- Cleveland Browns – DE Harold Landry (Boston College)
- New York Giants – G Will Hernandez (UTEP)
- Cleveland Browns – OT Connor Williams (Texas)
- Indianapolis Colts – RB Derrius Guice (LSU)
- Indianapolis Colts – CB Josh Jackson (Iowa)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Donte Jackson (LSU)
- Chicago Bears – WR Courtland Sutton (SMU)
- Denver Broncos – RB Ronald Jones (USC)
- Oakland Raiders – CB Carlton Davis (Auburn)
- Miami Dolphins – TE Dallas Goedert (South Carolina State)
- New England Patriots – QB Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State)
- Washington Redskins – C James Daniels (Iowa)
- Green Bay Packers – WR Christian Kirk (Texas A&M)
- Cincinnati Bengals – G Austin Corbett (Nevada)
- Arizona Cardinals – OT Tyrell Crosby (Oregon)
- Los Angeles Chargers – DE Sam Hubbard (Ohio State)
- Indianapolis Colts – WR Anthony Miller (Memphis)
- Dallas Cowboys – S Ronnie Harrison (Alabama)
- Detroit Lions – DE Rasheem Green (USC)
- Philadelphia Eagles – TE Mike Gesicki (Penn State)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers – S Justin Reid (Stanford)
- Kansas City Chiefs – OLB Lorenzo Carter (Georgia)
- Carolina Panthers – S Jessie Bates (Wake Forest)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers – RB Nick Chubb (Georgia)
- Tennessee Titans – OLB Uchenna Nwosu (USC)
- Atlanta Falcons – DT Harrison Phillips (Stanford)
- San Francisco 49ers – DE Josh Sweat (Florida State)
- Pittsburgh Steelers – WR James Washington (Oklahoma State)
- Jacksonville Jaguars – OLB Jerome Baker (Ohio State)
- Minnesota Vikings – DT Tim Settle (Virginia Tech)
- New England Patriots – OT Orlando Brown (Virginia Tech)
- Cleveland Browns – DT Maurice Hurst (Michigan)
- QB Drew Brees
Prediction: Re-signs with Saints – 2 years, 50 million
Brees is listed as #1 because he’s the best player with an expiring contract, but no one believes he’s going anywhere other than New Orleans. He’s even said he’s willing to take less money to stay in New Orleans if it means his team can add talent at other positions. Brees is going into his age 39 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and his return to New Orleans for a 13th season looks like a mere formality at this point.
- QB Kirk Cousins
Prediction: Signs with Vikings – 4 years, 120 million
Unlike Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins will not be returning and will hit the open market as a franchise quarterback in his prime with no injuries, a very uncommon occurrence in the modern NFL. The Redskins refused to meet his asking price on a long-term deal for 3 off-seasons, slapping the franchise tag on him twice, and eventually trading for Alex Smith as his replacement this off-season. Because of how rarely a quarterback like Cousins hits the open markets, he figures to have many interested suitors this off-season, including some that will offer him record shattering deals.
However, Cousins has said it’s not all about money for him and that he wants to win. Multiple reports have said that Cousins’ first preference is to go to Minnesota, as long as the money is competitive. The Vikings made the NFC Championship last season, but don’t have a quarterback under contract for 2018. They could play it safe and re-sign Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater, but Cousins is a surer thing than either of them and it’s looking increasingly likely that Minnesota is leaning that direction. They might not make him the biggest offer, but Cousins should still end up signing the richest contract in NFL history. The Vikings have to extend some young players on expiring contracts, but they should have the cap space to add Cousins to the mix.
- G Andrew Norwell
Prediction: Signs with Giants – 4 years, 50 million
Norwell was talented enough to be franchise tagged, but the Panthers have invested big contracts into left tackle Matt Kalil, right guard Trai Turner, and center Matt Kalil, so the Panthers let him walk. With right tackle Daryl Williams set to hit free agency next off-season and 2017 2nd 2nd round pick Taylor Moton ready to start in Norwell’s spot at left guard, it is an understandable decision. That being said, whichever team ends up signing him should be very happy, as he’s one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league. The Giants need him badly and multiple reports have already connected the dots between Norwell and new Giants GM Dave Gettleman, who signed Norwell as an undrafted free agent in 2014 as the GM of the Panthers.
- WR Allen Robinson
Prediction: Signs with Redskins – 4 years, 56 million
Allen Robinson also could have been franchise tagged, but he tore his ACL week 1 last season and the Jaguars got breakout play from rookies Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole in his absence, so they’re letting him test the open market. The Redskins are known to be interested and they’ve never been shy about spending money in free agency under owner Dan Snyder. The Redskins missed DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon last season, as Terrelle Pryor and Ryan Grant were underwhelming in their absence. Pryor and Grant are free agents this off-season and the Redskins could definitely shop in the top of the wide receiver market to replace them. Robinson gives them a good wide receiver trio with Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder.
- DT Sheldon Richardson
Prediction: Signs with Browns – 4 years, 48 million
Richardson was one of the better defensive linemen in the league in 2013 and 2014, but missed 6 games with suspension and injury in 2015 and 2016 combined and ultimately wore out his welcome with the Jets ahead of his contract year in 2017, getting traded to the Seahawks for a 2nd round pick and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse back in August. The Jets ended up being the winners of that trade, as Richardson was underwhelming in his one season with the Seahawks and Jermaine Kearse was arguably the Jets’ best receiver. Now Richardson looks likely to take the biggest offer on the open market, after not being franchised by the cap strapped Seahawks.
Richardson still is only 28 in November and has a dominant top level form, but he’s inconsistent and has clashed with coaching staffs. That will hurt his market, but it’s a weak off-season in terms of top level free agent talent and a lot of teams have money to spend, so he should still get a big payday. The Browns still have a ton of cap space after trades for Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry and now have a need at defensive tackle after trading Danny Shelton to the Patriots for a draft pick. Richardson would pair well inside with Larry Ogunjobi, a 2017 3rd round pick who flashed in limited action as a rookie.
- S Morgan Burnett
Prediction: Signs with Browns – 5 years, 47 million
If trades for Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry are any indication, the Browns have some intention of trying to compete in 2018, which is something that could not be said about them in 2016 and 2017. They may continue to be aggressive in free agency and safety is another position where they could use an upgrade. 2016 4th round pick Derrick Kindred was underwhelming in his first season as the starter and would fit best as a 3rd safety behind 2017 1st round pick Jabrill Peppers and big off-season addition. Morgan Burnett is the top available safety. His age (30 next January) will hurt his market a little bit, but his versatility and the lack of top level talent in this free agency class should have him in high demand and the Browns have the cap space to make an aggressive move for him.
- CB Malcolm Butler
Prediction: Signs with Buccaneers – 5 years, 62 million
We may never know why Malcolm Butler didn’t play in the Super Bowl, but he should still be in high demand as a free agent this off-season, based off of his entire track record in New England. The Buccaneers have a major need at cornerback and the cap space to shop at the top of the market, so they figure to be a major player for him.
- WR Sammy Watkins
Prediction: Signs with Bears – 4 years, 54 million
Sammy Watkins barely has 1000 yards total over the past 2 seasons, after posting a 60/1047/9 slash line in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but that won’t stop him from getting a big contract in free agency. The former #4 overall pick is still only 25 and has top level ability. Foot injuries limited him mightily in 2016 and led to the Bills not picking up his 5th year injury-guaranteed option for 2018. The Bills then traded him ahead of his contract year to the Rams for a 2nd round pick.
Watkins stayed healthy with the Rams, but only posted a 39/593/8 slash line in 15 games, as he struggled to integrate into the new offense after arriving in August and lost out on targets to players Jared Goff was more comfortable throwing to. Watkins still showed his abilities from time to time and was a threat in the red zone, but the Rams decided to franchise tag safety LaMarcus Joyner instead of him. Now the Rams are at a strong risk of losing him to the highest bidder for nothing. The Bears could easily be that highest bidder, as they badly need a #1 wide receiver for young Mitch Trubisky and have the cap space to outbid the competition. They could also be competitive for Allen Robinson.
- CB Trumaine Johnson
Prediction: Signs with Jets – 4 years, 54 million
Trumaine Johnson has made 30.7 million over the past 2 seasons on two franchise tags. He may have to take a slight pay cut now that he’s actually hit the open market, but he should still be highly paid. A 2012 3rd round pick, Johnson broke out in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015 and was franchise tagged by the Rams instead of Janoris Jenkins. Unable to come to a long-term agreement, Johnson played on the franchise tag in 2016 and played well again, but again was tagged and not given a long-term deal because Wade Phillips was not sure how he’d fit his scheme. He ended up having a down season in 2017 and will likely not be brought back, as the Rams have already acquired Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to replace him this off-season. The Jets have a big need at cornerback, the cap space to outbid teams for him, and are known to be interested.
- DE Muhammad Wilkerson
Prediction: Signs with Titans – 3 years, 30 million
In 2015, Muhammad Wilkerson was as good as any defensive linemen outside of JJ Watt and Aaron Donald, getting 12 sacks from the 3-4 defensive end position for a Jets defense that almost dragged the team into the playoffs. The Jets rewarded him with a 5-year, 86 million dollar deal, but he seemed to check out after signing, posting underwhelming seasons in 2016 and 2017 and having disciplinary issues. The Jets cut him after 2 years and 37 million, even though they didn’t need the cap space, so Wilkerson will have an opportunity to start fresh somewhere else.
Only 28, Wilkerson could have a bounce back season in 2018 if he’s motivated and has already drawn a lot of interest in free agency. The Titans haven’t been linked to him yet, but they have the cap space to make a competitive offer for him and could use an upgrade on pending free agent defensive end DaQuan Jones. Wilkerson could form a very dangerous duo with Jurrell Casey in the Titans’ 3-4 defense if he can get back to being the player he was.
- G Justin Pugh
Prediction: Signs with the Jaguars – 4 years, 40 million
This is just dot connecting, but the Jaguars make a ton of sense for Justin Pugh, who have some cap space and need to get better in front of Blake Bortles in 2018. Pugh would reunite with his college coach Doug Marrone and his former Giants coach Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville and would fill a big hole at left guard.
- QB Case Keenum
Prediction: Signs with Broncos – 2 years, 36 million
Case Keenum is going to be a very interesting free agency case. He signed for just 2 million on a one-year deal last off-season, but had a breakout year in the absence of an injured Sam Bradford in 2017, leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. He figures to get a major pay increase, but the Vikings seem to be leaning towards paying Kirk Cousins instead of bringing back Keenum and there are questions about how Keenum will perform outside of Pat Shurmur’s system.
Still, as we saw with Mike Glennon last off-season, quarterbacks get paid, even if there are major question marks about them. At $18 million, he’d still only be the 17th highest paid quarterback in the NFL and the Broncos aren’t taking a ton of risk with a two-year deal. The Broncos are expected to pursue Kirk Cousins, but, if he goes to Minnesota, Keenum could be a good backup option. The Broncos reportedly tried to trade for him during the 2016 season and Gary Kubiak, who has returned to the team in an advisory role, was the one who originally signed Keenum as an undrafted free agent, back in 2012 with the Texans.
- DT Dontari Poe
Prediction: Signs with Redskins – 3 years, 33 million
Concerns about his back led Dontari Poe to take a one-year prove it deal with the Falcons last off-season. Poe didn’t have his best season in 2017, but played all 16 games and is still only going into his age 28 season. The former first round pick has intriguing upside and could get good money on a multi-year deal this off-season. The Redskins were known to be interested in him last off-season and still have a massive need on the defensive line. Poe’s best years have come in the kind of 3-4 defense the Redskins run and, as I mentioned before, the Redskins love making splash signings in free agency, even if they have to overpay.
- OT Nate Solder
Prediction: Re-signs with Patriots – 2 years, 24 million
Nate Solder isn’t the best left tackle in the world, but he’s by far the best available free agent tackle and the Patriots don’t have another good option. Solder is going into his age 30 season and he’s been underwhelming over the past couple of seasons, but the Patriots need to keep Tom Brady’s blindside protector around, at least on a short-term deal. Solder has plenty of incentive to stay in New England with Tom Brady and company and would probably choose returning over leaving if the money is comparable.
- QB Teddy Bridgewater
Prediction: Signs with Dolphins – 1 year, 8 million (heavily incentivized)
Teddy Bridgewater might be the most interesting free agency case of all. Theoretically, he’s a franchise caliber quarterback hitting free agency at only 25 years old. The 2014 1st round pick made 28 starts for the Vikings in his first 2 seasons in the league and looked like one of the league’s promising young quarterbacks, but he’s attempted just 2 passes in 2 seasons since because of a brutal knee injury that wiped out his entire 2016 season and most of his 2017 season. Upon return, Bridgewater sat on the bench behind breakout star Case Keenum and now looks likely to leave Minnesota as a free agent, with the Vikings expected to go after Kirk Cousins.
If Bridgewater is healthy, he could prove to be a steal in free agency and he’ll be 25 months removed from the injury by week 1, so he’s a worthwhile flier. I think he makes a ton of sense for the Dolphins and not just because he’s from the Miami area. The Dolphins are not sold on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who hasn’t played in a regular season game since December 2016 thanks to an ACL injury and who is due 17.5 million and 18.75 million in 2018 and 2019 respectively. However, the Dolphins don’t have the cap space or a high enough draft pick to find a legitimate upgrade this off-season.
Instead, they could take a flier on Bridgewater, give him an incentivized deal based on playing time, and have him compete with Tannehill for the job in training camp. They could also structure a deal with him where a 2nd year option at a starting quarterback salary (let’s say $16 million) triggers if Bridgewater makes a certain amount of starts this season. Worst case scenario, Bridgewater should be an adequate backup for Tannehill, which is something they need this off-season anyway. He’s a low risk flier and would be a smart signing.
- CB Prince Amukamara
Prediction: Signs with Patriots – 3 years, 24 million
A 2011 1st round pick, Amukamara has always been a solid cornerback, but he’s missed 29 games in 7 seasons in the league and had to settle for 7.5 million on 1-year prove it deal from the Bears in his first attempt at free agency last off-season. Amukamara played 14 games last season, which could ease the concerns of some teams about his injury proneness, but he also played in 14 games in 2016 before settling for a one-year deal, so it might not make much of a difference. The Patriots need a replacement for Malcolm Butler and should be able to get Amukamara on a short-term deal without much money guaranteed beyond 2018.
- G Jack Mewhort
Prediction: Re-signs with Colts – 4 years, 30 million
Free agency comes at a bad time for Jack Mewhort. A 2014 2nd round pick, Mewhort looked like one of the best young interior offensive linemen in the league in his first season at left guard in 2015. He continued playing well into 2016, but then missed time with a triceps injury and a knee injury. He played in just 10 games in 2016 and then had his 2017 season ended after 5 games when he re-aggravated that knee injury. He could still get a good contract offer from the Colts, who have a ton of money to play with and a massive need on the offensive line. They could give him his best offer.
- OLB Nigel Bradham
Prediction: Signs with Saints – 4 years, 26 million
Bradham greatly outperformed a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal with the Eagles and figures to get a bigger deal his 2nd time in free agency. The Eagles don’t have the cap space to outbid teams for him, so he’ll likely sign elsewhere. The Saints won’t have a ton of cap space left after re-signing Brees, but Brees is expected to take a team friendly deal so the team can sign other players. Expect them to be aggressive in free agency and go all in on 2018. Bradham would become their best linebacker.
- QB Sam Bradford
Prediction: Signs with Bills – 1 year, 8 million (incentivized)
The Bills traded Tyrod Taylor without an obvious replacement on the roster or a high drive pick, so expect them to add a quarterback in free agency. They have the ammunition to move up in the draft, but I doubt they’ll go into draft day with Nathan Peterman as the only quarterback under contract. Whoever they draft may not be ready to start week 1 anyway.
Bradford is the 3rd starting caliber quarterback that would need a new home if the Vikings sign Kirk Cousins, though Bradford is likely gone from Minnesota regardless, as the Vikings reportedly prefer Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater and believe Sam Bradford’s knee is degenerative, after two ACL tears and a 3rd cleanup surgery last season. It’s a shame because Bradford is only going into his age 31 season and has played like a top-15 quarterback when healthy in recent years. He’ll likely have to settle for an incentivized short-term deal with a team like the Bills that wants him to keep the seat warm for a rookie.
- G Josh Sitton
Prediction: Signs with Texans – 3 years, 21 million
Josh Sitton is still an above average starting guard, but he will be looking for a new team for the 2nd time in 3 off-seasons. The Packers made Sitton a cap casualty before the 2016 season and then he spent two seasons with the Bears, before the Bears declined his 3rd year option this off-season, which would have been worth 8 million. Going into his age 32 season, Sitton will likely have to take a paycut, but can still be a big help upfront for some team. The Texans have one of the worst offensive line situations in the league and the cap space to make big free agent signings.
- TE Jimmy Graham
Prediction: Signs with Packers – 4 years, 36 million
The Packers let go of GM Ted Thompson in part because of his unwillingness to be aggressive in free agency, so the Packers could be much bigger players in free agency this off-season than normal. They signed Martellus Bennett to a sizeable contract last off-season, but that didn’t work out. They could try again with Jimmy Graham, the top available free agent tight end. Graham is going into his age 32 season in 2018 and had a terrible knee injury a couple years back, but much of his lack of production in Seattle came because he was the 3rd or 4th option on a team that didn’t throw the ball that often. He could have huge numbers in Green Bay and will likely still be paid as a top of the market tight end. This 9 million dollar annual salary would be 3rd highest in the league by a tight end.
- QB AJ McCarron
Prediction: Signs with Cardinals – 4 years, 62 million
AJ McCarron only has 5 career starts, but could still be a hot commodity on the open market, much like Mike Glennon was last off-season. I don’t buy the hype because the success he had in 2015 came on a really good Bengals team that was significantly better when Andy Dalton was out there. Dalton is at best an average starter quarterback, so McCarron might not be much more than a high end backup, but that won’t stop some team from giving him starter money. The Cardinals don’t have a single quarterback on their roster right now and don’t pick until #15, so they could make McCarron a lucrative offer. Even if McCarron gets a 3 or 4 year deal, it’s unlikely to have much money guaranteed beyond 2018.
- C Weston Richburg
Prediction: Signs with Bears – 4 years, 30 million
When the Bears cut Josh Sitton, it wasn’t for cap reasons, as they have among the most cap space in the league. Sitton was cut because the Bears want to get younger upfront. Weston Richburg is going into his age 27 season and is one of the best free agent interior offensive linemen. He can play either guard or center, with most of his experience coming as a center. If he played center, the Bears could shift incumbent center Cody Whitehair to guard, where he might be a better fit.
- QB Josh McCown
Prediction: Re-signs with Jets – 1 year, 10 million
The Jets will also be in the running for Kirk Cousins and can offer him the most money, but Minnesota and Denver both give him much better chances to win right now. If they can’t sign him, they are expected to target Teddy Bridgewater, with Josh McCown as their third option. McCown wasn’t bad in 13 starts for them last season before getting hurt. Though he’s going into his age 39 season and lacks durability, he can still be a bridge quarterback that the Jets can bring a rookie along behind and he fits their system well. He should get an increase on the 1-year, 6 million dollar deal he got from the Jets last off-season.
- CB EJ Gaines
Prediction: Signs with Packers – 4 years, 32 million
The Packers make another big free agent signing and address a big need at cornerback. The Packers were thin at cornerback even before trading Damarious Randall and now it is their biggest need heading into the off-season. Gaines is a risky signing because he’s missed 27 games with injury in 4 seasons in the league and struggled mightily in 2016, leading to him being a throw-in in the Sammy Watkins trade. However, he was an above average starter in 2014 and 2017 and probably earned himself a big contract with his strong play in 2017, even if he did only play 11 games.
- DT DaQuan Jones
Prediction: Signs with Falcons – 1 year, 5 million
- S Tre Boston
Prediction: Re-signs with Chargers – 3 years, 18 million
- DT Kyle Williams
Prediction: Re-signs with Bills – 1 year, 6 million
- DE Adrian Clayborn
Prediction: Signs with Colts – 3 years, 24 million
- CB Rashaan Melvin
Prediction: Signs with Panthers – 3 years, 25 million
- C Spencer Long
Prediction: Signs with Buccaneers – 5 years, 32 million
- DT Bennie Logan
Prediction: Signs with Buccaneers – 3 years, 19 million
- OLB Zach Brown
Prediction: Signs with Raiders – 4 years, 28 million
- RB Dion Lewis
Prediction: Signs with 49ers – 3 years, 19 million
- WR Donte Moncrief
Prediction: Signs with Ravens – 1 year, 5 million
- G Josh Kline
Prediction: Signs with Texans – 3 years, 18 million
- TE Trey Burton
Prediction: Signs with Bears – 4 years, 28 million
- CB Johnathan Joseph
Prediction: Re-signs with Texans – 3 years, 18 million
- S Eric Reid
Prediction: Signs with Buccaneers – 4 years, 24 million
- OLB Dee Ford
Prediction: Signs with Jets – 3 years, 24 million
- MLB Avery Williamson
Prediction: Re-signs with Titans – 4 years, 24 million
- CB Patrick Robinson
Prediction: Signs with Titans – 2 years, 14 million
- S Marcus Gilchrist
Prediction: Re-signs with Texans – 3 years, 24 million
- OLB Kony Ealy
Prediction: Signs with Rams – 2 years, 10 million
- C Ryan Jensen
Prediction: Signs with Redskins – 4 years, 24 million
- MLB NaVorro Bowman
Prediction: Signs with Chargers – 2 years, 12 million
- DE Julius Peppers
Prediction: Re-signs with Panthers – 2 years, 12 million
- WR Paul Richardson
Prediction: Signs with Colts – 4 years, 28 million
- CB Bashaud Breeland
Prediction: Signs with Colts – 4 years, 32 million
- CB Aaron Colvin
Prediction: Signs with Bills – 4 years, 26 million
*=player has had private visit/workout with team
- Green Bay Packers – G Forest Lamp (Western Kentucky)
- Seattle Seahawks – CB Kevin King (Washington)
- Jacksonville Jaguars – QB Davis Webb (California)
- Chicago Bears – CB Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado)
- Los Angeles Rams – WR Isaiah Jones (East Carolina)
- Los Angeles Chargers – S Obi Melifonwu (Connecticut)
- New York Jets – OLB Jordan Willis (Kansas State)
- Carolina Panthers – S Josh Jones (NC State)*
- Cincinnati Bengals – RB Joe Mixon (Oklahoma)*
- New Orleans Saints – DE Derek Rivers (Youngstown State)*
- Philadelphia Eagles – RB Dalvin Cook (Florida State)*
- Buffalo Bills – WR Chris Godwin (Penn State)
- Arizona Cardinals – QB DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame)*
- Indianapolis Colts – DE Malik McDowell (Michigan State)*
- Baltimore Ravens – OT Cam Robinson (Alabama)*
- Minnesota Vikings – G Dan Feeney (Indiana)*
- Washington Redskins – MLB Zach Cunningham (Vanderbilt)
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers – S Marcus Maye (Florida)*
- Denver Broncos – DE Chris Wormley (Michigan)
- Cleveland Browns – CB Quincy Wilson (Florida)*
- Detroit Lions – DE Carl Lawson (Auburn)
- Miami Dolphins – S Justin Evans (Texas A&M)*
- New York Giants – OT Antonio Garcia (Troy)
- Oakland Raiders – MLB Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State)*
- Houston Texans – OT Taylor Moton (Western Michigan)
- Seattle Seahawks – OLB Tim Williams (Alabama)*
- Kansas City Chiefs – WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (USC)
- Dallas Cowboys – CB Fabian Moreau (UCLA)*
- Green Bay Packers – CB Sidney Jones (Washington)
- Pittsburgh Steelers – WR Josh Reynolds (Texas A&M)*
- Atlanta Falcons – S Budda Baker (Washington)*
- Carolina Panthers – DE Tarell Basham (Ohio)*
- Cleveland Browns – S Marcus Williams (Utah)
- San Francisco 49ers – CB Ahkello Witherspoon (Colorado)*
- San Francisco 49ers – WR Carlos Henderson (Louisiana Tech)
- Jacksonville Jaguars – G Dorian Johnson (Pittsburgh)
- Los Angeles Rams – TE Gerald Everett (South Alabama)
- New York Jets – CB Damontae Kazee (San Diego State)*
- Los Angeles Chargers – QB Joshua Dobbs (Tennessee)*
- New England Patriots – DE DeMarcus Walker (Florida State)*
- Cincinnati Bengals – DE Tanoh Kpassagnon (Villanova)*
- Baltimore Ravens – OLB Tyus Bowser (Houston)*
- Buffalo Bills – S Tedric Thompson (Colorado)*
- New Orleans Saints – WR Curtis Samuel (Ohio State)
- Arizona Cardinals – G Dion Dawkins (Temple)
- Baltimore Ravens – WR Chad Hansen (California)
- Minnesota Vikings – RB Alvin Kamara (Tennessee)*
- Indianapolis Colts – CB Shaquill Griffin (Central Florida)*
- Washington Redskins – QB Nathan Peterman (Washington)
- Denver Broncos – TE Jordan Leggett (Clemson)
- Tennessee Titans – TE Jonnu Smith (Florida International)*
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Desmond King (Iowa)
- Detroit Lions – TE Bucky Hodges (Virginia Tech)
- Minnesota Vikings – DT Dalvin Tomlinson (Alabama)
- New York Giants – RB Elijah McGuire (Louisiana)*
- Oakland Raiders – OT Julien Davenport (Bucknell)*
- Houston Texans – OLB Ryan Anderson (Alabama)
- Seattle Seahawks – OT Roderick Johnson (Florida State)
- Buffalo Bills – TE Adam Shaheen (Ashland)
- Dallas Cowboys – TE Jake Butt (Michigan)
- Green Bay Packers – RB Samaje Perine (Oklahoma)
- Pittsburgh Steelers – MLB Anthony Walker (Northwestern)
- Seattle Seahawks – DT Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA)
- New England Patriots – TE George Kittle (Iowa)
- Miami Dolphins – G Isaac Asiata (Utah)*
- Carolina Panthers – WR Malachi Dupre (LSU)*
- Philadelphia Eagles – WR Shelton Gibson (West Virginia)*
- Tennessee Titans – CB Cornelius Elder (Miami)*
- Denver Broncos – RB Marlon Mack (South Florida)*
- Seattle Seahawks – WR Amara Darboh (Michigan)
- New Orleans Saints – MLB Alex Anzalone (Florida)
- Kansas City Chiefs – RB Brian Hill (Wyoming)*
- Pittsburgh Steelers – S Montae Nicholson (Michigan State)*
- Seattle Seahawks – G Nico Siragusa (San Diego State)
- New York Jets – WR Damore’ea Stringfellow (Mississippi)*
*=player has had private visit/workout with team
1. Cleveland Browns – DE Myles Garrett (Texas A&M)*
Typically, the top pick in the draft is a quarterback, as a non-quarterback has gone #1 overall just 5 times in the last 19 drafts. In 3 off those instances, the team drafting #1 overall simply didn’t feel the need to upgrade at the quarterback position, as the 2000 Browns, 2006 Texans, and 2013 Chiefs all did not draft a quarterback at any point in that draft. The two exceptions were the 2008 Dolphins selecting Jake Long over Matt Ryan and drafting Chad Henne in the 2nd round and the 2014 Texans selecting Jadeveon Clowney over guys like Blake Bortles, Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, and Derek Carr and then selecting Tom Savage in the 4th round.
The Browns figure to be the third exception. Not only is this a weak quarterback class at the top, but the Browns also select again at 12 and likely feel they can get a quarterback they like with that pick. There isn’t an obvious fit for a quarterback between 1 and 12, so it’s very possible the Browns will have the same choices of quarterbacks when they pick again as they do here. Instead, the Browns select the consensus top player in the draft, Myles Garrett, who will be an instant upgrade for the Browns at defensive end, as they transition to a 4-3 defense.
2. Carolina Panthers (TRADE) – RB Leonard Fournette (LSU)*
It’s no secret that the 49ers are looking to move down from two. With needs all over the field and no consensus #2 overall player in this draft, the 49ers likely feel they can move down into the 6-10 range, still grab a player they really like, and pick up additional picks in the process. The Panthers, meanwhile, are known to covet LSU running back Leonard Fournette and may be willing to move up to grab him. In this scenario, the Panthers send the 49ers the 3rd round compensation pick they got from losing Josh Norman last off-season (#98) and a 2018 1st round pick, which they likely think will be in the mid to late 20s, to move up from 8 to 2 to grab their feature back of the future. Jonathan Stewart is nearing the end of his time in Carolina.
3. Chicago Bears – CB Marshon Lattimore (Ohio State)*
Lattimore is a strong candidate to go #2 to the 49ers because he is the best available player that fills a major need for them. The 49ers would probably prefer to move down for another player instead of taking him at 2, but, if they do take Lattimore, that would make the Bears a candidate to move down with a team like Carolina that is looking to leapfrog the Jaguars for Fournette. In this scenario, Lattimore is available and they make the easy choice and fill a huge need with this draft class’ top cornerback. I think it’s Lattimore or trade down for both the 49ers and Bears.
4. Cincinnati Bengals (TRADE) – DE Solomon Thomas (Stanford)
The Jaguars are known to covet Leonard Fournette and will probably end up with him unless someone leapfrogs them for him via draft, as the 49ers and Bears aren’t realistic candidates to draft Fournette. The Bears have Jordan Howard, who rushed for over 1000 yards as a rookie last season, and Fournette doesn’t fit the prototype of what 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan looks for in a running back. In this scenario, the Panthers leapfrog the Jaguars for Fournette, leaving the Jaguars with a tough choice. They’re known to like tight end OJ Howard, but likely feel they can get him a few picks later, so a trade down makes a lot of sense. The Bengals are a candidate to move up and grab this draft class’ second best defensive lineman, Solomon Thomas, who would fill a need for them at both defensive end (in base packages) and defensive tackle (in sub packages). He’s a great prospect, but isn’t an ideal fit for either San Francisco, Chicago, or Jacksonville because none of those teams have a big need for an interior pass rusher. The Bengals send their 2nd rounder to Jacksonville in order to move up.
5. Cleveland Browns (TRADE) – QB Mitch Trubisky (North Carolina)*
The trades continue, as the Titans will likely try to move down unless Lattimore falls to them. The Titans’ big needs are at cornerback, middle linebacker, and wide receiver and any player at those 3 positions would be a reach at this point. The Browns, meanwhile, are reportedly looking to move up to secure Mitch Trubisky, who is apparently the quarterback they want. There isn’t a clear spot for a quarterback in the top-10, but the Browns might not be wrong that they have to move up to get him, as other teams could want to jump them for Trubisky. Moving ahead of the Jets, the quarterback-neediest team in the top-10, makes sense, especially since Tennessee is a willing trade partner. The Titans recoup the second round pick (#52) they sent to the Browns last year on draft day and get a late round pick to move down from 5 to 12. The Browns have 22 picks over the next 2 years, so they have some serious trade ammunition and probably intend to use it.
6. New York Jets – S Jamal Adams (LSU)*
The Jets are probably Jamal Adams’ floor. He might be the second best player in the draft, but there isn’t an obvious fit for him in the top-5 because the 49ers, Bears, Jaguars, and Titans are all set at safety right now. That doesn’t mean one of them won’t fall in love with him and draft him anyway or that a team won’t trade up ahead of the Jets to get him, but the Jets at 6 seem like the most likely spot for him. Adams would be a massive upgrade over both Calvin Pryor and Marcus Gilchrist. Pryor is going into the final year of his rookie deal, while Gilchrist’s status for 2017 is in doubt after rupturing his patellar tendon in December.
7. San Diego Chargers – DT Jonathan Allen (Alabama)*
Like Thomas and Adams, Jonathan Allen is another player that doesn’t have an obvious fit earlier than this unless someone trades up for him. The 49ers, Bears, Jaguars, Titans, and Jets all have much bigger needs than interior pass rusher. That’s good news for the Chargers, who are moving to a 4-3 and need another defensive tackle inside next to Corey Liuget. Last year’s first round pick Joey Bosa rushes the passer from the interior in obvious passing situations, but Allen is a true every down 3-technique defensive tackle.
8. San Francisco 49ers (TRADE) – RB Christian McCaffrey (Stanford)
I mentioned earlier that Leonard Fournette doesn’t fit the Shanahan running back prototype. Well, Christian McCaffrey fits like a glove and the 49ers pick up a future first round pick moving down from 2 to 8 to grab him. Carlos Hyde is currently the 49ers’ lead back, but he’s injury prone and going into the final year of his deal and doesn’t do much as a pass catcher, which hurts him in the 49ers’ new offense. It’s no secret the new coaching staff is not sold on him, meaning he’ll likely be let go as a free agent this off-season. In 2017, he can serve as a power complement to McCaffrey, who is a speedier, quicker back with great hands out of the backfield, and then McCaffrey can be the feature back in 2018.
9. Jacksonville Jaguars (TRADE) – TE OJ Howard (Alabama)*
With Fournette off the board at 4, OJ Howard becomes the likely target for the Jaguars, as they have a huge hole at tight end after trading away Julius Thomas. Howard is one of the best tight end prospects in years, but 4 would be the highest a tight end has ever gone and the Jaguars can likely get him a few picks later, which is why they traded down. In this scenario, it works out perfectly, though Howard is going to be a candidate for the Jets at 6, especially if Jamal Adams is off the board.
10. Buffalo Bills – S Malik Hooker (Ohio State)
The Bills have bigger needs at cornerback and wide receiver, but Malik Hooker is too good for them to pass on here and he also fills a need. The Bills currently have Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer penciled in at safety, but Hyde will play slot cornerback in sub packages and Poyer is a mediocre starter. Hooker can start next to Hyde with Poyer coming in as a 3rd safety when Hyde covers the slot in sub packages. Hooker could have been a top-5 pick, even ahead of Jamal Adams, if not for shoulder surgery that will keep him out until training camp. He falls out of circumstance and could be the next Earl Thomas for the Bills if he develops and stays healthy.
11. New Orleans Saints – DE Derek Barnett (Tennessee)*
It should come as no surprise when the Saints double up on defensive players in the first round (unless they trade one of the picks to New England for cornerback Malcolm Butler). The Saints traded away wide receiver Brandin Cooks for a first round pick because they had an excess of good wide receivers and major holes on defense, particularly at cornerback and defensive end. I expect them to target those positions in the first round. Cornerback Marlon Humphrey is an option here, but reports say the Saints are targeting defensive end at 11 due to the depth of this cornerback class. Barnett fills a major need opposite Cameron Jordan, the only Saints defensive end to have more than a sack and a half last season, and they can target a cornerback at 32.
12. Tennessee Titans (TRADE) – WR Mike Williams (Clemson)*
I mentioned earlier that the Titans’ biggest needs are at middle linebacker, cornerback, and wide receiver. They moved down 7 spots and no players at those positions were drafted in those 7 picks, so the trade works out perfectly for Tennessee, who previously didn’t have a second round pick. Middle linebacker Reuben Foster and cornerback Marlon Humphrey are options here, but Mike Williams is someone the Titans have shown a lot of interest in and it’s very possible he’s the highest ranked player left on their board at this point. He’d fill a need instantly opposite Rishard Matthews.
13. Arizona Cardinals – QB Pat Mahomes (Texas Tech)*
The Cardinals are in an interesting position in the first round. They won 13 games in 2015 and were much better than their 7-8-1 record suggested last season, but they suffered many losses on defense this off-season and, with Carson Palmer going into his age 38 season, their championship window might have closed. They could select a non-quarterback in the first round who can contribute instantly, like middle linebacker Reuben Foster, middle linebacker Haason Reddick, or cornerback Marlon Humphrey, try to win in 2017, and then address the quarterback position in 2018. Or, they could take a quarterback of the future like Pat Mahomes, who has great upside, the best arm in the draft, and is known to be liked by head coach Bruce Arians. Drafting Mahomes wouldn’t be an admission that they aren’t trying to compete in 2017, but it will make doing so harder. Both the coaching staff and the front office have pretty good job security at the moment though, so they may be willing to take the risk and pull the trigger on a quarterback.
14. Philadelphia Eagles – DE Charles Harris (Missouri)*
Connor Barwin was released this off-season because he was set to make a significant amount of money and wasn’t a good fit in Philadelphia’s 4-3 defense in 2016. They need a long-term complement to Brandon Graham, as free agent acquisition Chris Long is just a stopgap at best going into his age 32 season and Vinny Curry lines up inside at defensive tackle in most passing situations. Harris would be a much better fit for their defense than Barwin.
15. Indianapolis Colts – CB Marlon Humphrey (Alabama)
The Colts didn’t do much to upgrade their defense in the draft in 2016, focusing on the offensive line instead, and it showed, as the Colts’ aging defense couldn’t stop anyone in 2016. I expect defense to be the focus for the Colts in the draft this year, with few needs on offense and needs on all 3 levels of the defense. Humphrey could easily be seen as the top rated defensive player left on the board and would fill a huge need at cornerback opposite Vontae Davis, where the inexperienced Rashaan Melvin is currently penciled in as the starter.
16. Baltimore Ravens – OT Cam Robinson (Alabama)*
The Ravens took an offensive tackle in the first round last year, but they could easily do so again this year, after losing Ricky Wagner to the Lions in free agency. They have some internal options they like, but they’re also really known to like Cam Robinson, who went to the University of Alabama, Ravens’ GM Ozzie Newsome’s alma mater. There’s a good chance he’ll be seen as the best available remaining player that makes sense, though there are a lot of different ways this pick could go, including wide receiver (John Ross or Corey Davis).
17. Washington Redskins – MLB Haason Reddick (Temple)*
Middle linebacker was a major issue for the Redskins this season. They addressed it in free agency with Zach Brown, but he was only signed to a one-year deal and they could use an upgrade at the other middle linebacker position as well. Reddick is a rising prospect that the Redskins are known to like. He’s a versatile player who can also line up as an edge rusher in passing situations, which is good for the Redskins, who like to drop safety Su’a Cravens down to middle linebacker in sub packages. Reddick could be a Jamie Collins type player in the NFL and makes a lot of sense here.
18. Tennessee Titans – CB Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado)*
As I mentioned earlier, cornerback, wide receiver, and middle linebacker are the Titans’ biggest needs. The Titans addressed wide receiver earlier with Mike Williams and Haason Reddick went a pick earlier to the Redskins, so it’s between middle linebacker Reuben Foster and one of the cornerbacks. Foster is definitely a possibility, but I went with a cornerback because it’s a bigger need, especially after the Titans released Jason McCourty. Awuzie is someone the Titans are known to be interested in and he makes sense for them at 18. He can start at cornerback day 1 opposite free agent acquisition Logan Ryan.
19. Atlanta Falcons (TRADE) – DE Takkarist McKinley (UCLA)*
The Buccaneers are another team reportedly looking to trade down. If Takkarist McKinley falls out of the top-16, they might have a trade partner. The Falcons are rumored to be interested in moving up and it makes sense. They have very few pressing needs so they can afford to trade away their second round pick to jump up the board if it’s for a player they really like, someone like McKinley, who they have been interested in throughout the process. Despite Vic Beasley’s league leading 15.5 sacks, the Falcons finished in the bottom half of the league with just 34 sacks as a team in 2016. Dwight Freeney was their primary edge rusher opposite Beasley in sub packages and he’s a free agent right now, coming off of a 3-sack season and going into his age 37 season. Even if he’s brought back, he’s obviously not a long-term solution for the Falcons.
20. Denver Broncos – OT Garett Bolles (Utah)*
The Broncos lost Russell Okung in free agency to the Chargers and replaced him with Menelik Watson, an injury prone swing tackle caliber talent who struggled when pressed into duty in Oakland over the first 4 seasons of his career. Currently Watson is penciled in as a starting offensive tackle, with Donald Stephenson, another mediocre player, who struggled mightily as the Broncos’ starting right tackle in 2016. It’s a huge position of need for the Broncos and a position they could definitely address in the first round. Bolles is the consensus top left tackle prospect in this draft class, with Cam Robinson being more of a pure right tackle.
21. Detroit Lions – DE Taco Charlton (Michigan)*
Devin Taylor and Ezekiel Ansah both struggled to get to the quarterback in 2016. Taylor remains unsigned as a free agent and, while Ansah has a ton of bounce back potential in 2017, after playing through a bad ankle injury in 2016, he is going into the final year of his rookie contract. Charlton can start immediately opposite Ansah and would give them insurance in case they lose Ansah as a free agent next off-season. The Lions are known to be interested in him.
22. Miami Dolphins – MLB Jarrad Davis (Florida)*
This is a last minute update, as a recent report says that Jarrad Davis won’t get past the Dolphins at 22. That could be smoke or an unconfirmed report, but I’ve been trying to fit Davis into my first round anyway, so putting him here makes sense. Plus, the Dolphins have shown a lot of interest in him throughout the draft process. Davis would take over as the every down middle linebacker and allow Kiko Alonso to move back to his natural position at outside linebacker. If Davis pans out and Alonso can stay healthy, they could form one of the best 4-3 linebacker duos in the NFL, a big boost for a defense that has had poor linebacker play in recent years.
23. New York Giants – TE David Njoku (Miami)*
The Giants’ defense led the way for them last season, as they made the playoffs and won 11 games. However, they need multiple position upgrades on offense. I’ve had a quarterback here in the past because Eli Manning is going into his age 37 season and coming off one of the worst seasons in his career, but the Giants haven’t worked out any of the top quarterbacks so that doesn’t seem likely anymore. Instead, they give Eli Manning a new weapon to work with and take a player they have been very interested in throughout the process. Njoku would be a big upgrade on Will Tye at tight end and would fit the Giants’ pass heavy offense well.
24. Oakland Raiders – MLB Reuben Foster (Alabama)*
The Raiders entered the off-season with big needs at middle linebacker and outside linebacker, with mediocre veterans Perry Riley and Malcolm Smith hitting free agency this off-season. The Raiders signed Jelani Jenkins to plug a hole outside, but he was only signed to a one-year deal, so he’s not a long-term solution. Inside, they have done nothing this off-season and unproven 2015 5th round pick Ben Heeney is penciled in at the top of the depth chart. Reuben Foster falls because of a failed combine drug test, but the Raiders at might be his floor. They are known to be interested in him, even despite the failed test, and he’s a top-10 talent on tape. He’d be a major upgrade on Heeney.
25. Houston Texans – QB Deshaun Watson (Clemson)*
The Texans were able to pawn off Brock Osweiler on the Browns for the price of a 2018 2nd round pick, but are stuck with Tom Savage as their starting quarterback now, with Tony Romo opting for retirement rather than potentially signing with the Texans. They are likely to look at quarterbacks in the first round and they take Deshaun Watson here. He’ll probably be the 3rd quarterback off the board behind Trubisky and Mahomes and would probably sit as a rookie behind Savage, at least to begin the season, but he’s worth the risk for the Texans at 25.
26. Seattle Seahawks – CB Kevin King (Washington)
The Seahawks have had success drafting defensive backs in the middle rounds and coaching them up in Pete Carroll’s time in Seattle, but this year they might take a cornerback early, possibly as early as the first round. Deshawn Shead, who played well last season as the starter opposite Richard Sherman, is likely to miss the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, so they need a new #2 cornerback. King can be that immediately and take over as the #1 cornerback long-term with Richard Sherman’s relationship with the team souring. He might not be traded this off-season or next off-season, but it seems unlikely that he’ll be with the Seahawks beyond the final year of his contract in 2018. King has been compared to Sherman and fits what they look for in a corner at 6-3 200.
27. Kansas City Chiefs – QB DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame)*
Alex Smith is a capable starting quarterback, but he’s going into his age 33 season and is no lock to be with the Chiefs beyond the final year of his contract in 2018. Given that, it shouldn’t be a surprise if they draft a quarterback early, much like Andy Reid’s Eagles did with Kevin Kolb when they still had Donovan McNabb. They reportedly really like Kizer’s upside and he would be a great fit for them. He’s not ready to play right away, but he could have been a top-10 in 2018 if he stayed another year at Notre Dame. The Chiefs don’t have another quarterback on the roster besides Alex Smith who’s ever thrown a pass in the NFL, so Kizer could backup Smith for a year, compete with him for the starting job in 2018, and take over as the starter long-term in 2019.
28. Dallas Cowboys – S Obi Melifonwu (Connecticut)*
The Cowboys lost cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne and safeties JJ Wilcox and Barry Church in free agency this off-season, leaving them thin at both positions. Melifonwu can play both positions and has a chance to sneak into the end of the first round after a strong pre-draft process. The Cowboys will likely start the 6-4 224 pounder at cornerback, but his best pro position figures to be safety.
29. Green Bay Packers – G Forrest Lamp (Western Kentucky)
The Packers once had the best guard duo in the NFL with TJ Lang and Josh Sitton, but they’ve lost both in the past two off-seasons. With the mediocre Lane Taylor and the soon-to-be-34-year-old Jahri Evans penciled in as the starting guards right now, this is obviously a position of need and Lamp is the best guard prospect in the draft. I’ve had him to the Dolphins at 22 for a while, but he could fall to the Packers if the Dolphins take Davis. Taking him would not only fill a huge need, but it would fit the Packers’ strategy of taking the best available player. The Packers have always valued the offensive line early in drafts anyway, even when they don’t have pressing needs upfront.
30. Pittsburgh Steelers – WR John Ross (Washington)
The Steelers got good news when Martavis Bryant was reinstated by the league after a one-year ban for substance abuse. The Steelers struggled for playmakers outside of Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell last season and Bryant certainly qualifies as a playmaker. However, he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal and is a constant suspension risk, so his long-term future with the team is still up in the air. The Steelers don’t have a lot of needs and could easily take a wide receiver early in the draft. Brown, Bryant, and Ross could be a deadly combination in 2017.
31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TRADE) – RB Dalvin Cook (Florida State)*
Concerns about his off-the-field history and his underwhelming combine have knocked Dalvin Cook’s stock down significantly. It’s now being reported that he could fall to the 2nd round. I wouldn’t rule that out, but the Buccaneers are known to like him and known to be interested in moving down. If they can move down and still get him in the 20s or 30s, I think they’ll pull the trigger. Doug Martin and Charles Sims both struggled last season and neither is a lock to be with the team beyond 2017. Martin has voided all remaining guaranteed money on the 5-year deal he signed last off-season, while Sims is going into the final year of his rookie deal. Cook can split carries with Martin as a rookie and take over as the feature back in 2018 and beyond.
32. New Orleans Saints – CB Adoree Jackson (USC)
As mentioned earlier, the Saints likely feel they can wait on a cornerback more than a defensive end, so they took a defensive end at 11 and focus on cornerback at 32. There’s also a possibility that the Saints trade this pick to the Patriots for Malcolm Butler, which would serve the same purpose as drafting Jackson. The Saints really need at upgrade at cornerback.
Atlanta Falcons (13-5) vs. New England Patriots (16-2) in Super Bowl LI
There are distinct differences between these two teams, but they have one impressive similarity: both teams have lost key players and played as well or better without them. On New England’s side, one of their losses was a self-inflicted one if you can even call it a loss, as the Patriots “lost” linebacker Jamie Collins in a midseason trade. Collins, one of the Patriots’ best defensive players and one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the ball in the entire league, was stunningly sent to the last place Browns for a mere 3rd round compensatory pick during the Patriots week 9 bye. The 3rd round compensatory pick they got from the Browns is what they would have gotten in 2018’s draft if they simply let Collins walk at the end of the off-season, so they essentially got no compensation. Despite Collins’ obvious talent, Bill Belichick didn’t like Collins’ tendency to freestyle and simply thought his defense would be better without him.
That seemed like an absurd idea at the time, even giving Belichick the benefit of the doubt as much as he deserves, but, if the numbers are to be believed, the Patriots have been a lot better without him, with young role players like Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts filling in well for Collins. In 8 games with Collins, the Patriots allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.54% rate, as opposed to 29.49% in 10 games without him, a substantial difference. To put that into perspective, the figure with Collins is around where the Seattle Seahawks finished the regular season in first down rate (19th). The figure without Collins would have been lower than every offense in the league this year except for the Rams’ offense. In 8 games with Collins, the Patriots allowed 166 first downs and 15 touchdowns. They allowed the same amount of touchdowns and two fewer first downs in 10 games without him.
The numbers don’t give the full context, as the Patriots played an easier schedule in the second half of the season. 7 of the 10 offenses they’ve faced since trading Collins finished the regular season 26th or worse in first down rate (NY Jets twice, St. Louis, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver). The other three were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, Seattle (19th) who beat them, and Pittsburgh last week, in a game in which the Steelers lost Le’Veon Bell with an injury early in the game. Their schedule wasn’t that hard in the first half of the season either, but it was definitely easier after losing Collins, so that probably played a role in the significant statistical improvement. It might not be fair to say their defense is definitely better without Collins, but at the very least the trade has not backfired in any way. Their defense is untested, but it’s still one of the better stop units in the NFL.
On the other side of the ball, it’s definitely not fair to say the Patriots have been better offensively without Gronkowski. Gronkowski was fully healthy for 5 games this season, not counting the 2 games he played as a decoy with a 3rd string quarterback under center in week 3 and week 4 or the game in which he hurt his back in and left the game in the first quarter in week 12. In those 5 games, the Patriots picked up first downs at a 43.35% rate. The only team that picked up first downs at a better rate than that this season is their opponent this week, the Atlanta Falcons (more on them later obviously). In the 9 games since Gronkowski last caught a pass, the Patriots have picked up first downs at a 37.06% rate, good, but significantly down from the 5 games in which Brady and Gronkowski tore apart the NFL (they averaged a ridiculous 14.0 yards per target). That first down rate is most equivalent to the Detroit Lions, who finished just 12th.
The Patriots’ offense hasn’t been derailed by the absence of the Gronkowski this season, as it has been in years past, thanks to a deeper than usual receiving corps, a great #2 tight end in Martellus Bennett, a much improved running game and offensive line, and, of course, Tom Brady somehow arguably having the best season of his career at age 39. It’s a myth that they don’t need Gronkowski and should sell low and trade him this off-season, ahead of just his age 28 season. They just aren’t screwed in the playoffs without him like they have been in recent years because the rest of the team is better on both sides of the ball.
Without Gronkowski, it’s very hard to argue that the Patriots have the better offense in this game, an unfamiliar position for a New England team that is used to having the better offense in the Super Bowl. Matchup wise, the Falcons most resemble the Patriots’ first Super Bowl opponent, against the Greatest Show on Turf Rams. The Falcons finished the regular season with easily the best first down rate in the NFL, picking up first downs at a 43.92% rate. The next best team was the Saints, who picked up first downs at “just” a 40.72% rate in the regular season. In fact, there was a bigger gap between 1st and 2nd in first down rate than there was between 2nd and 9th. That number has actually jumped after two playoff games and they’ve picked up first downs at a 44.61% rate between 16 regular season games and 2 postseason games.
Basically, as good as the Patriots were offensively for 5 games with Gronkowski, the Falcons have been better than that all year for 18 games on the offensive side of the ball. Led by their version of the triplets (Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones), along with one of the best offensive lines in football, the Falcons have been so good offensively that they lead the NFL in first down rate differential, despite a defense that has allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 38.23% rate, more or less equivalent to the Colts’ 7th ranked offense in terms of first down rate. They’re not a balanced team, but they still rank #1 in that in first down differential, just ahead of the Patriots.
The good news for Atlanta is, like the Patriots’ defense, the Falcons’ defense has statistically been significantly better down the stretch, despite losing one of their best defensive players, cornerback Desmond Trufant, for the season. In 9 games with Trufant, the Falcons allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 40.06% rate, most equivalent to Dallas’ 3rd ranked offense. In 9 games without him, they’ve allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 36.27% rate, most equivalent to Oakland’s 15th ranked offense. Part of that could be that they faced weak offenses like San Francisco and Los Angeles during that time period, but their defense has held up much better without their best defensive back than you’d expect.
Young cornerbacks Brian Poole and Jalen Collins have played well in his absence and overall a very young defense has gotten better as the season has gone on. The Falcons are starting 4 rookies (2nd round and 4th round linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, 1st round safety Keanu Neal, and Poole, an undrafted free agent), 3 second year players (first round edge rusher Vic Beasley, Collins, a 2nd rounder, and 5th round defensive tackle Grady Jarrett), and a third year player (safety Ricardo Allen, a former 5th round pick). They aren’t a great defense by any stretch of the imagination, especially after losing starting defensive end Adrian Clayborn with an injury a few weeks back, but Dan Quinn has done a good job developing young defensive talent in 2 years on the job and this defense is definitely better than it was earlier in the season, even without Trufant or Clayborn.
It’s definitely fair to wonder if their young defense has much of a shot to stop Tom Brady and company though, especially since they don’t consistently pressure the passer. The Falcons enter this game with the better offense, but the Patriots have easily the better defense and probably have a better chance of slowing down the Falcons’ offense than Atlanta’s defense has of slowing down the Patriots. One thing that could be very important in a close game is the fact that Atlanta All-Pro center Alex Mack is playing hurt and reportedly might not be able to last the whole game. It’s tough to wager on this game with the line at 3 though because I think this has a very good chance to be a 3 point game. At the very least, I see this game being decided by a touchdown or less, a shootout where the team who has the ball last likely wins the game. New England is my pick, but it figures to be a great game either way. Unfortunately though, this game is a non-bet.
New England Patriots 38 Atlanta Falcons 34
Pick against the spread: New England -3
Pittsburgh Steelers (13-5) at New England Patriots (15-2)
Like the Packers in the NFC, the Steelers enter this game on a long winning streak, winning 9 straight games to go from 4-5 to 11-5, the 3rd seed in the AFC, 2 playoff wins, and an AFC Championship appearance. However, the Steelers have two big obstacles to overcome if they want to make their 4th Super Bowl in the Ben Roethlisberger era. One, they haven’t been very good on the road this season. Two, they’re facing a New England team that isn’t just the best team in the NFL, but that also has rarely lost at home in recent years, especially against AFC opponents. Since 2010, they are 57-9 at home, including 48-4 against AFC opponents, with one loss coming in a meaningless week 17 game and another coming in a game started by 3rd string quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Brady has lost just two meaningful conference home games in the last 6 seasons, though both came in the playoffs (both against Baltimore).
On the other side, in 7 home starts this season (including playoffs), the Steelers are 6-1, with the one loss coming in a close shootout with the Cowboys and the 6 wins coming by a combined 96 points. In those 7 home games, Roethlisberger completed 70.9% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, a QB rating of 115.3. In 9 road games, however, his QB rating is 36.5 points lower. The Steelers are 6-3 in those 9 games, but with a point differential of just +18, as compared to +91 in 7 home games started by Roethlisberger. This home/away split is nothing new for Roethlisberger, as he’s had at least a 15 point disparity in home to road QB rating in 4 of the last 6 seasons, including each of the last 3.
Fortunately for the Steelers, they have arguably the league’s most dangerous weapon, Le’Veon Bell, doing work both as a de facto #2 receiver out of the backfield and as a runner, behind one of the best offensive lines in football. The Patriots were able to keep the Steelers’ run game in check in their first matchup with the Steelers, but that was because Ben Roethlisberger was injured and Landry Jones was starting, enabling the Patriots to stack 8 or 9 guys in the box against Bell on almost every snap. Bell still had a huge game overall, leading the team with 10 catches for 68 yards in what was ultimately a 27-16 home loss for the Steelers. Roethlisberger hasn’t been the same quarterback on the road this season, but he’s an obvious upgrade over Landry Jones, so the Patriots won’t have the luxury of being able to stack the box against Bell as often.
Roethlisberger is also an obvious upgrade over most of the quarterbacks the Patriots have faced in recent weeks. In fact, since Brady’s return, the Patriots have faced Cody Kessler, Andy Dalton, Landry Jones, Tyrod Taylor, Russell Wilson (their one loss), Colin Kaepernick, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jared Goff, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Bryce Petty, Matt Moore, and Brock Osweiler. That at least calls into question some of the legitimacy of the Patriots’ defense, which finished the regular season ranked 4th in first down rate allowed. It’s concerning that they lost at home to the only even decent offense they’ve faced since trading Jamie Collins.
In fact, 7 of the 9 offenses they’ve faced since trading Collins finished the regular season 26th or worse in first down rate (NY Jets twice, St. Louis, San Francisco, Baltimore, Houston, and Denver). The other two were Miami (18th), who was starting a backup quarterback, and Seattle (19th) who beat them. The Steelers rank 10th, and that’s with Le’Veon Bell missing 3 games, Ben Roethlisberger missing one, and most of the key offensive starters resting in a meaningless week 17 game. Even with Roethlisberger struggling on the road, this is still the toughest offense the Patriots have faced since trading away one of their best defensive players almost 3 months ago.
Fortunately, it’s much tougher to call into question the legitimacy of the Patriots’ offense, which has managed to keep rolling without injured tight end Rob Gronkowski, something they haven’t been able to do in recent years, because their running game, offensive line, and complementary pass catchers are all better and healthier than they’ve been in recent years. And, of course, because quarterback Tom Brady is having arguably one of the best seasons of his career. They finished the regular season 8th in first down rate, despite Brady missing 4 games with injury and despite the fact that the defenses they’ve faced are much tougher than the offenses they’ve faced. Baltimore, Seattle, Houston, and Denver all have weak offenses, but they also all have top-8 defenses and the Patriots have had impressive offensive performances in 3 of those 4 games. The Patriots’ offense is much more battle tested than their defense and Pittsburgh’s average stop unit figures to have trouble with them.
Overall, the Patriots have had a pretty easy schedule, as their opponents had the 2nd lowest combined winning percentage of any team’s opponents this season and two of the playoff teams they faced (Pittsburgh and Miami) were using backup quarterbacks when the Patriots faced them. However, at the end of the day, you can only play the teams that are on your schedule and it’s not like the Patriots were squeaking out victories against these teams. Just 4 of their 15 wins have come by 7 points or fewer and two of those were weeks 1 and 2 when Tom Brady was suspended.
Their average margin of victory was 15.47, 16.33 in Brady’s 12 wins. They finished the regular season with a league best +24 offensive touchdown margin (Dallas was second at +just 15) and a league best +191 point differential (Atlanta was second at just +134) and they have the highest first down rate differential of any team left in the playoffs (+6.26 vs. +2.34 for Pittsburgh). So, while the Patriots might not be quite as good as their 15-2 record suggests, they’re probably still the best team in the league.
For that reason, they should be able to win big here at home against a Pittsburgh team that hasn’t been that good on the road this season, but it’s tough to lay 6 points with them confidently. This line was at 5.5 earlier this week and I made a big mistake not locking in that line at the time (expecting the line to possibly go to 4 or 4.5 if the sharps liked Pittsburgh). If 5.5 or lower comes back in the next 24 or so hours before the game, it’s worth a bet, but it would be tough to be confident at 6.
New England Patriots 31 Pittsburgh Steelers 23
Pick against the spread: New England -6
Green Bay Packers (12-6) at Atlanta Falcons (12-5)
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are red hot right now and understandably getting a lot of attention. Since an unimpressive 4-6 start, the Packers have won 8 straight games to make the playoffs with a 10-6 record and to win two playoff games and advance to the NFC Championship game. If you watch sports talk shows this week, you’d think it was the Packers favored by 4 points and the presumptive favorite to move on to the Super Bowl, but instead it’s the other way around, with the higher seeded Falcons favored by 4 points at home.
There’s a reason for that. As much attention as the Packers’ offense is getting, the Falcons’ offense is still significantly better and is statistically one of the top offenses in NFL history. Including last week’s win over the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons have picked up a first down or touchdown on 43.92% of offensive snaps this season, more than 3% higher than the next best team, the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers, meanwhile, have moved the chains at a “mere” 38.94% rate this season, including playoffs, almost 5% lower than the Falcons.
Even if you just look at their 8 game winning streak, the Packers are only moving the chains at a 41.60% rate, meaning, as red hot as they are right now offensively, the Falcons have still been better than them offensively all season. If you look at just the last 8 weeks, the Falcons are actually even better, moving the chains at a 47.19% rate over that time period. As good as the Packers are offensively, the Falcons are simply better. They run the ball better and with more consistency. They have a better overall offensive line. And they also have healthier wide receivers.
Atlanta’s top receiver Julio Jones has been limited by a toe injury in recent weeks, but, as you can see, it hasn’t hurt their ability to move the ball. On the Green Bay side, #1 receiver Jordy Nelson could miss his 2nd straight game with broken ribs, while fellow starter Davante Adams and #4 receiver Geronimo Allison are expected to be gametime calls. Even if all 3 of them play, they all figure to be limited, as head coach Mike McCarthy admitted that none of them would play if this wasn’t a playoff game.
Defensively, these two teams are comparable. The Packers have a little better defense overall (37.34% first down rate vs. 38.01% first down rate allowed), but the Falcons have been better than the Packers if we just look at the last 8 weeks (36.94% first down rate vs. 35.51% first down rate allowed), even with the Packers being 8-0 over that time period. The Falcons aren’t undefeated over that time period, but they’re pretty close, going 6-1 with their one loss coming by 1 point against a Kansas City team that scored 9 points off returns and won despite losing the first down battle 32 to 17.
On the season, the Falcons have won 8 of 12 games by more than a touchdown, with just 1 loss coming by more than a touchdown (9 points in Philadelphia), and have they the NFC’s best point differential at +150, along with the NFC’s best first down rate differential at +6.07% (vs. +2.15% for the Packers). The public seems to be eating up the sports talk media idea that the Packers are the better team here, as more than ⅔ rds of the action is on Green Bay. I disagree, which is probably a good thing, considering the public always loses money in the long run. I think this line should be around 6 in favor of the Falcons, so we’re getting good line value with them at 4. They’re worth a bet if you can get that number, though this line is 4.5 or 5 in some places.
Atlanta Falcons 38 Green Bay Packers 31
Pick against the spread: Atlanta -4