One thing every NFL team can be thankful for this Thanksgiving
As we enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday, hopefully we all have the opportunity to pause and reflect on the blessings of life before returning to what has been a compelling 2016 NFL season. While not every fanbase likely feels optimistic about its team’s short- and long-term future, each franchise provides at least one reason to be thankful this holiday.
Thankful for: The play of Tony Jefferson.
It’s been a difficult season for the Cardinals, heading into Thanksgiving with a losing record and a scant chance at a playoff berth. Having lost star defensive back Tyrann Mathieu for much of the season to injury, along with free-agent acquisition Tyvon Branch, Tony Jefferson has been asked to carry quite the load for the Cardinals’ secondary. He has done so beautifully, earning the league’s fifth-best grade among safeties (88.0), and the best grade against the run (98.2). His 25 run stops are tops at the position, while the 58.6 passer rating into his coverage isn’t too shabby, either.
Thankful for: A quarterback’s career year.
This has easily been Matt Ryan’s best season. Our third-highest graded quarterback (90.0) through Week 11 has the second-highest passer rating and highest adjusted completion percentage on deep passes. He’s won three starts where star receiver Julio Jones has tallied fewer than 30 yards receiving, and appears to have abated the midseason swoon that has haunted the Falcons in the past.
Thankful for: Stout play in the middle of the defense.
The Ravens are currently atop the AFC North, and one of the reasons why is their highest-graded run defense, which is currently allowing the fewest yards per carry (3.4) in the league. Two big reasons for this are defensive interior players Lawrence Guy and Timmy Jernigan. Guy (12.9) and Jernigan (12.1) are currently first and second, respectively, in run-stop percentage among 3-4 defensive ends. This has freed up linebacker C.J. Mosley to earn the third-highest run-defense grade (87.1) among linebackers so far this season.
Thankful for: A late bloomer.
Signed as something of an afterthought, edge player Lorenzo Alexander has gone from mostly a special teams player to one of the most productive defenders in the league, with the 10th-best pass-rushing productivity (12.2) among 3-4 outside linebackers. His 10 sacks are three times his career-high going into the season, and he’s graded positively in all but two games so far this year. Given the rash of injuries on Buffalo’s defense early in the season, the 33-year-old Alexander has been nothing short of a miracle for the team.
Thankful for: The maturation of a rookie cornerback.
After letting Josh Norman go in free agency, the Panthers decided to roll with inexperience in their secondary. It has mostly been a bust, with a pass-coverage grade in the lower third of the league through 11 weeks. However, second-round pick James Bradberry has had a solid rookie season. After a rough first week in Denver, he’s surrendered just 50.0 percent completion into his coverage and a 73.5 passer rating. As the Panthers are probably looking to 2017, Bradberry is a piece around which they can build in the secondary.
Thankful for: A stable of defenders.
It has been a year to forget for the Bears. However, following an offseason where they went out of their way to acquire talent, this season has not been a loss in terms of developing their defense, which is the 16th-highest graded unit in the league. Prior to his suspension, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman (92.5) had been one of the best in the league, and has teamed with fellow 2016 acquisition Danny Trevathan to post run-stop percentages of 11.5 and 12.7, respectively, which are in the top 10 in the league among their position group. Add these two to a group consisting of Pernell McPhee, Willie Young, Kyle Fuller, Adrian Amos, and other 2016 newcomers Leonard Floyd and Akiem Hicks, and the Chicago defense appears promising moving forward.
Thankful for: A pair of stud defensive linemen.
As disappointed as Bears fans must be, Bengals fans were no doubt looking for another playoff berth, and possibly their first playoff win since 1991, this season. That likely won’t happen, but it won’t be because of the play of Geno Atkins or Carlos Dunlap. Atkins remains one of the NFL’s premier defensive tackles not named Aaron Donald, with a pass-rushing productivity mark that ranks third in that group. Dunlap’s 39 total QB pressures rank sixth among 4-3 defensive ends, and his eight passes breakups rank first. As Cincinnati picks up the pieces from this lost season, the first place they need to look to rebuild is around the combination of Atkins and Dunlap.
Thankful for: A converted quarterback turned WR star.
Patience is a virtue for Browns fans. In a season void of wins, one bright spot has been the emergence of QB-turned-WR Terrelle Pryor—who has the 14th-highest grade among wide receivers, and a yards-per-route-run mark of 1.78 this season, despite the team playing musical chairs at quarterback all season. His 5.08 percent drop rate is fairly impressive, given that he was a quarterback as recently as a few seasons ago, and if he keeps up his current pace, he will be the first Browns wide receiver to surpass 1,000 yards since Josh Gordon in 2013.
Thankful for: The best offensive line in football.
So much to choose from here, but this all starts with the offensive line. The highest-graded run-blocking unit in the league has paved the way for rookie runner Ezekiel Elliott to lead the NFL in rushing at this point, despite starting the season with average grades over the first few games. The eighth-most-efficient pass-blocking unit in the league has kept rookie quarterback Dak Prescott clean on 66.1 percent of his dropbacks, on which he is third in the league with a QB 123.6 rating.
Thankful for: The best cornerback duo in football.
Coming off of a Super Bowl win and losing their franchise quarterback to retirement, the Broncos needed their defense to repeat last year’s brilliance to have a chance in this season’s loaded AFC West. They’ve mostly gotten it, with corners Aqib Talib (90.8) and Chris Harris (87.2) possessing the first- and third-highest graded seasons among cornerbacks so far. By surrendering just a 37.0 and 73.2 passer rating into their coverage, respectively, they’ve helped Denver allow the second-fewest passing yards per game this season and stay in the thick of the playoff race, despite a very limited offense.
Thankful for: An undrafted second-year player keeping the defense together.
The Lions have found a way to 6-4 despite trailing in the fourth quarter of every game. Their defense is a big reason why, generating the second-worst defensive grade in the entire league. One bright spot has been undrafted second-year player Kerry Hyder. Hyder is currently ninth among 4-3 defensive ends with a 10.7 pass-rushing productivity mark, generating seven sacks, five quarterback hits, and 21 hurries through Week 11.
Green Bay Packers
Thankful for: The most efficient pass-blocking offensive line in the game.
Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a career 103.4 passer, has a 70.6 passer rating when under pressure this season. Luckily for Green Bay, he’s been under pressure on just 28.1 percent of his snaps, which is sixth-best rate in the entire league. Couple that with the fact that his average release time (2.97) is second-slowest among qualifiers, and you can make a case that the Packers’ front five are the league’s best at protecting a quarterback. Our numbers bear this out, as Green Bay has the most-efficient pass-blocking unit in the league (86.5), allowing just 80 pressures in 470 pass-blocking snaps so far this season. While the Packers’ offense has struggled, it could be much worse.
Thankful for: A No. 1 overall pick finally paying off.
After a few years marred by injuries, 2014 No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney is rounding into the type of transformative player you would expect from such a high selection. While his pass-rushing productivity (9.3) is not in the elite class yet (at least not for 3-4 outside linebackers, even though he plays a lot of end in 3-3-5-type nickel alignments), his play against the run has been outlier-worthy. Clowney’s 15 run stops in 106 run-defense snaps (14.2 percent) is best in the league among his position group by more than a full percentage point, and has helped the Texans maintain their lead in the AFC South despite very shaky quarterback play and the absence of their best (and maybe the league’s best) player for most of the season.
Thankful for: The rebound of Andrew Luck.
One can argue that no player is more important to his team than Andrew Luck is to the Colts. After a 2015 season in which he regressed substantially and failed to finish the campaign due to injury, Luck has rebounded to produce arguably his best season to date. He’s earned a positive grade in all but two games through Week 11, and increased his accuracy percentage from 65.0 (last in the league in 2015) to 74.6. His yards per attempt have increased by a full yard, approaching his career high of 7.7 in 2014. Luck is on pace to shatter his career high in touchdown passes (23), while limiting the turnover-worthy plays that have cost him dearly in the past. If he continues to play this way—despite missing out on tonight’s game due to a concussion—look for the Colts to continue to contend for a playoff spot in the weak AFC South, regardless of a their subpar defensive play.
Thankful for: Investments in the secondary paying off.
This has been a disappointing season for the Jags. After an offseason of acquisitions and promising draft picks, they appear to be heading for a top-five pick again in the 2017 draft. Oddly, though, there have been players on their defense that have flashed promise, allowing the fifth-fewest passing yards per game so far. First-round pick Jalen Ramsey has been up-and-down, but has flashed his playmaking ability with 16 defensive stops (third among all CBs), while free-agent acquisition Prince Amukamara has allowed just 53.7 percent of the passes into his coverage to be completed through Week 11. Tashaun Gipson has shaken off a subpar 2015 season in Cleveland to team with John Cyprien (Jacksonville’s highest-graded defender to date) and give the Jaguars a pair on the back end to build around. The next step will be to sign Cyprien (a free agent in 2017) to a long-term deal.
Kansas City Chiefs
Thankful for: The league’s best group of special teams players.
The Kansas City Chiefs have won 18 of their last 22 games, and given their limitations offensively and injuries to many key players during that time, they’ve had to be great in the margins. Their special teams possess a kick returner (Tyreek Hill) leading the league in return grades, a rookie (Eric Murray) with the highest special teams grade among non-kickers/return specialists, and a core group of D.J. Alexander, Demetrius Harris, Frank Zombo, and Anthony Sherman that rarely miss an assignment or tackle.
Los Angeles Rams
Thankful for: A well-rounded defensive front.
While we all know about Aaron Donald (95.4)—first in pass-rush productivity among defensive tackles (by a mile), and fourth in run-stop percentage—the Rams’ quality up front on defense is far more expansive that that. Nose tackle Michael Brockers (81.3) and pass-rusher Dominique Easley (79.4) complement each other at the other nose tackle position, while William Hayes (80.2) and Robert Quinn (71.7) have combined for five sacks, five quarterback hits, and 27 hurries, despite both missing some time this season. Add in the quality play of linebacker Alec Ogletree (80.8), safety Maurice Alexander (84.7), and cornerbacks Lamarcus Joyner (82.1) and Trumaine Johnson (78.4), and the Rams have the pieces to form an up-and-coming defense.
Thankful for: A running back making the most of a second chance.
After an improbable comeback in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last week, the Dolphins are riding a five-game winning streak, in no small reason because they took another chance on running back Jay Ajayi, whom they largely had given up on at the beginning of the season. Ayaji is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, 3.6 of which are coming after contact. As a point of reference, there are five teams in the NFL that have surrendered 3.6 or fewer yards per carry total this season. His elusive rating of 76.5 is third-best among qualifying running backs, while his breakaway percentage of 42.2 is fourth. After years of questionable usage of talent at the running back position, the Dolphins are finally riding a legitimate horse in the backfield. It’s paying off.
Thankful for: A quarterback playing better than you think.
Despite being traded to Minnesota fewer than two weeks before the start of the season, Sam Bradford has asserted himself about as well as possible. With an offensive line on its third starting left and right tackles to date, he’s had to resort to quick passing (his 2.39 seconds to throw are fourth-quickest among qualifiers). Despite this, Bradford has generated a respectable 7.05 yards per attempt, due to an adjusted completion percentage that is third in the league (79.4). When asked to throw deep, he’s been good as well, generating an adjusted completion percentage of 57.7 and a quarterback rating of 135.4 (fifth and second in the league, respectively) on passes over 20 yards. The Vikings’ recent struggles have certainly been disappointing, but it’s difficult to envision them in the playoff hunt at this point without Bradford.
New England Patriots
Thankful for: The best tight end duo in the game.
Despite a poor week last week, Martellus Bennett has been the complement to Rob Gronkowski that the Patriots have searched for since Aaron Hernandez. Gronk has been the highest-graded TE this season (89.8), despite being slowed for much of the year with various injuries. Bennett, meanwhile, has generated the fourth-highest grade among the position group (84.7). Patriots quarterbacks are 64-for-78 for 1058 yards and seven touchdowns (148.6 rating) throwing to this duo, which has yet to drop a pass.
New Orleans Saints
Thankful for: Michael Thomas’ rookie season.
While there were a few other receivers drafted ahead of him, Michael Thomas has been the best rookie receiver so far this season. Our 15th-highest graded receiver (81.4) has turned 72 targets into 681 yards and five touchdowns (good for a 111.9 rating on his targets). His 1.89 yards per route run are just ahead of players like Alshon Jeffery, Larry Fitzgerald, Terrelle Pryor, Marvin Jones, and Pierre Garçon on the season. The trio of Thomas, Brandin Cooks (80.8), and Willie Snead (80.1) has been arguably the best in the league, helping Drew Brees to one of his best seasons yet.
New York Giants
Thankful for: Defensive stars fitting in with existing talent.
When the Giants shelled out big money for Janoris Jenkins, Olivier Vernon, and Damon Harrison early in free agency, many were skeptical, as it is often the case that big-name free-agent splashes fail to live up to expectations. The trio has been worth the money so far for the Giants, with Jenkins allowing just a 64.4 rating (eighth among CBs) into his coverage. Vernon has teamed with Jason Pierre-Paul to form a duo of top-20 4-3 defensive end in terms of pass-rushing productivity, while Harrison is currently tops among defensive tackles in run stop percentage (17.4) by a wide margin.
New York Jets
Thankful for: Leonard Williams’ continued development.
The second-lowest graded team in the entire league, the Jets have had a season to forget. That said, their top pick from a year ago, Leonard Williams, has continued to develop into a solid complement to stalwarts Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson. Williams has the fourth-highest-run stop percentage (10.6) among 3-4 defensive ends, while his pass-rushing productivity of 7.7 is 10th. With Darrelle Revis bottoming out this season, the Jets have really struggled on the back end of their defense, but the they should take heart that they have Williams to pair with (at least) Wilkerson for the foreseeable future.
Thankful for: The league’s best punter.
There’s a lot that could fit here for the Raiders—they have the third-highest-graded offense in the league, led by an MVP candidate in quarterback Derek Carr (88.3). They have also seen contributions from defensive newcomers in Perry Riley (87.2), Sean Smith (84.2), Bruce Irvin (83.3), and rookie Karl Joseph (82.9). For a team that has seen six of their eight wins come by one score or fewer, however, brilliance in the margins can often be the unsung difference. Punter Marquette King has been the highest-graded punter in the league this season, combining substantial distance (48.7 yards per punt; fifth in the league) with precision placement (55.3 percent of his punts have been downed inside the 20-yard-line—the highest percentage in the league). His 42.0 net yards per punt are fifth in the league, and he’s added a 27-yard run on a fake, as well.
Thankful for: Premier pass-rushing from Cox and Graham.
The Eagles have hung tight this season, mostly due to a defense surrendering the fourth-fewest points per game in the league (18.6 per game). The cornerstones of this defense are linemen Fletcher Cox (86.6) and Brandon Graham (90.9). Graham has been the most-productive 4-3 defensive end in the league as a pass-rusher, while Cox is the second-most productive rusher as a defensive tackle. Both players have been among their team’s best run defenders, generating a combined 29 run stops between them. Consistency has been their calling card, with just one negatively-graded game between the two on the season. With Cox and Graham signed for the foreseeable future, look for the Eagles’ defense to continue to be a force for years to come.
Thankful for: A pair of solid guards.
The Steelers are something of an enigma, sitting atop the AFC North despite middling play on both sides of the ball for most of the season. You can’t blame the interior of the offensive line, though, where David DeCastro (86.0) and Ramon Foster (84.3) have been the sixth- and ninth-highest graded guards in the league so far. They’ve helped Ben Roethlisberger stay clean on 77.1 percent of his dropbacks (second-best in the league)—dropbacks resulting in a quarterback rating of 108.4 on the season.
San Diego Chargers
Thankful for: Sophomore emergence.
After a disappointing first year, Melvin Gordon has turned into the running back the Chargers expected when they spent a first-round pick on him a year ago. His 838 rushing yards are currently fourth in the league through Week 11, on the back of a breakaway percentage (39.0) that is fifth among qualifying running backs. He’s cut his fumbles from six in 2015 to two this season, while generating nine touchdowns (he had zero a year ago). He’s doing all of this while the Chargers are earning just the 28th-highest run-blocking grade in the league to this point, suggesting that the future should be even brighter for the second-year pro out of Wisconsin.
San Francisco 49ers
Thankful for: Next year.
While the 49ers have lost nine straight games, they are not completely void of talent. Fans of the team by the bay should look forward to the return of NaVarro Bowman (86.0), who was second in the league in run-stop percentage (14.1) when he suffered a season-ending Achilles injury. Injured second-year defensive lineman Arik Armstead was the league’s most productive rusher (12.2 pass-rushing productivity) among 3-4 defensive ends for the first six weeks of the season. Wide receiver Bruce Ellington was poised for a breakout year before being placed on IR before the season started. The return of these players, coupled with another year of experience in Chip Kelly’s system, is what the 49ers have to be thankful for this time of year.
Thankful for: Russell Wilson’s resilience.
For the third-straight year, the Seahawks were a bit slow out of the gate. With an ankle injury to Russell Wilson and the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the league, the Seahawks scored fewer than 12 points in three of their first six games. Since Week 9, however, Wilson has been the highest-graded quarterback in the league, with a passer rating of 119.2 He’s been especially exceptional throwing to Doug Baldwin during that time, going 16-of-18 for 252 yards and three touchdowns (for a perfect passer rating). With Wilson playing at an MVP level and a defense to match, look for the Seahawks to be there when it counts in the postseason.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Thankful for: The league’s best receiver not named Julio Jones.
While Julio Jones still holds our best grade this season among wideouts, Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans has rebounded nicely from a sophomore year where his 14 drops overshadowed some of the strides he made toward becoming one of the league’s bona fide No. 1 receivers. The second-highest graded receiver in the league still has some issues with drops (eight this year), but his production has increased nicely from 2.34 yards per route run in 2015 to 2.41 this season (fourth among qualifying receivers). His 267 yards on passes of more than 20 yards are seventh in the league, and have already surpassed the 258 he had all of last year. The future is bright for Tampa Bay’s passing game.
Thankful for: The league’s second-best running game.
People made fun of the idea of “exotic smash-mouth” at the beginning of the season. There’s not much laughing anymore. The second-highest graded run-blocking team in the league has opened holes for the revival of DeMarco Murray, who is second in the league thus far with an even 1,000 yards on the ground (he’s also second with 528 yards after contact). His 38 missed tackles forced is leading all running backs to this point, and has been complemented by the running of rookie Derrick Henry (153 yards after contact and nine missed tackles forced). Each member of the starting offensive line has played well, with each earning an overall grade above 78.3 to this point.
Thankful for: A mid-offseason star acquisition.
While Washington won the NFL East a year ago, they did so by giving up the seventh-most net yards per passing attempt (6.8), which led to them allowing almost 24 points per game. This season, that number has dropped to 6.5, in part due to Josh Norman, acquired later in the offseason after the Panthers withdrew the franchise tag. He’s struggled with penalties this season, but Norman has added a measure of credibility to Washington’s defense, allowing just 52.0 percent of passes into his coverage to be completed, while producing eight pass breakups, intercepting a pass, and missing just three tackles. While Washington is probably not going to repeat as NFC East champion, the pieces appear in place for sustained success moving forward.