“It’s Draft Day. – Kevin Costner in the 2014 film, Draft Day.
Whether he actually said that in that movie, I’m not sure, but I do know that I promised another mock draft and I will deliver in the same way that the Giants surely will not tonight. REALLY quick hitters here; just calling the shots as I see them, and I don’t know any more about the teams’ plans than the people reading this. For some spots I’ll just write the mock pick, and I might include a line or two for others where I have not already written about the player this week or if the thought process deserves brief explanation. Please make sure to check out my deeper dives from earlier this week if you have not already:
San Francisco 49ers – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Yes, I heard the reports that San Fran has narrowed their decision to Mac Jones and Trey Lance. How a report like that would leak in the first place is totally beyond me, beyond me to the point that I’m inclined to think that the guy who has been “eliminated as an option” in this “last minute decision” is actually the pick. It definitely could be Lance, but until they read the card I refuse to believe that the 49ers gave up three first round picks for Jones.
Atlanta Falcons – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
I think the rumors that Atlanta would take a QB have been a bluff all along, and I don’t think any team would give up extra draft capital to get to Pick 4 when they can likely take the same QB at Pick 7. So Atlanta stays put for the most common choice as best player available after Trevor Lawrence, and Pitts would fit in nicely into Arthur Smith’s offense.
Cincinnati Bengals – Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
I expect the Chase vs. Sewell debate to end with Joe Burrow getting his way with his former LSU teammate. The Bengals do need another receiver on the outside, but how the franchise that drafted Anthony Munoz, Willie Anderson and Andrew Whitworth and witnessed Carson Palmer and Burrow suffer devastating knee injuries at the expense of their offensive lines could then pass on line here is tough to understand.
Miami Dolphins – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Miami would probably be pretty devastated in this scenario, because I figure they moved back up from 12 to 6 to land either Chase or Pitts. I fully endorsed the selection of Tua last year, but besides that this Dolphins regime has shown a head-scratching fondness for projects in the draft. Waddle isn’t objectively a project, but at sixth overall he would qualify as one.
*TRADE* New England Patriots – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
I would be pretty stunned if Detroit actually picks in this slot. They are at the earliest stage in a total rebuild and should look to accumulate as many picks as possible. The Patriots are on the other end of the phone, jumping into the same pick where Josh Allen was taken. New England could place their future on Lance having a similar effect by his third season.
Carolina Panthers – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Denver Broncos – Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
For how badly the Broncos need a long-term solution at quarterback, I don’t think the new regime in Denver will kick off their tenure by placing their reputation on the fifth QB off the board.
Dallas Cowboys – Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
There is just so much buzz around Horn, enough where I think he has supplanted Patrick Surtain II in the home stretch as the first cornerback off the board.
New York Giants – DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
Please, God. Please.
Philadelphia Eagles – Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
Eagles fans should hope that someone has communicated to Howie Roseman to do the exact opposite of what he has done in previous drafts. In that case, Surtain would make good sense.
Los Angeles Chargers – Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
Minnesota Vikings – Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
*TRADE* Detroit Lions – Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
Arizona Cardinals – Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami
Las Vegas Raiders – Christian Barmore, DT, Alabama
These Raiders love drafting from the blue bloods – Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State – and I think they might go back to the well. After big games in both rounds of the College Football Playoff, Barmore declared for the draft as a true sophomore. Barmore’s stock reminds me of Patrick Queen’s from last year, where in those spotlighted games they looked like can’t-miss prospects but when you look into the microscope for regular season tape you find a much different player. Barmore way too often is driven backwards right off the snap, especially in the run and sometimes against lower competition. Barmore isn’t an exceptional athlete like Quinnen Williams, but he was a productive pass rusher in his one season starting at Alabama with 8 sacks from the interior and has the size and burst to get on guards’ outside shoulders and wreck plays. It’s just that you see it in flashes when you’d like to see it with consistency.
*TRADE* Chicago Bears – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
I am going back and forth on whether Washington would take a QB if one fell to them at 19. My gut is that they would take Lance or Fields, but I’m not sure that Dan Snyder would unilaterally make the call for Jones after the Dwayne Haskins fiasco. I have the Bears jumping them just in case, because they definitely will take a QB if they can.
Washington Football Team – Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
*TRADE* Miami Dolphins – Jayson Oweh, EDGE, Penn State
I expect Oweh to go in the first round following what literally might have been the greatest pre-draft workout of all time, but of the 150+ players that I have evaluated over the last two years Oweh is my single least favorite relative to expected draft position. I would go nowhere near this guy over the first two rounds of the draft, and I’m not even worried about this aging poorly. There are freakish players without much college production who do figure it out in the NFL, but I saw it too often that Oweh lacks much discipline or competitive drive, and for a guy who ran a 4.37 I have no reason to believe based on tape that he could succeed without a hand in the ground. I was ready to look past the fact that he had no sacks in 7 games as a junior because sacks don’t tell the full story for EDGE, but in this case it basically does tell the story of Oweh’s level of disruption. I am looking for one specific on-field trait to justify taking a beast like Oweh with DK Metcalf’s regrettable draft slide in mind, but I’ve got nothing. Some teams will argue that he just needs more coaching and refinement, but after two full years at Penn State I just don’t think Oweh is a good football player.
Would I recommend drafting a running back without multiple pieces on the offensive line in place in order to reestablish the running game? No, no I would not. But alas, the Steelers are old school, and I can see them using their first pick on a tone setter in the backfield like Harris. I don’t have much to say about Harris besides that I think he’ll be perfectly solid running back? He’s obviously got the size, but he doesn’t run anything like Derrick Henry even if they were doppelgangers in their Alabama jerseys. Harris has good speed and good patience and good tackle-breaking ability – but none of it is great. He doesn’t really ever create something out of nothing, often leaving a few yards on the table either by nature of indecisiveness or a lack of creativity. Harris has reliable hands but I think his ability in the passing game has been overblown. At the end of the day, I think Harris can have a fairly long career of 800-1,000 yard rushing seasons. That’s a fine player, but it’s not a first rounder.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Joe Tryon, EDGE, Washington
Tryon was not included in my first mock draft or even my Top 50 board for that matter – I see him as a Round 3 type. His length is his defining trait, with tree trunks for arms that he consistently uses to push offensive tackles off balance. He’s strong too, and there is tape that he can penetrate the backfield against the run and overwhelm interior linemen on inside rushes. Tryon has almost no twitch though and way too many of his pass rush wins came by nature of size mismatches vs. Pac-12 tackles. At the moment, I see Tryon as a rotational pass rusher who requires major development with his hands and plan at attack. Granted, I am projecting a first round pick here, but Tryon really could have boosted his stock by playing in 2020.
Cleveland Browns – Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
Baltimore Ravens – Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
I could be off but I’m getting the sense that Ojulari might slip, and if so then any team that gets him around here is making one of the best picks of the draft.
New Orleans Saints – Greg Newsome, CB, Northwestern
Green Bay Packers – Jamin Davis, LB, Kentucky
Against my better judgment, I actually like Davis a little bit – he cracked my Top 50 board at No. 46. Just on paper, there is a lot not to like here, given that Davis is a one-year wonder inside linebacker who will be drafted highly largely on his tools over his production. If that sounds like an oddly specific player description, there is legitimately one of this type of player drafted highly basically every year and outside of Deion Jones I cannot think of an example of it working out. Still, I really enjoyed watching the juice that Davis plays with. “Sideline to sideline” gets thrown around too much but Davis really does fly all over the field, and he’s a decent tackler. He certainly has the speed to be a plus player in coverage, and his instincts in limited tape seem good too. There is just no getting around how undersized Davis is and how much it does show up taking on blockers. I like the way Davis plays and there is real upside but he is just so novice and it cannot be overstated how often players of his profile flame out in the NFL.
Buffalo Bills – Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Baltimore Ravens – Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami
I almost feel bad for Rousseau, because if he was somehow able to enter the 2020 NFL Draft following his redshirt freshman season then he likely would have been a Top 10 pick. Now, I honestly think I might be too generous projecting him in the first round, even at its final pick. Rousseau was second in the nation with 15.5 sacks that season, only behind Chase Young. If you are wondering if you can fake your way to 15.5 sacks in 13 games – you can. A staggering amount of Rousseau’s sacks and QB hits came by the way of mop up sacks, coverage sacks, or simply being in the right place at the right time. He rarely actually won his pass rush reps, which at 19 years old would have been understandable, but he’s also not a particularly good athlete for the position either. Rousseau isn’t explosive or quick at all, and he’s not too strong yet either. This will sound like a joke but I earnestly mean that his best skill is his height, which at 6’7 is a real strength that he knows how to utilize. Rousseau opted out of the 2020 season and just turned 21 this month so it’s certainly believable that there is projectable growth remaining for him, but that will require a deep roster since I really don’t know if you can put Rousseau on an NFL field as things stand.
Thank you all for reading. Follow along during the draft tonight on Twitter @Real_Peej for pick grades and pro comparisons!
I’m going to share two mock drafts this week leading into the draft. In this version, I am drafting based on what I would do in each spot. I’ll focus more on the players and my evaluations of them here, with the other mock draft flat out guessing what I think will happen based on team fit and expectations.
I really tried hard to go into this scouting cycle with a mentally clean slate, meaning that I watched Trevor Lawrence without the “chosen one” narrative that’s been on display for the last three years in the back of my mind. If anything, my unintentional bias could have been a bit negatively skewed since his last college game against Ohio State was far from his best performance. With all of that said, Lawrence came out of this with just about the highest grade I can give a quarterback. He was excellent for all three years at Clemson, consistently displaying his otherworldly talent and making incremental improvements each year. On top of that, his supporting cast at Clemson got significantly worse each year and I never felt that Clemson built the proper offensive scheme for Lawrence – but he just kept winning anyway. His arm talent is special, he runs well, and his processing is off the charts. Lawrence can trust his arm a little bit too much at times, and it is a scary combination when a skinny QB goes to an unstable situation by nature of the draft, but the hype around Lawrence is totally justified. He’s what you dream of picking first overall.
New York Jets – Zach Wilson, QB, BYU
If Lawrence is the cleanest QB prospect in this draft, then Wilson is the most tantalizing. By my estimation, Wilson was the best quarterback in the country in 2020 with his ability to attack downfield while remaining incredibly efficient. His play style is built for the highlight reel, yet in watching all of his games I was amazed by the frequency Wilson made jaw-dropping throws all over the field. While it is true that Wilson was afforded plenty of time behind BYU’s offensive line and that he faced an inconsistent strength of schedule, that does not provide the explanation on how Wilson truly is able to throw any receiver open (BYU had some slow ones!) anywhere on the field. Wilson shares the same concern as Lawrence with his skinnier frame, and the biggest on-field knock on Wilson is that he can be too quick to break the pocket to play out of structure. Still, I’m not too worried about it. His feet are so quick navigating the pocket and he keeps his head up while doing it. He officially weighed in at 215 pounds; on the smaller side, sure, but not unheard of. Physically, he looks so much like Aaron Rodgers when he came into the league. Speaking of Rodgers, that’s the type of realistic ceiling that we’re talking about with Wilson, and with a floor that I would contend is still a decent starting quarterback.
San Francisco 49ers – Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
Ok, I’m cheating on the exercise a bit here. Trey Lance is ranked above Fields on my board, and I do prefer Lance as a prospect to Fields. However, Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers present such a specific instance of a particular scheme matched with Super Bowl readiness that I see this as a coin flip decision between the two QBs, so I’ll lean in the direction of the one that I actually see them taking. The biggest selling point for Fields is that he is the most accurate passer in this class, whether standing still in the pocket or on the run. He is absolutely dynamite to the intermediate level of the field, which defines the best passing attacks across the NFL. Fields pairs that up with good arm strength, mobility, and toughness – so why has he become such a polarizing prospect with those traits and elite college production? Ohio State does run an offense with long-developing and receiver-friendly routes that can make Fields’ processing look worse than it is, but the truth of the matter is that Fields has troubling pocket tendencies and has been tripped up by different defensive looks from good opponents. There is no hiding from his performance against Northwestern, which was easily the worst game played among the Big 5 QB prospects in 2020. (The Indiana game wasn’t much better.) Now, there is laziness and some uglier factors at play when pundits chalk up Fields as a quarterback who can’t read the field. While I do have reservations about Fields, he is still a surefire lottery pick talent and potentially much more if he can consistently play like he did against Clemson.
*TRADE* Minnesota Vikings – Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
Fake trades!!! (This is the only one I will project.) There is a high likelihood that a team will trade into the Top 10 for a quarterback(s) that slips out of the first three picks, and the Falcons should want to move out of this spot with how incongruent their immediate team needs are with the high end of this prospect pool. That said, they should still want to leave this draft with a blue-chip prospect, so they probably would only entertain moving back 10 or so spots. Though not commonly discussed as a trade-up option, I have the Vikings as the winning bidders – and not just because Lance is a Minnesota kid. It has become apparently clear that the Vikings have a harsh limit on their team upside with Kirk Cousins’ contract, so instead of letting it expire and then bottoming out, they proactively nab the QB who could take them to places that Cousins has not and cannot. (If the Vikings situation sounds similar to you to the Falcons situation, I get that, but I personally prefer Matt Ryan to Cousins and think the Falcons could be good with him in the next 1-3 years. Plus they are the ones getting draft capital in this scenario.)
I am all-in on Lance being the real deal. He has the strongest arm in this draft – true “60 yard flick of the wrist” type of stuff. While comparably fast to Fields, Lance is the clear best runner of the QB prospects in this draft too with his bulk and shiftiness. The main thing though is that Lance’s poise is so impressive for his age (20 years old) and so much better than he gets credit for. Outside of Lawrence and maybe Mac Jones, nobody was entrusted to do more pre-play, line of scrimmage stuff than Lance in NDSU’s pro style offense. There is plenty of tape of him calling out coverages and changing protections before the snap, and don’t let anyone fool you that this is somehow less impressive because he played in the FCS. I do agree that Lance could stand to sit a year, but not necessarily because he couldn’t mentally handle starting in the NFL yet. I see it as more of a Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours thing where Lance just literally hasn’t thrown enough footballs yet with his age and NDSU’s run-heavy offense. With more experience, I think his accuracy will improve and Lance could be an All-Pro level quarterback.
Cincinnati Bengals – Penei Sewell, OT, Oregon
Sewell is my top non-QB in the entire draft class, and the Bengals should be honored if they have the chance to take him as Joe Burrow’s future blindside protector with the fifth pick in the draft. Sewell opted out of the 2020 season, but he was the best offensive lineman in the country as a true sophomore in 2019 in front of Justin Herbert. What is scarier? The fact that Sewell did not allow a sack the entire season when he was probably even better as a run blocker? The fact that Sewell still has a lot of room for improvement with his technique? Or the fact that he played that entire season at 19 years old? Sewell will STILL be 20 years old by Week 1 of the 2021 regular season, and he should plug in as a good left tackle right away with All-Pro potential while still on his rookie contract.
Miami Dolphins – DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama
The Dolphins obviously traded back into the Top 10 to leave this draft with an elite weapon, and in this scenario they leave with Tua Tagovailoa’s favorite college receiver. No, that is not a misprint: Smith was the best receiver on a 2019 Crimson Tide team that included first-round picks Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. Smith is an underrated athlete who thrives on the outside in the X receiver role, consistently working back to the ball as possibly the top “quarterback’s best friend” prospect ever. He also has the best catch radius of the top WR prospects in this draft, catching anything near him and over anybody with an uncanny ability to high-point the ball as if he was a half-foot taller than he actually is. Look, DeVonta weighing 170 pounds isn’t a good thing. It would basically be him and Marvin Harrison as the only #1 receivers to thrive in the NFL at that weight. But guess what? Not a lot of wide receivers won the Heisman Trophy either. Smith constantly mixed it up with bigger defenders and shook off big hits in the SEC, and I haven’t seen any actual evidence to support that he won’t do the same in the NFL.
Detroit Lions – Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
I push back on the claims that Chase is in the Calvin Johnson/Julio Jones class of receiver prospects. He quite simply isn’t as big as those guys, and I have slight concern that Chase could be immediately humbled by his “bully ball” style of play not working as well in the NFL. The optimal word there is “slight” though, because Chase is a badass and a freak athlete in his own right. He is a one-year wonder, but in that one year he was arguably better than teammate Justin Jefferson and then he backed up his athleticism by blowing the doors off his Pro Day. Chase is an elite downfield separator who claws for every ball thrown his way, and he should develop into a great YAC guy as he continues to progress with his routes and timing. He just turned 21 last month.
Carolina Panthers – Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida
I’m not sure what is more bleak: the recent history of first-round tight ends or the recent history of Florida as an NFL pipeline. The fact that Pitts is in the center of that Venn diagram yet still finds himself in the Top 10 of this mock draft speaks to his rare skill set. While he can admirably run routes split outside or in the slot, don’t let all of the pre-draft takes turn him into something that he is not: Kyle Pitts is a tight end. And that’s a good thing! Pitts improved by leaps and bounds as an inline blocker from his sophomore year to his junior year, and also still only 20 years old with around 10-15 pounds to gain, he should only get better in that department. Pitts is excellent at breaking off the line while using his bend – he looks like a defensive end and played the position in high school – to quickly match himself up against linebackers that don’t stand a chance covering him. Pitts has the longest wingspan I have ever seen and uses every inch of it to his advantage. The man vacuums footballs – he made some catches that looked D.O.A. out of the quarterback’s hand. I am not positive what Pitts’ NFL future holds in store, and I don’t necessarily see the non-existence of an accurate player comparison for him as a good thing. I would be surprised if Pitts has a Travis Kelce type of effect; he only averaged 4.5 receptions per game across his two full college seasons. But if healthy, Pitts should block well while routinely converting third downs and scoring 10+ touchdowns per season, and there would be massive value in that.
Owusu-Koramoah might be the most electric prospect in the entire draft. JOK flies around the field with some of the best closing speed you have seen since Troy Polamalu. He is instinctive as hell and can set the tone with his hitting, and he does that while usually aligning in the slot covering tight ends and receivers. JOK is definitely a tweener; he has the strength to hang as an off-ball LB in a traditional base but I think he would be best as a rangy strong safety. His play style can be a little too chaotic at times, but in Vic Fangio’s defense with multiple good defensive staples already in place his playmaking could be on full display.
Dallas Cowboys – Greg Newsome II, CB, Northwestern
I am going out on a ledge with this one and my evaluation as Newsome as the best cornerback prospect in this draft. Outside of Trevor Lawrence, there isn’t another prospect where I took note of less flaws. Newsome does have an injury history, though nothing there is recurring. He doesn’t have much tape in press coverage but besides that, like I guess I wish he converted more of his pass breakups into interceptions? Newsome is scheme versatile, extremely quick with good physicality, and is constantly around the ball while traveling with the other teams’ top receivers. There wasn’t any point of his (admittedly limited) 2020 season where he looked overmatched, and get this: he is also 20 years old! Newsome’s Pro Day put people on notice for his natural explosiveness and athleticism. The adjustment curve for rookie cornerbacks can be steep, but I see Newsome as a Pro Bowl caliber pro down the road.
New York Giants – Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
I disagree with the narrative that the EDGE class in this draft is subpar, and a big reason behind that is that I see Ojulari as a legit EDGE1 prospect. He had excellent production in the SEC and against some of the best tackles in the country, with 9.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles in 10 games with a ton of pressure not reflected in those stats. And guess how old he was doing that? 20 years old! I’m aware that these below-drinking-age prospects are becoming a running joke in this blog, but in Ojulari’s case I find it especially important. Ojulari’s hand usage and arsenal of pass rush moves would be advanced for a redshirt senior, let alone a redshirt sophomore. He also has already put on 10 pounds from his 2020 playing weight, which at 240 pounds presented his biggest draft concern, and I think he can tack on 5-10 more pounds without losing his burst and bend. Ojulari has freaky arm length and play strength way better than his weight would suggest. Just watch the Alabama game: forget pancakes, those monsters barely even budged him. Ojulari is a pure three-down OLB in a 3-4 scheme, with a predictable future of setting a good edge with respectable flat coverage all while posting 8-12 sacks annually with near league-leading pressure rates.
Philadelphia Eagles – Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama
After three years of starting in Nick Saban’s defense, including a 2020 season where he might have been the best defensive player in the country, Surtain enters this draft as arguably its safest prospect. He has great size to go along with explosive measurables, on top of having All-Pro cornerback play born and raised into him. In a position that is generally brutal on rookies, Surtain should admirably hold down his side of the field from Week 1. (He can play the slot too.) There is obvious comfort for his drafting team in this level of safety and NFL readiness, but I also interpret that as somewhat of a weakness for Surtain too. He leaves college as only a true junior, but I’m not sure how much room left for growth there is for Surtain. Even his relatively average 40 time in this workout cycle of 4.46 seconds feels generous for Surtain – he doesn’t play all that fast. His level of physicality also too often doesn’t match up with his physical gifts. Still, Surtain is as smooth and technically sound as it gets for a cornerback prospect. Maybe he won’t be a great pro, but he definitely should be a good one.
Los Angeles Chargers – Rashawn Slater, OT/OG, Northwestern
I find myself a tad lower on Slater than most; there might not be a prospect who benefited more from all of us just sitting around the house watching old game tape. Slater had an excellent 2019 season on a bad Northwestern team, even if his performance against Chase Young was pretty comicably overblown. Slater has proven that he can play tackle on both sides of the line with impeccable footwork and timing. He opted out of the 2020 season, and while that decision will likely turn out fine for him, it would have gone a long way to see some more footage of him locking down the blindside again on a better roster. Slater is quick and stout – he resembles Tristan Wirfs – and might mirror pass rushers better than anyone in this draft class. Still, he lacks Wirfs’ raw power and that combined with a real lack of length could be a detrimental combination. For that reason, while I generally hate projecting good offensive tackles to guards until they get a chance to play tackle, Slater really might end up more valuable at guard. I see versatile reliability as Slater’s defining quality over upside at any specific position on the line though, which would be a welcome addition for the Chargers.
*TRADE* Atlanta Falcons – Jaelan Phillips, EDGE, Miami
This would be a fantastic trade-down outcome for the Falcons, because Phillips has the talent and production to justify going as high as fourth overall yet Atlanta still hypothetically lands him here. Phillips’ concussion history might be the defining red flag of this NFL Draft; they were so severe during his time at UCLA that they forced him into medical retirement. There’s no getting around it being a concern, but I’m not here to pretend to be an online neurosurgeon. If the University of Miami and NFL doctors cleared him, then I am going to treat Phillips as a normal prospect. And as a normal prospect, Phillips – the former top high school recruit in the country – brings plus-plus traits to the edge. He was a terror at the U, dominating right tackles with twitchiness, length and power. Phillips is a pure pass rusher and a bit of a one-year wonder at that, but he has Jevon Kearse levels of potential to pace the league in sacks as a rookie.
New England Patriots – Rashod Bateman, WR, Minnesota
A few of the internet’s most famous draft boards have joined the lovefest for Bateman – maybe not as a Top 10 player like mine! – but it’s a welcome sight after feeling like I was missing something for seeing Bateman as a future WR1 when I first watched his tape back in February. Clearly I have other players, including two receivers, ranked in front of Bateman, but his elite production at Minnesota happened by nature of the traits belonging to the current top tier of NFL receivers. Bateman’s releases are intentional and consistently dominant, whether he’s patient breaking inside or blowing past cornerbacks off the line of scrimmage, and he couples up a long reach with excellent hands. Bateman’s Pro Day was…weird. I don’t buy that he’s actually a 4.39 speed guy, but he also plays much taller than 6’0 and much stronger than 190 pounds. However Bateman actually does measure out in the NFL, I’d bet that he amounts to a receiver with 100+ reception/season promise.
Arizona Cardinals – Alijah Vera-Tucker, OG, USC
Alijah Vera-Tucker played left tackle for USC last year, and for the most part he played it quite well. (Not so much vs. Oregon and future Top 10 pick Kayvon Thibodeaux.) Still, I am directly projecting AVT to guard, and I imagine that most if not all NFL teams will do the same. He was awesome at guard as a sophomore while 2020 first rounder Austin Jackson played tackle – much more awesome than Jackson in fact. AVT isn’t particularly long or fast which is what kicks him inside, but he centers his attack with strong hands and only gets better as he moves forward into the second level of the defense. He can occasionally get knocked backwards right off the snap, but Vera-Tucker is young and has already shown improvement in balance. I foresee him continuing that improvement, possibly all the way up to an All-Pro level at guard.
Las Vegas Raiders – Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
Cosmi is one of my favorite players in this draft. Even as a major defender of his, I can acknowledge that the linemen in front of him and a few ranked behind him will bring their drafting teams higher levels of technical readiness in Year 1. Cosmi’s rookie year might come with its challenges for that reason, but this kid is tough as nails and freakishly athletic for the position. He showed marked improvement from his sophomore to junior year, and I would bank that he has plenty of room left for growth in the pros too if his team provides him with the proper amount of patience. I don’t even think it will take too long; Cosmi was pretty damn good in 2020 and showed up against his toughest opponents. I’m not too sure what the Raiders are doing but Cosmi could develop into a Pro Bowl tackle for them.
Miami Dolphins – Micah Parsons, LB, Penn State
I am not particularly high on Parsons, and that’s not even with consideration to his legitimately troubling character and maturity concerns. For the level of hype that Parsons is bringing into this draft, I was really surprised by how raw of a player he still is. Parsons is a great clean-up tackler when he stays patient, but far too often he finds himself overshooting gaps or taking bad angles and diving at the feet of ball carriers. He also is close to entirely untested in coverage, and the recent history of specimen linebacker prospects with coverage questions is…not good. Still, Parsons truly does bring along some of the rarest burst you’ll ever see from a linebacker, and I think Brian Flores would have a few ideas for what to do with it. Whether he’s blitzing off the edge or shooting a gap, you can blink and miss Parsons ending up in the backfield. He’s a playmaker in the mold of Devin White which naturally all front offices will covet now, but just be ready for the real chance that the complexity of the NFL overwhelms Parsons – if he can keep his head on straight enough in the first place.
Washington Football Team – Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa
Despite winning the Bednarik Award as the best defensive player in college football in 2020, Collins won’t be for everyone at a first round value strictly due to how unique of a prospect he is. Collins is a 270 pound linebacker who can hang around the line of scrimmage with his speed and bend but is much better playing off-ball as an inside linebacker. Don’t let Tulsa’s non-Power 5 status fool you; he was utterly dominant against better competition than you might expect. He has the best eyes of any linebacker that you will see coming out of college, naturally moving in step with quarterbacks without missing anything around him. At 6’5, he is constantly disrupting passing lanes too. Collins is pretty stiff and his upright play style can work against him versus the run, but he’s a good tackler with good pursuit. Still, instincts and coverage ability are the story with Collins. The Football Team doesn’t need more help getting after quarterbacks, and Collins would regularly find himself in the right place at the right time to capitalize on pressure-forced QB mistakes.
Chicago Bears – Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Waddle will in all likelihood get picked higher than this, yet this is basically the highest that I would consider drafting him. I have a late first-round grade on Waddle, but his speed and acceleration could wake up a Bears offense that has been asleep for years and only addressed so far this offseason by adding…Andy Dalton. Love or hate Waddle as a prospect, there is no doubt that the kid can absolutely fly. You have to respect his speed with deep coverage whenever he is on the field, and once he has the ball in his hands…watch out. That’s the thing, though. I think people are underestimating how difficult it might be to regularly get the ball into Waddle’s hands. He can sell double moves and run underneath routes, but Waddle has a ways to go in understanding the nuances of the receiver position. He is also really undersized, coming off a major injury, and it should not be ignored that he was the odd man out on the 2019 Alabama team with a healthy DeVonta/Jeudy/Ruggs corps – who are all about the same age as Waddle. Using a first round pick on Waddle is a major dice roll, with a floor about as low as it gets and the realistic ceiling of a 1,000 yard deep threat/slot hybrid who can also return kicks and punts.
Indianapolis Colts – Joseph Ossai, EDGE, Texas
Ossai probably ends up as a Round 2 player, but I’m a fan of his and he’s the type of player that Indy could covet – and I mean that as a huge compliment. Ossai was very good as a sophomore at Texas as an off-ball linebacker – he intercepted Joe Burrow and his bowl game performance against Utah was the stuff of legend. At 6’4 and 255 pounds with long arms he switched positions to EDGE, and guess what? He was very good there too, as in AP All-American good. Ossai might be the most explosive rusher in this draft, constantly fighting his way into the backfield whether it’s defending the pass or run. He plays with one of the best motors in this draft, and his obsession with the game is apparent just watching his tape. He still has a ways to go towards becoming a consistent pass rusher. He could stand to play with more leverage and develop some moves – Teven Jenkins rudely reminded him of that on a few plays. But Ossai also straight up beat Jenkins, a likely first rounder, on multiple reps too, including a game-icing overtime sack against Oklahoma State. Considering he did that at 20 years old – he just turned 21 this month – and Ossai is one of the first “project” types that I’d bang the table for adding to a good roster with a 2-3 year leash for him to develop into a potential star.
Tennessee Titans – Jaycee Horn, CB, South Carolina
This would be a home run for the Titans, and I say that with a grade on Horn lower than the consensus. Horn could go within the Top 10 on the back of his strong true junior season in the SEC followed up by a Pro Day with a 4.39 40 and insane jumping drills. I’m not surprised by Horn’s popularity. He has the size and speed to cover anyone and the on-field evidence to back it up, whether it’s a 6’4 receiver on the outside or a 5’9 receiver in the slot. He is a pure man coverage corner, getting his hands on receivers at the split second that he is legally allowed to. (I would put money on Horn leading the NFL in flags at least once in his career.) Horn is more fast in breaks than quick to flip his hips, and you don’t have to look much past his tape covering DeVonta Smith to worry about how he currently handles NFL caliber releases. And like I mentioned, you would basically be starting from scratch with him in zone schemes. I fear that Horn is going to have real growing pains early on in the league, but if his drafting team is patient enough with him then I have faith that Horn has the competitive streak and skill set to have a long career playing on the outside.
New York Jets – Creed Humphrey, OC, Oklahoma
Ask me if I love the idea of drafting your quarterback and center of the future in tandem? I LOVE the idea of drafting your quarterback and center of the future in tandem. There aren’t five players in this draft that I have more confidence in them blossoming into good pros over Humphrey. He spent each of the past two seasons as one of the best offensive linemen in the Big 12 snapping the ball to Jalen Hurts and Spencer Rattler, with a keen sense of positioning paired up with an appropriately nasty play style. Humphrey also might be the best athlete specific to his position in this entire draft, which his 10.0/10.0 Relative Athletic Score backs up. There is some concern about Humphrey’s susceptibility to letting strong defensive tackles get underneath him, which is possibly the biggest dealbreaker for a center, but personally I find that in the realm of nitpicking. The real question here is if taking a center with the 23rd overall pick is justified, which I would answer with “hell yes” when you are drafting a rookie quarterback and have as dismal of an interior offensive line as the Jets.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech
This will probably go down as my least favorite pick of this mock draft, given that Darrisaw is No. 32 on my board with two tackles ranked ahead of him still available. Still, both of those tackles (Liam Eichenberg and Teven Jenkins) have length questions that will likely keep them on the right side or kicked inside to guard. Darrisaw, on the other hand, has the textbook left tackle frame. He was a very good one at that in college, capping off his time at Virginia Tech with a dominant 2020 season from a grading perspective. Still, I’m pretty low on Darrisaw. He shouldn’t have any issue continuing to punch defenders into the dirt at will, but he was more unproven in pass protection than his high snap count would indicate in Virginia Tech’s quick release offense. He typically got by on his sheer size instead of his hands or feet, and his motor is pretty suspect. I don’t typically like drafting for immediate need, but I have never heard of the guy slated to start at left tackle for the Steelers and this aged Big Ben will need all of the time he can get.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU
This is another case of a player getting mocked in just about the highest slot that I would be comfortable taking him, but in Moehrig’s case I have more confidence that he’ll at least be a solid contributor. And safety, possibly the Jags’ biggest positional need after quarterback, is a rough draft group this year, with Moehrig as the fairly clear top option in my opinion (not counting Owusu-Koromoah). Moehrig was incredibly productive in his two full seasons in the Horned Frogs defense, raising his play from All- Big 12 as a sophomore to the Thorpe Award winner (nation’s best DB) as a junior. His ball skills are tremendous, consistently taking advantage of quarterbacks staring down receivers with a good knack for timely pass breakups. Moehrig, while projecting as an average athlete for a starting NFL safety, has good length and quickness, even if his habit of baiting QBs into bad decisions won’t work nearly as well in the NFL as it did in the Big 12. I have concerns for Moehrig as a tackler because of his wiry build and inconsistent angles, and he certainly won’t remind anyone of Brian Dawkins with his ferocity or Earl Thomas with his range. But in this new era of safety play where Justin Simmons and Jessie Bates are among the league’s best by being able to play in two-high zone sets or man up near the line of scrimmage, Moehrig fits that bill.
Cleveland Browns – Kwity Paye, EDGE, Michigan
Paye is a good player, but a misunderstood one at that. He is commonly discussed as this raw and versatile edge rusher, but I’m pretty sure we already have a good sense of his skill set and that he is clearly a 4-3 defensive end. Paye is incredibly gifted: he placed in the top spot of Bruce Feldman’s freak list, and he made a play against Minnesota when he tackled a running back from the opposite side of the field behind the line of scrimmage on a simple outside zone run that was one of the most absurd that I witnessed in this entire film process. But if I’m being honest, I don’t think anyone would be talking about him as a project if he had a typical football backstory. The guy has been starting at Michigan since 2018, and that program has since graduated Chase Winovich and Rashan Gary into the NFL. Quite frankly, I just don’t think Paye is a very good pass rusher. He shows flashes of excellence, but too often he doesn’t have a plan off the line. Still, I have Paye as the best run defending edge in this class, and that’s not exactly a consolation prize. Paye shouldn’t ever have to come off the field, and playing on a line opposite a rusher like Myles Garrett would be perfect for a player like Paye who sets a hard edge and is never knocked over.
Baltimore Ravens – Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
As the best run blocker – non-Sewell division – in this draft, Jenkins going to Baltimore with one of their now two late first-round picks would be an awesome fit if he makes it that far. Jenkins is freaking mean, playing well beyond the whistle and injecting a real sense of attitude whenever he is on the field. Naturally there is concern when a college player has his true breakout season as a redshirt senior, but Jenkins has gotten out ahead of proving the naysayers wrong with an incredibly athletic display at his Pro Day. Jenkins is so strong and generates a lot of power with his legs – don’t be surprised when he flattens a nose tackle. But for a player of his size and strength, he ends up on the ground himself quite a bit, and his lack of length showed up as a problem at times. Maybe Jenkins could be a decent right tackle anywhere, but his best chance to reach his ceiling is clearly in a power run-heavy offense.
New Orleans Saints – Mac Jones, QB, Alabama
Alright, here we go. The boy wonder of the draft cycle, the hype train himself: McCorkle Jones. Let’s start with the good. Jones isn’t in the conversation for the third overall pick because he won the national championship with some of the best single-season QB stats ever; it’s because he follows instruction on what to do and where to go with the football every down. He always gets the ball out on time, even when his first read isn’t immediately open or when he has to move around the pocket or take a hit. His one year leading the Tide offense lends at least some credence to the talking point that he’s the smartest QB prospect in this draft, even if I wholeheartedly reject how we ended up there and how we use certain adjectives to describe certain QB prospects. Jones displayed good short and intermediate accuracy as well.
Yeah, I’m going two paragraphs, because we really need to talk about Mac Jones. To put it bluntly with his traits, he is straight up a bad athlete with a bad body and a bad arm. It didn’t happen often in Alabama’s perfect surroundings, but the few times when something broke down and Jones had to make an athletic adjustment, he looked completely undraftable. Now, I know some of the NFL’s greatest quarterbacks thrived playing in structure, but you want to take a guy in the first round who can do something outside of it. Do we have any reason to believe Jones can throw on the run, like at all? I need to drop at least one more line on his arm too, because it is astonishing how much talk there is around Jones and how little talk there is about his noodle. He’s really gotta load it up to throw with even NFL-average zip, and his good-on-paper deep ball stats are as fluky as it gets. He’s not going to have guys having already won their go routes at 10-15 yards in the NFL, and not being able to reach the sideline won’t work in the NFL either without first round receivers bailing him out against Mississippi State and Missouri on balls underthrown by 5+ yards inside. I’ll acknowledge that Jones was a 22 year old one-year wonder and that his “unreplicable” stats were basically repeated identically by Tua in 2019, and then I’ll stop there. Clearly I have major doubts on Jones, and I don’t buy for a second that he has a high floor. It is certainly the lowest of the five likely first round QBs to me – I’m talking (on-field) Dwayne Haskins level. But still, if he makes it this far to an offensive guru like Sean Payton, then yeah I’m fine with this pick with the first paragraph here in mind.
Green Bay Packers – Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame
Not to oversimplify or be overdramatic here, but I genuinely do think the Packers would be at Pick 32 if they took a wide receiver in the first round last year instead of a backup quarterback. Sorry, I am focusing on the players here, but I just had to sneak that in. Anyway, Eichenberg isn’t a receiver either, but this would be an excellent pick for the Packers. Notre Dame’s offensive line has led to probably the best positional NFL pipeline over the last decade, producing Quenton Nelson, Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey. While Eichenberg might not reach that echelon, I would bet that he has a good enough career at least warrant mention. As a redshirt senior who has probably played more snaps and in more big games – in which he played well – than any other top tackle in this class, Eichenberg knows who he is as an offensive tackle. He makes up for his short arms and slighter frame by quickly attacking in space and locking into edge rushers. He’s deceptively strong, and while the length issue is probably too real to ignore at left tackle I think he can prove people wrong by surviving at right tackle. He might not wow you, but Eichenberg is also the type of player that you don’t think about once all game, which is probably what you’re looking for with a late first-round offensive lineman.
Buffalo Bills – Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
So, I hate running backs, and I REALLY hate first-round running backs…but man I love Travis Etienne. His acceleration is good enough to get you to stop what you are doing to watch Etienne run the football. If there is a window of daylight between the tackles, Etienne is going 0-to-60 through it in a flash. He is a willing north/south runner with home run ability, and he has already bulked up enough to assuage fears that he couldn’t take the NFL beating. Etienne’s legs are so strong, allowing him to do that thing that Alvin Kamara does where he doesn’t really make a move but defenders just bounce off him anyway. Etienne has also grown from a non-factor in the passing game (12 receptions in 15 games as a sophomore) to arguably the best receiver (588 yards in 12 games as a senior) among the backs near the top of this class. He doesn’t pack Saquon Barkley’s raw athleticism and people might notice that his yards/carry dwindled from 8.1 to 7.8 to 5.4 over his three starting seasons at Clemson, but he became a more complete running back over that time as Clemson lost its offensive mojo around him and Trevor Lawrence. So yeah, I really like Etienne – I am recommending that a team takes a running back in the first round for god’s sake.
Baltimore Ravens – Terrace Marshall Jr, WR, LSU
I have a pretty firm second round grade on Marshall, but I also have watched 2+ years of Ravens games where Lamar Jackson doesn’t have any receiver over 6’0 to target so this would work! Marshall was a five-star recruit out of high school who posted two productive seasons at LSU, as the third option on the 2019 national championship team then as the go-to receiver last year before opting out. At 6’3, Marshall is the only tall receiver that will receive attention in the first two rounds of this draft. Marshall is only 20 years old but he already knows how to use his height to his advantage and has real spectacular catch ability. He has legit inside/outside versatility too, but I’m skeptical on how ball dominant he can be at the next level. Marshall is skinny and really does not play strong, so while he can certainly create mismatches the NFL’s best cover guys might eat him alive. Still, at a minimum I like Marshall as a gangly deep threat, and maybe with some more muscle in the right system he can evolve into a higher-volume version of one in the mold of Kenny Golladay.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
If not for concerns over a recent back surgery – not the first for Farley – then there would be zero chance of him slipping this far. It might not happen anyway, given that outside of maybe Kyle Pitts there isn’t a better size/speed combo guy with first round production in this entire draft. Farley has the look of Richard Sherman and could have actually clocked a 4.3 40 at the combine in a normal year. He is at his best when the ball is in the air, with incredible closing speed followed by a natural feel for ball tracking. Back injury aside, I didn’t see Farley as the clear-cut CB1 on tape though. Farley can too often rely on his physical gifts and get nonchalant, either losing sight of his man or letting guys get behind him to where even he can’t catch up – Chase Claypool made him pay for both. He is good in press when he gets his hands on receivers at the line, but it doesn’t happen as much as you’d like. I’m not sure what scheme fit would be best for Farley’s NFL future. He feels too gifted to not play in man, but with his back, inconsistent physicality, and a pre-play stance where he looks more like a safety than corner, maybe something zone heavy could end up better for his long-term prospects. Regardless, the Bucs have the secondary depth and roster strength to pick Farley’s upside and figure that out later.
Allow me to be the first to tell you that the 2020-2021 MLB free agency period is underway! No, seriously, like teams can start adding good players right now, but this offseason is frozen over. Baseball writers have boy-that-cried-wolf’d slow offseasons for a couple of straight years now just because overrated free agents didn’t get irresponsible contracts like it was 2005, but this time it’s actually bad – and for good reason with the reported billions with a B lost dollars across the league as a result of the pandemic.
Still, if you’re a bored baseball fun looking for a silver lining – beyond the Royals signing Michael A Taylor!!! – this dormant market has provided me with the time to brain dump all of the daily thoughts that I have about Yankees contractual matters. You know, normal people stuff. I did this exercise two years ago and not only had a lot of fun in the process, but it’s pretty sweet to be able to go back to a timestamped blog and say “no I REALLY was on record that the Yankees shouldn’t bring back JA Happ.”
Only a couple of ground rules:
1. The Yankees salary intentions for 2021 haven’t been put out into the open for fans, but Hal Steinbrenner has made it well known that the team took a financial beating last year. “Luxury tax threshold” has been the most oft spoken three-word phrase by Yankees execs since “Chien Ming Wang,” and actually for understandable reasons for the first time ever heading into 2021. This blog will not serve as a defense for billionaires or near billionaires, but after diving face first into the red just to lose again before the World Series and finally getting Jacoby Ellsbury off the books, I get it. So we’re not going to hypothetically commit the Yankees to owe more than the 2021 threshold of $210 million. According to this calculation by Mike Axisa, which just about falls in line with other sources, the Yanks have about $172 million counting towards the tax following arbitration projections. So, to play it safe and give the Yankees a bit of breathing room going into the season, we have $35 million to play with.
2. We are building a 26 man Opening Day roster, because I think that’s the size now? So weird that teams are setting rosters for 2021 without knowing the most basic of rules for the 2021 season. And for anyone new who comes onto the roster, somebody has to come off the 40 man roster. The Yankees have 39 players currently on the roster, but consider two spots open since Luis Severino is expected to be placed on the 60 day IL prior to the season.
3. This blog is not written by a Mike Francesa radio caller. “He wants to win” is not a reasonable defense for a player taking a below-market contract to play for the Yankees. And for any trades, I would have to want to accept the trade on the other side of the table too. Apologies if you had hopes of getting Nolan Arenado for Tyler Wade.
So, here we go. It’s as self-explanatory as it sounds. Just imagine that Brian Cashman is open to consulting from 27 year old dudes with Bachelors of Arts degrees in Political Science writing this blog in basement studios on a 2010 MacBook Pro. I’ll list out my proposed moves with a couple of back-up options that I like included, and mention towards the end of the blog some non-recommended and unlikely moves for the Yanks.
BRING HIM HOME: DJ LeMahieu for 5 years/$80 million ($16 AAV)
They have to figure this out, right? Right?!?! The Yankees surprise signed LeMahieu on a 2 year/$24 million deal before the 2019 season with plans for him to serve as a super utility infielder, only for him to rapidly become the best player on the team. And that’s the best player on two really good teams, if the 4th place MVP finish in 2019 and 3rd place finish in 2020 didn’t give that away.
So with that said…why am I proposing that the Yankees can bring back DJLM on the same deal that Dexter Fowler got from the Cardinals? For starters, I’ll call out the obvious here for the last time: deals will likely be lower in value this offseason across the board. But pandemic finances aside, DJLM has some things working against him:
1. He’s turning 33 next season, which is awfully old for a player expecting a five-year deal. Even if you are the most optimistic investor, you have to acknowledge that those last two years or so could be pretty tough.
2. LeMahieu is a three-time Gold Glove award winner who was arguably the best defender at his position as recently as 2018. But his defense showed cracks in 2020, with negative advanced metrics for the first time in years. I do think that narrative is a bit overblown and that LeMahieu can admirably play second base for at least two more years, but there’s almost no way around the idea that you’re buying into a first baseman for the back half of this contract.
3. Last note, and it’s the biggest one. LeMahieu was straight up not a very good player over his 7 years in Colorado. His individual hardware and then-outlier 2016 season in which he won the NL batting title propped up what was largely a near replacement level run. That 2016 season was his only season with a wRC+ over 100, meaning that he measured out as a below league average hitter for 6 of those 7 seasons. Brian Cashman was smart to see something in DJLM with his opposite field stroke and then career-high 15 homers in 2018, but this is the same guy who hit 34 homers across his first 6 seasons as a Rockie combined. There has to be real fear among GMs that they’d be putting their necks on the line for a player who could revert back to his Colorado self outside of Yankee Stadium.
Those reasons are good and all…but nah. Like, am I going crazy that I have to call attention to how good LeMahieu has been over the past two seasons? He was thoroughly elite in 2019 with a .327/.375/.518 slash line accompanied by an elite strikeout rate and good defense. If there were to have been buyers’ beware after that breakout season, fine. But then in 2020, LeMahieu was even better. Like…way better. He led the league in batting average, OPS, and placed in the 100% percentile in strikeout rate. (More on the strikeout piece throughout this entire blog.) Those are like three entirely different aspects of a batting profile, and LeMahieu was THE best in the league at all of them. He stands out in such a positive way within the current structure of the Yankees lineup, and it just seems like it would be a mutual mistake to not come to terms on DJ as the leadoff man in pinstripes for 2021 and beyond.
Rumors have it that LeMahieu is asking for 5 years/$100 million, which, honestly, good for him. That is beyond fair given his performance in New York and the recent contracts received by All Star caliber players around his age. Still, baseball writers who get paid to project this kind of stuff have those demands by the LeMahieu camp in the bonkers category. The FanGraphs crowd source results, a good place to gauge the thoughts of the baseball community, have him getting 3 years/$42 million! Personally, I think the final deal that DJLM actually receives is closer to his ask. I just have an impossible time believing that outside of New York there isn’t one other front office thinking “uhhhhh why isn’t this guy getting WAY more money?” LeMahieu profiles well over time with his bat, so I think the Yankees would reluctantly but not in tears give him the fifth year that he’s asking for in exchange for some less money per year.
OTHER GOOD OPTIONS
If you are like me in the boat of “LeMahieu or bust” this offseason, then you better pray that the Yankees aren’t feeling really cheap, because the secondary middle infielder market this offseason is actually quite good. Notice how I wrote middle infielder instead of second baseman. Gleyber Torres is awesome, but how do I put this…he has sucked defensively at shortstop. While his ability there might not chalk up to his disastrous 2020 defensive performance, I think it’s pretty clear that the team would be better off with him at second base in the long run. I know I say that while also saying that we should sign DJLM long term, but to me that’s a “figure it out later” thing. Point is, shortstops are on the table for the Yankees in 2021 too.
Man…I want LeMahieu back with the Yanks so badly, but if some other team pulls a 2014 Robinson Cano on us, then Wong could seriously be a perfect fallback plan. Wong has pretty clearly become the best defensive second baseman in baseball in recent years, as evidenced by his three straight Fielding Bible awards. On top of that, Wong is one of the league’s more disciplined hitters, coupling up an above average walk rate with an elite strikeout rate. So then, why did the Cardinals decline his club option? Well, good question. But the actual answer is that he’s already 30 years old and has shown to be an average hitter at best. There are very few regular pros who hit the ball less hard than Wong. Still, I don’t think he’s a total wash with that bat. Wong is a talented player, a former first rounder and top prospect, and he already has three seasons with 11+ homers under his belt. Now, that’s not a particularly impressive number, but with his approach I could easily see that number doubling playing half of his games in Yankee Stadium. I generally hate projecting success for lefties as Yankees just for the sake of them being lefties hitting towards a short outfield porch, but there are major 2016-2018 Didi Gregorious vibes here.
Speaking of the Sir! The Yankees and Didi had a heartbreaking but unfortunately understandable breakup last offseason, and I think just about every Yankee fan was happy to see Didi reassert his value following the complications of Tommy John surgery with an awesome 2020 season for the Phillies. Now, the same drawbacks that Didi had with the Yankees still persist: he doesn’t hit the ball hard or walk a lot, and a new development is that his defense at shortstop has shown some cracks. Still, Didi is an elite contact hitter with pop to the pull field, and at 30 years old and finally back to full health I’m not ready to pronounce him dead as a shortstop. Plus, Didi is just the best. If we miss on DJLM, reuniting the Didi/Gleyber double play combo on say a two-year deal with a third-year option would be sweet.
Tommy La Stella
As an analytically inclined baseball philosopher, it’s probably surprising to not see La Stella as my top backup plan to LeMahieu. The man is a BB:K ratio GOD. In 2020, there were only 7 qualified hitters who walked more than they struck out. Numbers 3-7 were within the range of a 1.08-1.23 ratio, with Juan Soto a distant second place at 1.46. But then there’s Tommy La Stella at 2.25! Nobody is rivaling this guy’s eye at the plate right now, and he’s even got a little bit of pop to go along with it. I like La Stella as a free agent, especially now that he’s produced across three different teams recently. But he’s another guy who has never hit the ball hard, and even though he can play all over the infield, he’s not particularly good defensively anywhere. I just think he’s probably a better fit with a team like Oakland that will really capitalize on his versatility.
Simmons is, without a doubt, the preeminent defensive baseball player of the 2010s. If you have any doubts on that claim, since his debut in 2012, he leads all players with 191 defensive runs saved. Next up is Nolan Arenado with…120. Andrelton is nearly lapping the field. The glove is what you’re buying with Andrelton, even though he also comes along with absolutely elite strikeout rates at the plate. But in 2020, Andrelton not only wasn’t a wizard defensively…he was kinda bad. It’s a bummer as a baseball fan to see him hit free agency now and miss out on a lot of money, especially with practically every relevant shortstop in baseball set to hit free agency over the next two years. Still, despite finishing in the 20th percentile of defensive outs above average in 2020, this is the same guy who was in the 99th percentile in 2019. Even if you buy into the aging curve with Simmons, he’s likely at a minimum somewhere in between those 20/99 percentiles defensively. If he can hit at an average level like he did every year from 2017-2020 save 2019, then some team will likely get him on an absolute bargain of a multi-year deal.
Enrique “Kike” Hernandez
I’ll be brief here: Kike is just an awesome player to watch. He’s been a chess piece for Dave Roberts and is actually really good at second base. At only 29 years old and with a 21 homer, 3.2 WAR season under his belt in a part-time role, some team out there is probably willing to give him starter money. This kinda screams a Marwin Gonzalez situation where you buy a versatile player from a contender only to see him immediately suck in new surroundings, but Kike was so solid and fun in LA that I would blame no team for taking the chance. But still, going back to the Dodgers would probably make the most sense for both parties.
TO-NAKA? OR NOT TO-NAKA? Masahiro Tanaka for 4 years/$50 million ($12.5 AAV)
Somehow, Masahiro Tanaka has played out the seven-year deal that the Yankees gave him to bring him stateside, and he hits free agency with a far more complicated legacy amongst Yankee fans than he deserves. What Tanaka does deserve is universal respect and appreciation, even if he mostly wasn’t the ace that he was in Japan and flashed over his first three years in New York. On top of being an excellent playoff performer outside of his 2020 blip – 3.33 ERA and 0.98 WHIP in 10 starts – Tanaka has brought a nearly impossible-to-find level of reliability to the Yankees. Since his MLB debut in 2014, Tanaka is one of only six starters to make 20+ starts with a 2.0+ WAR each season from 2014-2019 with similar stats on pace for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season: Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, and Tanaka. Not bad company.
Now, Tanaka isn’t nearly as good as those guys, but he does find himself as the consensus runner-up for the best starting pitcher on the free agent market behind Trevor Bauer. He’s an elite control pitcher with a walk rate that has never risen above 5.5%, and durability concerns should mostly be behind him now that he’s pitched a couple of full seasons with his partially torn UCL without any real issues. So why just a 4 year/$50 million projection then? Every team always needs starting pitching and it’s especially enticing when you don’t have to give up assets to get one, but Tanaka doesn’t exactly come along with the upside that you would typically find with the second best starter on the market – let alone even the third or fourth. Like, Tanaka is hitting free agency with better stats than Zack Wheeler when he did last year, but Wheeler’s contract will likely double what Tanaka ends up getting because there were real underlying signs of an ace with Wheeler (which looks like a correct bet by Philly one year in). You know for the most part what you are getting with Tanaka, which in some ways is certainly a good thing, but it’s probably not great for his payday hopes that it’s really hard to think there’s a team out there who sees Cy Young votes in the future for this version of Tanaka.
While I certainly would not mind another top-line starter or two on the Yankees, the good news is that a dependable mid-rotation starter is actually the team’s top need after committing $324 million to one pitcher last offseason. The current SP2 on the Yankees depth chart is Jordan Montgomery, who is a fine pitcher with some upside, but at BEST is a SP4 on a contending team. Deivi Garcia and Clarke Schmidt are two of the Yankees best prospects and are both major league ready, but they should both be on pitch counts and likely wouldn’t exceed 100 innings on the season by much. Then there is the Tommy John recovery of Luis Severino and the black cloud of the domestic violence suspension hanging over Domingo German…you get the point. The Yankees need stability in the rotation, and who better than the beloved clubhouse guy who would become the longest tenured Yankee with a departure of Brett Gardner?
More good news for the Yankees in Tanaka’s case is that it’s hard to even predict what other team would be competing for his services. There is some talk that if the Yankees were to lose Tanaka to anyone, it would actually be to a team in the NPB in his native Japan. (Why would anyone want to leave America right now?) Tanaka’s Achilles heel for years has been his tendency to give up quite a few more long balls than the average pitcher, and they aren’t cheap Yankee Stadium dingers either. Tanaka has worked his exit velocity figures up to nearly league average, but when he misses his spot the ball is usually clobbered. In an otherwise good 2020 season, Tanaka posted the worst barrel rate of his career, and hitters have increased their launch angles against Tanaka each year since 2017. Basically, opposing teams are going into Tanaka starts expecting to tee off. Aside from simply the mental impact of pitching in a new home park for the first time in his career, there is data that supports that Tanaka is actually a better pitcher at Yankee Stadium than on the road, so I’d get why another team might be concerned about investing in a Home Run Derby tosser.
If the Yankees do bring back Tanaka, I imagine it would be one of those vesting contracts with an option based on player incentives like Zack Britton and JA Happ both signed. At just 32, I don’t really worry about Tanaka flaming out over a three or four year deal. He’s a craftsman on the mound who doesn’t rely on overpowering hitters, though it is worth noting that his velocity was actually up last season. He’s such a smart pitcher that he might be immune to the blowup season that a lot of veteran pitchers experience when they are slow to admit to themselves that they’ve lost their best stuff. Honestly, that might have already happened in Tanaka’s case. He has started to move away from the splitter that led to his early dominance that had lost its bite in recent seasons, replacing it with slight increases in his curveball count while introducing a changeup. That can be a tough transition for pitchers, but in Tanaka’s case almost nobody noticed since his control remained so good – though his swing-and-miss rates did jump back up! I’ll wrap it up: Tanaka is just a good baseball player, and if the Yankees let him walk I think it would take no more than 1-2 months to realize that we messed up with a good thing.
OTHER GOOD OPTIONS
Quintana has long been connected to the Yankees, from his time in the farm system as a Tampa Yankee to then a heavily rumored trade target before the Cubs “won” those sweepstakes. Did any other baseball fans completely miss Quintana’s pretty good 2019 season for the Cubs? I just bought into the narrative that his time on the North Side of Chicago was a total waste of time, but his 3.80 FIP that season verifies that he faced some terrible luck both with team defense and at the expense of his own manager – 31 games started but only 171 innings. Quintana basically missed the entire 2020 season with injuries, though he should be good to go for 2021 and this is the same guy who has made 31+ starts EVERY season from 2013-2019 with a WAR below 3.4 in only one of those seasons (2018). The ceiling is low, and I see way more potential for Quintana to crash and burn than someone like Tanaka who also doesn’t throw hard. Quintana relies pretty heavily on his four-seam fastball, which clocks at an average of 91 MPH and barely has any movement. Sabermetrics hate him for it, as well as his extremely low spin rates and concerning exit velocities. Still, he’s spent most of his career as a good pitcher and will only be 32 at Opening Day. With his disappointing tenure as a Cub and an absent 2020 season, Quintana should command no more than a two-year deal, and I’d take the bet that you’re getting the White Sox version of him.
PITCHER TRADE: Estevan Florial, Albert Abreu, Luis Cessa, and Kevin Alcantara to the Pirates for Joe Musgrove and Cole Tucker
Quick editor’s note: I’m writing this blog in pieces over the course of about a week, and I’m writing this section less than 24 hours removed from Lance Lynn getting traded to the White Sox. It works out, because I really didn’t see (or want) the Yankees trading for Lynn despite the obvious fit, but it also verifies the general sentiment that trading for starting pitching in the offseason is ridiculously hard. Lynn has been a really good workhorse over the past two seasons, but one year of him is costing a majors-ready Top 100 prospect who has some real promise in Dane Dunning. There are only a select few teams that would even entertain the idea of trading away an attractive starter before the season:
Of those 9 teams, all of them besides the Orioles and (now) Rangers have starters on contracts that I could see them trading. I’ll address each of them throughout this blog, but I’ll quickly get the two longshots – especially for the Yankees – out of the way now: Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. Darvish definitely hasn’t been marketed as a trade candidate after just finishing as the NL Cy Young runner-up for a playoff team, but he’s 34, volatile and injury prone with $59 million owed over the next three years. You can count the number of pitchers better when dialed in than Darvish on one hand, but with Theo Epstein moving on and this team clearly heading in a new direction from their 2016 high, Darvish could jumpstart a rebuild. As for Snell, I could more likely see him being moved than Darvish given the Rays frugal nature and his value being sky-high off of a dominant (yet abbreviated) World Series start. But at just 28 with a 3 year/$40 million remaining contract and already rostered by a great team, it would take a king’s ransom to get Snell. The Rays would likely start the negotiations with the Yankees with Gleyber…so yeah no thanks.
So that takes us to Musgrove, my favorite option among those other five teams for the Yankees current situation. If you don’t know much about Musgrove – which I wouldn’t blame you for – he was the swingman on the 2017 Astros championship team then became one the centerpieces of the Gerrit Cole trade. In his first two years in Pittsburgh, Musgrove was quietly a good pitcher, averaging only 112 innings over those seasons but with good walk, ground ball, home run, and spin rates. But then, despite his 1-5 record due to playing on the worst team in baseball, he took things to another level in 2020. I hesitate to overreact to any findings that come out of the 2020 season when Musgrove threw only 39.2 innings, but the dude’s strikeout rate SPIKED and his exit velocity rates reached elite territory, all while keeping his ground ball and homer percentages stable. This was no small sample size coincidence either. Musgrove cut back on his fastball to more than double his percentage of curveballs, and the early results show that was a VERY good idea. It measured out as the 12th most valuable curveball in all of MLB in 2020 according to FanGraphs pitch values…not bad for something he was barely throwing before. Musgrove is a bulldog on the mound who brings a high floor alongside a ceiling that I think is going extremely under-discussed in the baseball community, especially since I’m pretty sure that he’s going to get traded before the season. He’s affordable, even for the Pirates, with two arbitration years remaining with the first one projected for just $4 million. But the Pirates, like the Rangers with Lynn, will likely look themselves in the mirror and accept that there is just no chance that their team contends over the next two seasons. Musgrove would address the durability concerns for the Yankees rotation, but I am also bullish on his ability to be the guy who’s confidently handed the ball for an October start too.
Despite that glowing review of Musgrove and his two years of cheap control, I don’t foresee him commanding a massive return. He just hasn’t put it all together – yet – and he sits at just 92 MPH with his fastball. It’s possible that the Yankees could be forced into centering any starting pitcher trade around Clarke Schmidt, but the Pirates are restarting so aggressively and need help everywhere so I think they would go more for a wider package of assets. (Ironically this is similar to the ill-fated package that they got for Cole – doubly ironic with Musgrove involved – but I think this time it would actually make sense.) That would work better in the Yankees favor, since they’ve got an intriguing pipeline but are pretty thin at the top with how things currently sit. There isn’t exactly a headliner in this proposed package, so I’ll just give each player a sentence or two. Estevan Florial was not long ago the Yankees top prospect and deemed untouchable by Brian Cashman, but he’s seen his shine wear off in the minors mainly due to his plate discipline. But he’s still just 23 with dynamite tools, and the Pirates are certainly in a position to extend Florial a long leash with their current outfield depth chart. Albert Abreu is another guy who recently was mentioned as one the Yankees best prospects, but he’s 25 now and the Yankees have been too good to give him a real chance to prove himself. He’s got big-time stuff with a fastball that can approach 100 MPH, so at worst he could become one of the Pirates more exciting relievers as early as 2021. Luis Cessa is the most boring of the group, but if the Pirates trade Musgrove then they would need to replace those innings with someone. Yankee fans know that Cessa isn’t anything special, but he’s only due $1 million next year, throws in the mid 90s with a repeatable delivery and could definitely make 20+ starts in a season without being bad enough to incite a fan revolt. Kevin Alcantara is the lottery ticket here. I won’t pretend to know much about an 18-year-old Dominican kid, but he’s got speed to go along with his 6’6” frame. He ranks anywhere from third to the teens on Yankees farm system lists, but if we can’t accept giving up a years-away prospect for immediate pitching help when he’s not even the best teenage centerfielder in our system, then we’ve got bigger problems.
I also have the Pirates chipping in Cole Tucker in this fake deal. You might think that’s BS to do Tucker like that with his high digital profile and celebrity girlfriend, but the fact of the matter is that Tucker is currently a bad player. Pittsburgh had Tucker in the outfield last year for some godforsaken reason, and while it wasn’t a total disaster or anything, it’s pretty obvious that he’s a shortstop. Among shortstops to play 300+ innings in 2019, Tucker’s only MLB season with time at the position, he finished 11th out of 38 qualifiers in UZR/150 (one of the few top defensive metrics). Nothing extraordinary, but this is when I remind about Gleyber’s defensive woes at shortstop. And if we do ride it out with Gleyber there, lord knows that the Yankees could use a better backup at the position than Tyler Wade, who isn’t even a good shortstop! As for Tucker’s bat, it’s pretty tough to find redemptive qualities there – in 2019 he was league average in hard hit percentage? Tucker’s swing looks pretty broken and he’s buried on the Pirates depth chart after they tendered Erik Gonzalez and drafted shortstop Nick Gonzales 7th overall, so I’d like to see what would happen if the Yankees started him out in Triple-A and had their swing magicians try to turn him around like they’ve successfully done recently with other first round busts and prospect cast-offs.
OTHER GOOD OPTIONS
Would you have guessed that the only MLB team with three starters who qualified for the ERA title to each have an ERA+ north of 100 (100 is league average) in 2020 was…the Colorado Rockies? The same team that went 26-34 last year and that projection models HATE for 2021 – and that’s with Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story on the roster. With a grim immediate future, the tenth highest payroll in the league, and ONE prospect in MLB.com’s Top 100 (who isn’t supposed to crack the big leagues until 2024), the Rockies should probably blow this thing up beyond Arenado and/or Story. German Marquez is their best starter, but even with how bad things are in Denver I have a tough time seeing them moving on from him. Of their other arms, the one target I like for the Yankees is Kyle Freeland. (More on the others below in the “Don’t Want It” section!) For a guy who is turning 28 during the 2021 season, Freeland has already had quite the career. He was the 8th overall pick by the Rockies in the 2014 Draft, got some Rookie of the Year votes in 2017, finished 4th in the NL Cy Young voting in 2018 (worth noting he was INSANELY lucky that season), then was arguably the single worst pitcher in baseball in 2019 – so bad that he got sent down to Triple-A where he went 0-4 with a 8.80 ERA. Freeland quickly shook it off in 2020 back in big leagues, making 9 quality starts across 13 outings. I don’t think this has the makings of a Cliff Lee level rags-to-riches story, but I’m optimistic that the Freeland we saw in 2020 will be closest to the version we get for the foreseeable future. It’s a gamble on his mound makeup, because his good soft contact rates are negated by his inability to miss bats combined with control that is good but not as good as you’d think. Still, I watched Freeland go into Wrigley Field and throw 6.2 innings of shutout ball in the 2018 Wild Card Game, and then I watched him remodel his approach to quick success after a season that would have crushed some other pitchers. Freeland cut his four-seam fastball percentage in half from 2019 to 2020 while leaning more heavily on his changeup. He’s an outlier in a game that continues to embrace power, cut from the same cloth as Andy Pettitte and Mark Buehrle. For the Yankees, again, the name of the game is quality starter innings, and Freeland is the first lefty that I’ve targeted. (Besides Quintana, but I like Freeland more.) Like most southpaws Freeland is better against lefty batters, but in his case he’s MUCH better against lefty batters – another plus. Of the three starters that I can see the Rockies trading, Freeland also has the best quantitative case that he’d improve outside of Coors Field (3.98 career road ERA vs. 4.35 at Coors). Freeland is owed roughly $4.5 million for his first of three arbitration years in 2021, so he comes at a manageable cost. Still, I don’t think trading for him would be too tough, given the aforementioned Rockies woes, being so closely removed from his 2019 implosion, and his style being so unfriendly towards analytics. If this extremely long-winded paragraph didn’t give it away, I’d have Freeland as a 1B to Musgrove’s 1A for starting pitcher trade targets.
I’m not sure why fans of teams in need of starting pitching – myself included – aren’t banging the table for Carrasco more? He’s on the league’s biggest “help me I’m poor” team in the Indians and carries either a 2 year/$24 million or 3 year/$38 million deal depending on his vesting option – not cheap but also team-friendly for a player of Carrasco’s caliber. It’s hard to find starters more consistently good than Carrasco. From 2015-2020 minus 2019 when he was diagnosed with leukemia, Carrasco has had an ERA between 2.91-3.63 each season. From 2015-2020 minus 2016 he has had a K/9 rate of 10.17-10.85 each season. He’s still missing bats as often as ever too, with solid velocity and near-elite spin rates to boot. I’d be excited with a trade for Carrasco, especially since he’s already a #2 starter when somebody like Joe Musgrove has only shown glimpses of potentially becoming one. Also, with the Indians penchant towards unexpected trade returns for legit players, even with the Yankees farm in a fairly weak state I’m confident we could pull of a trade for Carrasco without it going completely barren. Still, for some reason the idea doesn’t totally jack me up? Part of it is definitely his contract, which isn’t exactly a flier. There is natural worry about a velocity-based pitcher who will turn 34 prior to Opening Day too, and he did show cracks in his control for the first time ever in his 12 starts in 2020. Part of me just sees Carrasco getting shelled in new digs, but a bigger part of me thinks he’s such a rock solid pitcher available for the taking that you just do it.
A PAINFUL GOODBYE / FIXING THE DEFENSE: Gary Sanchez (plus choice of low prospect/draft pick/international signing bonus money) to the Rays for Kevin Kiermaier
I know, I know. Every WFAN caller wants the Yankees to ship Gary on the first flight out of New York, and while those callers a proud group of people, they are generally not a group that I choose to identify with. But here, I am sadly with them. I try to avoid personal notes in writing like this, but in the case of Gary I think it’s important to clarify that he was my favorite Yankee from 2016-2019. I love Gary and staunchly defended him after all of the passed balls and lack of hustle plays. So this isn’t a frustration decision to hypothetically trade him; I’ve just reached the point where I think we’re lying to ourselves that he makes this construction of a Yankees team better in a meaningful way, if at all.
There haven’t been any rumblings of a deal along these lines and I don’t think anything like it actually happens – I think Gary stays with the Yankees for 2021 – but man I do like it a lot for both teams. Kiermaier really has become expendable for the Rays with Randy Arozarena’s breakout and Manny Margot as a more than capable centerfielder, and Kyle Higashioka gave reason to believe that he could be a decent platoon catching option at worst.
If you follow baseball at all, then you likely know that Sanchez’s 2020 season was an unmitigated disaster. He batted .147 across 178 plate appearances, saw his strikeout rate spike to 36.0%, and the defensive woes that have plagued him throughout his career continued – all culminating in his benching come the playoffs. It was a tough to watch fall from grace for Gary, who in 2017 looked like one of the premier building blocks in the league and in 2019 hit 34 homers with a wRC+ of 116 as a catcher. The power was so real that you put up with the occasional lapses and miscues, but it all fell apart in 2020. Gary was, in my scientific opinion, lost. In one of the most damning stats I’ve ever heard, Gary saw 55 pitches that qualified as “meatballs” in 2020 per Statcast, and he recorded hits on…0 of them. We had seen Gary in his own head before, but nothing like this.
Now, I don’t think Gary is hopeless, and in a second I’ll clarify why I think a team – the Rays in particular – would be interested in buying Gary at rock bottom. But first I want to quickly elaborate on why I think the Yankees should trade him. The Yankees cannot regularly trot out SIX right-handed hitters who strike out more than league average (Gary, Voit, Gleyber, Frazier, Judge, Stanton). I don’t know how that has become a controversial opinion, especially if anyone who denies that has watched the Yankees in October. I clearly don’t think the Yankees require drastic measures to win it all with the moves that I list out in this blog, but we have to acknowledge and adjust to the fact that getting overpowered by pitching in the playoffs has been just as big of a problem, if not more of a problem, than not having enough of that overpowering pitching of our own. The last four World Series champions have limited strikeouts at the plate at an elite team-wide level, and while the Yankees have improved in this department in recent years, they can still absolutely do better.
Now, the one team that has reached the World Series in that four-year span that doesn’t mind striking out on repeat? That would be the 2020 Tampa Bay Rays, who finished dead last in MLB in the category. (Difference between the #30 Rays and #29 Twins is greater than the difference between the Twins and #25 Cubs.) Tampa REALLY can live with the slow walk back to the dugout; in fact, they embrace it if you can bring something elite to the table to make up for it. In the case of Gary Sanchez, nobody on the planet can hit a baseball harder. He’s finished in the Top 5% of barrel rate across MLB over each of the past three seasons, all while walking more than the average hitter. And while Gary is CERTAINLY not the most fleet of foot, for somebody who hits the ball as hard as him, the .159 BABIP he posted in 2020 was impossibly low. He’s due for better luck, and new surroundings with lower pressure could bring it out for him. The Rays are currently slated for the lowest projected WAR at the catcher position in all of baseball for 2021 as well, so they are certainly going to make a move. And Gary, while a technical mess and still a liability with balls in the dirt, is a fine pitch framer with a huge arm, and pitchers aside from Gerrit Cole have seemed to like him as a battery mate. The Rays are smart enough to not care about trading within the division, but would they take on Gary’s $6 million of salary in 2021 with more due in 2022 for a reclamation project? I think they would, considering they went into last season with Muke Zunino as their fifth highest paid player, who at his best is close to Gary at his worst. But beyond that, I think the Rays would especially be open to a trade that nets them a few extra millions of dollars in the process, and the only non-Snell way to do that with Gary is to exchange him for Kevin Kiermaier.
Kiermaier is set to become the highest paid player on the Rays now that they cut ties with Charlie Morton, with 2-3 years remaining on his deal and at least $26 million committed to him. Beyond his loyalty as the longest tenured member of the Rays, Kiermaier makes good money for one reason: his glove. Plain and simple, he’s the most valuable defender at the most valuable defensive position in baseball, and it’s been that way for years. If you can find the humor in advanced baseball statistics, Kiermaier’s defensive metrics are laugh out loud funny. There isn’t one component to playing centerfield where he hasn’t been in the 99th percentile for it. Healthy and just 30 years old, he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet either.
The Yankees desperately need to address their team defense too, something I’ve alluded to earlier with Gleyber Torres and now here again with Gary. It’s something that I think would have been a much bigger storyline had the 2020 season not been abbreviated and so weird. The Yankees finished with negative defensive runs saved as a team, and Aaron Hicks – while a good player – was also a major part of that. Only the Royals and Angels got worse defensive production in centerfield than the Yankees in 2020 according to DRS, and the eye test backs that up. Hicks has lost a couple of steps, and he’s such a valuable component to the Yankees lineup that the team should be looking to limit his annual IL trips that have come out of playing centerfield so often. Kiermaier isn’t the most durable player either with his style of play – only in 2015 has he played more than 130 games – so the Yankees would be able to keep both guys fresh. And by more regularly kicking Hicks to a corner outfield position, where there’s no reason to believe that he wouldn’t thrive, the Yanks would improve defensively in two spots.
Kiermaier’s bat on the other hand is an entirely different story, which is why I feel comfortable mock trading him for Sanchez to save the Rays $6 million in 2021. (A $6 million player would be the fourth highest paid on the Rays in 2021.) His offensive numbers have been mediocre enough where this is the point of reading this when you ask why the Yankees would do this trade. He has a posted wRC+ of 79, 78, and 93 over the past three seasons, with an OBP as low as .278 in that span. He just isn’t a good hitter as it stands; in fact he’s quite a crappy one. Still, there are reasons to think that he could be at least an average hitter moving forward. In 2020, as limited as the season was, Kiermaier posted a career high in barrel and hard hit percentages, with a walk rate (12.6%) that nearly doubled his career average coming into the season. He’s changed his approach and the deepest of analytics see it for the best, especially if he can improve his launch angle and keep the ball off the ground so much – think when Brett Gardner hit 28 homers out of nowhere in 2019. To the Yankees benefit, Kiermaier has been a better hitter against righties than lefties in both 2020 and over the course of his career. And if there is anything to learn from the 2020 Rays it’s the reality of regular lefty/righty platooning success, something that I am begrudgingly accepting. If Kiermaier could even bring his wRC+ up to 100 by capitalizing on being the rare lefty in the Yankees lineup while learning to take advantage of the short porch, then we might be talking about an All Star here, not just a phenomenal glove with a bat that you deal with.
OTHER GOOD OPTIONS
I’ll cover both trading Gary Sanchez and the centerfield defensive upgrade here.
Jackie Bradley Jr.
JBJ is a good player, though he’s one of the tougher guys to encapsulate in the league. He’s famously streaky; at one time rattling off a 29 game hitting streak then at other times looking unplayable at the plate over weeks long stretches. His counting stats appear evenly split between good offensive seasons (2015, 2016, 2020) and bad offensive seasons (2014, 2017, 2018, 2019). He has NEVER posted a season with a wRC+ between 91-117. You might have noticed that three of those bad seasons were consecutive from 2017-2019 and are inclined to think that his 2020 was a fluke, but I’m not so sure. In 2020 he simultaneously posted both his best walk and strikeout rates of his career – pretty good! But strangely enough, his exit velocities were down in 2020 and his expected stats show that he got really lucky, but it was the opposite case from 2017-2019 when he hit the ball hard with not much to show for it. (He was SO unlucky in 2018, with a 96th percentile hard hit percentage and a .234 batting average.) Like I said, he’s a tough evaluation.
What makes JBJ an easier decision for teams is that he’s one of the select few consistently good defensive centerfielders in the game. He’s not quite in Kiermaier territory and it is possible that some of his elite metrics come from his mastery of the complex Fenway Park centerfield, but he’s going to give you a plus glove regardless for a few years at just 31 years old. I think he’d be a great fit for the Yankees and he’s enticing as a free agent, though I think he’s going to get paid more than people might expect. The centerfield free agent market is George Springer in the top tier, Bradley in the next tier, and then the tier after them is a bunch of guys that are debatably deserving of major league roster spots. I think JBJ is in play for a three-year deal in the range of $30-40 million, which would be an expensive commitment for a fourth outfielder for the Yankees – especially if they aren’t offloading salary in the process. I’ll call my shot here that he goes to the Astros.
Gary to the Rockies
A trade framework around Gary and Kyle Freeland actually makes a lot of sense. No team has struggled with one position in the 21st century like the Rockies and catchers. The Yankees would have to give up a better prospect(s) for Freeland for a fledgling team like the Rockies to take on Gary’s money, but it would be a great landing spot for him.
Gary to the Rangers
Rebuilding team with zero expectations and terrible catcher depth where Gary could split time between catching and DH. It’s tough to even pick whom the Yankees would want in return…likely a bullpen arm, or maybe Rougned Odor if the Rangers paid off at least half of his contract.
Gary to the Marlins
It’s cliché but I could see Derek Jeter having interest in bringing Gary to Miami. The Marlins are likely still a year away from calling it quits for good on Jorge Alfaro, and maybe trading for Gary could light a spark under the talented yet struggling Alfaro. This trade could work for Corey Dickerson in return, who I don’t like much but would fit well with the Yankees as a lefty-hitting corner outfielder who makes good contact. He’s the Marlins second most expensive player heading into 2021, but offset by Gary would only cost the Yankees $4 million.
Gary to the Tigers
OK, I can actually see this one happening. Gary has historically dominated the Tigers, and they sound like a team ready to stop being one of the laughingstocks of the league. But before they can do that, they need catcher help and somebody resembling a cleanup hitter. The Tigers and Yankees are trade compatible on paper, with Detroit likely hoping to move at least one of their veteran starting pitchers to make room for their young guns. I really don’t like any of the options that they have to offer – more on them later – but again, a major part of this is addition by subtraction with how Gary currently fits with the Yankees.
NOW GO GET ANOTHER CATCHER: Miguel Yajure to the Dodgers for Austin Barnes
I understand what Yankee fans reading this might be thinking: why the hell would we voluntarily enter catcher hell? Catcher hell is a very real and very scary thing. Akin to tight end hell in fantasy football, this happens when you forego an everyday option for a more appealing quick fix, but then the shine wears off that quick fix and you find yourself auditioning stopgap after stopgap to no avail. My retort to that would be…are the Yankees not in catcher hell already? Sure, it happened quickly after Gary’s 2020, but I don’t know how you could look at 12-15 of the better catcher situations around baseball and think we’re in the same boat as them. Even if you do think Gary has a rebound 2021 season in him, which is a totally valid line of thought, do you seriously think we would extend Gary following 2022 as our catcher of the future? And if not, where are you going to play him? As a fun reminder, Giancarlo Stanton is signed on to be our DH through at least 2027.
I have enough self-awareness to realize that this is entering Inception territory with a hypothetical catcher trade inside of a hypothetical catcher trade. Still, I think it is important to cover what our options actually could look like for all of the fans calling for Gary’s head. There are a couple of cheap one-year options in free agency that I’ll cover soon, but they each are old and come with major flaws. For the very few “Tier 3” catchers on the market, basically someone you would sign for around 2 years/$10 million, I don’t like any of them at all. So back to the trade market we head!
Trading for a catcher is essentially as difficult as trading for a starting pitcher, because it’s really the only position where teams place a premium on the backup. The trading team either has to have three majors-ready options at the position, or like always it can come down to a salary crunch. In the case of the Dodgers, it is safely the former with Barnes on the same squad as Will Smith and Keibert Ruiz. Smith broke out in a big way in 2020, and at just 25 years old he’s on the cusp on stardom. Ruiz is a blue-chip prospect who the Dodgers have notably avoided trading to date, and now he’s ready to make more than 8 plate appearances in the big leagues like he did in 2020. Any way you slice it, Barnes is the runt of the litter with the Dodgers catching situation when it comes to future value.
That’s not to shortchange Barnes too much, who is only going to be 31 on Opening Day and comes along with two years of cheap arbitration salaries. He’s excellent defensively around the plate and has consistently measured as one of the better framers in the game. He’s subpar when it comes to preventing steals, but if you’ve watched an AL East game recently then you know that isn’t a big deal anymore. The defense is certainly the main reason that it would be cool to have Barnes in pinstripes, but it’s not the only reason. Barnes is a pretty bad all around hitter any way you slice it – minus an amazing 2017 season that was safely an outlier – but he does do some things well with the bat. He has an excellent approach at the plate, combining consistently strong walk rates with league-average strikeout rates – which is good for a catcher. He’s really light hitting with a slugging percentage that has topped out at .340 over the last three seasons, but he has improved his launch angle and in 2020 routinely hit the ball hard as much as he did in 2017. He hasn’t seen the immediate returns on those swing changes yet, but maybe with more regular playing time in a more hitter-friendly ballpark (27.2% of his batted balls in 2019 went to the opposite field) he could become a 15 homer guy? If not, then oh well he’s still a really good defensive catcher who would work tough at bats in the 9 hole.
I’m not sure if the Dodgers would do this? Even with Smith and Ruiz offering them much more promise, Barnes is the only one of the group who is glove-first, so maybe they wouldn’t consider departing with him during their championship window. But I find it hard to believe that improving Smith’s defense isn’t a top priority for them, and at his young age it’s certainly possible. If I’m underselling their commitment to Barnes, then I would improve the Yankees offer up to Jonathan Loaisiga. If I’m overvaluing a guy who had a 68 wRC+ in 2019, then I would decrease the offer to someone more in line with Luis Cessa. We’ll compromise with Miguel Yajure, who ranks in the teens in most Yankees prospect rankings with non-special stuff but good control that led to a 2.14 ERA in 2019 across A+ and AA minor league ball.
OTHER GOOD OPTIONS
Trade for Willson Contreras
Contreras is better – way better – than the catchers name dropped before him in this blog. He’s an extremely athletic All Star in his prime, and there is a very good chance that he’s still getting better. Contreras has always hit the ball hard but in 2020 hit the ball the hardest he ever has, and more importantly in his case is that his defense significantly improved last year too. Notoriously a terrible framer who was difficult for pitchers to work with throughout the early years of his career, he improved in 2019 then was straight up good in that department in 2020. He’s always been one of the toughest guys in the league to run on, but now he’s coming into his own as a complete defensive catcher.
Contreras isn’t perfect – he swings out of his cleats too often and has two recent seasons batting beneath .250 with good BABIP in each of those years. But if there is any catcher outside of JT Realmuto who could win an MVP over the next two years, it’s Contreras. Contreras isn’t quite as good as Realmuto was at the time of his trade to the Phillies, but it’s close enough in skillsets and their contracts were nearly identical to use that trade as the model here. The Marlins netted Sixto Sanchez in that deal, the Phillies top prospect who ranked as around the 20th best overall in baseball. So yeah, the Yankees would have to deal Deivi Garcia to get Contreras. I’m not positive that I’d want to do that, especially depending on what starting pitching moves the Yankees actually make this offseason, but I’m also definitely not positive that I wouldn’t want them to do that. It sure as hell would be exciting.
Castro isn’t an all-around good player and this would be incredibly boring, but he’d be cheap and could contribute to basically replacing Gary. Castro is good defensively, walks a ton, and is a pure platoon player who mashes righties and is unplayable against lefties. He strikes out far too much and might not bat over .200, but we’ve sadly seen what that looks like anyway, and this time it would come cheaper and with improved defense.
Flowers really quickly went from one of the most underrated players in the game (4.5 WAR in 2017) to a guy who will likely be offered not much more than the veteran minimum. Flowers is basically the godfather of pitch framing as the key player behind it growing from an art form into a legitimate statistic. He’s still good at it too, even though his 6’4” 260 lb frame is racing towards a total breakdown. His bat speed is rapidly slowing as evidenced by his scaling strikeout rate, but at least when Flowers does connect he still clobbers the ball. In this scenario, you’d want Kyle Higashioka catching 3/4 games regardless of opponent with Flowers giving him days of rest. If you liked Erik Kratz’s presence last year, then you’d love Flowers.
DON’T SEE IT / DON’T WANT IT – LIGHTNING ROUND
I’ll rattle off a bunch of names of players linked to the Yankees or those who fit the bill for team needs that I either can’t see happening or just don’t want us to do.
Let’s start here, because it’s the most relevant and most noteworthy. Bauer, for as much of a lunatic as he is, is truly an awesome pitcher. He’s an ace who falls somewhere in the second tier of MLB starters, and they don’t hit the open market often. I know how many Yankee fans see a 1-2 rotation punch as the key to World Series ring #28 along the likes of Kershaw/Buehler and Scherzer/Strasburg and Sale/Price. But a couple of things on that note:
1. A championship team hasn’t had their top two starters on mega contracts at the same time since when? Johnson and Schilling? Even in a sport without a hard salary cap, I’m not sure you can commit $60+ million to two pitchers and expect to field a winning team.
2. Of the other pitchers in that second tier that I mentioned – like Strasburg and Buehler – there isn’t a pitcher as volatile as Bauer. His past four seasons have followed the pattern of meh/great/meh/great.
3. He still has to prove that his elbow is all the way back after Tommy John surgery, but Luis Severino is that SP2! How short term are our memories? He’s 26 with two Top 10 Cy Young finishes under his belt.
I also buy that Bauer actually will sign a one-year deal like he’s been hyping up, so that will probably run a team around $35 million. It would be fun, but I’d rather put that money towards building a complete team.
Let’s get this one out of the way too, because so many Yankee fans are clamoring for Lindor and he likely will get traded this offseason. I’m not going to pretend like Lindor isn’t an amazing player right now, but I’m extremely out on trading for him and even out on signing him to a megadeal next offseason. We have seen Lindor’s potential; in 2018 he put up MVP numbers alongside a 7.6 WAR. I just think the other seasons that he has posted to date are more his game than that one season where he posted a 130 wRC+. I see Lindor as more of an above average hitter with an elite glove, which would make him an All Star but not a $250 million player. If you are signing Lindor to 8-10 years, that’s also quite the gamble on a player of his stature. A team might be paying the big bucks on those final years towards a slap hitter at a position where there aren’t a ton of guys over the age of 30 playing it well.
Best catcher in baseball, seems like a safe projection, just really can’t see the Yankees blowing most of their (hopefully) available money on a positional upgrade. If we’re talking mid 2000s George Steinbrenner days, then yeah I’d be screaming for Realmuto.
Some team might get a steal here with the rest of the league looking ahead to the 2022 free agent shortstop class. But it looks like I differ from the analytics community for the most part here in that I think Semien is more of the guy we saw in 2018 and 2020 than 2019. Still a solid player, but one I don’t need the Yankees investing in.
Ha-seong Kim and Tomoyuki Sugano
These two play different positions and are different nationalities, so I don’t mean any offense by looping them together. I only do so because I know nothing about them outside of written scouting reports. They both do play positions of need for the Yankees though (Kim SS, Sugano SP) so I want to at least address the possibility.
Big Maple probably caught too much heat in the Bronx – his 2019 was solid – but this just wasn’t a good fit. And Justus Sheffield impressed in his Seattle debut…ugh. He’ll sign a one-year deal somewhere, for his sake hopefully somewhere with low expectations for 2021 so he can get back on track and build up his value.
He really doesn’t fit into the Yankees picture much at all, but it was impossible to watch an Astros game over the last two years and not fantasize about Brantley’s lefty contact-always bat in our lineup. It’s hard to see the path where he’d want to play for the Yankees in a potentially part-time role in his final prime years, but I would celebrate this move.
I’ve always liked Rosario more than the analytics do. He almost never walks and his defense isn’t too good – though he’s got a rocket of an arm – but the man just collects extra base hits and barely strikes out while doing it. He reminds me of a lefty outfielder Miguel Andujar, for the perspective of Yankee fans. I think he is the profile of a player that would capitalize on the Yankee Stadium dimensions, but like the rest of corner outfielders listed here, there isn’t much of a fit on these Yankees.
I think it’s nuts that Schwarber was non-tendered, but he was objectively bad in 2020 and I’ve touched on the Cubs cap situation already so the rationale is clear. Still, Schwarber is one of the select few guys who can realistically hit 50+ homers in a season as soon as next year. He barrels the ball with amazing regularity, and he improved his offensive numbers each year from 2017 through 2019 when he finished with an impressive .250/.339/.531 slash line. I really do think his 2020 was an unfortunate fluke for an otherwise incredibly talented hitter. The experiment in the outfield should come to an end, but I’d love to see a team like the Orioles bring him in as their full-time DH. It’s unfortunately near impossible to see how he slides into the Yankees lineup.
I actually would like this move, especially if the Yankees could buy low following Joc’s disappointing 2020 season. He’s just a good player, and at 28 he’s young to hit free agency. Joc wouldn’t necessarily need the help of the short porch with far how he hits the ball, but his lefty presence and much improved approach over the years in the Yankees lineup would be a great fit. (Though Statcast shows that he would have hit 5 extra homers in 2019 playing at Yankee Stadium.) He’s purely a corner outfielder already though, and if I were him I’d pick a National League team or an American League team where I at least had the option to DH. Also, if the Yankees are to sign a free agent corner outfielder, it would be…
Guys, I appreciate Gardner’s Yankees career too, but we HAVE to stop with this. How has the guy who split time as the centerfielder on the 2009 championship team with a career postseason slash line of freaking .214/.288/.286 become this much of a Yankees legend in some people’s eyes? I’ll contribute towards his Old Timers Day ovation, but we treat Gardy like he’s coasting towards number retirement. I know that his WAR has been deceptively good the past few years and that he’s an extremely tough at bat in terms of taking pitches, but we just have to aim to do better after a decade of this. Now that he’s deteriorating in the outfield and getting in the way of Clint Frazier’s playing time too, the time has come to move on from our short bald friend.
Every offseason, there is at least one starting pitcher who hasn’t been good for the majority of his career but teams convince themselves that they can be the ones to change that after finding something underlying in his performance. This year Walker fits that bill, but I kinda feel the opposite about him. I think he’s actually less good than he led on with his 2.70 ERA in 2020. I’m sure teams might be excited by the cutter that he started throwing 3x as much in 2020 that has good movement, but I think that’s grasping at straws. He still is a fastball pitcher at the end of the day with a fastball that isn’t that fast or tight, and he has never reached 170 innings in a season. Pass.
The weird thing about the Yankees bullpen is that they already have two of the very best lefty relievers in baseball in Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton, but those two are entrenched in the final two innings of the game so there really isn’t a current southpaw option readily available from innings 5 through 7. There is no such thing as too much bullpen depth for Brian Cashman – which is really smart – and Hand is awesome and would theoretically fit in well. That said, it’s a bit hard to see him being cool with shifting from one of the game’s best closers to a mid-relief guy while making the same range of money. It’s unlikely but it would be cool, and I didn’t see Britton’s signing coming a couple of years ago for the exact reason so who knows?
Please GOD no. Just NO. Molina offers virtually zero offensive potential and his defense isn’t even THAT good anymore. He’s also just a pain in the ass that would be tough to tolerate outside of St. Louis, in case you didn’t catch onto that when he claimed not already receiving a one-year/$10 million offer this offseason as “ridiculous.” The Yankees have been linked to him, which terrifies me. And while I have you here, Yadier Molina is not a Hall of Famer.
He’s an extremely consistently solid second baseman who will likely get underpaid, but his ceiling is really low. Moving from DJ LeMahieu to Hernandez would be a really tough pill to swallow for Yankee fans.
Ah, we have an interesting one here – and not just because the Mets are close to finalizing a deal with him. McCann is the rare “Tier 2” catcher who can be an everyday starter with All Star potential on a multi-year deal. If the Yankees were to trade Gary, then I’m sure McCann would be a heavily requested target by the fan base (if still on the market). But I’m skeptical, and while there are multiple reasons including an empty All Star Game appearance in 2019, the main reason is actually financial. I think McCann is in for a BIG overpay. Teams are going to see a chasm between McCann and the next catcher tier of Yadier Molina and Wilson Ramos, and there also will be reservations with committing over $100 million to JT Realmuto, so naturally the half-measure is to pick McCann around $40-50 million. There are reasons to really like McCann – age, limited wear and tear, good exit velocities, improved defense in 2020 – but there are also reasons to feel the opposite way. Pitch framing is a fickle skill, and while McCann’s metrics were good in 2020, he was horrendous behind the plate in the prior years. He was also a terrible player over 4 years in Detroit, and while a player deserves the benefit of the doubt for improving with a new team and genuinely improving over the course of his career, it’s scary to think about paying big money to McCann then getting the Tigers version.
I can think of more fun ways to light money on fire. Seriously, hell of a run for Klubot, but the guy was slowing down even before his chronic arms problems popped up. No way.
I’m already annoyed because I can really see the Yankees signing Richards. Every GM craves being the one to find the next Charlie Morton: the hard throwing veteran with god-like spin rates who never put it all together. Well, Morton was awesome for the Astros and Rays, but that was such a Cinderella story. The much more common outcomes here are that these pitchers remain pedestrian or injured with their arm action. Just let some other team do this.
The Tribe will almost certainly look to trade Hedges, who is in line to make $3 million as their backup catcher behind Robert Perez, who almost never misses a game. If he was a free agent I would have listed him as a good alternative option for the Yankees, but I wouldn’t exchange any assets for him. At 28, he’s young to be the savant level framer that he is, and he’s got some pop, but the truth of the matter is that he’s a horrendous hitter. The Padres got so fed up with his bat that they traded him away just to trade for another catcher. Let the Rays take on Hedges – it’s the most obvious move ever.
Some team is going to take advantage of the Reds looking between the couch cushions for change and trade for Gray, but it just can’t be the Yankees. I’d like to think more open-mindedly here when a pitcher as good as Gray has been from 2019-2020 is available, but that trade was one of the bigger whiffs of Brian Cashman’s career, even if we didn’t give up much to get Gray. And while I generally despise this narrative, I actually don’t think Sonny is cut out for the Big Apple.
Josh Bell and Jameson Taillon
A first baseman and a pitcher, but I’m looping them together here since it has been reported that the Yankees are interested in each of them. In Bell’s case, sure! I love his offensive upside – switch-hitter with 37 homers along with elite BB:K ratio in 2019 – and he should be available for dimes on the dollar after a terrible 2020. He is on the hook for $6 million for the Pirates in 2021 though, so it’s curious how he would slot in with Luke Voit at that cost. As for Taillon though, that’s a big “no thanks” from me. Look, I’m rooting for the guy too after going through testicular cancer and major arm surgery over the past couple of years. And when he was on the mound for the Pirates, he was the style of pitcher that I typically love. But every once in a while, we reserve the right to say “we’re the Yankees” to proposed moves like this, however that makes us sound. This is a really good and championship ready team, and a rotation spot shouldn’t be slotted to someone who has thrown 37.1 innings over the last two seasons. I hope I’m wrong on Taillon and he is ready sooner than I expect, but I see no reason why he shouldn’t reestablish his value in Pittsburgh before some team picks up the phone for him.
Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Michael Fulmer
These are the Tigers top three starters heading into 2021, and they should each be available for a trade with multiple younger and better options coming up for Detroit. These guys each suck for their own unique reasons though. I could see the Yankees interested in Boyd given that he wouldn’t cost too much and that he did strike out 11.56 batters per 9 innings in 2019, but I am positive that dude would give up 3+ homers a game in Yankee Stadium.
Jon Gray and Antonio Senzatela
I already wrote in depth about how Kyle Freeland is my preference of the Rockies starters that might be available for trade. Gray is likely the most commonly projected option within Yankees circles though, given that he only has one year left on his contract and that he is the clear sabermetric favorite of the bunch. Gray posted WARs between 2.5-3.6 and FIPs between 3.18-4.06 each year from 2016-2019. But here’s my thing with Gray: I think he’s become overrated just by nature of baseball media writing for years that he’s underrated by playing in Coors Field. Gray has actually been better at Coors than road ballparks over the course of his career, and I’m pretty sure people think his stuff is better than it actually is being that he was a third overall pick and a major prospect. As for Senzatela, he’s young, offers 3 years of cheap control and is coming off a 2020 season with a 3.44 ERA over 12 starts, but I just don’t think he’s much good. As a heavy pitcher that throws a heavy ball, I actually think he’s the rare case of a starter that belongs at Coors Field.
+ DJ LeMahieu – 5/80 ($16 million luxury tax)
+ Masahiro Tanaka – 4/50 ($12.5 million luxury tax)
+ Joe Musgrove – 1/4 Arb ($4 million luxury tax)
+ Cole Tucker – Pre-Arb ($0.5 million luxury tax)
+ Kevin Kiermaier – 2/26 ($9 million luxury tax)
+ Austin Barnes – 1/1.5 Arb ($1.5 million luxury tax)
– Gary Sanchez – 1/6 Arb ($-6 million luxury tax)
– Luis Cessa – 1/1 ($-1 million luxury tax)
– Estevan Florial – Pre-Arb ($-0.5 million luxury tax)
– Albert Abreu – Pre-Arb ($-0.5 million luxury tax)
– Miguel Yajure – Pre-Arb ($-0.5 million luxury tax)
2021 Opening Day Lineup
1. DJ LeMahieu
2. Aaron Judge
3. Aaron Hicks
4. Giancarlo Stanton
5. Gleyber Torres
6. Luke Voit
7. Giovanny Urshela
8. Kevin Kiermaier
9. Austin Barnes/Kyle Higashioka
2021 Opening Day Rotation
1. Gerrit Cole
2. Masahiro Tanaka
3. Joe Musgrove
4. Jordan Montgomery
5. Deivi Garcia
Thanks if you read this far! I tweet about the Yankees a lot and other non-Yankees things a lot at @Real_Peej
Time for the final mock draft, and it’s the big one. Here is what I think will happen on the first night of the NFL Draft. Trades will obviously go down, but I’m keeping each team in their assigned spot. Read until the end for five specific trade scenarios that I’m calling my shot on.
I’m adding a fun wrinkle: using the below scoring system, I’m going to make a donation to COVID-19 Relief through DRAFT-A-THON for each pick that I hit in some capacity. I don’t anticipate I reach it but I’ll do this up to $50. Follow along, cheer against my wallet, and if you are feeling generous feel free to match!
$2 – Correct Pick Number
$2 – Correct Team
$5 – Correct Trade Prediction
Cincinnati Bengals – Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
Washington Redskins – Chase Young, EDGE, Ohio State
Detroit Lions – Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
New York Giants – Jedrick Wills, OT, Alabama
Miami Dolphins – Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia
Los Angeles Chargers – Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Simple concept: I’m playing GM for all 26 teams drafting in the first round. I’d like to predict trades on trades, but for the sake of not turning this exercise into a total mess I’m only mocking one big trade in the Top 5.
Cincinnati Bengals – Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
TRADE* Miami Dolphins – Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Detroit Lions – Chase Young, EDGE, Ohio State
New York Giants – Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
TRADE* Washington Redskins – Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State
Los Angeles Chargers – Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia
Carolina Panthers – Javon Kinlaw, DT, South Carolina
Arizona Cardinals – Jedrick Wills, OT, Alabama
Jacksonville Jaguars – CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma
Cleveland Browns – Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
New York Jets – Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
Las Vegas Raiders – A.J. Terrell, CB, Clemson
San Francisco 49ers – Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Minnesota
Denver Broncos – Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama
Atlanta Falcons – C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida
Dallas Cowboys – Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
Miami Dolphins – Cesar Ruiz, C, Michigan
Las Vegas Raiders – Brandon Aiyuk, WR, Arizona State
I’ve always been hooked on the NFL Draft, but with the current pandemic situation, let’s just say that my attention towards it has multiplied by about 19 times. I don’t pretend to be a scout or watch a ton of college football, but I do my research and like to think that I know quite a bit about NFL rosters. I also think a lot of experts who do this kind of stuff year-round can get lost in the process, so I like to keep it simple:
That’s basically it, with a quick blurb for each pick included. I’m not exactly trying to snipe what will happen on draft night, more so a mix of what I think could and should happen.
Cincinnati Bengals – Joe Burrow, QB, LSU
A dream scenario for the Bengals. No need to expand upon this; Burrow is the best QB prospect in years and this pick is 100% going to happen. I will say…the Bengals might not suck next season. They shouldn’t make the playoffs or anything, but I’d expect way better than 2-14 after Burrow puts the cherry on top of a good offseason.
Miami Dolphins – Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
(TRADE: Miami receives Pick 1/2, Washington receives Picks 1/5, 1/18, 2021 First Round Pick from Houston)
BLOCKBUSTER! This is what Miami has been stocking up for with their roster teardown, and the Redskins get their first round picks back from the RG3 trade all these years later. This might seem insane from Miami’s perspective, and it definitely could be, but history tell us this is about what it would take to move up these three picks. And that is before you consider that Washington would be saying goodbye to Chase Young and the Dolphins would be landing a prospect who would be QB1 in most years. The best the Chargers can do to move up for Tua is likely the third pick, so Miami does what they need to do to land him.
I’m not as wild about Tua as most. The scary injury history speaks for itself, and I have doubts about how he’ll hold up without surroundings as cushy as Alabama’s were for him. With that, I see some Matt Leinart here. But at the same time, he has accuracy you can’t teach and exudes inspiration and confidence, so I don’t fault a struggling team like Miami one bit who see him as the guy who’s going to turn everything around.
Detroit Lions – Chase Young, EDGE, Ohio State
Home run pick for the Lions, landing the top player on most boards who also fits perfectly into this defense and fills a big need. Let’s just hope that Young only has to spend one year under Matt Patricia.
New York Giants – Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
I’ll go a bit longer here, because I imagine a lot of people reading this care as much about the Giants as the person writing it. This pick is also one of the hardest to peg and will set the course for the rest of the first round. My gut is that the Giants are leaning Simmons, and I would be absolutely ecstatic with the selection. He’s a unicorn of a prospect with some of the most impressive college tape you will ever see. The Giants struggled on both sides of the ball last year, but defense was the bigger liability. Despite already spending big on defense in free agency, there is nobody with even close to the star power that Simmons would immediately bring. He would make everyone around him better while singlehandedly patching up a lot of the team weaknesses. It’s a poorly kept secret that Dave Gettleman’s seat is on fire, and if he thinks that Simmons is the best play towards fielding a competitive team in 2020 and thereby saving his job, I wouldn’t blame him.
Although I’m rooting for the Giants to take Simmons and don’t see any way for this team to truly contend in 2020, I do think the best course towards a playoff push next season would drafting a right tackle. If the Giants committed to the 2016 Dallas model of playing defense through controlling the ball and clock on offense with Jason Garrett calling the shots, then I could see a best-case scenario where this team goes 9-7 or 10-6. That would require a major upgrade on the offensive line though, where the Giants currently have one of the worst tackle situations in the league. This draft class is excellent at the position, including two stud right tackles near the top of big boards in Jedrick Wills and Tristan Wirfs. I think Wirfs makes a ton of sense, given that he could plug and play on the right side next year, then smoothly slide over to the blindside once Nate Solder is finally sent out to pasture. Gettleman is definitely drooling over his combine performance and workout videos too. But for all of the talk of “hog mollies,” guess how many offensive linemen Gettleman has drafted with his nine first round picks in his time as a GM? That would be zero. And while a lot of Giants fans see the Cam Fleming signing as a depth move, we thought the same thing about Mike Remmers last year, and then he went on to start 14 games at right tackle. I’m sure the Giants will do their best to make an outrageous selection at the top of the draft for the third year in a row, but I do feel good about Simmons being their guy.
Washington Redskins – Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
Not only do the Redskins pick up two extra first rounders in this hypothetical trade down, they now can address a much greater need than they would have by taking Chase Young. This pick has to be on offense, where the Skins just have a total dearth of skill and need to put more effort into either validating or moving on from Dwayne Haskins. Jerry Jeudy dominates in space and would play to Haskins’ strength of getting the ball out quickly, and he would form arguably the league’s best young receiver duo with Terry McLaurin. This pick could absolutely be a left tackle since Trent Williams will never suit up for them again, but with 4-5 top tier tackles on the board and only 2-3 top tier receivers, Washington can address that position with their newly acquired first rounder later.
Los Angeles Chargers – Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
The Chargers have had an excellent offseason and now have a roster that’s pretty elite in terms of overall talent. Their only big holes are at left tackle and quarterback, and at least 95% of mock drafts have them going QB with this pick. But with their ready-to-win roster, I think there’s a better chance than advertised that the Bolts address QB in free agency – likely Cam Newton – as opposed to drafting Justin Herbert…in this spot. I have major doubts that Herbert would come out of the gate hot, and that’s without even considering how weird this offseason will be for rookies in light of COVID-19. They also have no fan support at the moment and a brand-new stadium to fill, which is another reason to go the household name route for the short term. With Cam and Wirfs, who could step right into the blindside and has the versality to move around the line in the event of injury as well, this team could be drafting in the Bottom 6 instead of the Top 6 in the 2021 Draft.
Carolina Panthers – Derrick Brown, DL, Auburn
This pick needs to be on defense, where the Panthers are set up to have arguably the league’s worst unit. They need help at every level, and Jeff Okudah could certainly be the guy here, but I see them taking Brown. He is absurdly strong and pops on tape even from the defensive interior – just watch his highlights from the Iron Bowl. Despite playing a less valuable position than cornerback and a rough Combine showing, Brown could go a long way in cleaning up Carolina’s god-awful run defense while still pushing the pocket. Matt Rhule is definitely smitten by him too.
Las Vegas Raiders – Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State
(TRADE: Las Vegas receives Pick 1/8, Arizona receives Picks 1/12, 3/81, 2021 Second Round Pick)
ANOTHER TRADE! Jeff Okudah is one of the best cornerback prospects in years; there are really no holes in his game. If he does make it past Carolina at 7, Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden will be licking their lips. The Raiders have been active this offseason to address their defense, bringing in at least four new starters. But their cornerbacks are still terrible, and it’s becoming less and less possible to contend without production from that position. With another first round pick in this draft, Las Vegas (that’s weird to type) is in a position to be aggressive here, while Arizona with just 6 total picks – including none in the second round – could be looking to pick up extra draft capital after the DeAndre Hopkins robbery trade.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Javon Kinlaw, DL, South Carolina
Kinlaw is a classic NFL Draft case study. He has freakish measurables and was the single biggest standout from the Senior Bowl, and only then did we start to acknowledge that he also happened to be an AP First Team All-American playing in the SEC. He checks all of the boxes, and as an interior player who can pressure the quarterback at a similar rate to good edge rushers, multiple teams will view him as their version of Chris Jones or DeForest Buckner. (I’m fairly sure a big reason the Colts traded for Buckner is because they knew they couldn’t get Kinlaw at Pick 13.) The Jags definitely could be the worst team in football in 2020, so they have to be thinking total rebuild with this pick. Pairing Kinlaw with Josh Allen is a good place to start.
Cleveland Browns – Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia
Andrew Thomas is a prime example of why I hate draft season sometimes. He was a high school All-American with extraordinary length, started for three years at Georgia with improvement each season, was the highest graded Power-5 tackle at PFF in 2019, and then had a great showing at the Combine. At his size he posted the fourth best 3 Cone Drill time among all offensive linemen, which if you ask me should be a bigger deal than Mekhi Bechton running a 5.1 40. And yet, you commonly see Thomas as the fourth tackle on big boards and in mocks. I swear, the logic is “we know Thomas is going to be a 5 Pro Bowl type of player, but we’d rather roll the dice on a 10 Pro Bowl type of player!” Well, not in my mock. With this pick, Baker Mayfield would have a strong supporting cast on all levels of the offense and could only point fingers at himself if they struggle again in 2020.
Philadelphia Eagles – CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma
(TRADE: Philadelphia receives Picks 1/11 and 3/68, New York Jets receive Pick 1/21, 2021 First Round Pick, and Alshon Jeffrey)
LET’S GET NUTS. The Eagles push their chips into the middle of the table to grab the superstar out of Oklahoma, whose explosiveness you almost have to see to believe. Philly’s receiving corps might be the single greatest roster flaw among contenders across the league; it’s a certainty that they address it early in this draft. Yes, this draft is absurdly deep at receiver, but Lamb is on another level as whomever the Eagles could draft at Pick 21. The price is steep, but this is likely around what it would take to move up 10 spots in the first round to grab a player of Lamb’s caliber. The Eagles also pick up the high third round pick that the Jets stole from the Giants in the Leonard Williams trade, and the plug is pulled on the suddenly sour relationship with Alshon Jeffrey. Moving Alshon would place a financial burden on the Eagles for 2020, but as Howie Roseman’s creative accounting has started to catch up with him, ripping off the Band-Aid of his contract and replacing it with Lamb on a rookie deal would give Philly some much needed flexibility for 2021 and beyond.
As for Jets fans – and Sam Darnold – I know this would suck. The Jets could badly use Lamb or Jedrick Wills in this spot. But the lack of talent on that roster is just so palpable that they couldn’t turn down an additional first rounder. And without owing Alshon any guaranteed money by picking him up via trade, it’s a low-risk move for a guy who if healthy would absolutely be the best target that Sam Darnold has had in New York.
Arizona Cardinals – Jedrick Wills, OT, Alabama
(Via Las Vegas)
Talk about a win for the Cardinals. They pick up two extra good picks and still land the guy who they probably would have taken in their original slot. Wills and his mobility would be an ideal fit in Kliff Kingsbury’s up-tempo offense. I think Kyler Murray has more left to prove than most, but if he does take the next step with Wills anchoring the right side of the line, this offense could be tough to stop.
Denver Broncos – Henry Ruggs, WR, Alabama
(TRADE: Denver receives Pick 1/13, San Francisco receives Picks 1/15 and 3/77)
The above trades are mostly pipe dreams, but I could really see this one playing out. Henry Ruggs to Denver is probably the most commonly mocked pick outside of Joe Burrow to the Bengals, but I’m not confident that Ruggs and his 4.27 speed make it to Pick 15. The Broncos desperately need to bring in another receiver across from Courtland Sutton, and that offense could use an infusion of speed too. Denver has three third round picks in this draft, so they are willing to depart with their top one to get the fourth Crimson Tide offensive player off the board.
As for the 49ers, while they could definitely take Ruggs themselves in this spot, they currently have no picks between Rounds 2-4, so this is a fairly easy decision to move back only two spots.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Mekhi Bechton, OT, Louisville
While I think it’s ridiculous that Bechton in reality will likely go ahead of at least one player from the Wirfs/Thomas/Wills trio, you can’t teach 6’7” and 364 pounds with his athleticism. With Tampa’s need for an upgrade at right tackle, this is the furthest that Bechton would fall. He is viewed as a work in progress at his natural left tackle position, so Bucs fans should temper expectations in this event that he’s drafted to immediately hold down the right side. Still, with the combination of his sheer size and Tom Brady’s quick release, this would be an ideal destination for Bechton.
San Francisco 49ers – Cesar Ruiz, C/OG, Michigan
While this wouldn’t be the sexiest of picks, one of the few areas of the Niners roster where they could stand to improve is the interior of the offensive line. Their guards stink and center Weston Richburg is coming off a serious injury, so the versatile Ruiz would start somewhere from day one and would insert nicely into Kyle Shanahan’s zone-heavy offense. In theory it would make more sense for San Fran to address this position with their later first round pick, but Ruiz is the clear top player in a weak interior offensive linemen class, so he might not be available at Pick 31.
Atlanta Falcons – CJ Henderson, CB, Florida
If Henderson is still available for the Falcons, then you can write this pick in Sharpie. Atlanta’s current cornerback situation is abysmal, and Henderson is insanely athletic and plays with a ton of physicality. Totally perfect fit for a Dan Quinn defense.
Dallas Cowboys – K’Lavon Chaisson, EDGE, LSU
The Cowboys could address a few different positions on defense with this pick, so I’ll roll with the guy who would likely be the top player on a lot of teams’ boards at this point. Personally I’m skeptical of the raw, bendy edge rusher types like Chaisson, and I think he’d be a better fit in a 3-4 base defense. Still, his athleticism is indisputable and he finished the season really strong. Dallas needs someone opposite DeMarcus Lawrence now that Robert Quinn is gone, and let’s just say that I don’t think Aldon Smith is the answer.
Washington Redskins – Josh Jones, OT, Houston
Redskins fans haven’t had a lot to cheer about this century, but a draft class led by Jerry Jeudy and Josh Jones would be one of those things. Jones might not be the specimen that the offensive tackles ahead of him in this mock are, but he was the highest graded tackle at PFF in 2019 and erased any concerns of the level of competition that he faced at Houston with a dominant performance at the Senior Bowl.
Los Angeles Chargers – Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
(TRADE: Los Angeles receives Pick 1/19, Las Vegas receives Picks 2/37, 3/71 and 2021 Second Round Pick)
Despite everything I wrote earlier about how I think the Chargers could pass on Herbert at Pick 6 and sign a veteran QB, they make a play to get back into the first round in front of Jacksonville after watching the kid tumble! Even if LA does sign someone like Cam, that should by no means stop them from addressing QB in this draft. Herbert would be stepping into an extremely talented offense with no expectations to immediately start in this scenario, which would be perfect given his failure to rise to the occasion in some big games at Oregon and all of the reports on his apparent lack of edge.
As for the Raiders, they scoop back up a third rounder in this draft and a 2021 second rounder after trading them away in the hypothetical Okudah trade. And at Pick 37, the caliber of wide receiver that they’d likely take wouldn’t be much different than whomever they would have targeted here.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Jordan Love, QB, Utah State
Now, would I make this pick as the GM of the Jaguars? Absolutely not, despite the fact that nobody would be feeling confident about Gardner Minshew as a Week 1 starter if he was a normal looking guy with a cleanly shaven face. While I do endorse the strategy of bringing in QBs via the draft until you find your guy – hence this mock draft placement – I certainly do not endorse using first round picks on deeply flawed and largely unproductive prospects, regardless of how much more valuable quarterback is than any other position. Love is toolsy and started to earn first round chatter after his sophomore season, but he couldn’t take care of the ball or consistently find his receivers in the Mountain West Conference. The logical best-case projection here is Josh Allen (Bills QB). That should give you pause when Allen is the best possible outcome, but regardless of your thoughts on Allen – mine aren’t high – just about anyone would take him with the 20th overall pick in a draft today.
New York Jets – Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
There are so many different directions the Jets could go with this pick. EDGE and offensive tackle are more glaring needs (and wide receiver in reality, but they addressed that with the Alshon Jeffrey trade in this mock), but there isn’t necessarily anyone on the board at those positions who would justify a selection here. The Jets roll with Fulton instead, the battle-tested senior cornerback from LSU. The tier of cornerbacks after Jeff Okudah is deep, and Fulton isn’t recognized as the most athletic of that bunch. But his production in the SEC was off the charts, and concerns regarding his athleticism are a bit unfounded in my opinion. He was a five-star high school recruit and he performed well at the Combine in every drill outside of the 20 Yard Shuttle. For how much of a revolving door the cornerback position has been for the Jets since Darrelle Revis’ departure, they could use someone with Fulton’s stability.
Minnesota Vikings – Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
The Vikings roster has pretty quietly taken a beating this offseason, but with two of the next four picks, they should be able to quickly rebound and remain competitive in 2020. They aren’t fooling anyone with Tajae Sharpe currently listed as WR2 on their depth chart, so the first of their two picks is spent on Higgins. There are plenty of good receivers still on the board for Minnesota to choose from here, but Higgins is the best fit for their style of offense and has become an overlooked prospect in my opinion. With his 6’4” frame and excellent catch radius, Vikings fans wouldn’t be longing for Stefon Diggs’ contested catch ability with Higgins taking his place.
New England Patriots – AJ Epenesa, DL, Iowa
This is simultaneously one of my favorite and more frustrating picks of this mock, because in a couple of years we’ll all be like, “why did we let Bill Belichick get this guy at the back of the first round?” Epenesa is a monster who physically stood out even in the Big 10. He opened draft season as a consistent Top 10 pick with well-known speed concerns, and yet we have all overreacted to his slow showing at the Combine. I’m of the outspoken opinion that the Pats are going to suck next year and might be tanking before our eyes. I’d be really shocked if they draft a quarterback in the first round – Belichick certainly isn’t going to trade up – so I have them taking the best player available. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Epenesa could become New England’s next Richard Seymour.
New Orleans Saints – Justin Jefferson, WR, LSU
What do you draft when you have everything? The Saints are somehow running back another revamped roster for what feels like the fifth season in a row, and it’s really tough to find any areas of weakness. I suppose they could look to trade back or an argument could be made for off-ball linebacker, but I have them keeping the bendy slot receiver out of LSU in state. The Saints simply have to be doing everything they can at this point to beef up the offense as much as possible for Drew Brees, and Jefferson would be a unique weapon. I know they already signed Emmanuel Sanders, but he’s a constant health risk and is probably in decline anyways.
Minnesota Vikings – Jaylon Johnson, CB, Utah
Now that the Vikings have addressed receiver, the other area where they need an immediate rookie impact is cornerback. Jaylon Johnson has the experience and instincts to step into a starting role right away, and Mike Zimmer would love his physicality.
Miami Dolphins – Xavier McKinney, S, Alabama
Despite their spending spree this offseason, the Dolphins could still use help at just about every position. The priority should be offensive line, especially if they draft Tua. Ereck Flowers is the most high profile player currently on their line, which tells you all that you need to know. Still, there aren’t any offensive linemen on the board I’m comfortable mocking to Miami this early, and they have plenty of picks later in the draft to address it. So I have them taking the Swiss Army Knife out of Alabama, who ironically enough for the Dolphins profiles similarly to Minkah Fitzpatrick. With a pair of stud corners in Byron Jones and Xavien Howard already locked up long term, Brian Flores could look to build his team through secondary like the Patriots have done recently.
Seattle Seahawks – Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
The Seahawks are the least predictable drafters in the league so this is a fool’s errand, but I’ll try my best. They could use help on the offensive line, but that’s been the case for Seattle for years and they never seem to take it too seriously in the draft. They could use another pass rusher too, but I’d guess they solve that by bringing back Jadaveon Clowney or another veteran free agent. While Seattle has already traded for Quinton Dunbar this offseason, Pete Carroll prioritizes the secondary and they could use depth at cornerback. Bryce Hall was on his way to being a first round pick in last year’s draft, but then he returned for his senior year and seriously injured his ankle. He should be fully recovered by the preseason, and a potentially delayed start to the season would be beneficial for Hall. You don’t find him ranked highly on big boards or some Top 50 lists altogether, but Hall is long, physical and built for a zone-heavy scheme like Seattle’s.
Baltimore Ravens – Zack Baun, LB, Wisconsin
The Ravens front office is as good as it gets, so they find themselves in a situation where the roster doesn’t have many gaps and yet they still have three picks within the first two rounds. Part of the reason the Ravens are so good year after year is that they emphasize versatility and find value where other teams don’t. Zack Baun isn’t exactly a diamond in the rough after his huge senior year at Wisconsin and a Top 20 draft grade on NFL.com, but most teams would overlook him in this spot for a more traditional linebacker on the board like Patrick Queen or Kenneth Murray. But I’d bet the Ravens roll with Baun, who could predominately play off-ball as a rookie but still occasionally rush off the edge. The only proven edge rusher on Baltimore is Matthew Judon and he’s on the franchise tag, so this could be a two-birds-one-stone pick.
Indianapolis Colts – Patrick Queen, LB, LSU
(TRADE: Indianapolis receives Picks 1/29 and 7/224, Tennessee receives Picks 2/34, 4/122 and 2021 Third Round Pick)
The Colts have been extremely aggressive this offseason, signing Philip Rivers to a one-year deal and trading their first round pick for DeForest Buckner then signing him to a long-term extension. Chris Ballard doesn’t stop there, as he trades back into the first round to stop the unexpected slide of the sideline-to-sideline linebacker out of LSU. Queen is undersized and a bit unproven, and Indy doesn’t necessarily have a need at linebacker, but this value is too good to pass up. Queen has rare speed for a linebacker and has good instincts to go along with it. You don’t see three linebackers on the field at once as much as you used to, but the trio of Darius Leonard/Bobby Okereke/Queen is athletic enough to hold their own over the middle of the field with Malik Hooker as the single-high safety. A simple trade value chart will tell you that the Colts are overpaying in this scenario, but there are three teams between Picks 30-33 with glaring needs at inside linebacker, and Ballard understands the value of the fifth-year option on first rounders as well as anyone. This version of the Colts defense could be great.
As for the Titans, I doubt they want to move out of the first round – let alone to allow their division rivals to sneak in – but they have only four picks in the Top 6 rounds this year. Picking up two solid picks to move back five spots is a good haul. I also figure they’re seeking a cornerback with their first selection, and a good one should still be available at the top of the second round.
Green Bay Packers – Brandon Aiyuk, WR, Arizona State
It’s definitely possible that the Packers could go defense with this pick, especially with memories of getting gashed by the 49ers rushing attack in the NFC Championship Game fresh in mind. Kenneth Murray or Justin Madubuike would make a lot of sense. Still, this is my mock draft, and I will not allow the Packers to go into another season with some bum WR2. Aaron Rodgers isn’t getting any younger, so no more of Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, or Allen Lazard. Green Bay needs someone who can step in and immediately become the home run hitter of the offense. Aiyuk was a YAC machine at Arizona State, posting an absurd 18.3 yards per reception. For as deep as this receiver class is, they are going to fly off the board in the second round, so the Packers get their guy here.
San Francisco 49ers – Grant Delpit, S, LSU
Kyle Shanahan got the 49ers first pick on his side of the ball, so now Robert Saleh gets his. Grant Delpit’s pedigree suggests that he should go much higher than Pick 31, being a two-time All-American and the leader of a National Championship-winning defense. But his 2019 was filled with nagging injuries and missed tackles, so he now finds himself as a borderline first rounder. John Lynch and Co. are smart enough to scoop him up here, despite Delpit being a true free safety when the 49ers just locked up Jimmie Ward at the position. Still, Delpit (and Ward for that matter) is versatile and talented enough to find his way onto the field. His ball skills and playmaking ability are second to none among defensive backs in this class, so he should thrive in a defense with Nick Bosa terrorizing quarterbacks.
Kansas City Chiefs – Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
For being the defending Super Bowl champs, the Chiefs roster really isn’t well rounded at all. They have major concerns at the following positions: guard, center, edge rusher, linebacker, and cornerback. Package that with a current path towards their salary cap being in the red, and Brett Veach has his work cut out for him. But you know what? Kansas City had most of these roster issues last year too and still won it all, which speaks to what Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes are capable of together. So I say, screw it. The Chiefs are unlikely to land a major impact rookie at one of those positions listed above, and they still have Mahomes on the books for about 10% of what he’s actually worth. Upgrade at running back and try to score 40 points per game in the immediate future. I’m riding shotgun in the “running backs don’t matter” car – notice how I haven’t mentioned one until now despite this being a pretty good class. But Jonathan Taylor is incredible, and I seriously cannot believe that traditional draft experts aren’t gushing about him more. He averaged over 2,000 yards per season over three years at Wisconsin, and then he went out and ran the fastest 40 among running backs at the Combine. And speed isn’t even really his game! Andy Reid deceptively likes to run the ball a lot, and he’s smart enough to avoid second contracts for running backs. With Taylor under control for five years, Reid would run him into the ground and maybe into another Super Bowl or two along the way.
Don’t like who I mocked for your team? Any other thoughts? Let me know on Twitter @Real_Peej
For the first 21-22 years of my life, I liked movies in the same way that 98% of the population likes movies. There were certain blockbusters that I’d make sure to see in theaters on opening weekend, I’d try to catch a few of the Oscars contenders in theaters too, and I’d watch The Shawshank Redemption on TNT a few times a year.
Without sounding melodramatic or self-serious or whatever, movies began to take on more importance in my life when I graduated from college in 2015. Like most fresh postgrads, I wasn’t fully prepared to live alone without any provided structure, and this was compounded with a job I didn’t like and a home with four roommates I hadn’t previously known. I wasn’t struggling – seriously, no need to retroactively check in. I was just mostly bored and feeling creatively weighed down at such a young age.
Movies – with major ups to MoviePass and AMC Stubs – became an outlet to me in so many ways, especially as someone who doesn’t read books and doesn’t understand traditional art in any meaningful way. I started going to theaters on a weekly basis. I sought out movies with small budgets and movies that I normally would not have identified as my type. I started reading and listening to criticism from different perspectives and tried my best to pay it forward with criticism of my own. Each theater experience for me became simultaneously exciting and challenging and therapeutic, and looking back on my progression as a moviegoer from 2015 to 2020 is something I am legitimately proud of.
I tell you all of this because it prefaces a blog that you can find 1,000 variations of elsewhere on the Internet, yet it’s a blog that I am pumped to share. All 51 of these films, and the 21 Honorable Mentions, received an A or A+ grade by The PJ Scale ™. (This list started at 50 and then I saw a movie that cracked the list as I was writing, and I didn’t feel like deleting something I already wrote.)
Important caveats are that I missed a lot of movies that you might find on other similar lists, and my list is also skewed towards the latter half of the decade since I probably saw 5x as many movies during that time. So here it is, with a quick blurb for each selection and some favorite scenes along the way. (Probably goes without saying, but MAJOR spoiler potential.)
I SUCK FOR MISSING (2010-2018): 12 Years a Slave, 50/50, Black Swan, Contagion, Easy A, End of Watch, Frances Ha, Good Time, The Hate U Give, Her, How To Train Your Dragon Franchise, Inside Llewyn Davis, It, It Follows, Kick-Ass, John Wick Franchise, The Lobster, Magic Mike, Magic Mike XXL, The Master, Molly’s Game, Rush, Selma, Skyfall, The Town, The Tree of Life, Under the Skin, Warrior
SOON TO SEE (2019): Booksmart, Dark Waters, High Life, Jojo Rabbit, The Lighthouse, Little Women, Rocketman
51. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLIDER (2014)
Directed by The Russo Brothers
A Soviet-era spy movie that comes out of NOWHERE, The Winter Soldier changed how we thought about Cap and the Marvel Cinematic Universe altogether. Keep in mind; this movie was released immediately following Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World in the MCU. It had no business being this cool.
50. KNIVES OUT (2019)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Nothing about this whodunit fits the typical structure of the genre. You find out who committed the murder and how it happened in the first act. The A-listers are all in supporting roles around newcomer Ana de Armas. And yet, it totally works. It has more to say than you might expect – or care to hear depending on your Rian Johnson thoughts – but its calling card is being one of the most flat-out fun movies of the decade.
49. FRUITVALE STATION (2013)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
The absolutely GUTWRENCHING true story of the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant, Ryan Coogler’s feature debut gets a performance out of Michael B. Jordan that he still hasn’t touched since. This was the first collaboration between Coogler and Jordan – and all three are included in this blog in some capacity – and it remains the most emotionally affecting of the bunch.
48. CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE (2011)
Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
There isn’t another movie on this list that has more working against it. Robbie is one of the worst characters of this decade in film, the storyline with the babysitter was immediately problematic, and the movie asks you to suspend A LOT of disbelief for how much Steve Carell pulls. But I can’t deny how much I love this movie. The twists are amazing, and every Gosling/Stone scene is rom-com gold. DAVID LINDHAGEN!
47. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Shocking, controversial, and somehow still hilarious, Three Billboards is an absolute tornado of an experience. A lot of people were turned off by it, but I was sure as hell not one of them. It constantly verges on falling apart with its countless “what the hell did I just watch” moments, but Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell keep it on track with their Oscar-winning performances.
46. TRUE GRIT (2010)
Directed by The Coen Brothers
A straightforward Western remake is antithetical to almost everything about The Coen Brothers, but it comes through so clearly watching True Grit how much of a blast they must have had making it. With a starmaking performance from Hailee Steinfeld and Matt Damon at perhaps his most outrageously fun, we are all better off for this movie existing.
45. 1917 (2019)
Directed by Sam Mendes
The first thing anyone wants to talk about with 1917 is the one-long-shot approach, and for good reason. It takes you right inside the horror of World War 1, and it might become the defining work of the greatest cinematographer of a generation, Roger Deakins. But the camerawork is almost too good, because it leaves the screenplay and lead performances as completely underrated. Although this movie intentionally feels like a sprint, there are so many amazing things going on within it.
44. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Manchester By The Sea often comes up in conversation for how goddamn sad it is, and that’s valid. It’s devastating. But leaving it at that shortchanges this screenplay, of which you can count on one hand how many might have topped it this decade. And then there is Casey Affleck’s performance in the lead…good lord. I almost never think to revisit this movie, but that doesn’t make it any less of a masterpiece.
43. THE OTHER GUYS (2010)
Directed by Adam McKay
The Other Guys is oft quoted, from “Dirty Mike and the Boys” to the TLC references. But I still feel like it doesn’t have the legacy it deserves? I mean, Ferrell and Wahlberg pair PERFECTLY, and killing off The Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in the first 10 minutes remains one of the funniest things ever. Most people would tell me I’m crazy for saying this is my favorite McKay/Ferrell vehicle…but I think it is?
42. ARGO (2012)
Directed by Ben Affleck
Argo strangely feels like it happened 20 years ago, and it’s even stranger that a movie like this won Best Picture. Still, Argo-fuck yourself if you’re a hater. You know how it’s gonna end the whole time, but that doesn’t make the final act even a little bit less thrilling. Also, thanks again Canada!
41. STEVE JOBS (2015)
Directed by Danny Boyle
A criminally overlooked movie, thanks in part to bombing at the box office and the shitty Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher that came out right beforehand. I love the pace, look, and dialogue of this movie – even if it comes dangerously close to Sorkin overload. But more than anything, Michael Fassbander CRUSHES in the title role. He got hosed at the Oscars with Leo getting his lifetime achievement award that year, and the really sad part is that Fassbender’s career today probably looks a lot different for the better had he won.
40. THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)
Directed by James Franco
The really good movie about the really bad movie, James Franco pulled off something amazing here. You can convince me that it’s the funniest movie of the decade, but even without any jokes The Disaster Artist would be moving. In retrospect the Oscar buzz surrounding Franco’s performance was silly, and I wish they had gone a bit deeper into the dark side of being involved in the production of The Room. Still, I cackled, cried, and cheered in these 103 minutes.
39. THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
If you had polled me midway through the decade, I would have told you that The Dark Knight Rises was a lock to finish in the Top 10 for this blog. It somehow lived up to the hype, Bane was instantly iconic, and it spurred a real debate over whether it was even better than The Dark Knight. Now you should be embarrassed to have that debate in public, and I’d agree that TDKR hasn’t aged all too well. But the fact that that debate actually did happen speaks to how awesome this movie was and still is.
38. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012)
Directed by David O. Russell
I’m not sure how well Silver Linings Playbook would be received if it were released in 2019 instead of 2012, but that’s not how it went, so I’ll disregard that hypothetical. Bradley Cooper became more than the guy from The Hangover, Jennifer Lawrence immediately became a star (and do not pretend like she wasn’t AWESOME in this), and De Niro hit a homer in a bold role. David O. Russell has had his fair share of whiffs since Silver Linings, but he really connected with this contradiction of a movie. It’s a rom-com that’s also a sports movie, and you’re laughing the whole time while the whole time you feel like you aren’t supposed to be laughing.
37. THE BIG SICK (2017)
Directed by Michael Showalter
Kumail Nanjiani’s passion project could not have been released at a more perfect time. Hysterical and important, The Big Sick was a sleeper hit behind its Oscar-nominated screenplay and insanely good performances – especially from Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. While I hope that everyone eventually sees this movie, its better legacy would be as a trailblazer for more original projects like it.
36. BLINDSPOTTING (2018)
Directed by Carlos Lopez Estrada
Similar in nature to The Big Sick, some of my favorite movies are the ones where it’s painfully obvious that the people involved have been fighting for years to bring it to the big screen. And whew boy, that is the case for Blindspotting. It’s not the first movie to tackle police violence or gentrification, but it has such a genuine style that I can’t really find a comparison. Just take my word for it.
35. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)
Directed by Wes Anderson
I am by NO means a Wes Anderson fan, so The Grand Budapest Hotel’s placement on this list should tell you all you need to know about it. Visually stunning, actually funny, and anchored by an all-time turn from Ralph Fiennes, I can’t think of another movie from this decade that surprised me more with its sheer entertainment.
34. DRIVE (2011)
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
There might be some detractors out there now that Drive is approaching its tenth birthday, but I don’t care what they have to say. Drive is still so fucking cool. Almost no modern films look or sound better, and you know it right from the opening credits. The 2010s flat-out belonged to Ryan Gosling, and this still might be his most iconic performance even though he barely speaks.
33. TOY STORY 4 (2019)
Directed by Josh Cooley
This franchise, man. EVERYONE, myself included, had agreed that Toy Story 3 (more on that later) was the perfect culmination to this saga. It was more than fair to have concern over whether Pixar was going to milk another good-not-great sequel for a billion dollars like Monsters University and Finding Dory. But then, through a villainous 1950s pullstring doll and a spork having an existential crisis, you realize that they never actually wrapped up Woody and Buzz’s mutual arc? Toy Story 4 certainly didn’t flop, but I think time will be extremely kind to its legacy.
32. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)
Directed by George Miller
I’ll admit it: I didn’t get the hype when I saw Fury Road in theaters. Maybe I was just shell-shocked, but it took until about my fifth viewing on HBO to realize what George Miller pulled off. There are multiple action scenes that are among the best ever put to the big screen, and you can feel the realness behind each stunt and crash and explosion. I maintain that Tom Hardy is bad in this movie, but who cares? Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is one of the best characters of the decade, and I’m literally out of breath by the time they decide to go back on the road.
31. PHANTOM THREAD (2017)
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
My name is PJ, and I freaking love this movie about a 1950s idiosyncratic dressmaker and his muse. I hesitate to divulge any plot points or one-liners because they all hit so hard upon first watch. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis, so you really shouldn’t be too surprised, but seriously go watch Phantom Thread.
30. I, TONYA (2017)
Directed by Craig Gillespie
I rolled my eyes at the “Goodfellas on ice” marketing behind this movie, but that’s actually a pretty perfect description of I,Tonya! With a script that completely runs with the insanity of the whole situation and Margot Robbie and Allison Janney absolutely going for it, I, Tonya is almost impossibly fun. Sure, you might find yourself sympathizing a little too much for Harding at times, but there is enough to remind you that she’s a liar and overall shitty person. But damn, she could skate!
29. DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
A movie about slavery that is…cathartic and cool? Only Tarantino. I wouldn’t say that Django Unchained is a perfect movie, but it very well might be perfectly acted. Everyone involved is hitting the right notes, nobody more than Mr. DiCaprio in a rare supporting role. It’s a performance that isn’t any less jaw-dropping over seven years later. Honestly, it’s probably my favorite of his filmography, and that alone justifies a high ranking.
28. MOONLIGHT (2016)
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Bar none, there is not another movie on this list that rivals Moonlight in its pure beauty. Barry Jenkins grants you VIP access to Chiron’s heartbreaking self-discovery through three separate acts in his life. Moonlight is MUCH more than just an educational look into the life of an underrepresented protagonist. For my money, the scene above with Mahershala Ali (in a Hall of Fame performance) is the single best scene of the decade.
27a. PADDINGTON (2014)
27b. PADDINGTON 2 (2017)
Directed by Paul King
These movies are TREASURES. I love that polite bear from Darkest Peru more than anything. These are both family films to their cores, but the Paddington movies have transcended age because of their undeniable wholesomeness. I think I prefer the original while I can acknowledge that the sequel is probably a bit better, but I’m cheating here because picking against either of them would break my heart.
26. EX MACHINA (2014)
Directed by Alex Garland
More than any other movie that I can remember, I sat in my bed in silence for a LONG time after watching Ex Machina for the first time. It is indescribably unsettling, and I mean that in the best way possible. The movie looks and sounds incredible, and it will scare the ever-living shit out of you in non-traditional ways. A sharp screenplay from Alex Garland and a crazy good performance from Alicia Vikander elevate Ex Machina far beyond its basic questions about mankind.
25. THE AVENGERS (2012)
Directed by Joss Whedon
There have been some truly great entries among the 23 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the project that probably defines this decade in film more than anything. And yet, it is the entry that kickstarted the massive scale of these movies that we’ve come to love that remains the best of the MCU. You have to go back to 2012 logic to properly appreciate The Avengers. Marvel movies weren’t THAT popular yet, and people REALLY didn’t think all of these characters on screen at the same time would work. Um, it did, on its way to becoming one of only three movies released before 2015 to crack $1.5 billion at the box office.
24. THIS IS THE END (2013)
Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
This trailer blew up the Internet, and deservedly so behind a premise that is truly one of the most inventive of the decade. People are STILL quoting this movie, often without realizing it. (We were collectively not saying “tight” a lot before this came out.) You get cokehead Michael Cera, pretentious Jonah Hill, axe-wielding Emma Watson…the list keeps going. It’s the best pure comedy of the 2010s to me.
23. THE NICE GUYS (2016)
Directed by Shane Black
The Nice Guys is the type of movie that rarely gets made anymore, which is a shame because it’s my favorite kind of movie. Shane Black was given $50 million by Warner Bros. to bring his script – which fits into three separate genres according to Wikipedia – to life behind Russell Crowe and Gos-God in the leads. Unfortunately, I don’t see more movies like it being made in the future, since The Nice Guys didn’t land at the box office or win awards. But it is fucking hilarious, thrilling, and has way more heart than you’d suspect.
22. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
I had not for the life of me been able to pick which of Tarantino’s films I liked more between Django and Once Upon a Time. But I’m giving the more recent of the two the nod because it has already started to age incredibly well. I really liked Once Upon a Time upon my first viewing a few months ago in theaters, but I have revered this movie ever since my first rewatch. EVERY scene is worth searching on YouTube. And Brad Pitt…just unfairly cool.
21. HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)
Directed by David Mackenzie
A couple things are certain when it comes to Hell or High Water. This would be a ton of people’s single favorite movie if it gains the exposure it deserves, and if not for No Country For Old Men it might be the greatest neo-western of all time. Extremely badass with an extremely important social statement to boot, this movie is ferocious from start to finish. ESPECIALLY to finish…good lord, Ben Foster.
20. HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS: PART 2 (2011)
Directed by David Yates
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Deathly Hallows was split up into two parts purely for cinematic reasons…but man it worked out for the best. Part 2 is a rush from the get-go, loaded with action and awesome visuals. But there is never any distraction from the emotional stakes of the culmination of this pop culture phenomenon. With the amount of franchises that have botched their landings in recent years, Harry Potter going out with its best entry is only more magical in hindsight.
19. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! (2016)
Directed by Richard Linklater
A near lock to become a cult classic, Everybody Wants Some!! is Richard Linklater’s “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused that largely went unseen. But that description is accurate, because this movie is truly just as good. A hangout movie with a cast that you genuinely would want to hangout with, there wasn’t a movie released this decade that I have more fun revisiting.
18. CREED (2015)
Directed by Ryan Coogler
Maybe the most pleasant surprise of the decade, Creed was released on the heels of multiple mediocre Rocky movies and went on to become one of the greatest sports movies of all time in the process. Ryan Coogler rejuvenated this franchise with amazing boxing scenes and a brilliant story that allowed Sylvester Stallone to be in the movie as way more than just a cameo. It’s a bummer that Coogler was one-and-done in the franchise, but at least we can revisit Creed and still feel those thrills we got the first time.
17. GONE GIRL (2014)
Directed by David Fincher
The movie that I just assume is better than the book, Gone Girl is a popcorn thriller that still gets two thumbs up from even the most pretentious Fincher fanatic. Rosamund Pike is obviously and rightfully the star here – she should have won the Oscar. But Affleck is AWESOME in this movie too! It’s troubling, scary, and will sure as hell mess with your mind. But it’s still so cool.
16. THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016)
Directed by Kelly Fremon Craig
The Edge of Seventeen is my personal pick as the most underrated movie of the decade, and I say that as someone who was late to discovering it. But ever since my first time with it, I’ve watched it again as much as any other movie. I’m of the belief that Hailee Steinfeld should be the most famous person on the planet, and if you think that’s crazy then watch her performance in this and get back to me. Affecting and funny for any viewer at any age, The Edge of Seventeen belongs in that Mean Girls tier of coming-of-age films.
15. SPOTLIGHT (2015)
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Normally a biographical newspaper movie is one that comes off as Oscar-bait, but Spotlight is legitimately gripping. Perfectly written, acted, and directed, everyone involved does their part to present you the facts without any greater agenda. It’s one of the more disturbing movies of the decade, yet one that’s strangely rewatchable. The silence that hit my theater during the final credits was my most chilling movie moment of the decade, maybe ever.
14. MONEYBALL (2011)
Directed by Bennett Miller
I’ll admit: I didn’t take to Moneyball back when it came out, and yes that is entirely because I am a baseball snob. Although I do still think it’s a bit weird how the movie makes zero mention of the A’s having the MVP and Cy Young winner on their team, I can look past that now because the rest of Moneyball is a cinematic achievement. Scouting meetings and trade negotiations for relievers play out like gunfights, and Brad Pitt has never been better. I can proudly admit that this story makes me emotional just thinking about it. It revolutionized sports, and all business to a degree, with the simple concept of playing to human beings’ strengths. How can you not be romantic about baseball?
13. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT (2018)
Directed by Christopher McQuarrie
Perhaps my most rewarding film experience of the decade was binging the first five Mission: Impossible movies in advance of Fallout hitting theaters. I figured it would be good with its dope trailer and strong early buzz. I didn’t realize that I’d be walking into one of the greatest action movies ever made. You get Henry Cavill as a villain. You get the return of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. You get the club bathroom fight. You get the HALO jump. I hesitate to say Tom Cruise’s daredevil approach to these movies is worth it because I’m afraid he’s going to kill himself in one of these stunts, but damn they are spectacular.
12. THE BIG SHORT (2015)
Directed by Adam McKay
Simultaneously one of the best comedies and horror movies of the decade, The Big Short managed to make us laugh while successfully simplifying the events that led to the financial crisis. The invention behind the storytelling and editing of this movie will likely be lost on people as time goes on, but The Big Short was a game changer. Just think about it: the most historically accurate movie about the financial crisis is the same one with Margot Robbie (as herself) in a bathtub.
11. WHIPLASH (2014)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
A movie about a jazz drummer is also one of the most intense movies of the decade. Whiplash is about letting nothing get in the way of your dream, and it is exhilarating to watch it all unfold. J.K. Simmons puts forward one of the truly iconic performances…of the decade? Of all time? It’s that elite. Whiplash has a perfect ending and only runs for 107 minutes, but it could have gone on forever and I’d be satisfied.
10. BIRDMAN (2014)
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
The most dazzling movie of the decade, Birdman is a goddamn trip. Filmed to make it look like the entire movie is one shot, this is a breakthrough from a cinematography standpoint. And that score with the drums! Holy shit! Birdman is more than its aesthetics and technicality though. You find yourself desperately rooting for Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, who really could have won an Oscar for this fairly meta performance as a washed up superhero actor. It did win Best Picture, one of the few times this decade the Academy made a good call there.
9. LA LA LAND (2016)
Directed by Damien Chazelle
It was really a bummer that La La Land got swept up in the Best Picture race against Moonlight, because so many people still hold a grudge against it despite it being a masterpiece. It’s inspiring, funny, beautifully shot, and has songs that you’ll listen to in your free time. But none of those things are what separates it for me. Emma Stone earned her Oscar too, but that’s not it either. It’s the ending, which is long and unexpected and not “happy,” but it is PERFECT. My favorite ending of the decade.
8. INCEPTION (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
I’m not ranking Inception this high to get your take on whether or not the top is going to stop spinning at the end of the movie. I’m ranking it this high because it’s one of the most inventive movies I’ve ever seen, from visual and musical and storytelling standpoints. The movie is almost ten years old now and it still feels like you’re in an experiment when you’re watching it. I don’t side with Chris Nolan critics who roll their eyes at how heady his movies can be, although I do at least understand it in a case like Interstellar. I don’t think that argument applies to Inception whatsoever though. Whenever the characters go deeper into another dream, the deeper I get sucked into the movie.
7. PARASITE (2019)
Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Believe the hype. Parasite is stunning. It’s addicting too, as I’ve already seen it twice when there are so many 2019 movies still out there that I need to see. It’s metaphoric in a fairly simple way, but it is so brilliant and clever with its twists, dialogue, visuals, etc. Even without the subtitles, I think I could have understood and been rocked by what transpires in the movie, which hopefully speaks to what Bong Joon-ho pulled off here.
6. SICARIO (2015)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Sicario is somehow that movie that I wouldn’t wish on anyone but also the movie that I don’t think I can be friends with you if you haven’t seen it. It’s impeccable, but holy hell is it an uncomfortable watch. It’s script, which is extremely gritty but also ambitious with its content, put Taylor Sheridan on the map. It’s an absolutely loaded cast with Emily Blunt, Benecio del Toro, Josh Brolin and Daniel Kaluuya, yet you don’t really care what any of their characters’ names are. You’re too dialed in to care. It’s maybe the most intense movie I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget the feeling of being stapled to my theater chair as the final credits rolled.
5. TOY STORY 3 (2010)
Directed by Lee Unkrich
The most emotionally resonant movie of the decade, of course, was the one that introduced us to characters such as Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear and Mr. Pricklepants. Toy Story 3 WRECKED everyone back in 2010, with themes of loss and goodbyes cooked in with the nostalgia of seeing these beloved characters on the big screen for the first time since the 90s. Think about how unlikely of a success story this was. How often is the decade-too-late sequel even a little bit good? And to become arguably the best Pixar movie ever made? Miracle.
4. BOYHOOD (2014)
Directed by Richard Linklater
I’m sure other directors have had the idea to film a movie in pieces over an elongated period of time, but thank goodness we got Richard Linklater as the one who actually pulled it off. As intimate as a movie possibly can be, Boyhood is a masterpiece. Plain and simple. Even though Boyhood operates essentially without a plot, it’s the most relatable movie that I’ve experienced, and I know I say that as a white kid who grew up in suburban New Jersey. But I think people from all different walks of life feel this way about Boyhood, and that’s kinda its point.
3. ARRIVAL (2016)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
If you unfortunately missed Arrival when it came out, let me give you the brief synopsis: extraterrestrial seven-limbed creatures called heptapods have arrived on Earth in giant bean-like vessels. Interested?! I get if that description or sci-fi movies in general don’t do it for you, but Arrival also happens to offer beautiful and necessary insight into humanity and how we talk to one another. Denis Villeneuve’s work here had me itching to give him a standing ovation from the movie theater. The movie looks and sounds UNREAL, and it features a twist that is so captivating and heartbreaking that you don’t even realize is critical to the outcome of the movie until it hits you over the head and heart.
2. GET OUT (2017)
Directed by Jordan Peele
Quick preface: the final two movies on my list were my two 10/10 grades of the decade. To hit that perfect score, I’m looking for a movie that is a game-changer, culturally significant, stylish, thrilling, funny, and a time capsule of its era. That’s all! But somehow, Get Out meets those standards. Honestly I have no interest in writing about the importance of Get Out; I’ll let its “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could” line speak for itself. But what does interest me is the feeling that all moviegoers crave: the feeling midway through a movie that you are watching something truly special. That feeling coming on a $4.5 million budget from one of the Key & Peele guys? One of the greatest Hollywood achievements EVER.
1. THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010)
Directed by David Fincher
The Social Network is the movie of the decade for all of the reasons that I just listed above for Get Out. But there are even more factors in play here. The onset and growth of the Internet is one of the few paradigm shifts of the past century or so, and The Social Network is the best Internet movie ever made. In that sense, it’s All the President’s Men for computer nerds. But it’s entirely different in another sense, because the protagonist of this movie is no hero. In fact, part of what makes The Social Network so fascinating is how it’s aging into more and more into a villain origin story by the day. Remember when people thought that Fincher, Sorkin, and Jesse Eisenberg were too harsh in their portrayal of Zuck? While now we all wish they had actually gone in harder, it’s still astonishing how much those three truly understood this landscape and its perils all the way back in 2010. Nothing defines the 2010s more than the rise and fall of Facebook. The Social Network shows you the rise, but dig deeper and you can see that it’s also previewing the fall.
You know the drill. Here is my 2019 NFL Preview with a couple of notes on each team, my Over/Under win total pick (with odds according to Action Network as of 9/1), and postseason and awards predictions.
3/3 CONFIDENCE = Lock
2/3 CONFIDENCE = Bet It
1/3 CONFIDENCE = Push or Close To Push
New England Patriots
The reigning champs have won 15 of the last 16 AFC East titles, and this year is just as much of a lock as ever to make that 16 of 17. Seriously, don’t think twice about this.
Tom Brady isn’t the same Tom Brady who threw for 50 touchdowns in a single season and likely won’t be near the top of the yardage leaders by the end of the season…but he’s absolutely still Tom Brady. But perhaps more importantly, he has more talent around him than he has in years – even with Gronk’s retirement. The receiving corps is deep and versatile and they have at least two good running backs in James White and Sony Michel, and even with David Andrews’ serious injury the offensive line is one of the 10 best in the league. If Isaiah Wynn plays up to his first-round grade at left tackle – which a lot of smart people think he will – then you can probably bump this unit up to Top 5.
The Pats raised a lot of eyebrows when they handed Stephon Gilmore a $65 million contract before the 2017 season, but through two years it’s looking like one of the savvier free agency moves of the last decade. A true shutdown corner, Gilmore was pretty clearly the best at his position across the league last year – a claim that PFF would verify. He also had a rightful claim as Super Bowl MVP, but even if he didn’t win that, he’s without a doubt the most valuable player on a defense that once again his Super Bowl aspirations.
OVER/UNDER –OVER 11 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
New York Jets
I like Sam Darnold a lot too. He has an amazing skillset and was one of the better QBs in the league over the final few weeks of the season, and massive jumps in performance have become the norm for second-year quarterbacks. But let’s temper expectations here. While I’d be optimistic about his pairing with Adam Gase as a Jets fan, Gase is still in his first year with the team – and he comes over from Miami with a shaky-at-best reputation. Darnold is also playing behind a shoddy offensive line and without a true #1 receiver, so I’m thinking that the Pro Bowl nods that are in his future won’t start with the 2019 season.
The Jets offseason was certainly entertaining, but one that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I liked the moves to swoop in on Kelechi Osemele and Jamison Crowder at low stock value, but they negated that and more with the contracts given to Le’Veon Bell and CJ Mosley. Bell and Mosley should both be good players for at least this season, but I don’t see the Jets as a win-now team and they went all-in on two guys who I’m not confident will either be superstars in their new digs. Gang Green spent a ton of money this offseason to still be weak on the offensive line, at edge rush, and in the secondary.
That all being said, it’s tough to be too critical of the Jets offseason when they landed Quinnen Williams. It’s weird to call the third overall pick the “steal of the draft,” but that might be the case considering it already seems like a foregone conclusion that Williams is the best player in this rookie class.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 7.5 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
One of my favorite fades of the season, I’d rank the Bills last in just about any other division in the league. My pessimism here is pretty much all linked to Josh Allen, who I don’t think people realize how bad he was last season. I know that rookie struggles happen and that he had an excruciatingly bad supporting cast, but he was inaccurate throwing the football to an unprecedented degree. People are high on him – and the Bills altogether – coming into his second season, but basically all of his value was linked to his scrambling and I can guarantee that was a total mirage.
I mostly liked the Bills offseason. To their credit, they are doing what they can to help out Allen. The Mitch Morse signing was one of the best of free agency, and I think Ty Nsekhe is a good player who could thrive in a starting role. And I like the idea of bringing in a variety of running backs and cutting LeSean McCoy. But I hesitate on the offseason as a whole because I hated what they did at receiver in giving pretty big money to both John Brown and Cole Beasley. I’m not sure that Robert Foster isn’t already a better deep threat than Brown and he was already on the Bills roster for next to nothing, and you can’t convince me that ANY third-round slot receiver would’ve returned more value than Beasley. It would’ve been cool to see Buffalo go all-in on an actual playmaker.
I keep the Bills at third in the division solely because of their defense. Coming off an amazing 2018 where they finished SECOND in Defense DVOA, they return basically the same group with Ed Oliver in the fold now too. I’m not sure they’ll be the league’s second best defense again, but they do have elite upside with a fairly high floor as well.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 7 (2/3 CONFIDENCE)
I’d like to reward this team for going about a rebuild in a genuine manner, but man they are going to STINK in 2019. It’s just a bad, bad roster from top to bottom – but that’s kinda the point!
Even if the Dolphins do take a quarterback with one of the first picks of the 2020 Draft, I loved the move to swipe Josh Rosen from the Cardinals. But that kid cannot catch a break. He has gone from 2018’s worst offensive line under a defensive-minded rookie head coach to potentially 2019’s worst offensive line under another defensive-minded rookie head coach. At some point the excuses will fade and he’ll just need to play better, but for now the excuses are very real and valid.
Honestly though, Miami could be a sneaky fun team and I’d expect them to steal a couple of wins. You can bank on some FitzMagic, and the secondary has what it takes the force some opposing QBs into really bad days.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 4.5 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
Patriots – 12-4
Jets – 8-8
Bills – 5-11
Dolphins – 4-12
I’m not as high on the Eagles as a lot of people are, but there is no denying that they have the best top-to-bottom roster in what is likely the worst division in the conference. Assuming that Fletcher Cox is OK, the Eagles have a fair claim at both the best offensive and defensive lines in the NFL, and that recipe almost always bodes well. (Cox, by the way, is well on the path towards becoming one of the most underrated players in NFL history, and that’s not an exaggeration.)
I think it’s pretty naïve to just assume that Carson Wentz is going to return to his 2017 MVP-level form. No doubt he was spectacular that season, but he played with an “organized chaos” style that we’ve also seen from the likes of Andrew Luck. It’s both what made Wentz so good and what got him seriously injured. Considering the contract the front office just handed to Wentz and the consequences that physical QBs like Luck have faced, I fully expect the coaching staff to put a leash on Wentz. He can definitely still be effective, but I don’t think he’ll be the same guy from two seasons ago. (His 11 mostly average starts from last year are also being strangely overlooked.)
I lean more towards the “running backs don’t matter” side of the debate than, say, taking one with the second overall pick, but it would have been wise for the Eagles to go bigger at that position. Miles Sanders could very well be the solution, but for a team with a dominant offensive line and an extremely ready-to-win roster, they would’ve been justified in going for one of the Melvin Gordon’s of the world instead of rolling into 2019 with Jordan Howard/Sanders/Darren Sproles/Corey Clement.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 10 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
For a team that is so in the spotlight, I really don’t have all that much to say about the Cowboys going into 2019. They are one of the select few teams in the league without any real weaknesses (besides Jason Witten), but they also don’t have too much that generates excitement. I’d be pretty stunned to see Dallas finish below .500, but I’d also be pretty stunned to see them go better than 10-6.
Took them long enough, but Dallas finally realized that they do need Ezekiel Elliott in the picture. (I don’t think the Cowboys align with the general running back shift throughout the league.) But even with Zeke at full strength, I hesitate to pencil them in as more than a Wild Card team. I do think Dak Prescott is good and Kellen Moore calling the plays could be a godsend for this offense, but at the end of the day this is still a Jason Garrett coached team with a capped-upside quarterback.
I wrote this in this blog last year too…but remind me why Earl Thomas isn’t on this team?
OVER/UNDER – OVER 9 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
New York Giants
As anyone who has listened to me talk about the Giants this offseason would know, I am NOT high on their hopes for 2019, so don’t interpret this 3/4 ranking as optimism. The Giants had a bad defense last year, and they open this season without the three best defenders from that team’s roster. Is that good? There are a lot of exciting prospects within this unit, but they are going to suck all over in 2019. It’s a worthwhile bet that the Giants will finish last in the league in sacks.
The Giants also have a Bottom 5 quarterback situation, and one that won’t offer any upside whatsoever until the Week 11 bye at the earliest. You might have heard, but they are also replacing ODELL BECKHAM with a suspended and “clearly past-his-prime to everyone besides Dave Gettleman” Golden Tate.
Fine, I’ll do some nice words. Saquon Barkley is amazing, and he should have repeat success in 2019. I do think there is real potential for a 2016 Todd Gurley or 2018 David Johnson season given the aforementioned lack of competence, but I’m not expecting it. Despite still having arguably the worst right tackle situation in the league with Mike Remmers now as the Week 1 starter there – and that claim should not be taken lightly – this offensive line actually looks pretty good now.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 6 (2/3 CONFIDENCE)
I cannot believe that more people aren’t talking about this team heading into 2019, and NOT for good reasons. The R-Words are going to STINK. Jay Gruden as the first coach fired odds, 2020 Draft first overall pick odds, you name it: take them all while they still have this value.
I’m really not trying to be dramatic here, but has anyone else seen this offensive depth chart? Case Keenum, on his fourth team in four years, is the starting quarterback. 34 year-old Adrian Peterson is the starting running back. The wide receivers are…and I’m not kidding…Paul Richardson, Terry McLaurin, and Trey Quinn. The offensive line on paper would be the saving grace, but I’m fairly positive that Trent Williams isn’t suiting up this year, so they’ll be rolling out a left side tandem of DONALD PENN AND ERECK FLOWERS to start the season. Make no mistake about it. This is the worst offense in the NFL.
The Redskins defense is absolutely better than the offense…but I also don’t think it’s going to be any good this year. After a couple of years as an underrated unit, the Skins D was quietly pretty mediocre last year, finishing 20th in Defense DVOA. And I’m pretty sure they’ll be worse this year. Landon Collins is a great player who will make this team better, but he’s really at his best within the box and that’s not where this unit desperately needs help. This secondary is going to be truly dreadful. Josh Norman played up to his contract in DC but has major potential to fall off an absolute cliff in the final year of it. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who quit football midway through last season, is in line to see a lot of snaps. And Montae Nicholson, who the Redskins tried to replace during the trade deadline last season since he is not a good football player, is still slated to be their main guy over the top. The defensive line is good, but not nearly good enough to bail out this unit.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 6 (3/3 CONFIDENCE)
Eagles – 10-6
Cowboys – 10-6
Giants – 5-11
Redskins – 3-13
Ohhh you better believe that I am buying the Browns hype. I mean, have you seen this roster? Cleveland has a realistic shot at 7-8 Pro Bowlers. This team has real talent at every level with good depth too. A tough division and a new coaching staff could work against them, but I’m not counting on it. The Browns are extremely real Super Bowl contenders this year.
I do think we’ve all been a litttttttle quick to coronate Baker Mayfield, but the truth of the matter is that he’s already a good quarterback who has a chance to take a massive jump in his second season. Nick Chubb is already one of the best running backs in the NFL. Odell Beckham is going to go for 1,500 yards and 15+ touchdowns if he plays the full season. There is some cause for concern regarding the offensive line, but I don’t think it’ll be bad enough to derail what should be a dynamite offense.
And guess what…the defense should be really good too! It doesn’t get much better than Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon rushing the quarterback from the edges. With the amount of talent in that front four now, I’d be more surprised to see Garrett not be an All-Pro by the end of the year than him making that team. And the secondary anchored by budding star Denzel Ward should be quite good too. There are nitpicks with the Browns, but I just really think this is all finally going to work out for them.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 9 (3/3 CONFIDENCE)
And that glowing review of the Browns takes me directly into another team that I’m extremely high on. The Ravens won 10 games last year despite a midseason quarterback change to a rookie with a completely different style. They also had one of my favorite offseasons, letting other teams break the bank for some of their free agents while Baltimore simultaneously got better. I acknowledge the real chance that Lamar Jackson doesn’t work out over the course of a full season, but I believe in him and the work that the Ravens have done around him.
As I was saying, I think people are evaluating Lamar Jackson too much based off the first three quarters of his playoff game. But people are forgetting that the kid did a ton of good things last year and that he’s not some sort of gimmick. He also has a good offensive line in front of him, some intriguing weapons in the passing game including a potential up-and-coming stud in Mark Andrews, and a running game that should be excellent with Mark Ingram now in the picture. I think it’s slept on that Ingram is still a really physical and really good runner…I think he could finish Top 3 in the league in rushing yards.
The Ravens defense was elite as always last year, and you should expect more of the same in 2019. C.J. Mosley and Za’Darius Smith got handed $151 million worth of total contracts this offseason, and yet I don’t expect the Ravens production to fall off much – if at all – with Matthew Judon and Patrick Onwuasor filling in. Oh yeah, and they also added Earl Thomas, just one of the best safeties of all-time who only just turned 30 years old. This group is gonna absolutely dominate.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 8.5 (2/3 CONFIDENCE)
The Steelers have an above-average roster on paper, but there’s probably gotta be an odd team out in this division, and I don’t think Pittsburgh did as much to improve as the first two teams this offseason and they already might have been the third best team in the division by the 2018 season’s end.
I really don’t care that Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 5,100 yards last year. He’s not all that great. He’ll put the ball in the air 50 times a game and make some big-time throws, but he also doesn’t take care of the ball and will have one less stud receiver to consistently bail him out this year. He still has a ton of help with a great offensive line, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner, but I’m not gonna put my eggs in any Big Ben basket.
The Steelers defense should be solid if healthy. They could use another edge rusher and some more reinforcements in the secondary, but they have good players all over and brought in one of my favorite Draft prospects in Devin Bush. He should be able to contribute right away, but even if he’s Jack Lambert I don’t think this defense is slowing down the Chiefs and the rest of the AFC’s elite.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 9 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
Man, it’s hard to find a less noteworthy team going into 2019 than the Bengals. Can we just pencil them in for like the 6th pick in the Draft now?
In what could possibly be the final year of the Andy Dalton era in stripes, this offense is not going to be a fun one to watch. Joe Mixon and Tyler Boyd are good players, but they’re legit it. The offensive line is seriously bad enough to tank the entire team. I also have no reason for confidence in Zac Taylor as a head coach, and I’m doubtful that AJ Green plays a single snap for this team this season.
The defense actually has enough good players to not look so bad on paper, but this is largely the same unit that finished 27th in Defense DVOA last year. There isn’t a single linebacker corps across the league worse than this one. The Bengals will be extremely easy to run against, and teams will be running against them…a lot.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 6 (2/3 CONFIDENCE)
Browns – 11-5
Ravens – 10-6
Steelers – 9-7
Bengals – 4-12
This has gotta be the hardest division to peg in football. There should be three good teams, but I don’t feel confident about any of them being great For the sake of that rule about how multiple division winners don’t repeat the following year, I’m not picking the Bears here. (I also think they’re flawed.) And then I just have too many doubts about the Packers. So that leaves the Vikings. I’m sure Kirk Cousins won’t let me down at all!
In fairness towards the Vikings, I do like them as a post-hype team following a season where they were commonly predicted to make it to the Super Bowl. Cousins is what he is at this point. No QB is more dependent on his supporting cast, but the Vikings did make a real effort to improve things on that side of the ball. They already had likely the best receiver duo in the league in Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, they shouldn’t repeat last year’s identity crisis with Gary Kubiak now in the mix, and the offensive line shouldn’t be as disastrous.
The Vikings defense should really be admired. They had a lot go wrong last year: Everson Griffen dealt with scary mental health issues, Xavier Rhodes completely lost his way, and more…and they still finished fourth in DVOA. Mike Zimmer and Co. seem to just have it figured out. This group could even take a step up if Harrison Smith rediscovers his insane 2017 form.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 9 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
Green Bay Packers
Well, you can’t knock the Packers for staying put following their disastrous 2018 season! This team is going to have a completely different look, starting at the top with new coach Matt LaFleur. On one hand he gets points for simply not being Mike McCarthy…but on the other hand I just don’t think LaFleur is a good coach? I mean, what did the Packers see here to pounce on him so quickly with one of the most desired coaching vacancies of the last decade? He has limited experience and was kinda a big disappointment in his one season in Tennessee. Aaron Rodgers detractors are idiots, but there’s no doubt that the guy is tough to work with. I can just see this playing out where it doesn’t work at all.
For at least 2019 though, I do think the offense will be really effective. And that has way more to do with Rodgers than LaFleur. He played injured and in a 1970’s offense for the entire 2018 season and threw for 25 touchdowns with 2 interceptions and nearly 4,500 yards. He’s a freak. It’s agonizing that Green Bay didn’t bring in a legit second receiving option during their offseason bonanza. But at least Davante Adams is an established star, the offensive line is one of the best in the league behind David Bakhtiara, and it sounds like Aaron “Actually Good” Jones will finally get the bulk of the carries.
The Packers defense was terrible in 2018 (finished 29th in DVOA), and boy they went IN this offseason. Aaaaand I still don’t think they’re going to be that good. The front seven might be better with Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith subbed in and Mike Daniels subbed out, but if you’re going to put $118 million and the 12th overall pick (Rashan Gary) towards this unit, I’d want to feel a lot better about their ability to get after the quarterback. And I feel the same way about the secondary! In theory they should be improved behind Jaire Alexander, who is already good and could make the jump to a Pro Bowler in his second season. Adrian Amos was one of my favorite singings of the offseason too, and his stability will be especially huge with rookie Darnell Savage starting at free safety. Even with all of that, I still think this group could get burnt a lot.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 9 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
The Bears were my favorite 2018 play. I sniped them as a 12 win team, not a big deal. And with that, they are one of my more confident 2019 fades. I definitely don’t think they’ll be bad this year, but I just see a lot of concerning reasons for regression.
Can we talk about Mitch Trubisky? Because I’m pretty positive that he isn’t good and that 2019 could very well be the year where everyone catches on. So much of his value – both in reality and fantasy – is inflated by his running ability, which is fine but not exactly comforting when discussing his progression as a quarterback. He plays extremely recklessly and is due for a rise in turnovers, especially with a full year of tape now in existence with him in Matt Nagy’s offense. The line is good and the rest of the offense is solid enough, but I just bet that Trubisky tanks this thing.
The Bears defense is still amazing. Anyone who says otherwise is just wrong. But finishing as the best defense year over year is really difficult, especially when your Hall of Fame defensive coordinator leaves and you are due for some worse injury luck. Like I said, this group is still scary, and Roquan Smith can definitely make the Pro Bowl jump this year. If I’m wrong about the Bears it will be because of this defense, but I just see too much working against Chicago.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 9 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
The Lions have been one of the more boring teams in the league for years now. In fairness, I actually liked a lot of what they did to change things up. But they still just have too many things working against them that I think can’t be overcome, so I’m still just not feeling it. Matt Patricia did nothing to shut everyone up – myself including – who thought he was a terrible hire. They hired Darrell Bevell to call the plays on offensive, who was too conservative for the Seattle Seahawks. And they are still paying top dollar to a quarterback who is mired in averageness.
The frustrating part of the Bevell hire and Stafford’s gradual decline is that the Lions suddenly have a ton of talent on offense! Kerryon Johnson could be great, and Kenny Golladay/Marvin Jones/Danny Amendola is an exciting receiving corps. They have a good pair of tackles on the offensive line and a potential stud center in Frank Ragnow if he can get healthy, and TJ Hockensen – while he mayyyyybe shouldn’t have been the eighth overall pick – should represent a massive upgrade at tight end. It all falls back on Stafford and the playcalling, but this offense could actually be sneaky good in 2019.
The defensive situation is funny. The Detroit Lions – yes, the Detroit Lions – might have the best defensive line in football. They supplemented an already strong group with a pair of studs in Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels. But after the front four, it gets bad pretty quick. The Lions finally did something to get Darius Slay help in the secondary by adding Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman – both of whom have been good players within the past two years. Still, even if they’re not as bad as last year that secondary doesn’t inspire too much confidence, especially with a terrible group of safeties. The linebackers are also among the worst in the league, and have I mentioned Matt Patricia?
OVER/UNDER – OVER 6.5 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
Vikings – 9-7
Packers – 9-7
Bears – 8-8
Lions – 7-9
If you want to read in-depth on the insanity that was the Texans offseason, go to…literally any football publication. It was madness and definitely stupid, but this blog is about 2019, and the fact of the matter is that the Texans are a much better football team in 2019 now. I still have zero clue why they had to move on from Jadaveon Clowney, but the Texans’ offensive line was the single biggest NFL roster flaw heading into this season, and it’s now been addressed in a major way. Laremy Tunsil is simultaneously good and ascendant, and he single-handedly makes that unit and this team altogether more reputable.
The offense has a ton going for them. Deshaun Watson feels ready to make that final jump into the elite QB tier. DeAndre Hopkins has established himself as the true king of pass-catchers, and the receiving corps behind him is really good too. This isn’t a finished product though. Even with Tunsil in the fold, the offensive line as a whole still isn’t good. I also don’t expect them to run the ball very well, and I’m sorry but Bill O’Brien does not do it for me.
I don’t have much to say about the defense. They’re good! Pretty firmly entrenched in that second tier of NFL defenses, and that’s essentially where I land on the Texans…a second tier team. They are one of the easiest division winners to predict, but I also really don’t see this team making it to the Super Bowl. I’m not sure they can handle the league’s elite teams at rushing the quarterback or airing it out, and they are a few teams that can do both well.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 8.5 (2/3 CONFIDENCE) ((Deshaun Watson Injury Insurance))
I’m pretty sure the Colts would have been a playoff team with Andrew Luck under center, and I’m pretty sure they won’t be with Jacoby Brissett in his place. I get that Brissett had been one of the better backup QBs in the league and that he’s ready for this, but come on guys. The “Colts actually might not be worse” argument that’s gone trendy is a dumb one. I definitely think they’ll remain competitive, but they’re much worse off without Luck.
As I’m getting at, Brissett could be solid. He definitely has a good enough situation around him as a backup QB could hope to inherit. Frank Reich is a great playcaller, the offensive line is awesome, and TY Hilton and Marlon Mack lead a good group of skill players. It won’t be as electric, but the Colts will still score some points.
The Colts defense was one of the bigger overachieving units in the NFL last year, and they should be fine this year. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is probably a head coach in waiting, and they have an All-Pro in Darius Leonard in the middle. It’s not as dependable everywhere around him, so yeah I think this defense will be extremely middle-of-the-road.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 7.5 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
No team screams “meh” this year more than the Jags. I just don’t like the upside at all. I understand that the Jaguars needed to do something at quarterback and that the Nick Foles contract was a last gasp by the current front office, but it’s just not gonna go well. Foles is incredibly mediocre, and his supporting cast is so much worse than it was in Philly.
The offensive line could actually grow into a good unit this year, but this offense still isn’t going to scare anyone. Leonard Fournette should be better but I just don’t think he’s an explosive player, and HOW do the Jaguars still not have one legit receiver all these years later?
The defense will lead this team again, and there is still so much going for them. Calais Campbell is at his peak for what’s becoming a low-key Hall of Fame career, Jalen Ramsey feels ready to grab hold onto the NFL’s cornerback belt and not let go for a couple of years, and Josh Allen might immediately step in and record 10+ sacks with good coverage. But when you look up and down the depth chart, there are way more holes on defense than there were two years ago. That’s what happens when you spend all of your money in free agency and it catches up with you!
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 8 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
This one feels like a slam dunk. The Titans overachieved to 9 wins last year, finishing 22nd in Offense DVOA and 18th in Defense DVOA. They reek with mediocrity and I think are pretty clearly the fourth dog in this division…and they’re supposed to go .500? I don’t see it at all.
If you’ve read these blogs of mine over the past few years, you’ll know that it pains me to say that Marcus Mariota is finally, officially, not good. By midseason I think the Titans will be going back and forth between him and Ryan Tannehill, and two quarterback offenses always go well! Their offensive coordinator is their former tight ends assistant. This is gonna be ugly.
The defense should be fine. Jurrell Casey and Kevin Byard are studs and among the NFL’s most underrated players, and there are good pieces elsewhere too. Maybe Cameron Wake can keep defying time, but I just don’t think this defense will do anything in particular exceptionally well. They’ll keep the Titans in games, but they won’t win them.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 8 (3/3 CONFIDENCE)
Texans – 10-6
Colts – 8-8
Jaguars – 7-9
Titans – 4-12
I went back and forth on this one more than any other division. I think all four teams could be good and at least two teams could be really good, which strangely works against their records predictions. I just see it playing out where they’re all stealing wins from one another. And I usually don’t like looking into specific schedules during this exercise, but the Panthers are hosting the Saints in Week 17. Calling it months in advance that it’s flexed into the Sunday Night spot and that the Panthers clinch the division at home.
I’m all in on a bounce-back season for Cam Newton, not that his level of play even dropped off that much. I’m just hopeful that he’ll stay upright with a much better offensive line in front of him and the most skill around him that he’s probably ever had. It all falls back on Cam’s health, but this offense is going to be physical as hell up front and they are going to fly downfield.
The Panthers defense took a step back in 2018, but I like them to rebound as an upper-half unit this season. The defensive line is excellent with Gerald McCoy now in the picture. Luke Kuechly truly makes everyone around him better, but there are real questions surrounding the pass rush and the secondary. I’m a fan of both Donte Jackson and rookie Brian Burns though, so I don’t think either will be major issues.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 7.5 (2/3 CONFIDENCE)
New Orleans Saints
Don’t get me wrong…I think the Saints should be good again! I just see them as a team that has probably already peaked in what should be a more competitive division and conference. The Superdome remains the best homefield advantage in football, and the Saints will need to dominate there once again to repeat as division champs. If they lose one or two extra games there – the Saints only lost one game at home all last season (and in Week 1) – then that could be all it takes to lose the crown.
I do buy into the notion that we’ve begun to see the decline of Drew Brees. He should remain crazy efficient and won’t dramatically fall off a cliff this season, but the Saints offense really slowed down towards the end of the 2018 regular season and into the playoffs. He could not have more help around him, with potentially the league’s best offensive line, running back, and wide receiver. They’re absolutely loaded, but it all goes through Brees’ right arm. (Speaking of the league’s best running back, I think Alvin Kamara could go for 20+ touchdowns this season.)
We’re long past the days of the Saints defense dragging them down, as they were once again good in 2018 (11th in DVOA). They have a superstar in Cameron Jordan and have been propped up by breakout years over the past two seasons. The expectation is that Marcus Davenport – the 2018 first-rounder – joins that breakout club, but if not then this group could be due for some regression.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 10.5 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
The Falcons were my pick to win the goddamn Super Bowl last year – how things have changed. It’s true that no team had worse injury luck than Atlanta last year, but it’s also true that they had flaws exposed that weren’t fully addressed this offseason.
The Atlanta defense is pretty terrible, even with the players who got hurt last year back in the fold. Deion Jones is one of the rare linebackers who actually makes the whole defense better when he’s on his game, but I’m nervous about him with foot issues still lingering coming into the season. Outside of Grady Jarrett from the interior, they have absolutely no pass rush, and the secondary isn’t nearly special enough to make up for that.
I do think the Falcons could be quite good though, because their offense rules. Matt Ryan really has gotten better with age, and I think he’s good for another huge season this year. Julio Jones is a threat for 2,000 yards over any fully healthy season, and it would be nice to see Calvin Ridley take the next step up across the field. (Ridley struggled a lot more than let on as a rookie.) The offensive line has concerns despite two first-round picks being used on it, and it’s scary that they are depending on a healthy Devonta Freeman, but I think the Falcons will still put up a ton of points this year.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 8.5 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This last place ranking is much more a reflection of the division than my thoughts on the Bucs. I think they’ll be improved, and maybe even much improved! The differences between Bruce Arians and Todd Bowles over Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith cannot be overstated whatsoever. Things are going to change for the better in Tampa, but fans might have to express some patience.
The Bucs might be the most fun RedZone team in the league. They are going to throw, then throw, then throw some more. With nothing even resembling a running game and an awesome group of pass-catchers, no joke they might average 50 attempts per game. Jameis Winston’s arm might fall off, but it’s going to be fun as hell to watch!
I’m not sure the defense is going to be the league’s worst again…but they sure as shit aren’t going to be good. Bowles calling the shots and Devin White making plays sideline to sideline will make matters better, but the secondary has been and still is a complete disaster. The pass rush won’t be any good either, so start all of your fantasy WR’s against this team.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 6.5 (2/3 CONFIDENCE)
Panthers – 9-7
Saints – 9-7
Falcons – 8-8
Buccaneers – 8-8
Kansas City Chiefs
I was all in on the Chiefs and Patrick Mahomes before last season, so you better believe that I’m running it back for 2019. This team is absolutely awesome and they weren’t complacent this offseason either. I’ll put it simply: the Chiefs are the best team in football.
The Chiefs offense was the best in football last year – kinda by a lot – and that shouldn’t change. They have the league’s brightest offensive mind in Andy Reid, the best tight end in Travis Kelce, and maybe the best pair of tackles in Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher. Oh, and have I mentioned Pat Mahomes? He threw for over 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in his MVP campaign…and I strangely think he could be even better? If this is any reason for concern, I could see it playing out where the running game takes a step or two back. I think Kareem Hunt’s skill was taken for granted and the interior of the offensive line isn’t any good. I’m nitpicking though; this is gonna be a weekly fireworks show again.
The Chiefs absolutely could’ve won it all last year, but their defense didn’t do them any favors at the end of the day. With how good the coaching and the offense will be, all the Chiefs defense needs to do is be mediocre instead of bad. That should be enough for them to win it all, and I think they accomplished that mission this offseason. Frank Clark is an upgrade over Dee Ford and should pair with Chris Jones perfectly, and Tyrann Mathieu should provide more stability to the secondary than they had last year. Again, average is the goal here.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 10.5 (3/3 CONFIDENCE)
What an absolutely confounding offseason for the Broncos. They made probably the single worst move of the spring by dedicating draft capital and a huge chunk of their cap towards Joe Flacco, who has a very strong claim to be the worst starting quarterback in the league. Flacco can probably throw the ball a mile in that Colorado air, but he’s old with a body that’s taken a massive beating, and he’s becoming less efficient by the year as every other team is completing more passes annually. But at the same time, the hiring of Vic Fangio was probably my single favorite move of the offseason. The defensive mastermind is long overdue for this chance, and I think this roster is perfect for the identity that he’s aiming to institute.
Even with Flacco under center, I think the Broncos offense can avoid being a total disaster. They can run the ball with the best of them, and they’re going to run it A LOT this season. Phillip Lindsay is really legit, and he could have a Thunder & Lightning backfield going on with Royce Freeman. Behind a solid-if-healthy (big if) offensive line, they are both threats to push 200 carries this year.
I’m extremely bullish on the Broncos this year – especially relative to projections – and it’s all because of Fangio and this defense. I think there is a really strong chance that this is the best defense in the NFL this season. Von Miller and Bradley Chubb coming off the edges are going to wreak havoc on every…single…play. I think the expectation for the duo is 30 combined sacks. I also think Chris Harris is good for at least one more elite season, and even if the Broncos overpaid for both Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan, both will be contributors towards a really strong secondary.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 7 (2/3 CONFIDENCE) ((I REALLY want to make this 3/3 but…Flacco.))
Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers currently have the sixth highest Over/Under total and I don’t see that at allllll. I know they’re coming off a 12 win season, but I just think this team couldn’t have more bad energy going into the season. Derwin James being out indefinitely is a total backbreaker, Melvin Gordon has probably played his last snap for the team, and Keenan Allen and Russell Okung have been banged up. They also just so happen to not have any fans. I wrote this last year about the Chargers too, but they essentially play 16 road games and it’s such a bigger disadvantage than people let on.
I know that Philip Rivers is really good, as was the offense as a whole last year (3rd in DVOA). I just think they’ve been playing with fire for a while now and that they’re overdue on getting burnt. The offensive line even with a healthy Okung is bad, and without him it will absolutely be one of the worst units in the league. I know that Keenan Allen rocks and that Mike Williams is crazy underrated and that Hunter Henry is back and that Austin Ekeler is probably good. But every year there is a talented offense that is completely derailed by its offensive line, and I’m banking on that being the Chargers in 2019. And if they can’t keep Rivers in one piece, then you’re looking at a team that could finish 5+ wins under projections.
The Chargers defense should be one of the league’s elite units, but they can’t seem to have everyone at the field at one time. Last year it was Joey Bosa who missed a ton of time, and this year it’s James already on the sideline. It’s still a good group with a high floor as is, but it’s a bit frustrating that we’ll have to wait even longer to see them at their best.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 9.5 (2/3 CONFIDENCE)
Will the Raiders be better this season? They almost have to be. But will they be good? I know a lot of smart football people are answering yes to that question but I…don’t see it. The pressure is on with their offseason spending spree, Hard Knocks spotlight, and it being their last season in Oakland, but I just think they have too many core problems that couldn’t be fixed overnight.
The Raiders offense is a total mixed bag. Even if the Antonio Brown trade has already gone up in flames, that was a trade I make 100/100 times if I’m running the Raiders. Josh Jacobs could be a stud for all I know, and the offensive line is more formidable now with Trent Brown in silver and black (even if his contract is tough). But like I said, all of these shiny new toys don’t fix the existing problems. I’m fairly confident at this point that Derek Carr is just flat-out mediocre without the talent to keep your hopes up. And left tackle Kolten Miller did absolutely nothing to persuade people the Raiders knew what they were doing when they reached for him in the 2018 Draft. And now he gets Joey Bosa, Bradley Chubb, and Frank Clark six times this year!
The Raiders defense is baaaaad too. They finished 30th in DVOA last year and their plan to change things up was…signing Lamarcus Joyner? He’s a good enough player, but he’s also a 30 year-old safety leaving a Wade Phillips defense to join one coached by…*looks up Raiders defensive coordinator*…Paul Guenther. Unless the Raiders know something about Clelin Ferrell that everybody else doesn’t – which better be true considering they drafted him fourth overall – then yeah this group is going to royally suck again.
OVER/UNDER – UNDER 6 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
Chiefs – 13-3
Broncos – 10-6
Chargers – 7-9
Raiders – 5-11
Los Angeles Rams
If the 24 wins over the past two seasons and a Super Bowl appearance didn’t give it away, the Rams are really, really good. And they’re going to be really, really good again in 2019. Even if Sean McVay got outclassed in the Super Bowl and has kinda become the butt of a joke now that all of his disciples are getting head coaching jobs, the dude is still an offensive mastermind who knows his personnel better than their own mothers. This was the second best offense in football last year, and I see that happening again.
The Rams offense on the surface has a couple of things going against them. Todd Gurley might not be at 100% ever again and is in line for fewer touches. And I think the offensive line with its two new starters will slip a bit. And…I’m not sure any of that matters much. Jared Goff has ascended to one of the best pure throwers of the football in the league, and his receivers are going to be running open all over the field. And those receivers are…awesome. Robert Woods, Brandin Cooks, and Cooper Kupp could legitimately each be Pro Bowlers by the end of the season.
The Rams defense wasn’t any good last year, but they finished about league-average in metrics singlehandedly because of Aaron Donald. I can’t write anything about Donald in here that hasn’t been written before, but we’ve reached the territory where he’s an annual threat to break the single-season sack record. And considering that he’s doing this all from the defensive interior – where before Donald 10 sacks constituted an amazing season – he’s truthfully on his way towards becoming the Lawrence Taylor of a football generation. As long as he’s on the field, this defense will manage.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 10.5 (2/3 CONFIDENCE)
The Seahawks were a trendy pick to be one of the worst teams in football going into last season, and I didn’t see it because this was still a team with Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. They went 10-6 and made the playoffs. And now this roster looks better than last year and they’re…supposed to go around .500? Yup, makes complete sense to me!
Even though the Seahawks run the ball an agonizing amount and lost the perennially underrated Doug Baldwin to retirement, I think this offense will be good. Russell Wilson has transformed from a dual-threat into the best deep ball thrower in the league, and the Chris Carson/Rashaad Penny duo should efficiently pound the ball. But what gets me excited is Tyler Lockett stepping into the spotlight. The Cinderella of football analytics, Lockett finished first in the NFL in DVOA and Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement among wide receivers last year. This is the same guy who runs a 4.3 and has become a red zone menace, scoring 10 touchdowns last year. He’s not only going to fill Baldwin’s shoes; he’s going to become one of the premier receivers in the league.
Guess what? I think the Seahawks defense will be good too! That’s not saying too much with Bobby Wagner in the middle of the field, who you can make a convincing argument around being the best player in football. And then Pete Carroll is a wizard of the secondary so I’m not worried about that group, and now Seattle has Jadaveon Clowney on the edge to balance out a pass rush that was only full of lottery tickets before he got to town.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 8.5 (3/3 CONFIDENCE)
Would I have made the Kliff Kingsbury hire? No, I would not have hired the guy who got fired midseason from Texas Tech and then bailed on USC a month into his gig. But you know what? I get it, and I think it could work. The Cardinals really hit rock bottom and I respect them going for a complete 180 behind Kingsbury and Kyler Murray. It could blow up horribly, but I do think there’s a chance they hit the jackpot. For Year 1 though, I think it turns out somewhere in the middle.
I don’t like pretending that I know how rookie QBs are going to perform, but I do expect a positive year out of Kyler. Assuming he stays healthy – and I know that is a HUGE if — I think it plays out like Cam Newton’s rookie year. Absolute stat stuffing in both the air and on the ground with a lot of mistakes and team losses mixed in. Maybe I’m being too optimistic though, because his offensive line and receivers are both bad.
The Cardinals defense really quietly finished league-average last year, a fairly impressive feat for the worst team in the league. Patrick Peterson’s six-game suspension hurts, but this team drafted first-round talent Byron Murphy and signed Terrell Suggs and Jordan Hicks to go alongside an already solid pass defense. Teams might run down their throat, but overall I wouldn’t worry about this group.
OVER/UNDER – OVER 5 (1/3 CONFIDENCE)
San Francisco 49ers
I can at least see the logic behind the 49ers being good this year, but I just don’t agree with it. It’s just asking for a lot of faith in a bunch of people who haven’t given us much reason for faith outside of reputation. I know Kyle Shanahan hasn’t had the most talent to work with and has had to deal with more injuries than the usual head coach, but the guy is 10-22 going into Year 3. There is no way of spinning any positives around that.
Not only am I out on the head coach, I’m out on the quarterback. Good recipe for success! It’s weird that Jimmy G is still viewed as all potential even though he had three pretty bad starts before tearing his ACL last season. And even though I put almost no stock in preseason, all the talk is that Garoppolo has looked terrible. He also has a receiving corps with Dante Pettis as the main wideout. Even with George Kittle, a good offensive line, and the awesome-when-healthy Matt Breida in the picture, I don’t trust the core of this offense whatsoever.
The defense doesn’t do much for me either even though they put a ton of work into it this offseason. There are a few good players spread throughout – including a stud in DeForest Buckner and a potential stud in Nick Bosa – but there are just still weak links. San Fran also overpaid out the ass on both Dee Ford and Kwon Alexander, who could both completely crap out.