Mailbag: Who Will Lead the NFL in Major Stats in 2021?

Which players are primed to stand out next season? Plus, are the Broncos more appealing to an elite QB now than they were to Peyton Manning, will Stephon Gilmore be traded, could Larry Fitzgerald sign with the Vikings and more.
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My final mailbag before vacation. Let’s jump in …

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From Benjamin Hendy #BlackLivesMatter (@BenjaminHendy): Who do you think will lead the league this season in ...

A) Rushing yards
B) Receiving yards
C) Passing yards
D) Passing TDs
E) Sacks

O.K., I’ll bite, Benjamin …

Rushing yards: Colts RB Jonathan Taylor. I’m a big believer in the ex-Wisconsin star, who has most of the physical measurables, but not the hype, of Saquon Barkley. The Indy coaches are resolved not to put the weight of the world on Carson Wentz’s shoulders, and if that results in Wentz’s rebounding, you’ll have two things happen: Taylor will get the ball a lot, and there’ll be enough of a threat through the air that he won’t be running into a lot of eight-man fronts. Put me down for 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns for Taylor.

Receiving yards: Cardinals WR DeAndre Hopkins. I considered Stefon Diggs to repeat here, and Davante Adams should be in the mix if Aaron Rodgers is back in Green Bay. But I like Hopkins, mostly because I think Arizona’s going to lean on him. A.J. Green doesn’t have much left, and I think having the ability to put burners like Andy Isabella and Rondale Moore on the field together should open things up for the not-super-fast Hopkins, the way Will Fuller used to open things up for him in Houston.

Passing yards: Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes. Sometimes, you have to go with the obvious one. I’m going with the obvious one here. My dark horse is Jameis Winston, who actually has been the leader in this category before (yup, the 30-pick season). But I’ll play this safe.

Passing TDs: Buccaneers QB Tom Brady. I just like the offense, the talent around the passer and how well this particular guy plays situationally (i.e., in the red zone). All that should put the greatest quarterback ever somewhere in the 40s when it comes to touchdown passes. The other thing that could boost the number is the lack of a true bell cow running back here.

Sacks: Washington DE Chase Young. He had 7.5 as a rookie, and that number could’ve been much higher. He’s got a loaded group around him (Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, DaRon Payne) that’ll keep offenses for overcommitting to stop him. And his defensive coordinator, Jack Del Rio, sure has a lot of experience getting the most out of elite edge defenders, having spent parts of the last decade with Von Miller and Khalil Mack. Big year coming.

From Resting Cliff Booth Face Flag of United States (@drnugget): With the recent rule changes, what number will Aaron Rodgers wear in Denver?

No change to the number rules for quarterbacks! So Rodgers still can’t venture into the 20s, like Bernie Kosar did Miami or Doug Flutie did at BC, and he definitely can’t go Otto Graham and wear No. 60 either … for the Broncos or anyone else.

From Brett Durland (@DurlandBrett): For fun, if A-Rod went to Denver today, do you see them as being strong enough to actually compete with KC this year?

Brett, this is an interesting question, and I’m going to follow it with an exercise that I think should illustrate why Denver might be attractive to Rodgers (or Deshaun Watson)—I actually don’t think the team is that far off from where it was when it lured Peyton Manning to Colorado in 2012. Let’s take a look …

• The Broncos entered the 2012 offseason with a pair of promising young veteran receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. In ’21? They’ve got three of those: Courtland Sutton, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler.

• There was a young, wildly athletic tight end on the team who needed refinement in 2012, in Julius Thomas. His ’21 counterparts: Noah Fant and Albert Okwuegbunam.

• Years of taking swings on offensive linemen was starting to pay off, behind a first-round left tackle (Ryan Clady) and veteran offensive line coach (Dave Magazu). Now? Well, line coach Mike Munchak has worked wonders, maybe most so with a 2017 first-round left tackle (Garett Bolles).

• The defense was built around old/young bookends at edge rusher (Von Miller/Elvis Dumervil) and corner (Chris Harris/Champ Bailey) then, and is again now (Bradley Chubb/Miller, Kyle Fuller/Patrick Surtain), with both teams’ having an older, defensive-minded head coach at the helm (John Fox, Vic Fangio).

I’m not saying this comparison is perfect. It’s not. Fox and the Broncos were coming off the magical, unexplainable Tim Tebow year of 2011 before landing Manning, whereas these Broncos haven’t even been to the playoffs in five years—their last postseason game was Super Bowl 50, which was Manning’s final game. But I think there’s a lot to like about where the Denver is for a veteran quarterback who may have only a few more swings at a championship.

From Shy Sullivan (@CheyenneSulli14): Do you think that Gilmore is the best Patriots player coming off a torn quad in December and having a bad year last year? Really?

From Headlinez (Joe Fann Stan) (@TreBrownSZN): Percent chances we see a Stephon Gilmore trade?

Shy, the answer is yes. He was a very worthy Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 and played well when healthy last year. Also, who else would be their best player? Dont’a Hightower coming off his opt-out season? Devin McCourty? Matthew Slater? One of the new guys? Bottom line, I didn’t think my calling him the team’s best player was even remotely controversial. I sort of thought that was clear.

What’s clear as well is that this isn’t just a pay-the-man situation, and this is where we’ll get to Headlinez’s question.

The problem, Headlinez, with trading Gilmore is that it’s nearly impossible to get fair value for an elite player of his age. Over the last three (or so) years, 11 non-QBs have been traded for a first-round pick or more. Their ages, in order of the deals, at the time of the trades: 24, 27, 24, 26, 25, 25, 22, 24, 26, 26, 24. So I went further back, over about 25 years, and the three oldest non-QBs I could find dealt for first-rounders or more were all 28 when those deals went down (Joey Galloway in 2000, Randy Moss in 2005, Jimmy Graham in 2015).

Gilmore will turn 31 in September. He’s a great player. But I’m not sure a guy his age has ever, in 101 years of NFL football, fetched a first-round pick in a trade without being the guy with the ball in his hands on every offensive snap. It just doesn’t happen. That makes the value proposition for the Patriots clear: Do you keep one of the best players in football? Or deal him off for, say, what Darius Slay got for Detroit (third- and fifth-round picks)?

That brings us to the next complication, which is the money. Slay’s new contract with the Eagles (three years, $50.5 million) was signed with Slay at about a year younger than Gilmore was, and as the third contract of Slay’s career, which is what Gilmore is pursuing now. It’s a credit to both that their value held that deep into their time as NFL corners. But history would tell you it won’t last a whole lot longer.

Darrelle Revis turned 31 in July 2016, and his career crashed that fall. Deion Sanders’s decline began, in earnest, at 32 years old in 1999. Ty Law’s last year as an All-Pro was at 29. Rod Woodson’s last Pro Bowl season as a corner came at 31. He, like Charles Woodson, was able to reinvent himself as a safety. Now, Charles Woodson, like Champ Bailey and Darrell Green were, was a little different in that he stayed at a very high level at corner (specifically) well into his 30s. But those guys are few and far between.

So if you’re New England, and Gilmore wants a three-year extension at Slay’s money, you’re probably looking at locking yourself in at a high number for 2021 and ’22, when he’ll be 32, and then have another big figure as a placeholder for ’23. Economically, it’d make more sense to keep him at his number this year and tag him next year. But he knows that’s sitting there as an option for the team, which is why his best option is to turn up the heat now.

Honestly, that’s why I don’t think this thing has gotten nasty at all. Both sides know what’s best for the other and what’s best for each side is at odds with what’s best for the other. Which makes this one, to borrow a word, complicated.

From cp7ny (@CPIZZAIA): When do you expect the Watson situation to clear up and what team will he end up with?

cp7ny, I don’t have any idea when the Deshaun Watson situation is going to find resolution. Depositions are set for February, a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl, and absent a settlement I’d think Watson will land on the commissioner’s exempt list at some point between now and Week 1. And that brings into focus, the crux of all this: Will there be a settlement?

I’m not a lawyer. I don’t play one on TV. But I do know that fighting 22 separate claims would be time-consuming, and probably wouldn’t help Watson in the court of public opinion in the short term (long term, maybe). Conversely, if he’s truly innocent of what he’s being accused of, and I don’t know whether he is or not, I think anyone would understand his not wanting to write big checks to those accusing him. And all that makes this unpredictable.

I’d think there’d be ramped-up efforts to find a middle ground for a settlement between now and camp, and certainly before the season. But to say this will happen or that will happen … I can’t do that.

I will say that I believe there’s a strong likelihood he’s played his last game in Houston, and Denver and Philadelphia are positioned as the teams most capable of landing him. For the reasons the Broncos make sense for Rodgers, they make sense for Watson, and for Denver. And Philly has three first-round picks next, and cap flexibility after this year to build around him. The Dolphins are another team with the sort of roster Watson could win with right away and the capital to acquire him. But to get to where these are more than hypotheticals, we’ll need clarity from the court and/or league.

From Keep Pounding BR (@KeepPoundingBR): How do COVID-19 vaccine discussions (in favor/denials) impact NFL locker rooms?

Pounding, I don’t think one guy is going to hold it against the next for getting or not getting the vaccine, if that’s what you’re asking. This one, I’d think, will fall into the category of money, religion and family for players—a topic that’s each player’s own personal business.

That said, I have heard that players are following their leaders on this one. Matt Ryan was one of the first Falcons to get vaccinated, and people in that organization believe it had an effect on the locker room, and Atlanta’s now one of the leaders in number of players vaccinated. Likewise, Patrick Mahomes got his shots early, and the Chiefs players are near the top of the leaguewide list.

If you put those two elements together, I’d guess that in locker rooms where a lot of guys were vaccinated early, discussion on the vaccine probably is a lot less awkward, which would allow one player to approach another on how getting the shots went for him (and maybe why he went through with it). That’s just a guess, but I’d imagine that’s the way it’s going in a lot of American workplaces, so I’d assume that might be the same in the NFL.

The one thing I can say here with certainty is that while the league can’t require players to get vaccinated, the NFL and NFLPA are going to make it hard on guys who aren’t and hard on teams that fail to hit certain thresholds. That’s where I believe this becomes a competitive issue for teams. Last year was hard for everyone, because of the protocols, but at least each team knew it was the same for all. This year? There could be differences in protocols from one team to the next.

From James Ruane (@ruaneythethief): Are there plans to give CMC the Comeback Player of the Year award before the season starts?

From Bengalorian (@thebengalorian): Joe Burrow CPOY candidate? Yes or No?

James and Bengalorian, we addressed this question in the June 3 GamePlan! For the record, Burrow was second on our COPY watch list, and Christian McCaffrey didn’t make it. We had five guys on it, and McCaffrey would’ve been in the top 10. Dak Prescott was first, Nick Bosa was third, Carson Wentz fourth and Derwin James fifth. McCaffrey was another name I mentioned as having “just missed,” grouped with Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr.

That we have eight really good names for the award is another way of showing how brutal last year was for so many guys. And also how many good stories we could have coming over the next seven months.

From Kenny G. (@Gritz_Blitz): The future is murky for Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, especially with Julio Jones now gone. What are the expectations for their season and Ryan’s future?

Kenny, I don’t think that Jones’s being traded has anything to do with how the new Atlanta brain trust views Ryan. Jones was dealt because the Falcons’ need to create cap space and Jones’s desire to be dealt converged. And the proof of that is in how Atlanta mortgaged the contracts of Ryan, Deion Jones and Jake Matthews. I don’t think new coach Arthur Smith and GM Terry Fontenot are throwing the 2021 season away to retool.

I also wouldn’t ignore the context of where Fontenot is coming from. Over his last five years in New Orleans, working with Mickey Loomis, Jeff Ireland and, of course, Sean Payton, he was part of a remarkable rebuild. No one called it that, because most people think you need to flip out quarterbacks to have one. But if you really drill down on the details, you’ll see the Saints had one of the worst rosters in the NFL in 2015 and ’16, and drafted their way right out of a rut of three-straight 7–9 seasons (and four in five years).

Over a four-year period, the Saints drafted Sheldon Rankins, Michael Thomas, Vonn Bell, David Onyemata, Marshon Lattimore, Ryan Ramczyk, Marcus Williams, Alvin Kamara, Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Davenport, Tre’Quan Smith, Erik McCoy and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. They also signed guys like DeMario Davis, Malcolm Jenkins, Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook. And in getting all this done, they got Drew Brees a few final really good swings at winning a championship.

It’s something Ryan himself is aware of, too.

“Listen, I lived it the last five years, man,” Ryan said when I asked him about it a few weeks ago over the phone. “I definitely know it. They did a good job of getting that thing going pretty quickly. And like you mentioned, building around all the things that go along with a veteran quarterback. [Fontenot] did an excellent job, and New Orleans did an excellent job with the last five or six years.”

The backdrop to all of this: Ryan just turned 36, and that doesn’t mean what it used to for a quarterback. People have been talking about him all offseason like he’s 40. Given the hit/miss rate of quarterbacks in the draft, is it possible that the right move all along was to ride Ryan a little longer and build around him, and figure out the quarterback of the future somewhere over the next three or four years? I think it is.

I don’t think it’s a terrible bet for the Falcons to make.

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From David Selvala (@DavidSelvala): Larry to MN?

David! I was totally unaware of this story line until you asked the question—apparently Vikings fans have been talking about it for a while, and Fitzgerald was in Minnesota this week for a charity golf tournament, which raised some eyebrows to the possibility. Fitzgerald’s reinvented himself a few times over the years, and he managed 54 catches last year in 13 games at 37 years old in his 17th season, which is pretty amazing in itself. He’s also a free agent now for the first time.

The Cardinals have seemingly kept the light on for Fitzgerald, and Fitzgerald hasn’t dropped many clues as to what he wants to do. But I actually kind of like the fit for Fitzgerald in his home state. The Vikings are run-heavy, Fitzgerald’s been one of the NFL’s best blocking receivers and his versatility to play inside and out would allow new OC Klint Kubiak and the coaches to fit him in with Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.

He’d also probably be a tremendous resource for the emerging star Jefferson, and it’d allow him to give back to the Vikings—who had him out to work with Cris Carter as a teenager.

To be clear, I don’t know if this is going to happen. Or if there’s even a chance of it. But it’s a pretty cool idea.

From Paul Owers (@paulowers): Why did Doug Pederson get so little interest for a coordinator job this offseason? Did he want to take a year off or did he lose a lot of credibility in league circles for the way he handled the Week 17 game against Washington?

Honestly, Paul, I don’t think it had anything to do with Week 17—I think it was clear that he was either going to be a head coach again or take a year off, and his shot at really pursuing any of the head coach openings was short-circuiting by the timing of his firing. It happened, if you remember, more than a week after the season ended. And while at some point there were feelers in with Houston, I think too many of those searches were too far down the line (some were done) for Pederson to win a job.

That’s probably good, too. The couple of times he’s talked publicly since the split with the Eagles, he’s said he needed to recharge, and that’s understandable given how relationships fractured in that building late in the year, and just the overall toll Philly takes on the team’s coaches. It’ll be interesting to see what level of interest there is in him next year.

From Nick Tricarichi (@NTricarichi): Any updates on the future of the pod? My Wednesdays haven't been the same since the last episode. Also, big vacation plans?

Hopefully, I’ll have more to share on the future of the podcast, and some of our video content, this summer—just know that I hear you, and all the people who’ve reached out with nice things to say about the job we did. I appreciate the audience we have.

And yeah, I’m gone to Nantucket starting this weekend, but we still have another GamePlan and MMQB column coming from you before I unplug (or try to) for a few weeks.

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