5 Things I care about
Baker Mayfield is Kirk Cousins
It’s a comparison I’ve been making for a while now in 2020 but Baker Mayfield = Kirk Cousins feels more apt than ever.
And it can be a good thing.
Obviously, there is some connective tissue here. Kevin Stefanski coached Kirk Cousins in Minnesota the last few years. Stefanski helped settle the somewhat erratic passer by installing a variety of layups and play-action concepts during a chaotic 2018 season. Doesn’t that sound familiar? It’s exactly what’s happening with Baker Mayfield right now.
We know Mayfield has some talent. You don’t break the rookie touchdown record by accident. We also know Mayfield has some flaws. You don’t end up in the bottom-three of just about every passing metric in 2019 by accident. The key is getting Mayfield to hang around the middle of those two ranges of outcomes in the vast majority of his games. When he does tilt toward one side of the scale, make it more often to the positive.
Just like with Cousins, Stefanski’s offense is doing just that for Mayfield.
When operating in a simplified offense with plenty of layups and supported by a strong running game and receivers who can get separation, Mayfield can be an effective point guard. That ecosystem can lead him to excellent passing numbers. He also has enough individual skill to cash those checks into wins and strong stats. We’ve seen Cousins dunk on bad defenses just like Mayfield did against the banged-up Giants. We’ve seen Cousins go toe-to-toe in a shootout, just like Mayfield did last Monday night.
But just like with Cousins, there will be those bad days for Mayfield.
So far, unlike Cousins, those games haven’t come in massively watched primetime games. They’ve come in 1 PM EST games against their division-rivals early in the season. For Cleveland backers, you just have to hope one of those matchups against a defense that can unleash a strong pass rush doesn’t come in the postseason.
You can engage in the thought exercise of what Mayfield would look like in a non-Stefanski offense, or you can just pop in the 2019 Freddie Kitchens-era tape to accompany that needless hypothetical. When you view Mayfield in this Cousins-context, his career (both past, present, and future) makes plenty of sense. However, if we know anything about how Cousins’ career has played out, we’ll still be having the circular “Just how good is he?” debate many years into Mayfield’s NFL run.
The Titans have a fantastic ecosystem, but they’re running out of time
I feel like I find a way to heap praise on the Titans’ offense every single week. So, let’s keep the tradition alive.
They aren’t talked about this way by most analysts but Tennessee might just have as good an offensive ecosystem as any team this side of Kansas City.
It’s not just Derrick Henry either, though he did add another 147 yards and a touchdown to his already pristine resume on Sunday. The passing game is also fantastic. Ryan Tannehill was among the best quarterbacks in the league across multiple efficiency metrics and Week 15 won’t change that. Tannehill unfurled three touchdown passes against Detroit and added two more on the ground. It’s insane how straight-up disrespected this guy was in fantasy drafts this summer despite his excellent 2019 finish.
He’s been a bit volatile as a producer thanks to the low passing volume but this ecosystem has also elevated Corey Davis. I think Davis’ play has always been unfairly criticized because of his draft status. He’s never played like a receiver you’d associate with going fifth overall but let’s not act like he’s ever been a useless player when healthy. He’s just been a solid No. 2 receiver. This year, he’s taken his game to a level where he’s one of the best second-fiddles in football.
Davis might have a chance to fly the nest and exit the ecosystem this offseason. Since the team declined his fifth-year, he’ll be a free agent in March. It’ll be interesting to track whether Davis has developed to the point he can go to a new environment and still produce at a high level.
We also have to wonder whether this ecosystem will even be intact next season. After all, the team might lose offensive coordinator Arthur Smith to the siren song of another team’s head coaching offer. Smith would leave behind plenty to work with but he’s been a revelation as an offensive designer and play-caller.
Either way you slice it, now is the time for Tennessee to strike. Their offense is perfectly built but could lose some pieces this offseason.
It’s just too bad they’ll have to go through Kansas City to land that strike.
Tony Pollard adds something
No matter what happens the rest of the way, the 2020 season will always go down as a lost one for the Dallas Cowboys. These last few weeks are more for learning lessons about the future of the roster and not pretending there’s a path to a playoff run.
If Sunday’s result was any indication, one of those lessons might be that Tony Pollard needs to somehow be more involved in the offense.
Ezekiel Elliott was a late inactive Sunday morning against the 49ers, putting Tony Pollard in a coveted position to be the feature back. Pollard didn’t blow the doors off or anything but he was explosive (5.8 yards per carry), was a plus asset in the passing game (6-63), and scored twice. To be frank, it was the type of game many expected from Elliott more often than we’ve received this year. There have been injuries and subpar line play messing with Elliott’s outlook in 2020 but there’s no getting around it: The running game has been a letdown.
Tony Pollard had 31.2 fantasy points today.
Ezekiel Elliott hasn't reached that in a game since Week 14 of 2018.
— Ryan McDowell (@RyanMc23) December 21, 2020
There’s really no point in wish-casting a major role for Pollard. Elliott has yet to even begin his absurd six-year, $90 million contract extension. The Cowboys are stuck there. But if Week 15 is any indication, they may have been able to get similar or better production in an alternate universe where they just let the veteran walk and turned things over to Pollard.
Brandon Aiyuk continues rising
It’s a good thing Brandon Aiyuk came through today considering we referenced him approximately 55 times on Fantasy Football Live this morning. It wasn’t just a positive result in Week 15 — all the process-based metrics continue to keep the green light blinking for the rookie receiver.
— Yahoo Fantasy Sports (@YahooFantasy) December 20, 2020
Aiyuk drew 13 targets against the Cowboys, even as two passers shared the under-center duties for San Francisco. He’s hit double-digits in four of his last five games. The rookie has been white-hot since we flipped the calendar to November.
Brandon Aiyuk is being used as a No. 1 wide receiver and he continues to perform at a level to earn that title. You’re not dialing back expectations for him in Arizona next week or against Seattle in Week 17, either.
The Jaguars move into the No. 1 pick slot
What a turn for Jaguars fans. After spending the morning watching their team get thumped by the Baltimore Ravens, the afternoon brought them the inside track to Trevor Lawrence.
If you’re Lawrence, you probably don’t mind. Both franchises have plenty of work to do to get back into contender status. New York and Jacksonville have plenty of draft capital to begin that effort.
However, if you squint at the Jaguars roster, you can see far more young offensive building blocks for Lawrence to grow up with. Running back James Robinson has been a revelation this year and would make the rookie’s life quite comfortable in the 2021 Jacksonville backfield. Vertical receiver DJ Chark isn’t having as good a season as he did in 2019 but you can blame that on quarterback play and injuries. He can still ball.
That’s just two guys, but it’s a start.
5 Things I don’t care about
This version of the New York Giants
If you have Wayne Gallman in fantasy football, this analogy will make sense to you. Gallman’s run as a starter for New York feels like a good metaphor for the team as a whole.
It felt like the Giants could be a frisky team. They had the vibe of a hard-nosed 8-8 team that could actually bring some legitimacy to the first-place NFC East title. It was surprising — they certainly weren’t anyone’s first choice — but it was a welcome development. Then time caught up.
Wayne Gallman was a pleasant surprise as a fantasy waiver-wire pickup this season. For whatever reason, he wasn’t the Giants’ first or even second choice to relieve the team after Saquon Barkley’s season-ending injury. He still stepped up and provided one hell of a run as a high-end RB2 play. Then time caught up.
Neither the Giants’ hopes to be a legitimate team or Gallman’s fantasy stock were able to hold strong with the team in its current state. The defense has been completely torn down amid injuries in the secondary and James Bradberry’s placement on the COVID-19 list. The offense has also been reduced to rubble with Colt McCoy stepping in for a banged-up Daniel Jones. McCoy might not make the same number of mistakes as the starter but he offers way less juice to the passing game.
Perhaps the Giants can still get healthy and win the NFC East but I’m less convinced they have a shot to do it as a “real team” after the way they went down in their ninth loss. Even after losing to Seattle, a Washington team with Alex Smith as the starter feels like the safest mix of exciting young offensive talent and a pass rush group that has the potential to be a trump card.
Carson Wentz coming back
You have to be at least lunatic-adjacent to actively root for a guy to fall apart. But that’s what happened with Carson Wentz. The arrival of Jalen Hurts on the scene has only made that more clear.
The first start of Hurts’ career showed us why his mobility could prove to be a positive force in the face of the chaos infecting the Eagles’ offense. Questions remained about his ability to execute the full machine, especially as a passer. This week, Hurts did what great players do: He answered questions and silenced doubts.
The Eagles lost the battle against Arizona but Hurts’ performance has them looking like they won the war. Seriously — think back to this Eagles team from just a month ago. It was one of the most unwatchable offenses of our time. As soon as they stuck Hurts back there, life instantly flowed through the whole unit.
Despite falling into an early hole, Hurts put on a show to get them back. The rookie went down 16-0 on the road and then put up 401 yards of total offense and four touchdowns against a playoff contender. He also put the team in a position to outright win with a truly perfect throw on 3rd and 21 to Dallas Goedert that the tight end let slip away. It happens ... or should we say, with a quarterback like this it happens, because you’re actually in a position to win in the final moments.
The Eagles offense certainly still has problems around Hurts. That was never going to change. But whereas Carson Wentz just added more problems in response to the Eagles’ problems, Hurts provides solutions.
It doesn’t get much more impressive than what Hurts did. He looked like the collegiate star he was for multiple NCAA teams. Nothing was too big for him. There’s no chance the Eagles can go away from him the rest of 2020 and it’s hard to imagine they’ll have a better option for 2021 and beyond.
Let’s hope Wentz does find a way to revive his career somehow, someway. It’s just going to have to be somewhere else.
Any of the old concerns about the Ravens
On balance, the Ravens haven’t lived up to expectations in 2020. However, ever since they put that weird, rescheduled, former Thanksgiving game against the Steelers behind them, they’ve looked like a different team.
Perhaps it’s really just the quality of opponents. Their Week 13 game against the Cowboys looked like a JV team walked into Baltimore just to get pushed around. Week 15 brought the Jaguars into their path — Jacksonville doesn’t exactly provide much resistance to opposing offenses.
This could also just be a result of Baltimore getting back to its roots. At different points of the year, it looked like the Ravens wanted to evolve into the next phase of the Lamar Jackson offense. When he returned from a stint on the COVID-19 list, it seemed like they just threw that plan out of the window. Over the last three weeks, this team has run the hell out of the ball with J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Jackson. There’s been a sprinkling of big passing plays the last two games, but this has been a run-oriented rebound.
The Ravens will get a tougher defensive matchup next week against the Giants if New York’s injury situation starts to reverse course. And they’ll certainly need to put up more points against playoff teams to reach their February goals. But for now, the dominating ground game Baltimore gave us last year appears to be back.
Worrying about the Bucs WRs the next two weeks
I’ll still remain skeptical about this Buccaneers team being a postseason threat until we actually see them operate in January. They’re still too sloppy around the margins and make life harder on themselves than is truly needed. All that being said, I don’t care about those concerns for the next two weeks.
Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and even Antonio Brown found the end zone against the Falcons. As always with this Tampa Bay team, it took way too long for things to get going. But when this team got hot in the second half, they put up 31 points like it was nothing. It was as if the two halves were a perfect representation of this Buccaneers team. You know greatness is within the range of outcomes but so is being stuck in the mud for multiple quarters.
The key as it always will be for Tom Brady at this point in his career: The matchup. If Brady can get time in the pocket, someone will be open. These receivers are just too good and he’s still got plenty of arm to hit them. If you had any doubts, his go-route touchdown throw to Brown should have produced your answers.
Good news for the Buccaneers, the Lions and this same Falcons team are the only opponents left on their regular-season schedule. The Bucs could easily go on a nice mini-run offensively as they head into the postseason. And I’m willing to suspend my hesitations about this scoring unit while they dance with miserable defenses like those of Detroit and Atlanta.
Drew Brees’ early Week 15 showing
Drew Brees didn’t look great to start this week. The first half was rough. That’s okay. He looked like an older guy who was already limited and was now coming back from a multi-week absence thanks to a bevy of cracked ribs. That's what he is.
The longer the game went on, the more comfortable Brees looked. He seemed more at ease with the environment he was in while playing with a steadily depleting supporting cast. His passes were much more lively in the fourth quarter. His touchdown throw to Lil’Jordan Humphrey was just about perfectly placed.
Of course, a non-perfect outing from New Orleans’s offense was never going to be enough to beat the Chiefs. Even as their defense gave Kansas City some problems and played them tough, the Chiefs still put up 30-plus points. That’s what KC does. If you’re not going to outscore them, you’re sunk.
All of this isn’t much consolation to a New Orleans team that needed a win to stay within reach of the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoff picture. However, I’m not worried about Brees going forward. Once he was a little warmed up he looked like himself — or at least, all we can expect the 2020 version of Brees to be.