It’s awards season and the Burke Report is hopping on the bandwagon. The goal for next year is to find a host to hand out this hardware—the Grammys had LL Cool J, the Golden Globes had Ricky Gervais and the Academy Awards have Chris Rock, so based on the awards prestige-to-fame ratio there, our ceiling probably lands around Randy Quaid.
Nonetheless, we press on with our first (hopefully) annual awards, a mishmash of categories about the 2015 NFL season and ’16 NFL playoffs, chosen in arbitrary fashion.
Time to open the envelopes.
Most surprising player
Tyrod Taylor, QB, Bills
No one knew what to expect from Taylor when he landed in Buffalo, after four years serving as Joe Flacco’s backup. The Virginia Tech product had thrown 35 regular-season passes from 2011–14, his only remotely significant playing time coming during a Week 17 game in ’12 that had absolutely no impact on Baltimore’s standing.
He handily won the Bills’ job away from Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel, though, when he completed 77% of his passes and averaged 9.8 yards per rush this past preseason. Taylor carried that momentum into the regular season, helping push Buffalo to the brink of playoff contention in the process. Over 14 games, Taylor tossed 20 TDs to just six INTs, posted a 99.4 QB rating (seventh-best in the league) and rushed for nearly 600 yards.
Considering the Bills owe him just $1 million next season, Taylor will head into 2016 as the unquestioned starter. He caught everyone off guard in 2015, proving to be an above-average starting QB. He’ll cash in eventually if he keeps it up.
Most surprising player, playoff edition
Kony Ealy, DE, Panthers
I’m working mostly off the Super Bowl in handing out this “award,” but ... man. If the Panthers had rallied for the win, Ealy would have been the easy choice as the game’s MVP. While Von Miller was wreaking havoc on Carolina’s offense, Ealy was doing the same to Peyton Manning and co. He finished with three sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and fumble recovery (the final two occurring on the same fourth-quarter play).
Perhaps most amazing of all? Ealy turned in that stat line while playing just 23 defensive snaps, spending more than 60% of Denver’s possessions on the sideline.
Most disappointing player
Davante Adams, WR, Packers
There are a handful of players per team that could be considered here, but Adams gets the nod because his season-long issues were the epitome of what ailed Green Bay’s offense. The 2014 second-rounder struggled to get open, then often failed to make a catch when he did.
Aaron Rodgers targeted Adams 94 times during the regular season, resulting in 50 catches for just 483 yards and a lone touchdown. That’s a miserable conversion rate across the board.
The 23-year-old did have to deal with injuries, which cost him three games during the regular season and hampered him into the playoffs. Still, he was expected to be the main beneficiary of extra work once Jordy Nelson dropped in the preseason. Try as they might, however, the Packers couldn't make it happen.
Most disappointing player, playoff edition
Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings
Obviously, credit is due the Seahawks’ defense for keeping Peterson in check during the wild-card round—the league’s regular-season rushing leader mustered a mere 45 yards on 23 carries. But the Vikings were in position to eke out a win (on a day when wind chills dipped past negative 20), until Peterson coughed up the ball at his own 40.
The Seahawks’ Steven Hauschka hit a field goal moments later to push his team in front, 10–9. Of course, that's all possibly forgotten if Blair Walsh had connected on a chip shot in the final seconds, but he didn’t, and so Peterson’s final salvo on the 2015 season goes down as a subpar showing.
“Pay that man” award (aka: contract year breakout)
Travis Benjamin, WR, Browns
Benjamin’s year honestly might have been more of a stunner than Taylor’s. The Browns’ receiver caught 18, five and 18 passes over his first three seasons, respectively, then exploded for 68 receptions and 966 yards. Not bad for a guy who only heard his name called in early fantasy drafts when a novice player accidentally took him instead of Kelvin Benjamin.
Even better for Travis Benjamin is that his breakthrough came in a year where the free-agent receiver crop is unappealing, at best. After Alshon Jeffery, Benjamin has as much claim to the No. 2 spot as guys like Marvin Jones or Kamar Aiken.
Worst quarterbacking performance
Peyton Manning vs. Chiefs (Week 10)
Emblematic of the Broncos’ unusual run to the Super Bowl, Manning’s Week 10 start against the Chiefs saw him break the NFL’s all-time career passing yardage record and get benched in favor of Brock Osweiler. All told, Manning completed five passes (on 20 attempts) while throwing four interceptions. The Chiefs led 22–0 midway through the third quarter when coach Gary Kubiak pulled the QB switch.
Worst quarterbacking performance, playoff edition
(TIE) Carson Palmer vs. Panthers; Brian Hoyer vs. Chiefs
Personally, I think this goes to Palmer. Many on Twitter disagreed with that assessment. (BREAKING: People think a tweet is wrong!) Anyway, I’m fine giving Hoyer a piece of the pie here.
He and his Texans kicked off the playoff season with a horrendous showing at home, losing 30–0 to the Chiefs. Hoyer finished that game 15-of-34 for 136 yards and four interceptions. Two weeks later, in the NFC title game, Palmer produced his own face plant—four interceptions and two lost fumbles in a 49–15 blowout loss to the Panthers.
Packers’ Hail Mary vs. Lions
I mean, come on. This has to be the winner.
Colts’ bizarre fake punt
Not that anyone who saw this play could forget it, but here’s how the Colts lined up on a fourth-and-three, down by six in the third quarter vs. New England:
The goal either was to have the Patriots or to have everyone clear the middle of the field, thereby allowing Colt Anderson to run for a first down. Neither thing happened, leaving Anderson standing there almost stunned when Griff Whalen snapped the ball despite the presence of several Patriots defenders.
New England promptly scored a touchdown on the ensuing possession and went on to win by seven.
Worst play, punter edition
Colton Schmidt, Bills
Colts punter Pat McAfee wasn’t really involved in his team's ill-advised fake so he drops out contention. He would have fallen short of this debacle anyway:
Worst play, quarterback edition
Matt Cassel, Cowboys
Getting flagged for intentional grounding on an interception is about as bad as it can possibly get for a quarterback. The Cowboys benched Cassel later in their loss to the Jets, so this could be one of the last passes the soon-to-be 34-year-old QB ever attempts.
Worst play, Browns edition
Johnny Manziel to Mitchell Schwartz
This play has it all. The scrambling, the panicked attempt to get rid of the football, the offensive tackle catching it and immediately taking a knee. It’s a shame the completion was illegal.
Bonus commentary, from Schwartz’s brother and fellow NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz:
Johnny threw the ball to my brother. Haha. And then my brother took a knee. 😂😂😂😂😂. He's going to hear about that for awhile at family meals— Geoff Schwartz (@geoffschwartz) December 27, 2015
Best rule change
Cards on the table, I thought moving extra points back to the 15-yard line was just the NFL meddling with its rule book for no real reason. I was wrong. The change made an impact throughout the season, right up until Stephen Gostkowski’s stunning miss in the AFC Championship Game, which wound up playing a huge role in New England’s loss to Denver.
Kickers missed 71 extra points during the regular season, paced by seven misfires from Jacksonville’s Jason Myers and six from Buffalo’s Dan Carpenter.
Worst “rule change”
I put rule change in quotes because nothing technically changed about the NFL’s catch rule, save for an attempt to clarify it. From the NFL Football Operations site:
“The language pertaining to a catch was clarified to provide a better understanding of the rule. In order to complete a catch, a receiver must clearly become a runner. He does that by gaining control of the ball, touching both feet down and then, after the second foot is down, having the ball long enough to clearly become a runner, which is defined as the ability to ward off or protect himself from impending contact.”
There’s more, but we already hit maximum capacity on our This Is Garbage meter, so we’ll stop. All the rewrite did was change the starting point for any catch conversation from “Did he maintain control?” to “Was he established as a runner?”
Part of me thinks the NFL leaves this rule a complete mess to distract people from the league’s other issues, like in that movie Wag the Dog where the president created a fake war in order to avoid a personal scandal.
I think this is the best. Maybe it’s the worst. Regardless, it’s endlessly watchable.
Holy mother of dragons, this is a disaster.
Most surprisingly decent dab
Betty White is 94 years old and I’ll take on anyone who tries to tell me she’s not awesome.
Most Mike Carey moment
The Jim Nantz disagreement
The scene: Week 12, Pittsburgh at Seattle. With the Steelers down five in the fourth quarter, Ben Roethlisberger hit Markus Wheaton for what at first was ruled a 28-yard completion. The Seahawks challenged, and with the game being broadcast on CBS that meant it was time for Jim Nantz and Phil Simms to bring in rules expert Mike Carey.
Nantz: “There is a little bobble here. He has to regrab it.”
Simms: “There ya go. Good one.”
Carey: “I’m with you guys [despite disagreeing with them]. I think that this is going to stand as a catch. He has control, there is not enough evidence of loss of control, gets both feet down inbounds.”
Nantz: “Watch this though, Mike. I’m not agreeing with you.”
Carey: “ ... OK ...”
Spoiler alert: The call was overturned.
During the NFL season this space will be reserved to spotlight four players key to the upcoming week’s action. The topic will vary throughout the off-season.
This week: Four potential free agents who might be undervalued.
1. Mohamed Sanu, WR: Was the 26-year-old Sanu rather unproductive because he was a small piece in Cincinnati’s A.J. Green-led attack, or was he a small piece because the Bengals couldn't count on him to produce? I'll lean the former for now, if only because Sanu is such a unique receiver. At 6'2" and 215 pounds, he can play inside or outside, operate the wildcat and even throw (he’s 5-of-5 passing for 177 yards and two TDs in his career).
The Bengals were fairly creative on offense thanks to former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, but Sanu still sat down the list of options behind Green, fellow FA-to-be Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert and the running backs. He did catch 56 passes and score five times in 2014, but those numbers dipped to 33 and zero this season, although he did run for two scores.
His size and versatility could push him into a larger role, though, perhaps even in Cincinnati should Jones chase a paycheck. The obvious match for Sanu is Cleveland, which needs receiver help and hired Jackson as its head coach. He knows better than anyone of what Sanu is capable.
2. Brandon Mebane, DT: His five-year, $25 million contract just wrapped in Seattle, so Mebane could be looking for a new home. He likely will have to accept a significant decrease in pay to go with it, given his age (31) and the fact that he’s mostly limited to a run-stuffing role (Mebane has a combined 2.5 sacks over the past three seasons).
That said, there should be a market for what he still can offer. Namely, that his 310-pound frame can eat up a lot of space, helping to turn loose the linebackers and other lineman flanking him. There are a limited number of DTs who can handle such responsibilities on a consistent basis. Mebane’s experience and track record will lead to some interest.
3. Sterling Moore, CB: It’s been a whirlwind career thus far for the former undrafted free agent, who began his NFL career with New England, then signed with Dallas after being cut midway through the 2013 season and finally made his way to Tampa Bay for 2015. Without much fanfare, he was arguably the best player in the Buccaneers’ humdrum secondary.
Working in Moore’s favor is that he is still young (he turned 26 this month), plus now has 19 career starts under his belt. Those starts have been split between work at outside corner, where he spent the bulk of his time late last season, and in the slot. The way he played down the stretch could convince a team to give him a shot manned up.
There are a lot of bigger fish in the CB market, so the Buccaneers have a decent shot at keeping Moore in the fold. His best days appear to be ahead of him.
4. James Starks, RB: Convincing any team to spend big bucks on a running back is difficult as it is, and Starks is about to hit free agency alongside Matt Forte, Chris Ivory, Doug Martin, Lamar Miller and others. In other words, he’s probably not going to be Plan A for most teams looking to restock their backfields.
The Packers also have incentive to keep him around, as I touched on in this week’s Off-season Outlook—they hardly have total confidence in Eddie Lacy.
Starks did fumble five times on 191 touches this season, a far too frequent occurrence, but he also showed that he can be a three-down back when called upon. He’s probably better suited to play a similar role to what he did with Green Bay: a passing-down threat who can handle 10 carries a game. For $2 million or so a year, Starks would be worth the investment.
Mock Draft Watch
Our latest NFL Mock Draft—a two-rounder!—dropped last week. Instead of rehashing all the analysis provided there, let’s play around with a draft scenario again. The question here is: If Tennessee opts to trade down from No. 1, which team would make the move up?
The list of likely candidates:
• Cleveland: How the Browns’ new front office approaches this draft will be fascinating to watch, particularly with all of the “Moneyball” overtones. They might be as much a trade-down candidate as trade-up. But if they have their hearts set on Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch or Carson Wentz, the thought of losing him to a team that jumps above them to No. 1 would be a worst-case scenario. If they’re convinced one of the aforementioned is their guy, then climbing a spot to nab him would be worth it.
Also of interest in that discussion: Cleveland holds the No. 32 pick (first pick of Round 2 but essentially a first-rounder because New England lost its selection), No. 65 and OvertheCap projects the Browns could gain three comp picks (Buster Skrine, Jabaal Sheard, Brian Hoyer). That’s a lot of ammo should they decide to take a stab at the top spot.
• Dallas: I put the Cowboys here for one of two reasons. Either a.) they set their sights on one of the aforementioned quarterbacks as Tony Romo’s eventual replacement, or b.) they desperately want, say, Joey Bosa to round out their defense. Jerry Jones is always a candidate for some draft fireworks.
• San Francisco: Again, this is a quarterback-based hypothetical. If Chip Kelly decides Colin Kaepernick’s not worth the trouble (or Kaepernick forces his hand by demanding a trade or release), the 49ers become a natural landing spot for a quarterback should they fail to find an answer via free agency/trade. Hoping their potential franchise QB slips to No. 7 might be viewed as too big a gamble.
• New York Giants: Highly, highly doubt this comes anywhere close to happening, but this is a team in need of a dynamic pass-rusher as well as offensive tackle. What happens if they stick and then watch Bosa, Laremy Tunsil, Ronnie Stanley and a couple other options fly off the board?
• Philadelphia Eagles: Hard to see the Eagles coming in hot under a new regime, especially since they don’t have a second-round pick (thanks to the Nick Foles-Sam Bradford trade). But, if Bradford’s not going to be the guy, then new head coach Doug Pederson needs someone to mold at that position. Chances are at least one of the Goff-Lynch-Wentz trio will be there at 13. Would it be the one Philadelphia has its eyes on?
• Los Angeles Rams: QB, QB, yada yada yada. The real prize, though, is that extra second-rounder. Los Angeles picks at 15, 43 and 45. A package of all three may not be enough to land No. 1, but 15 plus a second-rounder plus another first somewhere down the line could be plenty. Sounds steep, but it’s not easy to climb from the middle of Round 1 to the top of the draft.
Each week, I’ll take to Twitter to take the readers’ pulse on a pressing NFL issue.
Which team drafting between 13 and 31 is most likely to take a quarterback in Round 1?— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurke_SI) February 15, 2016
This probably is how I’d have them ordered, too—Texans, Rams, Eagles, Broncos. The sticking point on putting Houston up top, though, is where it sits in Round 1. A lot of people want to connect Bill O’Brien to Christian Hackenberg there, but is he going to wind up a Day 1 selection? Is Connor Cook? The Texans might wind up waiting until Friday.
As mentioned above, the Rams have three picks in the top 45, so that alone makes them a QB contender. Even staying put at 15, there’s a definite chance one of Goff, Lynch or Wentz is still on the board.