Washington Football Team 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2019, Washington was among the worst teams in the league, finishing at 3-13 and ranking 31st in first down rate differential at -4.40%. In 2020, things seemed to be going the same way, with Washington starting just 2-7, but there was plenty of reason to believe they would be better going forward. As bad as their record was, part of it was just their 0-3 record in games decided by 3 points or less, including two losses to the Giants by a combined 4 points in which Washington won the first down rate battle by a combined +4.60%, but lost both games narrowly because they lost the turnover battle by a combined six, missed a makeable field goal, and allowed a return touchdown, all highly inconsistent metrics on a week-to-week basis. 

Washington also had a league worst fumble recovery rate and a league worst net field goal rate through those 9 games, which are also highly inconsistent metrics. In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, Washington actually ranked 10th through their first 9 games, despite their underwhelming record and first down rate differential tends to be much more consistent and predictive. All of this was a good sign for this team going forward.

The one thing that was a bad sign for Washington though was how dependent on their dominant defense they were over those nine games, ranking 4th in first down rate allowed over expected, but just 27th in first down rate over expected. Normally, teams with that kind of profile regress going forward because defense is significantly less predictive than offense, so teams with a dominant defense and a weak offense are more likely to regress on defense than improve on offense. 

However, even their offense had reason to be somewhat optimistic once this team changed to veteran Alex Smith at quarterback. Even in his first two games, both field goal losses by Washington to drop them to that 2-7 record, Smith looked noticeably better than Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen who started games before him and, while Smith was never a spectacular quarterback during his stint as a starter last season, he was a steadying hand for an offense that otherwise had decent talent, leading to a noticeable offensive improvement that offset any regression by their defense. 

They finished 10th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.52%, not much different from where they ranked when they were 2-7, but, as is often the case in this situation, the team’s record predictably started catching up with where they ranked in first down rate differential, leading to Washington finishing with a 7-9 record that was actually enough to win the pitiful NFC East. Smith’s insertion into the starting lineup got most of the credit for their turnaround and, in fact, their two losses over that stretch were games started by backup Dwayne Haskins in place of an injured Alex Smith, but even those losses were one score losses and, while Smith obviously helped this team, all he really did was provide a replacement level upgrade under center to offset any regression from their defense. 

The predictable swing of the metrics that worked against Washington earlier in the season would have likely led to at least somewhat of a turnaround even without Smith, although you can definitely make the argument that they would not have won the division and made the post-season without Smith. Beyond that, even replacement level play from Smith was something of a miracle for a player who suffered a devastating broken leg and subsequent bouts of infection in 2018, which threatened not just his career, but his life and mobility off the field. However, after almost two years and countless surgeries, Smith returned to the field in 2020.

Even after rejoining Washington last off-season, Smith still seemed to have a long way to go to see any playing time, as Washington had 2019 first round pick Dwayne Haskins, who was drafted to replace him, and Kyle Allen, a former Panthers backup and spot starter that new head coach Ron Rivera, formerly of the Panthers as well, liked as a potential starting option in case Haskins struggled, leaving Smith as the third quarterback and seemingly more of an emotional leader and coach than someone who would do anything notable on the field. However, Haskins continued to struggle on the field and behind the scenes with the coaching staff, leading to his benching and ultimate release, while Allen suffered a leg injury of his own that opened the door for Smith to start.

Smith played well enough to win Comeback Player of the Year (though just stepping on the field might have been enough for that) and to steady this team to the post-season, but, at the same time, the lasting effects of Smith’s injury were noticeable. Once an above average runner at the quarterback position, Smith seemingly lacked all mobility, rushing for just 3 yards on 10 carries and being limited to being a pocket passer. On top of that, Smith strained his calf on that surgically repaired leg, causing him to miss the two games that Haskins started in his place late in the season.

Even when Smith returned in week 17, he was clearly even more hobbled than before the injury and ultimately was ”benched” and replaced with Taylor Heinicke, another of Ron Rivera’s former backup quarterbacks from Carolina, who closed out their division clinching win over the Eagles week 17 and then started a playoff game against the Buccaneers in which Washington only lost by one score to the eventual Super Bowl champs with a 4th string quarterback, once again showing the potential of this team if they can get the quarterback position resolved.

The struggles Smith had with his leg last season ultimately led to Smith hanging them up this off-season at age 37, finishing an overall impressive 16-year NFL career that will probably be best remembered for his improbable comeback in 2020. Dwayne Haskins, originally supposed to be this team’s quarterback of the future before he proved himself to be a megabust, is no longer with the team, leaving Washington needing to find a replacement for Smith under center this off-season. 

Allen is set to return from his leg injury and Taylor Heinicke impressed enough in his limited action to earn a 2-year, 4.75 million dollar deal, but they are career backups with 18 starts between them and a career QB rating of 84.4 and 71.7 respectively, so Washington obviously needed to add more to the mix. Picking 19th overall because of their division title last season, Washington wasn’t in position to select one of the top quarterbacks in the draft unless they paid a steep price to move up like the Bears did for Justin Fields, so they found their quarterback before the draft, signing veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal.

Fitzpatrick is heading into his age 39 season and is certainly not a long-term solution for a team that will likely be searching for another quarterback again next off-season, but in the short-term, he could be a nice fit for a team that otherwise has a strong roster. Fitzpatrick is the ultimate journeyman, now joining his 9th team for his 17th season in the league, having never stayed in one place more than four seasons, but, even though he was not a high level quarterback in his prime, Fitzpatrick remarkably has not shown his age at all, in fact having some of the best seasons of his career in his mid-to-late 30s.

Fitzpatrick hasn’t entered the season as the undisputed starter since 2016 and his last 16-game starting season was 2015 when he struggled, but he’s still made 27 starts over the past three seasons and has finished 10th, 14th, and 19th among quarterbacks on PFF over those three seasons respectively, while completing 64.8% of his passes for an average of 7.87 YPA, 50 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions. Fitzpatrick also has some much more mediocre seasons earlier in his career and it’s possible he’ll regress to that now that he’s back in a season long starting role, or maybe age will finally catch up with him, but Fitzpatrick has the upside to be a solid starting quarterback for this team.

Even his worst case scenario probably isn’t worse than what Washington had under center last season. He’s not a slam dunk solution, but he wasn’t a bad signing for this team given the circumstances and he could easily make them better offensively than they were a year ago, when they finished just 27th in first down rate over expected, even with Smith playing reasonably well down the stretch. Washington didn’t add a quarterback at all through the draft, leaving just the two former Panther backups behind him on the depth chart, so this is pretty undisputedly his job unless he struggles mightily. 

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Washington otherwise had a decent offense outside of the quarterback position last season. I’ll get into the key skill position players later and what Washington has done to supplement them this off-season, but one underrated group on this offense last season was their offensive line, which saw all five starters have above average grades on PFF by the end of the season. Washington did have some struggles upfront earlier in the season, but two things turned that around. One big one was just the return from injury of right guard Brandon Scherff, who missed three games early in the season, but otherwise finished as PFF’s 7th ranked guard in his 13 starts. 

On top of that, Washington finally found a left tackle, settling on Cornelius Lucas, who made 8 starts down the stretch last season and finished as PFF’s 22nd ranked offensive tackle. Lucas also earned PFF’s 28th highest grade among offensive tackles across 536 snaps (9 starts) in 2019, although prior to 2019 the veteran journeyman had made just 14 starts in 5 seasons in the league and had never earned more than an average grade from PFF for a season, so it’s understand Washington was a bit skeptical of giving him the starting job week one, cycling through lesser talents in Geron Christian and David Sharpe before finding Lucas, whose insertion into the starting lineup also somewhat coincided with this team’s offensive improvement, although obviously the change at quarterback was a big part of that as well.

Washington still seems somewhat skeptical of Lucas, signing ex-Bears left tackle Charles Leno to a one-year deal in free agency and using their 2nd round pick on Texas’ Samuel Cosmi, but they did release right tackle Morgan Moses ahead of a non-guaranteed 7.75 million dollar salary, so Lucas still has a good chance to earn a starting job at one of the two tackle positions and he has experience on both sides, even if he’s still very unproven for a player now heading into his age 30 season.

Leno, meanwhile, has made all 16 starts over the past 5 seasons and has earned an above average grade from PFF in four of those five seasons, maxing out at 13th in 2017 and ranking 30th last season. He’s going into his age 30 season and could begin declining a little bit, but he’s only a short-term option on a one-year deal, with Cosmi looking like a long-term starter behind him. Cosmi could also beat out Lucas with a good training camp if the coaching staff is still skeptical of Lucas as a season-long starter. 

However, even with two talented players being added to this group this off-season, releasing Moses is still a big of a head scratching move. It did save them significant money and he was going into his age 30 season, but he still finished 15th among offensive tackles on PFF last season and by swapping him for Leno, Washington essentially replaced one aging tackle with a slightly less talented, slightly cheaper option. Washington isn’t in dire financial straits so it didn’t seem like a necessary move, but Leno should still remain at least a solid starting left tackle, with Lucas as the most likely early season option on the right side.

One move Washington could have made to free up some immediate cap space was to come to a long-term agreement with Brandon Scherff, who currently has a cap hit of 18.036 million, his one-year salary on his second straight franchise tag. Injuries have become a predictable occurence for Scherff, not only missing the three games last season, but not topping 14 games since 2016 and missing 18 games in 4 seasons since. 

Scherff is also going into his age 30 season, so all in all it’s somewhat understandable they haven’t come to a long-term deal yet, but Scherff has also been one of the best guards in the league when healthy, finishing in the top-29 among guards in all six seasons in the league since being selected 5th overall by Washington in 2015, including four straight top-15 finishes and a 7th ranked finish in 2020, so it’s a bit surprise he hasn’t been extended yet.

Center Chase Rouiller and left guard Wes Schweitzer weren’t quite as good last season as Scherff, but they had strong seasons as well, finishing 6th among centers and 19th among guards respectively across 16 starts and 13 starts respectively. For both players it was a career best year, but Rouiller has more of a track record, earning average or better grades from PFF in all four seasons in the league (53 starts) since being selected in the 6th round in 2017, including a 15th ranked finish among centers in 2019, while Schweitzer was previously about a league average starter across 36 starts, after being selected in the 6th round in 2016 by the Falcons. 

Rouiller should remain an above average starter, but Schweitzer is actually probably headed to the bench, despite last year’s solid season, with Washington bringing in Ereck Flowers via trade with the Dolphins to be his likely replacement. Flowers was with Washington in 2019 and was originally replaced by Schweitzer last off-season, after Flowers signed a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal with the Dolphins last off-season. Flowers wasn’t bad last season in Miami, finishing with the same rank, 32nd, among guards on PFF as he did the previous season in Washington.

However, Miami decided not only to move on from him, but to also eat 6 million of his 9 million dollar guaranteed salary, effectively paying him 17 million for one year and sending him back where he came from for seemingly no reason. He should be a capable starter, with Schweitzer then slotting in as excellent depth. This group probably won’t be quite as good as they were down the stretch last season, but it remains an above average offensive line and could be more consistent overall this season, after struggling to find a capable left tackle for most of the first half of last season.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Washington also has one of the most promising young wide receivers in the league in Terry McLaurin, a 2019 3rd round pick. As a rookie, McLaurin posted a 58/919/7 slash line on an otherwise pitiful offense, ranking 14th in yards per route run at 2.05 and earning PFF’s 5th highest grade among wide receivers. In 2020, McLaurin saw more playing time on an improved offense and finished with a 87/1118/4 slash line, but he did actually fall to 34th in yards per route run at 1.87 and 28th in overall grade from PFF. 

However, he was better than that before playing the final 4 games of the season through an ankle injury, as through week 12, as he ranked 9th among wide receivers on PFF in overall grade and had the 13th highest yards per route run average as well at 2.29. He was also on pace for a ridiculous 100/1401/5 slash line, which would have been the 4th most receiving yards in the league if he maintained it for a full season. Now going into his third season in the league with his best quarterback yet, McLaurin has a massive statistical upside if he can stay healthy and he could easily develop into one of the best wide receivers in the league over the next couple seasons, just entering his prime in his age 26 season.

The issue last season is Washington didn’t have another consistent target in the passing game. Tight end Logan Thomas and passing down back JD McKissic were 2nd and 3rd on this team with slash lines of 72/670/5 and 80/589/2, but they were mostly just check down options who did little downfield, with Thomas averaging 1.10 yards per route run, 6.09 yards per target, and 9.31 yards per completion and McKissic averaging 1.48 yards per route run, 5.35 yards per target, and 7.37 yards per completion. Behind McLaurin, wide receivers Cam Sims, Steven Sims, and Isaiah Wright posted slash lines of just 32/471/1, 27/265/1, and 27/197/0 respectively.


Cam Sims was the best of the bunch, but his 1.22 yards per route run average only looks good by comparison with Stevens Sims and Isaiah Wright, who averaged 0.97 yards per route run and 0.83 yards per route run respectively, and all three earned below average grades from PFF. Sims could still potentially compete for a role in 2021, but this is a much improved group after adding a pair of veteran free agents in Curtis Samuel and Adam Humphries and third round pick Dyami Brown.

Samuel was the biggest investment of the bunch coming over from the Panthers on a 3-year, 34.5 million dollar deal and he figures to have a significant role as the #2 receiver opposite McLaurin. Carolina picked Samuel in the 2nd round when Ron Rivera was there, so he has that connection, but he actually didn’t have his best season until Rivera left, averaging 1.14 yards per route run over the first three seasons of his career, before seeing that jump to 1.93 in 2020, when he also finished 31st among wide receivers on PFF on overall grade.

His 77/851/3 slash line fell short of 1000 yards, but it came as the third receiver on an offense with an underwhelming quarterback and he topped 1000 yards if you include the 200 yards he added on 41 carries (34 out of the backfield, 7 on end arounds or sweeps). Samuel is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s also still only going into his age 25 season and could easily keep getting better going forward. Washington will likely continue getting him the ball in creative ways, although his 31 carries in his first three seasons with Ron Rivera would seem to suggest he’ll be used as more of a traditional wide receiver in Washington than he was in his last season in Carolina. Either way, he’ll give Washington a much needed upgrade to take some coverage away from McLaurin.

Adam Humphries, meanwhile, is a much shakier veteran addition, as evidenced by his 1-year, 1.19 million dollar contract. Humphries has been a capable slot receiver over the past five seasons, averaging a 61/648/3 slash line per 16 games with a 1.39 yards per route run average and earning middling grades from PFF, but injuries have limited to him just 19 games over the past two seasons combined, including a concerning series of concussions that seemed to have his long-term future in doubt at one point. 

Humphries is still only going into his age 28 season and could easily bounce back and be a solid slot receiver if he can stay on the field, but that isn’t a guarantee. He could have to face competition from Dyami Brown, Cam Sims, or even 2020 4th round pick Antonio Gandy-Golden, who struggled across 124 rookie year snaps, but could still be better going forward. Either way, this is a much improved wide receiver group, with players who saw significant action last season now competing for bottom of the roster spots.

With a much better wide receiver group, tight end Logan Thomas should see much less volume and his production should fall off significantly as a result. A converted quarterback, Thomas had never topped 16 catches or 336 snaps in a season prior to last season and only really saw significant action last season out of pure desperation. Now going into his age 30 season, Thomas is unlikely to have significant untapped potential. He could also have to face competition for playing time from 4th round rookie John Bates, a blocking first tight end who is likely to earn the #2 tight end role even as a rookie, given their lack of other proven options. This isn’t a spectacular group overall, but it’s a significant upgrade on last year’s group.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Along with having a talented #1 receiver in Terry McLaurin last season, Washington also had a talented lead back in Antonio Gibson. Gibson was just a third round rookie, but he showed a lot of promise, even though he was never made into a true feature back, with JD McKissic stealing 85 carries from him along with most of the passing game work and even plodding backup Peyton Barber stole 94 carries. Gibson didn’t show much as a receiver in the limited passing game action he saw, but as a runner he rushed for 4.68 YPC and, while that was partially due to great run blocking by Washington’s offensive line, Gibson still ranked 21st in carry success rate, and 19th in elusive rating and was PFF’s 5th ranked running back in rushing grade.

Gibson was limited to 170 carries on the season, in part because of inexperience early in the season and in part because of some injuries he picked up late in the year, but, even though McKissic and Barber both return for 2021, they averaged just 4.29 YPC and 2.74 YPC respectively, despite having the same great blocking, so Washington’s offense would almost definitely benefit from giving Gibson the lion’s share of the carries and could easily do so. Gibson also could easily see more passing game work, which would cut even more into McKissic’s target share, on an offense that has more wide receiver talent this season and won’t need to target running backs as often as a result.

McKissic doesn’t have much of a track record either, never topping more than 80 touches in a season before being stretched into a much larger role on this underwhelming offense last season, but he may have a better history than Barber, who has plodded his way to 3.48 YPC across 645 carries in 5 seasons in the league, but somehow remains on an NFL roster. Any of his carries that are given to Gibson instead give this offense a much better chance of staying on schedule. With Gibson at the top of this group, Washington’s running game has a high upside.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

Ordinarily, teams with strong defenses have a harder time maintaining that year-to-year than teams with strong offenses and, as a result, teams with Washington’s profile, struggling on offense (27th in first down rate over expected at -2.40%), but dominating on defense (3rd in first down rate over allowed expected at -3.93%), tend to regress in win total the following season, with their strong defenses regressing to the mean more often than their weak offenses. 

However, we’ve already established that Washington has a good chance to be significantly improved on offense this season as a result of upgrades at quarterback and in the receiving corps and I think their defense will have more staying power than most top defenses. The reason for that is simply that this is a young, relatively inexpensive unit that Washington was able to keep together this off-season, with only two of Washington’s top-17 defenders in terms of snaps played from last season no longer with the team and, those two players, Ronald Darby and Kevin-Pierre Louis were both arguably upgraded on this off-season, which I’ll get into more later. 

Defenses tend to be more inconsistent on a year-to-year basis than offenses because strong quarterback play can elevate an offense year after year, while defenses need above average play in at least 7-9 spots to play at a high level, which gets very expensive to keep together after a while, but Washington has avoided the talent attrition for now. This young, talented defense was led by a starting defensive line of four recent former first round picks who have all managed to pan out, giving Washington one of the best defensive lines in football for the foreseeable future. 

Probably the best known of the bunch is 2020 2nd overall pick Chase Young, who instantly showed why he was selected so high, finishing his rookie year as PFF’s 6th ranked edge defender and being selected Defensive Rookie of the Year, despite missing a game and playing through injury for most of the first half of the season. It’s not hard to see how Young could be even better in year two and, while development is not always linear, it’s at the point where it would actually be surprising if Young didn’t develop into one of the best defensive linemen in the league over the next few years, as long as he can stay healthy.

Montez Sweat might not be as well known, but he is a former first round pick in his own right and, not only that, but if not for some questionable medicals, Sweat could have been a top-10 pick, ultimately ending up in Washington with pick number 26. Everyone else’s loss has been Washington’s gain as, after a middling rookie year across 724 snaps, Sweat showed his top-10 potential in 2020, totaling 9 sacks, 12 hits, and a 11.7% pressure rate, while dominating against the run and earning PFF’s 12th highest edge defender grade overall, forming one of the best all-around edge defender duos in the league with Young.

Sweat is technically still a one-year wonder and, even if he does keep getting better going forward, he might not necessarily be improved in year three, but with a pair of talented, young, former first round picks, Washington is in very good shape at this position for the foreseeable future. However, depth is a bit of a concern behind Young and Sweat, as Washington has gone from having good depth with Ryan Kerrigan (398 snaps) and Ryan Anderson (146 snaps) to having next to no depth with both Kerrigan and Anderson signing elsewhere this off-season. 

Washington drafted a pair of players in the 7th round in William Bradley-King and Shaka Toney and also used a 7th rounder on the position in 2020, taking James Williams-Smith, but he didn’t play a snap as a rookie and any of those three players would likely struggle if forced into significant action. Washington badly needs Young and Sweat to both stay healthy, not just because of how talented they are, but because of how big the dropoff would be without either one. Washington would benefit from making a cheap veteran addition or two just to get somewhat proven depth added to the mix.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

On the interior, Washington has another pair of first round picks in 2017 17th overall pick Jonathan Allen and 2018 13th overall pick Da’Ron Payne. Allen has left something to be desired against the run, but he’s totalled 17 sacks, 27 hits, and a 9.1% pressure rate in 52 career games, including a career best 2020 season in which he had 2 sacks, 12 hits, and a 9.9% pressure rate and finished as PFF’s 15th ranked interior defender overall. Allen is a one-year wonder in terms of playing at the level he played last season, but he’s earned above average grades from PFF in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 26 season, so he’s just entering his prime.

Payne, on the other hand, is more of a big run stuffing nose tackle at 6-3 319, earning above average run stopping grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, but never earning more than an average grade as a pass rusher, with 10 sacks, 10 hits, and a 5.8% pressure rate in 47 career games. Payne is still only going into his age 24 season and may have further untapped potential, but he’s essentially been the same player throughout the first three years of his career and might not have another level. 

Allen and Payne aren’t as talented of a duo as Young and Sweat, but they are a solid starting duo and the depth situation is much better on the interior as well. Tim Settle was the primary reserve with 348 snaps played last season and he earned an above average grade from PFF for his limited action, but their depth should be even better in 2021, with Matt Ioannidis set to return after having his 2020 season ended after 81 snaps in 3 games by injury. 

Ioannidis played an average of 617 snaps per game from 2017-2019 before last year’s injury ruined season and he was a great situational pass rusher over that stretch, totaling 20.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a 12.4% pressure rate in 44 games. He has struggled against the run and probably won’t see the same snap count as he averaged in those three seasons in a very deep and talented group, but his return should allow Payne to focus on more of a base package role, which should upgrade their interior pass rush noticeably. He should play above Settle, a talented reserve in his own right, as, in addition to last season, the 2018 5th round pick also earned an above average grade from PFF across 314 snaps in 2019. This is a loaded position group with plenty of depth and talent.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned earlier, Washington lost veteran linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis this off-season, but he only played about half the snaps (506 snaps) as a situational player and could easily be upgraded by 19th overall pick Jamin Davis, who profiles as an every down player long-term. Not only is Davis expected to replace Pierre-Louis in the starting lineup, but he could replace Jon Bostic as the top linebacker, as Bostic ranked a pretty underwhelming 60th out of 99 eligible off ball linebackers on PFF last season across 966 snaps and could benefit from playing a smaller role in 2021.

Cole Holcomb, who showed promise down the stretch last season, finishing 11th among off ball linebackers on PFF across 555 snaps, is also in the mix for a role. The 2019 5th round pick was underwhelming in a larger role as a rookie and he’s unlikely to play above Jamin Davis, but he could easily play above Jon Bostic, who he at the very least figures to split snaps with. Bostic has made 77 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s finished above average on PFF just once in those seasons and is now heading into his age 30 season. With Davis being added this off-season and Holcomb showing promise down the stretch last season, which could bury the veteran Bostic on the depth chart, things are looking up in this position group, even if they are relying on young players.

Grade: B-

Secondary

Cornerback Ronald Darby also let go this off-season, but, even though he finished 14th among cornerbacks on PFF last season, Washington arguably might have upgraded by signing ex-Bengal William Jackson to a 3-year, 40.5 million dollar deal. Jackson had a similar season to Darby in 2020, ranking 26th among cornerbacks on PFF, but he has a better track record than the injury prone Darby, finishing in the top-28 among cornerbacks on PFF in three of the last four seasons, while missing just five games due to injury over that stretch. A former first round pick who is still in his prime in his age 29 season, I wouldn’t expect anything different from him in 2021.

Jackson will start opposite Kendall Fuller, who was added last off-season on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal. Fuller actually began his career in Washington, being selected in the 3rd round in 2016 and spending his first two seasons there, including a 2017 campaign where he was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league and ranked 2nd among cornerbacks overall on PFF across 720 snaps. That 2017 season drew him enough attention from the Kansas City Chiefs for him to be included with a draft pick in the trade that originally brought Alex Smith to town, but Fuller has yet to have a season nearly that good since.

Fuller wasn’t bad in his first season in Kansas City, finishing 33rd among cornerbacks and starting all 16 games as an every down player for the first time in his career, but injuries and ineffectiveness led to him playing just 498 snaps in 11 games in a 2019 season in which he finished slightly below average on PFF. That led to his market being weaker than it likely would have been as a free agent last off-season, but Washington was still willing to give him a chance on a multi-year deal because of their familiarity with him.

Fuller didn’t perform at his 2017 level in 2020, but he at least bounced back to his 2018 level and earned an above average grade from PFF as an every down player in 14 starts, leading to Washington locking him up long-term on a more lucrative deal this off-season. He might never be as good as he was in 2017 again, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and should remain at least an above average starter. He’ll play both outside and inside for this secondary, but the slot is his best location.

Jackson and Fuller are a solid starting duo, but the third cornerback spot is a concern. Jimmy Moreland, a 2019 7th round pick, was the third cornerback last season, but he ranked 78th among 136 eligible cornerbacks on PFF across 601 snaps. He’s still young and has theoretical upside, but he struggled across 471 snaps as a rookie as well and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed, given how late he was drafted. 

Moreland will face competition from 3rd round rookie Benjamin St-Juste and veteran journeyman Darryl Roberts, who has played 532 snaps per season over the past five seasons, but has finished below average on PFF in four of five seasons, including a 95th ranked finish out of 136 eligible across 469 snaps in 2020. Whoever wins this job could easily struggle, but St-Juste at least gives them some upside as he projects as a starter long-term.

At safety, Washington lost Landon Collins for the season with a torn achilles after 398 snaps in 7 games, which would seem like a crippling blow for this defense, as Collins is one of Washington’s highest paid players and one of the highest paid safeties in the league on a 6-year, 84 million dollar deal, but Collins was actually pretty mediocre before getting hurt last season and, while Washington had to cycle through several different options at the position in his absence, with five safeties, including Collins, all playing 263 snaps or more for Washington last season, they were able to find a couple diamonds in the rough in Kamren Curl and Jeremy Reaves.

Curl was just a 7th round rookie last season, but he found his way onto the field for 763 snaps and held his own, finishing just above average on PFF. Players drafted as low as him don’t have great long-term track records and it’s possible Curl doesn’t have a huge ceiling as a player or that he’ll regress after his rookie year, but he could also remain a solid starting safeties for years to come. Reaves, meanwhile, didn’t see any action until week 12 of last season and had played just 113 snaps in two seasons in the league prior, since going undrafted in 2018, but from week 12 on he played 263 snaps and was PFF’s 6th highest ranked safety over that stretch. He’s still very unproven and will most likely be the 3rd safety with Collins returning and Curl likely to remain a starter, but he has more upside than most 3rd safeties and it’s possible Washington could use more three safety looks this season to mask their lack of proven depth at cornerback.

With Curl and Reaves showing a lot of promise in his absence, Collins will probably need to have a good year in 2021 in his return from injury to justify his contract beyond this year. Collins was a second round pick by the division rival Giants in 2015 and in his second and third years in the league he looked like one of the best safeties in the NFL, finishing 10th and 12th respectively among safeties on PFF, but he fell to 39th in his contract year in 2018 and, though that didn’t stop Washington from giving him a big contract, that contract looks like a big mistake now, as Collins continued regressing in his first season in Washington in 2019, ranking 41st among safeties, before his injury plagued 2020 campaign when he was a relative non-factor even when healthy.

Washington actually could have moved on from Collins this off-season if they wanted, as only 5 million of his 13 million dollar salary was guaranteed, but he’s still only in his age 27 season and Washington is hoping he can somewhat return to his top form even after a serious injury. If he can’t show that in his third season in Washington in 2021, it’s hard to see him seeing the 13 million, 14 million, or 15 million in non-guaranteed money he has scheduled for 2022-2024. For a player who lacked elite mobility even before the injury, he could easily be a liability in coverage, but Washington should get more out of him than they did last year. Even if they don’t, they may have the depth to compensate. This isn’t a great secondary, but it’s a solid unit overall.

Grade: B

Conclusion

Washington’s defense might not be quite as good as it was last season, but with largely the same personnel, led by a dominant defensive line, without any glaring weaknesses, they should remain one of the best in the league on that side of the ball. On top of that, their offense should be significantly better, as they should have better health, after having the 5th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense in 2020, and they have made upgrades at quarterback and wide receiver, which were major positions of weakness last season. 

Any regression by their defense will likely be compensated for by improvement on offense and it’s very possible that their offense could improve more than their defense regresses. Washington is also starting from a higher base point than most realize as they finished last season 10th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.53% and could have been 9-7 if not for improbably losing both games to the Giants, despite winning the first down rate battle by +4.60% across the two games. The Giants and Cowboys will also be better in 2021, but Washington has a good chance to defend their division title, this time in a division that is a little more legitimate.  I will have a final prediction for Washington at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2018, the Steelers fell just short of the post-season at 9-7, despite having one of the better offenses in the league, finishing the season 6th in first down rate. In 2019, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger went down for the season with an elbow injury in week 2 and backups Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges were horrible in his absence, which, along with other issues on offense around the quarterback, led to the Steelers bottoming out on offense, falling to 31st in first down rate. However, they still managed an 8-8 finish because their defense took a big step forward in Roethlisberger’s absence, finishing the 2019 season ranked 4th in first down rate allowed.

With Roethlisberger returning in 2020 along with most of their defense, many expected the Steelers would be able to put it all together on both sides of the ball and indeed they did start the season 11-0, but that was one of the most misleading records of all-time. Just three of those 11 wins came by more than 10 points and two of them, wins over the Jaguars and Bengals, came against among the worst teams in the league. Overall, they had arguably the easiest schedule in the league to begin the season, including one score victories over the Jeff Driskel led Broncos, the COVID depleted Ravens, the Garrett Gilbert led Cowboys, and the eventual 4-12 Texans. 

In terms of schedule adjusted first down rate differential, the Steelers ranked 5th at +2.60% through their 11-0 start, good, but not nearly as good as their record would have suggested. On top of that, while the Steelers continued playing at a high level on defense, ranking 1st in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.65%, their offense did not do its part, ranking 27th in first down rate over expected at -2.06%, despite their record. An aging Ben Roethlisberger did not play nearly as well as he had prior in his career, while his supporting cast no longer had top receiver Antonio Brown and overall was not as impressive as in 2018. 

That was especially concerning because offensive performance tends to be much more consistent week-to-week and year-to-year than defensive performance, so, even though the Steelers were 11-0, they seemed very likely to regress going forward and see their season end short. Their collapse exceeded even my expectations, however, as they went on to lose four of their final five games, including an embarrassing upset loss to the last place Bengals as two touchdown favorites, and eventually they lost at home in the first round of the post-season to the underdog Cleveland Browns. 

Despite that collapse, their season-long numbers in first down don’t look drastically different than they did six games prior when they were 11-0. They finished 28th in first down rate over expected at -2.83%, 2nd in first down rate allowed over expected at -4.30%, and 11th in schedule adjusted first down rate differential at +1.46%. Going into 2021, I expect the Steelers to continue regressing. While their offense seems unlikely to be drastically better than it was last season, their defense is starting to go the way of every dominant defense before them who has found it impossible to keep all their talent under the cap long-term, losing a trio of above average starters this off-season in Steven Nelson, Mike Hilton, and Bud Dupree, which will almost definitely lead to them regressing somewhat on that side of the ball. 

Even with those three players and others from recent years no longer with the team, the Steelers are still right up against the cap. However, at the same time, because of where they are in the life cycle of most of their contracts, they have the 4th lowest active cap spending in the league (even with Roethlisberger having a cap hit of 25.91 million) and, in terms of combined average annual value of the players on their roster, the Steelers have the least expensive roster in the league, which will show in the lack of talent the Steelers have at several positions.

At one point this off-season, it seemed like a legitimate possibility that the Steelers would release Ben Roethlisberger entirely for cap reasons, as his cap hit was at one point 41.25 million, but Roethlisberger signed a restructured one-year deal that pays him 14 million for 2021, which could easily be his final season of his career, now in his age 39 season. His cap hit is still the 7th highest in the league among quarterbacks because of years of accumulating dead cap and he figures not to play anywhere near that well, but he wasn’t the primary problem on this offense last season (more on that later) and the Steelers weren’t in position to find an upgrade on him either through free agency or the draft this off-season, so bringing him back at a reduced rate makes sense. The dead cap also would have been owed either way, so, while it hurts the Steelers’ ability to add and keep talent elsewhere, it was irrelevant to the Steelers’ decision to bring him back.

Even though he wasn’t the primary problem on this offense, Roethlisberger didn’t help matters, completing 65.6% of his passes for just 6.25 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions (with another 10 interceptions dropped by defenders) and ranking 25th among 42 eligible quarterbacks on PFF, a pretty steep drop off for a quarterback who has finished in the top-12 in 12 of 17 seasons in the league and who is almost definitely bound for the Hall of Fame. That’s still an upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, who ranked 37th and 39th respectively among 39 eligible in 2019 on PFF, and it’s possible Roethlisberger could turn the clock back a little bit this season, but it’s equally likely he continues declining and is one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Either way, he is likely to need a lot of help for this team to be a legitimate contender and the rest of the roster seems to fall short.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

As I mentioned, Roethlisberger was not the primary problem on this offense last season. That would be their running game and, to a lesser extent, their offensive line, two things largely intertwined. Overall, the Steelers finished dead last in the NFL with 3.62 YPC and 1,351 rushing yards on the season and by the end of the season the Steelers had largely given up on their running game, leading to them finishing with just the season with just the 5th fewest carries of any team in the league with 373. Starting running back James Conner averaged 4.27 YPC, but he was banged up often and backups Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland averaged just 3.32 YPC on 111 carries and 3.42 YPC on 33 carries respectively. Conner also signed with the Cardinals as a free agent this off-season, making their running back need even more dire.

The Steelers addressed the position on draft day, using their first round pick, #24 overall on Alabama’s Najee Harris and, while he is certainly an upgrade, it’s a questionable use for a first round pick for a team with other needs, given how easy it is to find capable running backs later in the draft. Also, for as talented as Harris is, he could still easily be stifled by poor offensive line play and a lack of a downfield passing game to consistently force guys away from the line of scrimmage.

The Steelers also didn’t add any other running backs this off-season, meaning this is completely Harris’ backfield. Benny Snell and his career 3.63 YPC average are tentatively expected to be the #2 back and spell Harris for a few touches per game, with McFarland, a 2020 4th round pick who may still have some upside, being the only competition for Snell’s #2 back role. One problem is the Steelers don’t really have a passing down back, as Harris is not known for his receiving ability and Snell and McFarland have totaled just 13 catches and 6 catches respectively in their careers.

The Steelers do have tight end turned fullback/running back Jaylen Samuels, who has a very underwhelming career 3.50 YPC and had just 18 touches in 14 games last season, but who also has some experience as a passing down back, totaling a 47/305/1 slash line as a passing down specialist for the Steelers in 2019, and who is a relatively reliable set of hands out of the backfield, given his history at the tight end spot. He’s still an underwhelming pass catching option in a backfield that lacks depth, but the addition of Harris in the first round, even if it may not have been their best choice at the time, makes this group a lot better because he has the upside to become one of the best runners in the league over the next few seasons.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

It’s really been a steep dropoff for the Steelers on the offensive line in recent years and it continued into this off-season, when they lost a trio of starters from an already underwhelming 2020 unit, making matters even worse upfront for this offense. For years, the Steelers had been able to count on left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Ramon Foster, center Maurkice Pouncey, right guard David DeCastro, and right tackle Marcus Gilbert and, even when Gilbert started missing significant time with injuries, the Steelers found a good replacement for him in Matt Feiler and eventually let the injury prone Gilbert go.

It was predictable that their offensive line would decline as those players got up in age, but how fast things have fallen apart upfront is pretty incredible. It started last off-season, when Foster retired, prompting the Steelers to move Feiler inside to guard and start Zach Banner at right tackle. Banner didn’t make it through his first game before suffering a season ending injury and Feiler struggled to adapt to his new position early in the season and then later in the season suffered an injury of his own hurt that caused the Steelers to turn to rookie 4th round rookie Kevin Dotson at left guard, who played well enough that he kept the job for the rest of the season.

Feiler left this off-season, which was not really a surprise, but he was followed out the door by Villanueva, who, after 7 seasons in Pittsburgh, signed for more money with divisional rival Baltimore this off-season, and Pouncey, who opted to retire ahead of his age 32 season, after spending his entire 11-year career with the Steelers. On top of that, the Steelers didn’t have the financial flexibility this off-season to spend big in pursuit of replacements. 

Right guard David DeCastro is still around, but he heads into his age 31 season as the only starter remaining from the consistently dominant units the Steelers had just a couple years ago and he’s coming off a down year by his standards, finishing 42nd among guards on PFF, down from 7 straight seasons in the top-16 at his position. He could bounce back somewhat in 2021, but that’s not a guarantee and his best days are likely behind him. He and Kevin Dotson, who flashed on 358 snaps as a rookie, but still is a projection to a season long starting role, are the only starters locked in on this offensive line going into 2021. Guard is the relative strength of an offensive line that has unsettled competitions involving underwhelming options at both tackle spots and at center.

At offensive tackle, the Steelers brought back Zach Banner as a free agent and are hoping he can be what they were expecting him to be last year before he got hurt. That’s far from a guarantee though, as Banner was a projection even before last year’s injury, having played just 243 prior snaps in his career, primarily as an extra offensive linemen, before missing most of last season. Banner is a former 4th round pick who has flashed on limited action in his career, but the Steelers are putting a lot of faith in an unproven player coming off of a major injury.

Chukwuma Okorafor took over at right tackle for Banner when he got hurt and ended up making 15 starts, but he struggled, finishing 77th among 89 eligible offensive tackles on PFF. Like Banner, Okorafor was also a relatively high pick, being selected in the 3rd round in 2018, but he also played very little early in his career, playing just 229 snaps total in 2018-2019 prior to last season and, unlike Banner, he has yet to even flash potential, earning below average grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league. He’s still young enough that it’s possible that could change, still only going into his age 24 season, but that’s far from a guarantee. A better athlete than the massive 6-8 360 pound Banner, Okorafor is the most natural fit at left tackle, but he could easily prove to be totally overmatched on the blindside.

The Steelers are probably hoping to be able to start Okorafor and Banner, but they did add veteran competition for the inexperienced young players, signing Joe Haeg in free agency. A 5th round pick in 2016, Haeg actually started 29 games in his first two seasons in the league and wasn’t bad, earning middling grades from PFF in both seasons, but he’s been a reserve on some teams with great offensive lines in the Colts and Buccaneers over the past three seasons and has made just 9 starts over those 3 seasons. 

Haeg is a versatile player who has made 10 of his career 38 starts at guard, but right tackle is his clearest path to playing time and he could continue being a capable starter if he ends up in the starting lineup at one point or another. There is probably more reason to be confident in him than either of their currently projected starting tackles. The Steelers also used a 4th round pick on Dan Moore, but it’s unclear how much, if any, he will contribute as a rookie.

At center, the Steelers have a three way battle to replace the retired Pouncey. JC Hassenauser was their backup center last season, but the 2018 undrafted free agent was underwhelming in the first action of his career across 303 snaps. The Steelers used a 3rd round pick on Illinois’ Kendrick Green and also brought back former backup center BJ Finney, who spent last season in Seattle, where he proved to be a bust on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal, never playing an offensive snap and getting released just one off-season later, so Hassenauser probably isn’t even a lock to make the final roster.

Finney is going into his age 30 season and only has 13 career starts, but he has shown some promise in limited action when counted on in the past. Green is probably their highest upside option, but all three options are underwhelming and, like both tackle positions, center figures to be a position of weakness for the Steelers in 2021. Their guard play saves them somewhat, but this still looks like one of the worst offensive lines in the league, as they are noticeably thinner and less experienced than last year’s already underwhelming group.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

One big move for the Steelers this off-season was keeping wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who seemed as good as gone at the start of the off-season, as it seemed likely that Smith-Schuster would receive a big contract elsewhere that the Steelers wouldn’t be able to match. However, Smith-Schuster met a cold market like many in this reduced cap year and ended up returning to the Steelers on a team friendly 1-year, 8 million dollar deal that gives him another crack at free agency again next off-season, likely in better circumstances.

Smith-Schuster looked like one of the best young wide receivers in the league, as the 2017 2nd round pick posted a massive 111/1426/7 slash line in just his second season in the league in 2018, but without Antonio Brown drawing double teams opposite him, Smith-Schuster has yet to develop into the #1 wide receiver they were expecting he’d become, averaging 1.37 yards per route run and a 79/790/7 slash line per 16 games in two seasons since Brown was let go. Rather than being a clear #1 wide receiver, Smith-Schuster has been one of three wide receivers the Steelers spread the ball to about evenly, also including Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, with 4th receiver James Washington also seeing a few targets per game.

That depth at wide receiver is the result of the Steelers using a 3rd round pick or higher on a wide receiver in each of their past four drafts, starting with Smith-Schuster in 2017 and continuing with each of the Steelers’ top-4 wide receivers. That depth seemed like all the more reason Smith-Schuster would not be back, which would have led to more targets for other Steeler wide receivers, but with Smith-Schuster back, not much changes in this group.

Smith-Schuster is still only going into his age 25 season, so he could still develop into more of a #1 option long-term, but he also finished 3rd on this team in receiving yards with a 97/831/9 slash line in 2020 and could easily finish third again in 2021 as the Steelers’ other wide receivers also have upside. Probably the highest upside member of this group is 2020 2nd round pick Chase Claypool, who finished with a 62/873/9 slash line as a rookie despite taking a few weeks to get regular playing time. 

Claypool’s 1.90 yards per route run average not only led the team, but ranked 25th in the NFL and, overall, he finished the season as PFF’s 38th ranked wide receiver overall. Perhaps the most exciting part of all of this is Claypool was regarded as pretty raw coming out of Notre Dame and has the physical upside to be one of the better wide receivers in the league someday. I’m not saying he will become that in year two and development is not always linear, but Claypool seems likely to surpass last year’s receiving totals just on the basis of more playing time in his second season and he has the upside for a lot more.

Diontae Johnson led this group in receiving with a 88/923/7 slash line, after the 2019 3rd round pick had a 59/680/5 slash line in lesser playing time as a rookie. Johnson doesn’t have the upside of Claypool or perhaps even of Smith-Schuster, but his 1.70 yards per route run average in two seasons in the league is above average, he’s earned just above average season long grades from PFF as well, and, still only in his age 25 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take a step forward in his third season in the league in 2021.

James Washington was their 4th receiver last year, but he still played 486 snaps and had a 30/392/5 slash line on 56 targets. He saw his playing time decrease down the stretch as Chase Claypool emerged, but he should still have a role in this offense in 2021. The 2018 2nd round pick also showed he can take on a larger role if needed, like he did in 2019, when he finished with a 44/735/3 slash line and 1.76 yards per route run, despite having arguably the worst quarterback play in the league with Roethlisberger out, and, still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he has further untapped upside. The Steelers legitimately go four deep at wide receiver and have a couple players with #1 receiver potential in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Chase Claypool. A solid young group from a year ago could easily take a step forward in their second season together.

The one thing that is different in this receiving corps is the Steelers released veteran tight end Vance McDonald, who struggled last season on 483 snaps, finishing 57th among 58 eligible tight ends on PFF, and replaced him with second round pick Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth enters the league very raw, but he comes with a upside and won’t be relied on for a significant role as a rookie, likely beginning his career in McDonald’s old role as the #2 tight end behind starter Eric Ebron.

Ebron is best known for the 13 touchdowns he had in 2018 with Andrew Luck, as part of a 66/750/13 slash line, but that stands out as an obvious fluke for a player who 19 receiving touchdowns in his other 6 seasons in the league combined and, even that season included, Ebron has averaged just 1.40 yards per route run and 6.91 yards per target throughout his career. He’s a great athlete for the tight end position, but he has never been a good blocker, nor has he ever had reliable hands, dropping 10% or more of his targets in 6 of 7 seasons in the league, undoubtedly contributing to his underwhelming receiving averages for his career. 

Ebron is also coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, finishing 54th among 58 eligible tight ends on PFF, struggling against as a blocker and managing just 1.18 yards per route run and 6.13 yards per target. Ebron is still theoretically in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he’s not guaranteed to be better than he was last season and, even if he is, he’s still likely to be around the same caliber of player as he has been throughout his 7-year career, which is underwhelming. Fortunately, the Steelers’ passing game primarily is focused on their wide receivers, which are a strong group, though their overall youth and inexperience could prove to be an issue again.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

They say defense wins championships and, while that may or may not be true, defensive led teams tend to have much less staying power as top level teams than offensive led teams. Offensive statistics tend to be much more consistent and predictive on a year-to-year basis than defensive statistics, so teams that play at a high level on defense are significantly less likely to repeat that the following season than teams that play at a high level on offense. 

The reason for this is financial. Teams can have a good offense with strong quarterback play and an adequate supporting cast, which tends to be relatively less inexpensive than keeping together the 7-9 above average defensive starters you need to consistently year in and year out play at a high level on defense. The Steelers finished 4th in first down rate allowed in 2019 and 2nd in 2020, but they are starting to lose talented players for financial reasons like many top level defenses before them, losing a trio of above average defensive starters in edge defender Bud Dupree and cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton this off-season and not really replacing them. This is still a talented group, but they could slip a few spots in the defensive rankings as a result of their off-season losses, which would further expose a limited offense.

Dupree will be replaced internally by 2020 3rd round Alex Highsmith. Dupree was a solid, but unspectacular starter, while Highsmith flashed potential on 440 snaps as a rookie, so he could prove to be an adequate replacement, but he’s still a projection to a larger role and him moving into the starting lineup depletes their depth. To replenish depth, the Steelers used a 6th round pick on Quincy Roche and signed veteran journeyman Cassius Marsh, who has never earned an above average grade from PFF or played more than 550 snaps in a season in 7 seasons in the league and who struggled mightily across 197 snaps with three different teams last season. Needless to say, depth is a concern, especially given that the Steelers will be relying on an unproven starter in Alex Highsmith.

Fortunately, the Steelers still have TJ Watt, who leads this group and is one of the best players in the league at his position. A first round pick in 2017, Watt was an above average starter in his first two years in the league and has taken it to another level over the past two seasons, ranking 2nd and 1st among edge defenders in 2019 and 2020 respectively and totaling 29.5 sacks, 49 hits, and a 15.6% pressure rate, coinciding with the Steelers’ rise to among the top few defenses in the league.

It’s the most impressive two-year stretch by any defender other than Aaron Donald over the past two seasons and, only in his age 27 season, there’s plenty of reason to expect Watt to remain among the game’s best for at least the next couple seasons. It seems like only a matter of time before he gets a Defensive Player of the Year award, after finishing in the top-3 in back-to-back seasons. Even if this defense declines this season, Watt’s presence should ensure they are still one of the better units in the league. He significantly elevates a position group that otherwise has question marks.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

Along with Watt, the strength of this defense is the interior defender position. Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Hayward have been arguably the best 3-4 defensive end duo in the league over the past few years, but there was some concern with this group going into last season, having lost nose tackle Javon Hargrave on a big contract to the Eagles. Instead, the Steelers plugged in veteran Tyson Alualu, who excelled, and they got good play from reserve Chris Wormley, who was acquired from the Ravens in a trade last off-season. All four of those key players return to a group that looks likely to be among the league’s best again in 2021.

One concern is age, as both Cameron Heyward and Tyson Alualu are getting up there, heading into their age 32 season and age 34 season respectively. A first round pick by the Steelers in 2011, Heyward has yet to start to decline, continuing a streak of six straight healthy seasons in the top-23 among interior defenders on PFF (excluding an injury plagued 2016 campaign), but that doesn’t mean he won’t begin to decline this season. Even at less than his best, Hayward should at the very least remain an above average starter, but it could be noticeable for an elite defense if one of their elite players does not play up to his usual standards.

Alualu is the bigger concern as not only is he older, but he’s also coming off of a career best season, finishing as PFF’s 7th ranked interior defender against the run. Alualu has always been a capable run stuffer, but it would be a surprise to see him repeat the best season of his career again at age 34. Alualu doesn’t play a huge role on this defense, seeing 448 snaps last season, but if he isn’t elite against the run again this season, that also could have a noticeable effect on this defense.

Stephon Tuitt is the safest bet of this group, still in his prime in his age 28 season, on a streak of four straight seasons in the top-23 among interior defenders on PFF. Equally good against the run and as a pass rusher, Tuitt has totaled 23 sacks, 43 hits, and a 11.4% pressure rate in 47 games the aforementioned four-year stretch. I would expect more of the same from him in 2021, though one thing that could also remain the same is the fact that he hasn’t made it through a full season without missing time since his rookie year back in 2014. If he were to miss significant time, this would obviously be a big blow to this defense as he’s otherwise their safest bet on the interior.

Chris Wormley plays by far the least of the aforementioned group, but he is good insurance in case any of the Steelers’ top-3 miss significant time, something they didn’t do last season, leading to Wormley’s snap total of just 148. The 2017 4th round pick showed a lot of promise on those snaps though and also had solid seasons in larger roles in 2018 and 2019 with the Ravens, playing 446 snaps and 401 snaps respectively. This is as deep and talented of an interior defender group as any team in the league has, even with some concerns around aging players.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Steelers didn’t have many injuries last season, totaling the 5th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, but they did lose every down linebacker Devin Bush for the season in week 6. A first round pick in 2019, Bush struggled early in his rookie year, but had the kind of second half of the season that suggested he had a good chance to ultimately make good on his sky high upside. The injury complicates matters and Bush’s play left something to be desired in 2020 when he was on the field, but a third year breakout season for a player only in his age 23 season is definitely possible, although obviously not a given. 

One benefit of Bush’s injury was it allowed unknown 2018 undrafted free agent Robert Spillane to see some action, playing 379 snaps, after seeing just 4 defensive snaps in his career prior. Spillane flashed a lot of potential in 2020, especially in coverage, ranking 13th among off ball linebackers in coverage grade on PFF. Spillane’s play against the run was not nearly as good and he’s still very inexperienced overall, but the Steelers retained veteran run specialist Vince Williams this off-season, so Spillane will only have to be a sub package coverage specialist.

Williams was overstretched last season with a snap total of 672 on the year, with Bush’s injury forcing him to stay on the field in obvious passing situations more than the Steelers would have liked, but he’s been a consistently solid run stuffer in his career and, even going into his age 32 season, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him have another couple solid seasons left in the tank as a platoon player. This group doesn’t jump off the page, but that would obviously change if Bush can have a breakout year, with Williams and Spillane splitting time opposite him. That’s far from a guarantee, but it gives this linebacking corps more upside than comparably ranked teams. 

Grade: B-

Secondary

Cornerback is the position where the Steelers lost the most this off-season, as Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton both earned above average grades from PFF on 908 snaps and 464 snaps respectively and the Steelers didn’t replace either of them, opting to rely on internal solutions in Cameron Sutton, who was re-signed this off-season on a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal, and Justin Layne. Both are former 3rd round picks, 2017 and 2019 respectively, who have upside, but both are projections to a larger role.

Sutton probably has the most upside of the two, earning above average grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons, but that came across just 268 snaps in 2019 and 552 snaps in 2020, after struggling across 353 snaps in his first two seasons in the league. He has the upside to be an above average starter and his versatility to play both outside and on the slot makes him likely to see an every down role, but it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see him struggle in the first extended action of his career. Layne, meanwhile, is an even bigger projection, as he’s played just 122 nondescript snaps in two seasons in the league. Making matters worse, he was involved in an off-the-field issue this off-season and could face potential discipline.

Even if Sutton and Layne can step up in larger roles, depth is still a major concern for a position group that didn’t add any notable replacements this off-season. Former Jets cornerback Arthur Maulet was signed in free agency and will likely be their primary reserve cornerback. Undrafted in 2017, Maulet was not bad across 349 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2019, but he fell to 112th among 131 eligible cornerbacks across 405 snaps in 2020 and would be a very underwhelming starting option if forced into action. 

James Pierre, a 2020 undrafted free agent who showed some potential as a rookie, but played just 30 snaps total, is also in the mix for a reserve role in a thin group. Even if first round pick Najee Harris becomes a good starting running back, the Steelers could easily regret not taking cornerback Greg Newsome instead, letting him get selected by the division rival Browns. It’s much easier for teams to find competent running backs than it is to find good depth at cornerback, which the Steelers severely lack.

The Steelers’ lack of cornerback depth is even more concerning because their only returning starter and de facto #1 cornerback Joe Haden has been very injury prone throughout his career, making it through a full season without missing time just twice in 11 seasons in the league and just once since his rookie year, which is unlikely to change as Haden gets up there in age, now heading into his age 32 season. There is also some concern that Haden declines significantly in 2021, given his age. He’s been at least a solid starter throughout his career (137 career starts), but his 46th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF in 2020 was the 3rd lowest finish of his career and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him fall further down this season, as his best days are almost definitely behind him. 

At safety, the Steelers have a pair of 2018 first round picks, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds. Fitzpatrick was originally drafted 11th overall by the Dolphins, but the Steelers flipped their 2020 first round pick to Miami for Fitzpatrick at the beginning of the 2019 season to start opposite Edmunds long-term. The move paid off immediately. Fitzpatrick earned middling grades from PFF throughout his brief tenure in Miami, in part because the Dolphins failed to utilize him properly, but the Steelers plugged him in as a full-time safety and he instantly broke out, finishing the 2019 season 11th among safeties on PFF and then following that with a 7th ranked finish in 2020. Still only in his age 25 season, Fitzpatrick is already one of the better safeties in the league and it’s possible we still haven’t seen his best yet.

Edmunds, meanwhile, was the Steelers’ pick, 28th overall, and, while he hasn’t been the high level player Fitzpatrick has been, he’s still been a solid starter across 43 starts in 47 career games. His 21st ranked finish among safeties on PFF in 2020 was a career best, which he’s not guaranteed to repeat, but he’s still only going into his age 24 season, so he may have further untapped potential. Even if he remains about the same level of player as he has been recently, the Steelers are in great shape at the safety position aside from depth concerns. The Steelers will likely need that to help mask their shaky cornerback situation. 

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Steelers rode an easy schedule and a great defense to a bunch of close wins en route to a 11-0 start last season, but their offense was exposed as the season went on and the schedule got tougher, leading to the Steelers dropping 5 of their last 6 games, including their first round playoff loss to the Browns. The Steelers added running back Najee Harris in the first round of the draft this off-season, but their offensive line is noticeably worse from even last year’s underwhelming group, starting unproven players at every spot except right guard, and Ben Roethlisberger could be nearing the end of his line, so I would expect this group to continue to struggle. 

Meanwhile, a defense that has been among the league’s best in each of the past couple seasons is starting to leak talent and lose depth, which could easily lead to them falling a few spots in the rankings, further exposing a weak offense. The Steelers have the least money committed to their roster of any team in the league in terms of average annual salary and, while part of that is the result of some talented young players on rookie deals, overall that lack of financial investment shows in several key spots on this group, including the offensive line and secondary. 

That’s not necessarily the Steelers’ fault as it’s the result of several years of trying to win now with an aging roster and quarterback, which has led to consistent playoff appearances, but it’s likely to result in the Steelers struggling to make the post-season in 2021, especially when you add the fact that their schedule looks likely to be significantly more difficult this season. I will have a final prediction for the Steelers at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.

Prediction: TBD

NFL Pick Results

2020

Total Against the Spread: 138-127-4 (52.08%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 20-14 (58.82%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 40-36-1 (52.63%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 70-56-2 (55.66%)

Low Confidence Picks: 49-39 (55.68%)

No Confidence Picks: 19-32-2 (37.25%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 19-18 (51.35%)

2019

Total Against the Spread: 134-125-8 (51.74%)

Pick of the Week: 12-3-2 (80.00%)

High Confidence Picks: 20-11-1 (64.52%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 35-36-2 (49.30%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 67-50-5 (57.26%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-40-1 (46.67%)

No Confidence Picks: 32-35-2 (47.76%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 22-21 (51.16%)

2018

Total Against the Spread: 154-102-11 (60.16%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 21-13-2 (61.76%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 41-27-1 (60.29%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 72-46-4 (61.02%)

Low Confidence Picks: 35-28-1 (55.56%)

No Confidence Picks: 47-28-6 (62.67%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 25-17-1 (59.52%)

2017

Total Against the Spread: 139-120-8 (53.67%)

Pick of the Week: 11-6 (64.71%)

High Confidence Picks: 21-11-3 (65.63%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 33-34-1 (49.25%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 65-51-4 (56.03%)

Low Confidence Picks: 44-38-4 (53.66%)

No Confidence Picks: 30-31 (49.18%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 19-25 (43.18%)

2016

Total Against the Spread: 130-127-10 (50.58%)

Pick of the Week: 11-6-0 (64.71%)

High Confidence Picks: 12-17-2 (41.38%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 42-26-4 (61.76%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 65-49-6 (57.02%)

Low Confidence Picks: 34-40-2 (45.95%)

No Confidence Picks: 31-38-2 (44.93%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 26-25 (50.98%)

2015

Total Against the Spread: 124-138-5 (47.33%)

Pick of the Week: 9-8 (52.94%)

High Confidence Picks: 14-11 (56.00%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 35-36-1 (49.30%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 58-55-1 (51.33%)

Low Confidence Picks: 36-45-2 (44.44%)

No Confidence Picks: 30-38-2 (44.12%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 16-30 (34.78%)

2014

Total Against the Spread: 150-113-4 (57.03%)

Pick of the Week: 9-7-1 (56.25%)

High Confidence Picks: 9-11 (45.00%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 57-31 (64.77%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 75-49-1 (60.48%)

Low Confidence Picks: 36-32-2 (52.94%)

No Confidence Picks: 39-32-1 (54.93%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 19-25 (43.18%)

2013

Total Against the Spread: 148-110-9 (57.36%)

Pick of the Week: 10-6-1 (62.50%)

High Confidence Picks: 25-10-1 (71.43%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 32-26 (55.17%)

Money Picks (Medium confidence and higher): 67-42-2 (61.47%)

Low Confidence Picks: 39-28-3 (58.21%)

No Confidence Picks: 42-40-4 (51.22%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 27-31 (46.55%)

All-Time (Since 2013)

Total Against the Spread: 1117-962-59 (53.73%)

Pick of the Week: 82-48-6 (63.08%)

High Confidence Picks: 142-98-9 (59.17%)

Medium Confidence Picks: 315-252-10 (55.56%)

Money Picks (Medium Confidence and higher): 539-398-25 (57.52%)

Low Confidence Picks: 308-290-15 (51.51%)

No Confidence Picks: 270-274-19 (49.63%)

Moneyline Upset Picks: 173-192-1 (47.40%)

Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Kansas City Chiefs: Super Bowl LV Pick

Tampa Bay Buccaneers (14-5) vs. Kansas City Chiefs (16-2) in Super Bowl LV

Tom Brady will be appearing in his 10th ever Super Bowl in Super Bowl 55, an incredible number that is double the next highest total and that is more than all of Brady’s Hall-of-Fame contemporaries combined. This one will be unique from all the others because he’ll be doing it with a new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in his first season with the team after two record breaking decades in New England. Brady is being given most of the credit, understandable if you just pay attention to team’s records, as the Buccaneers improved from 7 wins to 11 wins and a Super Bowl appearance, while New England fell from 12 wins to out of the playoffs with 7 wins, after Brady had made the post-season in 16 straight healthy seasons in New England. 

However, that is far from the whole story and ignores the reasons why Brady headed south in the first place. The Patriots won 12 games last year, but Brady and the offense weren’t the primary reason they won those games, as the Patriots had a dominant defense, but an offensive supporting cast that left a lot to be desired, especially in the receiving corps and especially down the stretch as injuries mounted. The Patriots’ defense led the league in first down rate allowed by a mile, but their offense ranked just 21st in first down rate, their lowest finish since before Brady arrived.

The Patriots didn’t make any major upgrades to their receiving corps last off-season, so it’s likely the Patriots’ 2020 offense would have resembled their 2019 offense if they had kept Brady, rather than the 2020 Buccaneers’ offense, which has a much better receiving corps. That still would have been enough for the Patriots to make the post-season had their defense continued playing at a high level like in 2019, but the Patriots’ defense is where they had by far their biggest dropoff from 2019 to 2020, finishing the 2020 season ranked 23rd in first down rate allowed. 

Given how much their defense fell off, it’s very likely the Patriots would not have made the playoffs even if they had kept Brady and, by some metrics, the Patriots were better offensively in 2020 with Cam Newton leading a run based attack than they were in 2019 when they relied primarily on an ineffective aerial attack with Brady throwing to arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. The 2019 Patriots ran a league leading 1,126 plays because their defense kept getting them the ball back so often, 115 more plays than they ran in 2020, but the 2019 Patriots only managed 6 more first downs than the 2020 Patriots and they averaged fewer yards per play as well, 5.3 vs. 5.2. 

The Patriots have gotten a lot of criticism for not bringing back Brady, but that would have required at least matching a fully guaranteed 2-year, 50 million dollar contract for a 43-44 year old quarterback who might not have even gotten them back to the post-season in the first year of the deal. For a team that needs to rebuild and reload, that kind of contract could have set them back a year or two. The contract obviously has worked out for the Buccaneers, but it’s kind of comparing apples to oranges, because the Buccaneers are built to win now much more than the Patriots and were right to be aggressive to try to capitalize on that.

Brady, of course, likely recognized the two teams were heading into opposite directions, which is why he made the decision he did. For all the talk about how Tom Brady is back in the Super Bowl because of what he did as a player this season, what Brady did this off-season as a scout probably has more to do with him being back here than anything. The Buccaneers were not widely discussed as a potential destination for Brady last off-season, but I put them at the top of my list for Brady last February and, while I wasn’t expecting Brady to actually leave New England, it was easy for me to see why he picked the Buccaneers when he picked them. 

The Buccaneers won just 7 games in 2019, but they finished 9th in first down rate differential, suggesting they were better than their record. They also had a massive need at quarterback after years of subpar play from Jameis Winston, they were well coached, going into the second season of the Bruce Arians regime, and they got a lot better down the stretch in 2019, particularly on defense, leading to the Buccaneers winning 6 of their last 9 games, with the exceptions being a loss to the division leading Saints and two losses by less than a score in games in which Winston threw at least one pick six. Tampa Bay’s loaded receiving corps was the main draw, but this was a talented roster overall, beyond their pass catchers and, after Brady brought his friends Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski along for the ride, Tampa Bay suddenly became legitimate contenders.

Brady, for his part, played at an above average level and was obviously a massive upgrade over the backup caliber Jameis Winston, but Brady is not the same player he was in his prime or even a few years ago when he could single handedly elevate a team with an underwhelming supporting cast to the league’s highest stage, likely part of the reason why Brady looked for a better football situation to spend the twilight of his career last off-season. Focusing too much on Brady overlooks the talented players and coaches (including defensive coordinator Todd Bowles) that the Buccaneers have throughout their roster and throughout their staff, which is a huge part of the reason why the Buccaneers are where they are.

For Brady, being in the Super Bowl is nothing new, but what is relatively new is that he won’t be favored, with the Buccaneers listed as 3.5 point underdogs. Brady led the historic upset as massive underdogs in his first Super Bowl appearance back in Super Bowl 36, but he’s been favored in each of the past 8, covering in just 3 of them. Brady and the Buccaneers being underdogs has everything to do with the team on the other side, as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs are defending Super Bowl Champions and have been presumptive Super Bowl favorites all season, having lost just one meaningful game. 

For Mahomes, this is his second straight Super Bowl appearance and, in 3 seasons as the starter, he’s lost just once in the post-season, in 8 appearances. His one loss was to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship, one of four matchups between these two quarterbacks in just the 3 seasons that Mahomes has been the starter. The 4th matchup was earlier this season when the Chiefs won by a field goal in Tampa Bay in a matchup that previewed the Super Bowl, both in matchup and in location, with the Buccaneers being fortunate enough to be the first team ever to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. 

The common narrative is that the Chiefs dominated that game and the Buccaneers came back in garbage time, but the Buccaneers’ score to cut it to a field goal came with over four minutes left on the clock and two timeouts left for Tampa Bay, so those were hardly meaningless possessions. A better way to think of that game is that both teams dominated a single quarter (the Chiefs in the 1st jumping out to a 17-0 lead and the Buccaneers in the 4th cutting it from 27-10 to 27-24), but that the Chiefs played slightly better overall. How much better overall may be very slight though, as the Chiefs only won the first down rate battle by just 0.66% and actually had slightly fewer yards per play (7.6 vs. 7.5). 

Winning close games was a big part of the story of the Chiefs’ season this year, as they snuck out 8 of their 14 wins by 6 points or fewer, including several against teams much worse than the Buccaneers. Overall, the Buccaneers actually had the edge in point differential (+137 vs. +111), DVOA (33.7% vs. 25.2%), and schedule adjusted first down rate differential (4.25% vs. 3.36%) on the season and, even though they won 3 fewer games, they had significantly more double digit wins (8 vs. 5). Wins by larger totals tend to be predictive of future winning at a much higher rate than close victories. 

Some ignore that most of the Chiefs wins have been close because the Chiefs have Mahomes and they assume that quarterbacks of his caliber can consistently win close games. Even ignoring the obvious fact that even the most elite quarterbacks couldn’t consistently win 88.9% of their one score games like Mahomes did this season, there isn’t much evidence of elite quarterbacks even consistently winning close games at a significantly higher than average rate. Entering this season, Mahomes was just 9-8 in one score games in his career, as dominant as he was in his first two seasons in the league. In fact, the only quarterback who has seemed to be able to consistently win close games is the quarterback on the other sideline, who is a remarkable 94-44 in his career in one score games. 

In addition to his dominance in one score games, Brady has somehow been even more dominant in tough games like this. Not only is Brady 33-11 in the post-season, but Brady almost always plays his best in these big games against tough opponents, particularly when his team is doubted and not expected to win. Overall in his career, Brady is 56-26 ATS as an underdog or a favorite of less than 2.5 and he’s 44-11 ATS against teams with a better record than his, including an incredible 42-13 straight up record in those games. 

As an underdog, Brady is 28-6 ATS in games against teams with a better record than his, pulling the straight up upset in 21 of 30 games. Most of that was with Bill Belichick and the Patriots, but the Buccaneers went 4-1 ATS as underdogs and against teams with a better record than theirs this season, including their 3-point loss as 3.5-point underdogs against the Chiefs earlier this season and their wins over the Saints and Packers in their past two games. 

It will take a lot more than just Tom Brady to win this game, but the Buccaneers have it, with arguably the most well-rounded roster in the league and a better overall team than the Chiefs, who may have the passing game stars, but have questions on defense and on the offensive line, particularly with the Chiefs now being without both of their starting offensive tackles, Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, who are one of the best duos in the league when healthy. This offensive line was already not the same since losing Schwartz in week 8, a 11-game stretch in which they’ve won by more than 6 points just twice and Fisher going down in the Chiefs’ last game in the AFC Championship makes things much worse. 

The Chiefs have done a good job of rebuilding their offensive line on the fly this season, but they figure to be overmatched against a tough Tampa Bay front. I like the Buccaneers to pull the upset straight up and, even if they can’t, they should be able to keep it close, especially in what will be something of a home game for the Buccaneers. About 1 in 4 games are decided by 3 points or fewer and the Chiefs haven’t blown out most of their opponents this season. The Buccaneers seem like a relatively safe bet against the spread and a great value on the money line.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 30 Kansas City Chiefs 27 Upset Pick +150

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Bay Packers 24 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 23

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3.5

Confidence: High

Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs: 2020 AFC Championship Pick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs 34 Buffalo Bills 33

Pick against the spread: Buffalo +3.5

Confidence: High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Orleans Saints 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 26

Pick against the spread: Tampa Bay +3

Confidence: Low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs 38 Cleveland Browns 34

Pick against the spread: Cleveland +10

Confidence: High