We finally have a cap on the 2020 NFL season, the strangest year of our lives. Let me unpack three Kansas City/Tampa Bay things as we get ready for free agency and the draft.
Can Kansas City find its third pitch?
Although Kansas City played its worst game of the year at the worst possible time, there’s no escaping that this offense remains fantasy royalty. Travis Kelce produced the second-best fantasy tight end season of all time (Rob Gronkowski’s 2011 slots higher, in part because of 17 touchdowns). Tyreek Hill was the WR2, Patrick Mahomes the QB4. You draft these guys, set-and-forget these guys, and usually, Sunday is a blast.
But Kansas City never found a reliable third skill option in this offense — to mesh with Kelce and Hill — and it held the team back at times. Sammy Watkins was hurt most of the year, and ineffective when on the field. Mecole Hardman suffered sophomore year growing pains and had some communication breakdowns in the Super Bowl (they certainly tried to get him involved). Clyde Edwards-Helaire snuck into the first round of ADP after Damien Williams opted out in the summer, but CEH was more MEH for most of his inconsistent rookie year.
Edwards-Helaire could be an interesting 2021 fantasy pick, assuming the expected ADP discount applies. He battled several injuries in 2020, and there’s nothing wrong with a 4.4 yards per carry mark. CEH had struggles running at the goal line, and it was disappointing to see him manage just 5.5 yards per target, but young players are allowed to have a learning curve. Several first-year backs stepped up their game in the final third of 2020; perhaps Edwards-Helaire would have been in that group, had a few things fallen right. Let’s keep an open mind here.
Hardman’s blinding speed seems downright unfair at times, considering the Chiefs already have Hill jetting past everybody. But Hardman is still learning the nuances of the position. He ran at least one wrong route in the early stages of the Super Bowl loss, and his hands have been a recurring problem. Andy Reid seemed to solve Hardman’s case later in the season when the team started giving Hardman the ball with more manufactured touches — handoffs, short shuffle passes, that sort of thing. Hardman still looks like more of a best-ball flyer than a consistent seasonal target, but it’s hard to forget how electric he looks after the ball gets in his hands.
Bottom line, any offense with Mahomes and Reid is a destination offense for us. But we’d like one more toy to play with, please.
What becomes of Mike Evans, goal-line god?
Although Mike Evans was coming off a strong WR8 season in 2019, conventional wisdom had him as a summer fade. Evans made a good living getting downfield and gobbling targets, thriving in the carnival, daring world of Jameis Winston. Surely a 43-year-old Tom Brady would prefer a safer, more conservative plan, perhaps without a true favorite receiver. And could Brady even make the downfield throws, if asked?
What we eventually saw was a reinvented Evans for 2020. He only collected 109 targets, by far a career-low, and his YPC dropped almost three yards from the final Winston season. But Evans also snagged a career-best 13 touchdowns, in part because the Buccaneers turned him into the designated touchdown guy at the goal line.
Evans had a modest 18 touchdowns inside the 10-yard line in the first six years of his career. He scored nine of these short-haul TDs in 2020. Twice Brady hit Evans from the 1-yard line, they clicked two more times from the 2-yard line, and a third touchdown came from three yards out.
These short scores reflect the quick bond formed between Brady and Evans, and Evans’s ability to win in tight, contested areas. But let’s be honest — it’s not like Chris Godwin can’t win on those sorts of plays, or Gronkowski, or even secondary options like Cameron Brate. Tampa Bay also has two up-and-coming young receivers in Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson.
I blink for a second, and I forget Antonio Brown was on this team. Yeah, he’s pretty good, too.
Tampa’s usage tree is in a state of flux. Godwin, Brown, and Leonard Fournette are among the free agents on this team, and it’s not obvious who is coming back and who is departing. Gronkowski already has one retirement on his resume, so let’s not consider him a sure thing, either.
Back to Evans. We probably need to consider the Plexiglass Principle, the timeless concept of regression. His targets should increase next year, but the touchdown rate surely is dropping down. Evans is going to have talented teammates, even if we can’t specifically list them at the moment, and that also complicates things. Although Evans occupied WR1 real estate for most of 2020, he makes more sense as a WR2 next year. The second round looks a tad too optimistic, the third round probably just right.
Consider Tampa Bay’s offense an open ticket that we’ll revisit. There are lots of moving parts here.
Head to the Window: The Year of the Underdog
For a while, you couldn’t make the spread high enough against the Chiefs. They started the year on a tidy 6-2 run against the number, including a 35-9 win over the Jets on Nov. 1, covering a minus-20 spread.
After that, Kansas City became a constant source of frustration for their backers. Including the playoffs, the Chiefs skidded to a 1-9-1 finish in their final 11 games.
Oftentimes it was a matter of racing out to a big lead and then stumbling to the finish. The first Kansas City-Tampa Bay game looked like a blowout — the Bucs had a late rally, lost by three. Miami’s cover in Week 14 was a backdoor special all the way. In some weeks, it took the offense a while to get started. In some other games, Kansas City’s ordinary defense couldn’t get enough stops to cash a ticket.
Mahomes, of course, got hurt in the Divisional Playoff win over Cleveland. And Week 17 probably shouldn’t count — Reid sat several critical players in that meaningless game.
Maybe we just have to crown the underdogs as the true winners of NFL 2020. Including the Super Bowl, underdog tickets cashed 56.3 percent of the time (150 wins, 116 losses, three ties).
Dogs were barking, man.