We’ve got 17 final stories to file before the year wraps. Let’s jump to it.
• There’s an old, tired trope about Bill Belichick and the Patriots favoring a nonsensical backfield rotation — and enjoying the troll of fantasy football — but like most winning coaches, Belichick simply wants productive players he can trust. Dion Lewis was beyond productive in the second half of 2017 — he turned into a bona fide league winner, a difference-maker. Lewis is quick and slippery enough to make defenders miss, and has surprising power, the ability to finish runs.
Lewis rolled up 133 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s beatdown of the Jets, checking in as fantasy’s top scoring back of the day. Lewis was especially needed in this spot because Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, and James White didn’t play, but even when the Patriots had healthier backfields earlier in the year, Lewis kept a major share of the workload.
Lewis ran the ball 10 times or more in 10 of his last 11 appearances, and in the one miss — the shocking loss at Miami — Lewis still had double-digit touches. Lewis also reemerged as a pass-catcher in the latter part of the year, snagging 17 passes in his final four games. It’s no wonder the Patriots trust Lewis in that role, he’s sure-handed (32 catches on 35 targets). He’s an attractive playoff-pool selection, the go-to running back on a team favored to make the Super Bowl.
• I’m still trying to figure out why the Browns featured Isaiah Crowell and kept Duke Johnson in the change-of-pace role. They ended the year with almost identical YPCs, but Johnson was far superior as a receiver. Johnson handled 280 touches in his final year at Miami — over 13 games — so he seems sturdy enough to take more work than Cleveland has given him. Please, football gods, let’s move on from Hue Jackson and his 1-31 record.
• It’s scary to think JuJu Smith-Schuster is just 21 years old. He’s become the player the Steelers wanted Martavis Bryant to be. JuJu was Sunday’s top fantasy receiver (9-143-1), throwing in a punt-return touchdown for good measure. No Ben Roethlisberger, no problem. Just imagine when the kid learns how to run the entire route tree.
• It’s an easier game in the slot than it is outside, but it’s interesting to note that Nelson Agholor and Alshon Jeffery had just about identical stats — but Agholor did it on 24 less targets. Agholor’s solid year was one of the least-reported fantasy stories of the year.
• There is no more sleeper value to Jimmy Garoppolo — a nation has fallen in love, head over cleats. But perhaps George Kittle can fly under the radar in 2018. Garoppolo has always had an eye for the big targets down the seam, dating back to his New England days. He had some moments with Garrett Celek this year, and Kittle was a monster in the win over the Rams (4-100-0, six targets).
• The way Chris Godwin played down the stretch, the Buccaneers probably don’t want DeSean Jackson back. Godwin finished with a snappy 7-111-1 line on Sunday, making good on 12 looks. Jameis Winston still makes a curious decision now and again, but his shoulder looked healthy over the last three weeks of the year.
• The Patrick Mahomes debut was especially impressive when you consider the Chiefs kept the major targets off the field for almost the entire game. And Denver’s defense is never an easy mark, especially at home. I don’t see any reason for the Chiefs to hold off; I’d make Mahomes the guy entering 2018. Remember, they traded up to draft him in 2017’s first round.
• I can’t kill the Seahawks for missing on Alex Collins because scouting is damn hard — heck, the Ravens didn’t really know what they had with Collins, either. Collins turns 24 right before next season, and Baltimore’s offensive line figures to be improved in 2018. His cutback touchdown run was one of my favorite Week 17 plays.
But nobody outside of Baltimore wanted to see the Ravens in the playoffs. The Bengals did everyone a favor. On the final offensive snap of the year, Joe Flacco threw short of the sticks and asked 37-year-old Ben Watson to break three tackles.
• You can bash Mike Mularkey all you want, but the Jaguars legitimately tried to win in Week 17 — and the Titans simply beat them up physically. Just when you thought it was safe to trust Blake Bortles, he’s played two stinkers in a row. Marcus Mariota always makes you nervous when he runs — the injury history — but his resourcefulness and guts were the difference Sunday.
• If Jon Gruden really is going to the Raiders, it’s a win-win for everyone involved — we get another quality coach back in the game, and the new Monday Night analyst figures to be an improvement over the speak-no-evil Gruden.
• I’ll never question Cam Newton’s toughness, but he threw the ball Sunday like he was injured (14-for-34, 180 yards, one touchdown, three picks). You’d swear he met his teammates 15 minutes before the game starts. The Panthers can’t beat anyone good if Newton’s accuracy doesn’t improve.
• May we all age as well as Frank Gore. Somehow he handled 27 touches at the end of his age-34 season and cranked out a respectable 111 yards. The irony to Gore’s career is that all of his major injuries occurred at Miami and in his early NFL years. He’s been remarkably durable since.
• I don’t have a good explanation for why Russell Wilson’s stats all came at the end of games this year, but the Seahawks definitely need to move on from OC Darrell Bevell.
• All season, we railed about the Falcons not using their backs in the passing game. In Sunday’s clean victory, Devonta Freeman snagged nine passes for 85 yards and a touchdown and Tevin Coleman also caught his two targets. It’s the easiest real estate in the game — if you have the right personnel — why not take it? The 2016 Falcons sure did.
• Now is not to shake up the Lions. Jim Bob Cooter and Matthew Stafford are on the verge of breaking this thing open. I still don’t like the Detroit running backs, but Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Kenny Golladay all made splash plays Sunday, and Eric Ebron was significantly improved in the second half of the year.
• Kirk Cousins was a mess against the Giants, but for the most part he had a strong season despite little help. Jordan Reed, shocker of shockers, got hurt. The offensive line was decimated by injury. Terrelle Pryor was a colossal bust. Chris Thompson didn’t last the season. If Washington lets Cousins walk, it’s making a gross error.
• The Cowboys kept Brice Butler buried because they apparently hate splash plays. Sure, technically, Butler and Dez Bryant play the same position, so what? You coach guys up. You find ways for talented players to overlap, compliment each other. The rest of the NFC East is thrilled to see Jason Garrett return. I nonetheless will have Butler on my deep-sleeper list for 2018.
Have a safe, happy New Year, everyone, and we’ll be back to figure it all out in 2018.