Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.
1. Week 15’s games showed just how much work teams near the bottom of the league have to do this offseason. Those slated to get top 10 picks have many crucial decisions looming, especially the Giants. After putting together maybe his best game of the season against Washington last week, Eli Manning had a disastrous outing in the Giants’ 17-0 loss to the Titans on Sunday. He completed less than 50 percent of his throws, turned the ball over twice, and finished with an awful 54.1 passer rating. The game’s rainy conditions didn’t help matters, but Manning’s rough day wasn’t a result of the weather. He looked hapless in the pocket, and the Giants offense couldn’t get anything going.
Last week, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, among others, reported that Manning was playing himself onto the Giants’ 2019 roster with his recent performances. Even after Manning’s decent showing against Washington, that line of thinking was probably misguided. But following his implosion on Sunday, it would just be delusional. The Giants’ situation with Manning isn’t like the Jags’ predicament with Blake Bortles or the Dolphins’ upcoming decision about Ryan Tannehill. Manning isn’t owed a huge sum of guaranteed money that would prevent the Giants from moving on. They would save about $17 million against the cap if they released him ahead of the 2019 season, and for a team that’s set to enter next year with only $32 million in room, that would be a substantial boon. Even if the Giants do think that Manning is the right mentor/lame duck starter for 2019, it still feels like this is the time to draft someone who can push Manning next season. And whoever the Giants draft would enter the league with a better situation than most other young quarterbacks get dropped into. This team already has Odell Beckham Jr. and Saquon Barkley, with a play-caller in head coach Pat Shurmur who’s had success in the NFL. The right young QB could have immediate success with this team, and it’s about time they let one try.
2. The Cardinals’ 40-14 loss to the Falcons on Sunday might have been the worst game of Arizona’s season, and QB Josh Rosen’s rookie campaign has become something of a lost year. Arizona’s first priority this offseason needs to be finding an offensive coordinator who can get the most out of its young QB. The Mike McCoy experiment was a failure from the start, and things haven’t gotten any better under replacement Byron Leftwich. Hiring a defensive-minded head coach to guide the career of a top-10 drafted quarterback only works if that head coach secures a play-caller who can nurture the most important player on the roster. First-year head coach Steve Wilks hasn’t been able to do that, despite getting two attempts, and if Arizona fails to hire an OC who can put Rosen in better positions, it risks irreparably damaging its quarterback of the future.
In terms of personnel, the Cardinals’ top two priorities this offseason have to be improving their options at wide receiver and bulking up the offensive line. Arizona is projected to have about $72 million to in cap space, and although it may not seem prudent for a team near the bottom of the standings to spend big in free agency, the Cardinals have to do something to give Rosen more help in 2019. If Larry Fitzgerald does decide to retire, Arizona will be entering next season with Christian Kirk as its no. 1 receiver and no real depth behind him. That’s a problem. The Cardinals have plenty of moves to make if they want to avoid another disaster like this season.
3. After finishing one game short of the Super Bowl last season, the Jaguars are imploding in front of our eyes. Now, they’ll have to figure out what this team looks like without Blake Bortles under center. Jacksonville is a mess right now. A running back the team selected with the fourth-overall pick two seasons ago was playing special teams in Sunday’s 16-13 loss to Washington. Barry Church, a key free agent acquisition in 2017, was cut last week. Following Sunday’s game, Jalen Ramsey responded to a question about head coach Doug Marrone’s future with the team by saying that he was only worried about himself.
Following the Jags’ magical 2017 season, it would have been unfathomable to imagine that Marrone could be out of a job just over a year later, but that’s how bad things have gotten in Jacksonville. The Jags will need to make considerable improvements across the roster this offseason, and they need to start at quarterback. The organization’s ill-fated decision to give Bortles an extension last spring—one with a large chunk of money guaranteed for 2019— looks horrible now, but at this point, there’s no scenario where the Jags can even consider bringing him back next season. Their best hope is that if they cut him, another team will sign him. That would let them off the hook for $6.5 million of the $16.5 million he has guaranteed. Either way, the Jaguars will be on the hook for at least $10 million—for a quarterback that won’t be on their roster.
The only way to counteract that price tag is by finding a QB who will be making next to nothing in 2019. Jacksonville has been criticized for not bringing in a veteran stop gap like Teddy Bridgewater to compete with Bortles, but with Bortles’s considerable cap hit and the other sizable free agent deals the team has handed out the past few seasons, the Jags just don’t have the room to pay a guy like Bridgewater or Nick Foles upwards of $15 million per season. Whether it’s with their first-round pick (currently projected to be in the back half of the top 10) or the team decides to trade up, the Jaguars need to find a quarterback in this year’s draft.
4. After another devastating Raiders defeat on Sunday, things somehow seem to be getting worse for Oakland. Oakland was without both its starting guards in its 30-16 loss to Cincinnati, and boy, did Geno Atkins take advantage. Atkins finished with three of the Bengals’ five sacks as the Raiders struggled to move the ball for much of the day. Projecting which moves the Raiders will prioritize this offseason is tough for a few reasons. First, they have so many holes on the roster that just about any direction is on the table. And second, their head coach/de facto GM is Jon Gruden, who is liable to make ridiculous choices at any time.
No matter the overall plan, Derek Carr will probably be the first domino to fall. Nearly all of Carr’s guaranteed money came in the first two years of his extension with Oakland, which means that if the Raiders did decide to move on this spring, they’d only have to pay $7.5 million in dead money and they’d save $15 million against the cap. That’s one positive about Oakland’s situation—the team has relatively little guaranteed money left on the roster, so Gruden will have free-reign in his attempts at a rebuild. Aside from Carr, the only other Raiders player on a non-rookie deal with more than $3 million left in dead money after this season is Rodney Hudson. Jordy Nelson, Gabe Jackson, Tahir Whitehead, Kelechi Osemele, and Seth Roberts can all be released with no penalty whatsoever. Cutting all those player may not be in the team’s best interest, but it speaks to just how much flexibility the Raiders—who are projected to have more than $80 in salary cap space before cutting anyone—will have next year. Not to mention the team has two extra first-round picks that were acquired in the deals for Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack. Both of those picks should be in the 20s, and there’s no reason to believe that Gruden will be able to do much with them anyway given his track record. But the Raiders will come into next offseason with plenty of resources.
5. Sam Darnold had perhaps the best game of his rookie season in the Jets’ 29-22 loss to the Texans on Saturday, and in the process, he showed just how pressing it is for the franchise to build the right infrastructure around him. Darnold was excellent in a losing effort against Houston as he hit several deep completions down the field, dealt with pressure well, and extended plays on several different occasions. It’s been a mixed debut season for the former USC star, but Darnold has done more than enough to make people optimistic about his future. The Jets’ primary goal now should be finding the correct head coach and play-caller to pair with Darnold.
Saddling him with a journeyman OC in Jeremy Bates was never an exciting idea, but with Todd Bowles likely losing his job at season’s end, the Jets will be able to start from scratch. They’ve also got plenty of holes across the roster that need filling, but luckily, they have the resources to make that happen. Their second-round pick this season is going to Indianapolis as part of the deal the Jets orchestrated to trade up for Darnold, but they’re slated to have more than $106 million in cap space next spring. They’d be well served to use some of that on a reliable pass catcher, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them in the Le’Veon Bell sweepstakes. This team could have a relatively blank slate to rebuild next year, and it’ll do so with Darnold in mind.
6. After another uneven performance from the Rams offense, it’s time to start worrying about Sean McVay’s formula. For much of the past two seasons, the Rams’ passing game has been built around play-action. Over the first half of this year, McVay’s team was using play action on nearly 40 percent of its dropbacks, and when combined with a solid running game and a devastating array of screens, it turned the Rams into one of the most dangerous offenses in the league. But over the past three weeks, the Lions, Bears, and Eagles haven’t fallen for the bells and whistles. By not biting as hard on jet motion and play fakes, those defenses essentially dared the Rams to hand the ball off in both situations and forced L.A. to lean on its dropback passing game. Jared Goff used play action on just 17.5 percent of his dropbacks on Sunday, which ranked 19th among qualified quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
The effect of the Rams shifting to their dropback game is twofold. First, it puts more pressure on the offensive line, and second, it forces Goff to make more tight-window throws. When the Rams haven’t been able to use their play-action concepts, they’ve looked downright mortal, and come playoff time, teams will likely follow the defensive blueprint that’s emerged over the past three weeks.
7. The Colts interior offensive linemen crushed the Cowboys’ front four on Sunday, and it led to a monster day for running back Marlon Mack. Mack finished with 139 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the Colts’ 23-0 win over Dallas, but even those numbers don’t accurately portray how dominant Indy’s big guys were up front. Near the goal line, the Colts’ approach seemed to be “run behind Quenton Nelson, score six points,” and they had no reason to alter that plan as the game went along. Drafting Nelson sixth overall has transformed the Colts’ offensive line in both talent and attitude. Along with a leap forward from center Ryan Kelly this season, this unit has been leading the way for the Colts.
8. Matt Nagy has been dialing up beautiful play calls for the Bears all season, but he was really in the zone in Sunday’s 24-17 win over the Packers. At the end of a drive that also included a well-designed RPO pass to Trey Burton and a play-action screen to Tarik Cohen, Nagy ran a play near the goal line that I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. With Jordan Howard lined up alone in the backfield, Anthony Miller moved across the formation in jet motion. This is a popular concept in the NFL these days, and it’s designed to either shift the linebackers down to create better blocking angles or, at the very least, leave them flat-footed as the ball is snapped. But Nagy’s version added one more wrinkle: He brought tight end Trey Burton across the formation as a blocker to take care of the end man on the line of scrimmage, which sealed the back side and allowed left tackle Charles Leno to easily move to the second level. The end result was a walk-in touchdown for Howard, and another highlight in what’s been an incredible season by Nagy.
#Bears — Split-Flow zone out of 32 personnel (3RB, 2TE). Check out Burton cutting down the edge defender. And Daniels/Leno on the combo. Walk-in score for RB Jordan Howard. @NFLMatchup pic.twitter.com/xIYIrEq2AQ— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) December 17, 2018
9. Lamar Jackson’s running ability has been important for the Ravens all over the field, but it’s particularly useful when Baltimore gets into the red zone. Check out the Ravens’ first touchdown from their 20-12 win over the Bucs on Sunday. Baltimore comes out in the pistol formation, with running back Kenneth Dixon lined up behind Jackson. Jackson instructs Willie Snead to come in jet motion from right to left—a common occurrence for this offense—before taking the snap. But instead of moving the ball toward the left side of the formation, Jackson pitches it to slot receiver Chris Moore as Moore follows Snead to the right. This would be a cool play design no matter what, but the threat of Jackson as a rusher actually causes linebacker Riley Bullough to chase Jackson and take himself out of the play entirely. A running quarterback is a weapon in the red zone, and the Ravens now have the best one in football.
10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Danielle Hunter has 14.5 sacks on the season, and his ability to change direction quickly makes him a nightmare for opposing tackles. Hunter has plenty of burst coming off the edge, but the way he leaps sideways across a lineman’s face is superhero stuff. On this play in the Vikings 41-17 win over the Dolphins on Sunday, Miami right tackle Ja’Wuan James checks Hunter for speed, but before James knows it, Hunter has darted back to the inside, without losing any momentum, and pulled Ryan Tannehill to the ground. That type of explosiveness and flexibility doesn’t often come in one package.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Kenny Golladay spent most of Sunday afternoon doing his best Randy Moss impression.