There’s a litany of words I could use to describe this week’s emotions. The jarring reality of the game we watch each week has kept our thoughts away from football and on the status of Damar Hamlin. I’m encouraged by the updates and the outpouring of goodwill in such a dark time. And with this being the last Thursday of the regular season, I don’t know what will happen.
So for my last piece of the season, I'm looking back at how we got here. We in the fantasy community were so sure of ourselves back in August that revisiting three offseason predictions feels like just enough light-hearted fun to guide us into the weekend.
I appreciate you all for following along; the journey, like some of these takes, was well worth the ride.
Tom Brady and the Bucs are a lock for the playoffs
Honestly, the scene below wouldn't have surprised me if I had used a time machine to jump from August to January:
— NFL (@NFL) January 1, 2023
As a standalone highlight, Tom Brady throwing a touchdown to Mike Evans should feel mundane. Evans was second in receiving scores last year behind Cooper Kupp. Coming into this season, we thought we’d get more of the same.
Chris Godwin was still recovering from injury, Rob Gronkowski had announced his retirement, and the team added Julio Jones and Russell Gage. Nobody could take over the downfield role for the Buccaneers’ passing game, putting Evans as Brady’s main guy once again.
Plus, the NFC South looked like a cakewalk.
Atlanta was bringing in Marcus Mariota, with Desmond Ridder waiting in the wings, so the Falcons offense was signaling a reset after drafting Drake London. The Panthers gave Baker Mayfield the nod, indicating their level of unseriousness for 2022. Also, Jameis Winston (armed with Chris Olave, who cost five picks to acquire) was in line to lead the Saints after losing key defenders in the offseason. With Tampa Bay returning most of its starters (Brady and Evans especially), fans expected the road to the playoffs to be a smooth ride.
It turned out to be a roller coaster instead.
The offensive line injuries were the first sign of trouble, which continued throughout the year. Brady went from 29 knockdowns in 2021 to 52 through Week 17. As always, the future Hall of Famer adapted to life under pressure at age 45. He’s second in passing yards behind Patrick Mahomes. However, his solution dropped Evans’ fantasy value.
Brady’s 2022 aDOT is at 7.4 compared to 8.4 last season. Meanwhile, Evans’ role reverted to what it was before Brady showed up in Tampa. In the two years after his arrival, Evans recorded career highs in target rate from the slot (37.9% and 34.3%). But with Brady’s average time to throw dropping from 2.34 seconds in 2021 to 2.31, it was a healthy Godwin or Leonard Fournette picking up the slack. Rachaad White has more targets when Brady is under duress than Gage or Jones.
But we still, somehow, wound up with the Bucs at the top of the division by the season's end.
So no, I’m not surprised by Brady trying to find Evans downfield. Only Davante Adams (37) and Tyreek Hill (37) have more targets of 20-plus air yards than Evans (30). The results were a shock, as Brady entered the Week 17 game with just one touchdown on deep attempts but left with three more.
With the Bucs having little to play for in Week 18, any Tampa starters will be tough to trust in fantasy lineups. Regardless, like Thanos, Brady in the playoffs was inevitable, even if it took a tougher road to get there.
Patrick Mahomes will struggle without Tyreek Hill
I understood the reasoning behind Kansas City trading away one of the best receivers in the league. Mahomes’ cap hit just jumped to $35.8M, and the team needed financial flexibility to stay relevant. But there’s no one-for-one swap for a player of Hill’s caliber. Nor were there any prospects even remotely close to his archetype in the draft.
However, our collective short-sightedness neglected how great Mahomes can be independent of the talent around him:
— NFL (@NFL) December 11, 2022
I think this highlight made me laugh the hardest. There are two things to watch outside of the ridiculous throw. First, watch Jonathan Harris (#92) at five seconds, when he thinks his brothers have Mahomes pinned down. Second, check out P.J. Locke (#6) on the sideline after Jerick McKinnon regains his balance around eight seconds into the clip.
In about three seconds, things went from joy to disbelief. And that has seemingly been a weekly occurrence for Mahomes.
Simply put, the Chiefs’ plan worked. Their soft reset kept most of their nucleus intact. Most importantly, they were able to recreate Hill’s tactical impact through their personnel additions.
Marquez Valdes-Scantling became their deep threat; he leads the team in downfield targets. When Andy Reid wanted to get wild in the red zone, he swapped Hill for Mecole Hardman until he went on IR after Week 9. And Hill’s slot role went to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Travis Kelce continued to dice up coverages at 33 years old (third in total YAC among all pass catchers), but it all comes back to No. 15.
Mahomes leads the league in EPA per play yet again at 0.31. Over the past five seasons, four of the five quarterbacks to hit the same mark have added to their accolades.
2020 Aaron Rodgers (0.36) – MVP, Offensive Player of the Year Runner-Up, First-Team All Pro
2019 Lamar Jackson (0.34) – MVP, Offensive Player of the Year Runner-Up, First-Team All Pro
2018 Patrick Mahomes (0.37) – MVP, First-Team All-Pro
2018 Drew Brees (0.36) – MVP Runner-Up, Second-Team All-Pro
He might have needed the extra game to reach the same counting stats, but Mahomes' weekly efficiency looks similar to the last time he sat atop the MVP ranks:
I mean, the dude throws passes to himself, and the offense leads the league in success rate. For all of the offseason anxiety, Kansas City made the bet we all should’ve made in August. Now their sights are set on a playoff run.
This weekend is tough to square with the BUF/CIN game in limbo. Mahomes could chase Peyton Manning’s single-season yardage record, but the team just needs a win to secure the No. 1 seed. I doubt the Raiders will put up a similar fight as they did against the 49ers, so an all-out effort from the Chiefs on Sunday is tough to expect.
Daniel Jones needs a miracle to be a starter in '23
I didn’t know what to expect from the Giants this season. Neither did most of the fantasy community. Daniel Jones got his fifth-year option declined, and the new front office and coaching regime would (likely) rebuild the franchise without him. The uncertainty played its role in the market, as Saquon Barkley was the only member of his team with an ADP in the top 100 for best-ball drafts. And while Barkley sits in the top 12 of fantasy running backs for the first time since 2019, there’s another top-12 list he’s a part of that I’m sure makes him (and the team) much happier.
— NFL (@NFL) January 1, 2023
The Giants are in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. And they’re coming out of a division with two teams having a greater than 10% chance of winning the Super Bowl. Barkley has done his part, with 1,650 scrimmage yards. But Jones’ ability to play within the structure of Brian Daboll’s offense makes his case for another stint with the Giants all but a done deal.
A basic takeaway from the above chart: The Giants’ offense is efficient. They’re in the top right quadrant, so they’re good! And overall, this makes sense. Jones is top-six in EPA per attempt on both designed rushes and scrambles. His ground game alone accounts for 57 of the team’s 240 first downs. That explains their top-10 rank in rushing EPA. But let’s contextualize the x-axis of the chart.
Much of the MVP discourse has been around trying to separate the quarterback from his supporting cast. Jalen Hurts has A.J. Brown and DeVonta Smith. For a time, we dissected Tua Tagovailoa’s relevance as a function of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. But regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on (the system makes the QB, or the QB is the system), we can all agree Jones didn’t have high-end receiving talent as a fallback option.
Look at his top receiving targets this season:
Saquon Barkley (73 targets) – a running back
Darius Slayton (70) – had 24 by the team’s Week 9 bye
Richie James Jr. (67) – only four starts this season
Isaiah Hodgins (45) – started the season on the Bills’ practice squad
Daniel Bellinger (33) – missed four games due to a fractured eye socket
Wan’Dale Robinson (30) – tore his ACL in Week 11
Through all this, Jones is still 11th in passing success rate.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Daboll has had to add some window dressing to the offense for this to work. Jones is fourth in play-action rate among passers with 10 or more starts this season. Mike Kafka has dialed up wildcat formations for Barkley or used pre-snap jet motion to throw off defenses. And only Justin Fields has more scrambles than Jones. But unlike Fields, Jones has the infrastructure around him to pull his squad into a wild-card spot.
A Week 18 win or loss does nothing to affect the seeding for the G-Men. And Daboll hasn’t determined how much the starters will play. But the damage is done. The NFC East isn’t a two-team race to the top anymore.
With Daboll in place and Jones likely back, the Giants will be another fantasy-friendly offense to target in 2023.