About Rajan Nanavati

Rajan Nanavati is a professional sportswriter with over 15 years of experience covering the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, college football, and fantasy football. His work has been featured on ESPN and the Washington Post, among other publications. He runs a successful sports podcast with several hundred listeners per month at http://www.hailtothedistrict.com/.

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC South Preview


Among all the divisions in the National Football Conference, the NFC East might be the one with the most parity, the NFC West might be the one with the best team overall, and the NFC North might host the best quarterback in the conference (if not the entire league). But it could very well be the case that the NFC South might feature the most entertaining race to the division crown this year.

How does a team recover from blowing a 25-point lead in the third quarter of the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl appearance? That’s the question that’s going to hound the Atlanta Falcons all year long. It’s already been talked about ad nauseum, and if the team has any stumbles along the way this year, it’s certainly going to be brought up repeatedly. History is not on the Falcons side, either; nine of the last 20 teams to lose the Super Bowl failed to make the playoffs last season. Atlanta’s defense will be better this year, thanks to the addition of defensive tackle Dontari Poe, the selection of edge rusher Takkarist McKinley in the 2017 NFL Draft, and the return of cornerback Desmond Trufant from injury. But what type of drop off will Atlanta’s ultra-prolific offense see from last year’s performance, with the loss of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan? New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has enormous shoes to fill, considering Shanahan guided the Falcons offense to the eighth-highest point total in NFL history, and helped quarterback Matt Ryan to an MVP award along the way; to make matters even more challenging, Sarkisian has never been an offensive coordinator in the NFL. In a division in which the Falcons top competitors certainly look to take a big step forward this year, the idea that Atlanta is a lock to repeat as the champions of the NFC South is far from a given.

The Carolina Panthers can provide first-hand attestation to the “hangover” that comes after losing the Super Bowl. After finishing the 2015 season with an NFL-best 15-1 record, the Panthers endured a season filled with all sorts of bumps and bruises, headlined by injuries to arguably the team’s two best players: quarterback Cam Newton, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Newton played in 15 of 16 games las tyear, but as a result of the merciless beating he endured all season long, he put up the lowest completion percentage and yards per attempt of his career, his second lowest passing touchdown total, and his second highest interception total. Newton is unquestionably the team’s franchise player, so Carolina went out and signed tackle Matt Kalil from the Vikings to protect Newton’s blindside as the left tackle, and drafted tackle Taylor Moton from the University of Wisconsin with the intention of him coming over and manning the right tackle spot. And to add to Newton’s oft-maligned group of pass catchers, the Panthers used draft pick on “hybrid” run-pass options like Christian McCaffrey (their first round pick) and Curtis Samuel (the first of their two second round picks). With nine of 11 starters returning from last year’s defense, the Panthers are banking on the continuity of their group to keep opponents out of the endzone, and the young secondary to make a big leap forward from last year’s campaign that saw the team finish with the fourth-worst passing defense in the NFL.

There might not be a more intriguing team in the NFL heading into this season than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The league made a brilliant decision featuring them on HBO’s Hard Knocks television show, because they have the star power to absolutely compel audiences. After finishing among the top 10 quarterbacks in touchdown passes last year, Jameis Winston looks primed to make a big leap forward in year three of his young career. To facilitate that, his front office has given him a repertoire of weapons that would make any quarterback envious: wide receiver DeSean Jackson (brought in via free agency), tight end O.J. Howard (the team’s first round pick in the draft), and wide receiver Chris Godwin (the team’s third round selection), to join incumbent tight end Cameron Brate (who led the league in touchdown catches among tight ends last year) and superstud receiver Mike Evans. If the defense can improve on its performance from last year (they were ranked 22nd in most yards allowed last season), this team could make serious noise in the NFC.

The question for the New Orleans Saints (and its fans) for this year is pretty simple: can the team break free from the treadmill of 7-9 finishes they’ve had in each of the past three seasons? In each of those three years, the storyline seemed to be the same: a top three offense in the NFL (in yards per game), and a bottom five defense (in points allowed per game). There was a point in time where the idea of a quarterback throwing for 5,000 yards in a season was a mind-boggling feat, and yet the incomparable Drew Brees is coming off a year in which he exceeded the 5,000 yard mark for the fourth time in six years. That’s a big reason why the Saints were the only team in the NFL with two receivers to finish among the top 10 in yards receiving. One of those two receivers was rookie Michael Thomas, whose 92 catches last year was the second highest total in NFL history for a rookie. With Brandin Cooks (the other thousand-yard receiver) now gone, Thomas becomes the focal point of the passing offense, and seems more than capable of handling those responsibilities. Of course, with such a prolific passing maestro like Brees orchestrating the offense, it certainly won’t all be on him to make things go. Meanwhile, New Orleans’ annually porous defense went through yet another overhaul, resulting in as many as six new starters for the group this year. The headline addition would likely be cornerback Marshon Lattimore, the team’s top draft selection this year, who could turn out to be a steal of a pick. Still, the question is the same in the Big Easy: can the Saints’ defense stop anyone from moving the ball up and down the field at will, in order to let the offense do its magic?

FF-Winners.Com’s 2017-8 NFC North Preview

Over the past decade, the Green Bay Packers or the Minnesota Vikings have won the NFC North division nine times in 10 years. Given the way the division looks heading into the 2017 season, it would be very surprising if that trend didn’t extend to 10 times in 11 years.

Green Bay Packers

During the 2016 NFL season, the Green Packers not only went undefeated between the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend through the third week in January of 2017, but they beat opponents by an average of more than 12 points per game. But it all came to an end with a resounding thud, when the Atlanta Falcons ambushed the Packers in the NFC Championship game, storming out to a 31-0 lead at one point, and handing Green Bay a 44-21 defeat. But during that second-half-of-the-season run, Green Bay re-established themselves as one of the top contenders in the NFC, and they’ll look to build on that momentum during the 2017 season. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is one of the early favorites for the Most Valuable Player award, and rightfully so. After leading the league in touchdown passes (40) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (almost 6-to-1), and finished 4th in total passing yards (4,428), he’ll get to throw to an even-better group of receivers this year, with Jordy Nelson another year removed from his season-ending ACL injury (in 2015), Randall Cobb coming into camp healthy after dealing with nagging injuries all of last year, and Davante Adams coming off a breakout season and looking as sharp as ever. On top of that, the Packers went out and acquired tight end Martellus Bennett, who could turn out to be one of the steals of free agency.

The question for the Packers will be if the defense can keep up its end of the bargain, having finished 22nd in total yards allowed last season, and a dismal 31st in passing yards allowed. Green Bay devoted their top two picks in the 2017 NFL Draft to the secondary, taking cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, and brought back cornerback Davon House to play the nickel spot. But losing safety Micah Hyde, one of the real leaders in the secondary, may prove to be a very difficult endeavor.

The Packers offense can score on nearly anyone in the NFL, but the question will be whether they can stop anyone from scoring on them.

Minnesota Vikings

This year’s Minnesota Vikings will feature the same storyline as last year’s Vikings — a game-managing quarterback, a dynamic running back, a patchwork offensive line, and a ridiculously stout defense — but with different characters filling many of those roles.

Sam Bradford will be back for the second year in a row as the Vikings quarterback, having taken over the role on the heels of the catastrophic knee injury to Teddy Bridgewater. In the backfield, he’ll spend much of this year handing off the football to rookie running back Dalvin Cook, the team’s second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (it’s just a matter of time before he takes over the job from free agent acquisition Latavius Murray). And the line that’ll be blocking for Bradford and Cook will feature as many as four new starters from last year’s group, as Minnesota continually looks to fix the beleaguered unit.

But the same “beleaguered unit” description simply cannot be used for the defense, which will return nine of 11 starters from last year’s group, and should be as good as any defense in the NFL. Minnesota ranked third in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per game overall, and fewest passing yards allowed per game as well. They were fifth in the NFL in quarterback sacks, with three different edge rushers racking up seven or more sacks last season (and that’s even with star linebacker Anthony Barr suffering a big slump for much of last year).

The Vikings are essentially the mirror opposite of their division rivals in Green Bay: their defense will be good enough to limit any opponent from putting a lot of points on the board, but will the offense do enough to actually score enough points to squeak out a win?

Detroit Lions

In a conference that’s filled with a good number of teams that will be vying for the six available postseason berths, the Detroit Lions find themselves in a place that most professional sports teams dread: sprinting on proverbial “treadmill of mediocrity.” They’re interesting enough to be relevant, but not relevant enough to be interesting.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford had a fantastic year in offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense, finishing with his second highest completion percentage, second highest yards per attempt, and second highest passer rating of his career last season, along with the fewest number of interceptions thrown. And even with that, the Lions still ranked outside the top 10 passing offenses last year (they were 11th) and didn’t have a single receiver finish in the top 10 in receiving yards (Golden Tate was 14th). For all the yards they could put up in a game, it didn’t translate to much, considering Detroit finished 20th in the NFL in total points per game.

Things weren’t better for Detroit’s defense, overseen by highly-esteemed coordinator Teryl Austin. The Lions defense was in the bottom half of the league in total yards allowed per game (18th in the NFL), rushing yards allowed (18th), passing yards allowed (19th), and quarterback sacks (tied for 30th).

So, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Detroit spent much of the offseason fixing the defensive side of the ball, as almost half the unit will have new starters next season. But in an already loaded conference, and a division with two teams that have postseason aspirations themselves, have the Lions really done enough to make a return trip to the playoffs?

Chicago Bears

For sports fans in the greater Chicagoland area, the mantra this Fall likely won’t be all that much different than it was in the Fall of 2016: “well, at least the Cubs are doing well.”

It was another offseason of offensive upheaval for the Chicago Bears, marked by the team pushing it’s longtime starting quarterback, trading for a quarterback to presumably be the starter, and subsequently drafting a quarterback to also presumably be the starter. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that four of Chicago’s top five wide receivers will be different than the depth chart from last year, after watching their best wide receiver (Alshon Jeffrey) leave town as well.

So now, quarterback Mitchell Trubisky (at some point this season anyway), running back Jordan Howard (who finished second in the NFL in rushing yards last season), and wide receiver Cameron Meredith (the team leader in virtually every receiving category last year) will form the foundation of the rebuilt Bears offense.

Ironically enough, the Bears defense will return all 11 starters from last year’s group. Take what you will from that fact, considering Chicago had the sixth-worst rushing defense in the NFL last year, ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL in most points allowed per game, and featured exactly zero players with more than eight sacks recorded last year.

Winter is Coming, Chicago fans. And if you root for these Monsters of the Midway, don’t say we didn’t warn you.

FF-Winners.Com 2017-8 NFC West Preview

The story of the NFC West for the 2017-2018 season doesn’t really appear to be any different than the story we’ve seen in recent years: there are two teams in the division with legitimate aspirations of a deep playoff run, and then two teams that are still mired in a prolonged rebuilding process.

At the start of the season, it’s really hard to see anyone other than the Seattle Seahawks being the favorite to win the division crown. While the team sputtered to a 6-4-1 record over its last 11 games last year, they were decimated by injuries to so many key players. Even from a purely mathematical standpoint, it’s difficult for a team to endure that level of injury issues for yet another season. In doing his part to stay healthy through the course of the season, Russell Wilson came into training camp this year in the best shape of his life, working with celebrity nutritionist Dr. Philip Goglia in the offseason, losing 10lbs of weight and dropping his body fat by 6%. With no real superstud at running back — the team will cobble together a ground game featuring Green Bay Packers castoff Eddie Lacy, incumbent Thomas Rawls, and 2016 draft picks C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins — this offense really belongs to Wilson now. It’s much more about him running the show, throwing the football to Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Jermaine Kearse, Paul Richardson, and tight end Jimmy Graham. If the patchwork offensive line can simply give him any time to actually get the football out, he could be poised for an MVP-caliber season. And, of course, you can’t talk about the Seahawks without mentioning the defense. The unit will return nine of 11 starters, including defensive backbone Earl Thomas, meaning it should once again be as stout as we’ve come to know it in recent years.

Enduring an injury-riddled season in 2016 themselves, the Arizona Cardinals are looking to rebound closer to the form which saw them win an NFL-high 13 games in 2015. The biggest question for the Cardinals — along the lines of staying healthy — will be whether Carson Palmer’s arm can hold up for all 16 games, especially in an offense that demands a lot of vertical throws. Palmer has shown a penchant in recent years for starting out the season hot, but demonstrating arm fatigue as the year goes on. Of course, the latter the could be mitigated as the team begins to rely more on superstar running back David Johnson, whose combined 2,118 yards from scrimmage last year was second most in the NFL. Johnson’s ability as a running back and pass catcher make him one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL, and will likely make him the focal point of a somewhat aging Cardinals offense. Arizona’s defense faces questions of their own around health and personnel, especially as they’re looking for the return of a healthy Tyrann Mathieu — who finished last season on injured reserve for the third time in four years — and to overcome the loss of defensive lineman Calais Campbell. However, Arizona has done an excellent job in “restocking the cupboard” on defense with young talent, starting with defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (their top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft), linebacker Haason Reddick (taken with their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) and safety Budda Baker (their second round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft). There are still plenty of core players left on this team to lead them to one last deep playoff run, if things can finally break right for them.

During an episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks, (now former) head coach Jeff Fisher of the Los Angeles Rams chastised his team for resembling a football team destined for a 7-9 record. Little did Fisher realize that his team would be so lucky as to finish with a 7-9 record. The Rams finished a 4-12 record at season’s end, and Fisher didn’t even make it through the season before he was dismissed from his position (which many saw as long-overdue move). As his replacement, the Rams went in the total opposite direction, hiring offensive wunderkind Sean McVay — the former offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins — and making him the youngest head coach in NFL history (he was officially hired just days before his 31st birthday). McVay’s primary responsibility will be to rectify all the damage that Fisher and his staff did to quarterback Jared Goff, the first overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Meanwhile, McVay smartly hired defensive guru Wade Phillips, the latter of whom is only two years away from overseeing a defense that led its team to a Super Bowl victory (in Denver). Supposedly, the early whispers from the new regime are filled with glowing optimism, and everything you hear out of Los Angeles is that the player recognize what a difference in experience, leadership, and intellectual horsepower the new coaching staff has already brought. However, this roster still has major holes to fill — mostly on offense — before it can consider itself a contender in this division.

Rounding out the NFC West is the San Francisco 49ers, who underwent a much-needed housecleaning of their own last season, dismissing long time General Manager Trent Baalke and embattled head coach Chip Kelly. In their place will be new head coach Kyle Shanahan, fresh off leading the Atlanta Falcons to one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history, and new General Manager John Lynch, a surprise hire who lobbied Shanahan for the unorthodox opportunity of jumping straight from the broadcast booth to being the man in charge of a team’s front office. The two of them went to work adding numerous players to a roster that was badly in need of a talent infusion all over the board. At quarterback, journeymen Brian Hoyer and Matt Barkley will vie for the team’s starting job in the near future, but it wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprising to see them them address the position with one of their picks in the 2018 NFL Draft (which looks to have a quarterback class absolutely loaded with talent). Early on, they’ll look to the defense to keep them in games, after spending a first round pick on a defensive lineman — Soloman Thomas from Stanford University — for the third year in a row, and then trading up into the latter part of the first round to select linebacker Rueben Foster from the University of Alabama. The defense has some really intriguing players in pass rushing specialist Elvis Dumvervil, stalwart linebacker NaVorro Bowman, free safety Jimmy Ward, and defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead (their first round picks in 2016 and 2015 respectively). But, with a much-needed roster turnover taking place over the long-term, this team is still years away from being ready to make any real noise in the division.

Playoffs!? Wtf? Playoffs!? Rating the New NFL Head Coaches

rp_25bdcbeebb73384f948db8081b0f358d.jpg

While almost everyone remembers that the Denver Broncos won Super Bowl 50, few people realize that they did so with a head coach that was brand new to the team heading into that season in Gary Kubiak. In 2016, of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs at the end of the 2016-2017 season, two of them were led by first year head coaches: Ben McAdoo of the New York Giants, and Adam Gase of the Miami Dolphins. So, it would stand to reason that the teams who made head coaching changes during this offseason are looking for their new head coaches to immediately replicate the type of success the aforementioned guys had. But who are the coaches in the best positions to lead their teams to the postseason? Here’s our list from least likely to most likely:

Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco 49ers — Shanahan and new General Manager John Lynch will start the process of rebuilding the great San Francisco 49ers franchise with the second overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. The problem is, they got the second overall pick in the draft because the team was so bad last year in general. The 49ers could basically use a major infusion of talent at the vast majority of positions on the team, most notably at quarterback. Blaine Gabbert and/or Colin Kaepernick are clearly not the answer, and the new braintrust will likely move quickly in trying to figure out who is the guy that’s going to lead their team for the near and long-term future. But outside of running back, where they have Carlos Hyde, and defensive lineman, where they drafted Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner in recent years, there isn’t really a single position on the team that you could point to as a strength moving forward. Shanahan and Lynch will need a few years to restock the proverbial cupboard.

Sean McVay, Los Angels Rams — The Rams went in the total opposite direction of their previous head coach, when hiring their most recent one. They went from a grizzled NFL-stalwart in Jeff Fisher, to hiring the youngest head coach in NFL history in Sean McVay. McVay was considered somewhat of a “wunderkind” after guiding the Washington Redskins’ offense to the third-best ranking in the NFL last season. His job will largely be tied to the development of Jared Goff, the top pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Even though it’s still way too early to make any type of judgment on Goff, we saw much he struggled last season. The Rams offensive line remains awful for yet another year. They’ve had one wide receiver top 1,000 yards receiving in the past decade. After a superstar-caliber rookie season, running back Todd Gurley looked painfully mortal last year. McVay might be responsible for helping Goff develop, but he’s got his work cut out for him with the rest of this offense. The saving grace for the Rams is that the defense still has talent, including defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who’s one of the five best defensive players in the NFL.

Sean McDermott, Buffalo Bills — Halfway through October, the Buffalo Bills looked like they might end up being one of the surprise teams in the NFL. They had a 4-2 record, including a shutout victory over the New England Patriots. But, from there on out, the bottom fell out for the Bills, as they finished with a 3-7 record down the stretch. That led to Rex Ryan’s dismissal, and the hiring of new head coach Sean McDermott. The first order of business for McDermott and Doug Whaley will be to find a starting quarterback, as it looks like Tyrod Taylor’s tenure in Buffalo is all but over. Many people think they’ll use the 10th overall pick in the draft to address the position, but let’s not forget they still have Cardale Jones as a developmental player, and perhaps the long-term answer. Still, the Bills don’t have much in the way of building block pieces around whoever fills the quarterback position. Running back LeSean McCoy looked great last season, but he’ll be 29 years old next season, and hasn’t played in all 16 games as a member of the Bills. Star wide receiver Sammy Watkins has missed 11 of his last 32 games. The offensive line has been inconsistent. The defense was ravaged by injuries and inconsistency last year. Buffalo proved they can be a good team if things break well for them, but they still have more questions than answers.

Doug Marrone, Jacksonville Jaguars — In reality, the Jacksonville Jaguars could end up being one of the most interesting and dangerous teams in the AFC, if not the NFL. It all depends on whether Marrone’s staff can resurrect the career of quarterback Blake Bortles. Bortles appeared to be on an upward trajectory in his second year, leading a young and talented offense. But last year, Bortles badly regressed, and the offense — as well as the whole team — struggled as a result. But this is still one of the youngest and most talented rosters in the NFL.  It’s not out of the question for young stars like Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns to bounce back, edge rusher Dante Fowler Jr. to take another step forward. Their group of linebackers is one of the more underrated units in the NFL, and they have talent at both Safety positions. If Jacksonville can make a few upgrades on their still-porous offensive line, and perhaps add a little more consistency from the running game, they could help fix what ails Bortles. But this team will only go as Bortles does.

Anthony Lynn, San Diego Chargers — As snakebitten as this team was with injuries and plain old bad luck last season, San Diego sits near the top of this list for one simple reason: they still have quarterback Philip Rivers, who made the Pro Bowl last season (as an alternate). Even with an offense that continued to lose players seemingly on a weekly basis, Rivers still finished the year ranked among the top five quarterbacks in passing yards, yards per attempt, and touchdown passes. While he’s not exactly getting any younger, he’s still in the prime of his career.  The Chargers will also have some balance on offense, thanks to the second year breakout of running back Melvin Gordon. On defense, they have two of the best young talents in the NFL in defensive end Joey Bosa, who was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, and cornerback Jason Verrett, who admittedly missed much of last year after suffering a season-ending ACL injury. Still, with the offensive and defensive pedigrees that new head coach Anthony Lynn and new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, this team is not that far away from contending for a playoff spot.

Vance Joseph, Denver Broncos — Vance Joseph, the highly-regarded former defensive backs coach for the Miami Dolphins, is probably the one coach in the best position to guide his team to the playoffs in his first year as head coach, mostly on the basis of the defense he’ll be inheriting. That group still has Von Miller, who is still perhaps the best edge rusher in the NFL, as well as the best pair of cornerbacks in the league in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. Even with all the injuries and defections via free agency this team had after winning the Super Bowl, those guys represented the foundation of what was still probably the league’s best defense. Obviously, then, the biggest questions for the Broncos will be on the offensive side of the football, namely at the quarterback position. While most people believe that incumbents Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch will battle for the starting job, it’s hard to rule out the possibility of the team acquiring a veteran quarterback — say, Tony Romo? — who could step in and lead this team immediately. If they can get even an average-level of play from the quarterback position, they can rely on their skill position players like Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, and second-year running back Devontae Booker to help spark an offense that sputtered down the stretch of last season.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]

NFC Playoff Picture Still in Flux

Usually, Week 17 of the NFL’s regular season is mostly meaningless. The teams with nothing left to play for usually play out this last game as nothing but a formality, while those teams in contention have usually solidified their spots in the postseason race.

However, heading into Week 17, while we do have a good idea of who’s most likely to be in this year’s NFC playoffs, there’s still plenty at stake for the participants to play for, and fans of those teams to watch for.

The Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, and New York Giants have all clinched postseason berths. We know that the Cowboys have secured the top seed in the conference, meaning they’ll have home field advantage for any game leading up to the Super Bowl. We also know that the New York Giants have secured the fifth seed (the top Wild Card spot), meaning they’ll play against the division winner with lowest win-loss percentage in the playoffs.

But after that? It’s all up in the air.

With the Detroit Lions losing to Dallas on Monday evening, the two biggest “must watch” games for Week 17 are the Washington Redskins hosting the New York Giants, and the Green Bay Packers traveling to Detroit; the latter game was flexed into the Sunday Night prime time spot, due to the playoff implications of the game. If Washington wins, they’ll almost automatically clinch the last playoff spot (the #6 seed). The only scenario in which the Redskins win and still get left out of the playoffs is if the the Lions-Packers game ends in a tie; more on that in a second. But for all intents and purposes, Washington is pretty much in a “win and in” situation.

The interesting wrinkle to the Redskins-Giants affair will be whether the Giants decide to rest their starters in the game. New  York can do no better or no worse than the fifth seed in the playoffs regardless of the outcome of the game, so it bears watching as to whether they’ll still have their star players — like Odell Beckham Jr., among others — participate in this meaningless match up.

If Washington wins, the game between Detroit and Green Bay will not only bear the implications of the NFC North division winner, but will also be a “loser goes home” scenario. Midway through December, Detroit had a 9-4 record. But after losing their last two games, combined with the hard-charging Packers currently riding a five-game winning streak, the Lions grasp on the NFC North title is tenuous at best. But, in an interesting twist, the Lions and Packers can actually both make the playoffs if their game ends in a tie. If that happens, the Packers would win the NFC North, and the Lions would get the last playoff spot in the NFC, as they would have the same record as the Redskins but own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The other two games that could potentially alter the NFC playoff landscape involve the Atlanta Falcons hosting the New Orleans Saints, and the Seattle Seahawks playing the San Francisco 49ers in the Bay area.  The Falcons presently hold the second seed in the NFC playoffs, meaning they’d get the highly valuable first-round bye and host the playoff semi-final game. However, if Atlanta loses to New Orleans and Seattle beats San Francisco, then Seattle would secure the second seed in the NFC playoffs. But, both the Falcons and Seahawks will be favorites entering the game, so it’s hard to see the current seeding of both teams changing.

With Green Bay entering the game as three point favorites over the Lions and Washington entering their game against New York as eight point favorites, if we assume that the Packers, Redskins, Falcons, and Seahawks all win in Week 17, we would have the Cowboys with the top seed in the NFC playoffs, the Falcons with the second seed, and the Redskins taking on the Seahawks as well as the Giants traveling to Green Bay to take on the Packers in the NFC playoffs.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]

FF-Winners.Com Reveals 3 Amazing Fantasy Bargain Sleepers for 2016-7

DeSean Jackson, WR, Washington Redskins — Jackson is going absurdly low in many fantasy football drafts — being taken outside the top 30 wide receivers in most leagues — mostly on account of misconceptions of his durability, production, and attitude (almost all of which are totally false). Yes, Jackson missed six games last season with a troublesome hamstring injury, but he was totally healthy from November onwards last year, playing in nine of the Redskins last 10 games of the season, including the postseason (he was held out of a meaningless game in Week 17 against Dallas). Prior to 2015, he played in 31 of 32 games over his last two seasons. In the eight regular season games that Jackson did play in last season, he recorded 30 catches for 528 yards and four touchdowns; project that over the course of a 16 game season, and that’s over 1,000 yards receiving and eight touchdowns. In 2014, Jackson had 1,169 yards and six receiving touchdowns with the Redskins revolving door at quarterback; so, the questions about his level of productivity are totally baseless. Finally, Jackson might’ve griped his way out of Philadelphia, but he’s been a great teammate in Washington. He’s looked the best he has in training camps, so far, as a member of the Redskins, and he spent the entire offseason working hard at the team facility. Jackson could be in line for a pretty big season in 2016, perhaps in line with the numbers we used to see him put up in Philadelphia during his prime.

Vincent Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Similarly, another wide receiver named “Jackson” is falling to absurdly low depths in most fantasy drafts — often being taken outside of the top 45 wide receivers — because of injuries curtailing his production in 2015. Vincent Jackson put up only 33 receptions, 543 yards, and three touchdowns in 10 games last year. But, he’s come into training camp determined for a bounce-back season. Last year was the first time since 2010 when Jackson missed a single game due to injury; prior to 2015, Jackson hadn’t missed a game in four years. As a member of the Buccaneers, he was ranked among the top 15 wide receivers in the NFL each year (including 2014, in Mike Evans’ rookie season). In his first five healthy games of last season, he still had 21 catches for 306 yards and two touchdowns (extrapolated over a full season, that would be 67 receptions for 979 yards and six touchdowns). With another year of experience for Jameis Winston, and teams increasingly keying on Evans, Jackson could be in for a nice rebound season, and should be a solid WR3 for most teams.

Theo Riddck, RB, Detroit Lions — Riddick should be on the radar for everyone playing in a PPR or half-PPR this season. Entering 2015 as mostly an afterthought, Riddick finished 19th among running backs in standard PPR scoring leagues, putting him firmly in the RB2 mix. He actually led the league in receptions among running backs (80 catches), was the second most targeted running back (99 targets), had the second most receiving yards among running backs (697 yards), and tied for seventh in receiving touchdowns. Riddick is often around the 40th running back taken in PPR/half-PPR leagues, making him a total bargain for players who are savvy enough to grab him in the middle-to-late rounds of the draft.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]

FF-Winners.Com Reveals Sleeper Team of the Year 2016

One of the most under-the-radar storylines in the NFL is the way that Chicago Bears General Manager Ryan Pace has gone about renovating this roster over the last two years. They’re one of the rare teams who has set out to build a team the “right” way — building the foundation of the team through the draft, and then supplementing those building blocks with smart free agent acquisitions — and has actually stuck to the plan (at least so far).

Pace has absolutely aced his last two drafts. The Bears had one of my favorite overall crops in 2015 — they could have as many as five starters from that group: wide receiver Kevin White, defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, center Hroniss Grasu, running back Jeremy Langford, and safety Adrian Amos — and they followed that up by putting together one hell of a class this year. I’m admittedly getting a little “Vernon Gholston déjà vu” when it comes to their first round pick Leonard Floyd — people falling in love with the physical tools more than his actual football skills — but the raw tools are certainly there. The rest of the class, though, is absolutely money.

Offensive lineman Cody Whitehair (out of Kansas State) and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard (out of the University of Florida), taken in the late second and early third rounds, will contribute right away. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (4th round pick out of West Virginia University) is an undersized but athletic and rangy; at the least, he’ll provide great depth and standout special teams play. Running back Jordan Howard (5th round pick out of Indiana) is a “thunder” running back with serious pop, and could provide a really nice tag team partner to Jeremy Langford. Defensive back Deandre Houston-Carson (6th round out of William & Mary) is a small school gem that could’ve gone a couple of rounds higher. And finally, wide receiver Daniel Braverman (7th round pick out of Western Michigan) is a feisty Julian Edelman-type receiver who was crazy productive in college.

In the 2016 free agency period, the Bears might’ve made three of the shrewdest and most strategic free agent signings out of anyone. They shored shore up the middle of their defense by (very quietly) signing two of the better inside linebackers in football: Danny Trevathan (formerly of Denver) and Jerrell Freeman (formerly of Indianapolis) That just adds to a group of linebackers that already had Pernell McPhee (a fantastic free agent pickup from Baltimore last season), Lamarr Houston, and the aforementioned Floyd. Then, they signed right tackle Bobby Massie (formerly of Arizona), allowing Kyle Long to move back inside to guard, where he’s a Pro Bowl-caliber player; that one signing effectively shored them up in two positions. So, the Bears’ offensive line and the middle linebackers — two of their weaker position groups last season — could very well end up being two of their strengths.

We think they still have a few big questions that need to be answered, like whether new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains — who was promoted from quarterbacks coach — can carry on the offense that Adam Gase so masterfully ran for Chicago last season; who is going to emerge from their logjam at running back (between Jeremy Langford, Ka’Deem Carey, and rookie Jordan Howard have their strengths, but none of those guys are anything close to what Matt Forte was last season); and if their secondary can hold up (Kyle Fuller had an up-and-down year last year, and they’ve basically got nothing at cornerback behind him, nor at safety next to Amos).

Still, if things break correctly for them, this team has the potential to be dangerous. And if they continue to build this team the way they have been over the last couple of years, We think they’re a really good running back and one starting cornerback away from being a legitimate contender in the NFC.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]

FF-Winners.com’s Three Quarterbacks to Avoid in 2016-7

e

Derek Carr, Oakland Raiders — Through the first eight games of last season, Derek Carr looked like a superstar-in-the-making, throwing for 2,094 yards, 19 touchdowns, and four interceptions. Then, in the second half of the season, his stats dropped to  1893 yards, 13 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. So, the simple question is: if you draft Derek Carr next season, which version of him are you getting? With all the free agent moves the Raiders made in the offseason, there’s going to be a lot pressure on them. Teams definitely won’t overlook them, the way they might’ve in 2015. Plus, given the fact that the Raiders don’t exactly have a dynamic running game, there’s going to be even more pressure on Carr to put the offense on his shoulders. How will he respond to that pressure, considering he’s only in his third NFL season? We’re not necessarily saying you should outright “avoid” Derek Carr,  because there is a lot of upside (especially in leagues with any keeper options). But we’d be a little reluctant to bank on him as a sure-fire QB1, as he was for stretches of last season, and as many envision him being this season.

Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons — A few years ago, Matt Ryan seemed almost destined to break into the echelon of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks. But over the last three years, he’s only gone 18-30 as a starter, and his TD-to-INT ratio has dropped from 2.1 to 1.6. In 2015, he only threw for 21 touchdown passes, which was the 2nd lowest total of his career. Conversely, he also threw 16 interceptions (the second highest interception total of his career), four of which came in the red zone (the 2nd highest number in the NFL of such stat, only behind Eli Manning). Oh, and should we also mention his career-high 12 fumbles? At points last season, there were whispers of a near-mutiny by the Falcons offensive player, against Kyle Shanahan’s offensive schemes. Shanahan’s offense very much predicated on play-action passes, which isn’t something that Matt Ryan has shown a great proficiency with. Another season with bumps and hiccups in this offensive scheme won’t be good for business. At the point in the draft where you’d think about taking Matt Ryan, w’d be much more comfortable with guys like Matt Stafford (who could have a really nice season under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter), Ryan Tannehill (who could have a big bounce-back season working under Adam Gase), or even Jameis Winston (who’s come into training camp in fantastic shape, and looking to improve on a very promising rookie season).

Brock Osweiler, Denver Broncos — Brock Osweiler is currently ranked anywhere between the #20 and #25 quarterback in fantasy next season, so it’s not like people aren’t already avoiding him. But, for those of you who think that Osweiler might be “Matt Schaub 2.0” for the Texans, we wouldn’t hold your breath. In an offense in Denver that had more depth than the one he’ll be playing with in Houston, he threw for 1,967 yards passing, 10 touchdowns, and six interceptions; extrapolate that over a full season, and you’re looking at less than 4,000 yards passing and about 20 touchdowns. Neither of those are titillating numbers. Again, we realize that he’s only in the backup/QB2 discussion for nearly everyone, but even as a backup, we think you’re better off letting someone like Jay Cutler or even Ryan Fitzpatrick fall into your lap.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]

FF-Winners.com’s Three NFL Receivers to Avoid in 2016-7

we

Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers — We’re not necessarily advocating “avoiding” Cobb altogether, because we still think he’s going to have a (relatively) productive season. But,we do think he’s being a bit overdrafted in most leagues. Given the circumstances around him, we think Cobb is closer to a top end WR3, versus a WR2 that he’s often being picked as. With the return of Jordy Nelson — Aaron Rodgers’ favorite receiver — there’s just no way Cobb is going to lead the team in receptions, targets, and receiving yards next season.  On top of that, Davante Adams is going to be better (he had nagging injuries for all of 2015 which really hampered his performance), Jeff Janis has had a great camp, and so has tight end Richard Rodgers . All of those guys could siphon off production from Cobb, who was basically Rodgers’ only reliable target last season (Rodgers and James Jones did a lot of their damage based off improvisation, and James knowing exactly where to go in those circumstances). Even in PPR leagues, we would take a chance on a couple of younger receivers with high breakout potential — like DeVante Parker from Miami or Donte Moncrief from Indianapolis, both of whom are being taken after Cobb in most leagues — instead of putting a lot of eggs in the Randall Cobb basket.

Michael Crabtree, Oakland — For the first half of the 2015 season, Michael Crabtree was a total stud. In the Raiders first eight games, he had 47 receptions, 591 yards, and five touchdowns. But over the next eight games, those numbers dropped to 38 receptions, 331 yards, and four touchdowns. Going into 2016, it’s not like Crabtree is a highly coveted fantasy commodity; he’s somewhere towards the bottom end of the top 40 receivers, putting him firmly as a WR3. The problem is, wewouldn’t even take him that high. Amari Cooper — a superstar in the making — is going to take the mantle of Derek Carr’s most targeted receiver, away from Crabtree. The team is also really high on second year tight end Clive Walford (who could be a breakout star in his own right in 2016), and young-but-raw receiver Seth Roberts. For my money, we’d much rather take a chance on guys like Marvin Jones, Tyler Lockett, Torrey Smith, or Dorial Green-Beckham (all of whom are being drafted after Crabtree in most leagues). They all present much higher upside potential than Crabtree.

Josh Doctson, Washington Redskins — It happens far too often in fantasy football leagues: someone overdrafts one of the big name rookies. But, even as a Redskins fan myself, we think we should pause on chasing rookie wide receiver Josh Doctson. Don’t get me wrong: he, by many people’s accounts, might’ve been the best wide receiver prospect in this year’s draft. The problem is, he’s stuck in a situation where there are just too many other talented veteran receivers. How many targets can we really expect Doctson to see, when he has DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, tight end Jordan Reed, and even second year receiver Jamison Crowder (who the team envisions as their full-time slot receiver in three receiver sets) ahead of him? At least in year one, we think Doctoson may get some looks in the red zone, for fade pass/jump ball opportunities at most. But, consider 2015 to be his “NFL redshirt year.” In dynasty leagues, Doctson is worth an early investment, if you’re perfectly ok with the idea that there will be minimal returns early on. But in redraft leagues, we don’t think he’s worth taking very high, because we don’t think he’s even going to match the stats that some of the top 2015 rookie receivers — Amari Cooper and DeVante Parker — put up last year.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]

FF-Winners.com’s Two Running Backs To Avoid in 2016

It happens every year.  It was Eddie Lacy in 2015, Doug Martin in 2014, and CJ Spiller in 2013. Every year, someone ends up taking the high profile player that ends up absolutely tanking their fantasy team’s chances all season.

To prevent that, let’s take a look at a couple of guys to  avoid for 2016:

DeMarco Murray, RB, Tennessee Titans — He’s nowhere near as high up on draft boards this year as he’s been in years past, but in a standard scoring (non-PPR) league, we still have DeMarco Murray outside of my top 25 running backs. Consider the fact that the Eagles signed Murray to a highly lucrative $42 million contract for five years just one season ago, and were compelled enough to trade away Murray just one season later. Frankly, you can’t blame the Eagles, either. After handing Murray all that money, he responded with the lowest yards per carry of his career (3.6). He played in 15 games last season, but only had one game with over 100 yards rushing; outside of that one game, he ran for less than 85 yards in every other game. Over the last eight games of the Eagles season, Murray ran for less than 70 yards in each of them. It’s no wonder that he spent time in Chip Kelly’s proverbial doghouse, just weeks after supposedly being the centerpiece of a vaunted rushing attack that Kelly was supposed to unleash. So, again, why is it going to get any better under Mike Mularkey? The last time Mularkey was a head coach (in 2012 with the Jacksonville Jaguars), his top three running backs combined couldn’t crack 1,000 yards. In his entire NFL career Murray has only played in all 16 games for one of them (in 2014), and if (or when?) he goes down, he’s got a stable of young running backs — David Cobb (the Titans 5th round pick in 2015), Antonio Andrews (the team’s leading rusher from last year), and Derrick Henry (the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and the Titans 2nd round pick in 2016) — waiting to take his job. Stay away from Murray.

Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons — scoff as you might, just take a look at the facts. Between Weeks 3 through 7 last year, Freeman was the most productive running back in fantasy football, putting up 578 yards rushing and eight touchdowns in only five games.  But don’t let that sample size influence you too much. In the other 26 games of Freeman’s career, he’s ran for a total of 726 yards and four rushing touchdowns. His yards per carry in Week 3 through Week 7 last year was 5.3; over those other 26 games, his yards per carry drops to 3.29. Over the last eight games of the 2015 season, Freeman ran for 440 yards. In other words: he ran for 130 more yards over five weeks than he did over the last eight weeks of the season. The Falcons may have beefed up the interior of the offensive line (having signed Pro Bowl center Alex Mack), but that could just as well help running back Tevin Coleman: the guy who many thought would win the starting job last year. There’s plenty of reason to believe that Coleman could still develop into the running back that gets more carries for the Falcons, with Freeman being the change-of-pace and third down specialist running back.

[Analysis by NFL expert Rajan Nanavati]