- The Chiefs and the Broncos are still within striking distance of the Raiders on top, but an Oakland victory against Carolina could push both teams further away. Who will emerge with the edge in Week 12?
Black Friday is upon us, the annual unofficial kickoff to the holiday season and celebration of consumerism, when people are willing to do just about anything to save a few bucks.
NFL teams won’t do their shopping for a few months—free agency arrives on March 9, 2017. They are always on the hunt for values, though. With that in mind—in honor of the Black Friday insanity—let’s take a gander at five of the best bargains on NFL rosters this season. (Couple notes before we begin: any players on rookie contracts were eliminated from consideration since the $$ there is limited, and all salary figures are courtesy of OvertheCap.com.)
1. Tyrod Taylor, QB, Bills ($6.9 million cap hit in 2016): Like one of those cable bundles where the price skyrockets after a year, Taylor won’t be quite as much of a value if the Bills hang onto him beyond 2016. That said, his cap hit of $15.9 million next season doesn’t look so bad by comparison to the rest of the QB market. And at $6.9 million this year, he’s an absolute steal given his level of play. Just above him is Ryan Fitzpatrick, at $7 million.
2. Greg Olsen, TE, Panthers ($5.1 million): There is a small army of sale prices at the receiver position—Emmanuel Sanders ($6.2 million), whose contract runs $9 million less than teammate Demaryius Thomas; Cole Beasley ($3.3 million), a key cog in Dallas’ offense; Adam Humphries ($450K), an undrafted free agent a year ago with 39 grabs. None of those players can top the 745 yards receiving Olsen has this season, ranking him 10th in the NFL. His cap hit double next season, but there are 11 tight ends carrying a higher cost this year.
3. Zach Strief, OT, Saints ($3.2 million): Pro Football Focus had the longtime Saint on its midseason All-Pro roster a couple weeks ago—not bad considering there are 71 more expensive offensive linemen league-wide this season. Strief has missed just two games total the past four seasons.
4. Kerry Hyder, DE, Lions ($450K): Mentioned Humphries above, and players like him and Hyder are the scores GMs dream of finding—UDFAs or practice-squad castoffs playing at or near the league minimum. Hyder, formerly on the Jets practice squad, was leading the Lions with 7.0 sacks headed into Thanksgiving, and he’ll command a much larger contract for 2017. A.J. Bouye ($1.7 million) has authored a similar tale as a breakout DB for the Texans.
5. Tony Jefferson, S, Cardinals ($1.7 million): The Cardinals lucked out in keeping Jefferson, after offering him the lowest available restricted free-agent tender this past off-season, meaning another team could have signed him without draft-pick compensation. All Jefferson done is start 10 games in what could be a Pro Bowl season. He’ll clean up in free agency.
That’s by no means a complete list of the cheap-but-valuable players patrolling the NFL. It’s merely a glimpse into what’s out there.
Now, what we’re here for in the first place: this week’s picks.
A quartet of players who could be key to this week’s matchups:
1. Michael Crabtree, WR, Raiders: The veteran receiver has vanished the past two weeks, totaling just 32 yards on five catches. Oakland has shown it can move the ball without his production, but the passing game isn’t whole when Amari Cooper is the only receiver making noise.
2. Kevin Minter, LB, Cardinals: Minter called out everyone, including himself, after last week’s loss to Minnesota. “When are we going to wake up?” linebacker Kevin Minter said via azcentral.com. “When are we going to finally do what we know we can do?” Minter could help lead the way against an Atlanta offense that thrives on creating mismatches with its backs.
3. Tyler Higbee, TE, Rams: The rookie caught Jared Goff’s first career completion last week, a short three-yarder. This might be the time to get Higbee more involved in the offense. He was Goff’s training-camp roommate and offers a dangerous skill set from the tight end spot.
4. Devontae Booker, RB, Broncos: Booker has had just shy of 20 touches per game the past four games, but he hasn’t been overly productive the last three—San Diego and Oakland both held him to fewer than 3.0 yards per carry. He could help keep the Chiefs’ pass rush off Trevor Siemian by balancing out the offensive attack Sunday night.
• Last week: 13–1 overall (103-58-1 season), 7-6-1 vs. the spread (77-80-7 season).
• Best pick in Week 11: Raiders 27, Texans 20 (actual score: Raiders 27–17)
• Worst pick in Week 11: Chiefs 26, Buccaneers 21 (actual score: Buccaneers 19–17).
This line confuses me. A one-win team riding a nine-game losing streak, flying cross-country to play a red-hot opponent. It seems like it should be, in the words of Derek Zoolander, “at least three times bigger than this.” So, as I usually do when I feel like the oddsmakers are trying to trap me, I’m steering into the skid by taking the 49ers to cover. But it won’t be a surprise if they get run out of the building. Miami’s Jay Ajayi could be just the guy to do that—he’s now up over 800 yards for the season and is still averaging 5.6 yards per attempt. The 49ers remain the league’s worst run defense by a large margin. Colin Kaepernick has shown progress for San Francisco’s offense the past couple of weeks, but Miami’s secondary continues to play above its head. The Dolphins also have more than held their own against other dual-threat QBs they’ve faced, like in Week 7 vs. Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor and Week 1 vs. Seattle’s Russell Wilson.
Watchability index (out of 10): 3. The Dolphins have won five in a row and are nipping at the heels of Denver and Kansas City in the wild-card race. Can San Francisco actually make this a game?
For whatever reason, it sure feels like Matt Barkley has been around the league longer than he actually has. The Eagles’ 2013 fourth-round pick will make his first career start. He was pressed into action earlier when Brian Hoyer broke his arm during Week 7 and completed 6 of 15 passes with two INTs. As if that’s not daunting enough for Chicago, Alshon Jeffery (suspension), Zach Miller (foot), Kyle Long (ankle) and potentially Josh Sitton (ankle) all will miss Sunday’s game. Chicago’s defense could give its team a chance—opponents have averaged just 13.7 points in the past three games at Soldier Field and no team since Week 3 has topped 103 yards rushing. The Titans will challenge both numbers, but particularly the latter with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Chicago has been much less effective vs. the pass (Jameis Winston went for 312 two weeks ago), so Marcus Mariota should be lined up for a good day.
Watchability: 1. The Titans have drifted to third place in the AFC South, and the Bears could be a complete waste of time on offense.
Sound the warning sirens in Atlanta: The Bucs are on their heels in the NFC South, they’ve lost three of their last five and this is not a particularly good matchup for them. The main reason comes on defense, where the Falcons’ young LBs and secondary have been shredded by pass-catching running backs—opposing backs have a league-high 81 receptions vs. Atlanta. And David Johnson might be the most multi-dimensional back in football (863 yards rushing, 510 yards receiving). Arizona also boasts CB Patrick Peterson, who could give WR Julio Jones all he can handle, although it’s worth pointing out Jones had a monster game last time he saw the Falcons, in 2014 (10 catches, 189 yards and a touchdown). Atlanta could have RB Tevin Coleman back, though, which would bump its offense back to full strength. No defense has shut down the Falcons’ attack when everyone has been available.
Watchability: 8. Probably the last stand for the Cardinals if they have any playoff aspirations, but the Falcons are in dire need of a win, too.
With A.J. Green (hamstring) down for several weeks and Gio Bernard (knee) done for the year, expect the Bengals’ offense to center on RB Jeremy Hill. One problem, at least this week: Standing across the line of scrimmage is the league’s top run defense. Baltimore did not entirely shut down Ezekiel Elliott last week (25 carries, 97 yards), but it did a better job than anyone since Week 2. And the Bengals’ O-line is a ways from Cowboys caliber. Cincinnati ranks at the opposite end of the spectrum vs. the run (28th), so we’ll see if the Ravens show more of a commitment to the run than they did at Dallas, where they turned to Joe Flacco’s arm despite strong work by Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon. The passing game could work, as well—Steve Smith has scored in back-to-back games; Mike Wallace has topped 60 yards in six straight.
Watchability: 6. For as awful as the Bengals have been, they’re still just a game and a half out in the AFC North.
Is this the week? The Browns are running out of shots to land win No. 1, and if it doesn’t happen Sunday they’ll have extra time to think about it during their late-season bye. Josh McCown starts again for Cleveland, which puts him about about 3:1 odds to finish the game healthy. The offense has been rancid the past three weeks no matter the QB: averages 191.7 yards and 8.7 points in that stretch. However, the Giants have not enjoyed a comfortable margin of victory all season—their most lopsided win was a 17-10 slugfest in L.A. The Browns’ defense being porous against the run may matter little against a New York offense that’s shown no ability (and little desire) to kickstart its ground game. It’ll likely fall to Eli Manning to do the job. He has helped rookie Sterling Shepard heat up, with touchdowns in three straight.
Watchability: 4. The upset is possible, if Manning endures one of his mistake-prone games. But the Giants have not blinked in five straight close games.
The Saints’ pass defense can be lit up by a team willing to push the envelope. Unfortunately for the Rams, that doesn’t describe them even a little. In the rain last week, 2016 No. 1 pick Jared Goff followed the conservative script en route to a disappointing loss. The Rams do have three road wins this season, but in two of those their defense dominated—five turnovers forced in Arizona, nine points allowed vs. the Jets. Overall, though, that group has been far better at home than on the road. Los Angeles has allowed 256 yards passing per road game, about 60 yards higher than its home clip. Waiting on the other side this week, of course, is Drew Brees. He leads the NFL in attempts, completions, completion percentage, yards and touchdowns through 11 weeks.
Watchability: 5. Goff Round 2 ups the intrigue. On paper, the Rams’ D vs. Saints’ O matchup is a good one, too, but it’ll be on the former to make that a reality.
Bad as their record (and quarterback?) is, I can’t shake the feeling that Jacksonville pulls a stunner over the final six weeks—everyone left on its schedule is in the thick of the playoff chase. Don’t think it happens here. The Jaguars continue to play well against the pass, but LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor will give them fits on the ground. Plus, Sammy Watkins’ imminent return to action means that the Bills won’t need much space to make something happen when they take to the air. Buffalo has scored at least 25 points in its four home games to date; Jacksonville is allowing 26.5 per outing. The Jaguars do have their own playmakers (that was never the problem): Chris Ivory saw 23 touches in Detroit, including six receptions for 75 yards, while Marqise Lee’s bounceback season keeps rolling along.
Watchability: 3. Seemingly every coach keeps warning his team that the Jaguars are better than their record. Talent-wise, that might be true, but eventually you are what you are.
The Chargers are a road favorite, which is a nod both to their potential to knock off anyone and Houston’s deficiencies. The Texans, though, are 5-0 at home and likely have this circled as a borderline must-win before two straight road games. The AFC South leaders have put the kibosh on three straight rushing attacks (56 yards allowed on average since Week 8), which could mean a difficult Sunday for Melvin Gordon. They’re also one of just five teams to hold opposing tight ends under 400 yards receiving this season, so Philip Rivers may have to find help outside of Hunter Henry and Antonio Gates. The Texans’ offense also has shown signs of life, albeit rather unexpectedly through the likes of TEs C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffen. San Diego recently lost DT Brandon Mebane to I.R. (bicep)—that’s a substantial setback for what has been a stout run defense.
Watchability: 7. The Chargers hold high entertainment value whenever they take the field. They’re likely in a win-out scenario the rest of the way, with their first stop against a division leader.
Pete Carroll said Wednesday that star safety Earl Thomas and CB DeShawn Shead (hamstring injuries, both) are unlikely to play Sunday. In Thomas’s case, if he sits, it would be his first missed game since arriving in the NFL back in 2010. The Seahawks have had communication issues in the secondary when Kam Chancellor’s been missing, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Thomas down. If nothing else, Tampa Bay TE Cameron Brate ought to benefit. Can the Bucs come up with enough stops of their own? Russell Wilson is on an absolute tear his past three games (902 combined yards passing and seven total TDs). The Bucs rank 25th against the pass and have allowed 20 passing touchdowns already this season. The backfield matchup of Seattle’s Thomas Rawls and Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin will be integral to the outcome. Both teams want to establish the run; neither has much in the way of healthy backups.
Watchability: 9. Seattle has established itself as Dallas’ biggest threat in the NFC right now. But this is not an easy trip, with the Buccaneers coming off a huge upset victory in Kansas City.
The Panthers’ defense started out strong, then held on late in a Thursday win over New Orleans. Can any of the early momentum be carried over to Oakland? The pass defense has been dreadful during Carolina’s last three road games—opponents have hung 481, 460 and 280 yards passing in those contests (if that 280 number sounds fine, keep in mind it was from Case Keenum). Oakland’s Derek Carr is already sitting on 2,800 yards and 20 TDs this season. If the Carolina defense does show signs of faltering, the Panthers might be able to counter with a little ball control. Thus far, 70% of Oakland’s opponents have rushed for 100-plus yards, a positive omen for Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart.
Watchability: 9. Believe it or not, the Raiders currently hold the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Whether or not they’re four games better than the defending NFC champs, as the records say, will be up for debate Sunday.
Out of their bye, the Jets are turning their offense back over to Ryan Fitzpatrick because ... uh ... I suppose they’re hoping to catch a little FitzMagic lightning in a bottle before completely turning the page to 2017. Fitzpatrick did just that in a 26–20, Week 16 win over New England last year. However, he has not thrown more than one TD in a game this year since Week 1. Worse yet, he remains the league leader in interceptions (13). The Patriots haven’t been infallible on defense, by any means—the Seahawks took it to them a couple weeks ago, with RB C.J. Prosise making seven grabs. Matt Forte and Bilal Powell are more than capable of matching that output. Rob Gronkowski is expected to play after missing Week 11 with a perforated lung, but Tom Brady could still focus on Julian Edelman, Martellus Bennett and the loaded backfield. Brady has 13 touchdowns and zero picks in his road games this season.
Watchability: 6. There’s no doubt that the Jets planned for there to be more on the line this week. They will throw all they have at the Patriots, but how much is that?
Maybe the Chiefs got caught looking ahead to this one. Maybe they just had an off day. Whatever the reason, they struggled across the board in a Week 11 loss to the Buccaneers. This won’t be an easy place to recover. Alex Smith has a couple of wins to his credit vs. Denver, but he has shaky numbers overall against the Broncos (a 2–5 record, 57.5% completion rate and 21 sacks). The Chiefs would love nothing more than to limit the pressure on Smith by waking up their run game. They have not topped 100 yards in four games, but Denver has struggled between the tackles all season. The Broncos could have an edge when they have the ball, too, if they can unleash either Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders—CB Marcus Peters can’t cover them both. Will Smith or Trevor Siemian make the big mistake?
Watchability: 10. A big finish on Sunday night. The winner keeps at arm’s length (or pulls even) with Oakland in the AFC West; the team on the other end will be in a precarious spot.
Surprise star of Week 12: Mohamed Sanu, WR, Falcons. Hard to say which Atlanta weapon will go off any given week, but let’s assume the Cardinals focus on limiting a) the run game, and b) Julio Jones. Sanu should have space, even more so when he sees time out of the slot. He’s still in search of a 100-yard game as a Falcon.
Upset of the week: Chiefs (+3) over Broncos. Kansas City is coming off a loss, and Alex Smith does not have a great track record against Denver. Still, this game projects as a toss-up. The Chiefs steal a win on the road.
College upset of the week: Boston College (+3.5) at Wake Forest. These teams played one of the worst games ever broadcast on television last season: a 3–0 Wake win. This turn might not be any prettier, but the Eagles need it for bowl eligibility.