The NFL is an ever-evolving league, and its willingness to change is part of why we love it. From the wildcat, to the read-option offense, to Tim Tebow, new trends pop up every year to help shape the NFL as we know it. So, in the spirit of fact-checking, let’s dig deep and explore 5 thought-provoking trends happening now.
By Matthew Jarecki
1. Big name, number 1 wide receivers are not worth the big money
This has been a trend developing over the last few years. Yes, we all love to watch our favorite wide receiver go up and make a big catch, and Julio Jones’ 300 yard performance certainly didn’t hurt Atlanta vs Carolina. Let’s put our fandom aside though, and look at this from a business perspective. Of the 10 wide receivers with the biggest contracts, only 5 of their teams made the playoffs. Furthermore, only one of those teams even made it out of the divisional round (Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos). Here’s the shocker: Demaryius Thomas only had 7 receptions for 60 yards and 0 touchdowns through 3 playoff games last year, as the best receiver on the Superbowl winning Broncos squad. Meanwhile the Panthers made it to the Superbowl with their star receiver (Kelvin Benjamin) out for the year. I’m not saying that good wide receivers don’t have a place in today’s NFL. What I’m saying is that late in the 2016/17 season, against real playoff caliber squads, a lot of GM’s will be wishing they’d put that wide receiver money into a better O-line, D-line, or secondary.
2. Offensive line matters more than ever, and it might push two unexpected teams into the playoffs
Pro Football Focus is awesome; nobody else cares enough or is as credible when it comes to ranking offensive lines. They have a fluid ranking of all 32 NFL squads, and the correlation between a good O-line and winning is striking. Of the top 10 offensive line groups in the NFL, 7 of them have winning records, and 5 hold (or are tied for) 1st place in their respective divisions. Conversely, 10 of the bottom 16 offensive lines in the league are on teams that sit at .500 or below. This might not come as a huge surprise, but here’s something that will: Week 16, Cowboys vs Eagles, and Titans vs Texans will decide who wins the NFC East and AFC South. The Cowboys O-line is going to push them to playoff hopes, but nobody will give it due praise. That unit is fostering 3 key aspects of the Cowboys’ success: 1. They are leading the way for rookie Ezekiel Elliot, who’s performance so far has been dominant. 2. They are giving rookie Dak Prescott enough time to throw Dallas into 1st in the league on 3rd down conversions. 3. Those two elements have paved the way for Dallas to be 2nd in the league in time of possession; and kept their mediocre defense off of the field. As for the Titans; their last 11 games include the Colts and Jags twice, the Browns, the Bears, and the Chargers. This O-line unit has Tennessee at 2nd only to Dallas in rushing yards/game, a stat that will be very important as the season wears on. In the weakest division in football, this could be the Titans’ golden opportunity.
3. The Chargers and Saints are turning back into what they were before their HOF QB’s… and it’s a huge mistake
Did you guys know that Phillip Rivers and Drew Brees were once on the same team? Look, here’s proof! The Chargers chose Phillip Rivers, so Drew Brees went over to New Orleans to set records and win a Superbowl with Sean Payton. Both of these teams, though, got lucky, because Rivers and Brees are two of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. Both quarterbacks, meanwhile, have had the misfortune of playing on two of the worst-run franchises in the NFL. I can already hear you fans clamoring, but hear me out. From 1993-2004 the Chargers managed to put together exactly zero winning seasons. In that same time span, New Orleans managed exactly two winning seasons. Then, in 2006, Phillip Rivers took over in San Diego, Drew Brees took over in New Orleans, and the rest was history. I think there’s a misconception out there that these two quarterbacks aren’t playing at the high level they used to. That’s simply not true: Rivers has already thrown for more than 1,000 yards, with 11 TD’s to 3 interceptions, while Brees is over 1,000 yards with 10 TD’s to 3 interceptions. For the life of me I cannot understand why these two franchises have not fortified their defenses to give these guys a chance to win games. Since 2013 the Saints have ranked 22nd on defense, while the Chargers have ranked 17th on average. Neither team has been to the playoffs since 2013. Those numbers are not good enough to truly compete in the NFL, even with future HOFers at quarterback. After years of Brees and Rivers playing above what their team’s front office provided, the incompetence of the Saints and Chargers is starting to bleed through, and fast. Unless one of these teams gets lucky (like Indianapolis did with Andrew Luck) there’s soon to be a dark cloud over San Diego and New Orleans for years to come.
4. While the media condemns Odell Beckham Jr., they continue to miss the real problem with the Giants: Eli Manning
Odell Beckham Jr. has gotten overly emotional in a few games this season (as wide receivers tend to do), and after a bad loss to the Vikings, Eli Manning took it upon himself to tell the media that he does not approve. This is known in the world of psychology as “projecting” (I’ve been in therapy if you couldn’t tell). Projection means to assign unwanted characteristics to someone else. In this case Eli was projecting his bad play onto his receiver, OBJ, and the national media bought into the narrative faster than Warren Buffet buys stock. I mean, it was a circus. I’m talking about respected media guys acting like wide receivers win or lose games. This is 2016 people; a time when only quarterbacks can move Vegas lines by more than a point. Eli Manning is the problem in New York, who sits at 2-3, not OBJ. I mean, did anybody watch that Green Bay game? There were receivers open all night, and Eli consistently missed targets. But hey, let’s just look at the numbers: The Giants have the 3rd rated offensive line (a quarterback’s best friend), so Eli has plenty of time to throw. Is it the defense? Well they are giving up a lot of yards, but they’re only allowing 20 points per game. Eli can mange 20 points per game, right? Is the problem OBJ, like Eli’s convinced the media of? Well, OBJ’s catch percentage (per target) is down to 52% this year compared to 60% last year, but Eli has two new stud receivers in Victor Cruz and Sterling Shepard. Wait a second… maybe…no that can’t be right. Could the problem in New York be the media’s sweetheart, Eli Manning? Well, this year he’s squished between Paxton Lynch and Ryan Tannehill as the league’s 27th ranked passer. Yikes. Manning’s also got a less-than-pedestrian 5 to 4 TD to interception ratio, and sits in the bottom half of the league with a 63 % completion rating. I’ll say it if nobody else will: Eli Manning is the problem in New York, not Odell Beckham Jr.
5. The Minnesota Vikings are a Superbowl caliber squad, and Sam Bradford is playing well enough to take them there
This is not a knee-jerk reaction, folks, I promise. When Teddy Bridgewater went down this preseason, I thought to myself, “Damn, another great roster without a quarterback”. Every year there are a few of these: this year it’s the Rams, Jets, Texans, and to a lesser degree, the Bengals. Then we started to hear rumblings of a Sam Bradford trade in the works, and I thought to myself, “Oh boy, here we go”, as I always have when hype surrounds Bradford. I mean, the guy’s been an injury-prone, average-to-below-average quarterback his whole career. Now, after witnessing Bradford excel in a Vikings organization that’s a step above his previous two, I’m experiencing some hindsight bias. This guy was drafted into a perennially losing franchise, and won Offensive Rookie of the Year. There’s talent there. That, by the way, is the same team that’d been so bad they recently moved to LA. Following the Rams, Bradford got to spend a year with a franchise that was getting ready to fire the coach that brought him in. Stable, well-run franchises can affect a player’s performance immeasurably, and we are seeing the results of that before our eyes. Vikings GM Rick Spielman has built a monster in Minnesota, and Mike Zimmer is unleashing it; having already dominated three Superbowl QB’s in Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, and Eli Manning. Sam Bradford looks like a quarterback that has finally found his home, completing a league high 70% of his throws, with a TD to interception ratio of 6 to 0. Combine that with a defense that is top 5 in every important category (including 1st in turnovers), and this team is for real. With an easy schedule going forward, and a win over division-rival Green Bay in the books, the Vikings are a sure-fire playoff team. Time to sit back, and see how far Bradford can take them.