Dallas Cowboys at Washington Mascots: 2020 Week 7 NFL Pick

Dallas Cowboys (2-4) at Washington Mascots (1-5)

This is a tough one and I’ve been going back and forth on it. On one hand, the Cowboys have all the usual factors for a team that should be better going forward. They have a -12 turnover margin through 6 games and turnover margins are highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. At the very least, they should recover more than 28.57% of their fumbles going forward, but their fumble rate is likely to regress as well. 

In addition, they’ve played a tougher than average schedule, which gets significantly easier going forward. They’ve been competitive in most of their losses, within three of four games being one score games in the 4th quarter. With strength of schedule taken into account, the Cowboys rank 11th in first down rate differential at +1.98%. The Cowboys injury situation on offense can’t be ignored, with guard Zack Martin joining quarterback Dak Prescott, tight end Blake Jarwin, and offensive tackles Tyron Smith and La’El Collins on the sidelines. However, the Cowboys are getting healthier on defense with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch returning last week and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, linebacker Sean Lee, and defensive end Randy Gregory all likely to return this week, and backup quarterback Andy Dalton should theoretically be a capable if underwhelming starter.

The Cowboys were much better in first down rate (4th in the NFL at +4.28%) than their 8-8 record last season, in part due to their tendency to blowout bad teams (7 wins by 18 points or more). The Cowboys have yet to do that this season, but they’ve won their only two games against lower level opponents (Falcons and Giants), despite losing the turnover battle in both games. In those two games, they won the first down rate battle by 10.80% and 12.95% respectively, even though Dalton played a big chunk of the game against the Giants and led the comeback. If they can do that again in this game against a bottom-5 team, they should be able to win fairly easily.

On the other hand, the Cowboys are nowhere near the same team they were last season and the dropoff from Dak Prescott to Andy Dalton looked bigger than expected in Dalton’s debut last week. If that’s the case, the Cowboys, who are poorly coached as well, will likely continue struggling going forward, despite their past success in first down rate differential. I’m still taking the Cowboys for pick ‘em purposes in this game, with the line moving from Dallas -3 on the early line last week to Dallas -1 this week, but I don’t have confidence in them.

Update: It looks like both Lee and Awuzie will miss another week for the Cowboys. I didn’t have any confidence in the Cowboys anyway, so I’m switching this to Washington.

Washington Mascots 24 Dallas Cowboys 23

Pick against the spread: Washington PK

Confidence: None

Washington Mascots at New York Giants: 2020 Week 6 NFL Pick

Washington Mascots (1-4) at New York Giants (0-5)

These two teams have just one win between them but somehow this is a meaningful divisional game, in a division that is led by a 2-3 Cowboys team that just lost its starting quarterback for the season. Both of these teams are among the worst in the league, but this line suggests the Giants are the better team, favoring them by a full field goal at home, despite the fact that they won’t have any fans in attendance. I have been giving one point of home field advantage to teams without fans, so this line suggests the Giants are a couple points better than their nameless opponents. 

I have that the other way around though. Not only does Washington rank higher in first down rate differential (-3.33% vs -5.53%), but they’re also in a better injury situation. While the Giants are still without their top offensive playmaker Saquon Barkley and now are without top edge defender Lorenzo Carter, the Mascots will get their top offensive lineman Brandon Scherff back from a 3-game absence, which will be a big boost to this offense. My calculated line is about even, with the Mascots actually slightly better than 50/50 to pull the straight up upset, so we’re getting great value with them at +3. About a quarter of games are decided by three points or less, so even if Washington can’t pull off the upset, they still have a good chance to cover or at least push. 

Washington is also in a much better spot, as the Giants have to turn around and play another divisional game in four days on Thursday Night Football, when they head to Philadelphia for their week 7 matchup. Teams tend to be at a disadvantage before a short week, especially teams that are favored, as favorites cover at just a 44.3% rate before a short week historically. That rate drops further to 42.1% before divisional games and divisional home favorites in general have a horrible track record before being divisional road underdogs, covering just 34.9% of the time historically. 

Washington’s mess of a quarterback situation will probably cause me to go elsewhere with my Pick of the Week, but I like Washington a lot this week regardless and this is one of several picks I am considering for my top play this week, which will be posted tomorrow. This line is dropping to 2.5 in some places because of heavy sharp action. Obviously getting the full field goal is definitely preferable, but if you can’t, I would still make a smaller bet at +2.5.

Washington Mascots 17 New York Giants 15 Upset Pick +130

Pick against the spread: Washington +3

Confidence: High

Los Angeles Rams at Washington Mascots: 2020 Week 5 NFL Pick

Los Angeles Rams (3-1) at Washington Mascots (1-3)

The mascot-less team from Washington got off to a good start to their season with a win over the Eagles, but the Eagles were missing arguably their more valuable player in Lane Johnson in that game and have shown themselves to be a subpar team even with Johnson in the lineup over the past few weeks, while Washington has also struggled since that week 1 game, losing all three games by at least two touchdowns. To try to right the ship, the Mascots will make a surprising change at quarterback this week, benching second year quarterback Dwayne Haskins for backup Kyle Allen.

Haskins being benched isn’t all that surprising because he hasn’t played well in his limited career action and the front office and coaching staff that drafted him are no longer around, but I would have figured if he was going to get benched, it would be later in the season, rather than after only the 11th start of the 2019 first round pick’s career, and that it would have been for Alex Smith, a proven veteran starter working his way back from a devastating leg injury. Instead, head coach Ron Rivera is turning to his former starting quarterback in Carolina, Kyle Allen.

It’s hard to understand the logic here. Haskins hasn’t been good, but he still has a lot of upside and Allen is a former undrafted free agent who was truly horrendous down the stretch for the Panthers last season, tossing 16 interceptions in his final 9 starts after a somewhat impressive beginning to his career as a starter. Allen’s true talent level may be somewhere between his hot start and his horrendous finish, but even if it is, he’ll be lucky to max out as a long-term backup in the NFL. Allen also had 12 dropped interceptions last season, giving him the most expected interceptions in the league of any quarterback other than Jameis Winston, and he overall ranked 38th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. 

Allen is not a short-term upgrade on Haskins nor does he do anything to clarify Washington’s long-term quarterback situation, as Haskins needs as much experience as possible to realize his potential, after just 14 collegiate starts. I didn’t have a strong lean either way on this game before Allen was announced as the starter, but I’m taking the Rams as a pure fade of Allen, who covered just twice in his final 9 games in Carolina, with more offensive talent around him than he has in Washington. There isn’t enough here for the Rams to be worth betting as 7.5-point favorites, but they should be the right side.

Los Angeles Rams 20 Washington Mascots 10

Pick against the spread: LA Rams -7.5

Confidence: Low

Baltimore Ravens at Washington Mascots: 2020 Week 4 NFL Pick

Baltimore Ravens (2-1) at Washington Mascots (1-2)

The Ravens lost at home to the Chiefs last week 34-20 in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score suggested. The Ravens got 11 points of benefit from special teams, returning a kick, while the Chiefs missed an extra point and a makeable field goal, and the Ravens’ offense didn’t actually get into the end zone themselves until the fourth quarter. Overall, the Ravens lost the first down rate battle by 14.50%, not only their worst single game regular season performance since Lamar Jackson took over as the starter in the middle of the 2018 season, but also their third loss to the Chiefs over that stretch, accounting for all but one of their regular season losses.

The Ravens are also 0-2 in the playoffs, but their 2018 loss came before Lamar Jackson developed as a passer, and their 2019 loss to the Titans was largely decided by the Ravens going 0 for 4 on 4th down and having a -3 turnover margin, two very inconsistent metrics and very uncharacteristic for the Ravens over the past couple years. The Ravens did lose the first down rate battle in that game, but only by 3.24% and it came against a red hot Titans team. Prior to last week, that playoff game was the Ravens’ only first down rate battle loss since week 9 of 2019, a now 13-game stretch in which they have 9 wins by at least 16 points and 7 wins by at least 10% in first down rate differential. Even including last week’s embarrassing loss, albeit to one of the top teams in the league, the Ravens are still on a very impressive stretch right now.

I like their chances of picking up another blowout victory this week, playing a team that is one of the worst in the league when healthy and that is now missing arguably it’s top player on both sides of the ball, guard Brandon Scherff on offense and edge defender Chase Young on defense. The Ravens are also in a great spot, with only another easy game against the Bengals on deck, while Washington has another tough game on deck against the Rams. 

Favorites of 7+ are 102-59 ATS since 2012 before being favorites of 7+ again, while underdogs of 7+ are 55-90 ATS since 2012 before being underdogs of 7+ again. Combining the two, favorites of 7+ are 27-5 ATS since 2012 before being favorites of 7+ again when their opponent will be underdogs of 7+ again the following week. Good teams tend to take care of business against bad teams without upcoming distractions on their schedule, while bad teams tend to struggle to keep it close against good teams with another tough game on deck. All of those conditions should be true this week.

This game is in Washington, but with no fans in attendance and the Ravens only coming from about an hour away in Baltimore, it’s hard to see any real homefield advantage in this game, so, while this line may seem high at 14, it’s arguably a little low. Given that, and the great spot the Ravens are in, I like the Ravens’ chances a lot of making this a blowout. My only concerns are that the Ravens hold out injured players like left tackle Ronnie Stanley, Jimmy Smith, and Derek Wolfe against an easy opponent and/or they take their foot off the gas in the second half and allow a backdoor cover, although that’s probably less likely with the Ravens needing to get right after last week. This is a medium confidence play for now, but if all the aforementioned players are active, I may increase this bet tomorrow morning.

Baltimore Ravens 30 Washington Mascots 10

Pick against the spread: Baltimore -14

Confidence: Medium

Washington Mascots at Cleveland Browns: 2020 Week 3 NFL Pick

Washington Mascots (1-1) at Cleveland Browns (1-1)

The Browns got blown out in week 1 in Baltimore, losing 38-7 in a game in which they lost the first down rate differential by 17.39%, but the Ravens are on a dominant regular season run dating back to last season, and the Browns bounced back in week 2. They only beat the Bengals by 5, but the Browns actually won the first down rate by 10.78%, with the Bengals only able to keep it close because they went 5 for 5 on 4th down and got a late meaningless touchdown. 

The Browns have some injuries, missing defensive end Olivier Vernon and probably top cornerback Denzel Ward, but they’re hardly the only banged up team right now and they still rank 15th in my roster rankings. Their opponents this week, in addition not having a team name, are missing one of their few top level players, Brandon Scherff, without whom they have one of the worst offensive lines in the league. They pulled off the upset week 1 against a banged up Eagles team that looked bad again in week 2 even when they were healthier, but they’re still one of the least talented teams in the league, about 8 points behind the Browns in my roster rankings. That suggests a line favoring the Browns by about 10, so we’re getting good line value with this number at 7. This isn’t a big play, but the Browns are worth a bet this week.

Update: Denzel Ward is a surprise active for the Browns, and Adrian Clayborn, a valuable situational rusher who was questionable, will play as well. Strangely, this line has stayed put at a touchdown. I like the Browns enough for this to be a bigger play. They should win this one fairly easily.

Cleveland Browns 24 Washington Mascots 12

Pick against the spread: Cleveland -7

Confidence: High

Washington Mascots at Arizona Cardinals: 2020 Week 2 NFL Pick

Washington Mascots (1-0) at Arizona Cardinals (1-0)

The Cardinals pulled off a big upset last week in San Francisco, knocking off the reigning NFC Champions by score of 24-20 as 6.5-point underdogs. The Cardinals legitimately played well on both sides of the ball and finished with the 5th highest first down rate differential of the week at +8.24%. I buy their offensive performance, as they finished last season 18th in first down rate differential and now have DeAndre Hopkins as a #1 option, Kyler Murray in his second year, and a full season of Kenyan Drake, so they could make a leap offensively, but I have to see more from their defense to buy that they’re going to be consistently better than their 30th ranked finish in first down rate allowed in 2019, without any major off-season upgrades.

The Cardinals’ defensive performance last week might have had more to do with the fact that the 49ers were missing their two starting wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk due to injury and then had to turn George Kittle into a decoy for most of the game after he suffered an injury of his own. If the Cardinals’ defense falls back down to earth, they won’t be more than a middling team and will be looked back on as overrated after the first week.

The formerly named Washington team also got an upset win last week, knocking off the Eagles by score of 27-17 as 6-point home underdogs. That upset also was influenced by injury, as the Eagles were missing their top two offensive linemen and their entire right side of the offensive line with injury, though Washington had injury issues of their own, missing top linebacker Thomas Davis and top cornerback Kendall Fuller, who are both expected to return this week. However, Washington didn’t get nearly as much attention for their upset as Arizona, as this line shifted up further from Arizona -6 on the early line last week to Arizona -7 this week. 

The Cardinals are definitely the better team, but the Mascots do some things well as well and they will play hard every week for Ron Rivera because of the situation he’s coaching through (think the Colts surprising 11-win season in their ChuckStrong year in 2012), so I only have the Cardinals about 3 points better in my roster rankings. Given that and that the Cardinals won’t have a normal homefield advantage this week, there’s some line value here with Washington, who should only be underdogs of 4.5 points at most and should be able to keep this one relatively close. They’re worth a small bet.

Arizona Cardinals 24 Washington Mascots 20

Pick against the spread: Washington +7

Confidence: Medium

Philadelphia Eagles at Washington Mascots: 2020 Week 1 NFL Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (0-0) at Washington Mascots (0-0)

The Eagles enter the season as arguably the most banged up team in the league. They’ve already lost a pair of expected starting offensive linemen in Andre Dillard and Brandon Brooks to season ending injuries and, while Dillard was replaced by Jason Peters, who could be an upgrade, Brooks is a massive loss and they have absences at other positions as well, including expected starting wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, a big free agent acquisition, starting defensive end Derek Barnett, and starting running back Miles Sanders. 

Fortunately, to begin their season, the Eagles get an easy trip to Washington to play the team that used to have a mascot. In addition to not having a team name, Washington enters the season as one of the worst teams in the league and has injury issues of their own, with top cornerback Kendall Fuller and top linebacker Thomas Davis both out this week. We’re not getting enough line value with the Eagles as 5.5-point road favorites to bet them in their current condition, but they should be the right side for pick ‘em purposes.

Philadelphia Eagles 26 Washington Mascots 20

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia -5.5

Confidence: None

Washington Mascots 2020 NFL Season Preview

Update: The Washington Redskins will go by the name Washington Football Team in 2020 due to their inability to confirm a new name in time for the season. That is a stupid name. I will be calling them the Washington Mascots instead until they settle on a permanent name.

Quarterback

It’s hard to believe, but the Mascots were 6-3 and very much in the mix for the NFC East title going into week 11 of 2018. That week, their season was derailed by a devastating leg injury to franchise quarterback Alex Smith, which not only ended his season, but led to severe complications that have put his career in jeopardy. Backup Colt McCoy got injured a few weeks later and the Mascots had to resort to starting street free agents at quarterback down the stretch in what ended as a 7-9 season.

The Smith injury is an obvious reason for the decline, but the Mascots were never as good as their record with Smith, as they ranked 26th in first down rate differential when he went down,  with just a +1 point differential, despite a +11 turnover margin. That’s the reason why the Mascots still struggled in 2019, finishing with the 2nd worst record in the NFL at 3-13, even with quarterback play that was competent compared to what they got down the stretch in 2018. The Mascots were every bit as bad as their record suggested, finishing with the 2nd worst first down rate differential at -6.31%.

There are some reasons to be optimistic for the Mascots. The big one is new head coach Ron Rivera. Rivera was mostly successful in 9 seasons (76-63-1) in Carolina, including a Super Bowl appearance, and his dismissal mid-season last season was more about the Panthers simply wanting to make a change than anything. It’s hard to imagine too many coaches having success with the injury plagued rosters Rivera has had the past two seasons and it’s definitely not surprising the Panthers’ defense got even worse once they fired the defensive minded Rivera. Rivera could have had his pick of most of the available jobs this off-season, so it’s a bit surprising he picked Washington, but it’s a big win for the Mascots and legitimizes the organization at least somewhat.

A big part of the reason why Rivera took this job is probably second year quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who was the 15th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, as it’s unlikely Rivera would have taken this job if he was not high on the former Ohio State quarterback. Haskins’ rookie year numbers aren’t impressive, as he completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and led the Mascots to a 33.42% first down rate in his 7 starts, but he led the Mascots’ offense to a 40.08% first rate down in his final 4 starts of the season before missing week 17, completing 63.2% of his passes for an average of 7.48 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 1 interception over that stretch, so he definitely got better as his rookie year went on.

It’s overly optimistic to assume Haskins can keep that kind of production up for 16 games, but it’s not hard to imagine Haskins taking a step forward in his second season in the league. Haskins was considered raw coming out of college, as he was just a one-year starter, though he had one of the most impressive statistical seasons in Big Ten history in that one season. Only going into his third season as a starter between college, Haskins has a high ceiling and could easily develop into an above average starter long-term, even if it isn’t this season.

Experienced Veteran Case Keenum began last season as the starting quarterback and made eight starts in total, but he’s no longer with the team, so this is completely Dwayne Haskins’ job now. To replace Keenum as the backup, Rivera sent a late round draft pick to his former employer to acquire Kyle Allen, who made 12 starts in Cam Newton’s absence for Rivera’s Panthers in 2019. 

Allen got off to a good start last season, but finished with 62.0% completion, 6.79 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, with another 12 potential interceptions dropped, giving him the most expected interceptions of any quarterback in the league besides Jameis Winston. Overall, Allen finished 38th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. The former undrafted free agent has his moments, but ultimately profiles as a backup at best long-term and he would likely struggle if he had to see action in Haskins’ absence this season. The Mascots are banking on Haskins taking a step forward and they may get that, though how much of a step forward remains to be seen.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

One factor working against Haskins is his lack of a supporting cast on offense. The Mascots had the most adjusted games lost to injury in the league in 2019, which is normally a good sign for future improvement, as injuries tend to be very inconsistent year-to-year, but on offense a lot of the players they lost last season are no longer with the team, including top-2 tight ends Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis and former starting wide receiver Paul Richardson. 

The Mascots also did very little to upgrade Haskins’ supporting cast and as of this writing have the second most unused cap space in the league, along with 14 million in dead cap and a 21.4 million dollar cap hit for Alex Smith, who is unlikely to play a snap this season. Normally teams with potential franchise quarterbacks on a cheap rookie deal tend to be aggressive in free agency upgrading around that quarterback, but the Mascots were anything but, especially in the receiving corps, where the Mascots will be relying on a very young group.

The best of that young group by far is 2019 3rd round pick Terry McLaurin, who had a tremendous rookie season. Not only did he put up an impressive 58/919/7 slash line, but he did it despite not being an every down player for most of the season, ranking 33rd in the NFL in snaps played by a wide receiver. In terms of yards per route run, he ranked 14th in the NFL among wide receivers at 2.05, which is even more impressive when you consider how ineffective the rest of this offense was. Overall, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked wide receiver. 

McLaurin benefits from familiarity with Haskins, who was a college teammate at Ohio State, but he produced regardless of the quarterback last season. McLaurin was a little old for a rookie, but he’s still only going into his age 25 season and has a bright future as he and Haskins continue to develop together. Even if the rest of this offense struggles, I would expect McLaurin to top his 2019 production, as he’ll likely have a larger target share and play closer to every down.

No other Redskin topped 400 yards receiving last season and they didn’t make any real additions to this group this off-season; in fact, they lost free agent pass catching back Chris Thompson, whose 42/378/0 slash line made him the team’s 2nd leading receiver last year. Without proven options, the Mascots are banking on some young players taking a big step forward. Kelvin Harmon finished 2nd on the team among wide receivers in snaps played, though he only played about half the snaps, posting a middling grade across 482 snaps and averaging a mediocre 1.26 yards per route run. A 6th round pick in 2019, he’ll likely have a larger role in 2020 and is probably the favorite for the #2 receiver job, but he’s a very underwhelming starting option. 

Trey Quinn, a 2018 7th round pick, was the Mascots’ primary slot receiver for most of last season, but he was abysmal in the first significant action of his career, averaging just 0.66 yards per route run and finishing as PFF’s 98th ranked wide receiver out of 102 qualifiers before going down for the season with injury in week 13. His replacement Steven Sims was a clear upgrade in limited action, so Quinn isn’t going to be guaranteed to get his job back. 

Sims averaged 1.46 yards per route run on 213 routes, flashed his speed on 9 carries for 85 yards and a 1 touchdown, and earned a middling grade from PFF on 310 snaps, but he’s hardly a reliable option either, as speedy the but undersized (5-10 177 pounds) 2019 undrafted free agent has still barely played in the NFL. Other options for playing time at wide receiver include veteran Cody Latimer, primarily a special teamer who has never topped 24 catches in 7 seasons in the league, and raw 4th round rookie Antonio Gandy-Golden. They would both be underwhelming options as well.

Things aren’t any better at tight end either. Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis were once a solid tight end duo, but injuries cost Reed all of 2019 and limited Davis to 186 snaps in 4 games, leaving bottom of the roster talents Jeremy Sprinkle and Hale Hentges to lead the team with 601 snaps and 230 snaps respectively. Reed and Davis are both no longer with the team, but outside of signing another couple bottom of the roster talents in Richard Rodgers and Logan Thomas, the Mascots did nothing to address the position this off-season.

Sprinkle is penciled in as the starter, even though the 2017 5th round pick has struggled throughout his career as both a blocker and a receiver. That was especially the case last season in his first extended starting experience, as he averaged just 0.79 yards per route run on a 26/241/1 slash line and finished as PFF’s 42nd ranked tight end overall out of 44 qualifiers. Hentges was better, but only by default and the 2019 undrafted free agent still has very little NFL experience. 

Richard Rodgers is the most proven of the bunch with a 58/510/8 slash line in 2015, but that was largely due to playing with Aaron Rodgers and he’s been limited to just 43 catches in 4 seasons since, in part due to injuries. Thomas, meanwhile, has never topped 16 catches in a season in 6 seasons in the league. Outside of Terry McLaurin, it’s tough to see where Haskins is going to be able to find a reliable target in the passing game.

Update: Kelvin Harmon is out for the season with a torn ACL, capping this group’s upside even more. Steven Sims and Trey Quinn will now have to see significant roles.

Grade: C

Running Backs

With passing down back Chris Thompson now in Jacksonville, the Mascots used a third round pick on Antonio Gibson, who played both wide receiver and running back in college and is expected to be the primary passing down back in 2020. Gibson could also see some snaps at wide receiver in certain situations. The Mascots also added veteran Peyton Barber in free agency, although that one is a little harder to understand. 

Not only does Barber have a redundant skill set to their top-2 backs Adrian Peterson and Derrius Guice, as a two down between the tackles runner, but he’s also coming off of a horrendous season in Tampa Bay, ranking dead last in the NFL in yards per carry with 3.05 YPC average on 154 carries. He also has just a 3.60 YPC average for his career and has never topped 20 catches in a season. The 2-year, 3 million dollar deal the Mascots gave him in free agency seems like a total waste, as he figures to start the season 4th on the depth chart and likely wouldn’t be a useful option if even Peterson or Guice was to get injured.

Injuries have been the story of Guice’s career thus far, as the 2018 2nd round pick missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL and was limited to 42 carries in five games last season by further knee injuries. Guice flashed on those 42 carries last season, averaging 5.83 YPC, and he still has plenty of talent and plenty of time to show why he was drafted highly, still only going into his age 23 season, but he’s hardly a reliable player. 

The Mascots originally signed Adrian Peterson after Guice tore his ACL and, despite his advanced age for a running back, he’s been a capable lead back for them, rushing for 1,940 yards and 12 touchdowns on 462 carries (4.20 YPC). How the carries would be divided between a healthy Guice and Peterson, now in his age 35 season, remains to be seen, especially with Peyton Barber around as a wild card option for carries. None of Barber, Guice, and Peterson are much of a pass catcher, so the only player likely locked in a role is the rookie Gibson on passing downs. There’s some potential at this position, but a lot of questions as well.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Another player the Mascots were without in 2019 was left tackle Trent Williams, who sat out the whole season, but he’s not coming back either, as the Mascots finally granted his trade request this off-season and sent him to the San Francisco 49ers for draft picks. The Mascots also lost Donald Penn, Williams’ replacement last season, and left guard Ereck Flowers, who were both capable starters last season, and they didn’t do much to replace either of them, so this is still a very underwhelming offensive line.

Left tackle is the biggest area of concern as, without Penn and Williams, the Mascots are down to free agent acquisition Cornelius Lucas and 2018 3rd round pick Geron Christian, who would both be questionable options. Lucas flashed in 5 starts down the stretch for the Bears last season, but that was on the right side and it’s very possible that stretch was a flash in the pan for a player who has made just 14 total starts in 6 seasons in the league. 

Lucas would almost definitely be overmatched as a 16-game starter on the blindside, but Christian wouldn’t necessarily be better, as he’s struggled on 189 career snaps and has been unable to earn coaching staff’s trust enough to get onto the field consistently, even with plenty of available opportunity on this unit. It’s possible 4th round rookie Saadhiq Charles could also see starts at left tackle down the stretch if neither Lucas nor Christian can lock down the job, though he enters the league very raw. Donald Penn also remains a free agent and could be brought back, but it’s unclear what he’d have left for his age 37 season or if he’d even want to return.

At left guard, free agent Wes Schweitzer is expected to be the replacement for Ereck Flowers, after coming over from the Falcons on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Schweitzer is experienced, making 36 starts in the past 3 seasons, but the former 2016 6th round pick has been middling at best, including a 62nd ranked finish out of 89 qualifying guards in 2019, so he’s an underwhelming option and figures to be a downgrade from Flowers, who ranked 34th.

The Mascots did fortunately keep right guard Brandon Scherff on the franchise tag, as he’s one of the few bright spots on this offense. He’s also a player the Mascots can expect more from this season, after injuries limited him to 11 games in 2019, though it’s worth noting he hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season in 2016. Even with the injuries, Scherff has developed from the 5th overall pick in 2015 to one of the better guards in the NFL, finishing in the top-27 among guards on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including top-7 finishes in both 2017 and 2019. Even though he’s set to make 15.03 million on the franchise tag, retaining him was a no brainer and the Mascots should try to get him signed long-term as soon as possible, even if they have to make him one of the top paid guards in the league to do so.

Right tackle Morgan Moses and center Chase Rouiller also remain. Moses is a long-time starting right tackle for the Mascots, making all 80 starts there over the past five seasons. He’s never been a dominant player, but he’s been consistently average or better on PFF in every season, he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, and his durability is an added bonus. Rouliller, meanwhile, has been a middling starter in 37 career starts, since being drafted by the Mascots in the 6th round in 2017, and is coming off of his best season, ranking 15th among centers on PFF. There’s some continuity on this offensive line, but the left side is a real question mark.

Grade: B-

Edge Defenders

The Mascots have concerns on defense as well, but they are mostly in the backend. In fact, the Mascots are moving to a 4-3 defense this year after years of playing a 3-4 and their new 4-man defensive line is an obvious strength. The Mascots’ interior defenders and edge defenders played well last season and the Mascots got even better upfront this off-season when they used the 2nd overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft on Ohio State edge defender Chase Young. With Young coming in and this defense moving to an attacking 4-3 style, the Mascots could be very disruptive upfront this season.

Young has the potential to be one of the best edge defenders in the league long-term and he’ll immediately have a big role, even at a position where the Mascots were pretty deep last season. Along with using the 2nd pick on Young this year, the Mascots also used a first round pick on an edge defender in 2019, taking Montez Sweat 26th overall, and a second round pick in 2017, taking Ryan Anderson 49th overall. Add in former first round pick Ryan Kerrigan (16th overall in 2010) and the Mascots go four deep on the edge and should rotate their players heavily. Neither Sweat nor Anderson have broken out as more than a middling player yet though, so it definitely doesn’t hurt to add more talent to the mix. 

Sweat still profiles as an above average starter long-term, while Anderson’s future is murkier, as he’s going into his 4th season in the league and finished 92nd out of 118 qualifying edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in the first starting experience of his career in 2019. Kerrigan, meanwhile, is coming off of his lowest graded season since his rookie year, not a complete surprise given his age, as he’s now going into his age 32 season. Kerrigan finished above average on PFF in 9 straight seasons prior to 2019, including a career best 15th in 2017, but he fell to 71st out of 118 qualifiers in 2019 and it’s likely his best days are behind him. He could still continue to contribute as a rotational player for another few years, but he could also continue declining.

Given his age and decline, it’s surprising Kerrigan wasn’t released or forced to take a pay cut this off-season, owed 10.75 million non-guaranteed in the final year of his contract next year. An extension that guarantees him some money beyond 2020 in exchange for a significant pay cut could make the most sense for both sides, especially with Kerrigan wanting to finish his career in Washington. This is a deep edge group, but they need a young player like Montez Sweat or Chase Young to breakout if they’re going to have a top level player at the position.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Mascots also have a bunch of recent high draft picks on the interior, including a pair of former first round picks in Da’Ron Payne (13th overall in 2018) and Jonathan Allen (17th overall in 2017). The 6-3 319 pound Payne was primarily a nose tackle in the Mascots’ old 3-4, but he played more sub packages than your typical nose tackle, averaging 50.2 snaps per game in his career thus far. He’s been a good run stuffer, but needs to develop as a pass rusher (5.7% pressure rate) if the Mascots are going to continue justifying playing him in sub packages. Fortunately, Payne is only going into his age 23 season, so he still has a high ceiling as a potential three down player. Allen, meanwhile, is a more well rounded player, but doesn’t excel in any one area.

Matt Ioannidis was only a 5th round pick in 2016, but he’s arguably developed into the Mascots’ best interior defender, earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, while averaging 42.0 snaps per game. Ioannidis leaves something to be desired against the run, but has consistently been a productive pass rusher for this team, totaling 20.5 sacks, 19 hits, and a very impressive 12.4% pressure rate from the interior over the past three seasons combined. The Mascots also have good depth on the interior, as 2018 5th round pick Tim Settle has shown promise on 449 snaps thus far in his career, both as a pass rusher (7.1% pressure rate) and a run stuffer. Little has changed with this unit, beyond their young players having another year another their belt, so this should remain an above average unit with upside.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

While the Mascots’ defensive front looks strong, their backend has a lot of problems. That was the case in the linebacking corps last season, as their top-2 linebackers Jon Bostic (1,031 snaps) and Cole Holcomb (718 snaps) finished 66th and 64th respectively among qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, while top reserve Shaun Dion Hamilton (387 snaps) wasn’t much better. There’s a good chance things are better in 2020 though and not just by default, as the Mascots made a pair of additions in free agency in Thomas Davis and Kevin Pierre-Louis and they are also expected to get linebacker Reuben Foster back from a devastating knee injury that cost him all of 2019. All three have potential in 2020 and will compete for roles with the three holdovers in the Mascots’ new 4-3 linebacking corps.

Davis is easily the most proven of the bunch, although his best days are definitely behind him, now going into his age 37 season. Davis was once one of the better every down 4-3 outside linebackers in the league in his prime and he did so in Carolina with Ron Rivera, but last season with the Chargers, while he still played at a high level against the run, he struggled in coverage and was limited to base package work down the stretch. He has the opportunity to earn an every down role in a thin linebacking corps in Washington, but he could continue to struggle in coverage given that he doesn’t have the same athleticism he once did. He was signed to a one-year deal worth 3.5 million this off-season and could easily be entering the final year of what would be a 16-year NFL career.

Pierre-Louis also comes to town on a one-year deal, signing for 3 million this off-season. Pierre-Louis has primarily played special teams thus far in his career, never topping 273 defensive snaps in 6 seasons in the league, but he flashed in 4 starts down the stretch as an injury replacement for the Bears last season. He’s already going into his age 29 season and could prove to be a flash in the pan, but he’s a worthwhile flyer for a team that needs help at the position. The Mascots shouldn’t expect much from him defensively and he’s not guaranteed to lock down a role, but he does come with some upside and should at least help on special teams.

The player with the biggest upside is Reuben Foster, but it’s tough to know what to expect from him, given the extent of his leg injury. Foster was a first round pick by the 49ers in 2017 and his career got off to a good start, as he played well across 16 starts in his first two seasons in the league, but then his career was derailed by legal issues, followed by last season’s injury. The allegations against Foster proved to be largely unfounded, so he should be in the clear to return from a conduct standpoint, but he has injury problems dating back to his collegiate days and it’s tough to know what to expect from him from a health standpoint. If healthy, I would expect him to at least have a base package role and he’s still only going into his age 26 season, so he still has time to develop into an above average starter, but his future is very uncertain.

Among the three holdovers, Jon Bostic is the most experienced of the bunch, making 62 starts in 7 seasons in the league and playing 91% of the snaps for the Mascots last season, but he struggled last season and has never been more than a snap eater in his career, so he shouldn’t be guaranteed a starting role. Cole Holcomb also started 16 games last season, but he also struggled and, though the 2019 5th round pick could be better in his second season, there’s no guarantee he ever develops into a consistent starter. Shaun Dion Hamilton, meanwhile, has played just 516 snaps since being drafted by the Mascots in the 6th round in 2018 and probably isn’t a roster lock, even at a position without established roles. This is a deeper group than last year and one with more upside, but they also don’t have any sure things either.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Mascots also have a lot of problems in the secondary. At cornerback, the Mascots got rid of Quinton Dunbar and Josh Norman. Cutting Norman was a no brainer and won’t hurt this team, as he was owed 12.5 million non-guaranteed after a season in which he totally fell off and finished 128th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but Dunbar, who was traded because the Mascots didn’t want to sign him to a big contract long-term, was one of the best cornerbacks in the league last season, finishing 3rd at his position on PFF. He’ll obviously be a huge loss for a team that had a lot of problems in the secondary last season even with Dunbar around.

Dunbar will be replaced by free agent acquisition Kendall Fuller, who returns to Washington on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal, after spending the past two seasons in Kansas City, where he was sent as part of the Alex Smith trade. Drafted by the Mascots in the 3rd round in 2016, Fuller was dominant as the primary slot cornerback in his second and seemingly final season with the Mascots in 2017, finishing 3rd among cornerbacks on PFF on 720 snaps (0.74 slot yards per route run allowed, 3rd in the NFL among cornerbacks).

However, he never matched that level of play in Kansas City, falling to 33rd among cornerbacks as an every down player in 2018 and then getting benched in a middling 2019 season in which he ended up playing just 498 snaps in 11 games. Given that, it’s surprising the Mascots paid him as much as they did to return, but, still only going into his age 25 season, Fuller still has upside going forward and he has obvious bounce back potential in 2020, even if he never repeats his dominant 2017 season.

The Mascots also signed ex-Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby to a one-year, 3 million dollar deal in free agency and he has a good chance to lock down a starting job in Washington. Like Fuller, Darby has had success in the past, finishing 13th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 37th in 2018, but he’s missed 20 games over the past three seasons combined, he’s never played all 16 games in a season in 5 seasons in the league, and his injuries seem to have sapped his abilities, as he fell to 129th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF in 2019. Still only going into his age 26 season, Darby still has bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, but he’s a big question mark.

The biggest reason Darby is likely locked into a starting role is the Mascots lack a good alternative, with holdovers Fabian Moreau and Jimmy Moreland, who both struggled in 2019, being their only other real options for snaps at the position. Playing 664 snaps and 471 snaps respectively, Moreau and Moreland finished 115th and 96th respectively among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF last season. Both are young and could improve in the future, but Moreland was just a 7th round choice in 2019, while Moreau has been mediocre in 3 seasons in the league (17 starts) since the Mascots took him in the 3rd round in 2018. One of the two will have to play in three cornerback sets and, given Darby’s injury history, it’s likely both will see significant action together at some point this season.

At safety, Landon Collins remains as the starter at one spot, while free agent acquisition Sean Davis is likely to start at the other spot. Collins came to Washington last off-season on a huge 6-year, 84 million dollar deal that makes him the 3rd highest paid safety in the league in average annual salary. He’s not as good as that suggests, particularly because he’s a much better player against the run than he is in coverage, where he has his struggles from time to time, but he’s earned an above average grade from PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including a 10th ranked finish in 2016 and a 12th ranked finish in 2017, though he was just 40th in 2019. Still very much in his prime in his age 26 season, Collins should remain an above average strong safety.

Davis, meanwhile, replaces Montae Nicholson, who was released this off-season after a miserable 2019 season in which he dealt with off the field problems and finished 95th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF. Davis should be an upgrade, although that’s not saying much. A 2nd round pick by the Steelers in 2016, Davis started 40 games in the first 3 seasons of his career and was a solid starter in 2018, but he struggled in both 2016 and 2017 and he missed all but 55 snaps last season with injury, so it’s tough to know what to expect him from in 2020. With only 2018 4th round pick Troy Apke, who flashed on the first 210 snaps of his career last season, is an alternative, Davis is likely locked into a starting role. Even if Davis is an upgrade at safety, it’s hard to say this secondary didn’t get worse by losing Dunbar at cornerback.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Mascots did well to get Ron Rivera as their head coach this off-season, quarterback Dwayne Haskins could easily take a step forward in his second season in the league, and the Mascots made the obvious decision to take Chase Young 2nd overall, but that’s about where the good news ends for the Mascots, who have positions of weakness across the depth chart, on both sides of the ball. This team has the 3rd lowest payroll in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, even with Alex Smith commanding significant cap space while injured and unavailable, and it shows with a roster that is arguably the NFL’s worst around the quarterback. Even if Haskins makes progress in his second season, it’s hard to see him having much luck in the win/loss column. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: Things have gone from bad to worse for this team. Not only have they lost their name, but their offensive depth has been further thinned with the release of Adrian Peterson, Trey Quinn, and Derrius Guice (off-the-field issues) and the injury to Kelvin Harmon. Dwayne Haskins may take some steps forward this season, but it probably won’t be noticeable in the box score and in the standings.

Projection: 2-14 (4th in NFC East)

Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys: 2019 Week 17 NFL Pick

Washington Redskins (3-12) at Dallas Cowboys (7-8)

The Cowboys are just 7-8 and their playoff hopes are hanging by a thread, needing a win and a Philadelphia loss to win the historically bad NFC East. Despite that, they rank 7th in the NFL with a +82 point differential. Their average margin of victory is 18.57 points per game, but they’ve had a very tough time in close games, going 1-6 in games decided by one score or less and 0-4 in games decided by 4 points or fewer. This is a year after going 9-3 in one score games with almost the same roster and coaching staff. A team’s record in close games tends to be unpredictable on a year-to-year basis and tends to even out in the long run, but the Cowboys have done a complete 180 this season.

Fortunately, the Cowboys end the season with a very easy home game against the Redskins and could easily get their 6th win by 18 points or more this season. Even if they don’t quite get to 18, this spread is only 11 and they should be able to win with ease and cover this spread. The Redskins were a pretty bad team to begin with, but they come into this game with a skeleton crew roster due to injuries. Their defense has already been without their top pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan and cornerback Quinton Dunbar for several weeks, but they will also be without talented safety Landon Collins as well as fellow defensive backs Fabian Moreau, Josh Norman, and Montae Nicholson this week. Over the past 4 weeks, the Redskins have allowed a 40.00% first down rate without Dunbar and Kerrigan and their injury situation is even worse this week.

The only reason the Redskins haven’t been getting blown out in recent weeks is rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins developing into a capable starting quarterback, leading this offense to a 40.08% first down rate, but Haskins is also out this week, forcing the Redskins to go back to backup caliber quarterback Case Keenum. Making matters even tougher for Keenum, he’ll be without top wide receiver Terry McLaurin and top offensive lineman Brandon Scherff. Missing everyone they are missing, the Redskins rank dead last in my roster rankings this week and are very likely to be blown out by the Cowboys like many others have been this season.

I wish the Cowboys were in a better injury situation though, as quarterback Dak Prescott is playing at less than 100% through a shoulder injury, while cornerback Byron Jones, left tackle Tyron Smith, and linebacker Sean Lee are considered truly questionable after not practicing on Friday. Even with the Cowboys’ injury uncertainty, I have this line calculated at Dallas -15.5, so the Cowboys are still worth a small bet, but I was considering a much larger bet earlier in the week before the injury uncertainty. 

Dallas Cowboys 26 Washington Redskins 10

Pick against the spread: Dallas -11

Confidence: Medium

New York Giants at Washington Redskins: 2019 Week 16 NFL Pick

New York Giants (3-11) at Washington Redskins (3-11)

Both of these teams are 3-11 and have had pretty horrible seasons, but the Giants have been the noticeably better of these two teams, holding a significant edge in point differential -99 to -132, despite the Redskins holding a significant edge in turnover margin +2 to -15. Turnover margins tend to be highly unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so the Redskins aren’t necessarily going to win the turnover battle this week just because they have the advantage in that metric on the season. In terms of first down rate differential, the Giants have the edge at -2.02% to -6.07%. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of line value with the Giants in the past week, as the Redskins were favored by 3 points on the early line last week, but this line is now even. I have the Giants calculated as 1.5 points, so they should be the right side, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

New York Giants 17 Washington Redskins 16

Pick against the spread: NY Giants PK

Confidence: Low