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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Chicago Bears

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

9. Denver Broncos

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

8. New Orleans Saints

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

7. Dallas Cowboys

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

6. San Francisco 49ers

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

5. Indianapolis Colts

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

4. Las Vegas Raiders

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

3. Los Angeles Chargers

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

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

2. Tennessee Titans

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

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

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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

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

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

3. Andy Dalton

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

2. Philip Rivers

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

1. Teddy Bridgewater

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

Not so honorable mentions: Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston

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

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

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

2015 NFL Draft Redo

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

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

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

2. Tennessee Titans – OT Trent Brown (Florida)

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

3. Jacksonville Jaguars – DT Grady Jarrett (Clemson)

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

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

4. Oakland Raiders – CB Marcus Peters (Washington)

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

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

5. Washington Redskins – G Brandon Scherff (Iowa)

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

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

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

7. Chicago Bears – WR Amari Cooper (Alabama)

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

8. Atlanta Falcons – DE Trey Flowers (Arkansas)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. Cleveland Browns – DE Frank Clark (Michigan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Houston Texans – CB Byron Jones (Connecticut)

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

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

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

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

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

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

19. Cleveland Browns – OT Rob Havenstein (Wisconsin)

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

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

20. Philadelphia Eagles – DT Leonard Williams (USC)

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

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

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

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

22. Pittsburgh Steelers – OLB Bud Dupree (Kentucky)

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

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

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

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

24. Arizona Cardinals – OLB Dante Fowler (Florida)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27. Dallas Cowboys – MLB Shaq Thompson (Washington)

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

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

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

29. Indianapolis Colts – G Ali Marpet (Hobart)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick against the spread: San Francisco +1.5

Confidence: Medium

Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Championship Pick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Tennessee Titans 23

Pick against the spread: Kansas City -7

Confidence: None

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers: 2019 NFC Championship Pick

Green Bay Packers (14-3) at San Francisco 49ers (14-3)

Like the Chiefs/Titans matchup in the AFC Championship, this NFC Championship matchup between the 49ers and the Packers is a rematch of a regular season game. Unlike the first Chiefs/Titans matchup, which few would have predicted would be an AFC Championship preview, the first 49ers/Packers matchup was an obvious potential NFC Championship preview, with the 49ers entering at 9-1 and the Packers entering at 8-2 in a game that wound up deciding the #1 seed in the NFC. 

Despite both teams having strong records, the first matchup was not close at all, with the 49ers winning at home by a final score of 37-8 in a game in which they won the first down rate battle by 15.87%. Favored by just a field goal the first time around, the 49ers are now 7.5-point home favorites in the rematch, as bettors remember the week 12 blowout well. History suggests that these rematches don’t always go the same way, however, and in fact in non-divisional same-site post-season rematches, the team that lost the first time is actually 33-20 ATS over the past 30 seasons. 

That being said, I think there is good reason to expect that the 49ers should win fairly easily again. Even though these teams have the same record, the 49ers had a much stronger season, holding the edge in the regular season in first down rate differential at +5.29% to +1.15% and in point differential at +169 to +63. The Packers’ point differential was the worst ever by a team that finished with 13 wins or more and ranked just 9th in the NFL, compared to 3rd for the 49ers. In first down rate differential, the difference was even more pronounced, with the 49ers ranking 2nd and the Packers ranking 14th. While the Packers are 9-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, the 49ers are just 5-3 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, winning 9 of their 14 games by more than 8 points, as opposed to just 5 for the Packers. 

That’s despite the fact that the 49ers were missing their top edge rusher Dee Ford and their top linebacker Kwon Alexander for most of the second half of the season. Alexander went down in the 49ers 8th game of the season in week 9 and missed the rest of the regular season, while Ford played just 73 snaps after week 9 and was inactive for the Packers game. Neither one is at 100% this week, but having both back in the lineup is significant. The 49ers allowed just a 24.67% first down rate in their first 7 games of the season with Alexander and Ford healthy, which would have been easily the best in the NFL if they kept it up all season. 

The 49ers had a relatively easy schedule over that stretch, but their strength of schedule suggested they should have allowed a 34.56% first down rate over those 7 games, so they performed significantly better than average. Last week, with Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers held a Vikings offense that finished 11th in the NFL in first down rate (higher than the Packers who finished 16th) to just 7 first downs and a 17.78% first down rate. This is the healthiest the 49ers have been since their dominant start and they are playing like it. 

The Packers are basically at full strength as well, but that’s been the case for most of the season. Meanwhile, in addition to the 49ers having Ford and Alexander back, the 49ers will also have tight end George Kittle and wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel at full strength, which they didn’t have in the first matchup and, while they’re missing center Weston Richburg, they will have left tackle Joe Staley this time around, which is more important, especially since backup center Ben Garland has filled in well for Richburg. I’m hoping this line will fall to a touchdown before gametime, but I like the 49ers for a smaller bet even if it stays at 7.5.

San Francisco 49ers 27 Green Bay Packers 16

Pick against the spread: San Francisco -7.5

Confidence: Medium

Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers: 2019 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Seattle Seahawks (12-5) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)

The Packers won 13 games and got a first round bye in the NFC, but they didn’t play as well as their record suggests, barely pulling out some close victories. They went 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer and 4-0 in games decided by 5 points or fewer and ranked just 9th in the NFL in point differential at +63, the worst ever point differential by a team with 13 or more wins. Fortunately for the Packers, they open the post-season at home, where they are 43-22 ATS since 2011 in games that Aaron Rodgers starts and finishes, and they play a Seattle team that is also not as good as their record.

The Seahawks won 11 games, but just one by more than a touchdown and had a +6 point differential that is 14th in the NFL and 3rd worst ever by a team with 11 or more wins. While the Packers are around a 10 or 11 win caliber team that won 13 games because of close wins, the Seahawks are around an 8 or 9 win caliber team that won 11 games because of close wins. Two of the Seahawks’ wins came because the other team shanked makeable field goals that would have ended the game. If not for those two misses, the Seahawks easily could have missed the post-season entirely. They won their opening round playoff game in Philadelphia, but likely would have lost had Carson Wentz not gotten hurt in the first quarter, as the Josh McCown led Eagles got inside the Seahawks’ 30-yard line five times, but managed just three field goals and two failed 4th downs in a 17-9 loss. 

The Seahawks also are in much worse injury shape than the Packers. While the Packers are as healthy as any team left in the playoffs, the Seahawks are without linebacker Mychal Kendricks, running backs Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny, left guard Mike Iupati, and possibly defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, left tackle Duane Brown, and backup left tackle George Fant. Despite their injury situation and the Packers’ significant edge in point differential and first down rate differential (+1.15% vs. -1.17%), the Seahawks are only 4-point underdogs in this game in Lambeau, where the Packers are very tough to beat with Aaron Rodgers under center. I have this line calculated at Green Bay -7.5, so we’re getting great line value with the Packers at -4. This is my biggest play this week.

Green Bay Packers 31 Seattle Seahawks 23

Pick against the spread: Green Bay -4

Confidence: High

Houston Texans at Kansas City Chiefs: 2019 AFC Divisional Round Pick

Houston Texans (11-6) at Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

These two teams met back in week 6, with the Texans pulling off the upset in Kansas City by score of 31-24. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Texans will pull the upset again this week though, or even keep this game close. Teams are 32-20 ATS over the past 30 years in the playoffs in a same-site rematch against a team that beat them in the regular season. Of those teams, 10 were favorites in the rematch and they outscored their opponents by 7.5 points as an average of 5-point favorites, covering 6 out of 10 times. 

That alone isn’t enough reason to pick the Chiefs, but the Chiefs are also in a completely different injury situation than they were in the first game. On offense, quarterback Pat Mahomes was playing at far less than 100% through injury and had his worst game of the season according to Pro Football Focus, top wide receiver Tyreek Hill played just half of the snaps in his return from injury, fellow wide receiver Sammy Watkins was out, and the side left of the offensive line, Eric Fisher and Andrew Wylie, was out as well. 

On defense, cornerback Kendall Fuller was playing through a broken thumb, defensive end Frank Clark was playing through a neck injury and, while the Chiefs did have safety Juan Thornhill and defensive ends Alex Okafor and Emmanuel Ogbah healthy back then, they did not have late-season addition defensive end Terrell Suggs, nor did they have injured defensive tackles Xavier Williams and Chris Jones, the latter of whom is one of the best players in the league at his position. Jones tweaked a calf injury at practice this week, but is still expected to play and even if he’s at less than 100% he could easily have a huge impact on the rematch.

Of course, having Mahomes healthy is also a pretty big deal. Mahomes was limping through an ankle injury back in week 6 and eventually ended up missing two games with a knee injury that he suffered the following week in Denver, but he returned in week 10 and has led the Chiefs to a 40.00% first down rate in 7 games since, 4th among playoff qualifiers over that stretch, and should be as close to 100% as he’s been all season after the first round bye. 

Mahomes’ injury might have actually ended up being a blessing in disguise for the Chiefs, as the Chiefs started playing much better defensively around the time he got hurt. It’s possible the Chiefs’ defense would have started to click around then even if Mahomes hadn’t gotten hurt and certainly the Chiefs’ improved health on defense is part of the reason for their improvement, but whatever the reason, the improvement has been very noticeable. Since week 7, they rank 3rd among playoff qualifiers in first down rate allowed at 33.28%, after ranking 29th in the NFL in first down rate allowed at 40.91% through the first 6 games of the season. This is a much more complete Chiefs team than they were in the post-season last year, when they finished dead last in first down rate allowed at 42.20%.

Meanwhile, the Texans are going in the opposite direction injury wise, as right tackle Tytus Howard is out for the season, JJ Watt is playing at far less than 100% and coming off of an underwhelming performance in the playoff opener, and wide receiver Will Fuller is highly questionable and would be at risk of limited snaps or an in-game setback after missing much of the past couple months, including last week, and not getting in a full practice all this week. Since their week 10 bye, the Texans have a first down rate differential of just -3.50% (excluding the week 17 game in which they rested starters). 

Their struggles are in large part due to key players being injured or playing at less than 100%. Even at full strength though, the Texans weren’t a great team and they are the only playoff qualifier with a negative point differential at -7. They barely beat the Bills, arguably the worst playoff qualifier, in Houston last week. They might not be able to even keep it close this week in Kansas City. This line is high at -9.5, so there’s not enough here to bet on the Chiefs, but they should be the right side. If Jones ends up being out for the Chiefs, I will revisit this pick.

Update: Jones is surprisingly out for this game, unable to get the green light after his pre-game workout. That makes a huge impact on a Chiefs defense that is also missing talented rookie safety Thornhill. Despite that, this line has moved up to 10 in all places. This is a no confidence pick, but this should be a closer game with the Chiefs at less than 100% injury wise.

Kansas City Chiefs 31 Houston Texans 23

Pick against the spread: Houston +10

Confidence: None