Is Sam the Man?

Jesse Pantuosco

I don’t like to make excuses ... but here are some excuses!

An excuse for what, Jesse? You didn’t promise anything. No, but I did have a plan for this week’s article that didn’t quite come to fruition. The plan was to put on my scouting hat and report my findings on this year’s quarterback class, just like I did last year when I broke down film for Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen and Josh Allen. And while writing up a quarterback primer is still very much on my to-do list, like fellow procrastinator George R.R. Martin (I have yet to see an episode of Game of Thrones and despite the near-endless harassment I’ve received from GOT diehards, I will NOT be shamed into watching it), I haven’t quite sealed the deal. For transparency purposes, I’ve wrapped up my evaluations for Kyler Murray (an absolute blast—a Patrick Mahomes/Michael Vick hybrid in Russell Wilson’s body), Dwayne Haskins (dink-and-dunk extraordinaire) and Drew Lock (Jay Cutler reincarnated) but I still have to review Daniel Jones and, time permitting, Will Grier.

But can you really blame me for not getting anything done all weekend? You try grinding film with Tiger Woods out here performing golf miracles (if you didn’t tear up just a little when the last putt hit the cup, may God have mercy on your blackened soul), playoff hoops on day and night and Patriots Day baseball at Fenway. And that doesn’t even factor in Saturday’s joint birthday festivities with my mom, who shares the same birthday as the dark lord, Bill Belichick (mine falls on the same day as Josh Gordon, Melvin Gordon and probably a few other Gordons I’m not remembering).

So, long story short, we’re doing a mailbag. I know it’s a cop-out—I compare it to a substitute teacher popping in a movie—but I quite enjoyed it when the subs let us goof off and maybe you will too. Thanks to all of you who answered my desperate call for submissions yesterday. Here are your questions:

Can the Jets surprise people and become a Top 10 fantasy offense with Sam Darnold, Le’Veon Bell, Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, Jamison Crowder and Chris Herndon?

I don’t know about top 10, but for the first time in … well, I can’t remember how long, I’m actually looking forward to watching the Jets’ offense this year. I know a lot of you WFAN folks weren’t thrilled with the Adam Gase hire, but even if he’s not the easiest guy to get along with (nor is famously standoffish D coordinator Gregg Williams), Gase remains a trusted, up-and-coming offensive mind and should fare better at his new gig after taking his lumps in Miami the past three years. But more importantly, the Jets—who were as weapon-deficient as any offense in the league last year—have vastly improved their supporting cast with the additions of Bell and Crowder.

Bell may have hurt his reputation by spending 2018 on the couch—there were also rumors he ballooned to 260 pounds during his year away from football—but let’s not forget what a gigantic difference-maker he was before he went AWOL from Pittsburgh. And though Bell is at an age (27) where running backs often begin to show signs of decline, getting a clean slate in East Rutherford and rolling into camp with fresh legs after taking an extended breather last year, I’m fairly optimistic about his 2019 prospects. Even if he proves inefficient, which was the case during his final year in Pittsburgh (career-low 3.9 yards per carry), the Jets didn’t hand Bell $35 million guaranteed to waste him in a timeshare. Bell’s volume will be off the charts, which should endear him to fantasy owners, even ones who have heard him rap.

Darnold went through the usual rookie growing pains in 2018, which most of us expected given his gun-slinger makeup and New York’s bare-bone receiving corps. But he seemed to get better as the year went along, excluding his year-end debacle at Foxboro in Week 17. Even with his New England clunker on the books, the 21-year-old still posted an emphatic 99.1 quarterback rating with six touchdowns and just one pick over his final four games. Despite being overshadowed by Baker Mayfield and maybe to a lesser degree Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, who were both fantastic running the football last year, Darnold’s rookie season should be viewed as a net positive and he only stands to improve with the arrivals of Bell and Crowder. Those two will anchor the short passing game while downfield responsibilities will fall in the hands of Robby Anderson, who took a while to get on the same page with Darnold but flourished down the stretch by averaging 84 yards with three touchdowns over his final four appearances. I’m not sure he belongs in the upper echelon of fantasy quarterbacks just yet but given all the factors I just laid out, I’m expecting Darnold to take a big step forward in 2019.

Which rookie receiver do you think would be the best fit for the Ravens and do you think he could become a Top 25 fantasy WR with Lamar Jackson and OC Greg Roman running the show? Everyone always says wide receivers go to the Ravens to die, so I’d love to see that change.

Man, you’re sending me down a rabbit hole with this one. It’s no secret the Ravens, who waved goodbye to both John Brown and Michael Crabtree this offseason, are quite thin at the receiver position. No offense to Willie Snead or Chris Moore, but when those are your go-to pass-catchers, it might be time to restock. Lamar Jackson may as well have strapped on a leather helmet, because Baltimore turned back the clock 50 years with its offense last season, abandoning the passing game in favor of running it down teams’ throats with Jackson, Gus Edwards and Alex Collins. And it kind of worked! At least until the playoffs when the Chargers sent them home with a first-round knockout blow.

It’s like the chicken and the egg debate. Did the Ravens stop throwing because they didn’t trust their receivers or because they didn’t trust Jackson, an elite scrambler but deeply-flawed passer, to deliver them the ball? Bill Polian caught heat for insinuating that Jackson, a Heisman winner at Louisville, may not be polished enough to be a starting quarterback at the next level (he suggested a move to wide receiver, which most found insulting), but nothing he did in year one disproved him (58.2 completion percentage, 159.1 passing yards per game in seven starts).

So what do the Ravens do now? Lean into their ground prowess and pound the rock, or trust that Jackson will develop and begin to rebuild their broken pass-catching corps? I’m guessing the latter and apparently, I’m not alone in beating that drum—our own Evan Silva mocked Ole Miss standout D.K. Metcalf to the Ravens in Round 1 while Josh Norris sees Baltimore snagging Mizzou speedster Emanuel Hall in Round 3.

Assuming the Ravens prioritize wide receiver, they’ll have plenty of options. I don’t claim to be an expert on this year’s receiving class—remember, I still spend half my time covering baseball—but it seems to be a polarizing crop, especially at the top with prospects like Metcalf, an absolute freak show physically (his closest athletic comp might be Bruce Banner) but not particularly versatile, and Marquise Brown, a gifted, turbo-charged slot man who weighs only 166 pounds. I guess the question is, what kind of receiver are the Ravens looking for, or better yet, who would mesh best with Jackson? L-Jax had zero success throwing downfield last season, completing just 10-of-33 passes (30.3 percent) to deep threat Smoky Brown for 128 yards and one touchdown across seven starts. He showed better chemistry with Snead (20-for-32, 232 yards in six starts together), who operated almost exclusively out of the slot last season.

So where does that leave us? Your guess is as good as mine. Baltimore’s biggest need is clearly at outside receiver but if Brown couldn’t succeed in that role with the erratic Jackson throwing to him, can anyone? It’s worth finding out. Scouring over Kyler Murray’s game film from last year, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Marquise Brown, who many are already hailing as DeSean Jackson 2.0. If he’s there for the Ravens at 22 (Silva doesn’t think he will be), I expect he’ll be someone Baltimore would consider, particularly after hosting him for a visit earlier this week.

If Baltimore addresses another need in Round 1, slot aces N’Keal Harry and recent Rotoworld podcast guest Andy Isabella should be there for the taking on Day 2. But if the Ravens decide to get receiver out of the way early, another name to consider is D.K. Metcalf’s college teammate, A.J. Brown. While Metcalf ripped the Combine to shreds with his 4.3 speed and chiseled 6’3”/228-pound frame, Brown out-produced him handily at Ole Miss while proving capable as both a slot receiver and, after Metcalf went down with a neck injury, a perimeter weapon. And unlike the slightly-built Isabella (5’9”/188) and Hollywood Brown (5’9”/166), A.J. has some meat on his bones (6’1”/230). He might be a slight reach for the Ravens at 22 (Norris has him going to the Packers at 30th overall), but I’m definitely a fan of Brown’s all-around game. As for any of these players returning Top-25 fantasy value in year one, I’d pump the brakes on that, especially considering how run-centric the Ravens were late last season.

Let's say the Pats don't add a tight end in the draft. Who's the favorite to lead the TE room in receptions? Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Matt LaCosse, Jacob Hollister or Stephen Anderson?

What’s a mailbag without a Patriots question? The Pats claim they didn’t know of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement plans but putting on the full-court press for Jared Cook, who wound up signing with New Orleans, suggests they probably had an inkling. Noah Fant, the consensus No. 2 tight end in this year’s draft behind his Iowa teammate T.J. Hockenson, paid a visit to Foxboro last week and would certainly be of interest to the Pats if he makes it to the end of the first round (Norris and Silva both have him going earlier). But if Fant doesn’t make it to 32, I’d peg ASJ as the likely starter.

Cook would have been a nice pickup for the Pats, but Seferian-Jenkins was a strong pivot, especially this late in free agency. Obviously ASJ has never come close to reaching the expectations placed on him as a second-round pick in 2014—injuries and substance abuse issues ruined his brief tenure with Tampa Bay—but a change of scenery in Foxboro could be just what the doctor ordered. Last year in Jacksonville was essentially a wash for Seferian-Jenkins, who missed all but five games due to a core injury, but he was reasonably productive for the Jets in 2017, corralling a career-best 50 catches on 74 targets, most coming from the ancient arm of Josh McCown. Tom Brady is even more ancient but he’s also a living legend and easily the best quarterback Seferian-Jenkins has ever aligned himself with.

Assuming Gronkowski stays retired (we’ll address that in a minute), the door should be wide open for Seferian-Jenkins to not only start but establish himself as a legitimate cog in an offense that isn’t exactly flush with pass-catchers. ASJ has his shortcomings—he’s a catch-and-fall specialist in the vein of Jason Witten and never stays healthy. But even with those flaws, he’s still the preferred option over LaCosse, who graded out as PFF’s No. 53 tight end last season (that was out of 70 qualifiers), Anderson, who spent most of last year on New England’s practice squad and Hollister, who has logged all of 152 snaps since arriving as an undrafted rookie in 2017.

Do you think Gronk comes back?

Do we really want Gronk to come back? Oh who am I kidding, of course we do. I know we all got a kick out of calling Gronkowski washed up last year but he remained a dominant blocker and, even with three absences, finished sixth among tight ends with 682 receiving yards. He also bailed the Patriots out repeatedly in the playoffs by delivering insane catches in wins over Kansas City and Los Angeles. 2018 wasn’t vintage Gronk by any means, but a declining, half-speed Gronkowski is still better than every tight end not named Travis Kelce, George Kittle or Zach Ertz.

That’s my long-winded way of saying that Gronkowski, who turns 30 in a few weeks, can absolutely still play at a high level. It’s telling that his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, entertained the possibility of a mid-season return if Tom Brady gave Gronk “a call.” Skipping the grind of training camp and showing up just in time for the start of another Patriots Super Bowl run could be appealing to Gronkowski, but I really do think last year was his NFL swan song. Let’s not forget the five-time Pro Bowler almost called it quits after 2017 and has seemingly spent every moment of his NFL career on New England’s injury report. Twenty-nine is young in the grand scheme of life, but not for an NFL tight end. Save for cashing a few more checks, what would Gronk really stand to gain by playing another year besides further damaging his long-term health? He’s a surefire Hall of Famer who went out with a championship in his final NFL game. What could beat that?