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The Starting 11: The Offseason Acquisitions That Are Shaping the NFL Playoff Race

The Chiefs, Saints, and Titans all made moves for unheralded players this spring, and now, those deals are paying off. Plus: Drew Lock is playing like Denver’s franchise QB, and Sean McVay may be back.

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. Several overlooked offseason acquisitions had significant impacts on the playoff race Sunday, starting with the new members of the Chiefs’ rebuilt defense. Andy Reid’s team looked like the AFC favorite for much of last season thanks to the offense and the play of eventual MVP Patrick Mahomes. But that team’s defense was an abject disaster, and it ended up costing them: As Mahomes and Co. roared back in the second half of last year’s AFC championship game against the Patriots, the defense failed to contain New England’s offense in a 37-31 loss.

The Chiefs front office responded this offseason by making tweaks to every level of the defense. That started at coordinator, where Kansas City fired Bob Sutton and replaced him with longtime NFL coach Steve Spagnuolo. On the personnel side, general manager Brett Veach swung an aggressive trade for Seahawks defensive end Frank Clark and handed safety Tyrann Mathieu a market-setting three-year, $42 million deal (with $26.8 million guaranteed). Clark hasn’t been quite the pass-rushing force that the Chiefs envisioned, but Mathieu has been a steady presence who’s helped reshape the Kansas City secondary. And he’s not the only one.

Mathieu may have been the big-ticket upgrade for the Chiefs’ defensive backfield, but Veach also made other, smaller moves to improve the pass defense. He drafted safety Juan Thornhill with the second-round pick that Kansas City got from the Rams in the Marcus Peters trade in February 2018. He signed journeyman cornerback Bashaud Breeland to an incentive-laden, one-year deal worth up to $5 million. Both moves have paid huge dividends. Thornhill has started all 13 games this season, and he returned an interception for a touchdown last week against the Raiders. Breeland has had his issues in coverage, but he picked off Tom Brady on Sunday and broke up a potential touchdown on the Patriots’ final offensive play to protect Kansas City’s 23-16 lead.

Last season, the Chiefs would have struggled to win a low-scoring slugfest like Sunday’s game, but this year, its defense has been good enough to pick up the slack when Mahomes and the offense don’t put up huge numbers. This Chiefs team may not be the record-breaking group it was last year, but its subtle improvements on defense may end up being the key to a Super Bowl run.

2. After crushing the Raiders 42-21 on Sunday, the Titans are now 8-5 and tied with the Texans atop the AFC South. Their March trade for Ryan Tannehill looks like the most important move of the NFL offseason. When Tennessee sent a 2020 fourth-round pick (and a 2019 seventh-rounder) to the Dolphins for Tannehill, it didn’t seem like a monumental moment. Marcus Mariota was still the Titans’ entrenched starter, and Miami was beginning a rebuild of its roster. But Tennessee’s decision to turn to Tannehill in Week 6 has completely transformed the Titans’ season—and possibly their future.

Tannehill finished 21-of-27 with 391 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday—his third-straight game with a completion rate of at least 77 percent. He’s now averaging a league-leading 9.8 yards per attempt and 10.2 adjusted yards per attempt. Tennessee’s offense looks to be clicking on every level right now, and the system is meshing perfectly with Tannehill’s skill set.

The offensive line has been excellent of late and together with running back Derrick Henry has created a punishing ground game. Rookie receiver A.J. Brown has been a yards-after-catch monster; he finished with 153 yards and two touchdowns against Oakland. And Tannehill has lit up defenses in the play-action-heavy pass game that coordinator Arthur Smith has created. Tannehill used play action on 51.7 percent of his dropbacks on Sunday (which brought his average over the past three games up to a league-leading 51.3 percent) and gained 276 of his 391 yards on those throws. On the season, Tannehill has averaged a league-leading 14.1 yards per attempt using play action. Tennessee has built a system that allows Tannehill to be the best possible version of himself, and that’s turned the Titans into a real threat in the AFC playoff picture.

3. Free-agent additions Jared Cook and Latavius Murray have been the latest shrewd signings in the Saints’ recent run of great personnel moves. The New Orleans front office has been on an incredible hot streak the past few seasons, drafting solid prospects and making smart free agent moves without much cap space to work with. Signing Cook and Murray this spring may not have garnered many headlines, but both players could have major impacts down the stretch.

NFL receptions leader Michael Thomas is unquestionably the focal point of the Saints’ passing game, but this team has struggled to find a worthwhile no. 2 in recent years. Running back Alvin Kamara filled that role last year, but the Saints entered the offseason knowing that they needed an additional field-stretching threat. Enter Cook, who had a career year with the Raiders last season, catching 68 passes for 896 yards and six touchdowns. Cook caught two touchdowns in the first half of Sunday’s loss to the Niners before leaving the game with a concussion, and he’s given Drew Brees the type of big target down the seam that he’s been lacking. Cook has tallied at least 64 receiving yards in four of the Saints’ past five games, and four of his six touchdowns have come in the past month. Hopefully he’ll be back in the lineup sooner rather than later.

Cook’s emergence has been especially crucial because of the dropoff in Kamara’s production. The third-year running back has still been a useful piece in the Saints offense, but he hasn’t been the efficiency monster that he was over his first two seasons. Luckily for New Orleans, Murray has been able to shoulder some of the load. The former Vikings backup averaged 9.9 yards per carry on Sunday and brought his season rushing total up to 533 yards. Murray has averaged 3.38 yards after contact per rush this season, the eighth-highest mark in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. And he’s given the Saints a complement to Kamara that they desperately needed after losing Mark Ingram to the Ravens in free agency.

4. Two games into his career, Drew Lock looks like a potential franchise quarterback for the Broncos. It’s still very early, but Lock has shown flashes of his exceptional talent in his first two starts. The 2019 second-round pick finished 22-of-27 with 309 yards and three touchdowns in Denver’s shocking 38-24 win over the Texans, and while a good chunk of that production came on throws to wide-open receivers, Lock also made some impressive passes into tight windows. On a third-and-9 to open the second quarter, he found receiver Tim Patrick on a perfectly placed 37-yard throw down the left sideline to exploit Houston’s Cover-2 zone. And Lock’s 14-yard strike to tight end Noah Fant midway through the first quarter required a precise pass over the shoulder of safety Jahleel Addae.

Lock has never been short on ability or ambition. During his college career at Missouri, he routinely made picture-perfect, jaw-dropping throws down the field, but inconsistency was always an issue. If the Broncos can tap into the best version of Lock, the franchise could finally have an answer to the quarterback conundrum that’s haunted Denver for years.

5. The Texans’ surprising loss to the Broncos could prove devastating for their chances in the AFC South. A week after upsetting the Patriots in convincing fashion, Houston couldn’t get out of its own way against Denver. Bad luck certainly played a role in the double-digit loss, like when former Texan Kareem Jackson returned a fumble for a 70-yard touchdown late in the first quarter. But this game came down to more than a couple of bad breaks.

Several lapses in coverage led to wide-open Lock throws that resulted in huge gains, and Deshaun Watson had arguably his worst outing of the season. With Houston already trailing 14-0 late in the first quarter, Watson took an awful sack on second down after holding the ball for an excruciating amount of time. He followed that up with an ill-advised late throw over the middle to DeAndre Hopkins that resulted in the receiver taking a vicious hit from Jackson. Watson was sacked three times on the day, and those took an average of 5.53 seconds; he finished just 11 of 24 on throws that came 2.5 or more seconds after the snap, as Houston’s receivers failed to create separation without Will Fuller in the lineup. The Texans are now tied with the Titans atop the AFC South, with two matchups remaining against Tennessee over the final three games of the season. At their best, the Texans can beat anyone in the AFC (as evidenced by wins over the Chiefs and Patriots earlier this season). But Houston’s tendency to lay the occasional egg casts doubt on its postseason chances.

6. The Bills’ performance against the Ravens was a reminder of how far this offense still has to go before Buffalo will be an AFC contender. Josh Allen’s development in his second season has been a welcome sight for Bills fans, but he struggled against Baltimore on Sunday. Allen finished the first half 8-of-17 passing for just 39 yards, and he also took four sacks. Allen’s accuracy in the intermediate areas of the field has been much improved this year, but his issues with down-field throws continued to be a problem on Sunday—overthrows on third down ended the first three Bills drives.

Collectively, Buffalo’s performance against arguably the best team in football was encouraging. The Bills defense managed to slow down Lamar Jackson and Baltimore’s passing game in a way that few teams have this season, and the Ravens’ top-ranked rushing offense averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Buffalo has enough talent on that side of the ball to push the best teams in the AFC come playoff time, but the offense is still a notch below where it needs to be for this team to make a run.

7. The Rams offense might be regaining its 2018 form at exactly the right time. Sean McVay’s team racked up 455 total yards in Sunday’s win over the Seahawks—and in the process gained some much-needed ground in the NFC wild-card race. Jared Goff threw two interceptions (including a brutal pick-six to safety Quandre Diggs early in the third quarter), but overall the Rams quarterback was much sharper than he’s been for most of the season. Goff found tight end Tyler Higbee on multiple vertical routes, and the two connected for a couple of chunk plays on play-action rollouts. The Rams also picked up several big gains on jet sweeps, which had been a staple of this attack when it was rolling over the past two seasons. Robert Woods and Josh Reynolds finished with 58 combined yards rushing on just five carries.

McVay seemed to find success both running and throwing with two tight ends on the field, and the Rams stuck with that game plan for most of the night. No. 2 tight end Johnny Mundt played 68 snaps—three more than Cooper Kupp and Brandin Cooks combined. The 28-12 win over Seattle pushes the Rams to 8-5, with a crucial game against the Cowboys looming next week. If the Vikings stumble down the stretch, L.A. still has a real shot to sneak into the second wild-card spot in the NFC.

8. Jameis Winston had another classic Jameis Winston outing against the Colts on Sunday. Winston’s final numbers in Tampa Bay’s 38-35 win over Indianapolis show just how erratic the QB can be: 33-of-45 passing, 456 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions. Winston’s third interception came on a tipped pass over the middle, but his first two picks were thrown straight to linebacker Darius Leonard, who Winston didn’t seem to notice dropping back into coverage. Those are the types of mistakes a good quarterback just doesn’t make in his fifth season, and watching those throws, it’s hard to imagine why the Bucs would be interested in bringing Winston back next season.

Which makes his highlight-reel throws all the more frustrating. Despite turning the ball over three times, Winston was still able to march the Bucs 63 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter. Winston’s highs are undeniably enticing, but head coach Bruce Arians will have to decide whether sticking with him next season is worth enduring the lows.

9. Titans receiver A.J. Brown looks like one of the best values from the entire 2019 draft. Tennessee’s rookie receiver finished with five catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns against the Raiders, and he seems to be getting better every week. At 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds, Brown is a hulking nightmare for defensive backs in the open field. He leads all receivers in yards after catch per reception, missed tackles per reception, and yards after contact per reception. Titans offensive coordinator Mike Vrabel has learned that all he needs to do to create big plays is get the ball to Brown on quick throws—he’ll take care of the rest. Fifty players were taken before Brown in last year’s draft, and at this point, the pick looks like a home run for Titans general manager Jon Robinson.

10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Matt Judon has been another late-round gem for the Baltimore front seven. The 2016 fifth-round pick was everywhere in the Ravens’ win over Buffalo on Sunday. He finished with seven total pressures and two sacks while making other several key stops in the backfield. On a first-and-10 screen pass midway through the second quarter, Judon perfectly read the play and dropped running back Devin Singletary for a 4-yard loss that helped torpedo a Bills drive. The fourth-year linebacker is just the latest well-rounded edge rusher to come along for the Ravens, and just like Za’Darius Smith this offseason, he should get a significant payday when he hits free agency next spring.

11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Washington has to do everything in its power to avoid wasting Terry McLaurin.