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The Starting 11: The Defining Story Lines of Week 15—and This NFL Season

Quarterback contract questions, Browns struggles, Lamar Jackson miracles, and more were on full display in this week’s games. Plus: The Raiders play their last game in Oakland, and George Kittle continues to dominate.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

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 highlighted several story lines that have defined this NFL season, and that included the contract statuses of Jared Goff and Dak Prescott. Goff and Prescott were both drafted in 2016 and have since developed into the QBs of the future for their respective franchises. But only one of them has a massive extension to show for it. The Rams handed Goff a four-year, $134 million deal with $110 million guaranteed on the eve of the season, and so far, the returns have been concerning. Goff has regressed in his third season under head coach Sean McVay, and that was on full display in Sunday’s 44-21 loss to Dallas. Goff was consistently off target, throwing for only 117 yards on 19 attempts in the first half. The Rams’ loss all but eliminates them from playoff contention just a year after they played in the Super Bowl.

Goff certainly doesn’t deserve all the blame for L.A.’s failings. The offensive line is in tatters, the running game has stagnated, and McVay’s bag of tricks isn’t quite as strong as it was over his first two seasons at the helm. But the stark reality for the Rams is that they’re committed to Goff—and this version of their franchise—for the next few seasons. Goff’s 2020 cap hit is an astronomical $36 million, the highest figure in the league by a cool $2.5 million. In 2021, only three players are projected to cost more against the cap. A year later, that number grows to four. Even in an era when exploding quarterback salaries are making huge deals quickly look like bargains, Goff is likely going to be one of the league’s highest-paid players for the next several seasons.

Along with Goff’s enormous salary, the Rams also have three other players on their books for at least $16.8 million in 2020, and that number will almost certainly climb to four after they extend Jalen Ramsey this offseason. The Rams have limited cap space next season, no first-round pick for the next two seasons (following the trade for Ramsey), and both their top edge rusher (Dante Fowler Jr.) and left tackle (Andrew Whitworth) are set to hit free agency. This team bet big on the McVay-Goff partnership, and that investment could leave them in no-man’s land.

Dallas, on the other hand, opted not to extend Prescott this summer ahead of the final year of his contract, and now Dak’s deal could hit a level that might have seemed ridiculous at this time last year. Prescott needed only 23 attempts to throw for 212 yards and a pair of scores on Sunday; the Cowboys’ season to this point has been disappointing, but Prescott has been playing the best football of his career. In a league where Goff will carry a $36 million cap hit next year, there’s no question that Prescott is worth at least $40 million per season. His play and the QB market dictate that the Cowboys’ passer would be in line for the biggest contract in NFL history—if he were allowed to hit the open market. One way or another, Prescott will be the starting quarterback in Dallas next season. The question now is whether that will happen via a new, record-breaking deal or the franchise tag.

It’s possible that the Cowboys will balk when Prescott’s CAA representatives inevitably come to the table and ask for a deal in the range of five years, $200 million. But with a franchise tag number north of $33 million next season and Patrick Mahomes’s looming extension likely to increase the market price even further, slapping Prescott with the tag and playing chicken for the next two years may not be in the Cowboys’ best interests. Just ask the Redskins how well that turned out with Kirk Cousins, who’s now playing at a Pro Bowl level in Minnesota as Washington trudges through another year of quarterback purgatory. Prescott has emerged as the best QB in a class that included both Goff and Carson Wentz, and soon, he’ll get a deal that surpasses the monster paydays both of them received this offseason.

2. The Browns are the most disappointing NFL team of 2019, and Sunday’s loss against Arizona might be their low point of the season. Cardinals running back Kenyon Drake ran all over Cleveland’s defense, racking up 137 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-24 win. This season has been full of rough games for the Browns, but this week, they looked like a team coming apart at the seams. On Monday, NFL Network’s Mike Silver reported that multiple Browns players, including wide receiver Jarvis Landry, yelled “come get me” at the Cardinals sideline during the game, which is always good. That incident comes in the wake of multiple reports that Odell Beckham Jr. has also been trying to orchestrate his departure from Cleveland.

Firing a head coach after a single season is typically counterproductive, but all signs point to an untenable situation developing between Freddie Kitchens and the Browns. After coming into the season with playoff aspirations, Cleveland is now 6-8 and all but eliminated from the postseason. But the debacle unfolding within the franchise goes beyond wins and losses. This dud of a season doesn’t fall squarely on Kitchens, but at this point, the Browns might be best served by turning the page and bringing in a more seasoned coach to shepherd a fractured team. Both Mike McCarthy and Ron Rivera will be available this offseason, and while neither is a headline-grabbing name, both have proven NFL coaching track records. Considering how dysfunctional the Browns have looked for most of this season, putting a reliable adult in the room might be exactly what this team needs.

3. The Kyler Murray–Kliff Kingsbury Cardinals are officially fun—and they’re just getting started. Arizona tallied up 445 yards of offense against Cleveland on Sunday in arguably the most impressive game of Kingbury’s brief tenure with the franchise. Murray made several clutch third-down throws to keep drives alive, and Kingsbury consistently stressed the Browns defense sideline to sideline. But the star for Arizona on Sunday was the recently acquired Drake. The former Dolphins back generally did what he pleased against Cleveland, and his overall success since his arrival in October has shown what an exceptional skill position player can accomplish in Kingsbury’s offense. Aside from Murray, Christian Kirk, and David Johnson (who’s been a shell of himself this season), the Cardinals offense was almost completely devoid of young, explosive skill talent heading into the season. But Drake’s production points to the type of numbers the Cardinals might be able to produce if—after Drake hits free agency this offseason—they restock their roster.

Arizona didn’t finish with the worst record in the league last season by accident. This is a roster badly in need of retooling, and with about $70 million in cap space at his disposal next year, general manager Steve Keim will have the resources to do exactly that. Arizona has a budding star in Murray and an offensive system perfectly tailored to give players opportunities in space; that sounds like an attractive destination for just about any free agent.

4. Lamar Jackson is a human cheat code. After rushing for 86 yards in Thursday’s 42-21 win over the Jets, Jackson now holds the single-season record for QB rushing yards with 1,103. The truly remarkable part of Jackson’s (likely) MVP season hasn’t been his incredible numbers, though. It’s how damn easy he’s made it all look. The Ravens’ offensive system is expertly designed to ensure that defenses are always wrong, no matter how they try to defend against this group. And Jackson is the ideal person to execute that plan.

His ability to casually gash defenses, on both runs and designed scrambles, is devastating, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s also able to throw five touchdown passes at the drop of a hat like he did against the Jets. NFL offenses aren’t supposed to be able to march up and down the field like the Ravens have consistently done all year. The Jets were ranked 12th in defensive DVOA heading into Week 15 and hadn’t allowed more than 400 yards of total offense in game this season. The Ravens racked up 430 in a blowout, and they did most of it without seeming like they exerted much effort. It’s absurd how simple they’re making these weekly ass-kickings look.

5. The Seahawks’ passing offense is a fully operational battle station right now, and Russell Wilson is the one who makes it all go. There have been few more exciting sights this NFL season than watching Wilson finish a drop and prepare to uncork a deep throw. Among quarterbacks with at least 300 attempts, no one has gone deep as often this year; 17.8 percent of Wilson’s throws have traveled at least 20 yards, which is the highest mark in that group by 2.2 percentage points. His aggressive style has made the Seahawks offense appointment viewing, and Seattle’s front office has surrounded him with the ideal set of talent to maximize this ambitious scheme.

Tyler Lockett had another monster day on Sunday, hauling in eight of his nine targets for 120 yards and a touchdown. Lockett’s catch rate this season is 78.1 percent, the ninth-highest rate in the league among non–running backs. Six of the eight players ahead of him are tight ends. The other two are Michael Thomas and Titans receiver Adam Humphries; Thomas has an average depth of target of 7.7 yards. Humphries is at 7.2 yards. Lockett checks in at 12.7 yards. That’s just ahead of Odell Beckham Jr., who’s caught 55.4 percent of his targets this season. Lockett’s efficiency, given his volume and the difficulty of the throws coming his way, shouldn’t be possible. And if that weren’t enough, the Seahawks also have rookie DK Metcalf, who outmuscled cornerback Donte Jackson for a 19-yard touchdown catch late in the first quarter. This passing game is built to burn opposing secondaries into ash, and that’s precisely what Seattle is doing these days.

6. Adding Kenny Stills to the Texans’ passing game should have been against the rules. Houston’s vertical passing attack was already a terrifying mismatch for most secondaries, and dropping Stills—and his 4.38 speed—into the mix is just unfair. Stills caught a pair of touchdowns from Deshaun Watson on Sunday, including a picture-perfect 12-yard completion early in the second quarter. Before the snap, Stills was aligned in the left slot as part of a trips formation. He then tore across the formation—past cornerback Logan Ryan—and caught a beautiful throw from Watson to make the score 7-0.

Later in the quarter, with the Texans lined up in another trips set, Stills roasted cornerback Tye Smith from the slot as DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller cleared out an entire side of the field. With Stills in the fold, Watson has a third dynamic downfield option to go along with the two he’s had for years.

7. Kirk Cousins and the Vikings offense is a fever dream for play-action nerds. As an avowed play-action evangelist, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Minnesota’s approach this season. Cousins has used play action on 32.8 percent of his drop backs (the second-highest rate in the league behind—surprise—Lamar Jackson), and he completed all seven of his play-action passes for 112 yards against the Chargers on Sunday. But the fun part about Minnesota’s play-action usage this week isn’t how often offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski used it. It’s when he did.

Typically, teams use play action on early downs when the threat of a run is most credible. But facing a third-and-14 from their own 46-yard line early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings lined up in a shotgun formation, faked a handoff to running back Ameer Abdullah, and rolled Cousins out to the right. With the linebackers and safeties left flat-footed because of the play fake, Stefon Diggs was able to barrel right past safety Rayshawn Jenkins to corral the deep pass. The Vikings don’t seem to care what the situation is; they’re going to use play action, and they’re going to chew up huge gains with it.

8. Sunday’s loss to the Jaguars was the Raiders’ last game in Oakland—and it also may have been Derek Carr’s last as the team’s starting quarterback. A month ago, Oakland was an unlikely wild-card contender thanks to the league’s most surprising offense. But that unit has cratered in recent weeks. The Raiders haven’t scored more than 21 points since November 7 in a Monday night win over the Chargers, and while their failings go way beyond Carr, Oakland’s struggles late in the season could lead to some significant changes.

After this season, Carr has only $5 million in dead money remaining on his deal. The Raiders could easily move on from him this spring if they so choose, and with the franchise moving into a new stadium in Las Vegas, ownership and head coach Jon Gruden may want a new franchise QB to accompany that transition. Whether that comes in the form of a first-round pick (of which the Raiders have two in 2020) or a big-name free agent (i.e., Tom Brady), Gruden will have some options if he decides to move on. If the Raiders choose to stick with Carr, though, he’ll only carry a $21.5 million cap hit next season, which is a palatable figure given that at least 17 players will count for more next season. But don’t be surprised if the Raiders head in a different direction.

9. George Kittle is an absolute monster. I’m just going to leave this here. Watching Kittle annihilate people in the run game has been one of my favorite parts of this season.

10. This week’s line play moment that made me hit rewind: Kenny Clark is a problem for guards in pass protection.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Good god, Dallas Goedert.