One thing each NFL team can be thankful for on Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving is a time to pause and give thanks for the good things in life—and to enjoy some football, as well. So, here at PFF we’re going to combine the two and look team-by-team at what each franchise should be thankful for. With the abundance of teams still in the playoff hunt, this optimism could serve to produce a playoff push for a lot of rosters, with far fewer teams than usual already looking ahead to the offseason and better things to come in 2016.
Thankful for: The blend of youth and experience.
At the midway point of the season, we made Carson Palmer our MVP, but he isn’t doing it alone. All five wide receivers for the Cardinals who have played at least 90 snaps have a positive receiving grade, with J.J. Nelson the latest to show his skills with a big game against the Bengals on Sunday night. Larry Fitzgerald is back to his best with competent quarterback play, while Michael Floyd and John Brown only add to the depth of the receiving corps.
Thankful for: The growth of a young star.
In his rookie season, Falcons fans must have been extremely concerned by the form of Jake Matthews after he produced the worst season by a first round rookie in the last eight years. A year later, and Matthews heads into Thanksgiving as our 13th highest rated offensive tackle (84.2) after a particularly strong first three weeks of the season. By this time last season, Matthews was our lowest ranked tackle by a distance, but he has continued the turnaround he showed in the second half of 2014 and has shored up Matt Ryan’s blindside in 2015.
Thankful for: The exuberance of youth.
2015 has been a sequence of kicks in the gut for Ravens fans, with injuries piling upon a sequence of narrow defeats to leave the Ravens a wounded 3-7 team. A bright spot has been the performance of their young tight ends, led by second-year Crockett Gilmore, ably supported by rookies Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle. Their run blocking is helping the Ravens to gain 5 yards per carry on rushes off left and right end, while all three are earning positive receiving grades. Gilmore has the league’s fourth-best TE receiving grade, having broken eight tackles after the catch.
Thankful for: Wise selection of a signal-caller.
The Bills absolutely made the right choice at starting quarterback, and if Tyrod Taylor’s (78.9) performance doesn’t fully convince, then those of Matt Cassel (54.7) and E.J. Manuel (46.5) certainly should. Taylor has only earned a negative grade in three games so far this season—two of them against the Patriots. With no more games to come against the New England, Taylor should be in position to finish strong and try to power the Bills back into playoff contention.
Thankful for: Exceptional defenders.
It’s rare for a unit to have one candidate for an individual award; it’s quite something else to have three, one on each level of the defense. But that is the strength of a Panthers’ defense, powered by Kawann Short and Luke Kuechly up front, with Josh Norman locking things down on the back end. Kuechly will most likely attract all of the plaudits and award talk, but make no mistake, this is not a one-man defense.
Thankful for: Money well spent.
When teams race out to spend money in free agency, it doesn’t always work out for the best. The Bears, though, have received immediate value and impact from Pernell McPhee (88.7). Our sixth-highest graded edge defender, McPhee has recorded 49 pressures (five sacks, 10 hits, 34 hurries) while adding value in run defense, as well. Part of a loaded class of free agent edge defenders, McPhee was a rare player to shake free and join a new team; Bears fans should be delighted with their new outside linebacker.
Thanks for: A timely return to form.
Back in 2012, Geno Atkins produced the best season we have seen here at PFF from a 4-3 defensive tackle, only overshadowed by the remarkable breakout season of J.J. Watt in the same year. A torn ACL midway through the 2013 season derailed the two following years, but Atkins is back to his best in 2015 (90.2). Still overshadowed by Watt (95.7)—and now Aaron Donald (95.5) is doing outrageous things—this does nothing to undermine the exceptional player that Atkins is once again.
Thankful for: A spark out of the backfield.
Cleveland is one of the few teams for which “the season’s nearly over” could be the most accurate answer, the Browns have at least found a quality contributor in the passing game in the shape of third-round pick Duke Johnson. Only Danny Woodhead and Theo Riddick have a higher grade in the passing game than Johnson (94.2), with Johnson producing catches of 20 yards or more in five of his eight games so far this season. Will we see more of him as a runner in the closing weeks of the season?
Thankful for: Romo’s return.
If you ever needed proof that the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, just look at the Cowboys: 3-0 with Tony Romo as the starter, 0-7 with Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden under center. Just one win from a backup would have left the Cowboys right in the mix for the NFC East, rather than needing perfection over the final six weeks of the season. Romo’s deep and intermediate passing, allied with the return of Dez Bryant, at least gives the Cowboys a chance.
Thankful for: Air-tight coverage.
What the Broncos’ secondary did to Green Bay’s receiving corps in Week 8 was staggering, and they will seek to do the same to the Patriots’ depleted receiving corps this Sunday. Led by Chris Harris Jr. (90.2), the Broncos have three corners among our thirty highest-rated cornerbacks, with Darian Stewart (85.2) and T.J. Ward (81.5) both among our top 20 rated safeties. There is not a secondary with the depth and breadth of quality to match the Broncos right now.
Thankful for: Coming of age.
Since Week 6, Darius Slay is our highest-graded cornerback, surrendering only nine catches for 108 yards on 20 targets with five pass defenses. In that time frame, only Desmond Trufant and Josh Norman can come close to Slay by those metrics, though both are further behind in terms of grades. Comfortably the best spell of Slay’s career, is this the emergence of a top tier corner?
Green Bay Packers
Thankful for: Taking the next step.
Since he entered the league in 2012 as a fourth-round pick from Iowa, Mike Daniels has improved every season; in 2015, he has taken the final step to place himself among the league’s elite defensive linemen. The Packers’ most productive pass rusher (five sacks, six hits, 28 hurries) Daniels is also third on the team in stops. Only J.J. Watt (95.7) has a higher rating among 3-4 defensive ends.
Thankful for: The one-man show.
Only Julio Jones is within 20 of DeAndre Hopkins’ league-leading 132 targets after Week 11. Inaccurate quarterback play (22 inaccurate targets, league-most) has held Hopkins back from amassing the stats to match his volume of targets, but displays such as this Sunday’s (taking Darrelle Revis apart) show the receiver Hopkins (94.9) has become.
Thankful for: Someone to turn to at QB.
Often thought of as a one-man team, the Colts have proven the value of a quality backup quarterback this season with wins and assured performances coming from Andrew Luck’s backup, Matt Hasselbeck, at the helm. Hasselbeck’s speedier release (2.28s versus Luck’s 2.67s) puts less stress on an underrated Colts offensive line, and with Luck still injured, the Colts’ playoff prospects lie in the capable hands of their veteran backup.
Thankful for: Explosive playmakers.
Few people outside of Duval County would have predicted that the Jaguars would have one of the league’s best receiving corps in August. As it happens, that is exactly where the Jaguars sit with Allen Robinson (88.9), Allen Hurns (86.8), and Bryan Walters (80.3) all among our thirty highest-graded receivers after Week 11. Robinson leads the league in both deep ball catches (14) and deep ball receiving yards (462).
Kansas City Chiefs
Thankful for: A miraculous recovery.
It isn’t even a year since Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but as we celebrate Thanksgiving, the Chiefs’ starting safety is our second-highest graded (95.7) after Week 11. Berry’s three missed tackles are among the fewest in the NFL this season, with only four starting safeties missing fewer to this point of the season. Simply returning to the field is a remarkable achievement for Berry, but to be playing so well is little short of miraculous.
Thankful for: An able deputy.
When your team’s top pass-rusher goes down, you need someone to fill the void. After Cameron Wake was lost for the season in Week 8, Olivier Vernon has done just that. In the last two weeks, Vernon has racked up 13 pressures (one sack, nine hits, three hurries); those nine hits in two weeks almost matches his output from the entire 2014 season (12 hits). Inconsistency has blighted Vernon’s career to date; more performances like his last two should extend his tenure in South Florida.
Thankful for: Unexpected impact.
Entering this season, optimism abounded in Minnesota—and the fantasy community—about the potential impact of Charles Johnson as the “X” receiver in Norv Turner’s offense. The Vikings have had impact from a receiver, but from Johnson’s replacement, Stefon Diggs (84.4), instead. In the top 10 in our yards per route run metric, Diggs exploded into the lineup with 85 yards or more in his first four starts, and has only dropped two passes so far.
New York Giants
Thankful for: Home comforts.
The Giants ascribed to the age-old theory of not starting a rookie at center last season, and it cost them, with a poor season from veteran J.D. Walton at center and rookie Weston Richburg out of position at guard. A year later, and Richburg (87.7) is our fifth-highest graded center in the NFL, proving his quality back at his natural position as our highest-rated center in pass protection.
New York Jets
Thankful for: Strength up front.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Under a new head coach, the overwhelming strength of the Jets’ roster is still their defensive front, with the quartet of Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams, Damon Harrison, and Sheldon Richardson powering this defense. Still devoid of an edge rushing threat, the Jets have found a way to keep all four of their defensive linemen involved—and generating production.
New England Patriots
Thankful for: Patience rewarded.
Last year, Dominique Easley played only 270 snaps and offered little impact as a first-round pick out of Florida, struggling with, and ultimately succumbing to, injuries in his debut season. A year later, and Easley is, on a per snap basis, one of the most productive interior pass rushers among interior defensive linemen.
New Orleans Saints
Thankful for: Hidden talent.
A defense that has already racked up 83 missed tackles and surrendered 315 points might not be an obvious place to look for optimism, but in all this negativity, there is a bright light shining in the darkness. Cameron Jordan (93.8) ranks as our No. 1 edge defender heading into Thanksgiving, with 51 pressures (five sacks, six hits, 38 hurries) through Week 11. He’s a genuine Defensive Player of the Year candidate on possibly the NFL’s worst defense.
Thankful for: Capitalizing on a second chance.
Three years from the best season of his career, there were doubts over whether the Raiders would gain much from the acquisition of Michael Crabtree—but the former 49ers receiver has returned to his best in new surroundings. A year ago, Crabtree had as many dropped passes as missed tackles forced (10 of each). A year later in Oakland (on nearly as many targets), Crabtree has only dropped three passes and forced 13 missed tackles in a season to rejuvenate his career.
Thankful for: A leader in the trenches.
Building on his breakout 2014 season, Fletcher Cox (89.7) has been one of the league’s best defensive linemen this season, and productive in a defense that places its defensive linemen in less-than-advantageous pass rushing situations. Cox’s 26 stops trail only J.J. Watt and Calais Campbell for the most by a 3-4 defensive end this season.
Thankful for: Spectacular individual performances.
Whether it’s Antonio Brown’s demolition of the Raiders’ secondary in Week 9, Cameron Heyward destroying the Ravens, or repeating it a week later against the Chargers, some of the best individual performances of this season have come from Pittsburgh players. Martavis Bryant had a similar impact in his season debut against the Cardinals, and these game-winning individual performances make the Steelers a danger to every team they face.
San Diego Chargers
Thankful for: The approaching end of the season.
There aren’t many teams out of the running with no cause for optimism, but the Chargers just might be in the worst situation in the NFL right now. On offense, Philip Rivers is deprived of his best targets in the receiving corps, and on defense, there is no consistency to be found. Bad luck has played its part in the Chargers downfall, but this is a team being exposed for a lack of talent.
San Francisco 49ers
Thankful for: The beginning of recovery.
Their Week 1 victory over the Vikings offered false hope, and the bleak reality of a team gutted this off-season has been played out since. However one bright spot on defense comes in the shape of Aaron Lynch (78.9), whose 46 pressures lead the defense. The 49ers had too many contributors to expect to replace them all in one season, but in Lynch, they at least have one foundation stone for their recovery.
Thankful for: An heir to “Beast Mode.”
The Seahawks’ running game has been powered by Marshawn Lynch overcoming his offensive line in recent seasons, and it takes a special running back to be able to do that. In Thomas Rawls (80.5), the Seahawks have found another running back able to power through contact and provide a quality ground game with subpar run blocking. Both Rawls and Lynch sit inside our top 10 running backs in our elusive rating metric after Week 11.
St. Louis Rams
Thankful for: A generational player.
His rookie season hinted this was possible, but for Aaron Donald (95.5) to actually deliver on what only J.J. Watt has produced in the last decade is truly staggering. Viewed by many as a luxury pick for the Rams last season, Donald has been the best defensive tackle in the league since his debut last September, and in his second season, is taking on Watt as the league’s best defensive player.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Thankful for: A timely return to form.
A strong rookie campaign had some projecting Doug Martin as one of the league’s next great three-down backs. After two subpar seasons that saw those projections reversed, Martin has produced the best football of his career, capped off with a 235 yard display against the Eagles on Sunday. After topping 100 yards after contact for the second time this season, Martin leads the league with 624 yards after contact.
Thankful for: Situational football.
Turmoil off the field has been the story of the season for the Titans, but on the field, they have deployed their inside linebackers smartly in a rotation which has brought the best out of Wesley Woodyard (81.9) in particular. Woodyard has racked up 20 stops in the last four weeks, only topped by Luke Kuechly. He sits behind only Kuechly and Jerrell Freeman as our highest-graded inside linebacker in the last four weeks.
Thankful for: Rising to the challenge.
This off-season, Washington invested heavily in their defensive line, but their highest-graded player as we reach Thanksgiving is a player who was already on their roster, Chris Baker. Outperforming Terrance Knighton, Ricky Jean-Francois, and Stephen Paea, Baker’s performances have demanded increased playing time, which he has put to excellent use, racking up 25 stops—which trails only Keenan Robinson (28) and Dashon Goldson (26) for the team lead.