Last week, we hit you with a Schein Nine of players facing a make-or-break season in 2021. And some names on that list -- like Sam Darnold, Carson Wentz and Ezekiel Elliott -- are guys whom I still have plenty of faith in. This got me thinking ...
Which players do I remain bullish on, despite mounting skepticism due to injury, age and/or subpar performance? Who are the depressed stocks I'm still buying?
After batting around candidates with my editorial staff, here are nine players I very much still believe in, doubters be damned!
I will not stand for Matt Ryan slander on my watch! The 13-year veteran has carved out a borderline Hall of Fame career. I'm not fitting him for a gold jacket quite yet, but the guy's a gem. Just look how he's handled adversity from Day 1 in Atlanta, deftly taking the reins of an organization that was reeling from Mike Vick's dogfighting conviction and guiding the Falcons to an 11-5 playoff season as a rookie. Since then, he's made four Pro Bowls and punched a postseason ticket five more times, despite suspect coaching and subpar defense. If the Falcons hadn't blown that 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI, Ryan's MVP campaign of 2016 would be celebrated as one of the greatest single seasons ever for a quarterback. All in all, as the face of the franchise, he's handled everything with grace and aplomb. It wasn't his fault Arthur Blank waited so long to finally fire Dan Quinn, who held the team back for years. And despite Atlanta's 4-12 record in 2020, I thought Ryan was strong again, completing 65 percent of his throws for 4,581 yards and 26 touchdowns (against 11 picks). Don't forget: That was with Julio Jones missing nearly half the season!
With all that in mind, how could you not remain bullish on Ryan in 2021? Especially considering the new man at the controls. Arthur Smith is a fantastic offensive mind who did wonders for Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry in Tennessee. I'm extremely excited to see what he can do with Ryan and Co.
Don't make the same mistake the Packers made last year, prematurely -- and haphazardly -- spending a first-round pick on a quarterback-in-waiting. Instead, why don't you take the best overall player in the draft, Florida tight end Kyle Pitts? I wouldn't be opposed to trading down for significant draft capital, but man, a pass-catching trio of Jones, Calvin Ridley and Pitts ... With that kind of weaponry, Smith and Ryan -- who has several more great seasons left in the tank -- could put some big-time numbers on the board.
I love this cat. It's truly a shame he's been so bedeviled by injuries. In James' one healthy season -- his rookie campaign of 2018 -- you could make the case he was the best safety in the sport. He earned first-team All-Pro honors, stuffing the stat sheet with 98 tackles, 13 passes defensed, six QB hits, 3.5 sacks and three picks. He was a true defensive chess piece, a problem opposing offenses had to scheme around. I want to watch that guy again! And I'm not betting against him. This is a true alpha dog who's still just 24 years old. I can't wait to see how new head coach/defensive wizard Brandon Staley deploys this hybrid terror in his modern scheme.
Wrap Derwin in bubble tape this summer, Chargers, and let's see the man rock and roll again while leading the Bolts to the playoffs this fall. He's that special of a leader, talent and playmaker.
Some people are nuts. You cannot bail on Tua after one season. Yes, I would've drafted Justin Herbert over Tua. That's a sentiment I expressed throughout last year's pre-draft process -- and Herbert obviously proved his worth by taking home Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. He's a star. But I still liked Tua then -- and I remain a fan now.
Tua made national headlines earlier this year when he told me that his rookie campaign was "below average." I can appreciate someone who's his own toughest critic, but Tagovailoa was wrong there. His first year in the NFL was ... normal. There were moments of excellence and spells of ineptitude. He looked advanced beyond his years in certain circumstances and completely overwhelmed in others. It was typical. But overall, he flashed a strong and accurate arm, savvy, leadership and athleticism. He went 6-3 as a starter, operating with a surrounding offensive cast that certainly left something to be desired. And that's why I'm thrilled to see what the No. 5 overall pick looks like in Year 2.
In addition to recovering from a serious hip injury last offseason, Tagovailoa's rookie ramp-up was significantly limited by the COVID-19 pandemic abbreviating all team activities. Now he gets a full offseason of preparation. Now he gets free-agent signee Will Fuller blowing the top off defenses. And we haven't even gotten to the draft, where Miami can plug numerous holes with four top-50 picks. Another pass catcher? Sure! A hulking pass protector? Why not?! Fresh legs in the backfield? Miami can get it all at the end of this month.
I absolutely believe Tua will be a very good starting quarterback for Brian Flores, someone who can lead Miami to the playoffs this year.
Last season certainly didn't go as planned for Ngakoue. He didn't want to be part of the Jaguars' teardown, stayed away from the team facility and was traded to Minnesota right before the season. But after the Vikings started the year at 1-5, they cut their losses and sent Ngakoue to Baltimore. And it just never really clicked with the Ravens. Sure, that's somewhat alarming, considering how fine a franchise Baltimore is, with premium coaching and roster construction. But still, Ngakoue has racked up at least eight sacks in every year of his NFL career -- including last season!
If Ngakoue had spent his first four years in a bigger market than Jacksonville, his fine play would've been celebrated far more. Raider Nation will take of that. Tearing off the edge with that cross-chop move, Ngakoue's exactly what the doctor ordered in Las Vegas. The Raiders ranked 29th in sacks last season with just 21 total. Still squarely in his prime at age 26, Ngakoue is the QB hunter Jon Gruden and Co. sorely needed.
I know Mack is getting up there in age. Related: I just don't care. He's still a tremendous center and invaluable leader. Plus, Mack signed with San Francisco to play for Kyle Shanahan, the coach whose offense he starred in with the Falcons in 2015 and '16, earning Pro Bowl honors each year.
"I know it's a system I can be really good in. It's an offense I know I could excel at," Mack told the assembled press after signing with the 49ers in March. "So it was, to me, a very good fit between a good team in a good spot with a good coaching staff and some place that I can be a good player in.
"That outside-zone scheme, it's just something that -- my body type, how I can move, the blocks I've done before -- it's something I'm comfortable with. I know I'm good at it."
I know he's good at it, too. And thus, I believe there's plenty of gas left in the tank for Mack to play at a very high level.
I argued for years that Green was en route to the Hall of Fame. The man eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards in six of his first seven pro campaigns. The last two years derailed that conversation, though, starting when Green injured his ankle practicing with the team at the University of Dayton. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported at the time that the field conditions were considered "subpar," a sentiment other Bengals receivers echoed. The injury ended up costing the wide receiver the entire 2019 campaign, and his relationship with Cincy seemed to sour. It was like he caught the Bengals flu. I think that ailment would've subsided if he'd been moved before last year's trade deadline, as was widely speculated, but he wasn't.
In March, though, Arizona signed Green on a one-year, prove-it deal, and I think he'll do just that: prove it. He's going to love life in the desert, with Kliff Kingsbury calling the plays and Kyler Murray throwing him the football. At age 32, he still has plenty to offer in an Air Raid attack. Time to get back on track to Canton!
It goes noted that Arizona was wonderfully aggressive all offseason, trying to win big in 2021. And yet, the Cardinals said goodbye to Peterson. His decade in Arizona was superb, setting him on a track to Canton. Ask any contemporary at corner or opponent at receiver about Pat Pete, and you'll get a glowing review. The guy was the best, a rare shutdown corner who traveled with the opposition's top target. But given his age, Arizona's roster makeup and the salary cap, it was just time for the two sides to part ways.
I love where Peterson landed, though.
On a one-year deal in Minnesota -- with a solid front seven in front of him, as well as a head coach in Mike Zimmer who has a PhD in defensive backs -- Peterson will enjoy one more ride in the sun. Not to mention, he'll serve as a valuable mentor to the Vikings' corner group.
Sure, I'm the guy who dubbed Goff a double agent last season, given his knack for giving the ball to the other team. (After all, the guy killed the Rams with 13 turnovers in November and December of last year.) And yes, I'm the guy who thinks Matthew Stafford was a clear upgrade for the Rams at quarterback. But let's not turn Goff into absolute trash.
In the months since the blockbuster trade between the Rams and Lions, it seems like the narrative around Goff has unfairly revised the quarterback's NFL history. Like he always remained that rookie who significantly struggled under Jeff Fisher. Don't forget that he made a pair of Pro Bowls and started a Super Bowl. Don't forget that he outdueled Patrick Mahomes in a thrilling, 54-51 victory on Monday Night Football.
Goff hit the expiration date under Sean McVay in L.A. I think he will be better with a change of scenery. It surely goes noted that Brad Holmes was with the Rams forever, got the Lions GM job and immediately traded for Goff. I don't think Goff's a star or elite, but I truly believe he is a solid starting quarterback in the NFL.
When Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis gave up an extra first-round pick to move up and snag Davenport back in 2018, I called it the YOLO draft. Since then, we've seen stretches of immense promise from the edge rusher, but a multitude of injuries have continually undermined his growth. Still, the 24-year-old has plenty of believers left in the building.
"Marcus is a physically blessed athlete that has shown flashes of how good he could be when healthy," Saints star Cameron Jordan said, via ESPN. "This year will be the year to affirm that the flashes he has shown already can be a constant."
The Saints certainly need that to be the case, having lost Trey Hendrickson, Sheldon Rankins and Malcom Brown from the defensive front. And with Drew Brees off to the broadcast booth, New Orleans needs to win games on defense now more than ever. Davenport still has the skills to make it happen. I'm hopping on Cam Jordan's hype train!