2020 NFL Mock Draft

1. Cincinnati Bengals – QB Joe Burrow (LSU)

The Bengals may listen to offers for this pick, but I imagine they’d have to be blown away to move out of this spot. Andy Dalton is a low upside quarterback option going into the final year of his contract, so the Bengals are widely expected to take this draft’s top signal caller Joe Burrow #1 overall. In the small chance this does end up being a trade, Burrow would almost definitely be the target for any team looking to move up. 

2. Washington Redskins – DE Chase Young (Ohio State)

A trade down from #1 this year is unlikely. A trade down from #2 is still unlikely, but it would be less surprising. Reports have already started to leak from the combine that the Redskins are intrigued by Tua Tagovailoa #2 overall, who they met with at the combine on several occasions. It’s possible the Redskins are legitimately interested in him and would look to move last year’s first round quarterback Dwayne Haskins on draft day the way the Cardinals did last year with Josh Rosen after taking Kyler Murray, but new Redskins head coach Ron Rivera took this job over other offers not knowing whether or not Tua was even healthy, so he must believe in Haskins at least somewhat. 

More likely, those reports are smokescreens from the Redskins to increase trade offers for this pick from teams looking to move up for Tua. If the Redskins don’t get the offer they’re looking for, they’ll probably stay put and select the consensus top defensive player in the draft Chase Young, but it wouldn’t be a shock if this ended up being a trade. The price to move up to #2 should be significantly higher than the price to move up to #3 as passing on the chance to select Young should get the Redskins a premium. The Redskins should be happy to stay put if they don’t get an incredible offer because Young is a special talent.

3. Miami Dolphins (TRADE) – QB Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama)

While a trade down from 1 or 2 is unlikely, I would actually be shocked if the Lions didn’t move down from 3 with a team looking to move up for Tua. With Matt Stafford expected to make a full recovery from injury, the Lions are unlikely to be interested in Tua and, without a consensus top non-quarterback available, the Lions, who have needs all across the roster, would love to move down and accumulate extra picks. Reports on Tua’s recovery have been great and at this point it would be a surprise if he fell out of the top-3 picks. It’s very possible a trade is agreed to in advance of draft day, similar to when the Jets sent a trio of 2nd round picks to the Colts two years ago to move up from 6 to 3.

Teams like the Chargers (#6), Jaguars (#9), and Raiders (#12) could all have interest in moving up, but the Dolphins (#5), should be considered the favorite to move up. Not only do they have the fewest picks to jump, but they also have more draft capital than any team in the league. They have a whopping 5 first round picks in the next two drafts and, with four second round picks as well, they might not have to give up a single one of those first rounders to get this deal done. 

Similar to the trio of second rounders the Jets sent to the Colts to move from 6 to 3 two years ago, the Dolphins could package picks 39 and 56 this year with either one of their second round picks next year to get this deal done. With veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick under contract and coming off of a solid season, the Dolphins wouldn’t have to rush Tua into action as a rookie, though if recent history is any indication it’s unlikely the Dolphins would leave the 3rd overall pick on the bench his whole rookie season, assuming he’s healthy enough to play.

4. Los Angeles Chargers (TRADE) – QB Justin Herbert (Oregon)

This could also be a trade down spot, as once Tua is off the board, there could be a scramble for teams to move up to select the third ranked quarterback prospect Justin Herbert. The Chargers are known to like him as a long-term replacement for Philip Rivers and have an obvious need for him with low end starter Tyrod Taylor only under contract for one more season, but they may need to move up from 6 to prevent another team jumping them for Herbert. Meanwhile, like the Lions, the Giants would love to move down and accumulate more picks without an obvious choice for them at 4. Because Herbert is not the same caliber of prospect as Tua, the Chargers would likely only have to part with a pair of second rounders (this year’s and next year’s), as well as possibly a later pick or two, to seal the deal. 

5. Detroit Lions – CB Jeff Okudah (Ohio State)

The Lions’ trade down works to perfection as they still have the same defensive players available to them that would have been available to them at 3. Jeff Okudah, Isaiah Simmons, and Derrick Brown all have arguments for being the top defensive prospect after Chase Young and all could make sense here for the Lions. I’m giving them Okudah as a long-term replacement for the recently traded Darius Slay at cornerback, but this could just as easily be Simmons or Brown, who fill needs as well.

6. New York Giants – S Isaiah Simmons (Clemson)

Trading down doesn’t quite work out as well for the Giants as the Lions, as the Giants miss out on Okudah, but the Giants used a first round pick on cornerback DeAndre Baker last year and signed James Bradberry in free agency, so they might not view cornerback as a super pressing need anyway. Between the remaining top defensive prospects, Simmons makes more sense than Brown, who wouldn’t fill a need on the defensive line. Simmons, however, can play really any position in the back 7 and could contribute at several positions of need, including linebacker, safety, and slot cornerback.

7. Carolina Panthers – DT Derrick Brown (Auburn)

The Panthers are sitting in a good spot at 7 because they shouldn’t still be able to get one of the top defensive players, with 3 quarterbacks likely to go in the top-6. Okudah and Simmons are gone and would have filled needs, but Derrick Brown would be very useful for them as well. Gerald McCoy, Dontari Poe, Kyle Love, and Vernon Butler led the Panthers in snaps by an interior defensive linemen last season, but none of them are still on the roster. Brown could have an every down role as a rookie inside next to Kawaan Short, who should be healthy after an injury-ruined 2019 season.

8. Arizona Cardinals – OT Tristan Wirfs (Iowa)

With the top-7 picks likely to be the top-3 quarterbacks and the top-4 defensive players, the Cardinals seem likely to take an offensive tackle at 8. This draft has as many as 4 offensive tackles who could arguably go in the top-10 based on talent, but I’d be surprised if more than one of those tackles was off the board by the Cardinals’ pick at 8. In this scenario, all 4 remain on the board, leaving the Cardinals with their pick of bookend tackles for recently re-signed left tackle DJ Humphries. 

Which offensive tackle it’ll be is tough to predict, but Tristan Wirfs could be the favorite after his outstanding combine performance. Fellow combine star Mekhi Becton is also an option, as are Andrew Thomas and Jedrick Wills, who were considered by many to be the top-2 offensive tackles going into the combine. All four options would be obvious upgrades for a Cardinals team that got terrible play out of the right tackle spot in 2019. They also need insurance at left tackle because of Humphries’ tendency to get injured.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars – DT Javon Kinlaw (South Carolina)

The Jaguars used first round picks on defensive linemen in 2018 and 2019, taking defensive tackle Taven Bryan two years ago and defensive end Josh Allen last year, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them go back to the defensive line. With veterans Marcell Dareus and Calais Campbell let go for cap purposes this off-season, the Jaguars suddenly need more help upfront. Kinlaw can start inside next to Bryan, assuming Bryan can take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league after primarily being a reserve to start his career.

10. Cleveland Browns – OT Mekhi Becton (Louisville)

Like the Cardinals at 8, the Browns are likely to take one of the offensive tackles at 10. After combine star Tristan Wirfs went 8th, the Browns now take fellow combine star Mekhi Becton at 10. Signing right tackle Jack Conklin in free agency was a big addition, but the Browns still have a major hole at left tackle, without a capable option on the roster. It seems likely given the caliber of offensive tackles expected to be available in the 8-15 range that the Browns have this pick earmarked for a left tackle.

11. New York Jets – WR CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma)

The Jets signed Breshad Perriman to replace Robby Anderson in free agency, but the Jets also need to replace free agent Demaryius Thomas in three wide receiver sets. Perriman is also only signed to a one-year deal and isn’t the long-term #1 option this team needs. The Jets could easily be the first team to dip into the wide receiver pool and take one at 11 overall. It’s between CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy to be the top wide receiver off the board.

12. Las Vegas Raiders – WR Jerry Jeudy (Alabama)

The Jets take a wide receiver one pick earlier and now the Raiders follow suit by taking Jerry Jeudy. The Raiders added Antonio Brown for a reason last off-season and, while that didn’t work out, they definitely could have used his help opposite Tyrell Williams and still have a big need at that position after only taking a flier on Nelson Agholor in free agency this off-season. The Raiders found a steal with slot receiver Hunter Renfrow in the 5th round of the draft last year. Now they find an outside receiver.

13. San Francisco 49ers – OT Jedrick Wills (Alabama)

The 49ers got this pick from the Colts for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who they were likely going to be unable to keep long-term anyway for financial reasons. Losing Buckner opens up a big hole at defensive tackle, but taking a replacement at this juncture would be a reach. Instead, the 49ers find a long-term replacement for Joe Staley, who is going into his age 36 season. Wills can start his career at right guard, where he could be an immediate starter, and would be a long-term bookend for Mike McGlinchey whenever Staley is no longer around.

14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OT Andrew Thomas (Georgia)

The Buccaneers landed Tom Brady and now will have to make sure they protect the soon-to-be 43-year-old. Right tackle is still a glaring hole with long-term veteran starter Demar Dotson still unsigned ahead of his age 35 season, so the Buccaneers may be planning on filling this hole early in the draft.

15. Denver Broncos – WR Henry Ruggs (Alabama)

This draft class lacks an elite wide receiver prospect as it’s unlikely any wide receivers go in the top-10, but there could be as many as 7 wide receivers that go in the first round in total. The Broncos could easily be one of the teams that takes a wide receiver, as they don’t have much at the wide receiver spot behind Courtland Sutton after trading away Emmanuel Sanders mid-season and not addressing this position in free agency.

16. Atlanta Falcons – DE K’Lavon Chaisson (LSU)

In my last mock draft, I thought this pick being a defensive end was close to a lock, because of the Falcons desperate need at the position and their inability to address the position in free agency with limited cap space. Instead, the Falcons made cornerback Desmond Trufant a somewhat surprising cap casualty, even though he was still their top cornerback last season, and signed free agent Dante Fowler to upgrade their pass rush. A cornerback to replace Trufant is definitely an option at this point, but I definitely wouldn’t rule out a defensive end, especially if K’Lavon Chaisson, who fits what they look for at the position like a glove, falls to them at 16. They still need at least one more edge rusher to go with Fowler and Takkarist McKinley.

17. Dallas Cowboys – DE AJ Epenesa (Iowa)

With Robert Quinn signing with the Bears this off-season, the Cowboys have a big hole at defensive end opposite DeMarcus Lawrence. They could address that need early in the draft. Epenesa falls a little because of his underwhelming 40 at the combine, but he was a top-15 prospect before the combine and his game was never based on speed, so I think he’s still a good fit for teams that want a traditional “hand on the ground” 4-3 defensive end.

18. Miami Dolphins – S Xavier McKinney (Alabama)

The Dolphins got this pick from the Steelers for Minkah Fitzpatrick, a trade the Dolphins never really wanted to have to make, and a trade the Dolphins seemed to regret after Fitzpatrick broke out with the Steelers. Without Fitzpatrick, the Dolphins lack an impact making safety, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they used one of their later two first round picks on the position.

19. Las Vegas Raiders – CB CJ Henderson (Florida)

The Raiders have added some nice young pieces on defense in the past couple drafts, but need to keep building their defense, especially the back seven. The Raiders are very thin at cornerback, so a highly drafted rookie can start for them from week 1. Their first pick at 12 is probably too high for a cornerback unless Okudah somehow falls, but cornerback is a strong possibility at 19.

20. Jacksonville Jaguars – CB Trevon Diggs (Alabama)

It’s hard to believe the Jaguars made the AFC Championship in 2017. With the Jaguars moving on from AJ Bouye, Calais Campbell, and Marcell Dareus this off-season, they have just 3 of their top-14 in terms of snaps played remaining from their dominant 2017 defense. They acquired this pick from the Rams for Jalen Ramsey, who was shipped off mid-season, so it makes sense that the Jaguars would use this pick on his replacement, especially with fellow starting cornerback AJ Bouye also sent packing and needing to be replaced.

21. Philadelphia Eagles – WR Justin Jefferson (LSU)

Wide receiver was a major problem for the Eagles in 2019. They should get more from 2019 2nd round pick JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson should hopefully be healthier next season, but they still need to address this position through the draft. Jeffery and Jackson are both injury prone and will be in their 30s next year with big salaries, so their days with the team may be numbered and they need insurance for them in the short-term.

22. Minnesota Vikings – DE Yetur Gross-Matos (Penn State)

The Vikings got this pick from the Bills for Stefon Diggs. It’s a trade that makes sense for both sides. The Bills are in win now mode and need a legitimate #1 receiver like Diggs, while the Vikings are tight on cap space and are a run heavy team that doesn’t need to commit significant money to their quarterback and top-2 wide receivers. The move leaves the Vikings thin at wide receiver, but this is a deep wide receiver class and the Vikings have three picks in the first 2 rounds, so they don’t need to find a replacement for Diggs right away. Instead, they use this pick to replace Everson Griffen and fill a big need at defensive end.

23. New England Patriots – MLB Kenneth Murray (Oklahoma)

This could be a spot for a quarterback, but the Patriots seem to at least somewhat like Jarrett Stidham as a developmental prospect, so it makes more sense that the Patriots would add a veteran stopgap in free agency rather than using a high draft pick on a quarterback. Lost in the story of Brady’s departure from New England is the story of all of the Patriots losses at linebacker, with Jamie Collins, Kyle Van Noy, and Elandon Roberts signing elsewhere this off-season. The linebacker position should be a priority on draft day.

24. New Orleans Saints – QB Jordan Love (Utah State)

The Saints clearly value Taysom Hill, giving him a first round tender this off-season, but even the first round tender is only worth 4.641 million, so that’s not necessarily a sign that they view him as a quarterback of the future. His salary is more than justifiable by his role as a “gadget” player and special teamer and it’s telling that when Drew Brees was hurt last year the Saints turned to a traditional quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and actually scaled Hill’s usage down significantly. If they don’t view Hill, who is already going into his age 30 season, as a long-term quarterback option, they may add one through the draft this year. We know the Saints were interested in taking Patrick Mahomes a few years ago before the Chiefs moved up ahead of them and took him. Jordan Love has drawn some comparisons to Mahomes as a prospect. He enters the league very raw, but would benefit from sitting a year or two on the bench behind Brees.

25. Minnesota Vikings – CB Kristian Fulton (LSU)

The Vikings have had a history of taking defensive backs early, even when they don’t need to, taking Xavier Rhodes in the first round in 2013, Trae Waynes in the first round in 2015, Mackenzie Alexander in the second round in 2016, and Mike Hughes in the first round in 2018. This off-season, they need to, so it would make sense that the Vikings would take another cornerback early. Waynes and Alexander both left as free agents this off-season, while Rhodes was a cap casualty after two down seasons. Hughes is still on his rookie deal, but has had an injury plagued two years in the league thus far. Even if he pans out, they still need a long-term starter opposite him.

26. Miami Dolphins – OT Austin Jackson (USC)

The Dolphins made some much needed upgrades on the offensive line in free agency, but they’ll need to continue that in the draft. Jackson can play either tackle or guard and should be a week 1 starter for the Dolphins wherever he lines up.

27. Seattle Seahawks – DT Ross Blacklock (TCU)

The Seahawks re-signed Jarran Reed, but they lost Quinton Jefferson and Al Woods, leaving them thin at the defensive tackle position. This could be a trade down spot based on the Seahawks’ history, but if they stay put they could take a defensive tackle like Blacklock to start inside next to Reed.

28. Baltimore Ravens – MLB Patrick Queen (LSU)

The Ravens lost CJ Mosley last off-season and then Josh Bynes and Patrick Onwausor this off-season, so they’re very thin at the middle linebacker spot. There are plenty of snaps available for a rookie and the Ravens could use their first round pick on their next CJ Mosley.

29. Tennessee Titans – CB Jaylon Johnson (Utah)

The Titans could still bring back free agent Logan Ryan, but if they don’t, they could look to the draft for a third cornerback. Malcolm Butler is on a big contract and Adoree Jackson is due a big extension soon and it’s unlikely that the Titans will commit significant money to three cornerbacks, meaning either Ryan won’t be brought back on a long-term deal or Butler will likely be a cap casualty at some point unless his play turns around. Either way, investing a high pick in a cornerback makes sense.

30. Green Bay Packers – WR Tee Higgins (Clemson)

An underwhelming receiving corps was the biggest reason why Aaron Rodgers posted numbers that were less than you’d expect from him last season. The Packers need a reliable option behind Davante Adams on the depth chart and could tap into this deep wide receiver class at the end of the first round.

31. San Francisco 49ers – DT Neville Gallimore (Oklahoma)

The 49ers traded DeForest Buckner for a first round pick because they didn’t think they could afford to keep him long-term, which leaves them very thin at defensive tackle. Expect them to use one of their two first round selections on a replacement for Buckner.

32. Kansas City Chiefs – RB Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin)

Damien Williams scores a lot of touchdowns in the playoffs, but he mostly just picks up what’s blocked on probably the easiest offense in the league to run on, given how much defenses have to respect the pass. The Chiefs have lacked an explosive back since getting rid of Kareem Hunt and could target one of the top backs in this draft class at the end of the first round. Jonathan Taylor could add another dimension to an already deadly offense.

33. Cincinnati Bengals – OT Josh Jones (Houston)

Teams typically follow up the selection of a quarterback early with the selection of complementary offensive players with their next couple picks. The Bengals will want to make sure that Joe Burrow is protected long-term. Last year’s first round pick Jonah Williams is expected to start at left tackle after missing his rookie year with injury, but they need a long-term bookend. Jones could also kick inside to guard.

34. Indianapolis Colts – S Grant Delpit (LSU)

The Colts need a complement for Malik Hooker in the secondary and likely wouldn’t pass on Grant Delpit or Xavier McKinney if either fell to them in the second round. Delpit could be the top safety off the board and could get drafted as early as the top-20.

35. Detroit Lions – DE Julian Okwara (Notre Dame)

The Lions signed linebacker Jamie Collins in free agency and he should help their pass rush, but they still need to add a more traditional defensive end to play opposite Trey Flowers. Okwara is another much needed piece for this Lions defense.

36. New York Giants – OLB Zack Baun (Wisconsin)

The Giants are in the running for Jadeveon Clowney, but even if they do sign him they should add some edge rush help through the draft. Outside of free agent Markus Golden, the Giants didn’t have anyone with more than 4.5 sacks last season. Baun can help immediately.

37. New York Giants – C Cesar Ruiz (Michigan)

The Giants get this pick from the Chargers in the Justin Herbert trade. Jon Halapio made 15 starts for the Giants in 2019, but tore his achilles late in the season and was let go this off-season. They need a replacement and Ruiz is a plug and play starter who can be an upgrade as a rookie.

38. Carolina Panthers – CB Antoine Winfield (Minnesota)

The Panthers lost cornerback James Bradberry and cut safety Eric Reid this off-season, so there are snaps available for a rookie defensive back. Antoine Winfield can play both slot cornerback and safety and could have an immediate role as a rookie.

39. Detroit Lions – DT Raekwon Davis (Alabama)

The Lions lost Damon Harrison, A’Shawn Robinson, and Mike Daniels this off-season, so they need reinforcements at the defensive tackle position. If they don’t take Derrick Brown in the first round, expect them to target defensive tackles on day 2. In this scenario, they use one of the picks they got from trading with the Dolphins.

40. Houston Texans – WR Laviska Shenault (Colorado)

The Texans got this pick in the DeAndre Hopkins trade, so it would make sense that they use it on his replacement, although not much the Texans do makes sense. The Texans added Randall Cobb in free agency, but he’s just a slot option. They need insurance for the injury prone Will Fuller on the outside and both Fuller and Kenny Stills are set to be free agents next off-season.

41. Cleveland Browns – WR KJ Hamler (Penn State)

The Browns have Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, but they lack depth at the wide receiver position and Landry could miss the start of the season after off-season hip surgery. In a deep wide receiver class, the Browns could look for help on day 2 of the draft.

42. Jacksonville Jaguars – RB D’Andre Swift (Georgia)

Leonard Fournette was the 4th overall pick in 2017, but he’s been injury prone and largely unimpressive, so the Jaguars declined his 5th year option for 2021, making him a free agent next off-season. The Jaguars seem very willing to move on from him, but they lack any depth behind him on the depth chart.. The Jaguars could look for depth and a new lead back of the future on day 2. If D’Andre Swift falls out of the first round, the Jaguars would make a lot of sense in the second.

43. Chicago Bears – CB Bryce Hall (Virginia)

The Bears cut Prince Amukamara for cap purposes, but he was a solid starter and the Bears don’t have a clear replacement on the roster. Former Steelers bust Artie Burns is currently penciled in as the starter opposite Kyle Fuller and he’s only on a one-year deal, so they need help through the draft.

44. Indianapolis Colts – WR Michael Pittman (USC)

The Colts need another wide receiver to go with TY Hilton and Parris Campbell. The 6-4 Pittman would be a good complement to Hilton and Campbell, who are smaller, speedier receivers.

45. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OLB Terrell Lewis (Alabama)

The Buccaneers franchise tagged Shaq Barrett and re-signed Jason Pierre-Paul, but they lost Carl Nassib and need depth behind the starters, especially with Barrett not signed long-term and JPP going into his age 31 season. 

46. Denver Broncos – DE Marlon Davidson (Auburn)

The Broncos traded for Jurrell Casey, which is a big boost on their defensive line, but they had a lot of free agent defensive linemen, so they need to replenish depth. This is somewhere they could look on day 2 on the draft.

47. Atlanta Falcons – CB Jeff Gladney (TCU)

The Falcons cut Desmond Trufant for cap purposes, but he was still their best cornerback and they lack depth at the position. 

48. New York Jets – OLB Curtis Weaver (Boise State)

The Jets re-signed Jordan Jenkins this off-season, but they once again need edge rush help. Jenkins is a solid player, but they haven’t had an edge rusher with more than 8 sacks in a season since 2013. Weaver could have a significant role as a rookie and has the upside that the Jets currently lack at the position.

49. Pittsburgh Steelers – QB Jacob Eason (Washington)

Neither Mason Rudolph nor Devlin Hodges looked like long-term starting options in Ben Roethlisberger’s absence last season, so the Steelers need to make finding a quarterback of the future behind Big Ben a priority. Roethlisberger is not only coming off of a significant injury, but he is also going into his age 38 season, so he’s a significant question mark going forward and the Steelers don’t have a good alternative if he gets hurt again or declines significantly.

50. Chicago Bears – S Kyle Dugger (Lenoir-Rhyne)

The Bears addressed the cornerback position with their earlier second round pick, taking a long-term replacement to Prince Amukamara, but they also need a safety to replace free agent departure HaHa Clinton-Dix. Dugger could push to start as a rookie.

51. Dallas Cowboys – WR Jalen Reagor (TCU)

The Cowboys have a good wide receiver duo in Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup, but they lack depth at the position with Randall Cobb signing with the Texans. In a deep wide receiver draft, the Cowboys could look at wide receivers on day 2.

52. Los Angeles Rams – OLB Jabari Zuniga (Florida)

The Rams lost both Dante Fowler and Clay Matthews this off-season. They signed Leonard Floyd, but he’s not much of a pass rusher and he’s only on a one-year deal. Samson Ebukam, the other projected starter, is also set to hit free agency next off-season. They desperately need a talented young edge rusher.

53. Philadelphia Eagles – OLB Akeem Davis-Gaither (Appalachian State)

The Eagles cut Nigel Bradham for cap purposes, which left them very thin at the linebacker position. There is plenty of playing time available for a high draft pick at the position.

54. Buffalo Bills – RB JK Dobbins (Ohio State)

The Bills like last year’s third round pick Devin Singletary, but I could see them taking another back early if the value makes sense. The Bills don’t have many pressing needs and Dobbins could easily be seen as the best player available. He and Singletary could make a dangerous duo, especially with quarterback Josh Allen being a threat to take off and run himself.

55. Baltimore Ravens – WR Denzel Mims (Baylor)

The Ravens aren’t a passing team and when they do pass they mostly feature tight ends, but the Ravens still need to get Lamar Jackson a reliable wide receiver option opposite Marquise Brown. Their lack of talent at wide receiver was evident in their playoff loss to the Titans.

56. Detroit Lions – G John Simpson (Clemson)

The Lions lost a pair of offensive lineman this off-season in Graham Glasgow and Rick Wagner. Wagner was replaced in free agent by Halapoulivaati Vaitai, but Glasgow’s departure has left them very thin at guard. Simpson could start at either guard spot as a rookie.

57. Houston Texans – DE Jordan Elliott (Missouri)

The Texans are pretty thin on the defensive line after losing DJ Reader in free agency. They traded away most of their draft picks and created a big need at wide receiver when they traded DeAndre Hopkins, but they still need to address the defensive line at some point.

58. Minnesota Vikings – WR Chase Claypool (Notre Dame)

The Vikings traded Stefon Diggs because they’re a running team and it didn’t make sense for them to be paying at the top of the market for a quarterback and two wide receivers, but they lacked a capable 3rd receiver at the position in 2019 and are very thin behind Adam Theilen right now. Expect them to address the position relatively early in the draft.

59. Seattle Seahawks – OT Isaiah Wilson (Georgia)

The Seahawks added Brandon Shell in free agency, but he’s a borderline starting option and could be pushed by a rookie. They also need a long-term option at left tackle, where Duane Brown is going into his age 35 season.

60. Baltimore Ravens – G Tyler Biadasz (Wisconsin)

Losing Marshal Yanda is a big loss for the Ravens’ offensive line. They’ll need to try to find a long-term replacement at right guard in the draft. Biadasz played center at Wisconsin, but has the size to play guard in the NFL.

61. Tennessee Titans – OT Ezra Cleveland (Boise State)

The Titans are promoting swing tackle Dennis Kelly to replace free agent departure Jack Conklin, but he’s going into his age 30 season with just 31 career starts, so the Titans need insurance behind him and a new swing tackle.

62. Green Bay Packers – CB Damon Arnette (Ohio State)

Long-time Packer Tramon Williams still played a big role in the Packers’ secondary last season, but he’s a free agent going into his age 37 season this off-season. This has seemingly been the case for years, but Packers could use more young cornerback depth.

63. Kansas City Chiefs – CB Cameron Dantzler (Mississippi State)

The Chiefs lost Kendall Fuller to the Redskins and Bashaud Breeland is also a free agent, so they could use some help at cornerback through the draft.

64. Seattle Seahawks – DE Jonathan Greenard (Florida)

The Seahawks might still re-sign Jadeveon Clowney, but if they don’t they’ll need help at defensive end. Even if they do bring back Clowney, it’ll likely be a short-term deal, so this pick would still make sense.

Thoughts on Tom Brady signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

After quarterbacking the most dominant two decade stretch by any team in NFL history, Tom Brady will wear a uniform other than a Patriots uniform for the first time ever this season, with Brady choosing to sign with the Buccaneers as a free agent. In the NFL, it’s rare for a superstar player to finish his career with the same team he started with. After seeing Brett Favre in a Jets and Vikings uniform, Joe Montana in a Chiefs uniform, Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform, Jerry Rice in a Raiders and Seahawks uniform, Ed Reed in a Texans and Jets uniform and so on, you’d think seeing Tom Brady in a Buccaneers uniform wouldn’t be so surprising, but this one feels a little weirder. In two decades in New England, Brady won 6 Super Bowls, 9 AFC Championships, 3 regular season MVPs, 4 Super Bowl MVPs, and a ridiculous 76.9% of his games, while posting a winning record in every season he was the starter, so his departure is obviously a significant event for the league.

In some ways though, this shouldn’t be that surprising, beyond all the rumors throughout the year that Brady was considering other options. As impressive as Brady’s time in New England was, it was never going to end well. The idea that he was going to win the Super Bowl and ride off into the sunset was never realistic. This is the guy who famously said (now almost 6 years ago) that he wouldn’t retire until he sucked. If he had won the Super Bowl this year, he would have wanted another one. He was always going to keep playing until he wasn’t good enough. Meanwhile, his head coach Bill Belichick is famous for moving on a year early rather than a year late. This was never going to end well. 

In some ways, this is about as well as it could have ended, with both sides parting ways amicably. We might not know the full story here for a while (or ever), but it doesn’t seem like there was a massive breakdown in Brady and Belichick’s personal relationship. Both sides, apparently mutually, agreed to move on for football reasons. The fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar deal the Buccaneers gave Brady is the kind of offer the Patriots would have matched if Belichick was confident Brady would remain a top flight quarterback for another two seasons and Brady’s decision to announce that he was leaving New England before announcing where he was going suggests that the Patriots’ offer never even made the final cut. 

The Patriots offer might not have been significantly less annually in terms of money, but this was never fully about money (Brady hardly needs it) and it’s unlikely the Patriots’ offer included the guarantees and benefits of Tampa Bay’s, which fully guarantees his salary for 2021, gives him a full no trade clause, and allows him to become a free agent again in 2022, without the Buccaneers being able to franchise tag him. In other words, this contract gives Brady total security for two seasons while giving him complete control of his football future, something the Patriots likely didn’t offer him for his age 43 and 44 seasons. If there’s any solace in this for Patriots’ fans, it’s that the decision to part ways was in part Bill Belichick’s decision. He would have taken Brady back under the right conditions, but was never going to get into a bidding war if another team gave him a more favorable long-term situation.

Another thing for Patriots fans to take solace is in the fact that the version of Tom Brady they had for two decades was likely never coming back either way. Brady was still one of the better quarterbacks in the league last season, even if issues around him on the Patriots offense caused him to have an underwhelming statistical year, but he did show signs of slowing down, especially late in the season. Including playoffs, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback. After a strong first 3 weeks of the season, Brady didn’t have a single game with a PFF grade higher than 80 the rest of the way and, from week 4 on, he was PFF’s 18th ranked quarterback, meaning he was close to being an ordinary starter for most of last season. 

For a quarterback who prior to last season had 5 straight seasons with grades over 90 on PFF, including first place finishes at his position in 2015, 2016, and 2017, that’s a pretty big drop off. As we’ve seen with Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in recent years, quarterbacks can lose it quickly when they get up there in age and, going into his age 43 season, Brady is entering truly uncharted territory. Brady has certainly defied the odds before and a twilight years Tom Brady is still the best option the Buccaneers could have hoped for this off-season, but it’s understandable why Bill Belichick and the Patriots wouldn’t want to commit to him at the same level that the Buccaneers did. Belichick, never one to get sentimental, felt his team was better off going in another direction.

Belichick has made similar decisions countless times before and has mostly been proven right. As impressive as Brady’s tenure in New England was, much of it was enabled by Bill Belichick building and coaching up the rest of the roster, in spite of salary cap restraints. Brady didn’t have a great supporting cast on offense last year, but that was mostly due to injury, while their defense was one of the best in the league. Now comes the greatest challenge of Bill Belichick’s career, needing a quarterback for the first time in two decades. Assuming the Patriots’ offer to Brady was largely uncompetitive, Belichick likely has known for at least a few weeks that there was a good chance he’d be needing an alternative, so I would expect that he’s prepared for this.

When I wrote about this a month ago, I listed Teddy Bridgewater and Philip Rivers as the top options to replace him, but they’ve both gone elsewhere. Former Buccaneers’ quarterback Jameis Winston is another name thrown around, but his turnover habits won’t mix well with Belichick, so I can’t imagine him taking a flyer on Winston. Andy Dalton was third on my list and could possibly be an option if the Bengals eventually end up releasing him, but another option has emerged with the Panthers signing Teddy Bridgewater and announcing Cam Newton is available in trade.

Newton was linked to the Bears before they ended up trading for Nick Foles, but with the Bears out of the running, it’s unclear which team would be willing to trade a draft pick for a quarterback coming off of a significant injury who is owed 19.1 million dollars this year, meaning it’s likely that Newton will eventually get released. If he does, you’d have to guess the Patriots would be the favorites to sign him. Other teams like the Jaguars and Chargers may be interested if he were to be available as a free agent, but the Patriots would obviously give Newton the best chance to win and to rehab his value long-term. 

Newton would obviously be a very different kind of quarterback than the one Belichick has won with for the past two decades, but he’s never been locked in to one type of player at any position and taking a flyer on a 31-year-old former MVP that no one really seems to want after two injury plagued years would be a very Belichick move. Belichick has also expressed his admiration for Newton’s game on several occasions in the past and is 0-2 in his two matchups against Newton’s Panthers.

The Patriots also have 2019 4th round pick Jarrett Stidham and, while he may not be ready to start right away, the fact that the Patriots haven’t run out and added a quarterback already suggests that Belichick is at least somewhat confident going to Stidham if needed. Signing a higher risk, higher upside option like Newton with Stidham available in case of injuries or struggles would make more sense than a low upside option like Andy Dalton, even if Dalton’s abilities are more Brady-like than Newton’s. 

Even without a quarterback firmly in place, the odds makers still seem confident in Belichick’s ability to put together a contender. The Patriots’ over/under for wins is 9.5, which is certainly less than the 11-14 wins they were routinely at with Brady, but only the Chiefs, Ravens, Saints, and 49ers have over/unders of 10 or more right now and the Patriots are still ahead of both the Buccaneers and division rival Bills, who are both at 8.5. With the Bills acquiring Stefon Diggs right around the same time as Brady left the Patriots, many expected the Bills would finally overtake the Patriots in the division, but the Patriots are still favored with even odds over the Bills (+140) in the division. In terms of winning the Super Bowl, the Patriots fall behind the Buccaneers, who are at 15 to 1, but they still have the 9th best odds at 22 to 1.

Unless Brady completely falls off a cliff, his addition should make the Buccaneers better, given who he is replacing. I would have said the same thing had the Buccaneers ended up with Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, or even Cam Newton instead this off-season. The Buccaneers finished last season 10th in first down rate differential at +2.22%, but went just 7-9 because of a -13 turnover margin. Jameis Winston, who was the first quarterback to throw 30 interceptions in a season since 1988, was the obvious culprit. Going from him to Tom Brady, who has just 29 interceptions in the past 4 seasons combined, will obviously go a long way towards solving their turnover problems, even if Brady’s best years are behind him.

It’s also not hard to see how this offense will finish better than the 13th they finished in first down rate in 2019 (36.92%), given that Brady will be throwing to weapons like Mike Evans and Chris Godwin at wide receiver and OJ Howard and Cameron Brate at tight end, though their running game and offensive line play are question marks. On defense, they also ranked 13th last season, with a 34.70% first down rate allowed, a huge step up from the 30th ranked defense they had in 2018. Their defense was especially good down the stretch last season, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed from week 10 on, and are possibly an up and coming young group. With head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Buccaneers are well coached on both sides of the ball. There’s a reason I thought the Buccaneers made the most sense of any non-Patriots option earlier this off-season. I just didn’t expect Brady to actually leave.

Tampa Bay is a legitimate contender if Brady can be even a top-12 quarterback this season, but they’re still behind the Saints in the division and may have a tougher time making the playoffs than the Patriots, even with as much uncertainty as the Patriots have right now, including a few key defensive departures. I’ll have a lot more on this in both team’s season previews later this off-season, as the rest of free agency and the draft shake out, but needless to say these are two of the more interesting teams to watch going into 2020.

2020 Franchise and Transition Tag Candidates

The franchise/transition tag period for the 2020 off-season starts this Thursday February 27th and goes through March 12th. After the 12th, all non-tagged players with expiring contracts will hit the open market. Those dates were both moved forward by two days with the NFL and NFLPA still trying to negotiate a new CBA ahead of the new league year. Those negotiations complicate this situation in a couple ways. On one hand, if a new CBA is agreed to, the franchise tag and transition tag values could be drastically changed from their current projections. On the other hand, without a new deal, teams will have access to both the franchise tag and the transition tag this off-season, making life much easier for teams with multiple top free agents. There’s a much larger pool than usual of top free agents who could be tagged this off-season, even with top free agents Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Jadeveon Clowney all ineligible for the tag for different reasons. Below is a list in order of descending likelihood of candidates to be tagged without a long-term deal. 

QB Dak Prescott (Dallas)

This seems like the most no brainer franchise tag candidate, assuming a long-term deal isn’t worked out beforehand. The Cowboys might not be quite willing to meet Prescott’s 40 million dollar annual salary ask, but they’re unlikely to let him hit the open market without any compensation and the projected 26.895 million dollar franchise tag is a much easier number for the Cowboys to keep him at. Prescott is also unlikely to sign the tag right away, meaning the Cowboys could still pursue other quarterback options like Tom Brady this off-season and eventually trade Prescott at some point. 

DE Yannick Ngakoue (Jacksonville)

Not much remains of the dominant defense the Jaguars had in 2017 that carried them to the AFC Championship game, but Ngakoue was still a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for the Jaguars in 2019. He had 8 sacks and another 10 hits on the quarterback, giving him 37.5 sacks and 55 hits in 63 games for his career, along with a 12.0% pressure rate. His play against the run leaves something to be desired, but guys who can get to the quarterback as consistently as he does are guys you can build your defense around and those guys get paid on the open market. 

The Jaguars’ cap is clogged with big contracts, but they can move on from underperforming veterans to clear space for Ngakoue, who was severely underpaid in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, making 2.025 million. The 2016 3rd round pick is only going into his age 25 season and is someone the Jaguars should want around for a long time. If he does end up leaving the Jaguars, I imagine it would only be in a tag and trade situation, as the Jaguars are unlikely to let him walk for nothing.

The only complication here is that while the defensive end franchise tag is worth 19.316 million, Ngakoue would likely get upwards of 20+ million annually with 50+ million guaranteed on the open market and may not be happy about being tagged. The Jaguars could have to agree to a long-term deal with him or work out a trade quickly to prevent it from becoming a problem, but that certainly beats the alternative of losing him outright.

DE Shaq Barrett (Tampa Bay)

Shaq Barrett is a player who the franchise tag seems tailor made for. After just 14 sacks in 4 seasons with the Broncos, Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks this season after signing a one-year deal with the Buccaneers last off-season. Barrett played better than his sack total suggested in Denver, as he was a strong run defender who always flashed in limited pass rush opportunities behind the likes of Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, and Bradley Chubb, with a 12.1% pressure rate in the first 4 seasons of his career, but the Buccaneers only signed him for 4 million last off-season and might not want to commit to him on a big money deal long-term just yet. Likewise, Barrett might not mind the one-year, 16.266 million dollar payday with an opportunity to break the bank next off-season with another strong season in Todd Bowles’ system. For that reason, the franchise tag makes a lot more sense than the transition tag for both sides.

DT Chris Jones (Kansas City)

Pat Mahomes was obviously going to win Super Bowl MVP for his efforts in leading the team back, but he was also pretty underwhelming for the first three quarters of the game and threw a pair of interceptions, so some felt that Chris Jones should be MVP instead for his 4th quarter disruptions of Jimmy Garoppolo. Jones didn’t just have a strong Super Bowl either, as the 2016 2nd round pick has finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on PFF in each of the past 3 seasons, while totalling 31 sacks, 33 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate over that time. His play against the run leaves something to be desired, but as a pass rusher he’s been more productive than any interior player other than Aaron Donald and more productive than most edge players for that matter. Those guys usually get paid and the Chiefs are unlikely to let him hit the open market.

Whether or not Jones ultimately gets paid by the Chiefs is the question though. The Chiefs already have 12 million or more annually committed to 5 players on their roster and 8 million or more annually committed to 9 players on their roster. Those 9 players currently occupy about 61% of their cap space and that’s before the inevitable Pat Mahomes megadeal. The Chiefs might not be able to afford the 9 figure deal Jones would likely command on the open market. They could franchise tag him and bring him back on a one-year deal, but this could also be a tag and trade situation like the Chiefs did with Dee Ford last off-season. The tag and trade scenario would not work as well with the transition tag, so I wouldn’t expect the Chiefs to go with the cheaper option.

S Justin Simmons (Denver)

Simmons seems like a likely franchise tag candidate. A 3rd round pick in 2016, Simmons was a solid starter prior to 2019 (32 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league), but broke out in a big way in the final year of his rookie deal last season, finishing 1st among safeties on PFF. The Broncos might not want to commit to a top of market deal based off of one dominant season, but he’s more than earned the 12.735 million dollar franchise tag and is not someone the Broncos would want to lose. The transition tag, which could force the Broncos to make a long-term commitment this off-season, probably isn’t an option.

QB Ryan Tannehill (Tennessee)

At first glance, Tannehill might seem like an obvious franchise tag candidate. He took over a 2-4 team last season and led them to 7 wins in their final 10 games to qualify for the post-season, where they won a pair of games on the road in big upsets and advanced to the AFC Championship game. In the process, he led the NFL with a 117.5 QB rating. He had a good situation around him with a strong running game and offensive line and a capable receiving corps, but he’s still not the kind of player the Titans would want to lose. However, his performance in 88 starts with the Dolphins in his first 7 seasons of his career (87.0 QB rating) suggest he’s unlikely to have suddenly become an elite quarterback, so committing to him on a big money, long-term deal is risky. 

The 26.895 million dollar franchise tag seems like a great middle ground option, but there are some complicating factors. For one, the Titans are rumored to be interested in trying to sign Tom Brady this off-season, but won’t be able to talk to him until they’ve made a decision on tagging Tannehill or not. The Titans could tag him and try to negotiate with Brady anyway, but Tannehill could end up opting to sign the tender to keep his job on a contending team. The 26.895 million dollar franchise tag is a steep increase for a quarterback who took home just 10.425 million last season. 

On top of that, the Titans also want to keep running back Derrick Henry off the open market and if a new CBA is ratified soon, the Titans wouldn’t have the option of both the franchise tag and the transition tag and would have to make a decision between Tannehill and Henry. I’d still expect Tannehill to be tagged as, even though this could be a big off-season for quarterback movement, the Titans still don’t want to be left without a chair at the end of it, but it’s not a given, especially if a new CBA is agreed to and/or the Titans get a sense they might get Brady.

OLB Matthew Judon (Baltimore)

Judon has never had a double digit sack season in his career, but he was still a dominant pass rusher in 2019, with 9.5 sacks, 24 hits, and a 14.1% pressure rate. He has his struggles against the run and his 38th ranked finish overall among edge defenders on PFF in 2019 was his career best, so he’s not an elite overall player, but he’s also not the kind of player the Ravens want to lose because of his pass rush productivity (12.2% pressure rate in his career). Working in the Ravens’ favor is the fact that Judon would be tagged as a linebacker (16.266 million) rather than a defensive end (19.316 million) because the Ravens run a 3-4 and the NFL uses archaic position titles for the franchise tag. 

WR AJ Green (Cincinnati)

It’s clear that AJ Green would prefer not to be franchise tagged, but he wouldn’t have much of a say in the matter. His only option would be to hold out the season and try to force a trade by doing so, but I don’t think Green would risk missing the season now at age 32 after missing all of last season with injury. The Bengals have never committed to top market long-term deals with players at any position and Green, despite being arguably their best player in the past decade, is unlikely to be an exception given his age and injury history. 

The Bengals likely view Tyler Boyd, who they extended on a 4-year, 43 million dollar deal, as their long-term #1, but Green can still be a difference maker when he’s on the field, and the Bengals may want to bring him back to help with likely #1 pick Joe Burrow’s development. They may view the franchise tag as a bridge to a short-term team friendly deal as the best way to proceed with Green this off-season even if that doesn’t seem to be what Green himself wants, as he’d like to try to sign a guaranteed long-term deal with a legitimate contender this off-season. The transition tag, which would force the Bengals to match a long-term deal or lose Green for no compensation, is unlikely to be an option.

OT Anthony Castonzo (Indianapolis)

There are rumors Castonzo is considering retiring ahead of what would be his age 32 season, so this is obviously assuming he wants to continue playing. If he does, the Colts will likely want to retain a left tackle who has been rock solid for them since being drafted in the first round in 2011 and still played at a high level in 2019, even being on the older side. He’s started 132 games in 9 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-23 among offensive tackles in all but his rookie season, including 3 seasons in the top-8 and a 7th ranked finish in 2019. Castonzo likely wouldn’t command a 4+ year deal in free agency, so the Colts could use either tag on him and work on a short-term extension that pays him near the top of the left tackle market for another couple seasons. They have plenty of cap space and wouldn’t want to break up a strong offensive line.

DE Arik Armstead (San Francisco)

Armstead is a good fit for the franchise tag. A first round pick in 2015, Armstead was a good run stopping defensive end with solid peripheral pass rush stats through his first 4 seasons in the league (12.3% pressure rate), but missed 18 games with injury, averaged just 406 snaps per season, and totalled a combined 9 sacks. That all changed in the final year of his rookie deal, when he broke out with 10 sacks, while adding 9 hits, and a pressure rate of 12.5%, while continuing to play the run well and playing 776 snaps overall. Overall, he finished as PFF’s 4th ranked edge defender on the season. 

The 49ers don’t want to lose someone like that with their Super Bowl window still wide open, but it would be risky to give him a big long-term deal with a lot of guaranteed money because he’s only put it all together once. Armstead also hasn’t objected to questions about the franchise tag, likely understanding that the 19.316 million it would pay him next season is still a significant sum for one year for a player who had 9 career sacks a season ago and understanding that if he has another strong year he’d likely break the bank in free agency next off-season. The transition tag is less likely because he’d probably get an offer, forcing the 49ers to decide whether or not to commit to a long-term deal with him.

DE Leonard Williams (NY Giants)

Williams was the 6th overall pick by the Jets in 2015 and overall lived up to expectations. He never posted huge sack numbers, but he was consistently a strong run stuffer and had good peripheral pass rush stats as well, adding 70 hits and a 9.7% pressure rate to his 17 sacks in 71 games with the Jets. He maxed out as PFF’s 10th ranked interior defender in 2016 and has finished in the top-28 three times. Williams made it no secret about the kind of long-term deal he’s looking for this off-season though and, as a result, the Jets traded Williams in the middle of what was an overall down year for him to the Giants for a 3rd and 5th round draft pick to recoup something for a player they weren’t expecting to bring back. 

Even after he finished last season 42nd among interior defenders on PFF, the Giants still seem to value him highly and likely didn’t trade significant draft picks for him to see him walk in free agency. Still only going into his age 26 season, Williams has obvious bounce back potential for 2020 and beyond and is likely to be tagged by the Giants with the idea of working out a long-term agreement with him. They view him as a long-term building block. 

WR Amari Cooper (Dallas)

Cooper’s situation is complicated by Dak Prescott also being a pending free agent, but the Cowboys are unlikely to let Cooper walk for nothing, after using a first round pick to acquire him just a season and a half ago. Assuming the Cowboys get use of both tags, Cooper would be an obvious candidate for the transition tag, as the Cowboys would likely match any deal he’d get on the open market. He’s averaged a 84/1225/9 slash line per 16 games in 25 games with the team and could be looking at 18-20 million annually on a long-term deal, still only going into his age 26 season.

RB Derrick Henry (Tennessee)

Henry would be a no-brainer franchise tag candidate if Tannehill wasn’t also a pending free agency. Instead, the Titans will have to hope there isn’t a new CBA and that they’ll have use of both their franchise tag and transition tag. With Tannehill likely to be franchised, Henry would be an obvious candidate for the transition tag. The 10.189 million dollar transition tag is still a steep sum for a running back, but Henry is incredibly important to the Titans’ offense and it’s likely they value him higher than any other team would and, as a result, would match any long-term deal he gets on the open market. Even after his rushing title and dominant post-season performance last season, Henry still might not reach the Todd Gurley/Ezekiel Elliott tier of running back contracts because of his limitations on passing downs. 

G Brandon Scherff (Washington)

Not much has gone right for the Redskins over the past few seasons, but the selection of Brandon Scherff 5th overall in 2015 has been one of the bright spots and, as such, the Redskins are unlikely to let one of their few true building blocks leave this off-season. Injuries are a minor concern as he’s missed 15 games in the past 3 seasons, but he’s also finished in the top-27 among guards on PFF in all 5 seasons in the league, including top-7 finishes in 2017 and 2019. Expect the Redskins to give him one of the two tags with the idea of buying them more time to sign him to a long-term deal. 

CB James Bradberry (Carolina)

The Panthers’ top cornerback, Bradberry is rumored to be looking for offers of about 14-15 million annually in free agency this off-season. The Panthers have plenty of cap space and could keep him with the 16.471 million dollar franchise tag or the 14.57 million dollar transition tag. Bradberry regularly matches up with top wide receivers, but he has had trouble holding his own, finishing in the top-15 among cornerbacks in yards allowed in each of the past 3 seasons, including 2 seasons in the top-7. Still, he’s only going into his age 26 season and the Panthers may project him as a better player going forward than he’s been in the past.

S Anthony Harris (Minnesota)

Harris wasn’t even drafted back in 2015, but the former special teamer has been a revelation as a starter for the Vikings at safety over the past season and a half. After playing 621 career defensive snaps through week 7 of his 4th season in the league in 2018, Harris took over as the starter in week 8 and has been one of the best safeties in the league since, finishing 5th among safeties on PFF in 9 starts in 2018 and then 2nd as a 15-game starter in 2019. 

Harris has been a late bloomer, but he’s only going into his age 29 season and should command a top of the market deal in free agency. The Vikings don’t want to lose him, but will need to let other players go and get creative with the cap to tag him. With so much long-term money tied up in other places and another top level safety on the team in Harrison Smith, this could ultimately be a tag and trade scenario.

TE Hunter Henry (LA Chargers)

Henry has missed 23 games in 4 seasons in the league since the Chargers took him in the 2nd round in 2016, but he’s averaged a 53/667/7 slash line per 16 games, despite spending his first two seasons as a part-time player behind Antonio Gates on the depth chart. Last season was his first full season as a starter and, though he missed 4 games with injury, he ranked 9th in the NFL in receiving yards by a tight end and was on a 869-yard pace per 16 games. Throughout his career, he’s averaged an impressive 8.85 yards per target in his career and he is also an above average blocker to boot. 

Signing Henry to a big long-term deal may be a risk, but he doesn’t turn 26 until December and there is plenty of evidence that Henry could have a monster season if he can ever put it all together for a 16-game stretch and that’s probably not the kind of player the Chargers want to lose, especially with franchise star Philip Rivers likely on his way out this off-season. I’d say there’s a better chance than not that the Chargers tag him, with the franchise tag making more sense than the transition tag because the Chargers wouldn’t have to worry about making a decision on whether or not to match.

OLB Dante Fowler (LA Rams)

Fowler has had an interesting career. Drafted 3rd overall in 2015 by the Jaguars, Fowler tore his ACL at his first practice as a professional, missed his whole rookie season, and had lost his starting job by his return, playing just 30.7 snaps per game in 39 games for the Jaguars before they traded him to the Rams for a 3rd and 5th round pick in the middle of the 2018 season. Fowler had shown promise as a pass rusher in limited action with the Jaguars, with a 10.6% pressure rate, but was underwhelming in his half season with the Rams, with 2 sacks, 5 hits, and 16 hurries on 256 pass rush snaps. Fowler hit free agency last off-season because the Jaguars had declined his 5th year option, but the Rams were willing to bring him back on a one-year, 12 million dollar deal and were rewarded with Fowler breaking out with a 11.5-sack season. 

With Fowler still only going into his age 26 season, he figures to secure a big deal in free agency this off-season. Fowler’s peripheral pass rush stats, 6 hits and a 13.2% pressure rate, weren’t as good as his sack total and he finished just 35th overall among edge defenders on PFF, so the cap strapped Rams might not see bringing him back as a necessity, but they could still tag him to keep him off the open market because the 16.266 million dollar franchise tag and the 14.08 million dollar transition tag are likely both less than he’d get annually in free agency.

DT DJ Reader (Houston)

The 6-3 346 pound Reader isn’t just a big run stuffer, although he is one of the better run stuffing base package nose tackles in the league. What could make him worth the 12.321 million dollar transition tag or even the 15.5 million dollar franchise tag is his ability to stay on the field for all 3 downs, playing 60.6% of the snaps over the past 2 seasons. He had just 2.5 sacks last season, but added 11 hits and a 9.9% pressure rate and he has a 8.4% pressure rate for his career. The 2016 5th round pick has gotten better every season in the league and finished last year as PFF’s 5th ranked interior defender overall. Big run stuffers like him that also contribute on passing downs are rare.

OLB Bud Dupree (Pittsburgh)

Dupree’s 11.5 sacks in 2019 suggest he’s someone the Steelers wouldn’t want to lose, but they are tight on cap space and Dupree has some obvious downsides. The former first round pick never topped 6 sacks in a season before his contract year in 2019 and even in 2019 he had just a 9.5% pressure rate and several of his sacks were the result of playing on an overall strong defense with a dominant edge rusher in TJ Watt on the opposite side. He was just PFF’s 25th ranked edge defender, still a career best, and has just a 9.3% pressure rate for his career, so he could be an overpay on a big long-term deal.

Tagging Dupree and making him repeat his big sack total to get a long-term deal would make a lot more sense than committing to him long-term this off-season, but the 16.266 million dollar linebacker tag could be too big of a cap hold for a #2 edge defender for a Steelers team that is short on cap space already and needs to figure out a long-term deal for TJ Watt sometime soon. The most likely scenario in which he returns to the Steelers in 2020 may be one where he returns on a team friendly deal long-term deal after not finding the market he expects in free agency. On a long-term deal, the Steelers could lower his cap hit for 2020 and keep kicking the can on their cap problems. For that reason, the transition tag might make the most sense of all. 

OT Jack Conklin (Tennessee)

Conklin’s situation is complicated by the Titans also having Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry, as well as to a lesser extent cornerback Logan Ryan, set to hit the open market without a tag. The Titans can use both tags if a new CBA isn’t agreed to before free agency, but the Titans wouldn’t be able to keep all of their top free agents off the open market without signing some long-term deals. Unless Tannehill or Henry sign a long-term deal before free agency, they’re likely to take precedence over Conklin for the tags.

That being said, if either of those two players does re-sign long-term before free agency and the Titans have the transition tag available, Conklin would become an obvious choice, even above the 29-year old Ryan. The 26-year old Conklin is very much in the prime of his career and is only hitting free agency because the Titans Jon Robinson led front office made a rare mistake last off-season in declining Conklin’s 5th year option over concerns about the health of his knee. 

That 5th year option would have had Conklin under contract for 12.86 million in 2020. The transition tag instead would cost the Titans 14.666 million. After Conklin finished last season as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle, the long-term deal the Titans are likely to have to match will probably exceed both of those totals annually with significant upfront guarantees. Injury concerns appear to be a non-factor with Conklin having never missed a game aside from the 7 he missed in 2018 while recovering from his January 2018 torn ACL. 

CB Byron Jones (Dallas)

Jones is a distant 3rd on the Cowboys’ free agent priority list behind Prescott and Cooper, but if one of those two gets signed long-term and both the franchise tag and transition tag are available to the Cowboys this off-season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jones get the transition tag. Even then, the Cowboys might not match a long-term deal he gets elsewhere as he’s likely to get paid at the top of the cornerback market and the Cowboys have other financial obligations and promising young cornerbacks behind Jones on the depth chart, but the Cowboys will likely at least try to keep a cornerback who has finished 7th and 15th among cornerbacks on PFF in the past 2 seasons respectively.

S Devin McCourty (New England)

I don’t know if McCourty would get the 12.735 million dollar franchise tag for his age 33 season in 2020, but the 10.801 million dollar transition tag could be an option. McCourty was still PFF’s 11th ranked safety last season for one of the best defenses in the league, so that wouldn’t be an unreasonable amount for him to get on a one-year deal and it would give the Patriots the right to match if McCourty were to try to sign elsewhere. McCourty probably would prefer to stay in New England, so he may give the Patriots the right to match regardless, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Patriots keep such an important player off the open market entirely.

CB Chris Harris (Denver)

Harris is a veteran who is likely to want to test the open market over being tagged, given that he’s running out of chances to sign big money deals with legitimate contenders, now going into his age 31 off-season. Harris definitely took a step back last season, finishing 35th among cornerbacks on PFF, after finishing in the top-18 in 8 straight seasons prior to last season, but there’s still an argument to be made for bringing Harris back on the 14.57 million dollar transition tag and seeing what his market is. Harris is still the Broncos’ best cornerback and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him bounce back in 2020. A long-term deal with significant guarantees might not be the best idea, but he could easily have another couple strong seasons left in the tank. As of right now, it looks like the Broncos are willing to let Harris test the market without a tag, but that could change.

TE Austin Hooper (Atlanta)

Hooper is much less likely to be tagged than fellow top free agent tight end Hunter Henry, but that’s primarily because the Falcons don’t have much cap flexibility and already have made significant investments on offense. Still, Hooper is the safer choice between the two tight ends, as his receiving totals in the past 2 seasons have both topped Henry’s career best mark and he’s also only missed 5 games in 4 seasons in the league, while Henry has missed 23, though Henry is the better blocker and more efficient pass catcher on a per target basis. Hooper is still a solid blocker though, making him one of the few tight ends in the league who can be mismatches in the passing game and hold their own in the run game. He’ll get paid by someone this off-season and the Falcons attempting a tag and trade wouldn’t be a shock.

S Jimmie Ward (San Francisco)

Much like fellow former 49ers first round pick Arik Armstead, Ward has had injury issues throughout much of his career and finally put it all together in 2019. A first round pick in 2014, Ward missed 29 games in the first 5 seasons of his career and had to settle for a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal to return to the 49ers last off-season. That contract started out with more of the same, with Ward missing the first 3 games of the season, but he returned to play the rest of the way and finished 8th among safeties on PFF. His previous best finish was 28th, so he’s the definition of a one-year wonder and his injury history is obviously concerning, but I would expect the 49ers to at least consider tagging him, even though it’s likely unrealistic given their cap situation to keep both Armstead and Ward on big contracts long-term.

MLB Cory Littleton (LA Rams)

Originally undrafted in 2016, Littleton has worked his way up from a special teamer in his first two seasons to a starter in 2018 and, after a solid first season as a starter, Littleton took his game to another level in 2019, finishing 6th among off ball linebackers on PFF. He has a few things working against his chances of getting tagged though. For one, the Rams are tight on cap space. Two, the linebacker tag value is inflated because of 3-4 edge rushing linebackers, so Littleton would cost 16.266 million on the franchise tag and 14.08 million on the transition tag, which would rank 3rd and 5th annually among non-rush linebackers. Three, the Rams also have rush linebacker Dante Fowler set to hit free agency and may prefer to tag him instead, if they end up keeping either one.

RB Kenyan Drake (Arizona)

The idea of Drake being tagged would have seemed ridiculous a few months ago when the Cardinals acquired him from the Dolphins at the trade deadline for just a 6th round pick, but Drake turned what was supposed to be a temporary stint as the starter with David Johnson and Chase Edmonds hurt into a full-time gig, rushing for 643 yards and 8 touchdowns on 123 carries (5.23 YPC) in 8 games, while adding 28 catches for 171 yards through the air. 

Johnson still has 5.1 million guaranteed on his contract for 2020 and the Cardinals would lose cap space if they cut him, but they could trade him, though they’d likely have to get creative with the deal structure and eat salary in that scenario. Reportedly, they’d be doing that with the idea of tagging Drake and keeping him long-term. It might not be likely, but Drake is a perfect fit for the Cardinals’ wide open offense with his ability to make plays in space and run over defenses that are lined up to defend the pass. 

Drake never posted big numbers in Miami, but he averaged 4.60 yards per carry on 333 carries running behind an awful offensive line, while breaking 67 tackles and averaging 3.29 yards per carry after contact. The one downside is he’s never had more than 170 carries in a season even dating back to high school, so he hasn’t proven he can hold up as a feature back for a full season yet, but he also has fresh legs going into his age 26 season with 456 career carries. Drake could be a candidate for the transition tag as well as the Cardinals likely value him more than any other team would and would match any long-term deal he signs. Johnson’s presence on a big salary obviously complicates things though.

Top-10 Most Likely Destinations if Brady Were to Leave New England

Free agency is always a big time of year for the NFL, but this year’s free agency has a potential free agent case unlikely any other, with 6-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Tom Brady set to hit free agency for the first time in two decades in the league ahead of his age 43 season. Unlike when Peyton Manning hit free agency in 2012, Brady is not coming off of a significant injury and, though his age is unprecedented for a top level quarterback, he still played at a relatively high level all things considered in 2019. 

Brady originally was set to enter the 2019 season with two years left on his deal, but he and the Patriots re-negotiated a “3-year” deal with automatically voiding years in 2020 and 2021, making him a free agent this off-season, without allowing the Patriots the option of the franchise tag to keep him off the open market. The move was originally seen as a way for the Patriots to free up cap space, as they got an additional 5.5 million in space for 2019 because of the structure of the deal, but they also gave Brady a 8 million dollar raise in 2019 and would incur a 13.5 million dollar cap hit on the first day of free agency if Brady is not re-signed by them, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense that they would give up a controlled year of Brady just for financial reasons.

More likely, the Patriots just wanted to do right by Brady and allow him the opportunity to choose where he wants to play in 2020 and beyond. Under the original structure of his deal, Brady’s future would be completely controlled by the Patriots. If they wanted to find another option in free agency and trade Brady or cut him late in free agency, Brady would have had no control over that. Brady likely did not like that arrangement, especially given the Patriots’ history of doing that kind of thing with veteran players, and asked for a restructured deal that allowed him to hit free agency in 2020 if he wished and the Patriots were willing oblige as an act of good faith towards their long-time franchise quarterback.

Throughout the season, rumors started coming out that Brady would look to leave after the season, even putting his house up for sale, and those rumors didn’t slow down when the Patriots were surprisingly bounced in the wild card round after a 8-0 start. Now about a month before free agency, Brady hitting the open market seems inevitable. The Patriots should still be considered the favorite to keep him, as they offer a competitive football situation with stability and familiarity that no one else can offer, but Brady will at least listen to other options. 

Money will be part of it, but Brady likely values a Super Bowl contending situation and long-term stability more than anything. Ultimately, I think the one thing that would entice Brady to leave New England is a Kirk Cousins style fully guaranteed 3-year deal, something the Patriots would be highly unlikely to give to him. Guaranteeing that kind of money to a quarterback for his age 43-45 seasons would be an obvious risk, but it wouldn’t surprise me if a competitive team were willing to give him that kind of stability. Behind the Patriots, I’ve assembled a list of the top-10 teams Brady could be playing for next season.

I’ve eliminated destinations that wouldn’t make sense based on a few factors: any team with a locked in financial commitment to their current quarterback in 2020 (Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Green Bay, Seattle, LA Rams, Minnesota), any team with a young quarterback who wouldn’t want to give a fully guaranteed 3-year deal to a quarterback over 40 (NY Giants, Buffalo, NY Jets, Houston, Kansas City, Baltimore, Cleveland, Arizona), and any team that is not close to competing for a Super Bowl (Washington, Miami, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, Carolina, and Detroit). That leaves 10 options, which make varying levels of sense. Below is the list in reverse order of likelihood.

10. Chicago Bears

I thought about eliminating the Bears because they have a young quarterback, but the jury is very much still out on former #2 overall pick Mitch Trubisky and it’s not hard to see how the Bears could be interested in upgrading with Brady, even if it means giving up on Trubisky long-term. The bigger issue here is financial, as the Bears have among the least cap space in the league going into this off-season, even before re-signing their own free agents. They don’t seem to have the long-term financial flexibility to make the kind of offer Brady is looking for.

9. Denver Broncos

The Broncos also could have been eliminated because of their young quarterback Drew Lock, a 2019 2nd round pick who went 4-1 in 5 rookie year starts, but the Broncos aren’t as tied to him long-term as they would have been had he gone in the first round. On top of that, John Elway’s propensity to go after older Super Bowl winning quarterbacks is well known, bringing in Peyton Manning back in 2012 and then in a less successful move Joe Flacco last off-season. The Broncos could use more skill position talent, but they have the defense to be a competitive team with good quarterback play and are coming off of a 4-1 stretch to end the season with an up and down rookie under center. 

8. New Orleans Saints

The Saints might shoot to the top of the list in the unlikely scenario that Brees decides to hang them up this off-season, but the low likelihood of that scenario keeps the Saints near the bottom of the list. If Brees does decide to retire, Brady would likely give the Saints their best chance of continuing to compete in 2020 and the Saints would give Brady an obvious Super Bowl contending roster around him. With Brees at least considering retirement, file Brady to the Saints under crazy but not completely impossible.

7. Dallas Cowboys

By all indications, the Cowboys view Dak Prescott as a franchise quarterback, but with Prescott set to hit free agency this off-season and reportedly seeking $35-$40 million annually and Brady available as a short-term replacement, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing to see the Cowboys get in the mix for Brady. Jerry Jones loves the star power Brady would bring to the organization and the Cowboys are one of the more talented teams Brady could go to. Ultimately they may just not want to part ways with a quarterback in the prime of his career for one at the tailend of his. Brady may also have concerns about the coaching staff and the structure of the Cowboys’ organization. For those reasons, the Cowboys are relatively low on the list.

6. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers just made the Super Bowl with Jimmy Garoppolo, but Garoppolo is in the non-guaranteed portion of his contract and can be let go without any money owed in 2020 and with only 4.2 million in deap cap and he may be a bit of a weak link on an otherwise dominant roster. With Brady going into his age 43 season, it would be risky for the 49ers to cut ties with Garoppolo, who is certainly a capable starter in the prime of his career, but they may view that as a worthwhile risk to make while their championship window is open.

5. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts do have some guaranteed money owed to current starter Jacoby Brissett in 2020, but just 8.875 million out of 15.875 million total, so they have the leverage to ask him to take a pay cut, either as part of a trade to compete for a job elsewhere or to stay in Indianapolis and reclaim his old role as Tom Brady’s backup. As crazy as it would be to see Brady in a Colts uniform after all his memorable matchups against them, the Colts do have a solid roster on both sides of the ball, one that was considered a pre-season Super Bowl contender before Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement, and they have the cap space to sign Brady to a top of the market deal and still have money leftover to make other additions in free agency.

4. Las Vegas Raiders

Derek Carr isn’t a bad quarterback, but his 19 million dollar salary for 2020 is non-guaranteed and the Raiders can move on from him with just 7.9 million in dead cap, so they’re widely expected to pursue Brady as a short-term upgrade over Carr this off-season, as they look to make a splash in their first season in Las Vegas. The Raiders have a strong offensive line and running game and you can imagine Brady making heavy use of a shifty slot receiver in Hunter Renfrow and a pass catching tight end in Darren Waller, but their defense still has a lot of problems, so adding Brady wouldn’t make them instant contenders. Brady would have a better chance to win with any of the three teams above the Raiders on this list.

3. Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers were the first team linked to Brady when it was rumored that he might leave the Patriots. The Chargers went just 5-11 last season, but they were in most of their games despite serious injury absences and they’re looking to upgrade on likely departing quarterback Philip Rivers, who is coming off of a down year and heading into free agency ahead of his age 39 season. Brady also grew up in California, albeit 400 miles north, and owns property in Los Angeles where he has spent long stretches of previous off-seasons, so many have been connecting dots between Brady and the Chargers for months.

The Chargers have obvious talent on both sides of the ball, but they would need to significantly improve their offensive line this off-season for Brady not to suffer the same fate as Philip Rivers did last season and the Chargers organizational dysfunction can’t be ignored when evaluating the Chargers as an option either. Dean Spanos is widely viewed as one of the worst owners in football and, while Brady’s addition would undoubtedly draw more fans to the stadium, Brady would still be dealing with the possibility of playing in front of crowds that favor the opposite team every week if he were to go to the Chargers. After two decades with the most stable organization in the league, that might not be something Brady wants to deal with.

2. Tennessee Titans

The Titans ended Brady’s season and possibly his career with the Patriots with their upset victory over them in the post-season earlier this year and they would make sense as a destination for Brady if he were to leave New England. The Titans won 9 of 13 games including playoffs with journeyman Ryan Tannehill under center last season, en route to a surprise AFC Championship appearance, but Tannehill is a free agent this off-season and the Titans, who have plenty of New England connections already, including head coach Mike Vrabel and GM Jon Robinson, may see Brady as a higher upside option than Tannehill, even in his age 43 season. 

The Titans have the cap space to sign Brady and keep both running back Derrick Henry and right tackle Jack Conklin, to ensure Brady is supported by the same offensive line and running game as Tannehill was. The Titans might give Brady his best chance to win a Super Bowl. The only reason they’re 2nd on this list is because, even with all of their New England connections, they may prefer to bring back Ryan Tannehill instead given how well he played down the stretch and Brady’s age. The Titans were widely expected to retain Tannehill on the franchise tag according to reports a couple months ago and it’s unclear if that’s changed even with the possibility of acquiring Brady seemingly on the table.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

While the Titans may prefer to bring back Tannehill rather than sign Brady, the Buccaneers are highly unlikely to prefer their incumbent quarterback to Brady. They’ve been linked to basically every available quarterback this off-season as they look for an upgrade over Jameis Winston, who led the NFL with 5,109 passing yards and finished 2nd with 33 passing touchdowns last season, but also threw 30 interceptions, most by a quarterback in a season since 1988. Winston was widely considered to be a great fit for Arians’ downfield scheme, but he cost them at least a couple wins with costly interceptions and, even only going into his age 26 season, Arians may feel he’s gotten the most he can get out of Winston.

Given that the Buccaneers are obviously in the market for an upgrade, Brady going to Tampa Bay would make a lot of sense. He’d get to work with a respected head coach and offensive mind in Bruce Arians, he’d get to throw to arguably the top wide receiver duo in the NFL in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and he’d be supported by an up and coming young defense. The Buccaneers could have been a playoff team with competent quarterback play in 2019. In 2020, they could be Super Bowl contenders if they can find the right signal caller and, even going into his age 43 season, Brady should be at the top of their list.

If Brady does leave, the question then becomes who would replace him in New England. The Patriots like backup Jarrett Stidham, but there are no indications they believe the 2019 4th round pick could start in 2020. On top of that, the Patriots would have many more veteran options available to them this off-season than they would in a normal off-season, as this is shaping up to be a big off-season for quarterback movement, so they’re likely to go that route. Below are the top-3 most likely replacements if Brady were to sign elsewhere this off-season.

3. Andy Dalton

Dalton is unlikely to be back in Cincinnati unless he’s willing to take a significantly reduced rate to be a veteran backup for likely #1 overall pick Joe Burrow, but he hasn’t been a bad quarterback throughout 133 starts in 9 seasons with the Bengals and could have at least some trade value on essentially a one-year, 17.7 million dollar deal, which makes him just the 17th highest paid quarterback in the NFL in average annual salary. He may also be willing to take a pay cut for the right situation. Dalton has never been one to carry a weak roster, but he’d have a strong defense supporting him in New England and the Patriots could bring along his long-time #1 option AJ Green with the savings from replacing Brady with Dalton. 

2. Philip Rivers

Rivers is all but out with the Chargers, even if they don’t sign Brady, as their plan B seems to be veteran incumbent backup Tyrod Taylor and a rookie. Rivers is strongly rumored to be interested in signing with the Buccaneers and he just relocated his family to Florida, but if Brady goes there instead, Rivers could be very intrigued by the opportunity to go north and compete for a Super Bowl in New England. A Super Bowl win is the one thing missing from an otherwise Hall-of-Fame career and the Patriots would provide the kind of organizational stability he rarely had with the Chargers. He’s coming off of a down year and going into his age 39 season, but he had a strong season in 2018 and has as much upside as any quarterback available this off-season.

1. Teddy Bridgewater

Bridgewater could potentially be Drew Brees’ eventual replacement in New Orleans, but if Brady leaves New England, don’t be surprised if Bridgewater ends up as Brady’s replacement instead. Unlike Dalton and Rivers, who would be one or two year stop gaps, Bridgewater is still only going into his age 28 season and could be a long-term franchise quarterback. The 2014 first round pick looked on his way towards doing so in the first 2 seasons of his career, but he suffered a horrific knee injury before the 2016 season that put his career on hold. It’s been a long road back for Bridgewater, but he showed a lot of promise in a 5 and a half game stretch in place of an injured Brees last season and is reportedly willing to leave the Saints for a guaranteed starting job elsewhere. Bridgewater, who excels in the short to intermediate part of the field where the Patriots love to attack, could be a great fit in Foxborough.

Not so honorable mentions: Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston

Neither one would make sense as a reclamation project for a team that would have Super Bowl ambitions even without Brady. Winston is the most turnover prone quarterback in the league, which wouldn’t fly with coach Bill Belichick, while Mariota has shown few signs of being an above average starting quarterback in 61 career starts. The Patriots figure to have better options available even in a worst case scenario. They could also look at quarterbacks early in the draft depending on what happens.

On top of that, the Patriots list of options could change in a fluid quarterback market. With some of the aforementioned possible destinations, Brady’s arrival would make the incumbent starter available. Brady going to Tennessee would make Ryan Tannehill an option. Derek Carr would be an option if Brady were to go to Oakland. Former Brady backups Jimmy Garroppolo and Jacoby Brissett could become available if Brady were to replace either of them. 

Dak Prescott would be an unrestricted free agent if Jerry Jones went with Brady instead, though the Patriots are unlikely to be his highest bidder on the open market. Veterans like Cam Newton and Nick Foles could also become available depending on what their current teams want to do long-term, as crazy as it would be to see either of those guys in a Patriots uniform. While Brady is likely to stay put, this is shaping up to be an exciting off-season at the quarterback position around the league.

2015 NFL Draft Redo

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DE Danielle Hunter (LSU)

After 5 seasons, the jury is still out on the quarterback the Buccaneers took here, Jameis Winston, which is not what you want from a quarterback you select first overall. With Winston set to hit free agency, the Buccaneers are exploring all other quarterback options and seem to view Winston as a last resort. Unfortunately, there isn’t a sure fire franchise quarterback in this draft worth taking #1 overall, so the Buccaneers address another need, by adding arguably the best overall player from this draft class. 

Hunter was just a third round selection, but he has 54.5 sacks and a 13.4% pressure rate in 78 career games and has been as good as any pass rusher in the league over the past 2 seasons, with 29 sacks, 3rd in the NFL. Also a good run defender, Hunter is coming off the best overall season of his career in 2019, finishing 8th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, and he doesn’t even turn 26 until October. 

2. Tennessee Titans – OT Trent Brown (Florida)

Like the Buccaneers, the jury is still out on the quarterback the Titans selected here, Marcus Mariota, who the Titans are fully expected to let hit free agency this off-season. Without a good quarterback option here, the Titans address a big need at right tackle with Trent Brown. They eventually fixed their right tackle problem with the 8th overall pick in 2016 Jack Conklin, but taking Brown a year earlier would have allowed the Titans to use that pick elsewhere. Brown was just a 7th round pick originally due to weight concerns, but he’s stayed in shape and has developed into one of the best right tackles in the league. In a draft class that lacks many elite players, he’d make sense even as high as #2 overall. 

3. Jacksonville Jaguars – DT Grady Jarrett (Clemson)

The Jaguars’ original pick Dante Fowler eventually developed into a solid player with the Rams, but he was never worth this pick for the Jaguars and only returned a 3rd and 5th round pick via trade. With Hunter off the board, there isn’t a top flight edge rusher available here for the Jaguars, but with Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell coming in subsequent off-seasons, defensive end hasn’t been a need for the Jaguars in recent years, which is part of why they let Fowler go.

Instead, they fill a need at defensive tackle with Grady Jarrett, who is one of the best all-around defensive tackles in the NFL, despite only being a 5th round pick originally. He’s finished 16th, 6th, and 3rd respectively on Pro Football Focus among interior defenders on PFF in the past 3 seasons, dominating as a run stuffer, ranking 3rd in the NFL among defensive tackles with 35 tackles for a loss, and totalling 17.5 sacks, 30 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate in 46 games.  

4. Oakland Raiders – CB Marcus Peters (Washington)

The way Peters plays sometimes, he could arguably go off the board #1 in this re-draft, but he’s been inconsistent enough to already be on his 3rd team in 5 seasons in the league. He struggled so much with the Rams that they got rid of him in what amounted to a salary dump, only to watch him be one of the top cornerbacks in the league for a dominant Ravens defense the rest of the year. He’s finished 16th, 14th, and 4th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2016, 2017, and 2019 respectively, but also 99th in 2018.

The Raiders are the kind of team willing to take the good with the bad with a player like Peters, who is originally from the Oakland area and would be a big help for a team that has had significant cornerback problems for years. Amari Cooper wasn’t a bad choice by the Raiders here originally, but considering they ended up trading him 3 and a half years later, albeit for a future first round pick, it’s likely they’d go another direction in a re-draft.

5. Washington Redskins – G Brandon Scherff (Iowa)

The Redskins have been pretty happy with their original selection of Scherff here, aside from a few injuries (15 games missed over the past 3 seasons). He’s finished in the top-27 among guards on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league, including top-7 finishes in 2017 and 2019. He made 12.525 million on his 5th year option last season and could set a new high for the position with 14+ million annually with a new deal in free agency this off-season. He’s a candidate for the 14.915 million dollar franchise tag for a Redskins team that doesn’t want to lose one of their few building blocks on offense. 

6. New York Jets – RB Todd Gurley (Georgia)

Todd Gurley was a tough one to place. He’s played like an MVP at times, but he plays a position with a short shelf life and just five years into his career he already has significant injury and durability concerns and is signed to an increasingly bad looking 4-year, 57.5 million dollar deal that has already paid him 15 million in new money even though it technically hasn’t even started yet. There are also concerns about how he would perform without all of the talent around him on the Rams’ offense. Without an obvious other option, the Jets take a chance at 6, hope to get a few great years from him, and maybe would be wise enough with full hindsight to let him walk at the end of his rookie deal. 

7. Chicago Bears – WR Amari Cooper (Alabama)

It’s crazy to think the debate for top wide receiver in this draft class was between Amari Cooper and Kevin White, who originally went 7th overall to the Bears after Cooper went 4th to the Raiders. White suffered a series of career disrupting injuries and ended up with 25 catches in 14 games with the Bears, while Cooper, though he hasn’t always played at 100% through injuries of his own, has averaged a 71/1019/7 slash line in 5 seasons in the league and is coming off of a career best at 79/1189/8, putting him 8th in the NFL in receiving yards last season. The Cowboys are unlikely to let him hit free agency this off-season, but he figures to get a massive payday either way. He would be a dream selection for a Bears team that has still had issues at the wide receiver position to this day. 

8. Atlanta Falcons – DE Trey Flowers (Arkansas)

The Falcons originally used this draft pick on Vic Beasley, who had 15.5 sacks in 2016, but otherwise had a very disappointing tenure in Atlanta. Even in that 2016 season, he struggled mightily against the run and his peripheral pass rush stats (4 hits, 11.9% pressure rate) were not as good as his sack total. Overall, Beasley had just 37.5 sacks, 18 hits, and a 9.6% pressure rate in 78 games with the Falcons, while offering little in run support, and he’s not expected to be brought back as a free agent this off-season. 

Flowers, on the other hand, has never had a big sack total, with his career high being 7.5, but he has strong peripheral pass rush numbers and is stout against the run. Over the past 3 seasons, he has 21 sacks, 46 hits, and a 13.5% pressure rate and was rewarded last off-season by the Lions with a 5-year, 90 million dollar deal in free agency. The Lions struggled defensively in Flowers’ first season in town, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked edge defender, so he wasn’t to blame for their struggles. 

9. New York Giants – S Landon Collins (Alabama)

Collins had an unceremonious exit from the Giants last off-season with new GM Dave Gettleman in town, but he had a good 4 years with the team and is one of the better safeties in the league. The Giants originally got him in the first round, but take him 9th overall in this re-draft, rather than wasting this pick on mega-bust Ereck Flowers. Collins maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety in 2016 for the Giants.

10. St. Louis Rams – WR Stefon Diggs (Maryland)

It’s hard to imagine given the receiving corps the Rams have now, but back in their St. Louis days, the Rams annually had among the worst receiving corps in the league for years. Stefon Diggs was just a 5th round pick in this draft originally, but he had an impressive 52/720/4 slash line as a rookie and has averaged a 78/976/7 slash line in 4 seasons since, despite sharing targets with top receiver Adam Theilen. If the Rams had taken him here, he could have given them a #1 receiver sooner and would have saved them from spending a first round pick to acquire Brandin Cooks. 

11. Minnesota Vikings – S Adrian Amos (Penn State)

The Vikings had two of their later picks already go in the top-10 in this re-draft (Danielle Hunter, Stefon Diggs), but they can at least upgrade on their original pick Trae Waynes. Waynes hasn’t been a bad cornerback, but the Vikings used a second round pick on a cornerback in 2016 (Mackenzie Alexander) and a first round pick on a cornerback in 2018 (Mike Highes) after taking Waynes in the first in 2015, so he certainly didn’t solve their cornerback problem, and, now a free agent, he’s not expected to return and could be replaced by yet another highly drafted cornerback this off-season.

In this re-draft, the Vikings take a safety instead, adding another talented safety to play alongside Harrison Smith. Drafting Amos, who originally fell to the Bears in the 5th round, would keep him from one divisional rival and potentially from another, the Packers, if the Vikings were able to sign him long-term after his rookie deal. An underrated player, Amos has been a top-32 safety on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-17 and a career best 3rd ranked finish in 2017.

12. Cleveland Browns – DE Frank Clark (Michigan)

The Browns went with a defensive tackle here originally, taking Danny Shelton, but I thought defensive end was a more pressing need. Shelton never panned out any way, nor did Nate Orchard, the defensive end they selected in the 2nd round, who had just 5 sacks in 34 games with the Browns. The Browns didn’t have a single pass rusher with more than 6 sacks in either 2015 or 2016 and, while the addition of Myles Garrett #1 overall in 2017 certainly helped, they could have used another talented defensive end opposite him. Adding Clark here saves them from having to trade their top offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler to acquire Olivier Vernon before the 2019 season.

Originally a second round selection, Clark has 41 sacks, 37 hits, and a 12.2% pressure rate over the past 4 seasons, while playing also playing the run well. He could have gone in the top-10, but I dropped him a little because of off-the-field concerns. He’s stayed out of trouble as a professional and earned a 5-year, 104 million dollar deal from the Chiefs last off-season, but his troubling history in college was why he fell out of the first round originally and some teams might still not view him as an option for that reason.

13. New Orleans Saints – MLB Eric Kendricks (UCLA)

The Saints blew chances to get Drew Brees another shot at a ring in 2014, 2015, 2016 when they supported when with arguably the worst defense in the league every season. They eventually made some significant upgrades on their defense, but they needed help in all three levels in 2015 and instead used this pick on offensive lineman Andrus Peat, who turned out to be an inconsistent and injury prone starter in 5 seasons with the team. 

In this re-draft, they take the top defensive player available, Eric Kendricks. Kendricks has made 70 starts in 5 seasons in the league and, while he was a solid if unspectacular starter for the first 4 seasons, he is coming off of a dominant 2019 campaign in which he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked linebacker. He’s an obvious upgrade over Stephone Anthony, a megabust linebacker that the Saints drafted 31st overall in 2015 later in the first round.

14. Miami Dolphins – G Shaq Mason (Georgia Tech)

The Dolphins have seemingly needed upgrades across their offensive line for years and 2015 was no exception. Miami’s division rival New England found a steal in the 4th round in 2015 with Shaq Mason and locked him up on a very reasonable 5-year, 45 million dollar extension in 2018. At his best, Mason is one of the best guards in the league, topping out as Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked guard in 2018 and finishing in the top-12 at his position in each of the past 4 seasons.

15. San Diego Chargers – C David Andrews (Georgia)

Here is another diamond in the rough that the Patriots found on their offensive line in 2015, although Andrews wasn’t even drafted. Andrews developed into Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center in 2017 and their 11th ranked center in 2018 and his absence in 2019 with blood clots was as big of a reason as any for the Patriots’ offensive struggles. He’s expected back at full strength in 2020 and would be a welcome return. In this re-draft, he’d be a welcome addition for a Chargers team that much like Miami has needed help across their offensive line for years. He’d replace the recently retired Nick Hardwick at center.

16. Houston Texans – CB Byron Jones (Connecticut)

The Texans originally used this pick on Kevin Johnson, but he was often injured throughout his tenure with the Texans and ended up playing just 35 games in 4 seasons with the team. In this re-draft, they take a different cornerback. Not only has Jones stayed relatively healthy (1 game missed in 5 seasons), but he also maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback in 2018 and has the versatility to play safety as well, which has also been a problem position for the Texans over the years. He’s been a bit inconsistent, but he’d be a welcome addition for the Texans and figures to get a sizable deal from someone as a free agent this off-season.

17. San Francisco 49ers – DE Za’Darius Smith (Kentucky)

The 49ers originally used this pick on Arik Armstead, who broke out as a pass rusher during the 49ers run to the Super Bowl in 2019, but in this re-draft they use this pick on a player who broke out earlier. Smith may seem like a one-year wonder because he wasn’t a household name until his dominant 2019 season in the first year of a 4-year, 66 million dollar deal with the Packers, but there’s a reason he got that big contract in the first place.

In his final 2 seasons in Baltimore, the former 4th round pick had 12 sacks, 32 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate as a part-time player. As an every down player in Green Bay, Smith flourished with 13.5 sacks, 24 hits, and a league best 17.1% pressure rate. Smith isn’t the best run defender, but he took a big step forward in that area this season and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked edge defender overall. He didn’t do much for the first couple years of his career, but he’s worth the wait and could have broken out as a high level player sooner if he had more opportunity early in his career.

18. Kansas City Chiefs – MLB Benardrick McKinney (Mississippi)

The Chiefs lacked linebacker depth behind a then-33-year-old Derrick Johnson during the 2015 season and linebacker has been even more of a problem since Johnson left following the 2017 season. The Chiefs managed to win the Super Bowl without good linebackers, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use a talented every down linebacker like McKinney. McKinney has finished in the top-30 among linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league (73 starts), maxing out at 9th in 2018. He’s a capable edge rusher in addition to being above average against the run and in coverage as a traditional linebacker.

19. Cleveland Browns – OT Rob Havenstein (Wisconsin)

The Browns originally used this pick on offensive lineman Cameron Erving, with the idea that he would replace either center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, who were going into the final year of their contracts. The Browns wound up losing both Mack and Schwartz and Erving struggled wherever the Browns tried him, including guard. They eventually sent him to the Chiefs for a 5th round pick after just 2 seasons with the team. 

Instead, they take right tackle Rob Havenstein to replace Schwartz at right tackle in this re-draft. Havenstein had a down year due to injuries in 2019, but he made 59 starts in his first 4 seasons in the league, was an above average starter in all 4 seasons, and ranked 3rd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as recently as 2018. He has obvious bounce back potential in 2020 and would be a welcome addition to the Browns who have struggled to replace Schwartz to this day. The 5-year, 36.5 million dollar deal they gave to ex-Steeler Chris Hubbard two off-seasons ago has not worked out.

20. Philadelphia Eagles – DT Leonard Williams (USC)

The Eagles love having a deep defensive line and have lacked a true counterpart for Fletcher Cox for years so Leonard Williams is too good for them to pass on at this point. He’s never posted the big sack numbers, with just 17.5 in his career and only a half sack last season, but his peripheral pass rush stats are much better, 86 hits and a 10.0% pressure rate, and he’s a strong run stuffer as well. He’s maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked interior defender in 2016 and has finished in the top-28 three times.

Williams had a down year last year and was traded by the Jets to the Giants at the deadline for a 3rd and 5th round pick, with the Jets unwilling to meet his asking price in long-term negotiations, but the Giants reportedly value him highly enough to keep him on the franchise tag if needed. He’d be a good addition for the Eagles if they could get their hands on him, as defensive tackle remains a need for them to this day.

21. Cincinnati Bengals – OT La’El Collins (LSU)

The Bengals used their first two draft picks in 2015 on offensive tackles Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher, but somehow both were complete busts and offensive tackle remains a need to this day. Maybe if La’el Collins weren’t unfortunately under investigation for murder (he was cleared a few days later) at the time of the draft, the Bengals would have taken him with one of those two picks, but instead he fell out of the draft completely and then signed with the Cowboys when his name was cleared. Collins took a few years to develop, in part because he played out of position at guard early in his career, but he’s seemingly gotten better every season and has turned into one of the top right tackles in the league. Last season was his best, as he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked offensive tackle overall.

22. Pittsburgh Steelers – OLB Bud Dupree (Kentucky)

Here is a rare case of a team sticking with their original pick. Dupree was a bit of a disappointment through his first 4 seasons as he was an average starting outside linebacker who never topped 6 sacks in a season, but he broke out in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, with 11.5 sacks, 9 hits, and a 9.4% pressure rate, while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked edge defender overall. The Steelers are understandably wary about locking him up long-term on a big extension with significant guaranteed money based on one big year, but they don’t want to let him go either, so he’ll almost definitely be franchise tagged this off-season. If he showed his top form more consistently, he would go higher in this re-draft, but I think the Steelers would still take him again at 22 if they had these choices and full hindsight.

23. Denver Broncos – QB Jameis Winston (Florida State)

Jameis Winston was arguably the toughest player to slot in this re-draft. He’s made 70 starts in 5 seasons with the Buccaneers, but seemed to never progress as a decision maker and the Buccaneers are reportedly exploring all other quarterback options this off-season, with Winston returning seemingly a last resort option. Most teams have had at least one quarterback better than Winston in the 5 years since this draft and he’s unlikely to have a significant market as a free agent if the Buccaneers don’t bring him back, so he wouldn’t be a high pick this time around, but he could still go in the first round in a draft without another good quarterback option and the Broncos would make a lot of sense, as they are one of the few teams that hasn’t had a better quarterback than Winston over the past 5 seasons. 

At the time of this draft, the Broncos had a washed up Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler under contract and both left the following off-season, leading to the Broncos wasting a first round pick in 2016 on Paxton Lynch and starting players like Trevor Siemian, Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, and Brandon Allen before eventually potentially finding something with 2019 2nd round pick Drew Lock, who went 4-1 in rookie year starts. Perhaps the Broncos will think they could get more out of Winston than the Buccaneers did and even if they don’t he’d still be arguably the best quarterback they’ve had in 5 years. They could be an option to sign him in free agency this off-season if they’re looking for competition for Lock.

24. Arizona Cardinals – OLB Dante Fowler (Florida)

The 2015 Cardinals made it to the NFC Championship, but their team leader in sacks was 35-year-old passing down specialist Dwight Freeney with 8 and no one else had more than 5. They acquired Chandler Jones the following off-season, but have lacked a consistent complement opposite him. Dante Fowler was originally the 3rd overall pick in this draft, but missed his rookie year with a torn ACL and was buried on the depth chart when he returned, playing just 1,198 snaps total in 39 games for the Jaguars before they traded him to the Rams for a 3rd and 5th round pick. 

Fowler’s first half season with the Rams was underwhelming, but he took his play to another level in 2019, totaling 11.5 sacks, 6 hits, and a 13.2% pressure rate while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked edge defender. Still only going into his age 26 season, Fowler’s best may still be yet to come now that he’s past his early career injuries. His slow start to his career drops him into the late first round in this re-draft, but he’d be valuable for the Cardinals. 

25. Carolina Panthers – CB Steven Nelson (Oregon State)

The Panthers originally used this pick on linebacker Shaq Thompson, who has been a solid player, but he was stuck as a part-time 3rd linebacker behind Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis in his first four seasons in the league, so the Panthers address another position. Cornerback was their biggest need going into the 2015 off-season and it was one they never addressed. They were able to make it to the Super Bowl the following season as a cornerback group led by breakout player Josh Norman overperformed, but Norman left the following off-season and cornerback has been a position of need in the years since he left. 

Originally a 3rd round pick, Nelson has made 53 starts over the past 4 seasons for the Chiefs and Steelers and has seemingly gotten better every year. His best year with the Chiefs was his final one in 2018 when he finished 27th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and he was even better in 2019 in the first year of a 3-year, 25.5 million dollar deal with the Steelers, finishing 6th among cornerbacks. 

26. Baltimore Ravens – WR Tyler Lockett (Kansas State)

Lockett’s first three seasons in the league were underwhelming as he never topped 664 yards receiving, but he’s emerged as the Seahawks’ top wide receiver over the past 2 seasons, posting 57/965/10 and 82/1057/8 slash lines despite playing on a run heavy offense. He’s averaged 1.97 yards per route run and 11.2 yards per target over the past 2 seasons as Russell Wilson’s top option and it’s not hard to imagine how he could have a similar impact playing with Lamar Jackson or even catching deep bombs from Joe Flacco like Torrey Smith and Mike Wallace.

27. Dallas Cowboys – MLB Shaq Thompson (Washington)

The Cowboys now have an impressive linebacker duo of Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Brown, but for years they lacked depth behind the oft injured Sean Lee. Shaq Thompson didn’t get a lot of playing time early in his career behind Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, but he could have shined in a bigger role in Dallas. He had always flashed in limited action playing about 38.1 snaps per game in his first 4 seasons in the league and finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked linebacker in his first season as an every down player.

28. Detroit Lions – DT Eddie Goldman (Florida State)

Defensive tackle was a need in 2015 for a Lions team that had just lost Ndamukong Suh to the Dolphins. Goldman isn’t quite on Suh’s level, but he’s a talented defensive tackle that the Lions would be taking away from their division rival Chicago Bears. Not just a big run stuffer at 6-4 320, Goldman also has 12.5 sacks, 8 hits, and a 7.0% pressure rate in 5 seasons in the league and his best could still be yet to come, only going into his age 26 season.

29. Indianapolis Colts – G Ali Marpet (Hobart)

Offensive line was an obvious need for the Colts for years, but they didn’t figure out the unit until late in Andrew Luck’s career and by then he had already suffered enough injuries to want to retire. If they had protected him better, perhaps he would still be playing. Even if he wouldn’t be, he certainly would have benefited from better play in front of him throughout his career. Marpet has made 72 starts for the Buccaneers in 5 seasons and has been an above average starter at all three interior offensive line spots at different points in his career. He’d be a great addition for the Colts.

30. Green Bay Packers – MLB Jordan Hicks (Texas)

The Packers’ linebacker problems were obvious in their loss to the 49ers in the 2019 NFC Championship, but their issues at that position go back much further. Adding someone like Jordan Hicks in 2015 would have been a big boost. Hicks plays like one of the best linebackers in the league at times, finishing 3rd among linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2016 and 12th in 2018, but he’s inconsistent and injury prone (missing 21 of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league), which makes him available at the end of the first round. The Packers did well in free agency last off-season, but would have benefited from outbidding the 4-year, 34 million dollar deal the ex-Eagle Hicks got from the Cardinals last off-season.

31. New Orleans Saints – DE Preston Smith (Mississippi State)

The Saints continue to add to what was probably the worst defense in the league at the time. Preston is the lesser known of the two Smith “brothers” on the Packers, but he got a big-money deal as well, coming over from the Redskins on a 4-year, 52 million dollar contract. While Smith is a dominant edge rusher, Smith is a more complete player. He has just 36.5 sacks in 80 career games (66 starts), but he has a 10.9% pressure rate and plays great run defense as well. 

32. New England Patriots – DE Arik Armstead (Oregon)

Originally the 17th overall pick by the 49ers, Armstead had just 9 sacks in his first 4 seasons in the league and missed 18 of 64 games with injury, but he was always a strong run stuffer and he broke out as a pass rusher in 2019, with 10 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate. Overall, he finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked edge defender. The 49ers pass on him in this re-draft for someone who broke out faster, but the Patriots will take a shot that they can get it out of him earlier. Both defensive end and defensive tackle were needs for the Patriots back in 2015 and Armstead can play both spots, much like Trey Flowers, who was originally a 4th round pick of the Patriots.

San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Super Bowl LIV Pick

Kansas City Chiefs (14-4) vs. San Francisco 49ers (15-3) in Super Bowl LIV

The more hyped matchup in this game is the matchup between the Chiefs’ offense and the 49ers’ defense and rightfully so, as they are the top offense and defense in the league in my opinion. Neither unit finished the regular season first in the league in first down rate (or first down rate allowed), but regular season injuries played a big part in that. The Chiefs managed to finish in 2nd in first down rate at 40.53%, despite 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes missing two and a half games with injury and playing at less than 100% in several others. They also had injuries on their offensive line, most notably left tackle Eric Fisher (8 games), and they were without top wide receiver Tyreek Hill for a big chunk of the first half of the season. 

The Chiefs’ offense was able to tread water when Mahomes was out, but they’ve unsurprisingly been much better with Mahomes in the lineup, even playing at less than 100%. With backup Matt Moore in the lineup, the Chiefs had a 32.47% first down rate, as opposed to 43.86% with Mahomes, which would have led the NFL by a pretty wide margin over the Ravens (41.73%). The Chiefs’ offense has been especially good down the stretch with Mahomes getting closer to full strength, with a 45.39% rate in their past 7 games. It might seem like that’s an unsustainable high rate, but they had a 45.18% first down rate last season across 16 games with Mahomes healthy.

They’ve been even better offensively in two post-season games, as the first round bye seems to have done Mahomes a world of good. They’ve picked up 56 first downs and scored 12 offensive touchdowns on 121 snaps, a ridiculous 56.20% rate, including a 63.16% first down rate in their win over the Texans, the highest single game mark in the league this season. For comparison, the Chargers had the best single game mark in the regular season with a 56.90% first down rate in a 45-10 week 14 win in Jacksonville. The Chiefs have maintained that level of play for two weeks in the playoffs.

Mahomes didn’t quite have the same regular season in 2019 as he did in 2018, but he did cut down his giveaways significantly (1.0% interception rate vs. 2.1% in 2018), despite playing banged up, and now fully healthy, he’s arguably playing the best football he’s ever played, still somehow only in his 36th professional start. With another week off before the Super Bowl, expect a nearly unstoppable level of play from Mahomes.

I say nearly unstoppable because if any defense can at least slow him down and keep the Chiefs to a manageable point total it’s this 49ers defense. They finished “just” 6th in the NFL with a 32.95% first down rate allowed in the regular season, but like the Chiefs’ offense not finishing first in first down rate, that was largely due to injuries. Through the first 7 games of the season, the 49ers had a ridiculous 24.67% first down rate allowed. By comparison, the Patriots led the NFL with a 29.64% first down rate on the season and no other team was below 32.43%. Unfortunately, top linebacker Kwon Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while dominant edge rusher Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9. 

The 49ers faced a relatively easily schedule during those first 7 games, but still allowed a first down rate that was more than 10% below what would have been expected based on competition. With Ford and Alexander back for the 49ers’ two playoff games, the 49ers have held the Vikings and Packers to a combined 31.07% first down rate, though there was a pretty drastic difference between the Vikings’ 7 first down performance and the Packers’ 21 first down performance, even if most of the Packers success came with the game out of hand. Ford and Alexander haven’t even been at full strength or played a full snap count and should be closer to 100% after the extra week off before the Super Bowl. With those two back, the 49ers are dominant in all 3 levels of the defense and lack an obvious weakness for the Chiefs to exploit. 

As exciting as it will be to see the Chiefs’ offense square off against the 49ers’ defense, the matchup that may end up deciding this game is the matchup between the 49ers’ offense and the Chiefs’ defense. The 49ers’ aren’t known for their offense the way the Chiefs are, but they still finished the regular season with a 9th ranked 38.24% first down rate and that rate is even higher since acquiring Emmanuel Sanders during week 8, as they have a 39.94% first down rate since then, which would have been 3rd in the NFL this season. With Sanders coming in and rookie Debbo Samuels coming on in the second half of the season, the 49ers have a lot more aerial firepower now than they did at the start of the season and they also have offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey healthy after they missed time in the regular season.

The Chiefs’ defense, meanwhile, is probably more known for negative things than positive things, but that hasn’t been the case in recent weeks, as they have a 33.77% first down rate allowed since week 7. However, that comes after a 40.91% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season and a league worst 42.20% first down rate allowed last season. Overall, the Chiefs finished just 19th with a 36.34% first down rate allowed this season. The question that I think will decide this game is which version of the Chiefs’ defense is for real, the strong unit they’ve been in recent weeks, the weak unit they were for all of last season and early this season, or somewhere in between. 

On paper, they seem more similar to the unit that struggled early in the season, as outside of obvious stars like Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Tyrann Mathieu, this is a pretty underwhelming unit, especially with talented rookie safety Juan Thornhill out for the season. Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has gotten them to play much better than the sum of their parts in recent weeks, but even a little regression to their early season habits from the Chiefs’ defense could lose them the game, with the 49ers being strong on both sides of the ball. 

In particular, the Chiefs could have trouble with the 49ers’ run heavy offense because their run defense is significantly worse than their pass defense. They were able to handle the run heavy Titans in the AFC Championship, but that was largely because they were able to get a lead and force the Titans out of their gameplan. The 49ers are a more complete team and this should be a close game either way, so I wouldn’t expect them to be forced out of their game plan at any point in this game.

Ultimately, this seems like a matchup between a team with a better quarterback and a team with a better overall roster, which is often the case in Super Bowls. Mahomes is the kind of quarterback who can take over a game by himself because he can make plays other guys can’t, but historically speaking the team with the better regular season quarterback actually loses the Super Bowl more often than not. All-time, the quarterback with a higher regular season adjusted YPA wins just 37.7% of the time, including an 0-9 record in the past 9 Super Bowls.

That alone isn’t a reason to pick the 49ers, but it suggests that historically a better team will beat a team with a better quarterback. Mahomes is historically on a different level than most quarterbacks, even among quarterbacks appearing in the Super Bowl, and the Chiefs’ defense could continue to perform at a high level within Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme, so I wouldn’t bet on the 49ers if this was a random week 9 game, but they’re worth at least a small bet in the final game of the season.

San Francisco 49ers 26 Kansas City Chiefs 24 Upset Pick +105

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Championship Pick

Tennessee Titans (11-7) at Kansas City Chiefs (13-4)

Like the NFC Championship between the 49ers and the Packers, the AFC Championship is also a rematch of a regular season game, with the Titans and Chiefs meeting in Tennessee back in week 10. Few expected the Titans to win that game, as they were 6-point home underdogs, and even fewer expected that the Titans would go on to meet the Chiefs in a rematch in the AFC Championship. Even after their surprise win over the Chiefs, the Titans sat at just 5-5 and needed to win 4 of their next 6 games to qualify for the post-season as the 6th seed at 9-7. Overall, a Titans team that started the season 2-4 has won 9 of past 12 games, including huge upsets over the Patriots and the Ravens in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The offense has led the way for the Titans, as their defense has actually fallen from a 30.93% first down rate allowed in the first 6 games of the season, 4th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 36.90% first down rate allowed over the past 12 games, 3rd worst among playoff qualifiers, primarily due to injury absences by players like linemen Jurrell Casey (2 games) and Jeffery Simmons (7 games), linebacker Jayon Brown (4 games), edge rusher Cameron Wake (9 games), and cornerbacks Malcolm Butler (9 games) and Adoree Jackson (5 games). On offense, the Titans have gone from a 32.69% first down rate in the first 6 games of the season, 26th in the NFL over that stretch, to a 41.44% first down rate in the past 12 games, 2nd among playoff qualifiers over that stretch. 

The turnaround coinciding with quarterback Marcus Mariota being benched for Ryan Tannehill is obvious, but running back Derrick Henry of course deserves a lot of credit as well. Tannehill’s play hasn’t been quite as good in the post-season thus far and it’s reasonable to expect that Tannehill, who led the league with a 117.5 QB rating in his 8th season in the league after previously maxing out with a 93.5 QB rating in 2016, will continue to fall back to earth a little bit going forward, but the way Henry is running right now is making up for it. Henry might not be quite as good going forward due solely to regression to the mean, but defenses are tired at this point in the season and Henry, who is very physical and tough to tackle, is taking advantage of it for the second season in a row. 

The Chiefs have also had a strong second half of the season, in fact not losing once in the 7 games since their week 10 loss in Tennessee. That loss was quarterback Pat Mahomes’ first game back from missing two and a half games with a knee injury and, even if he might not have been 100%, he was far from the reason for their loss, as the Chiefs had a 39.74% first down rate, but a 46.94% first down rate allowed. On the season, the Chiefs have a 43.41% first down rate with Mahomes on the field, including a 63.16% first down rate against the Texans last week that was the highest in the NFL for any team in a game this season. The Chiefs scored 51 despite converting just 2 third downs all game, which is just ridiculous.

Last week’s strong performance, which came after a week off for Mahomes and company, was part of a larger trend for the Chiefs offense, who rank first among playoff qualifiers with a 44.57% first down rate since their week 12 bye. Dealing with a variety of injuries, Mahomes hasn’t been at 100% even when on the field for most of the season, but he’s still become a more efficient quarterback in terms of ball security this season compared to his MVP season last year and he is arguably playing the best football of his career right now, looking very healthy after the Chiefs’ first round bye. He also has all of his weapons healthy around him, which hasn’t been the case for most of the season.

The Chiefs’ defense struggled in the first matchup, but that was an exception to the recent trend for their defense, which has allowed a 33.29% first down rate since week 7, 3rd among playoff qualifiers. That’s a massive shift for a team that allowed a league worst 42.20% first down rate last season and a 29th ranked 40.91% first down rate through the first 6 games of this season. Outside of the Tennessee game, the Chiefs defense has played consistently strong defense for several months. 

The Titans could have a good offense performance again this week in Kansas City though. They have a lot of offensive firepower and I don’t fully trust that the Chiefs defense has suddenly become a consistently strong unit. That’s especially true with the Chiefs defense not at full strength, missing safety Juan Thornhill and possibly defensive tackle Chris Jones. However, as good as those two players are, the Chiefs’ defense still performed well in their first game without them last week, allowing the Texans to move the chains at just a 33.33% first down rate, after finishing the regular season 8th with a 38.35% first down rate, so I wouldn’t expect the Titans to have as much offensive success in this matchup as they did in the first matchup even if Jones doesn’t play.

Speaking of Jones, he’s one of a few key players that are uncertain to play in this game, along with Titans linebacker Jayon Brown and Titans right tackle Jack Conklin. The uncertainty of that trio makes this game tough to pick, with the Chiefs currently favored by 7.5 points at home. Brown missed the first matchup and if he plays, their defense will be healthier than it’s been since their strong start to the season, which would go a long way towards their chances of slowing down Mahomes and company and keeping this game within a touchdown, but if Conklin were to miss this game it would be a huge blow to a Titans offensive line that has very healthy this season. Jones, meanwhile, is arguably the Chiefs’ best defensive player and has been a huge part of the Chiefs’ late season defensive turnaround. I’m tentatively taking the Chiefs, but for a no confidence pick. I’ll likely have an update when inactives are released and may actually end up betting on either side depending on injuries and line movement.

Final Update: Conklin, Brown, and Jones are all active, though Jones could be very limited after barely practicing over the past couple weeks. This line has fallen to 7, perhaps due to Jones’ injury uncertainty, so I still like the Chiefs for a no confidence pick even if Jones might not be 100%.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: None