fuller make 12 starts as a rookie and 2nd round pick Cam Akers emerge as a feature back down the stretch.

History suggests the draft is more of a crap shoot than anything. The Pete Carroll/John Schneider Seahawks were known for finding late round gems in the early 2010s, but a look at their recent drafts clearly shows their hit rate has regressed to the mean and then some. Bill Belichick’s Patriots found arguably the greatest quarterback and tight end of all-time, both outside of the first round, along with a #1 receiver and Super Bowl MVP in the 7th round and several other draft steals, but even his record has some clear misses on it.

To the Rams’ credit, they seem to understand the value of trading back on draft day as much as any team, including New England, treating the draft as the likely unpredictable event that it is and going with a quantity over quality approach in terms of draft picks, maximizing their chances of finding a steal. The Rams might not have selected in the first round since 2016, but they have still selected 36 times overall over their past 4 drafts. Ultimately, this is a deal that makes sense for both teams, though there are obvious risks with both sides as both teams take to make the most of imperfect situations.

2016 NFL Draft Redo

1. Los Angeles Rams – QB Dak Prescott (Mississippi State)

The Rams made a Super Bowl just three years after their original pick of Jared Goff, but Goff wasn’t the main driver of their offensive success that season, he struggled in the Super Bowl, and he hasn’t been as good since, with his offensive supporting cast declining around him. There has even been some talk that the Rams could try to move on from Goff this off-season, although the 4-year, 134 million dollar extension he signed will make him very tough to move. In this re-draft, the Rams shoot higher with Dak Prescott, who has been the best of the quarterbacks from this draft and, even with other very talented players available at other positions, Dak would likely go first if everything were done over again.

2. Philadelphia Eagles – WR Michael Thomas (Ohio State)

I think there’s a pretty significant drop off between Prescott and the other quarterbacks in this draft, so, rather than selecting Carson Wentz again or taking a shot with Jared Goff, the Eagles take one of the highly talented players at another position. The Eagles have other good options, but their desperate need for wide receiver help dates back years and when Michael Thomas is healthy he’s arguably the best in the league.

3. San Diego Chargers – DE Joey Bosa (Ohio State)

The Chargers keep their original pick Joey Bosa, who they clearly are happy with, giving him a record breaking 5-year, 135 million dollar extension last off-season. In 63 career games, Bosa has 47.5 sacks, 66 hits, and a ridiculous 15.2% pressure rate, while playing at a high level against the run, and he’s not even 26 until July. Aside from some small durability concerns (17 games missed in 5 seasons), Bosa is one of the top defensive linemen in the league.

4. Dallas Cowboys – QB Jared Goff (California)

The Cowboys originally used this pick on Ezekiel Elliott and then stole Dak Prescott in the 4th round to give them a much needed young quarterback behind Tony Romo, who never started another meaningful game for the Cowboys after 2015. Prescott goes #1 in this re-draft though, so the Cowboys will need to find a quarterback elsewhere. Goff over Elliott might be controversial, but Elliott, as good as he is, has proven why running backs are rarely worth top-5 picks and big money contracts. The Cowboys need a quarterback and need to take one here if they’re going to get one in this draft.

5. Jacksonville Jaguars – QB Carson Wentz (North Dakota State)

Wentz was a tough player to slot because he’s played at everything from an MVP level to a backup level in his short career. He won’t be nearly as sought after as he would have been a year ago, when he could have gone #1 in this re-draft, but he had always been a capable or better starter prior to 2020 and there’s plenty of time for him to bounce back. The Jaguars will certainly take that compared to their recent quarterback situation, which has seen them start quarterbacks like Blake Bortles, Nick Foles, Gardner Minshew, and Mike Glennon in recent years. Jalen Ramsey was a good pick here originally, but he lasted just three and a half seasons in Jacksonville and made just one playoff appearance. Quarterbacks usually get the benefit of the doubt early in the draft. There doesn’t change in this re-draft.

6. Baltimore Ravens – OT Ronnie Stanley (Notre Dame)

Ronnie Stanley went down for the season with a broken ankle this season, but the Ravens will still have no concerns about drafting Stanley 6th overall again if given the chance. A starter since his rookie season, Stanley has developed into one of the best left tackles in the league. Outside of Lamar Jackson, Stanley was arguably the Ravens’ offensive MVP in their dominant 2019 season and he was sorely missed in a comparatively disappointing 2020 season.

7. San Francisco 49ers – WR Tyreek Hill (West Alabama)

The 49ers’ original pick DeForest Buckner was not a bad pick, but the 49ers can shoot higher and fill a bigger need, as Tyreek Hill is one of the top wide receivers in the league and would have added a much needed playmaker to an offense that was devoid of them at the time of this draft. The 2016 49ers were one of the worst offenses in the league and were led in receiving yards by veteran journeyman Jeremy Kerley, who was out of the league within two seasons.

8. Tennessee Titans – RB Derrick Henry (Alabama)

I mentioned earlier that running backs are rarely worth top-5 picks and big money contracts. Derrick Henry is one exception, but he falls out of the top-5 in a talented draft class with multiple quarterback options. The Titans don’t mind, as it allows them to keep their most important offensive player, albeit with a first rounder instead of a second rounder. Henry didn’t become a feature back until his 4th season in the league, but he averaged an impressive 4.58 yards per carry on 501 carries as a rotational back in his first 3 seasons in the league and has broken out since being unleashed as a feature back, leading the league with 3,567 rushing yards for 33 touchdowns on 681 carries (5.24 YPC) over the past two seasons.

9. Chicago Bears – CB Jalen Ramsey (Florida State)

Leonard Floyd was originally the Bears’ pick here, but he never really panned out with the Bears, leading to his 5th year option being declined for 2020. In a do-over, the Bears would shoot higher and, picking in the top-10 of a talented draft class, have the opportunity to add an All-Pro caliber player. The Bears have had one of the best defenses in the league in recent years, but had a need at the cornerback position in 2016 and would have been even better in recent years with a shutdown cornerback like Ramsey opposite Kyle Fuller.

10. New York Giants – DT Chris Jones (Mississippi State)

The 2016 Giants had one of the best defenses in the league, but this team wasn’t able to sustain that long-term, in large part due to roster turnover. Johnathan Hankins left as a free agent after 2016, so Chris Jones, who has developed into one of the top interior defenders in the league since being drafted by the Chiefs in the 3rd round, is a needed addition to this team and arguably the best player available. Jones leaves something to be desired against the run, but has totalled 40.5 sacks, 62 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in his career, as a primarily interior defender, leading to the Chiefs giving him a 4-year, 80 million dollar extension last off-season.

11. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Xavien Howard (Baylor)

The Buccaneers originally used this pick on cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, the first of six cornerbacks drafted by this team in the first 4 rounds in 4 drafts from 2016-2019, in an attempt to fix a longstanding need at cornerback. The Buccaneers have eventually figured the position out in 2020, but they were right to address the position in 2016 and, in a redo, have the option to take a much better cornerback option than Hargreaves, who proved to be a bust. Xavien Howard has played better than his draft classmate Jalen Ramsey at times, including the 2020 season when Howard was arguably the best cornerback in the league, but his history of inconsistency and injury drop him out of the top-10 behind Ramsey.

12. New Orleans Saints – DT DeForest Buckner (Oregon)

The Saints had the worst defense in the league from 2014-2016, wasting three prime seasons from Drew Brees, and they were right to focus on that side of the ball in this draft. Sheldon Rankins, their original pick here, and 4th round pick David Onyemata both developed into talented defensive tackles for a defense that has been significantly improved in recent seasons. The Saints can’t keep both of them in this re-draft, but they can aim higher with this pick, taking DeForest Buckner, who is better than both Rankins and Onyemata and would have been a much needed difference maker for this team. Originally the 7th pick in this draft, Buckner falls out of circumstance, as he’s totaled 38 sacks, 69 hits, and a 10.0% pressure rate in 78 career games, primarily as an interior rusher, and he is equally good against the run. PFF’s 4th ranked interior defender in 2020, Buckner was a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

13. Miami Dolphins – OT Laremy Tunsil (Mississippi)

Laremy Tunsil hasn’t quite developed into a consistently top flight left tackle, but he’s good enough to be drafted again by the Dolphins with the 13th pick, who were lucky enough to be able to turn him into two first round picks, including the 3rd overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, in a trade with the Texans last off-season. Tunsil has never finished higher than 18th among offensive tackles on PFF and is not worth what the Texans gave up to get him, let alone the 3-year, 66 million dollar extension he was signed to, but he’s been a consistent starter in 72 career starts, so the Dolphins could do a lot worse than taking him again.

14. Oakland Raiders – S Justin Simmons (Boston College)

The Raiders took safety Karl Joseph here originally, but he was never more than a solid starter, was benched several times, was limited to 15 games in 4 seasons, and had his 5th year option declined, leading to him settling for a one-year prove it deal with the Browns last off-season in free agency. The Raiders were right to focus on their defense, which didn’t have much besides Khalil Mack, but they definitely could have done better with the pick. In this redo, the Raiders take the same position, with Justin Simmons probably being the best available defensive player. Originally a third round pick by the Broncos, Simmons has developed into one of the best safeties in the league, finishing in the top-9 among safeties on PFF in back-to-back seasons in 2019 and 2020, setting him up to cash in as a free agent this off-season. If he had been better earlier in his career, he would have gone in the top-10 in a redo, but the Raiders will happily take him, not only upgrading their defense, but taking away a key player from a divisional rival.

15. Cleveland Browns – MLB Deion Jones (LSU)

The Browns originally drafted Corey Coleman here after trading down out of picks that became Carson Wentz and Jack Conklin, yet another of the Browns’ early round draft blunders. The Browns won 1 game between 2016 and 2017, so they really can’t go wrong with any position and Deion Jones is arguably the best player remaining on the board. The Browns used a 4th round pick in this draft on Joe Schobert, who developed into a solid starting every down linebacker and one of the bright spots on the Browns’ winless 2017 team, but they can do better with Jones, who has three top-9 finishes on PFF in the past four seasons.

16. Detroit Lions – OT Taylor Decker (Michigan)

The Lions originally took Decker here at 16 and don’t seem to have too many complaints, keeping him with a 4-year, 60 million dollar extension. Decker has made 71 starts for the Lions in 5 seasons (all on the left side) and has consistently been an average or better starter, topping out as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle in 2020. He’s stabilized one of the most important positions in the game for the Lions.

17. Atlanta Falcons – DE Yannick Ngakoue (Maryland)

The Falcons seemingly have a perpetual need for pass rushers, somehow not topping 39 sacks in a season since 2004. They were especially bad in 2015, ranking dead last in the NFL with just 19 sacks, after just 22 sacks in 2014, so it’s surprising they didn’t address the position early in the 2016 draft. In this redo, they get Ngakoue who is underwhelming against the run, but has totalled 45.5 sacks, 61 hits, and a 11.6% pressure rate, while playing 78 of 80 games since the Jaguars took him in the 3rd round. He was traded a couple times this season after being franchise tagged by the Jaguars last off-season, but he could still cash in as a free agent this off-season, as an accomplished pass rusher who doesn’t even turn 26 until March.

18. Indianapolis Colts – C Ryan Kelly (Alabama)

Here is another team satisfied with their original pick, re-signing Kelly to a 4-year, 50 million dollar extension that makes him one of the highest paid centers in the league and rightfully so. As part of one of the top offensive lines in the league, Kelly has developed into one of the top centers in the league, after some injury and inconsistency earlier in his career. He’s one of the few centers worth a first round pick. 

19. Buffalo Bills – WR Tyler Boyd (Pittsburgh)

Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods led the Bills in receiving in 2015, with Watkins going over 1000 yards in his 2nd season in the league, but Woods didn’t break out until leaving for the Rams, Watkins was never the same after the injuries that limited him to 8 games in 2016, and both Woods and Watkins were gone by the 2017 season, when the Bills were led by receiving by tight end Charles Clay and running back LeSean McCoy, with their top wide receiver being Deonte Thompson and his 430 receiving yards. Tyler Boyd took a couple years to develop, but he has topped 1000 yards twice in his career and would be a welcome addition to what was once a very thin Bills receiving corps.

20. New York Jets – OT Jack Conklin (Michigan State)

Right tackle was a weakness for the Jets in 2015 and then in 2016 they started 5 different tackles throughout the season. They used a 2016 3rd round pick on Brandon Shell, who developed into a capable starter after a couple seasons, but Conklin is a much more talented option and would fill a hole for the Jets immediately at right tackle. Conklin, originally drafted 8th by the Titans, has been one of the better right tackles in the league since his rookie season in 2016, earning him a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal from the Browns in free agency last off-season.

21. Houston Texans – RB Ezekiel Elliott (Ohio State)

The Texans signed Lamar Miller to be their starting running back in the 2016 off-season, after ranking 28th in the league in yards per carry in 2015, but Miller was never more than a capable starter and was overmatched as a feature back with the Texans. Instead, they grab a legitimate feature back like Ezekiel Elliott, who falls because of positional value, but is still one of the top few running backs in the NFL, even after a down 2020 season. Using a top-5 pick on a running back and paying them at the top of the running back market usually isn’t a good idea, but a player like Elliott is definitely worth it in this range.

22. Washington Redskins – S Kevin Byard (Middle Tennessee State)

Back when their name was allowed, Washington had a need at safety, which they attempted to address in the 2nd round with Su’a Cravens, who never panned out. Kevin Byard, meanwhile, has developed into one of the better safeties in the league since the Titans took him in the 3rd round. Byard had a down year in 2020, but finished in the top-14 among safeties on PFF in 3 straight seasons from 2017-2019 and is a true ballhawk, with 18 interceptions over the past 4 seasons.

23. Minnesota Vikings – G Joe Thuney (NC State)

The Vikings have had concerns on their offensive line for years, particularly on the interior. Joe Thuney can legitimately play all five positions on the offensive line, but has primarily played at left guard in his career with the Patriots, where he has developed into one of the league’s best. After being franchise tagged by New England last off-season, Thuney, originally a 3rd round choice, figures to cash in somewhere this off-season, whether New England or elsewhere.

24. Cincinnati Bengals – CB William Jackson (Houston)

Injuries have been a problem for Jackson throughout his career, including a completely lost rookie season, but he’s been the Bengals’ top cornerback since he returned in his second season and has had flashes of dominance in the backend for Cincinnati. He’s one of the few bright spots for this Bengals organization and, without a clear better option, the Bengals would likely take him again in this scenario. We’ll see if they keep him, or if he wants to return, as a free agent this off-season. Regardless of where he lands, he figures to get paid near the top of the free agent cornerback market. 

25. Pittsburgh Steelers – OLB Matt Judon (Grand Valley State)

The Steelers kill two birds with one stone with this pick, keeping a key defender away from divisional rival Baltimore, who franchise tagged Judon last off-season, and filling a big need of their own. Before TJ Watt was added in 2017, the Steelers had a big need at the edge defender position, with James Harrison leading the position in sacks with 5 each in 2015 and 2016, despite being in his age 37 and age 38 seasons respectively. Judon’s play against the run leaves something to be desired, but his 34.5 career sacks, 69 hits, and 12.3% pressure rate have him positioned to cash in as a free agent this off-season, after being franchise tagged by the Ravens last off-season.

26. Denver Broncos – DT Kenny Clark (UCLA)

Anything would be better than the Broncos’ original pick Paxton Lynch. Quarterback was an obvious need for the Broncos then and remains one today, but there isn’t a good quarterback option. Instead, they get an upgrade over their second round pick Adam Gotsis, who was a serviceable rotational defensive lineman for this team for four seasons. Clark, meanwhile, has been an above average run stopper and pass rusher for the Packers for five seasons and has the ability to play every down in any scheme. 

27. Green Bay Packers – DT DJ Reader (Georgia Tech)

The Packers miss out on their original pick Kenny Clark by one pick and they would have happily selected him again given the choice, after signing him to a 4-year, 70 million dollar extension. Instead, they replace him with DJ Reader, who is a different kind of player, but a capable replacement, albeit one who missed 11 games in 2020 due to injury. Prior to that injury, he ascended in all 4 seasons in the league, culminating with a 2019 season in which he finished as PFF’s 7th ranked interior defender, dominating against the run and adding 11 hits and a 9.9% pressure rate to his 2.5 sacks, leading to Reader getting a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal from the Bengals in free agency last off-season. A natural 3-4 nose tackle at 6-3 350 pounds, Reader would fit well with the Packers, who have run a 3-4 defense for years. 

28. San Francisco 49ers – G Cody Whitehair (Kansas State)

Joshua Garnett, the 49ers’ original pick here, didn’t pan out at all, so let’s give the 49ers a better offensive lineman. Whitehair was a college tackle and has shown the versatility to play all three interior offensive line spots in the pros, so he could help the 49ers in a variety of different spots. Guard is probably his best position and it’s where the 49ers needed the most help in 2016, but Whitehair’s versatility would have allowed the 49ers to play him where they’ve needed to over the years, probably center in 2020, as that spot was the 49ers’ biggest weakness upfront this past season.

29. New England Patriots – TE Hunter Henry (Arkansas)

The Patriots lost this first round pick for Deflategate, but for the sake of this redo, they’re getting their first round pick back. Henry is a player they could have taken if they hadn’t lost the pick, as Henry ended up going just 6 picks later to the Chargers and the Patriots needed another tight end to go with Rob Gronkowski. Henry hasn’t been the most durable player in his career, missing 25 of 80 games, but he’s averaged a 57/675/6 slash line per 16 games and is a strong run blocker as well. After being franchise tagged by the Chargers last off-season, Henry figures to be paid as one of the top tight ends in the league this off-season and has been linked to the cap rich Patriots as a free agent, who have struggled to replace Gronkowski over the past two seasons.

30. Arizona Cardinals – CB James Bradberry (Samford)

The Cardinals have been searching for an upgrade opposite Patrick Peterson for years. In the 2016 draft, the Cardinals used a 3rd round pick on cornerback Brandon Williams and were hoping he would develop into an upgrade over players like Jerraud Powers and Justin Bethel, who saw significant action in 2015. Instead, Williams played just 330 career snaps and the Cardinals were forced to turn to Marcus Cooper as their primary #2 cornerback opposite Peterson in 2016. Bradberry would give them the complement to Peterson that they still lack today. He’s not a top flight cornerback, but he held his own one-on-one against some of the best wide receivers in the league in the NFC South in the first 4 seasons of his career with the Panthers, after being selected in the second round, and then had arguably the best season of his career in 2020, finishing 7th among cornerbacks on PFF in his first season with the Giants, after signing a 3-year, 43.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season.

31. Carolina Panthers – WR Robby Anderson (Temple)

The 2015 Panthers made the Super Bowl with tight end Greg Olsen as their leading pass catcher and Ted Ginn and Jerricho Cotchery as their leading wide receivers. They got Kelvin Benjamin back from injury in 2016, but he wasn’t with the team much longer after that and the Panthers’ receiving corps remained an issue really throughout Cam Newton’s tenure in Carolina. Things are better in 2020, in part because of the addition of Anderson as a free agent on a 2-year, 20 million dollar deal last off-season. Anderson averaged a solid 52/765/5 slash line in 4 seasons as a #2/#3 receiver with the Jets, despite consistently suspect quarterback play, before breaking out as a borderline #1 option with a 95/1096/3 slash line in his first season in Carolina. In this scenario, the Panthers add him earlier and give Newton a much needed downfield weapon.

32. Seattle Seahawks – DT David Onyemata (Manitoba)

The Seahawks still had the Legion of Boom at this time, but they needed to reload their defensive line, particularly the defensive tackle position. After using this pick on a bust Germain Ifedi, the Seahawks addressed the defensive tackle spot in the second round with Jarran Reed, who has been capable, but unspectacular and has had off-the-field issues. Onyemata isn’t a household name, despite playing for the Saints, but the former 4th round pick has developed into one of the best interior rushers in the league. In total, Onyemata has 16 sacks, 30 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate over the past 4 seasons as a starter and he’s arguably coming off of his best season in 2020, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked interior defender on a Saints defense that was one of the best in the league. He’s well-worth the 3-year, 26 million dollar extension he signed with the Saints and could easily sneak into the first round if this was all done over.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers: 2020 NFC Championship Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (13-5) at Green Bay Packers (14-3)

The Packers led the NFL in points per game this season, but in terms of first down rate over expected, the Packers ranked “just” 4th at +2.48%. The reason I prefer first down rate as a stat is because it treats all snaps the same and minimizes the impact of outlier plays and of teams being good in unsustainable ways. With the Packers, the difference is their ridiculous 78.46% red zone conversion percentage, which not only led the league, but set a record. 

The Packers are always going to be good in the red zone with Aaron Rodgers under center, but the Packers were 10%+ better in the red zone this season than any season in the Aaron Rodgers era and teams that overperform in the red zone tend not to keep that up long-term. Even with their ridiculous red zone conversion percentage, the Packers still scored just 8 more points than the Buffalo Bills, even though the Bills ranked just 12th with a 62.50% red zone conversion percentage, so it’s not as if this was some all-time great offense overall.

The Packers still have a better offense than the Buccaneers, who rank 6th in first down rate over expected at +1.90% and are missing talented wide receiver Antonio Brown with injury, but the Buccaneers have the edge on defense, where they rank 6th in first down rate allowed over expected at -2.48% and, with stud defensive lineman Vita Vea back from injury for the first time since week 5, the Buccaneers’ defense is healthier than it’s been since the beginning of the season, when they were a dominant unit. 

The Packers aren’t bad on defense and are overall the most complete and talented team left in the playoffs, but there isn’t much separating the final four teams this season and the Buccaneers are my second ranked remaining team, so we’re getting good line value with the Buccaneers as 3.5 point underdogs in Green Bay. The Packers will have the benefit of some fans in the stands in this game at home and, in a playoff atmosphere, the Packers could have something resembling normal home field advantage, but they still shouldn’t be any higher than field goal favorites over the Buccaneers in this game. The difference between 3 and 3.5 might not seem like much, but 1 in 6 games are decided by exactly a field goal, so it’s a very significant half point.

This is also the kind of spot where Tom Brady has done well historically. Not only is Brady 32-11 in the post-season (as opposed to 11-8 for Aaron Rodgers), but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 55-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 43-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 41-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 27-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 20 of 29 games. 

Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 3-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including last week’s win in New Orleans and the Buccaneers’ blowout win over the Packers earlier this season. That lopsided result is an outlier and, like the Buccaneers’ blowout loss to the Saints earlier this season, it’s not a guarantee that the Buccaneers will win this game again, but they should at least keep this game close, so I love getting more than a field goal with them. 

I was hesitant to bet the Buccaneers last week in a similar situation in New Orleans last week, but that was primarily because of the Buccaneers’ struggles against the Saints in two games this season and, even still, I would have bet the Buccaneers had they been 3.5-point underdogs like they are this week, rather than the 3-point underdogs they were last season. At +3.5 in Green Bay, I am much more confident in the Buccaneers this week.

Green Bay Packers 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 AFC Championship Pick

Buffalo Bills (15-3) at Kansas City Chiefs (15-2)

The long awaited news has come that Patrick Mahomes will be able to play in this game and be 100%, despite being knocked out of last week’s win with a concussion. The betting public obviously likes that, shooting this line up to Kansas City -3.5, but Mahomes doesn’t solve all of the Chiefs’ problems and the Chiefs are still overpriced for a team that hasn’t covered a spread since week 8, despite winning their last 11 games started by Mahomes. 

Of those 11 wins, their last 8 have all come by 6 points or fewer, including a 5-point win over the Browns last week. The Chiefs were obviously doing better in that game before Mahomes got hurt, but they were up just 9 points as 10-point favorites when Mahomes left and that was despite a missed personal foul penalty that would have nullified a goal line fumble that became a touchback and a turnover rather than a likely Browns touchdown.

The Chiefs still have a great offense, but they haven’t been quite as dominant this season, particularly in the second half of the season, with key right tackle Mitchell Schwartz out due to injury from week 7 on, a big part of the reason why they have been failing to blow teams out in recent weeks. Overall, the Chiefs actually finished 2nd in first down rate expected this year, behind their opponents this week the Buffalo Bills, who also have the edge on the Chiefs in points per game. That is true even if you exclude the Chiefs’ meaningless week 17 loss. 

The Chiefs also have concerns on defense, where they rank 20th in first down rate over expected at +0.88%. The Bills haven’t fared well on that side of the ball either, ranking 22nd at +0.91%, but even with that they’re still ahead of the Chiefs in first down rate differential, ranking 4th at +3.39%, while the Chiefs rank 6th at +2.75%. The Bills also have played a lot better in recent weeks defensively, primarily due to improved health in their linebacking corps, leading to them winning their last 8 games straight by 17 points per game. In fact, excluding a week 10 loss in Arizona on a Hail Mary, the Bills have won 11 straight games and have won by fewer than 6 points just twice, a more impressive streak than the Chiefs’ recent streak because the Bills have blown out most of their opponents. 

The Chiefs will have the benefit of some fans in the stands in this game at home and, in a playoff atmosphere, the Chiefs could have something resembling normal home field advantage, but I have the Bills as the slightly better team and have them calculated as just 1.5-point underdogs, so we’re getting great line value, passing the key number of a field goal at Buffalo +3.5. Even if the Bills can’t pull off the road upset, I like their chances of keeping it close, as 1 in 4 of games are decided by 3 points or fewer (including 1 in 6 by exactly 3) and the Chiefs have won only half of their last 8 games by more than a field goal, with their other margins of victory being 4, 5, 6, and 6. This should be a close game either way, so I love getting more than a field goal with the Bills.

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Buffalo Bills 33

Pick against the spread: Buffalo +3.5

Confidence: High

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New Orleans Saints: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (12-5) at New Orleans Saints (13-4)

This was the toughest call of the week for me and the only one of the four games I didn’t lock in with a bet earlier this week. There is a lot of history that suggests Tom Brady and the Buccaneers should have the edge over Drew Brees and the Saints. Not only does Brady have the obvious edge in post-season success, 31-11 with 9 Super Bowl appearances vs. 9-8 with 1 appearance, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win.

Overall in his career, Brady is 54-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 42-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 40-13 straight up record in those games. As an underdog, Brady is 22-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 19 of 28 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers did go 2-1 ATS as underdogs this year.

That one loss was week 1 against the Saints in New Orleans, when the Saints won 34-23 as 3.5-point favorites, but that was the Buccaneers’ first game of the season and they actually won the first down rate battle by +6.31%, with the Saints largely winning because of a +3 turnover margin and a return touchdown, which is not predictive week-to-week. The Saints beat the Buccaneers more convincingly week 9, winning the game 38-3 and the first down rate battle by +9.96%, but that game looks like an outlier for two teams that were largely equal this season overall, with the Saints ranking 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.59% and the Buccaneers ranking 3rd at +4.45%. 

All that being said, we’re not getting the line value needed to bet the Buccaneers confidently, especially with Tom Brady now being 43 and away from New England, facing off with a team that has played him well this season. The Buccaneers are only field goal underdogs, which is exactly where I have them calculated, with the Saints having slight homefield advantage with some fans in the stands and having a slight edge on the field as well. Even though these two teams were about even this season, the Saints did that at much less than 100% throughout due to injury. 

Brees (4 games missed), feature back Alvin Kamara (1 game), top wide receiver Michael Thomas (9 games), stud left tackle Terron Armstead (2 games), talented defensive linemen Marcus Davenport (5 games), Trey Hendrickson (1 game), and David Onyemata (1 game), stud safety Marcus Williams (2 games), and starting cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins (3 games) and Marshon Lattimore (2 games), among other minor players, all missed time with injury this season and are expected to play this week. 

The Saints entered the season atop my roster rankings and are only slightly behind the Packers right now, ahead about 1.5 points ahead of the Buccaneers. I’m taking the Buccaneers for pick ‘em purposes purely because of Brady’s history in these kinds of games, but I wouldn’t bet them at this number. If the line moves off of 3, I would reconsider, as a field goal Saints win is probably the most likely outcome of this game, but this is a low confidence pick for now.

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Low

Cleveland Browns at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Cleveland Browns (12-5) at Kansas City Chiefs (14-2)

After the Browns’ upset victory in Pittsburgh last weekend, I was expecting them to open as 7 or 7.5-point underdogs in Kansas City this week. When they opened as 10-point underdogs, I was surprised, leading to me locking this line in early, and I am even more surprised it hasn’t moved off that number since. I knew the Chiefs were a team the books could inflate the line on, but this is more than I was expecting. 

The Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and only lost one meaningful game all season, but they weren’t the dominant team their record suggests they were in the regular season, especially down the stretch, when their last seven wins all came by one score or loss, with the Chiefs failing to cover the spread in any of those games. Some of that was due to garbage time, but, considering this line is as high as it is, garbage time, and the possibility of a backdoor cover even if this game isn’t close throughout, is very relevant to this pick.

Even dating back to earlier this season, the Chiefs have just five double digit wins all year, with three of them coming against teams that finished 5-11 or worse and one of them coming against a Patriots team that was starting a backup quarterback. Their week 3 win over the Ravens was their only double digit win over a capable opponent this season, so I don’t know why the Chiefs would be expected to blow out the Browns, especially since the Chiefs have not played as well since that early season matchup with the Ravens. The main reason for that is the absence of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, a massive blow to this offense that hasn’t gotten enough discussion.

The general narrative is that Patrick Mahomes and the skill position players on this offense are so good that the Chiefs’ offense is invincible, but the Chiefs actually finished the season 2nd in schedule adjusted first down rate behind the Buffalo Bills, who were ahead of them by a pretty decent margin (+4.71 vs. +3.65%), and the Chiefs were noticeably worse after Schwartz went down in week 6, leading to many of their close late season contests. All of this is true even if you ignore the Chiefs’ week 17 performance when they rested their stars in a meaningless game. 

The Chiefs’ defense has always been somewhat shaky and finished this season 22nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -0.88%, and, as good as Mahomes and his skill position players are, the Chiefs’ concerns on the offensive line and on defense can’t be ignored as they head into the post-season. They’re obvious a top Super Bowl contender, but they’re far from a lock to even make it back to the big game. Their 6th ranked finish in schedule adjusted first down rate differential also shows them to be an obvious contender, but not the juggernaut the general public seems to think they are and the oddsmakers have priced them as.

Let’s take advantage of that with the 10-point underdog Browns. The Browns may not cover this spread if they play like they did last week, when they won by 11, but were largely gifted the game by the Steelers committing 5 turnovers (the Chiefs had 16 giveaways all season) and lost the first down rate battle by 9.71%. However, the Browns are getting reinforcements, with stud left guard Joel Bitonio and top cornerback Denzel Ward returning to give the Browns a boost on both sides of the ball. The Browns aren’t quite at 100% right now with right tackle Jack Conklin questionable and likely to play at less than full strength with a hamstring injury and key defensive end Olivier Vernon out for the season, but compared to earlier this season, the Browns are much healthier. 

Stud running back Nick Chubb (4 games missed), key right guard Wyatt Teller (5 games), #1 wide receiver Jarvis Landry (1 game), starting left tackle Jedrick Wills (1 game), dominant left guard Joel Bitonio (1 game), starting tight end Austin Hooper (3 games), edge defender Myles Garrett (2 games), top cornerback Denzel Ward (5 games), starting cornerback Kevin Johnson (4 games), and safety Ronnie Harrison (5 games) have all missed time with injury and are all expected to play this week, for the first time together since early this season. That also doesn’t include a rib injury to quarterback Baker Mayfield that slowed him significantly earlier this season that he is well past at this point.

The Browns rank just 25th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential on the season at -1.53%, but they’re noticeably better on offense, ranking 11th in first down rate over expected at 1.17%, which is the significantly more predictive side of the ball, and a lot of their bad performances were earlier this season when they were not as healthy as they are now. My calculated line has the Chiefs favored by just 5 points, so I love the Browns at +10. Even if this isn’t a close game throughout, they have a great shot at a backdoor cover in garbage time, but I expect this game to be as competitive as the Chiefs’ recent games have been.

Kansas City Chiefs 38 Cleveland Browns 34

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +10

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Rams at Green Bay Packers: 2020 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Los Angeles Rams (11-6) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The Rams have injury concerns on their offense heading into this game, but that has been the case for most of the second half of the season. After a mostly healthy first half of the season, stud left tackle Andrew Whitworth’s knee injury in week 10 started off a stretch where the Rams not only were without their top offensive lineman for 7 games, but they also were without their starting quarterback Jared Goff, his top receiver Cooper Kupp, and their feature running back Cam Akers for stretches and both Goff and Akers were limited for stretches as well. 

This week, Goff and Kupp are likely to play at less than 100%, but only left guard David Edwards is legitimately questionable for this game among key Rams players, meaning this could actually be the first time the Rams have had their normal starting lineup on the field on offense at the same time since before Whitworth got hurt in week 10. Even if some players are less than 100%, that’s at least an improvement over what they’ve had in recent weeks, especially Whitworth’s re-addition, which had a massive impact in the Rams’ first round upset of the Seahawks.

The Rams aren’t an overly impressive offense, but they haven’t been all season and they still lead the league in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +4.64%. Their offense ranks just 22nd in first down rate over expected at -0.95%, but their dominant defense has carried them, not just leading the league in first down rate allowed over expected at -5.59%, but by a wide margin over the 2nd ranked Steelers (-4.39%). 

Defensive performance is not as consistent week-to-week as offensive performance and the Packers have the obvious edge on that side of the ball, as well as a complementary defense, but the Rams’ defense is too good for them to be underdogs of this many points in Green Bay. My calculated line has the Rams at +4, so I liked the line value we were getting with them as touchdown underdogs earlier this week when I locked them in. I’m not sure I would bet them at +6.5 against a Packers team that is legitimately one of the top-3 Super Bowl contenders and that will have the benefit of at least some fans in this game, but they should still be the right side for pick ‘em purposes at that number.

Update: This line is back to a touchdown but that’s because the Rams will surprisingly be without both Kupp and David Edwards, which is a hit for this offense. I have already locked this in, but I wouldn’t be as confident in the Rams at that number without Kupp and Edwards in the lineup. They’re still the pick for pick ’em purposes though, because of the dominance of their defense. My calculated line is now Green Bay -5.

Green Bay Packers 24 Los Angeles Rams 20

Pick against the spread: LA Rams +7

Confidence: Medium

Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills: 2020 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Baltimore Ravens (12-5) at Buffalo Bills (14-3)

This line favors the Bills by just 1.5 points in Buffalo, where the Bills will have the benefit of at least having some fans in the stands, suggesting that the odds makers and the public view these two teams about even, perhaps even favoring the lower seeded Ravens slightly. I think this line is mispriced. The Ravens have been great on 3rd and 4th down on both sides of the ball, allowing the 2nd lowest 3rd/4th down conversion rate in the NFL while converting 3rd/4th downs at the league’s 3rd highest rate, which has powered them to a 11-5 record and a second round playoff appearance.

However, the Bills’ offense has been better on both 1st/2nd and 3rd/4th downs, particularly on 1st/2nd down when the Bills rank 2nd in conversion rate and the Ravens rank all the way down at 27th, but the Bills are also better on 3rd/4th down when they rank 1st. Even on defense, which is by far the Bills’ weaker side of the ball, the Bills have the edge on 1st/2nd down, ranking 24th while the Ravens rank just 28th, though the Ravens have obviously been significantly better on 3rd/4th down defensively, ranking 2nd while the Bills rank 12th.

That’s all important to mention because offensive performance is much more predictive than defensive performance and because performance on 1st/2nd down is much more predictive than performance on 3rd/4th down. The Bills’ offense has had the obvious edge on early downs and they have the overall edge in my roster rankings as well, as their defense has gotten significantly better down the stretch due to better health, particularly with linebacker Matt Milano returning to the lineup in week 13. The Bills should be favored by at least 4.5 points, if not more, in this one, so we’re getting great value with them as mere 1.5-point favorites. This is one of three games I locked in earlier this week, and though the line hasn’t really moved, I’m still happy I locked this in because I like the Bills a lot this week. 

Buffalo Bills 27 Baltimore Ravens 20

Pick against the spread: Buffalo -1.5

Confidence: High