We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
The second edition of “Space Jam,” starring LeBron James, is set to be released on July 16. It would be surprising if the plot doesn’t closely resemble the original: Earth will be jeopardized by savage alien creatures and the only hope to save the human race is by winning a game of basketball.
This presents an intriguing theoretical situation that can be applied to America’s true greatest sport: football. What team would Earth put out on the field if forced to defend the planet from some weird group of aliens?
We’ll set some ground rules to start:
- This scenario is happening on July 16, 2021, so current injuries apply. Thus: My sincerest apologies go out to Saquon Barkley and A.J. Brown, among others.
- The game will be the usual 11-on-11 format with proceeds donated to charity (if, you know, Earth doesn’t get destroyed).
- Aliens were pretty short on overall numbers in the original Space Jam, so the roster size will be restricted to just the 11 starters (God is turning in-game injuries and stamina off for this one). Guys will have to play both ways, which is tough, but we’re also defending the planet here, so deal with it?
- Not many, if any, penalty flags will be thrown. The aliens aren’t jerks; they’ll line up properly and get the snap off before the play clock runs out. Still, the official’s lives may very well cease to exist if they piss off the aliens; don’t expect many ticky-tack holding calls on either side.
- The squad will be coached by Dan Campbell. He’s the only choice for a situation like this.
Without further ado: the 11 players that Earth should roster if the aliens invade and require us to play a football game to save the planet.
The Chiefs’ Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers marked the first time Mahomes lost by more than eight points since November 19, 2016. Please don’t confuse this L with Mahomes being the problem.
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) February 8, 2021
The only question is whether or not Mahomes can avoid being a massive liability on the defensive side of the ball. Both Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen would feasibly provide a bit more value as defenders, although Mahomes (6-foot-3 and 230 pounds) might possess enough beef to blend in as a linebacker. Would he be effective? Almost certainly not, but remember 1.) God turned in-game injuries off, and 2.) this is an advanced alien species; there’s a decent chance they realized running the ball is a silly endeavor a long time ago.
Henry might actually be an alien — just take a look at his offseason workout routine. There are some pass-game concerns, but Henry should be able to focus on running and blocking with the firepower this squad has at receiver. His status as a 6-foot-3 and 247-pound monster should make the transition to defense more smooth compared to most other backs. With all due respect to Nick Chubb’s status as potentially the best pure rusher in the NFL, Henry gives this squad an unmatched intimidation factor at the running back position.
Speed kills, and nobody has more of it than Hill. It makes sense to give Mahomes his No. 1 receiver, and nobody would be surprised if the Chiefs’ field-stretching stud can function as an above-average cornerback.
The wild card of the equation is Hill as this offense’s running back. We’re focusing more on defensive linemen than offensive linemen due to the former group generally possessing a better theoretical ability to play both ways in an environment that isn’t calling consistent holding penalties. Because of this, Henry could slide in as the fifth offensive linemen on passing downs, leaving Hill to be utilized as the absurd offensive weapon that he’s been since entering the league.
Tyreek Hill is the best running back on the Chiefs pic.twitter.com/c8PKJ50DO9
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 19, 2021
Like Henry, there’s a decent chance Metcalf is technically considered an alien by Earth’s worldwide athletic commission. If not, he’ll form the most-lethal field-stretching combo football has ever seen alongside Hill. There’s also plenty to like about Metcalf as a potential safety considering his ability to run down pretty much anybody. While there’s an argument to be made that someone like Derwin James or Tyrann Mathieu would be better off in a two-way environment like this, Earth’s best chance is to win an absolute shootout, and Metcalf gives this offense the sort of big-play ability it will need to overcome the odds.
The veteran of the squad, Jones might be 32 years of age, but his efficiency numbers were as good as ever in 2020:
- PFF receiving grade: 86.4 (No. 11 among 84 WRs with 50-plus targets in 2020)
- Yards per reception: 15.1 (tied for No. 15)
- WR rating: 131.5 (No. 6)
- Yards per route run: 2.6 (No. 4)
Guys like Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs and DeAndre Hopkins might have a word when it comes to who is the better wide receiver at this very point in time; just realize there’s no argument in regards to which player has shown more ability to play defense at a high level. Offense takes priority here, but Jones’ mixtape of tackles is enough to give him the tiebreaker over those aforementioned big names.
Don't let that D.K. Metcalf chasedown distract you from the fact that Julio Jones is best WR-turned-defender in da leaguepic.twitter.com/FjHxMRtQ4q
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) October 26, 2020
Kittle, like Julio, wins his borderline tiebreaker with Travis Kelce and Darren Waller thanks to his better all-around ability. This isn’t meant to suggest Kittle is anything other than a great receiver: Only Davante Adams (2.96) averaged more yards per route run than Kittle (2.84) last season. Rather, Kittle’s status as a savage run blocker and borderline maniac in general (I mean that in the nicest way possible) makes him a better candidate to spell as the fifth offensive lineman while also providing some goodness as a linebacker.
The only offensive lineman on the squad, Nelson has repeatedly shown the ability to offer far more high-end athleticism than your usual big ugly. There’s also just the simple reality that nobody is nastier at the point of attack. Nelson will probably have to play center in this offense, but that shouldn’t be too big of an obstacle for the odds-on favorite as the single-best interior offensive lineman in the league. It remains to be seen just how good Nelson will be on defense, although he should at least fetch his fair share of single blocks by playing next to our next player.
PFF’s highest-graded interior defender since 2014:
- 2020: Donald (94.2)
- 2019: Donald (93.6)
- 2018: Donald (94.8)
- 2017: Donald (94.4)
- 2016: Donald (92.6)
- 2015: Donald (92.9)
- 2014: Donald (90.2)
Madness. You know who Earth should want on the defensive line when matched up against an extraterrestrial species? Probably the guy that trains with knives (haters will say it’s fake). It’s also fairly easy to imagine Donald thriving as an offensive guard without having to worry about holding penalties. I almost feel bad for the aliens.
Sticking with the theme of prioritizing defensive linemen over most offensive linemen: Mack offers the sort of presence as a pure beast to cause issues on both sides of the ball. PFF’s highest-ranked edge defender ahead of the 2021 season, Mack trails only J.J. Watt and Donald in PFF WAR since 2011 among all defensive linemen. This sort of consistent dominance as a pass rusher against the aliens' likely pass-happy offense is crucial; Mack will be able to pin his ears back while seeing fewer double teams than ever before.
It doesn’t make sense that a man Garrett’s size can move as well as he does. Just take a look at the dude’s offseason basketball highlights. Garrett is the sort of elite talent that should be on the short list of potential 2021 defensive MVP candidates: His ceiling is that high. We’re thus looking at the following guys on the offensive and defensive lines:
- Offensive tackle/edge rusher: Garrett
- Offensive guard/edge rusher: Mack
- Center/defensive tackle: Nelson
- Offensive guard/defensive tackle: Donald
- Offensive tackle/linebacker: Henry/Kittle
I don’t like it; I love it.
Our final pick will be asked to travel with the aliens' No. 1 receiver for the duration of the game. The Rams haven’t always asked Ramsey to shadow the opposition’s WR1; just realize he was generally nothing short of fantastic when asked to do so over the past two seasons. Note that the following statistics reference each receiver’s performance against Ramsey specifically, not their full-game box score:
- Metcalf (x4): 2-28-0, 4-38-0, 4-45-1, 5-69-0
- Jones: 4-69-0
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: 3-44-0
- Allen Robinson: 0-0-0
- Amari Cooper: 0-0-0
- Mike Evans: 4-40-0
- Davante Adams: 4-28-1
- DeAndre Hopkins: 4-27-0
Ramsey hasn’t exactly racked up big plays with the ball in his hands over the years, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of making big plays as a receiver.
Honorable mention: Bobby Wagner was on my initial list before I decided to prioritize offense and slide Julio into the starting lineup. … Derwin James is the sort of all-around stud that is worthy of this “honor”; the only question is whether or not he’s healthy enough to handle this sort of task at the moment. … Nick Chubb would be the RB2 if we had one. The only reason he’s not the RB1 is because Henry seems more likely to have alien blood in him. … Trent Williams would be a fine pick for a legit offensive tackle if we felt like prioritizing offensive linemen over defensive linemen. … Fred Warner would be a quality pick as a linebacker/running back hybrid if we felt like going more defense heavy. … I won’t disagree with the idea that Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson could be better two-way players than Mahomes, but ultimately give me the best quarterback alive. … Friendly reminder Cordarrelle Patterson is the best kick returner in NFL history (kicks, not punts, chill out Devin Hester fans). … Chase Young could make this list sooner rather than later if his rookie season winds up being just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he’s capable of achieving on the football field. … Devin White has the sort of absurd top-end speed to theoretically thrive as a two-way player. … Tyrann Mathieu’s punt return highlights at LSU are borderline erotic; I won’t disagree with anyone who wants to find a way to get Honey Badger on the field. … Tom Brady deserves some love, because he’s Tom Brady, but it’s hard to imagine him providing any sort of resistance on defense.