Steven Lourie

Aug 152015
 

Quarterback

I saved the Patriots for last intentionally and it’s not because I was trying to save the best for last with the defending Super Bowl champion. I did that because I wanted to maximize the odds that I’d be writing this preview at a point when Tom Brady’s status for the first 4 games wouldn’t be up in the air. That proved to be impossible. Brady was suspended for 4 games in early May after a supposedly independent report from Ted Wells suggested it was more likely than not that Patriot employees intentionally altered the air pressure of the AFC Championship balls to a non-legal level and that Tom Brady more likely than not knew about this. The team also lost their 1st and 4th round picks in 2016 and was fined a million dollars.

The Patriots chose not to appeal the team punishment, but Brady appealed this suspension in June. That didn’t go well because Commissioner Roger Goodell served as the arbitrator. Goodell announced in July that he was upholding the suspension, causing Tom Brady’s legal team to sue in federal court. Legal proceedings have been swift and it sounds like the case will be resolved before the start of the season, with both sides due in court multiple times before then. However, as of this writing, there is some percentage chance between 0% and 100% that Tom Brady will miss the first 4 games of the season with suspension and we don’t know what that percentage is, making it very tough to do a season preview for them.

Before I get into what a possible Brady suspension would mean for this team, I want to take a look at Brady’s case. Brady’s side is likely to argue a number of things. First, they are going to argue that the Ted Wells report is not as independent as it claims to be, because of Ted Wells’ personal relationship with league executives, and they will try to back up this claim with evidence of missed steps in the investigative process by Wells. They will also argue that Goodell didn’t have the ability under the CBA to delegate the handing down of the suspension to league executive Troy Vincent, which then allowed Goodell to be a “neutral” arbitrator on this case.

Brady’s best argument is that there is nothing in the rules, nor any precedent, that allows for a player to be suspended for an equipment violation like this, as the rules only mention a fine as a punishment. In the past with similar equipment violations, the punishment has only been a fine. The NFL will argue that a suspension was still warranted because of the Patriots’ history of skirting the rules and because Brady seemingly didn’t fully cooperate with the investigation because he didn’t turn his phone over. However, Brady was never implicated at all in Spygate, never receiving as much as a fine or even a warning from the NFL. As for Brady’s refusal to turn over his cell phone, the NFL doesn’t have subpoena powers and cannot force a player to turn over their cell phone. Under the advice of his lawyers not to set a bad precedent, Brady refused to turn over his physical phone.

There’s undoubtedly more to both sides of the story than we know, but it seems like the NFL once again mishandled player discipline. The NFL has had little luck with their suspensions standing when ruled on by an independent 3rd party over the past, especially in federal court. The NFL lost their case against Jonathan Vilma and the rest of the BountyGate players, their case against Ray Rice, their case against Greg Hardy, and their case against with Adrian Peterson, with all four suspensions getting nullified immediately.

Antonio Cromartie, of the rival New York Jets, made the point well publicly this week that he’s on Tom Brady’s side because he doesn’t feel like the Commissioner being allowed to make up his own rules on discipline is a precedent that any player should want to see happen and, as much as Brady being suspended 4 games would help the Jets’ playoff chances, fairness is more important. This opinion seems to be shared by the rest of the league because, while 72% of NFL players believe Brady and the Patriots to be guilty, only 16% are upset by it, 68% say that they think other teams do the same thing, and 58% do not consider the Patriots cheaters. On top of that, 78% of players consider Brady’s punishment too harsh and a whopping 88% of players do not think that Roger Goodell should be handling player discipline. While the circumstantial evidence does suggest that Brady at least knew about this and didn’t put a stop to it, I think it’s hard to argue that, in fairness under league rules, he deserves to miss a quarter of the regular season.

It remains to be seen how many games Tom Brady will be allowed to play this season, but, in the long-term, the debate over DeflateGate will be a legacy one, about whether or not this and Spygate lessen Brady’s legacy. I don’t believe it does. Taking some air out of the ball and being able to watch recorded public practices certainly doesn’t hurt a player’s ability to perform, but he’s hardly the only player to bend the rules, as evidenced by those polls and as several others have admitted this off-season, including Hall of Famer Jerry Rice, and if you think those are the reasons why Brady has been successful in his career, you don’t understand the game.

If Brady struggles by his standards on the field this season, it won’t be because the ball now has the minimum amount of air in it, instead of slightly less than the minimum amount. It’ll be because he’s going into his age 38 season and, depending on the result of his lawsuit, because he missed 4 games to start the season and it threw off his rhythm. In 7 healthy seasons (excluding 2008) since Pro Football Focus’ start in 2007, Brady has graded out 2nd (2007), 11th (2009), 8th (2010), 3rd (2011), 2nd (2012), 6th (2013), and 4th (2014). Brady looked to be on the slight decline in 2013 and to start 2014, but turned it around in a big way mid-season last season, en route to his 4th Super Bowl.

He’ll be missed for sure if the suspension is upheld. Jimmy Garappolo excites a lot of people long-term, but, as of right now, he’s an inexperienced 2nd year quarterback who went in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft and whose limited NFL success has mostly come on the practice field and during the pre-season. Garappolo has completed 19 of 27 career regular season attempts for 182 yards, a touchdown, and no picks, flashing, but doing so in very, very limited, mostly meaningless action. He’d be an obvious downgrade from Tom Brady.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Regardless of who is under center, tight end Rob Gronkowski figures to be a monster offensive weapon for them. It’s possible that, with Brady aging, Gronkowski has become their most important offensive player. He’ll obviously need to stay healthy though as, at this point last year, he was coming back from a torn ACL and was a serious injury concern. When he had January 2014 surgery on that knee, it was his 7th surgery since November 2012, including 5 on a twice broken arm, and one on his back.

When Gronk was limited to 7 games in 2013, only 3 of those 9 missed games were because of the torn ACL, as he missed 6 games to start the season with arm and back problems. Throw in a significant high ankle sprain that limited him severely in the Super Bowl after the 2011 season and the fact that his back problems dated back to his collegiate days at the University of Arizona, when he missed an entire season with a back injury, and you had a guy that, even only going into his age 25 season, looked like damaged goods and someone who might never be the same again.

Instead, Gronk was Pro Football Focus’ best tight end by a wide margin in 2014, winning Comeback Player of the Year in the process. He finished 15th in the NFL in receiving yards and had 116 more yards than Greg Olsen, who was 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards this season. That was despite the fact that he wasn’t 100% to start the season, catching just 13 passes for 147 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season, and despite the fact that he didn’t play in a meaningless week 17 game for precautionary reasons. That means that Gronk had an 11 game stretch in which he caught 69 passes for 977 yards and 9 touchdowns from the tight end spot. The Patriots moved the chains at an 80.87% rate in those 11 games (and went 10-1), as opposed to 65.47% in their other 5 games (2-3), propelling them to finish 6th in the league on the season in rate of moving the chains.

Gronk made it through the whole season injury free and was nothing less than he’s always been when on the field, possibly the most valuable offensive skill position player in the NFL (excluding quarterbacks). He’s caught 294 passes for 4231 yards and 49 touchdowns in his last 57 games and he averages 2.41 yards per route run in his 5 year career. For comparison, Jimmy Graham averages just 2.08 yards per route run over that same time period and Gronkowski is a significantly better blocker. He’s easily the top tight end in the league.

In games where Gronk plays over the past 4 years (since Gronk’s 2011 breakout year), Tom Brady completes 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 114 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions, including playoffs. When Gronk doesn’t play, over that stretch of time, Brady completes 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions. That’s a significant dropoff in production and there’s enough sample size on both sides to confidently attribute a lot of the difference in Brady’s production to the big tight end. Gronkowski has made Brady look better than he is over the past few years and he can do the same for Garappolo, to some extent. He’s 100% injury wise right now, but, if he were to get hurt again, it would be devastating for this offense.

Top wide receivers Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are not nearly as good and could see a serious statistical dropoff in the first 4 games of the season if Brady doesn’t play, something that could continue if Brady isn’t quite his old self upon return. Edelman has put up solid numbers over the past 2 seasons, putting up a 105/1056/6 slash line in 2013 and a 92/972/4 slash line last season and even graded out 34th among eligible wide receivers in 2013. However, he graded out below average in 2014 and prior to 2014 he was a 2009 7th round pick who had played 930 career snaps and missed 16 games with injury. I’m not trying to diminish his development, but he’s a marginal starting wide receiver whose recent production is largely the result of Tom Brady. He’s younger than Wes Welker and better than he would have been, but he’s a poor man’s version of Welker in his prime at best.

LaFell put up decent numbers in 2014 as well, putting up a 74/953/7 slash line and grading out 33rd among eligible wide receivers. However, he too benefitted from playing with Brady. Prior to last season, he never really played that well, as the 2010 3rd round pick caught 167 passes for 2385 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2010-2013, proving to be a marginal receiver at best, averaging 1.36 yards per route run, including just 1.18 yards per route run in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade in 2013 and below average in 3 of 4 seasons. He’s a marginal starting receiver as result and one who will have trouble repeating the best season of his career in 2015. LaFell and Edelman are decent and complement each other well, but they’re an underwhelming pair of starting wide receivers.

Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola will compete for the #3 receiver job. After the Patriots lost Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez two off-seasons ago, they brought in Amendola and Dobson to replenish their receiving corps and essentially act as Edelman and LaFell did last season. Amendola got a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar contract, while Aaron Dobson was a 2nd round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Neither of them lived up to expectations, allowing an opening for Edelman to breakout as a starting caliber player and causing the Patriots to sign LaFell to play opposite him.

Amendola was forced to take a pay cut down to 2.25 million for the 2015 season and, owed 5.5 million non-guaranteed in 2016, is likely in his final season in New England. Amendola graded out above average in 2013, but played just 581 snaps in 12 games thanks to injuries. He was healthy for all 16 games in 2014, but struggled mightily, grading out 93rd among 110 eligible wide receivers on just 466 snaps. He did play decent down the stretch though, catching 27 passes for 242 yards and 3 touchdowns in the final 7 games of the season, including the playoffs.

That gave the Patriots hope that Amendola could bounce back in 2015 and become the player who averaged 2.04 yards per route run in 2012 with the Rams, which is why the Patriots brought him back. However, he’s an injury prone player (24 games missed in the last 4 seasons), who is going into his age 30 season, who has never played more than 679 snaps in a season (dating back to going undrafted in the 2008 NFL Draft), and who hasn’t had a good season since 2012. He could win the #3 receiver job, but I don’t see him having a fantastic year or anything. Dobson, meanwhile, graded out 98th among 111 eligible wide receivers on 557 snaps as a rookie and then was limited to 57 nondescript snaps in 2014 by injuries. He’s recovered from those injuries and has drawn positive reviews in practice, but he’s on his last chance and seems like a long-shot for the #3 job, as of this writing.

The winner of that job will see the field about half the time, playing in 3-wide receiver sets. The Patriots have a decent fullback in James Develin that they’ll use on occasion, while free agent acquisition Scott Chandler is the #2 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and will see a decent amount of action. Chandler replaces Tim Wright, who graded out above average on 357 snaps in one season in New England, coming over in the Logan Mankins trade. He was surprisingly waived this off-season, despite two more very affordable years left on his rookie contract.

The 6-7 265 Chandler is a very different player than the 6-4 220 Wright and is more of a replacement for Michael Hoomanawanui than anything. Chandler should be an upgrade over Hoomanawanui, who graded out 58th among 67 eligible tight ends last season, but only by default. Chandler graded out above average in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013 as a starting tight end, on an average of 769 snaps played per season, but graded out below average last season on 744 snaps, 47th among 67 eligible tight ends. Things won’t get better for him, as he heads into his age 30 season. He’d be a significant downgrade from Gronkowski if Gronk were to get hurt. Rob Gronkowski elevates this receiving corps to a new level on his own, but, outside of him, they lack weapons in the receiving corps, making them very vulnerable to another possible Gronkowski injury and making life hard for Jimmy Garrapolo (or whoever starts the season at quarterback) than you’d expect.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Patriots had a lot of trouble on the offensive line last season, especially in pass protection (29th in team pass blocking grade). They particularly struggled at left guard. Dan Connolly saw the most action there last season, making 10 starts, but graded out 72nd among 78 eligible guards. Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey also made starts there, but both struggled, especially the latter, who graded out 70th among 78 eligible guards on just 306 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. Cannon wasn’t quite that bad at any one position, but saw action at many different offensive line positions and struggled everywhere about as much as Devey did at guard.

This season, with Connolly retiring ahead of his age 33 season, the Patriots are expected to start 4th round rookie Tre Jackson, which is unlikely to be a serious upgrade. The Patriots like Jackson, but are largely starting him out of a lack of other options. His competition includes fellow 4th round rookie Shaquille Mason, a guard out of Georgia Tech that is currently penciled in as the backup center, and veterans Devey and Cannon. Cannon is the better of the two because he did grade out above average on 160 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2011 and 178 snaps in 2012, but he’s struggled mightily over the past 2 seasons and certainly isn’t a legitimate starting option. Devey, meanwhile, had never even played a snap as a 2013 undrafted free agent prior to last season’s struggles and is no lock to even make the roster. Jackson’s only real competition is Josh Kline, a 2013 undrafted free agent who has been respectable in 412 career snaps, but he’s certainly not a dependable starter either.

Connolly actually began last season at center, but 4th round rookie Bryan Stork took over as the starter week 4 and made 11 starts the rest of the way, holding his own, grading out 23rd among 41 eligible centers. He’s not a great starter, but he could be solid again in his 2nd year in the league. Stork stepping up as a respectable pivot mid-season really helped the Patriots’ offense and made sure they wouldn’t have to start both Connolly and Devey.

Right guard Ryan Wendell also saw some time at center last season before Stork locked down the job, but primarily just played guard. Wendell spent 2012 and 2013 as the Patriots’ center and had drastically different performances in those two seasons. Wendell burst onto the scene in 2012, grading out 2nd among centers, but finished 31st among 35 eligible in 2013. He appeared to be a one-year wonder, given that the 2008 undrafted free agent had played just 566 career snaps prior to his one good year as a starter in 2012, but he played pretty well at right guard this season, grading out slightly above average. Overall, he averages out as a solid starter, like he was last season, but he’s very inconsistent. He’s also a much better run blocker than pass protector. He hasn’t graded out above average as a pass protector in any of his 3 seasons as a starter, not even in 2012, but he graded out 1st among in run blocking in 2012 and 10th last season (58th out of 78 eligible in pass protection).

The Patriots’ struggle for consistency wasn’t just on the interior of their offensive line last season. Nate Solder had a down year, grading out below average for the first time in his career, but he has a good chance to bounce back. The 2011 1st round pick graded out 34th in as a rookie, 17th in 2012, 9th in 2013, and only struggled last season because, as was revealed after the season ended, Solder had been treated for testicular cancer the previous off-season. He played better down the stretch, grading out above average in his final 13 games, and I expect that to continue into 2015. Now fully healthy and going into the final season of his contract, Solder should get a solid sized payday within the next calendar year.

On the other side, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer was the Patriots’ most reliable offensive lineman last season. He made all 15 starts that mattered (he sat for the Patriots’ week 17 contest when they had the #1 seed locked up), graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked offensive tackle, and was the Patriots’ only offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average in both pass protection and run blocking. This is nothing new for him, as he graded out 8th, 17th, 19th, 14th, and 21st respectively in 5 seasons from 2009-2013, but what was new for him is that he didn’t get hurt, after missing 22 games with injury in his first 6 seasons in the league combined (after going in the 2nd round in 2009). He’s hard to trust injury wise, especially going into his age 31 season in 2015, but he should remain one of the best right tackles in the game when healthy. With a full season of Stork at center and Solder back to 100%, the Patriots’ offensive line should be better this season, but they still have problems.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In 2011, the Patriots used a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on the running back position, taking Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley respectively, with the idea of having Vereen, a smaller, quicker back with good passing down skills, working in tandem with Ridley, a talented between the tackles runner with no passing down skills. Both had up and down careers in New England, but both also had stretches of strong play. Stevan Ridley graded out 8th and 13th in pure run grade among running backs in 2012 and 2013 respectively, rushing for a combined 2036 yards and 19 touchdowns on 468 carries over those 2 seasons (4.35 YPC), while Vereen caught 99 passes in 2013 and 2014 combined and graded out 12th and 10th respectively among running backs in pure pass catching grade in those two seasons respectively. Both left as free agents this off-season though.

Ridley won’t be hard to replace, as the Patriots actually ran better after Ridley tore his ACL week 6 last season. He was replaced at first by Jonas Gray, who rushed for 412 yards and 5 touchdowns on 89 carries (4.63 YPC) on the season, and then by LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 281 yards and 3 touchdowns on 60 carries (4.69 YPC), after coming over mid-season from Pittsburgh. Blount also totaled 189 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 47 carries in 3 playoff games as the lead back. Ridley, meanwhile, was at 3.62 YPC before going down with injury. Blount returns as the favorite to lead this team in carries, but head coach Bill Belichick is known for having no loyalty to running backs so Jonas Gray is right in the mix for carries on a team that didn’t have a single running back hit 100 carries last season (Vereen had 96 carries and averaged 4.07 yards per carry).

Blount is the more proven of the two backs, as Gray is a 2012 undrafted free agent who never had a carry prior to last season. Blount is also a former undrafted free agent, falling out of the draft in 2010 for behavioral reasons, but has rushed for 3258 yards and 25 touchdowns on 704 carries in 5 seasons in the league, an average of 4.63 YPC. He’s bounced from Tampa Bay to New England to Pittsburgh back to New England because of those same behavioral issues, but Bill Belichick has always kept him in line and I expect that to continue. Both Gray and Blount graded out significantly above average as runners on Pro Football Focus last season, so the Patriots are going to be fine in that aspect, but they also have just a combined 34 career catches in a combined 80 career games, so they’re both useless in the passing game.

Vereen will be much tougher to replace for that reason. It’s currently a three-way battle between Travaris Cadet, Brandon Bolden, and James White for the job and at least one, if not two of those players won’t even make the final roster. White’s roster spot seems to be the most in danger, as the 2014 4th round pick has struggled this off-season. He caught 39 passes in his senior year at Wisconsin, but played just 31 snaps as a rookie and hasn’t done much on the practice field to win over the coaching staff.

Cadet is probably the favorite. He has a mere 3.36 career YPC on 11 carries, but caught 38 passes with the Saints last season and graded out above average in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career. Brandon Bolden is an internal option. He’s a much better runner, with a career 4.56 YPC, but he has just 25 career catches, has never graded out above average as a pass catcher, has only once graded out above average overall, and has missed 10 games with injury in 3 years in the league, since going undrafted because of injury concerns in 2012.

Bolden probably has the safest hold on a roster spot because he plays special teams well, but he’s no lock to exceed the mere 30 offensive touches he had last season. My guess is Cadet wins the passing down job, Blount and Gray make the team as the 1st and 2nd running backs, and Bolden makes the roster as a special teamer and insurance. The Patriots figure to still pass to running backs a decent amount in 2014, but I don’t see anyone catching the 52 balls that Vereen caught last season and they will miss him. The Patriots don’t have any great running backs, but they have a bunch of running backs who can play roles and Bill Belichick figures to use his running back stable to its fullest once again. It’ll be maddening from a fantasy football standpoint, but it should get decent results on the field.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Patriots’ lost 3 of their top-4 cornerbacks, in terms of snaps played last season, this off-season, including Darrelle Revis, arguably the best cornerback in the NFL and the biggest reason why the Patriots were able to finish 13th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season, after years of bad defense. Because of that, they had to either reload at the cornerback position or reinvent themselves defensively this off-season. They didn’t do the former at all, but they did the latter to some extent, by adding edge player Jabaal Sheard, formerly of the Cleveland Browns.

Sheard, a 2011 2nd round pick, has emerged as a solid player, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and 16th ranked in 2014. The Patriots already had two solid edge players in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich prior to bringing in Sheard, but Sheard was such a bargain (11 million over 2 years) and Jones and Ninkovich averaged 66.1 and 67.3 snaps per game over the past 2 seasons, the two highest per game snap averages among players at their position. As part of their reinvention on defense, they will rotate 4-3 defensive ends far more often and also regularly play all three on the field at the same time in sub packages. Sheard has experience playing in both a 4-3 and a 3-4. He graded out below average in both of his seasons as a 4-3 defensive end, but those were also his first two seasons in the league, so he won’t necessarily struggle back in a 4-3 in New England.

Jones is the biggest of the trio at 6-5 265, so he’d be tasked with rushing the passer from the interior sub packages, which he has some experience with. Jones is also probably the best of the trio. The 2012 1st round pick has graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons in the NFL, including 11th among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, despite missing 6 games with a hip injury. He does have some injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, but he’s healthy now and could have the best season of his career in his age 25 season in 2015, now playing a much more manageable amount of snaps. He has experience in a 4-3, as well as a 3-4, playing in a 4-3 in his first 2 seasons in New England in 2012 and 2013 and playing in one in college at Syracuse.

While Jones is on the way up, Ninkovich seems to be on the way down, going into his age 31 season. He graded out below average last season, snapping a 5-year streak of grading out above average. He definitely has bounce back potential, after grading out 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2011 and 6th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He’s not completely over the hill yet and he too should benefit from a smaller snap count, but he’s getting to the point where he can’t be trusted as more than a solid starter. Still, it’s a solid trio. Sheard definitely won’t make up for all of the Patriots’ losses in the secondary by himself, but the Patriots should get good pass rush this season, which would help their secondary at least a little.

The Patriots also made a big addition at defensive tackle this off-season, drafting Malcom Brown in the 1st round, though he was largely a replacement for Vince Wilfork, who was cut ahead of his age 34 season, after grading out 13th among 3-4 defensive ends last season. Still, the Brown pick makes it two straight years where they’ve drafted a defensive tackle in the first round, as they drafted Dominique Easley in the first round in 2014, so there’s definitely potential at the position. Easley is more of a pass rusher, while Brown is more of a run stuffer, and the Patriots are hoping they can blossom into a fearsome duo inside in the future.

Easley’s rookie year didn’t really suggest that he can live up to those expectations though. It’s certainly not too late for him to turn it around, but Easley tore both his ACLs in college at Florida, was limited to 270 nondescript snaps by knee problems as a rookie, and is still not at 100%. It seems unlikely that Easley will again ever be the top-5 talent that he would have been before the injuries. The Patriots should just hope that he can stay healthy this season and play solid in an expanded role.

Easley will probably see the majority of his snaps in sub packages as an interior pass rusher, along with Jones, Ninkovich, and Sheard. Sealver Siliga looks like the favorite to start in base packages alongside Brown, but, like Brown, he’s going to be largely a two-down player this season. Siliga is a great fit for that role though, as the 6-2 307 pounder has graded out above average both overall and as a run stopper in each of his last 3 seasons in the league. The 2011 undrafted free agent has played just 467 total career snaps, maxing out at 242 in 2014, but he’s definitely deserving of more playing time, which he should get this season.

Christopher Jones finished 2nd among Patriot interior defensive linemen in 2014, grading out 42nd among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on 511 snaps, after grading out dead last among 69 eligible defensive tackles on 792 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013, largely playing out of desperation. He won’t have to play much this season, which is good. It’s a solid defensive line, but an unspectacular one that won’t make up for their losses in the secondary.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Another player who will give the Patriots pass rush productivity, as he did last season, is linebacker Jamie Collins. Collins only blitzed 85 times last season, but managed to record 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 16 hurries, an outstandingly good performance in that aspect for the collegiate defensive end. Collins isn’t just a good blitzer though, as he’s developed into one of the best overall linebackers in the game, easily making the position switch from college to the pros. He graded out 3rd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season. With the Patriots moving to a 4-3, Collins will move back outside, where he flashed on 302 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2013. He’s technically just a one-year wonder because he’s only been a starter in the league for one year, but, going into his age 26 season, Collins seems like a budding superstar linebacker.

Dont’a Hightower will remain in the middle in the Patriots’ new 4-3, after grading out 2nd among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, one spot ahead of Collins and only behind Luke Kuechly. Like Collins, he seems like a budding superstar. Also like Collins, Hightower helped with pass rush, adding 8 sacks, 9 hits, and 17 hurries on just 156 blitzes. The 2012 1st round pick graded out 8th and 12th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 2013 respectively and then dominated upon moving back to his natural, collegiate position of middle linebacker in 2014. Only going into his age 25 season, Hightower should continue this play into 2015 and beyond and is one of the best middle linebackers in the game.

The Patriots’ third linebacker, Jerod Mayo, used to be one of the best linebackers in the game, grading out 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012. However, he’s been limited to 12 games over the past 2 seasons by a torn pectoral and a torn patellar tendon and now has been relegated to two-down work, stopping the run in base packages. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because he had guaranteed money owed to him either way. The Patriots still made him take a pay cut down to 4.5 million from 9.1 million.

He played pretty well against the run in 2014 before going down, but a torn patellar tendon is incredibly tough to come back from. That injury is about as bad as it gets because the patellar tendon is far larger than any knee ligament. When you tear it, your kneecap gets dislodged and shoots up into your thigh because the patellar tendon is what holds the kneecap in. It’s also what surgeons use to make new knee ligaments when you tear one. The history of guys who tore their patellar tendon and then returned to form is basically none existent. He’ll likely never be as good as he used to be, but he could still be a solid two-down player in arguably the best 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL. Because of how Hightower and Collins have stepped up over the past two seasons, Mayo is no longer needed like he once was.

Grade: A

Secondary

I mentioned earlier how much the Patriots lost at cornerback this off-season. Before I get into detail about that, I want to start with the good, which is the safety position, specifically Devin McCourty, who was brought back on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal this off-season. That is the 2nd highest average annual salary in the league for a safety, but he was well worth it. McCourty started his career as a cornerback, grading above average in his first 3 years in the league at that position, including 7th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2010 and 8th in 2012 on just 534 snaps.

McCourty played such few snaps at cornerback in 2012 because he moved to safety mid-season, finishing the season 14th among safeties on 564 snaps. His composite grade across both positions would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. He then followed that up by grading out 1st among safeties in 2013 and 8th in 2014. There’s been some talk that McCourty could be moving back to cornerback this season, with so many losses at the position. That hasn’t been substantiated by anything yet, but it is the Patriots so you never know. I don’t expect him to move back full-time to cornerback, but it would make sense for the Patriots to have him play on the slot in sub packages.

That’s because the Patriots’ safety depth is so much better than their cornerback depth, meaning they are much better equipped to play with 3 safeties on the field in sub packages than the traditional 3 cornerbacks. Patrick Chung returns as a starter opposite McCourty, after getting a 3-year, 8.2 million dollar extension during last season. Chung was a huge surprise for the Patriots in 2014, playing all 16 games and grading out 12th among safeties.

How well he played wasn’t really a surprise, as the 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league, though he’s never been as good as he was last season. What’s most surprising is the fact that he stayed healthy, after missing 18 games from 2010-2013. It’ll be tough to count on him to stay healthy and repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, especially since the Patriots’ lack of talent at cornerback means Chung won’t be able to play within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 67.7% of snaps again, 5th among eligible safeties. That could lead to him getting exposed in coverage more than he was last season.

The Patriots also have a pair of good backups, Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards. Harmon was a 2013 3rd round pick and has graded out above average on 431 and 283 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Richards, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in this past draft, but he wasn’t seen as a highly rated prospect and figures to be the Patriots’ 4th safety at best. Still, given that the 5-11 212 pound Chung doesn’t play nearly as well in reverse as he does moving forward, both Richards and Harmon could carve out sub packages roles, especially if McCourty starts playing on the slot.

Of course, as good as the Patriots’ safeties are, they can’t completely mask their losses at cornerback. Darrelle Revis (1032 snaps), Brandon Browner (591 snaps), and Kyle Arrington (451 snaps) were 1st, 2nd, and 4th respectively in snaps played among cornerbacks in 2014 for the Patriots and they all left this off-season. Browner won’t really be missed, after grading out 79th among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014, and Arrington was only alright, but Revis will be impossible to replace, given that he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback.

Logan Ryan was 3rd on the team among cornerbacks in snaps played last season and looks like he’ll slide into a starting job by default. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out above average on 608 snaps as a rookie and, even though he graded out below average on 519 snaps, he wasn’t horrible in 2014. He’s a steep downgrade from Revis and he only has 13 career starts, but he’s also only going into his age 24 season and could be a decent young starter for them. He’s pretty much the only cornerback on the team who is locked into some sort of secure role.

2nd year player Malcolm Butler is penciled in as the other starter, while veteran journeyman Robert McClain is penciled in on the slot. Butler well known for his Super Bowl clinching interception, but, while that was a great play, it’s also important to remember that he went undrafted in 2014 and graded out below average on 187 regular season snaps. Even though he graded out above average on 33 post-season snaps, he’s still incredibly unproven. McClain, meanwhile, had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback, but he proved to be a one year wonder (the 2010 7th round pick played a combined 134 snaps in 2010-2011). He graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014, with his worst season coming in 2014, when he graded out 90th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. Neither inspires much hope in me.

Both players will have to hold off Bradley Fletcher and Tarell Brown, also journeyman veterans added as free agents this off-season. And, of course, it’s possible the Patriots rarely use 3 cornerbacks, favoring 3 safeties instead. As I mentioned, that’s probably a good idea because neither Fletcher nor Brown seems fit for a serious role, just like Butler and McClain don’t. Fletcher started all 16 games at cornerback last season for the Eagles, but he was horrible, grading out 92nd out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. Fletcher was a 3rd round pick of the Rams’ in 2009, but last season was the first season in his career that he made all 16 starts and, though he’s had decent success as a reserve in his career, he’s not a starting caliber cornerback. He’s a depth cornerback at best and not a very reliable one, as he’s missed 25 games in 6 seasons in the NFL.

Brown, meanwhile, is probably a little better than Fletcher, but didn’t sign with the Patriots until late July. He was a 3-year starter in San Francisco, grading out 32nd, 13th, and 31st in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Brown turned down a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal from the 49ers last off-season, instead choosing to bet on himself and rehab his value after missing 3 games and being limited in others by rib problems in 2013, but that seems to have been a mistake. Brown made 3.5 million over 1 season in Oakland, missed another 2 games with injury, and graded out below average, leading to a minimum deal in New England. There’s even talk that 7th round rookie Darryl Roberts, seen as a steal by College Football Focus, could see playing time at some point. The Patriots like him and with good reason, but I don’t think he’ll be ready for action as a rookie. It’s a far cry from last year’s secondary and that will really hurt a defense that finished 13th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Patriots were Super Bowl champions last year and were a much better team down the stretch en route to winning the Super Bowl, particularly on offense, as Rob Gronkowski got back to 100% and the offensive line turned things around. However, the Patriots might not be able to carry their strong offensive play from early October through the Super Bowl into 2015 because Tom Brady could be suspended for the first 4 games of the season, which would really throw their offense’s rhythm off. Even if Brady does play all 16 games, he’s going into his age 38 season and can’t keep playing like this forever.

On the other side of the ball, the Patriots’ defense is without a doubt worse, thanks to the loss of Darrelle Revis, among others. They still have some strong parts, including Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, and Devin McCourty, the latter of whom the Patriots did manage to keep as a free agent this off-season, and they have a solid defensive line. However, this defense is not going to be the same in 2015 as it was in 2014 and I think the same can be said of the rest of the team. It’s tough to make a prediction with Brady hanging in limbo, but I don’t think they’ll be as good and they might cede the division to Miami. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Patriots after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East

Aug 072015
 

Quarterback

The Jets were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, finishing just 28th in rate of moving the chains differential. Like most awful teams, the Jets had a terrible quarterback situation. Geno Smith played in 14 games (13 starts), while Michael Vick played in 10 games (3 starts) and they graded out 5th worst and 4th worst among quarterbacks respectively on Pro Football Focus. As a result, they finished 26th in rate of moving the chains. Unfortunately, they won just too many games to be able to select a top quarterback in the draft, going 4-12, as a result of a solid defense that ranked 15th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Because neither Winston nor Mariota fell to the Jets’ pick at 6, the Jets had to settle for trading a 7th round pick to Houston for veteran journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and using a 4th round pick on Bryce Perry, who will only play as a rookie if disaster strikes. Fitzpatrick has actually played pretty well over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average for the first two times in his career, including arguably the best season of his career in 2014. He graded out 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.96 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions last season. Now in New York, Fitzpatrick is reunited with Chan Gailey, formerly his Head Coach in Buffalo and now the Jets’ offensive coordinator.

Usually I like when players reunite with former coaches because of the familiarity aspect, but Fitzpatrick never did very well under Gailey’s tutelage, as evidenced by the fact that some of his poor seasons earlier in his career were with Gailey. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked quarterback out of 37 eligible in 2010, 26th out of 38 eligible in 2011, and 35th out of 38 eligible in 2012, the three seasons he played under Gailey. On top of that, he’s going into his age 33 season coming off of a broken leg. There’s reason why the Texans felt comfortable trading him for a mere 7th round pick, despite the fact that he is only owed 3.25 million this season. I’d still start him over Smith, but it sounds like the Jets are going to be sticking with the incumbent for at least a few weeks.

Smith has been terrible in 2 years in the league. He’s completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 34 interceptions, while grading out 40th among 42 eligible quarterbacks in 2013 and 36th among 39 eligible quarterbacks in 2014. He was better than Michael Vick last season though, as Vick completed 52.9% of his passes for an average of 4.99 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. In the 5 games where Vick played more than 50% of the snaps, the Jets moved the chains at a 64.44% rate, as opposed to 69.18% in their other games. Neither of those rates is good, but the Jets’ quarterback situation figures to be better this season than last season simply because of the swap of Vick for Fitzpatrick. Their passing offense still won’t be a very effective way to move the chains though, unless Fitzpatrick is somehow able to win the job and repeat the best season of his career again at age 33, coming off of a broken leg.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

Knowing they wouldn’t be able to do anything real at the quarterback position this off-season, the Jets spent a lot of money to upgrade their team around the quarterback spot this off-season, going into the off-season with close to the most cap space in the league. Their biggest move on the offensive side of the ball wasn’t a free agent acquisition. It was the trade of a 5th round pick to the Chicago Bears for Brandon Marshall, who will make 9 million dollars this season, after the Jets gave him a restructured 3-year, 26 million dollar deal upon his arrival.

The Bears were willing to part with him because he’s coming off of a down year, catching just 61 passes for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, and grading out just 26th among wide receivers, including just 46th in pure pass catching grade. However, while he’s going into his age 31 season, he does have bounce back potential. He’s graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 8th in 2012, and 1st in 2013. He might be aging and a little overpaid, but he represents a significant upgrade for the Jets at wide receiver.

After #1 receiver Eric Decker, the Jets next 3 wide receivers in terms of snaps played in 2014 were Jeremy Kerley (752 snaps), Percy Harvin (373 snaps), and David Nelson (305 snaps). Harvin was decent in limited action, but Kerley and Nelson struggled mightily, grading out 76th and 109th respectively among 110 eligible wide receivers. Nelson was especially bad, with no receivers grading out worse on fewer snaps. Harvin is gone, but Nelson is as well, and, with Marshall coming in, they have finally locked in a #2 receiver, moving Kerley to the 3rd receiver job, where he’s a much better fit.

Decker was their big off-season acquisition last off-season, coming over as a free agent from Denver and adding much needed life to a receiving corps that was led in snaps played by Stephen Hill in 2013. Decker didn’t continue his big numbers from 2012 and 2013, when he put up slash lines of 85/1064/13 and 87/1288/11 respectively, but that was to be expected, given the switch of Peyton Manning to Geno Smith at quarterback. Decker’s 74/962/5 slash line in 2014 was still very respectable given the circumstances he dealt with, frequent double teams and a hot mess at quarterback. He graded out 24th among wide receivers, which lines up with how he played in 2012 (42th) or 2013 (12th), and overall I’d say he lived up to his 5-year, 36.25 million dollar deal on a team that desperately needed a guy like him. He’s not a true #1 receiver, but he has Marshall to take some of the focus off of him this season, which should help him and this whole offense.

Kerley, meanwhile, will be a slot specialist between them in obvious passing situations. He’s a solid slot receiver. He’s graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 5th round of the 2011 NFL Draft, catching 166 passes for 2073 yards and 7 touchdowns on 259 targets (64.1%) and 1408 routes run (1.47 yards per route run). He’s also plenty experienced, having played 2331 snaps in 4 seasons in the league and having started 23 of 58 career games. The trio of Decker, Marshall, and Kerley is solid and much better than what Jets fans are used to. Devin Smith, meanwhile, is the 4th receiver. The 2nd round rookie was seen as an option to beat out Kerley for the #3 job, but broke his ribs in training camp, essentially ending the battle. Smith is still expected to play week 1, but I don’t see him pushing for any real playing time until later in the season. He’s just missed too much valuable practice time.

Despite that, Kerley might not even finish 3rd on the team in yardage, because the Jets are expecting a breakout year from 2nd year tight end Jace Amaro. That might be wishful thinking, after the 2014 2nd rounder graded out below average on 385 snaps as a rookie, but he did show some upside and could easily be a solid starter in his 2nd season in the league. At the very least, he’ll be a significant upgrade on Jeff Cumberland, who graded out dead last among 67 eligible tight ends last season. Cumberland, a 2010 undrafted free agent, has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league, is coming off the worst season of his career, and has been overstretched as a starter over the past 2 seasons. He’s a low-end #2 tight end. He’s the only real weak spot in a solid receiving corps though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

One area the Jets needed to improve this off-season on offense that they didn’t really was the running back position. They didn’t necessarily need to add a great runner, because lead back Chris Ivory is solid at running the football. Ivory has averaged 4.66 yards per carry on 636 carries in his career (2961 yards) and added another 17 touchdowns. The 2010 undrafted free agent has also graded out above average in pure running grade in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league, including 10th among eligible running backs in pure running grade in 2014. The issue with Ivory is he’s useless in passing situations, with just 23 career catches in 55 career games. He’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and last season was so inept in both pass protection and pass catching on a career high 454 snaps that he graded out 39th among 57 eligible running backs, despite running the ball so well.

He’s a good runner, but he’s simply not a feature back. The Jets needed to add a complement for him this off-season, a smaller, speedier back that can complement the 6-0 222 pound Ivory as a runner and also handle all obvious passing situations. Chris Johnson played that role last season, but struggled mightily, grading out 46th among 57 eligible running backs. There’s a reason he remains unsigned as of this writing. Instead, the only running backs the Jets brought in this off-season were Stevan Ridley and Zac Stacy, essentially lesser versions of Ivory. Now they just have three one-dimensional backs instead of one.

Both are solid runners between the tackles, but don’t represent any sort of change of pace from Ivory and they’ve caught a combined 67 career passes in a combined 79 career games. On top of that, neither one has ever graded out above average as a pass catcher in 6 combined seasons in the league. Both have had one season as a lead back, but both have also done little much else in their careers. Ridley (5-11 225) is probably the better of the two, grading out above average as a runner in 2 of 4 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 3rd round in 2011, including 8th among running backs in pure run grade in 2012 and 13th in 2013. In his one year as a lead back (2012), he rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC) and has rushed for 2817 yards and 22 touchdowns on 649 career carries (4.34 YPC) in his career.

Stacy (5-8 216), meanwhile, has rushed for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 326 carries (3.88 YPC) in 2 seasons in the league. He’s been better than those numbers have suggested, as he’s been stifled by consistently poor offensive line play, and he graded out 31st among running backs in running grade in 2013, but they’re still vastly inferior numbers to Ridley. Most of that production came as a starter as a 5th round rookie in 2013 and it was a quick fall for him, as the Rams (his old team) drafted Tre Mason in the 3rd round last year, Todd Gurley in the 1st round this year, and sent Stacy to the Jets for a 7th round pick during this year’s draft.

Ridley should be the favorite to be Ivory’s backup on pure talent, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered last October. He might not be ready for the start of the season and, even if he is, it’s unclear what kind of shape he’s going to be in. For that reason, Stacy could win the backup job. It’s also likely that whoever loses the battle for the backup job will be outright cut because the Jets don’t want to have three of the same backs. It would be weird to see the Jets outright cut Ridley, but they guaranteed him just 80K because of the knee so it’s certainly a possibility if he can’t get healthy.

Bilal Powell, meanwhile, will slide into Johnson’s old role and could lead this backfield in snaps played, as he did in this role in 2013 (633 snaps). Powell is a decent pass catcher and pass protector and caught 36 passes in 2013, but he has a career 3.90 YPC average and struggled mightily overall in 2013, grading out 50th among 55 eligible running backs. Powell is no guarantee to even be an upgrade on the departed Chris Johnson. It’s not a backfield without some talent, but it’s a very one-dimensional one.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

The Jets also needed to upgrade the offensive line this off-season, particularly at guard. They spent money trying to do that, giving James Carpenter a 4-year, 19.1 million dollar deal to be their starting left guard, but they definitely overpaid and I’m not sure so he represents much of an upgrade. Carpenter, a 2011 1st round pick by the Seahawks, started just 39 games in 4 seasons (31 at left guard, 8 at right tackle) in the league. That’s a result of several injuries and overall poor play, as he’s graded out well below average in all 4 of those seasons.

Of course, the Jets had horrible guard play last season so Carpenter could still be an upgrade. Right guard Willie Colon struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked guard out of 78 eligible, and is now going into his age 32 season. Meanwhile at left guard, Brian Winters has been a disaster since they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2013. He was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked guard out of 81 eligible as a rookie and last year he was 66th out of 78 eligible, despite playing just 381 snaps. Oday Aboushi, a 2013 5th round pick, took over the starting job from him week 7 and was better, but only by default. None of those three players are capable starters.

Willie Colon remains the favorite to keep his starting job at right guard opposite Colon, despite the poor 2014 season. I don’t expect 2015 to be much better for him. After missing 36 out of a possible 48 games from 2010-2012 with injuries, Colon has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and actually graded out slightly above average in 2013. However, going into his age 32 season, with a very serious injury history, it’s definitely plausible that he could be done, at least as a starter. He’s certainly no lock to make all 16 starts this season and the sooner he’s benched the better.

Of course, the Jets’ other options aren’t very good. Obay Aboushi, as I mentioned, struggled last season, in the first 734 snaps of his career, after not playing a snap as a 5th round rookie in 2013. He wasn’t horrible (43rd among 78 eligible) and he’d be better than Colon, but he’s a below average starter. Dakota Dozier is the longshot option, after not playing a snap as a 4th round rookie in 2014. He’d probably need both Colon and Aboushi to struggle or get hurt to see the field. Guard figures to be a problem area for the Jets once again in 2015.

The rest of the offensive line isn’t terrible, with a trio of experienced veterans locked into their current spots, D’Brickashaw Ferguson at left tackle, Nick Mangold at center, and Breno Giacomini at right tackle. Ferguson and Mangold have been staples on the Jets’ offensive line for years. Ferguson has made 144 starts in 9 seasons in the league (never missing a game) and has graded out above average in 5 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, while Mangold has made 141 starts in 9 seasons in the league (only 3 games missed) and has graded out above average in all 8 years in Pro Football Focus’ history.

However, they are going into their age 32 and 31 seasons respectively, which is a concern. Mangold hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet, grading out 1st among centers last season, making it 8 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average. He’s been in the top-2 among centers in 6 of those 8 seasons and in the top-6 among centers in 6 of those 8 seasons and could easily do so again this season. However, Ferguson has been on the decline over the past 2 seasons, not grading out above average in either of them, after grading out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2008-2012. He could still be a decent starter this year, but he’s not the same player he used to be and he’s unlikely to be back in 2016, owed a non-guaranteed 10.375 million. Meanwhile, even though he’s played so well, Mangold’s age is a concern and he might not be quite as dominant in 2015, though he should still play very well.

Giacomini is also a veteran, but he hasn’t been around nearly as long as Ferguson and Mangold, who were both drafted by the Jets in the 1st round in 2006. He’s only been in New York for 1 year, signing with them as a free agent last off-season. Like Carpenter this off-season, Giacomini is a marginal player at best who was overpaid like a solid starter. Giacomini, who also came over from Seattle, signed a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season and proceeded to grade out 51st among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 2014, which is below average.

That is no surprise because Giacomini hasn’t once graded out above average in his career, since going in the 5th round in 2008. He’s experienced, with 49 starts in his career, but he’s not a good player and he won’t be better in his age 30 season in 2015. He wasn’t terrible last season, but he’s a marginal starter at best. It’s a weak offensive line overall on a weak offense overall. They’re more talented than they were last season thanks to some offensive additions, but not too much better and they should also have significantly more offensive injuries, after having the 5th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season. They’ll still struggle to move the chains.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Jets also barely had any injuries on defense last season, with the 4th fewest adjusted games lost to injury on that side of the ball. Overall, they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league last season, only behind the Denver Broncos. That’s not good news, considering how bad the Jets were last season. They’re more talented this season on both sides of the ball, but, if they could only win 4 games last season despite barely having any injuries, it’s clear that they weren’t that talented at all to begin with. This year, they should have more games lost on both sides of the ball, which will hurt their chances of being significantly improved.

Before even training camp started, the Jets were dealt a huge blow to their defense and it didn’t even involve an injury, as stud defensive end Sheldon Richardson was suspended for 4 games in violation of the league’s substance abuse policy. Making matters even worse, Richardson was arrested on a variety of counts after that, including reckless driving and drug possession, and now he’s expected to get an even longer suspension. Richardson, a 2013 1st round pick, has graded out 5th and 2nd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 2014 respectively, emerging as one of the best defensive players in the whole league, only going into his age 25 season. He’ll definitely be missed, especially if he misses 6-8 games, which sounds likely.

The Jets were luckily prepared for this, at least as prepared for this as they could have been, using the 6th overall pick on Leonard Williams. That selection was seen as a weird one at the time, as the Jets already had a great pair of defensive ends in Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson, but Williams was seen as a top-3 pick and fell out of circumstance, so the Jets decided they couldn’t pass on him. I didn’t like the move because it didn’t fill an immediate need and essentially signaled that they were giving up on re-signing Wilkerson (a 2016 free agent), but it ended up being the good move in hindsight because of the suspension. Now Williams goes from being a pure backup in 2015 and maybe starting in 2016 and beyond if Wilkerson leaves as a free agent next off-season to having a significant rookie year role. He should be more than capable of handling it. He obviously won’t be as good as Richardson would have been, but he should be a solid starter.

As I mentioned, Wilkerson remains on the other side and he should have yet another strong season. The 2011 1st round pick struggled as a rookie, but has graded out 2nd, 15th, and 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He heads into the contract year of his rookie deal in 2015 and is set to make a boatload from someone in the next calendar year and, with the selection of Williams, it doesn’t seem like that someone will be the Jets. The Jets would have been better off giving him a large extension this off-season and using the 6th overall pick to grab help somewhere else on the field, like taking edge rusher Vic Beasley, who went 8th to Atlanta. I think that plan would have worked better in the short-term and the long-term. The Williams selection only worked out in the short-term because Richardson did a bunch of stupid things.

The Jets are also strong at nose tackle, in between Williams/Richardson and Wilkerson, as Damon Harrison has shaken off early career weight problems to grade out 4th and 14th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and 2014 respectively, including 1st and 3rd among defensive tackles in pure run grade. He’s just a pure two-down base player, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better pure two-down base player in the league. Weight concerns will always exist for the 6-4 350 pound 2012 undrafted free agent, but, as long as he’s in shape, he’s borderline impossible to move off the nose. It’s still a strong defensive line, despite the loss of Richardson for an extended period of time with a suspension, but the Richardson loss is obviously huge and the Williams selection took away much needed resources from other parts of the field.

Grade: A

Linebackers

One of those parts of the field that needed it, as I mentioned, was the outside linebacker/edge rusher spot, where Vic Beasley would have fit like a glove. Instead, the Jets are left with a pair of veterans who are both going into their age 35 season in Calvin Pace and Jason Babin, a borderline 2012 1st round pick bust in Quentin Coples, and 3rd round rookie Lorenzo Mauldin. Pace and Coples were the starters last season, but Babin actually played the best, grading out 9th among eligible 3-4 outside linebackers, on just 470 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. He definitely can’t be counted on to repeat that in 2015 though, given his age and that he actually graded out below average in 2013. Last year’s success was likely a fluky thing for him. Recent reports have him not even making the 53-man roster, in favor of 2014 6th round pick IK Enemkpali, who flashed on 40 snaps as a rookie, a move that would save the Jets 1.5 million in cash and cap space.

Coples and Pace, meanwhile, struggled as starters, grading out 40th and 39th respectively among 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers last season. Coples is only going into his age 25 season so he could be better this season, but he’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league since being selected 16th overall in 2012 and appears on his way to becoming a bust. He does have more hope that Pace though, as Pace is going into his age 35 season and hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. Both he and Babin will be free agents after the season and this could easily not just be their final seasons with the Jets, but in the league. Mauldin was drafted more for 2016 as a long-term replacement opposite Coples, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he saw a decent amount of action as a rookie down the stretch, given how unsettled things are ahead of him on the depth chart.

Things are better and much more settled inside at middle linebacker, where Demario Davis and David Harris remain the starters. Davis had a bit of a breakout year last season, grading out 15th among middle linebackers, the first time in the 2012 3rd round pick’s career that he had graded out above average. He’s obviously a one-year wonder and struggled mightily in his first year as a starter in 2013, grading out 49th among 55 eligible middle linebackers, so he might not continue this solid play, but, if he does, it could set him up for a decent sized payday as a free agent next off-season.

Harris, meanwhile, isn’t as good, but weirdly got a 3-year, 21.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season. Harris is, by all reports, a nice guy, a likeable teammate, and easy to coach. He’s been a defensive captain and signal caller for the Jets defensively for years and he’s been a leader on and off the field. I feel like that gets him overpaid. Four off-seasons ago, Harris signed a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal with the Jets, even though he graded out below average in his first 2 seasons in the league and then just 21st and 25th respectively in 2009 and 2010.

The Jets kept him through the duration of that deal even though he graded out below average in 2 of 4 seasons, including 48th out of 53 eligible in 2012, and maxed out at 18th. He was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked middle linebacker in 2014. He didn’t get quite as much money the 2nd time around, but he’s also going into his age 31 season. He was still overpaid by a significant amount. He’s part of a weak and aging linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

The place where the Jets added the most this off-season was definitely the secondary. They added an all new top-3 cornerbacks through free agency, all on major multi-year deals, after they didn’t have a single cornerback that played more than 50 snaps grade out above average last season. The Jets reunite Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, who played together from 2010-2012 and both started all 16 games for the Jets in 2011. Both are over 30 now, so they won’t be quite the same, but Revis is still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

Revis finished 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2008, 2nd in 2009, 18th in 2010, 1st in 2011, 1st in 2013, and 4th in 2014, with a torn ACL in 2012 that didn’t slow his career down in between. He’s bounced around from the Jets to the Buccaneers to the Patriots back to the Jets over the past few seasons for a few reasons. He tore his ACL in 2012 and then was traded to the Buccaneers for a 1stround pick ahead of his contract year. Tampa Bay then let him go rather than paying him $16 million in 2014 and the Patriots did the same this off-season, rather than paying him $20 million in 2015. However, he’s arguably the best cornerback in the NFL, one of the best players in the entire NFL, and absolutely deserves long-term security, even going into his age 30 season, which he got on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal. He’s yet to show a single sign of slowing down thus far.

Cromartie, however, has shown signs of slowing down and was overpaid on a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal. Cromartie was cut by the Jets’ old John Idzik/Rex Ryan regime last off-season after a nagging hip injury caused him to grade out 102nd out of 110 eligible cornerbacks in 2013. Given that he was owed 9.5 million dollars non-guaranteed, it was absolutely the right move. The common narrative is that Cromartie, who graded out above average in every season from 2009-2012, bounced back in 2014 in his one season in Arizona under defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who is the Jets’ new Head Coach.

That’s only half true though as, while Cromartie was dominant to start the season, he was horrible in the 2nd half of the season thanks to a nagging ankle injury and ended up grading out slightly below average overall. Cromartie graded out above average in every season from 2009-2012, prior to the last 2 seasons, so there definitely has been a decline in his play and, even though he’s missed just 1 game with injury in 9 seasons in the league, the fact that injuries have been a big part of it makes it even worse. Going into his age 31 season, he could still be a decent starter, but he’s certainly not the player he was in 2011 and 2012 and he was definitely overpaid. The only good news is he can doesn’t have any guaranteed money beyond this season and can be cut after the season after only being paid 7 million over 1 year. Revis is still as good as he ever was, but the same cannot be said of his former and current co-starter.

The three major deals the Jets gave to cornerbacks this off-season were essentially the good, the bad, and the ugly. Revis was the good. Cromartie was the bad, because he was overpaid. Meanwhile, Buster Skrine is the ugly, signing a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal. Not only is 6.25 million annually way too much for a 3rd cornerback who is only going to play 50%-60% of the snaps, Skrine has struggled mightily thus far in his career, since going in the 5th round in the 2011 NFL Draft. He’s a below average 3rd cornerback, but he’s getting paid like the best 3rd cornerback in the league.

Skrine made 37 starts in 4 seasons with the Browns, after they drafted him in the 5th round in 2011, and started 31 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons. He was never good though, grading out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst year coming in 2013, when he graded out 105th out of 110 eligible, leading the position in both missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. The Browns used a 1st round pick on Justin Gilbert to replace him last off-seasoj, but Gilbert struggled so Skrine kept his starting job. His 2014 campaign was better, but only by default, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible, thanks largely to the whopping 17 penalties he committed. There’s no way he deserves to be making this kind of money. He was one of the off-season’s worst overpays.

The Jets also gave a big contract to Marcus Gilchrist, who will start at safety for the Jets, after signing a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal. If Gilchrist plays like he did in 2013, when he made all 16 starts and graded out 20th among safeties, he’s worth it, but the 2011 2nd round pick is a one-year wonder, grading out below average in 2011 and 2012 on 279 and 640 snaps respectively to start his career at cornerback (the reason why he converted to safety) and grading out 72nd out of 87 eligible safeties last season in another 16-start season at his new position. He’s unlikely to be as good as Dawan Landry was last season. Landry graded out 9th among eligible safeties before leaving as a free agent. They should have locked up Wilkerson long-term instead of giving Skrine and Gilchrist those kinds of deals and then used the 6th overall pick on an edge rusher or a cornerback.

The only significant member of this secondary who wasn’t brought in as a free agent this off-season is Calvin Pryor, their 2014 1st round pick. Pryor played well as a rookie, grading out above average, 29th among safeties. He only played 699 snaps because he was benched mid-season for being late to meetings, but his play was solid and, if he can avoid dumb rookie mistakes off-the-field in his 2nd year in the league, he could take the next step as a player. He’s a naturally talented player who is only going into his age 23 season. Gilchrist replacing the bigger Landry does allow Pryor to play in a more natural spot for him, closer to the line of scrimmage, which should help him.

Grade: B

Conclusion

Like on offense, the Jets have more talent on defense this season, but, like on offense, they’ll also have more injuries. They’re already missing Sheldon Richardson for a big chunk of the season due to suspension. Also, a lot of their big off-season additions were overpays and, as a result, the Jets have just 1.8 million in cap space for 2016 right now, without locking up Muhammad Wilkerson, Demario Davis, or Damon Harrison, all of whom will be big free agents this off-season. They’ll win more games than the 4 they won last season, but not enough to justify this spending spree and not enough for them to be a respectable team. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Jets after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East

Aug 022015
 

Quarterback

The Bills finished above average for the first time since 2004 last season, going 9-7. However, immediately after the best season in recent franchise history, their starting quarterback retired and their head coach quit. That was not good news for a team that was already working without a 1st round pick, after trading it in a deal to get Sammy Watkins during last year’s draft. The Bills solved the head coach problem by landing Rex Ryan, a solid head coach who was let go by the Jets after 6 seasons because they felt they needed to go in another direction.

However, the quarterback situation remains a nightmare. The retired Kyle Orton wasn’t fantastic by any means in 12 starts last season, as he completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while grading out 37th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and leading an offense that finished the season 29th in rate of moving the chains. However, he was still better than EJ Manuel, who graded out 41st among 42 eligible quarterbacks as a rookie and then was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked quarterback through 4 weeks in 2014, prior to being benched for Orton. In the 4 games he started, the Bills moved the chains at a mere 63.30% rate, as opposed to a slightly better 66.67% rate in the 12 games started by Orton. The 2013 1st round pick has completed just 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.43 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions in his career.

The Bills brought in Matt Cassel via trade with Minnesota this off-season, sending a 5th round pick and a 7th round pick to the Vikings for a quarterback in Cassel who will make just 4.75 million this season and who they were hoping could be their new Kyle Orton, a veteran stopgap game manager (the Bills also added a 6th round pick in the trade). Cassel was decent in 2013, grading out 28th among 42 eligible quarterbacks, and has decent career numbers, completing 59.0% of his passes for an average of 6.64 YPA, 96 touchdowns, and 70 interceptions. However, he struggled mightily on 146 snaps in 2014, before missing the final 13 games of the season with a foot injury, and is now going into his age 33 season. He also hasn’t graded out above average since 2010.

He had the potential to be what the Bills were looking for at quarterback, but he’s reportedly really struggled on the practice field in his return from injury this off-season, not exactly a surprise. Owed a decent amount of money next season, there’s talk that the Bills could let him go completely, if he can’t lock down the starting job, to get out of the non-guaranteed money they would owe him this season. This team needs as much long-term financial flexibility as they can get and they can transfer the cap space they save by letting him go to next off-season, when the likes of Cordy Glenn, Marcell Dareus, and Nigel Bradham become free agents.

With Cassel struggling, Manuel seems to be the favorite for the starting job. With the regime that drafted him now gone and nothing but poor tape to show for his first 2 years in the league, Manuel is on a very short leash and is only the de facto #1 quarterback out of sheer desperation. Tyrod Taylor, a free agent acquisition, has a very real chance to make starts for this team this season. The 2011 6th round pick never made a start in 4 seasons in Baltimore and has completed just 54.3% of his passes on 35 attempts for an average of 5.69 YPA, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions in his career. Except maybe Cleveland, no one has as bad of a quarterback situation as the Bills do, which severely hurts their chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the longest active playoff drought in the NFL.

Grade: F

Running Backs

Without a first round pick, it was simply impossible for the Bills to find a solution at quarterback this off-season. Understanding that, the Bills made a blockbuster trade with the Philadelphia Eagles for star running back LeSean McCoy, in hopes that they could build a run based approach that would allow them to move the chains with some regularity, even without a strong passing game. Rex Ryan has long been a proponent of the running game, as his Jets teams averaged 501 carries per season in his 6 seasons there, trying to hide a weak passing game. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman comes from the same school of thought, averaging 491 carries per season in 4 seasons as the offensive coordinator in San Francisco.

A lot of people loved the trade for Buffalo, remembering McCoy’s fantastic 2013 season, in which he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC), while adding 52 catches for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air and grading out #1 overall among running backs on Pro Football Focus. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that McCoy averaged just 4.23 YPC in 2014, rushing for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries, while adding 28 catches for 155 yards and no touchdowns. While he was #1 in 2013, McCoy ranked 55th out of 57 eligible running backs in 2014.

McCoy has bounce back potential for sure going into 2015 and will probably be closer to 2014 than 2013. However, 2013 is still the only season in his career in which he graded out higher than 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, in 6 years in the league since going in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s not an elite running back; he’s a good running back who had one elite season. He’ll still help this running game, after they averaged 3.69 yards per carry on the ground last season (26th in the NFL) and lost CJ Spiller as a free agent this off-season, but the Bills reworked his contract after the trade and will owe him 40 million over the next 5 seasons with 26.5 million of that fully guaranteed. If he continues to decline, at a position with a short shelf life and with 1761 career touches going into his age 27 season, the Bills will really regret that contract.

Even if he puts up two more solid years, the Bills will probably really regret that contract. If McCoy was a free agent this off-season, he probably would not have even gotten that kind of deal, but the Bills gave him that deal and traded away a cheap young linebacker for the right to give him that deal. Alonso did miss all of last season with a torn ACL, but graded out 9th among middle linebackers as a rookie, is only going into his age 25 season, and, most importantly, is only owed about 1.8 million over the next 2 seasons combined on his rookie deal.

The Bills currently have just 2.8 million in cap space for 2016, even at an estimated cap of 150 million, 10 million more than 2014. That’s before re-signing Cordy Glenn, Nigel Bradham, and Marcell Dareus, who all become unrestricted free agents next off-season. This was not a financially smart move for the Bills to make. They’re going all in on a season when a deep playoff run will be impossible because of the quarterback situation and essentially mortgaging their future for, at most, a 1st round playoff exit. It’s a move they’ll end up regretting.

Spiller may be gone, but Fred Jackson, who led the team with 141 carries last season, returns. He’ll backup McCoy and have a significantly reduced role this season, in a true backup role behind a likely 300+ carry feature back in McCoy. That’s for the best because Jackson, who has averaged 573 snaps played per season over the past 5 seasons, appears to be on his last legs, going into his age 34 season. He hasn’t been the same since a 2011 broken leg, averaging 4.01 yards per carry in 2012-2014 combined on 462 combined carries, and has missed 14 games over the past 4 seasons combined.

The only value Jackson still provides is as a passing down back, as he’s caught 113 passes in the last 2 seasons combined. The Bills used a 5th round pick on Karlos Williams, so this is likely Jackson’s final season in Buffalo, as he’ll be a free agent next off-season. With a strong defense (more on that later) supporting them, the Bills figure to run about 500 times this season with McCoy, Jackson, and the quarterback Manuel (or Taylor, who is also a mobile quarterback) in an effort to hide a horrible passing game. It’ll be their best method of moving the ball this season and they’ll be improved over last season on the ground, but this offense is still going to have a lot of problems.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

McCoy wasn’t the only major financial commitment that the Bills made this off-season, as they also signed tight end Charles Clay to a 5-year, 38 million dollar deal and Percy Harvin to a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal. As I said, the Bills are weirdly going all in on this season. In addition to the overall weirdness of the strategy, they overpaid both Clay and Harvin, like they did McCoy. Clay was probably the bigger of the two overpays. Slapped with the transition tag by the Dolphins this off-season, Miami had the right of first refusal on any deal Clay signed, so the Bills essentially had to overpay Clay and structure the deal in a way that it is very hard on the cap in the first 2 seasons, to prevent the Dolphins from being able to match. Clay will be guaranteed 24.5 million over the first 2 years of the deal.

He’s a solid player, but he’s not worth ruining your immediate financial flexibility for. In his 2 years as a starter in the NFL, he graded out 34th among tight ends in 2013 and 14th in 2014, but he’s being paid like a top tight end, as only Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, and Rob Gronkowski have higher average annual salaries. He’ll be an upgrade over 2014 starting tight end Scott Chandler, who graded out 47th among 67 eligible tight ends last season and who was not brought back as a free agent this off-season, but he was an overpay. Also gone as a free agent this off-season is Lee Smith, a solid blocker who graded out above average as the #2 tight end last season. 2013 7th round pick Chris Gragg, who flashed on 215 snaps last season, after struggling on 52 snaps as a rookie, will step into the #2 role behind Clay.

Harvin is more of a reclamation project. He definitely has bounce back potential and he isn’t guaranteed anything beyond 6 million in the first season of his deal, but the Bills are paying him like something more than what he is by giving him that kind of money. He was good in 2012 and prior, but has had a rough past 2 seasons and has seen his star fade significantly since the Seahawks sent a 1st round pick and a 3rd round pick to the Vikings for him and gave him a 6-year, 63 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, following 4 straight seasons in the top-13 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus to start his career, after going in the 1st round in 2009. The good news for Harvin is he got a ring out of the deal (along with a bunch of money), but that’s where the good news ends.

He missed all but 1 regular season game with injury in Seattle in 2013, reportedly caused locker room problems that got him kicked out of Seattle (to the Jets for a 6th round pick), and combined for 51 catches for 483 yards and a touchdown in 2014 between the Seahawks and the Jets. The Jets, unable to work out a restructured contract with him, cut him this off-season, rather than paying him a non-guaranteed 10.5 million dollar salary for 2015. His new 6 million dollar salary is obviously less than that, but it’s still too much for him.

Even in brighter times in Minnesota, he never went over 1000 yards in a season, missed 10 games in 4 seasons with injury, and had issues at times with his coaching staff. Usually a gadget player/slot receiver/return man type, Harvin will be counted on for an every down role in Buffalo, something he never did even in Minnesota (his career high is 650 snaps). He’ll be the starter opposite Sammy Watkins, moving Robert Woods to the 3rd receiver spot. He could be solid at it and it’s important to remember how good he used to be and that he’s only going into his age 27 season, but his recent history hasn’t been good.

Watkins, meanwhile, is coming off of a great rookie year, after the Bills traded their first rounder in 2014 and in 2015 to move up to grab him 4th overall. They definitely could have used that pick this year, but they have to be thrilled with having Watkins. He caught 65 passes for 982 yards and 6 touchdowns last season, as this team’s only real offensive weapon, numbers rookie receivers really put up. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns in their first season in the league.  He wasn’t quite as good as his receiving yards would suggest, as he caught just 52.4% of his targets, but poor quarterback play can be blamed for that to an extent. Even with a possibly even worse quarterback situation again this season, Watkins is still a candidate to go over 1000 yards.

Woods is another young player, but not nearly as good. The 2013 2nd round pick has caught 105 passes on 179 targets (58.7%) for 1286 yards and 8 touchdowns on 1061 routes run, an average of 1.21 yards per route run, in 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average on 924 snaps as a rookie and 921 snaps in 2014. He’s not a terrible player, but he’ll be a better fit as the 3rd receiver, where he’s an upgrade on Chris Hogan, who graded out 72nd among 110 eligible wide receivers in his first significant action of his career in 2014 (188 snaps played in the first 3 seasons of his career from 2011-2013) and now will be a 4th or 5th receiver. Woods, meanwhile, will play outside, moving Harvin to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets, and will be decent depth in the likely case Harvin gets hurt again. It’s an upgraded and solid receiving corps, but still one that’s less than stellar and one will have to deal with terrible quarterback play.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

While the Bills spent a lot of money on offensive playmakers this off-season, with the likes of McCoy, Harvin, and Clay coming in, they didn’t do much to fix a horrible offensive line that ranked 21st in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 31st in team run blocking grade last season. They figure to struggle in both of those aspects again as a result. LeSean McCoy is used to awesome run blocking playing all those years in Philadelphia and goes from Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked run blocking offensive line last year to likely one of the worst in the league this year. Coming off of a down year, McCoy could really struggle to move this offense forward this season for that reason. It’s hard to have an effective run heavy offense without good run blocking and poor pass protection will only make the passing game worse.

The Bills only real addition on the offensive line this off-season was Richie Incognito, who takes over at right guard, where Erik Pears graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season. Incognito should be an upgrade, but he’s not the type of player to turn this offensive line around by himself. He was out of the league entirely last year and hasn’t played since week 9 of the 2013 season, following the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal.

Incognito reportedly got help during his time away from the game and is ready to return. He was solid the last time he was on the field, grading out above average for 6 straight seasons from 2008 to 2013, including 23rd in 2012 and 9th through week 8 in 2013. However, it’s hard to trust someone who is going into their age 32 season off of an entire season off. I don’t think there will be problems with him and his teammates, as guys have been accepted back into locker rooms that have done a lot worse than what Incognito did, but he’s not a huge addition or anything.

Left tackle Cordy Glenn was the only Bills offensive lineman to play more than 40 snaps last season and grade out above average. The 2012 2nd round pick has made 45 starts in 3 seasons in the league, grading out above average in all 3 of those seasons, 33rd in 2012, 13th in 2013, and 26th in 2014. He’s arguably their best offensive player and I think he was last season, but he heads into the contract year of his rookie deal with no extension in sight because of the Bills’ horrible cap situation.

The rest of the offensive line is a complete mess. Eric Wood remains at center, after grading out 25th among 41 eligible centers in 2014. The 2009 1st round pick has made 79 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but has graded out above average in just 2 of those seasons. He’s a marginal starter at best and will remain that, as he goes into his age 29 season in 2015. The rest of the offensive line is just going to be youngsters as 2014 2nd round pick Cyrus Kouandjio, 2014 7th round pick Seantrel Henderson, and 2015 3rd round pick John Miller will compete for the starting jobs at left guard and right tackle.

Henderson is the incumbent right tackle, surprisingly playing all 1086 snaps there last season as a 7th round rookie, starting over 2nd round rookie Kouandjio, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Henderson was horrific, as you might expect, so Kouandjio could definitely take the job away from him. Kouandjio is obviously inexperienced, but Henderson graded out 82nd among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season and it’s hard to be worse than that. It’s unclear right now which of the two will be starting, but it does figure to remain a position of weakness.

At left guard, Miller seems like the heavy favorite, even as a 3rd round rookie. With veterans Kraig Urbik and Chris Williams (who sucked in 2014) gone, the Bills don’t have much of another option. They could move the loser of the right tackle battle inside to left guard, but it’s unclear if either of them would play well there and the Bills have shown no real signs of wanting to do that. Cyril Richardson, a 2014 5th round pick who played 321 snaps last season, is still here, but he was awful last season, grading out 60th among 78 eligible guards, despite the limited playing time. He’s reportedly not seen as a starting option. I expect the Bills’ offensive line to be Glenn, Miller, Wood, Incognito, and Henderson/Kouandjio, once again a weak unit that won’t help what is once again overall a weak offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As bad as the Bills’ offense was last season, they still won 9 games, as a result of an awesome defense. They finished #1 in the NFL in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2014, but only finished the season 20th in rate of moving the chains differential because of their 29th ranked offense. The Bills lost talented defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz this off-season, but add Rex Ryan as head coach, so that’ll make up for that. He’ll be moving them back to the 3-4 type defense they ran in 2013, under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who used to be on Ryan’s staff in New York. The Bills also return 9 of 11 starters last year’s defense and the losses were two of the more insignificant starters, Brandon Spikes and Da’Norris Searcy. They combined to play just 1185 snaps last season, despite technically being starters.

Mario Williams played the “elephant” role in 2013 in the 3-4, playing both 3-4 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker and rushing the passer both from the inside and the outside in sub packages. The 6-7 291 pounder is a good fit for the role and graded out 17th among 3-4 outside linebackers that season. The #1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, Williams has graded out above average in each of the 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, including 9th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, playing well both in a 3-4 and a 4-3. Even going into his age 30 season, he should continue this strong play in 2015.

Williams will probably play more 3-4 defensive end than he did last time the Bills played in a 3-4, because nose tackle Alan Branch, who played well on 610 snaps in 2013 as largely two-down player, is gone, leaving the Bills without an obvious 3rd starting defensive lineman alongside Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, so Mario Williams will play there with some regularity. The Bills lack of defensive tackle depth without Branch in 2014 was obvious, as Corbin Bryant (361 snaps) and Stefan Charles (345 snaps) were the top reserves and graded out 71st and 64th respectively among 81 eligible defensive tackles in 2014, despite the limited playing time.

Aside from Williams, Bryant is their best option to be the 3rd starter in base packages, but he really sucks. The 2011 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average in 4 seasons in the league and has been especially bad over the past 2 seasons. I talked about how bad he was last season, but he was equally bad in 2013, grading out 42nd among 45 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on just 338 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position. Depth on the defensive line remains a serious problem for the Bills.

The good news is Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are both fantastic every down interior defensive linemen who rarely have to come off the bench. Dareus has lived up to expectations since going 3rd overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, grading out above average in all 4 seasons, 15th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 14th in 2012, 6th in 2013, and a career best 4th in 2014. Only going into his age 26 season in 2015, Dareus should once again have a very dominant season. The 6-3 319 pounder is a rare type of defensive linemen who can play nose tackle in a 3-4 in base packages, but also can rush the passer from the interior in sub packages in any scheme. The only concern with him is that he’s had some off-the-field issues and he’ll miss week 1 of the season with a suspension, which will really hurt them in that game.

However, it doesn’t seem like that has affected the team’s opinion of him, as they are trying to get an extension done with him before his contract year in 2015. Even with the Bills lacking long-term financial flexibility, Dareus is expected to get a deal comparable to Gerald McCoy (7 years, 98 million), JJ Watt (6 years, 100 million), and Ndamukong Suh (6 years, 114 million). He’s their #1 priority long-term right now, even if it means they lose guys like Nigel Bradham and Cordy Glenn next off-season and have a hard time adding depth.

Kyle Williams, meanwhile, is older, going into his age 32 season, but he’s equally good and has shown no signs of declining. He has graded out above average in every season starting in 2008. His best season came in 2010, when he graded out 1st among defensive tackles and he’s bounced back well from a serious 2011 injury, grading out 3rd among defensive tackles in 2012, 3rd among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and 7th among defensive tackles last season. I expect basically the same thing from the scheme versatile veteran this season, back in a 3-4. Even with their depth problems, it’s still a great defensive line thanks to Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and occasionally Mario Williams.

Grade: A

Linebackers

In addition to having depth problems inside at defensive tackle last season, they had a depth problem outside at defensive end as well. #3 defensive end Manny Lawson graded out 48th among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, despite playing just 349 snaps. Lawson was alright on 722 snaps in 2013 as a 3-4 outside linebacker, with Jerry Hughes playing just 621 snaps in more of a situational role. He’ll have to play that role again in 2014, even with Hughes now playing every down, because Williams will be playing more 3-4 defensive end. It’ll pretty much only be in base packages because the quartet of Williams, Hughes, Williams, and Dareus is too good upfront in sub packages, but Lawson will play 500-600 snaps in a situational role, run stuffing this season. He could be decent again and has graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, but he’s going into his age 31 season and coming off of an awful 2014. He is a weakness in an overall strong front 7.

As I mentioned, Hughes is now an every down player and should play similar to the 807 snaps he played in 2014, after getting a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal to return to Buffalo this off-season. The 2010 1st round pick was written off as a bust by the Colts two off-seasons ago, as he got sent to Buffalo for reserve linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, after playing just 240 snaps in 2010 and 2011 combined and grading out 25th among 34 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012 on 610 snaps. Hughes turned out just to be a late bloomer, grading out 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and then showed scheme versatility and proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder last season, by grading out 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. An integral part of this dominant front 7, Hughes very much deserved his new deal.

As good as Kiko Alonso was in 2013, the reason they felt comfortable moving him for McCoy this off-season is because Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown broke out as solid every down linebackers in Alonso’s absence last season. I didn’t have a problem with them moving Alonso, but I don’t feel like the Bills got appropriate value in return for a talented, cheap, young linebacker. Bradham and Brown will play as every down middle linebackers this season, after grading out 13th and 15th respectively among 4-3 outside linebackers last season.

They were both first time starters last season. Brown was a 3rd round rookie, but Bradham has some history so I’m pretty confident that he can continue solid player in his contract year in 2015. The 2012 4th round pick flashed on 402 snaps in 2012 and 288 snaps in 2013, prior to breaking out as a starter last season. I don’t mean to say that Brown will struggle, but it’s worth mentioning that he’s not nearly as proven as Bradham and will be harder to count on for that reason. They should remain a solid duo inside this season.

The Bills lost Brandon Spikes as a free agent this off-season. He was only a two-down player at middle linebacker last season, playing 519 snaps, but graded out 9th among middle linebackers in pure run stopping grade. The Bills have a strong front 7 overall, but a serious depth problem behind the likes of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Preston Brown, and Nigel Bradham. The Bills had a decent amount of injuries defensively last season, ranking 11th (fewest) in adjusted games lost. However, much of that was Alonso who is gone. The aforementioned 6 players played a combined 92 of 96 possible games last season, which is unlikely to happen again this season, especially with Dareus already suspended for the first game of the season. Any injuries to those guys would hurt their front 7 mightily, because of their lack of depth. It’s a solid linebacking corps, but there are some problems.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Bills also lost Da’Norris Searcy this off-season, as he signed a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal with the Titans this season, following a 2014 season where he graded out 18th among safeties on 666 snaps. Duke Williams was originally slated to be his replacement, after flashing on 551 snaps last season, in the first significant action of his career, following a 36-snap 2013 season, as a 4th round rookie. However, he struggled this off-season, so the Bills seem to have moved away from that plan. The used their first draft pick on cornerback Ronald Darby, taking him in the 2nd round, and will be moving cornerback Corey Graham to safety to take Searcy’s spot.

Graham was the steal of the off-season for the Bills in 2014, grading out 8th among cornerbacks, after signing 4-year, 16 million dollar deal, coming over from Baltimore. That’s the best season of his career and he might not be able to repeat it, moving to safety for his age 30 season, but he’s not exactly a one-year wonder, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, playing both outside cornerback and slot cornerback. I expect the 5-11 195 pounder to be a solid safety in his first year at the new position.

Darby will work as the 3rd cornerback behind starters Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. Gilmore is clearly the better of the two. The 2012 1st round pick (10th overall) has made 39 starts in 3 seasons in the league and, though he just graded out above average for the first time in his career last season, he’s always been pretty solid. Rex Ryan has been talking him up as his new Darrelle Revis this off-season. He’s definitely not that good, but should have a solid season as the #1 cornerback in his age 25 season.

McKelvin has a much shakier hold on the starting job, after playing 511 snaps as the 3rd cornerback in 2014 and dealing with a serious ankle problem this off-season. He could be pushed for the starting job by Darby at some point this season and the Bills could always move Graham back to cornerback and put Duke Williams in the starting lineup. Injuries have always been the problem for the 2008 1st round pick McKelvin, as he’s missed 23 games in 7 seasons in the league, including 6 games last season. Largely as a result of those injuries, he’s graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, including last season.

He’s tentatively expected to play week 1, but the Bills did admit that he had a setback in his recovery from his ankle problem and that he’ll be missing a significant portion of training camp, at the very least. Things aren’t going to get better for him, especially injury wise, as he goes into his age 30 season in 2015. Nickell Roby is their 4th cornerback and would see significant action if McKelvin were to get hurt again. The 2013 undrafted free agent surprised as a rookie, grading out 27th among cornerbacks on 629 snaps, but fell back to earth in 2014, grading out 89th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 665 snaps.

Back at safety, Aaron Williams will start opposite Graham. Like Graham, Williams is a converted cornerback, after the 6-0 204 pound 2011 2nd rounder struggled mightily at cornerback to start his career, grading out 88th among 109 eligible cornerbacks on 444 snaps in 2011 and 95th among 113 eligible on 563 snaps in 2012. He’s been better since moving to safety two off-seasons ago, actually grading out 29th among safeties in 2013, landing him a 4-year, 26 million dollar extension that he signed last off-season. He wasn’t as good in the first season after signing that deal, grading out 70th among 87 eligible safeties, and has only graded out above average once in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s a decent starter. It’s not a great secondary or anything, but it’s solid and supported by a strong front 7.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Bills appear to have gone all on this season, signing Charles Clay, Percy Harvin, and LeSean McCoy to significant multi-year contracts this off-season, moves that have left them with about 2.8 million in 2016 cap space, before re-signing Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn, and Nigel Bradham. It’s a bad move because the Bills are so limited at the quarterback position to make any sort of run. Their defense was the best in the league last season and still have a lot of good players, but they lost some key players who weren’t replaced, have no depth in the front 7, will probably have more injuries to major players, especially in the front 7, and their secondary is only okay, so it’s hard to predict them to be #1 once again. In some order, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes, Mario Williams, Preston Brown, Nigel Bradham, and Corey Graham are their 7 best defensive players. They missed a combined 4 games last season, great luck that is unlikely to repeat itself.

Meanwhile, offensively, they have arguably the worst quarterback situation in the game, only maybe behind Cleveland. They added talent around the quarterback spot this off-season, with the likes of McCoy, Clay, and Harvin, but they overpaid them and probably won’t get as much help out of them as they were expecting when they signed them. They also still have major problems on the offensive line, particularly in run blocking, which is going to severely inhibit their plan to run the ball a lot and rely on a strong defense. I think they’re worse than the Browns, who have an equally bad quarterback situation, but a stronger supporting cast, as a result of an outstanding offensive line. The Bills went all in this off-season expecting to make the playoffs, but they’re probably going to be much closer to the 6-8 win range and they’ll be feeling the financial hangover of this spending spree next off-season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Bills after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East

Jul 312015
 

Quarterback

Aside from the Baltimore Ravens, no team had a bigger offensive improvement from 2013 to 2014 in terms of rate of moving the chains than the Miami Dolphins, who went from 26th in rate of moving the chains in 2014 to 8th last season. As a result, they went from 24th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 to 10th last year, 2nd best among non-playoff teams. They certainly played well enough to qualify for the playoffs, which should give their fans hope until 2015. The biggest reason for this improvement and for this hope is quarterback Ryan Tannehill, the 2012 8th overall pick, who is coming off a strong season in his 3rd year in the league in 2014.

Tannehill has gotten better statistically in every year of his career, going from a quarterback rating of 76.1 as a rookie to 81.7 in 2013 and then 92.8 last season. He finished 2014 having completed 66.4% of his passes for an average of 6.86 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.  On the season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback. He finished 5th in completion percentage, had a strong TD:INT ratio, with his only subpar area being his YPA average. In his career, he’s been below 7 YPA in every season, including last year.

However, I’m not worried about that for two reasons. One, he wasn’t necessarily inaccurate downfield. The offense just called for him to throw a lot of shorter passes, likely because the Dolphins surprisingly ranked 2nd the NFL in yards per carry (4.69 YPC). Tannehill completed 58.6% of his passes between 10-19 yards downfield, which is better than league average, and, while he only completed 30.2% of his passes 20+ yards downfield, he ranked 22nd out of 38 eligible in accuracy (completions + drops/attempts) 20+ yards downfield, so he wasn’t necessarily bad in that aspect of the game.

Second, I find completion percentage to be a more important stat than anything, as high completion percentage often correlates with your offense regularly being on schedule. I realize that Tannehill’s completion percentage is inflated by the types of passes he was attempting and that he owes a lot of that high number to his running game making things easier for him, but the Dolphins finished 8th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains last season, moving them at a 75.33% rate.

Tannehill doesn’t deserve all the credit for that, but he deserves some, especially as he was dealing with poor offensive line play and an average at best receiving corps. Tannehill also contributed to that strong running game, rushing for 311 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 attempts (5.55 YPC). Besides, while the Dolphins ran well on a per play average, they didn’t run that often overall. Including pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback carries, Tannehill was involved on 66.5% of the Dolphins offensive plays last season, one of the highest usage rates in the NFL.

He hasn’t really had much help on offense, but the 2012 8th overall pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, completing 61.9% of his passes for an average of 6.77 YPA, 63 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions, while rushing for 760 yards and another 4 touchdowns on 145 carries (5.24 YPC). The Dolphins gave him a 4-year, 74 million dollar extension this off-season and I think he was well worth it. Right now, there are 19 quarterbacks in the NFL, including Tannehill, whose contracts have an average salary of 13+ million dollars. Excluding guys on rookie deals, only one other player makes more than 5.25 million annually on his contract. There isn’t a middle ground with quarterbacks in today’s NFL. Right now, I’d say Tannehill is one of the top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL with the potential to get even better, going into his 4th year in the league, his age 27 season, so the deal makes sense.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Dolphins had a great running game last season, ranking 2nd in YPC with 4.69 YPC. That was another why reason why they were so improved over 2013 offensively, as they averaged just 4.13 YPC in 2013, 17th in the NFL. Tannehill’s emergence was a big part of why the running game improved, but the running game helped Tannehill out a lot too, making life easier for him. The Dolphins probably want to become more of a run centric offense, because of how effective it was last season and because of how infrequently they did it last season, but it’s unclear if they have the volume in their backfield to do so. They didn’t think they did last year and their only off-season addition was 5th round rookie Jay Ajayi.

Lamar Miller was a great runner last season, grading out 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus in pure running grade and averaging 5.09 YPC on 216 carries, 2nd in the NFL among eligible running backs. However, there’s a reason why he only had 216 carries in 16 games, just 13.5 per game. The first is that he’s useless in passing situations, grading out below average in that aspect in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2012, including 55th out of 57 eligible running backs in pass catching grade in 2014.

The second is that the Dolphins feel he tires out too much as the game goes on, something that is supported by the 3.81 yards per carry that he’s averaged in his career on carry 15+ of the game, something he’s only done in 11 of 45 career games. No one else could do anything at running back behind Miller either last season, so you had a starting running back with below average endurance and no depth, the reason why they ran so infrequently. Tannehill finished 2nd on the team with 311 yards on 56 carries. Meanwhile, Daniel Thomas finished with 3.82 YPC on 44 carries and Knowshon Moreno finished with 4.77 YPC on 31 carries.

Both are gone and 5th round rookie Jay Ajayi will be the backup running back. Don’t let the fact that he went in the 5th round fool you; Ajayi was seen as a 2nd or even a 1st round pick pre-draft, before teams found out about his bad knee. If he can stay healthy, which he apparently is now, he could develop into a really good #2 back and passing down back (72 catches in his final 2 seasons at Boise State). Ajayi will be a great complement for Miller, but the Dolphins should still give Miller a chance to be a 20 carry per game type back, something he’s done just once in a game in his career. He’s only going into his age 24 season though and has an impressive career 4.64 YPC average on 444 carries, so he deserves a shot to be a feature back, especially on a team without another proven running back. If he can, it’ll really help this offense and and help Miller financially, as he’ll be a free agent next off-season. Even if he can’t, it’ll still allow Ajayi to ease into the NFL before getting more carries by mid-season. It’s a solid and promising backfield.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

While their running game was strong last season, the Dolphins were weak both in the receiving corps and especially on the offensive line, as I also mentioned earlier. They ranked 31st among teams in pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season and 27th among teams in run blocking grade, making their strong quarterback and running back productive even more impressive. The Dolphins were weak upfront in 2013 as well, grading out 15th among teams in pass blocking grade and 30th among teams in run blocking grade. In order to fix this, the Dolphins made significant changes upfront last off-season, leading to an all new starting 5 in 2014, with 4 new starters and no one playing at the same spot as they played in 2013. That complete overhaul obviously didn’t work.

That being said, they could be noticeably improved upfront this season, for a few reasons. For one, Branden Albert, the only offensive lineman to play more than 20 snaps for the Dolphins last season and grade out above average, will be back from a torn ACL that cut his season short during the Dolphins’ 9th game of the season in 2014. He’ll be 10 months removed from the injury by week 1, so his status for week 1 is not in doubt, but what is in doubt is whether or not he can return to form, going into his age 31 season, following a serious injury like that.

When on the field, Albert is a solid offensive tackle, grading out above average in each of his last 5 seasons, including 18th among offensive tackles in 2011, 24th in 2012, 28th in 2013, and 8th in 2014. He was on his way to easily the best season of his career last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle through week 9, and still finished the season with no one playing fewer snaps than him and grading out better at the position. However, he’s getting up there in age and has missed 14 games with injury over the past 3 seasons combined.

Given that they gave him a 5-year, 47 million dollar deal last off-season to help turn this offensive line around, the Dolphins are obviously hoping he can continue playing well for a few more seasons, but it’s unclear if he can do that. What is clear is that, barring another major injury, the Dolphins should have better left tackle play overall this season thanks to the fact that Albert should play more games. Right tackle Ja’Waun James was horrendous on the blindside last season in Albert’s absence, while right tackle replacement Dallas Thomas was even worse on that side.

Speaking of James, he should have a better season in 2015 than 2014, the 2nd reason why this offensive line should be better this season. He won’t just be better because he’ll be able to stay at right tackle this season, but also because he’s not a rookie anymore. The 2014 1st round pick was clearly overwhelmed as a 22-year-old rookie last season, grading out 80th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. It’s unclear whether or not he can ever develop into a solid starter, but he has upside and he can’t be worse in 2015.

The third reason the Dolphins defense should be better this season is that Mike Pouncey will be moving back to his natural position of center, after struggling mightily in 12 games at right guard last season, following an early season hip injury. He graded out 69th among 78 eligible guards last season, but the 2011 15th overall pick made 46 starts at center from 2011-2013 and graded out 22nd, 12th, and 14th in those 3 seasons respectively. Only going into his age 26 season, Pouncey is a major bounce back candidate back at his normal position. The Dolphins clearly agree, giving him a 5-year, 45 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of the contract year of his rookie deal. At the very least, he should be a drastic upgrade over Samson Satele, who was signed off the streets in August and inexplicably remained the starter at center even once Pouncey returned from injury. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked center out of 41 eligible.

While the Dolphins’ should be better at left tackle because of Albert’s return, at right tackle because of Ja’Wuan James’ development, and at center because Pouncey is moving back there, the Dolphins still have a major issue at guard. As much as defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will help this defense (more on that later), the Dolphins might have been better off bringing back defensive tackle Jared Odrick (who got 5 years and 42.5 million from Jacksonville) and using the remainder of the money on guard Mike Iupati, who signed for 40 million over 5 years in Arizona, rather than giving Suh 114 million over 6 years.

Mike Pouncey (792 snaps), Daryn Colledge (763 snaps), Shelley Smith (367 snaps), and Dallas Thomas (362 snaps) led the Dolphins in snaps played at guard last season and graded out 69th, 74th, 54th, and 58th respectively among 78 eligible guards. Colledge and Smith are gone, while Pouncey moved back inside to center, leaving Dallas Thomas to compete with 2014 3rd round pick Billy Turner, who played just 17 snaps as a rookie, 4th round rookie Jamil Douglas, and veteran free agent addition Jeff Linkenbach. Two of those four will be the starters at guard week 1 and none of them provide much hope.

Turner might be their best guard, even though he’s inexperienced, because he’s not a proven failure and he’s young, going into his age 24 season and his 2nd season in the league. However, it is concerning that he couldn’t get playing time as a rookie on this horrible offensive line and he was only a 3rd round pick so there’s certainly no guarantee he ever emerges as a starter. He should be given a shot though. Jamil Douglas is also young, but he was just a 4th round pick this past May and isn’t ready for serious action. If he starts, it’ll be out of complete desperation at guard.

Thomas is also young, but has had a miserable career since going in the 3rd round in 2013. After playing just 2 snaps as a rookie, Thomas played 695 in 2014, 362 at guard and 333 at tackle, struggling mightily at both spots. In addition to grading out 58th among 78 eligible guards on 362 snaps, he graded out 75th among 84 eligible tackles on 333 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse among tackles. He’ll likely be given another shot at guard in 2015, but only by default. His best case scenario long-term seems to be as a versatile reserve/6th offensive lineman, but he’ll likely be counted on to start in 2015.

Linkenbach is the veteran option, but he might be even worse than Thomas. Jeff Linkenbach has graded out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league since going undrafted in 2010. He’s made 36 starts in 5 seasons in the league and struggled mightily in his only season as a full-time starter, grading out 70th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles in 2011. He’s versatile, but, like Thomas, he’s a 6th offensive lineman at best and a pretty poor one at that. The offensive line should be better this season, but remain a problem.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

The Dolphins receiving corps wasn’t as bad last season as their offensive line, but they put a lot of energy into remaking it this off-season and have made it better as a result. The Dolphins got rid of Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline, and Brandon Gibson this off-season and they played 842, 836, and 516 snaps respectively in 2014, but all three of them graded out below average last season and they saved a combined 17.97 million in cash by letting them go, which they re-allocated well. Hartline and Gibson were the worst of the trio, grading out 103rd and 100th respectively among 110 eligible wide receivers in 2014. Wallace was better, but certainly not good enough to justify a 9.9 million dollar salary for 2015, so the Dolphins traded him with a 7th round pick to the Vikings for a 5th round pick.

The Dolphins did a good job replacing that trio and will also have Jarvis Landry, a 2014 2nd round pick and easily their best receiver as a rookie last season, playing a larger role, after playing 702 snaps last season. He graded out 16th among wide receivers as a rookie, even though rookie receivers tend to struggle. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Landry wasn’t even drafted until the 2nd round and he caught 84 passes on 105 targets (80.0%) for 755 yards and 5 touchdowns on 434 routes run, an average of 1.74 yards per route run. He could top 1000 yards on 550 or so routes run this season and could definitely lead this team in receiving yardage.

They also traded for Kenny Stills, who graded out 23rd among wide receivers last season, a steal at the price of a 3rd round pick, especially since he’s only going into his age 23 season and signed very cheaply for the next 2 seasons. He caught 63 passes on 80 targets (78.8%) for 931 yards and 3 touchdowns on 458 routes run, an average of 2.03 yards per route run, in 2014 with the Saints. He doesn’t have Drew Brees anymore, but should continue putting up strong numbers this season. He’ll be option 1b to Landry’s 1a, or vice versa.

Greg Jennings was signed to a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal by the Dolphins this off-season and is expected to be the 3rd receiver. He spent the last 2 seasons with the Vikings, who signed him to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, expecting to get the guy who had 3 seasons of 1000 yards or more in Green Bay. However, Jennings wasn’t able to come close to those numbers without Aaron Rodgers, averaging 64 catches for 773 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2 seasons in Minnesota, prior to being cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 9 million dollar salary this off-season. He’s now going into his age 32 season and hasn’t had a 1000+ yard season since 2010, but he wasn’t horrible in 2013 and 2014, grading out above average in both seasons. He’ll be a solid 3rd receiver.

The Dolphins also used a 1st round pick (14th overall) on Devante Parker, but, without a pressing need in the top-3 at wide receiver, he’s expected to start the season as the 4th receiver, especially after missing most of the off-season with a foot injury. He’s just too behind the 8-ball, after missing all of that practice. He’ll probably steal snaps from Jennings down the stretch, but won’t have a big rookie impact. As I mentioned earlier, rookie receivers, even talented ones, tend to struggle. He should still be a big contributor in 2016 and beyond though. The one concern is that his foot problems date back to his collegiate days at the University of Louisville, so they’re definitely something for the Dolphins to be concerned about. That’s part of why they should ease him into action.

The Dolphins also lost Charles Clay this off-season and he was pretty solid, grading out 14th among tight ends in 2014 and signing a 5-year, 38 million dollar deal with the Bills this off-season. However, Jordan Cameron, who the Dolphins signed to a 2-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season, is no slouch. He’s a downgrade from Clay though. Jordan Cameron had a breakout year in 2013, catching 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, after playing just 398 snaps and catching 26 passes in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2011 and 2012. The 2011 4th round pick didn’t match that production in 2014 though, as he missed 6 games with concussions and caught just 24 passes for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron is a one year wonder with a concerning concussion history and no full 16 game seasons played, but upside.

Even his 2013 season wasn’t as good as his numbers looked as he was fortunate enough to be on one of the pass heaviest teams in the NFL. His 1.47 yards per route run was just 19th among eligible tight ends. Sure poor quarterback play hurt him, but I’d argue that the amount the Browns passed that season helped him more than his quarterback play hurt. After all, the Browns finished 11th in the NFL in total passing yards that season. He’s also graded out below average as a run blocker in each of the last 3 seasons, including 60th out of 67 eligible in that facet in 2014. He’ll be a move tight end who, if healthy, should have an impact in the passing game. Blocking tight end Dion Sims will remain the #2 tight end, after the 2013 4th round pick graded out below average on 280 snaps as a rookie and then 522 snaps in 2014. It’s a remade and stronger receiving corps overall.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Dolphins added Ndamukong Suh this off-season and he’ll really upgrade this defense, after they ranked 19th in opponents’ rate of moving the chains last season and 14th in 2013. They could approach the top-10 this season. Suh is a fantastic football player, one of the best defensive tackles in the game, and arguably one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position. He’s been a top-4 defensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, joining only Gerald McCoy as the only two players who can say that.

That being said, he was definitely overpaid on a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal, with 60 million guaranteed. That is too much for any non-quarterback, except for maybe JJ Watt, but he’s on his own level. Even Watt got “only” 100 million over 6 years. The Dolphins, with pressing needs at guard and cornerback, would probably have been better off re-signing Jared Odrick, who signed for 42.5 million over 5 years in Jacksonville, and adding help at both guard and cornerback. However, there’s no doubt that the Dolphins will be better off with him on board and that he’ll be an upgrade on Odrick, who graded out 19th among defensive tackles last season.

Suh isn’t their only dominant defensive lineman as Cameron Wake is one of the best edge rushers in the game. He graded out 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2009, 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2010, 1st among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011, 1st among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013, and 1st among 4-3 defensive ends. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season. However, I’d call him the best defensive end in the game if not for his age and he’s yet to show any sort of signs of decline so I think we can count on another dominant year from him. Him and Suh on the same defensive line is going to be a nightmare for opponents’ offenses.

The Dolphins have a good supporting cast around Suh and Wake too. Olivier Vernon will be an every down defensive end opposite Wake once again, after grading out 17th among 4-3 defensive ends last season. The 2012 3rd round pick is still a one-year wonder, after grading out below average in 2012 and 2013, including 39th among 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends on 929 snaps in 2013. However, only going into his age 25 season, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he continued strong play. Derrick Shelby, meanwhile, remains the 3rd defensive end, a role the 2012 undrafted free agent has played in each of the last 2 seasons. He’s graded out slightly below average in 2013 and 2014 on 446 and 420 snaps respectively, but he’s a decent 3rd defensive end and only plays as a reserve role behind Wake and Vernon.

At defensive tackle, Earl Mitchell should remain the other starter, going into the 2nd year of a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal the Dolphins signed him to last off-season. He’s a marginal starting caliber player who graded out right about average on 543 snaps last season. He had never graded out above average prior to last season, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010, but he spent 2011-2013 out of position as the starting nose tackle in Houston 3-4. The 6-2 296 pounder is a much better fit in Miami’s 4-3 and could be solid again in 2015.

He’ll rotate heavily with CJ Mosley, who was signed from Detroit as a free agent and who will replace Randy Starks, who graded out slightly below average on 544 snaps last season. CJ Mosley has been the 3rd defensive tackle for the Lions over the past 2 seasons, but he’s made 9 starts, played 836 snaps, and graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons. He’s one of the best reserve defensive tackles in the game. The only issue is he’s going into his age 32 season, but he should remain a solid rotational player. Also in the mix is 2nd round rookie Jordan Phillips. It’s one of the best and deepest defensive lines in the NFL.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Dolphins, in an attempt to overhaul their linebacking corps, signed Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to a 5-year, 34.75 million dollar deal and a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal respectively two off-seasons ago, but that quickly backfired. Ellerbe was Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013, while Wheeler graded out dead last among 4-3 outside linebackers. Ellerbe missed almost all of 2014 with injury and it was a blessing in disguise.

With Ellerbe out and Wheeler moving to the two-down outside linebacker role, Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi had solid seasons in every down roles. Jenkins graded out above average in a breakout year, after grading out below average on 127 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He’s pretty unproven, but can continue being solid in his age 23 season in 2015. Misi, meanwhile, once again had another solid season. The perennially underrated linebacker graded out 12th among middle linebackers. A 2010 2nd round pick, Misi has done that in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons. They should remain a solid duo in 2015.

With Ellerbe and Wheeler gone this off-season, it’ll be the youngster Chris McCain and veteran free agent acquisition Spencer Paysinger competing for the less important two-down outside linebacker. Wheeler played decently there last season, grading out slightly above average, so they do have semi-decent sized shoes to fill. McCain is seen as the favorite right now and I think he’d be a downgrade. The 6-5 250 pounder 2014 undrafted free agent played 46 nondescript snaps at defensive end last season and now moves to outside linebacker. I don’t expect much out of him, but Paysinger isn’t very good either. He did grade out slightly above average on 707 snaps in 2013, but has never played more than 137 snaps in another season in the league, since going undrafted in 2011, and graded out below average on 81 snaps last season. I’d probably go with Paysinger, but the organization seems to like McCain. It’s a weakness regardless, but an overall solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

In addition to guard, cornerback and safety are weak spots for the Dolphins that they really didn’t address this off-season. Cortland Finnegan and Jimmy Wilson played 712 and 458 snaps for them last season, 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played among cornerbacks, and graded out 74th and 94th respectively among 108 eligible at their position. They’re both gone, but the Dolphins didn’t do anything to replace them with upgrades. Instead, they’re going to be relying on the quartet of Jamar Taylor, Will Davis, Walt Aikens, and Brice McCain to fill those two spots.

The Dolphins are probably hoping that Taylor can nail down the other starting cornerback job. The 2013 2nd round pick has played just 344 snaps in 2 seasons in the league though, and has graded out below average in both seasons, so it’s unclear if he can take that next step in his 3rd year in the league. Davis also comes from that draft class (3rd round) and also has barely played, playing a combined 200 snaps in 2013 and 2014 and grading out below average in both seasons. Aikens, meanwhile, was a 4th round pick in last year’s draft and played 64 nondescript snaps as a rookie.

McCain is the veteran option, one who the Dolphins are probably hoping will only have to be depth. Brice McCain was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback in 2011 and looked like a potential future star, but that’s the only season of his 6 year career in which he’s graded out above average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible in 2012 and dead last ranked in 2013. He played 615 snaps for the Steelers in 2014 out of necessity, despite not playing a snap in weeks 1-3, but he wasn’t that good. Cornerback depth is a problem.

The good news is that Brent Grimes remains as the #1 cornerback. What’s concerning is he’s coming off of a down year, grading out below average for the first time since 2009, in the first year of a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal. He graded out 9th among cornerbacks in 2010, 3rd in 2011, and 2nd in 2013, prior to re-signing last off-season. He missed 15 games with a torn Achilles in 2012, but has played all 32 games over the past 2 seasons and injuries weren’t the cause his relative struggles last season. The issue was likely age, something that’ll likely continue being an issue, as he goes into his age 32 season in 2015. There’s definitely bounce back potential here, but his age is becoming a concern.

At safety, Louis Delmas is not as bad as guys like Taylor, Davis, and McCain at cornerback, but he is someone I thought the Dolphins would find an upgrade on this off-season, with Delmas going into free agency. That was because he was coming off of a torn ACL that he suffered in week 14 of 2014 and has a history of knee problems. The Dolphins, rather than upgrading him, brought him back on a 1-year, 2.25 million dollar deal and he will remain the every down starter.

Delmas looked like a promising young safety in 2009 and 2010, starting 30 games in his first 2 years in the league after the Lions drafted him in the 2nd round in 2009, grading out above average in both seasons. However, knee problems limited him to 19 games in 2011 and 2012 combined and he graded out below average in both of those seasons. He seemed to turn his career around in Miami, making 29 straight starts and playing decently as a starting safety, but then came the ACL tear. He’s expected back for week 1, but he’ll be just 9 months removed from the injury, a concern for a guy with as much of an injury history as him, so he might not be good, especially early in the season.

Reshad Jones is locked in as the other starting safety, after grading out 3rd among safeties last season. He also graded out 3rd among safeties in 2012, but it’s hard to consider him one of the top safeties in the NFL because of his inconsistency. In 2013, between those two dominant seasons, he graded out 66th among 86 eligible safeties and he has graded out above average in just 3 of 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010, including just 2 of 4 seasons as a starter. He overall averages out to a significantly above average starter and is the Dolphins’ best defensive back, but it’s hard to know what you’re getting from him. It’s a below average secondary overall and one that probably should have been given more attention this off-season, but it’s supported by a great front 7 on what should be a solid and improved defense.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Dolphins were arguably the best non-playoff team last season, finishing 10th in rate of moving the chains differential, and they should be even better this season. They do have some weaknesses, particularly on the offensive line and in the secondary, but they might be one of the top-5 teams in the league talent wise. I think they certainly have a good chance to make it into the playoffs this year and I think are the best positioned of any 2014 non-playoff team to make a real leap. Almost every season there’s a team that goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye and, especially with Tom Brady suspended for the first 4 games of the season, the Dolphins have a shot to win the AFC East and do just that this season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Dolphins after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East

Jul 292015
 

Quarterback

The Buccaneers finished last season 2-14, tied with the Tennessee Titans for the worst record in the NFL, and got the #1 pick in the draft. They might not have been definitely the worst team in the NFL, but they were pretty close, finishing 30th in rate of moving the chains differential, thanks to an offense that ranked 28th in rate of moving the chains and a defense that ranked 29th in rate of moving the chains allowed. As you can probably imagine, poor quarterback play was a huge part of the problem.

Josh McCown made 11 starts last season and was awful, grading out 34th among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He completed 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. Mike Glennon was a little better, but only by default and he didn’t see much action because head coach Lovie Smith preferred to stubbornly stick with the veteran unless there was an injury to McCown or his play was so horrible that he needed to be benched. Glennon completed 57.6% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in 6 games, 5 starts and 1 in relief of an injured McCown.

McCown is gone now, being cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.25 million dollar salary for his age 36 season in 2015. Glennon will remain a pure backup because, like many teams do when they have the 1st overall pick (13 of the last 18 instances), the Buccaneers selected a quarterback, taking Jameis Winston out of Florida State. Glennon has shown some upside in limited action in his career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2013, but taking a quarterback like Winston when they had a rare opportunity to do so was a no brainer.

It’s unclear how good Winston can be as a rookie, but he should represent an immediate upgrade, even though he’ll only be in his age 21 season. He could struggle as a rookie, as, over the past 10 years, quarterbacks drafted in the top-5 have completed just 57.7% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 148 touchdowns, and 140 interceptions, finding life in the NFL much harder than they expected it to be. Buccaneers fans will have to be patient. Those kinds of numbers wouldn’t be a death sentence, as that group includes the likes of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Matt Stafford, but it’s definitely a reality. Developing a young quarterback is a marathon, not a sprint. Winston should help them win a few additional games this season though. It’ll be up to the rest of the team to also be improved if the Buccaneers are going to make any real noise this season.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers

Winston walks into a pretty good situation as far as #1 picks go. Most #1 pick quarterbacks walk into horrible situations and that’s true for Winston in a lot of areas, but he has a great wide receiver duo to work with. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson were one of 4 wide receiver duos last season to each have a 1000+ yard season (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders, and Jordy Nelson/Randall Cobb). While those other 3 duos all had good quarterback play (Matt Stafford, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers), Evans and Jackson had abysmal quarterback play. Both players could be even more productive this season with a competent quarterback under center.

Evans was the better of the two last season and figures to see the bigger uptick in production in 2015. It wasn’t just that Evans had more yards than Jackson last season (1051 to 1002), he also graded out 13th among wide receivers and caught 58.6% of his targets, while Jackson graded out 32nd and caught 50.7% of his targets. Evans is also younger and has much more upside, going into his 2nd year in the league, only his age 22 season. The 7th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft had a dominant rookie year and rookie wide receivers aren’t really supposed to do that, even the really good ones. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Evans has as much upside as any receiver not named Odell Beckham going into the future.

Jackson, meanwhile, is on the way down, going into his age 32 season, and will be more of a complementary receiver opposite Evans this season. That doesn’t mean he can’t have 1000 yards again with a better quarterback under center and a receiving corps that still lacks a proven good 3rd option, but I don’t see him finishing 9th among wide receivers in targets again like he did last season (138 targets) and he won’t have 1300-1400+ receiving yards, which Evans definitely could. The days of Jackson grading out 6th among wide receivers, like he did in 2012, are gone, but he’s graded out at least above average in all 8 seasons on Pro Football Focus’ history and he could do that again in 2015.

As I mentioned, the issue with this receiving corps is they didn’t have a good tertiary receiving option behind Evans and Jackson. Evans and Jackson are a great duo, but the Buccaneers would probably prefer to not have to target them on 47.8% of pass attempts (254 out of 531) like they did last season. The player most likely to step up this season, if anyone does, is 2nd year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who graded out below average on 464 snaps as a rookie. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league in 2015.

Seferian-Jenkins, at the very least, should see a significant increase in playing time this season, making him an every down starting tight end and pushing Brandon Myers and Luke Stocker into complementary roles at most. Myers and Stocker played 475 and 331 snaps respectively last season, but really struggled, especially Myers, who graded out 53rd among 67 eligible tight ends in 2014. Neither of those two has a good history, as Myers hasn’t graded out above average since he did so on just 84 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2009, while Stocker has graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2011.

The one intriguing addition this off-season was Tim Wright. It was technically a re-addition because Wright was traded by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with a 4th round pick, to the New England Patriots for guard Logan Mankins before the start of last season. When the Patriots released him this off-season, the Buccaneers snatched him off of waivers and reunited with him. Wright was decent in his one season in New England, grading out right around average on 357 snaps, so it’s unclear why the Patriots let him go, but the Buccaneers will take him back.

The 6-4 220 pound 2013 undrafted free agent has carved out a nice role for himself in the NFL as a hybrid player. He can play both as the 3rd wide receiver and the 2nd tight end for the Buccaneers, depending on the situation, and should see similar to the 626 snaps he saw in 2013 in his rookie year with Tampa Bay. He graded out above average as a pass catcher, catching 54 passes for 571 yards and 5 touchdowns, but understandably struggled as a blocker. He could have a decent impact in the passing game this season. His biggest competition for snaps as the 3rd receiver will be Louis Murphy, the incumbent, who graded out 102nd among 110 eligible wide receivers on 472 snaps last season. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out below average in all 6 seasons of his career and shouldn’t be seeing significant snaps. The Buccaneers have a strong wide receiver duo, but their lack of a tertiary option and lack of depth hurts this offense.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Since 2005, 19 of 25 teams that have selected a quarterback in the first round have used their next pick on an offensive player, which I don’t think is a coincidence. If you make a huge investment in a young quarterback, you tend to plan the rest of your draft around helping him feel as comfortable as possible as a rookie. The Buccaneers were no exception, taking Donovan Smith with their 2nd round pick. He’ll start at left tackle as a rookie. Smith will obviously be hard to trust, but he should be an upgrade over Anthony Collins, who graded out 63rd among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season and got himself released this off-season, as a result.

DeMar Dotson remains at right tackle, where he’s been quietly one of the better right tackles in the game over the past few seasons. A 2009 undrafted free agent who didn’t become a starter full-time until 2012, Dotson has graded out 40th, 14th, and 28th among offensive tackles over the past 3 seasons respectively, making all 48 starts over that time period. Dotson has spent much of the off-season trying to get a lucrative contract extension from the team ahead of his age 30 contract year in 2015. Owed just 1.75 million this season, Dotson is vastly underpaid, in addition to being underrated and, even going into his 30s, deserves a pay raise and some long-term security.

Dotson may or may not get that extension, but either way, he should be an above average right tackle for the Buccaneers again this season. There was talk earlier this off-season about him moving to left tackle to replace Collins, but, when the Buccaneers drafted Smith, they announced Smith would be the starting left tackle, while Dotson would be moving back to right tackle. Ordinarily, you want your best offensive tackle on the blindside, but Dotson has barely played left tackle in his career (4 career games) and you risk wasting a solid right tackle if he moves to the blindside and struggles, so I don’t mind the move to let Smith play left tackle. It’s certainly the safer choice.

Smith won’t be the only rookie they start upfront on an offensive line that was clearly seen as a problem by the Buccaneers this off-season, after a 2014 season where they ranked dead last among teams on Pro Football Focus in pass blocking grade (though 8th in run blocking grade). Ali Marpet, another 2nd round pick, after the Buccaneers traded up from the top of the 3rd round to grab him, is expected to start at right guard. Like Smith, Marpet could struggle as a rookie, especially since he comes from Division III Hobart College, but, like Smith should be over Collins, Marpet should be an upgrade over incumbent Patrick Omameh. He graded out 55th among 78 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus last season. Like Collins, he was a big part of their poor pass protection last season.

A pair of solid veterans round out their offensive line, with left guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Smith locked in as starters again, after they made 31 of 32 starts last season. Logan Mankins came over from the Patriots right before the season started, in the aforementioned trade that sent Tim Wright (along with a 4th round pick that turned out to be defensive end Trey Flowers) to New England. Mankins was largely a salary dump by the Patriots and he is overpaid at a scheduled 7 million dollar salary, but he played well last season and the Buccaneers are hurting more for talent than cap space.  He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard last season, grading out above average again, something he’s done in all 8 years of Pro Football Focus’ history. He’s definitely on the decline, as he goes into his age 33 season, but that doesn’t mean he won’t continue being a solid starter this season, coming off yet another strong season.

Smith, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season. He’s only been a starter for the past 2 seasons, as the 2009 undrafted free agent didn’t become a starter until his 5th season in the NFL. He played well in 2013 with the Packers, grading out 7th among centers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts, which got him a 4-year, 14.25 million dollar deal from the Buccaneers last off-season. Smith wasn’t nearly as good in his first season in Tampa Bay, grading out right around average (19th among 41 eligible centers), but he was decent and should be a decent starter again in 2015. He’s being paid appropriately.

The Buccaneers struggled on the offensive line last season, but they should be a lot better this season Collins and Omameh won’t be starting any more, and, even though they’ll be replaced with rookies, they should be better at left tackle and right guard respectively, as a result. Right tackle, center, and left guard were not problems last season and will not become problems this season. Along with the rookies coming in and replacing Collins and Omameh, they should also have better depth this season, a huge problem last season. Omameh isn’t great as a starter, but he’ll be better depth than the likes of Oniel Cousins and Garrett Gilkey were last season. Cousins was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible on just 343 snaps in place of an injured Collins, with no one grading out worse on fewer snaps at the position, while Gilkey was horrible at both guard and center last season on just 214 snaps. They’re still not a great offensive line, lacking top level talents and relying heavily on rookies, but they’ll be better.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Buccaneers also struggled on the ground last season, ranking 24th in the NFL, averaging 3.90 yards per carry. The offensive line wasn’t bad in run blocking, as I mentioned, so the blame does fall on the backs themselves. They didn’t add to the position this off-season and are left without a clear lead back, with 3, if not 4 guys who could see a decent amount of action. Doug Martin (134 carries, 13 catches), Bobby Rainey (94 carries, 33 catches), and Charles Sims (66 carries, 19 catches) all saw decent action last season. They all could see decent action again, as could Mike James, who only saw 20 touches last season, but played well in limited action in 2013.

Martin figures to get the first short at the lead back job, the 4th straight season he’d be the week 1 starter, since being drafted 31st overall by the Buccaneers in 2012. He burst onto the scene as a rookie, rushing for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 attempts (4.58 YPC), adding 49 catches for 472 yards and another score, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked running back. However, his star has faded significantly over the past 2 seasons.

The running back equivalent of Robert Griffin III, Martin missed 15 games with various injuries over the past 2 seasons and also really struggled while on the field, combining for 950 yards and 3 touchdowns on 261 attempts (3.64 YPC) over those 2 seasons, less combined than he had as a rookie. He also graded out 53rd out of 55 eligible running backs in 2013 and 45th out of 57 eligible in 2014. He’ll face a ton of heat for his starting job from Charles Sims, who was drafted in the 3rd round in 2014, but struggled on 237 snaps (2.80 YPC) as a rookie, after missing 8 games with an ankle injury. They’ll be hoping that, now healthy, he can be a lot better in his 2nd year in the league.

That leaves Rainey and James fighting for the #3 job, though either could see a decent amount of action. Rainey is a 2012 undrafted free agent who has rushed for 972 yards and 6 touchdowns and 244 attempts, an average of 3.98 YPC, in his career, all while struggling mightily in pass protection. He was decent last season, rushing for 406 yards and 1 touchdown on 94 attempts, an average of 4.32 yards per carry, while adding 33 catches for 315 yards and another touchdown through the air, but graded out well below average overall because of awful pass protection. James, meanwhile, flashed as a 6th round rookie in 2013, rushing for 295 yards on 60 carries (4.92 yards per carry), but then rushed for just 37 yards on 19 carries this season (1.95 yards per carry) in 2014. Going into his 3rd season in the league, he’s an inexperienced former 6th round pick who is averaging 4.20 yards per carry on 79 career carries. They don’t figure to be strong on the ground at all this season.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Buccaneers had some good players on their defense last season, but didn’t play well as a unit because they had so many holes and no depth in too many spots. They attempted to patch up holes this off-season. Michael Johnson (648 snaps), William Gholston (587 snaps), and Jacquies Smith (470 snaps) led the team in snaps at defensive end, grading out 53rd, 37th, and 38th respectively among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. They didn’t do a ton to fix the position, cutting Michael Johnson and bringing in George Johnson on a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal through a trade from Detroit for a 5th round pick.

Johnson (George) is the definition of a one-year wonder. A 2010 undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, Johnson played a combined 155 snaps in his first 4 seasons in the NFL, spending time on both the Buccaneers’ and the Vikings’ rosters, not recording a single sack, and not playing a single snap in 2013. Detroit signed him as a camp body last off-season and he ended up not just making the final roster, but recording the first 7 sacks of his career. The Buccaneers are banking that Johnson (who was signed off their practice squad by the Vikings in 2012) is more of a late bloomer than a one-year wonder.

However, it’s obviously a risky deal as Johnson is already going into his age 28 season and, even in the best season of his career last year, Johnson still only graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, obviously playing well as a pass rusher in a situational role, but struggling against the run. The transition to being an every down player could be tough for him even if he doesn’t regress. All that being said, he should be an upgrade over what Michael Johnson was in 2014.

Gholston and Smith remain and will play the same roles this season, meaning this is still a position of weakness. Gholston is the favorite to start again. The 2013 4th round pick has graded out below average on 320 and 587 snaps respectively in 2013 and 2014 to start his career. Smith, meanwhile, is a 2012 undrafted free agent who graded out below average on the first 470 snaps of his career in 2014. Weirdly enough, the Buccaneers didn’t use a single draft pick on the position, aside from the one they traded to Detroit for George Johnson, even though it’s such a weak position.

Things are better at defensive tackle. Gerald McCoy is one of the best defensive players in the game. The 3rd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, McCoy has graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and has beaten early career injuries problems to grade out 2nd, 1st, and 2nd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. After missing 13 games with injury in 2010-2011 combined, he’s missed just 3 over the past 3 seasons. The Buccaneers locked McCoy up on a 7-year, 95.2 million dollar extension this off-season, which looked like a bargain when Miami paid 114 million over 6 years for a comparable player in Ndamukong Suh. The only defensive tackle to grade out in the top-2 at his position in each of the last 3 seasons, McCoy very much makes the defensive line respectable by himself.

Akeem Spence was the big problem at defensive tackle last season, grading out 79th among 81 eligible defensive tackles on 502 snaps, after grading out 67th among 69 eligible on 712 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He won’t have a very big role at all this season, barring an injury to McCoy or free agent acquisition Henry Melton. Melton has had issues with injuries in the past, but was very much worth the 1-year prove it deal he was given this off-season, worth 3.75 million.

Henry Melton was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 and 6th ranked in 2012, both seasons with the Bears, but he was limited to 125 snaps in 3 games in 2013 by a torn ACL. Because he was playing on the franchise tag in 2013, he hit free agency last off-season and signed with the Cowboys. The Cowboys only paid 2.25 million plus incentives for Melton in 2014, declining his 3-year, 24 million dollar option this off-season.

Melton did play well when on the field in 2014 though, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle, but he had recurring knee problems and played just 433 snaps. He’s still relatively young (going into his age 29 season), he played well last season when on the field, and he could bounce back in his 2nd year since the injury. Being reunited with Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith, a strong defensive mind who was Melton’s head coach in Chicago for his best years, certainly doesn’t hurt him. He was a great free agent addition and will be a serious upgrade over Spence.

Clinton McDonald, the starter next to McCoy last season, will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season and rotate with Melton. He’s very qualified for the role. A late bloomer, McDonald, a 2009 7th round pick, didn’t grade out above average once in his first 4 seasons in the league, up through 2012, on a combined 794 snaps. However, he had a breakout 2013 season in Seattle, grading out 27th among defensive tackles, earning him a 4-year, 12 million dollar deal with the Buccaneers. McDonald proved he wasn’t a one-year wonder in 2014, grading out 31st among defensive tackles, above average for the 2nd straight season. He should continue being a solid value for them this season, as the 3rd defensive tackle. The additions of George Johnson and Henry Melton might not seem huge, but they’re both significant upgrades over the players they’re replacing and them give them two much needed supporting players on the defensive line around McCoy.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Buccaneers also had a huge problem last season at middle linebacker, as Mason Foster and injury replacement Dane Fletcher were horrible. Like defensive tackle and defensive end, they have upgraded the position this off-season, signing Bruce Carter to a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. Even though he was overpaid, Carter should still help this defense this season. The Cowboys drafted Bruce Carter in the 2nd round in 2011 despite the fact that he tore his ACL late in his final collegiate season at North Carolina. Carter was limited to 41 snaps as a rookie, but he looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season before a serious arm injury cut his season short. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker on 625 snaps and 11 starts that season, 2012.

Moving back to his natural position of 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013, many expected him to have a great season, but he did the opposite, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible. In 2014, he was limited to 8 starts in 13 games and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible. The potential he once appeared to have seems to have dissipated and now he’s a borderline starting linebacker and an injury prone one at that, with 15 missed games in 4 seasons and an ACL tear from late in his collegiate days. Carter did play well at middle linebacker in 2012, which is the intriguing thing about this addition, and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s never played inside in a 4-3.

Lavonte David remains as the three-down 4-3 outside linebacker, a role which he plays arguably better than anyone in the NFL. David, a 2012 2nd round pick, has played 46 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, grading out 6th, 2nd, and 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Only going into his age 25 season in 2015, David is just entering the prime of his career. Going into his contract year, the Buccaneers are hoping to get him signed to an extension before the start of the season and will also be hoping that Carter can at least somewhat resemble the capable every down partner that David needs in the linebacking corps.

Danny Lansanah remains as the other starting outside linebacker, dominating in the two-down role last season, grading out 16th among 4-3 outside linebackers on 569 snaps, including 18th in pure run grade. That being said, he’s a career journeyman who is going into his age 30 season and whose history makes him hard to trust. Lansaneh, a 2008 undrafted free agent, had played just 4 career defensive snaps prior to last season, spending most of 2008-2013 either in the UFL or as an NFL special teamer. There’s talk that the Buccaneers could have him play middle linebacker every down if Carter proves incapable and needs to be moved to a two-down run stopping role outside, but it’s very unclear if he can handle that, as promising as he looked last season. It’s a solid linebacking corps that becomes more than that if Carter can live up to his contract.

Grade: B

Secondary

In the secondary, cornerback Alterraun Verner is another talented player who was stuck on a terrible defense with a horrible supporting cast in 2014, one that is expected to be a lot better this season. Verner performed well in the first year of a 4-year, 25.5 million dollar deal. He missed the first 2 games of his career (78 out of 80 starts made since being drafted in the 4th round by the Titans in 2010), but still graded out 7th among cornerbacks, a career best.

Much of that was because he was far and away the best run stopping cornerback in the NFL and he actually graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he’s still a solid cover cornerback with fantastic run stopping abilities and he has graded out above average in all 5 seasons in the league. He’s graded out 21st, 11th, 25th, 13th, and 7th respectively from 2010-2014, including 12th, 13th, 37th, 17th, and 50th in coverage. He’s the only cornerback in the NFL to grade out in the top-25 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons and should continue strong play into his age 27 season in 2015.

Johnathan Banks and Leonard Johnson struggled on 937 and 401 snaps respectively as the 2nd and 3rd cornerback respectively though. They graded out 93rd and 88th respectively, among 108 eligible cornerbacks. The Buccaneers are hoping that they’ll have better play at those two points and there are a couple reasons why they could. The first is that the Buccaneers brought in Sterling Moore on a 1-year, 1.525 million dollar deal, which could prove to be a complete steal, after Moore was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback last season.

Moore is a one-year wonder who played just a combined 683 snaps from 2011-2013, after going undrafted in 2011. However, he graded out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons and could continue being a solid contributor in 2015 and beyond. He’ll be at least the 3rd cornerback, as he specializes on the slot, but could win the other starting cornerback job opposite Verner. The Buccaneers would probably prefer that he be able to stay on the slot and that someone else steps up as the starter, because Moore is inexperienced outside, but he is an option.

Mike Jenkins was a cheap free agent acquisition last off-season, signing on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal. Jenkins played 32 snaps week 1, but went down with a torn pectoral and missed the rest of the season. The Buccaneers brought him back on a minimum deal this off-season and he’ll have a chance for playing time in this thin secondary. Even before the injury, Jenkins was a marginal player at best, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of the previous 4 seasons from 2010-2013. The 2008 1st round pick had a Pro-Bowl year in 2009, grading out 13th at his position, but it’s been all downhill from there. He’s already going into his age 30 season and he’s graded below average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league. He’s unlikely to be an upgrade over Banks or Johnson, but he wouldn’t really be a downgrade either. In his last healthy season, Jenkins graded out 72nd among 110 eligible cornerbacks on 931 snaps, which is better than anything Banks or Johnson did last season.

My guess is that Banks remains the starter opposite Verner with Moore on the slot. Banks is a naturally talented 2013 2nd round pick, but has graded out well below average in his first 2 seasons in the league, including 100th among 110 eligible as a rookie. He still has upside, going into his 3rd year in the league, but he’s probably on his last chance as a starter and the Buccaneers could have a quick hook with him. Johnson, meanwhile, could start the season as far down the depth chart as 5th because, unlike Banks, he doesn’t have much upside. Since going undrafted in 2012, Johnson has graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons, including a 2013 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 108th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. The Buccaneers’ cornerbacks should be improved by the addition of Moore, but it’s still a weak group overall after Verner.

At safety, Dashon Goldson was the big problem, grading out 86th among 87 eligible safeties. He was traded to Washington this off-season, in exchange for a swap of 6th and 7th round picks in 2016. The Buccaneers will still have to pay him the 4 million they owed him guaranteed, but they saved 4 million by letting him go and somehow got something in return. Like with so many other Buccaneer starters last season, it’ll be addition by subtraction. However, the Buccaneers do still have a completely unsolved safety situation this off-season, with Major Wright (520 snaps) and Bradley McDougald (455 snaps) returning and Chris Conte and DJ Swearinger coming in as free agents.

McDougald, I would guess, has the best claim to a starting job, considering he was the only Buccaneer safety to play more than 100 snaps and grade out above average last season. McDougald is an inexperienced 2013 undrafted free agent, but one who flashed on the first 455 snaps of his career last season, grading out above average, 32nd among eligible safeties. He’s obviously hard to trust, but he deserves a chance to be a full-time starter. The Buccaneers reportedly agree.

Major Wright played 520 snaps at safety for them last season and played pretty well, but will have to hold off free agent acquisition Chris Conte for the job. Both Wright and Conte played for Head Coach Lovie Smith in Chicago. Wright didn’t play terribly last season, but he still graded out below average, marking the 4th time in 5 seasons he had done so. Wright graded out 23rd as recently as 2012, but dead last as recently as 2013. He’s a one-year wonder who has had an overall poor career.

That being said, Conte probably isn’t much better, if he is at all. Conte was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and he made 52 starts in 4 seasons with the Bears, but he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst season coming in 2013, when he graded out 82nd out of 86 eligible safeties in the same awful secondary with Major Wright. Lovie Smith wasn’t coaching that defense so maybe he can get the most out of one of them, but I don’t expect either to ever have too firm of a hold on a starting job this season.

DJ Swearinger is in the mix and could push for snaps later this season. The 2013 2nd round pick is only going into his age 24 season, but was cut by the Texans despite two very affordable years left on his rookie contract this off-season for disciplinary reasons. The Buccaneers inherit those two years on his contract, by virtue of the waiver claim they put in for him, but he’s no guarantee to play well, after grading out 71st among 86 eligible safeties in 2013 and 78th among 87 eligible in 2014. He’ll need to improve both his game and his coachability to make it into the starting lineup in 2015. Outside of Alterraun Verner, it’s still a weak secondary.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Buccaneers have some talented players, including the likes of Mike Evans, Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David, and Alterraun Verner, but went 2-14 because of so many horrible players playing significant roles. That includes guys like Josh McCown, Anthony Collins, Patrick Omameh, Akeem Spence, Michael Johnson, Mason Foster, Dashon Goldson, and Leonard Johnson, none of whom figure to play a significant role, if any, this season. The Buccaneers didn’t add a ton of talent this off-season, but upgraded a bunch of spots simply with addition by subtraction.

The biggest real addition is probably Jameis Winston, who will instantly upgrade the quarterback position. He might not play great as a rookie, but he gives them a ton of long-term hope and should be one of the reasons why they win more games this season. The Buccaneers over/under right now is 5.5 wins. Teams that have an over/under of 6 or fewer usually go over more often than not. This year, Tampa Bay is joined by Oakland, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay in that group and I definitely think Tampa Bay has a better chance to go over than both Oakland and Jacksonville and maybe even Tennessee, who also adds a rookie quarterback. There’s money to be made here. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Buccaneers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Jul 262015
 

Quarterback

Matt Ryan, the 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, started his career 56-22 in his first 5 seasons in the league, but lost his first 3 playoff games. He seemed to be past that in 2012, when he beat the Seattle in the divisional round, even though they came up short in the NFC Championship against San Francisco, dropping Ryan’s post-season record to 1-4. Everything has been all downhill since then, as Ryan has gone 10-22 over the past 2 seasons. Once the guy who couldn’t win in the playoffs is now seen as a guy who can’t win at all. However, both of those assessments put too much stock in quarterback wins as an individual stat. Ryan really hasn’t had a lot of help over the past two seasons.

Ryan himself isn’t playing that badly, grading out 5th among quarterbacks in 2014, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. In 6 seasons in the league, he’s graded out above average in all 6 seasons, including 2nd in 2010, 4th in 2011, 5th in 2012, 14th in 2013, and then 5th last season. He’s completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.19 YPA, 181 touchdowns, and 91 interceptions, while going 66-44 overall, still pretty good, despite recent team struggles.

The offense hasn’t been the problem in Atlanta over the past two seasons, despite problems on the offensive line, in the receiving corps, and at running back, as they’ve moved the chains at the 11th best rate in the NFL in both 2013 and 2014, thanks largely to Ryan. The problem has been the defense, as they finished 27th and 31st in 2013 and 2014 respectively in opponents’ rate of moving the chains. As a result, they’ve finished 20th and 23rd respectively in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 and 2014, and they’ve won 4 and 6 games in those 2 seasons respectively as a result. Ryan is definitely a strong quarterback, but he can’t do it alone.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The biggest problem on offense over the past 2 seasons for the Falcons has been the offensive line, as they ranked 30th in team pass blocking grade in 2013 and then 15th in 2014, along with 23rd in team run blocking grade in 2013 and 28th in 2014. The Falcons tried to fix the problem last off-season with a couple of additions. The biggest one was left tackle Jake Matthews, the 6th overall pick in the draft. However, he was a massive disappointment as a rookie, grading out dead last among 84 eligible offensive tackles. On top of that, he went down week 17 with a Lisfranc injury, which caused him to miss some valuable practice this off-season. He’s back and healthy now and he still has upside, going into his age 23 season with a lot of natural talent, but his career has started off about as bad as it possibly could have.

One addition that did work out was the free agent acquisition of right guard Jon Asamoah on a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal, coming over from Kansas City. He started 15 games and graded out 24th among guards, the 5th straight season he’s graded out above average to start his career. The 2010 3rd round pick has started 56 games in 5 seasons in the league and his best season came in 2012, when he graded out 10th among guards. Only going into his age 27 season, he should continue above average play this season.

Justin Blalock, the other starting guard, also graded out above average, 26th at his position. However, he was released this off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 5.35 million dollar salary that he was owed in his age 32 season in 2015. He eventually retired, after 8 years in the NFL, all in Atlanta. The Falcons brought in Chris Chester on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal to replace him this off-season. Chester is going to be a better fit for new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s zone blocking scheme, but he’s not as good of a player.

Chester has experience in zone blocking schemes, as he played in Washington from 2011-2013 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator and Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan was the head coach. Chester made 48 starts in those 3 seasons and, though he only graded out above average once in three seasons, he graded out 15th in 2012. Even last year, in Jay Gruden’s new power blocking scheme, Chester graded out above average. The issue is that he’s going into his age 32 season, which is part of why the Redskins cut him, saving 4 million on the cap and in cash in the process. However, he’s still a stopgap starting caliber player.

Another reason why the Falcons offensive line was slightly better in 2014 than 2013, other than the addition of Asamoah, was the emergence of right tackle Ryan Schraeder. Schraeder never played more than 15 snaps in a game until week 8 of last season, but was able to take advantage of injuries and struggles at offensive tackle from guys like Sam Baker, Gabe Carimi, and Lamar Holmes. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive tackle on 655 snaps. He’s only a one-year wonder as the 2013 undrafted free agent struggled on 315 snaps as a rookie, but he could easily be a solid starter over the whole season in 2015.

The Falcons also had serious problems at center last season as reserve James Stone took over for an injured Joe Hawley after week 4, grading out 34th among 41 eligible centers on 681 snaps. Hawley isn’t a great player, but he should be an upgrade on Stone as he returns from injury. The Falcons kept him at a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary, coming off of a torn ACL, for lack of a better option. The 2010 4th round pick has graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL, averaged 344 snaps per season, and started a total of 23 games, 9 at right guard and 14 at center. He’s a mediocre interior linemen, especially coming off of a serious injury, but, like I said, he should be an upgrade over Stone by default. Hawley was part of an offense that had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury last season. As a result of likely fewer injuries, among other things, the Falcons should have a better offensive line this season, though they still have some issues.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Despite a strong passing game that took a lot of pressure off the running game (632 pass attempts to 372 carries), the Falcons finished just 21st in yards per carry last season at 4.02. Part of the problem was the offensive line, but the running back talent itself wasn’t very good either. The Falcons have changed things up as a result. Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, who lead the team with 429 and 360 snaps played at running back respectively last season, are not back, after averaging 3.72 yards per carry and 3.74 yards per carry respectively.

Devonta Freeman, who graded out below average as a runner on 65 carries last season as a 4th round rookie, is expected to get a much bigger role. He’s a good pass catcher who graded out above average in that aspect and above average overall on 237 snaps as a result, catching 30 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown, but he’ll need to improve on his 3.82 YPC average in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. He’ll be paired with Tevin Coleman, who went in the 3rd round in this past draft. They’re a pair of very unproven running backs so the Falcons don’t figure to run the ball well again this season either, even if the offensive line will be better.

Coleman was brought in this off-season because they only had one other running back on the roster, besides Freeman, who had at least 1 career carry, journeyman backup Antone Smith. With Coleman being a rookie, that will remain the case, but Smith should still be a clear 3rd running back. Smith flashed last season, rushing for 144 yards and 2 touchdowns on 23 carries (6.26 YPC), while adding 13 catches for 222 yards and another 3 scores, and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus on 96 snaps. However, the 2009 undrafted free agent has just 44 touches and 148 snaps played in 6 seasons in the league, is going into his age 30 season, and is undersized at just 5-9 190. He’s not a real threat for a significant role, even in an inexperienced backfield.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

Easily the most helpful offensive player for Matt Ryan over the past few seasons has been wide receiver Julio Jones, who is arguably their best player. Jones only played in 5 games with injury in 2013, but caught 41 of 57 targets (71.9%) for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns on 212 routes run, an average of 2.74 yards per route run, best in the NFL. Through the first 5 weeks of the season, before going down with a season ending foot injury, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver.

Jones picked up right where he left off in 2014, grading out 6th among wide receivers and catching 104 passes on 156 attempts (66.7%) for 1593 yards and 6 touchdowns on 585 routes run, an average of 2.72 yards per route run, 5th in the NFL. Jones enters the contract year of his rookie deal, his age 26 season, with 278 catches for 4330 yards and 26 touchdowns in 49 career games, coming off of 3 straight strong seasons (15th among wide receivers in 2012 as well). The only issue with him is injuries, as he’s missed 15 games with injury in 4 seasons and has issues with his foot dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Alabama. He should eventually get a long-term deal similar to the 5-year, 70 million dollar deals that Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas got this off-season, most likely from Atlanta. If they can’t agree to a long-term deal with him this off-season, ahead of his contract year, he’ll almost definitely be franchise tagged next off-season.

The rest of the receiving corps is a mess though. Roddy White, at one point, had 6 straight seasons of 1000+ receiving yards, 2007-2012, but he’s been really inefficient over the past 2 seasons. His total numbers haven’t been bad, as he’s caught 143 passes for 1632 yards and 10 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined, but it’s been on 1117 routes run, an average of 1.46 yards per route run, mediocre for a #2 receiver in a good passing offense. He’s also graded out 97th among 111 eligible wide receivers (2013) and 107th among 110 eligible wide receivers (2014). Things won’t get better, as he heads into his age 34 season in 2015.

White has had a great career since going in the 1st round in 2005 and is currently 38th all-time in receiving yards with 10,357, but even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. White is a noticeably declining player who is at the tail end of his career. Owed a non-guaranteed 4.25 million in his age 35 season in 2016, White is likely in his final season with the Falcons.

The problem is the Falcons don’t have another option behind White. Leonard Hankerson, signing as a free agent on 1-year, 1 million dollar deal, coming over from Washington, is currently expected to be the #3 receiver. He’s impressed the coaching staff and played with new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan from 2011-2013 with the Redskins, but he hasn’t played since week 11 of the 2013 season thanks to a nasty knee injury, which included a torn ACL. He’ll be 22 months removed from the injury week 1 and, as I mentioned, the off-season reports have been good, but we’ll see what happens in game action. Hankerson is coming off a brutal injury, has missed 33 games with injury in 4 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 3rd round in 2011, and has never graded out much above average. Even only going into his age 26 season, I don’t see a ton of upside with him.

Hankerson would replace Harry Douglas as the #3 receiver, after he was cut this off-season, going into his age 30 season, coming off a bad year, and owed a non-guaranteed 3.5 million dollar salary. He will have to hold off Devin Hester, who was the 4th receiver last year, but played a decent amount of snaps, at 396. However, Hester has never graded out above average as a receiver is his career and that won’t change as he heads into his age 32 season. They’d be better off going with the youngster because he’s at has some upside and it sounds like that’s what they’re going to do. 4th round rookie Justin Hardy could also be in the mix, but he was more drafted for 2016 and beyond. I expect him to be the 5th receiver as a rookie.

One thing I expect the Falcons to do is run fewer 3-wide receiver sets and run more 2-tight end sets this season. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is a big fan of 2-tight end sets and tight ends in general and the Falcons barely ran them at all last season. #2 tight end Bear Pascoe played just 148 snaps last season, which is how #4 wide receiver Devin Hester was able to play 396, almost three times more. Even #5 receiver Eric Weems had more snaps (202) than Pascoe. They didn’t add a lot of talent at the position this off-season, but they at least added experience and gave themselves more depth and talent than they had last season.

Jacob Tamme is expected to be the starter this season, after signing a 2-year, 3.2 million dollar contract this off-season. He’s not great, but he’ll be better than Levine Toilolo, who was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible last season. Tamme has graded out above average 4 times in 7 seasons, including last season, but he’s going into his age 30 season and has never been a consistent starter in his career, averaging 308 snaps per season and only making 23 starts in 7 seasons in the league. The 6-4 232 is a decent pass catcher, but not a capable #1 tight end.

Tony Moeaki also enters the fold as a free agent. Moeaki has missed 44 games with injury in 5 seasons in the league, including all of 2011 and 2013. He graded out 5th among tight ends in 2010 and 43rd in 2012, but didn’t appear to be the same player, as a result of all of the injuries, grading out below average on 196 snaps in 6 games. Toilolo will now be the 3rd tight end, which is the good news, but the bad news is neither of the two tight ends they brought in this off-season are that great and one of them will probably get hurt, forcing Toilolo back into meaningful action. They should be better equipped to deal with weak wide receiver depth this season than last season, but still not that well equipped.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The defense is the side of the ball that has the most room for improvement this season, after ranking 27th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 and 31st last season. In order to improve the unit, they fired head coach Mike Smith, who comes from a defensive background, and replaced him with Dan Quinn, who has been the defensive coordinator for the Seattle Seahawks over the past 2 seasons. They made the Super Bowl in both of those seasons. Of course, the Seahawks had a solid defense before he became defensive coordinator, but he took them to a next level in place of former Seahawks defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who was hired by the Jaguars as head coach.

He’ll be implementing a Seattle style 4-3 defense, much like Bradley also runs in Jacksonville. Tyson Jackson will play the Red Bryant spot as a big base run stopping 4-3 defensive end. He fits the bill at 6-4 296 and is a much better run stopper than pass rusher. The 2009 3rd overall pick was signed to a 5-year, 25 million dollar contract last off-season, after grading out 14th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, including 8th against the run. However, that contract was a mistake as Jackson graded out below average last season and remains a one-year wonder. He’s graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and, aside from 2013, has generally been a bust in his career. He can be a solid two-down 4-3 defensive end, but that’s not that hard to find. He might not return at a 4.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2016.

The Falcons biggest need going into the draft was to find someone to play the other defensive end spot, like Cliff Avril does in Seattle and Chris Clemons does in Jacksonville. They found exactly that guy with the 6th overall pick, taking Vic Beasley out of Clemson. Beasley is undersized at 6-3 246, but these types of defenses have usually had undersized defensive ends on one side. Beasley won’t play the run well, but he’s a very explosive pass rusher. He probably won’t come close to his potential until his 2nd or 3rd season in the league, but he should provide a much needed edge rusher to a team that’s really needed one over the past two seasons, since losing John Abraham.

Brooks Reed will be the other edge rusher in sub packages, when Jackson comes off the field. He’ll play the Bruce Irvin role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. That’s not his strength. Reed will boost the Falcons’ run defense, but he’s not the edge rusher they’re paying him like, at him 22.5 million over 5 years with 9 million guaranteed. Reed, a 2011 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, making 54 starts in the process. The only exception was 2013, when he graded out 41st out of 42 eligible players. However, Reed has graded out negatively as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons, doing his best work against the run and, to a lesser extent, in coverage.

The Falcons also have Adrian Clayborn as pass rush depth. Clayborn was a first round pick of the Buccaneers in 2011 and he had a decent rookie year, struggling mightily against the run, but getting good pass rush and overall grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus. The story of his career from there was injuries though, as he’s played just 20 games over the past 3 seasons. He missed all but 3 games in 2012 with a torn ACL, struggled mightily in his first year back in 2013, grading out 47th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, and, just when there was optimism for his future again in 2014, he tore his biceps and missed all but 1 game. There’s still upside here and he’s a decent flier, but he’s nothing more than a depth player.

Kroy Biermann is another player in the mix and he actually led the Falcons’ defensive line with 867 snaps last season, but struggled and was part of the reason why they had a poor pass rush. Biermann, a 2008 5th round pick, started his career well, grading out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2009 and their 19th ranked in 2010. However, he graded out 57th out of 67 eligible in 2011, below average again in 2012, was limited to 2 games by a torn Achilles in 2013, and then graded out below average again in 2014. Now Biermann heads into his age 30 season. He’s still capable of a significant role, but he’s an unspectacular player and fits much better as a 3rd or 4th defensive end.

At defensive tackle, Ra’shede Hageman and Paul Soliai should be the starters, but neither one of them will play a lot of snaps. Hageman is inexperienced, grading out below average on 227 snaps as a 2nd round rookie last season, while Soliai is just a two down player. Soliai has graded out below average in 6 of 8 seasons in the NFL, since going in the 4th round in 2007, including 3 of the last 4 seasons. He’s averaged just 531 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons and won’t be getting any better going into his age 32 season in 2015. Like Jackson, he was a mistake on a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal last off-season. He will somewhere play around the 519 snaps he played last season, but Hageman won’t play near the 708 snaps that Jonathan Babineaux played as the starter last season.

Babineaux played pretty well last season, grading out above average, something he’s done in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. However, going into his age 34 season, the Falcons are slowly phasing him out of the defense. He’ll play much fewer snaps this season, rotating heavily with Hageman. A much better pass rusher than run stopper, Babineaux should play primarily in sub packages this season. Grady Jarrett, a 5th round rookie, should also be in the mix for the snaps. Even though he was drafted so late, he could still be a good contributor as a rookie because he was an absolute steal in the 5th round. Like Geno Atkins and Mike Daniels before him, he was under-drafted based on his height and has a good chance to prove a lot of people wrong like they did. It’s still a below average defensive line, but they’re getting better, especially if some rookies can step up.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

I already mentioned Brooks Reed will be the third outside linebacker, playing primarily in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages. Paul Worrilow and Joplu Bartu will probably lead the position in snaps played. They’re a pair of 2013 undrafted free agents who have played a significant amount of action over the first two seasons of their careers. Worrilow has really struggled in two seasons in the league, grading out 45th among 55 middle linebackers in 2013 and 59th among 60 middle linebackers in 2014. The league let him go undrafted just two years ago and he hasn’t done anything to suggest he’s a starter long-term.

Bartu has been a little better, but he’s still graded out below average in both seasons, including 33rd out of 40th eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on 496 snaps last season. He played the run well as a rookie, grading out 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run in 2013, but was so bad in coverage that he still graded out below average overall. He’s a solid two-down run stopper at best. He shouldn’t be an every down player. He could be pushed for snaps by Justin Durant, but Durant is a similar player. He was drafted in the 2nd round in 2007 and has quietly had a very solid career, grading out above average in 7 of the 8 seasons he’s been in the NFL. However, he’s averaged just 585 snaps per season, often playing as purely a two-down run stopper, a role he excels in. Over the past 2 seasons, he’s played just a combined 538 snaps and he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off a torn biceps injury. It’s not a strong group of linebackers.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The secondary was the best part of the Falcons’ horrible defense and should remain that this season, even if they get a little bit better in the front 7. Veterans Robert McClain and Josh Wilson are gone, but they struggled last season on 642 and 458 snaps respectively in 2014 anyway. Now they’re very young in their top-3 at cornerback. Desmond Trufant, a 2013 1st round pick, is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. Trufant has graded out 7th and 6th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2014 respectively to start his career and should continue being dominant, going into his age 24 season in 2015. He’s one of the best cornerbacks in the whole league.

Robert Alford, a 2nd round pick in 2013 in the same draft as Trufant, will be the other starter. He hasn’t been nearly as good in two seasons in the league, grading out 87th among 110 eligible cornerbacks in 2013 on 585 snaps and 81st among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014 on 630 snaps. He might not be ready to be a starter, if he ever will be. The Falcons used a 2nd round pick on Jalen Collins in this past draft and, while he’ll start the season as the 3rd cornerback, he could move into the starting lineup if Alford continues to struggle. He’s no guarantee to be an upgrade though.

Dwight Lowery was their best safety last season, making 16 starts and grading out 43rd among eligible safeties last season (above average), but he’s gone as a free agent to Indianapolis this off-season. That might not matter because William Moore will be returning from injury, after being limited to 327 snaps in 7 games last season. He’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons and missed 33 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league and is unlikely to get better or more durable going into his age 30 season. However, he does have some bounce back potential, after grading out 11th among safeties in 2011 and 15th among safeties in 2012. He’s unlikely to be a serious downgrade on Lowery, but he won’t be as good.

Kemal Ishmael, who stepped into serious action last season because of Moore’s injuries, will remain the starter in 2015, this time opposite William Moore. Ishmael graded out below average last season, but he wasn’t awful. The 2013 7th round pick played just 3 snaps as a rookie and doesn’t seem to have too bright of a future, but he’s not a horrible starter. It’s not a great secondary, but it’s easily their best defensive unit. Trufant is one of the few bright spots on a team that’s become quickly devoid of talent.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

It’s crazy how quickly this team has fallen to the bottom of the NFL, but, if you look at their roster, they once again appear to have one of the worst rosters in the NFL. Outside of Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Desmond Trufant, they really don’t have much other than problems throughout this roster. Having the quarterback position stabilized is very valuable and Ryan will help them win some games that they otherwise shouldn’t have, but I see this team once again in the cellar of the NFL, after winning a combined 10 games over the past 2 seasons. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Falcons after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Jul 242015
 

Quarterback

The Panthers were one of the best teams in the whole NFL in 2013, winning 12 games and the NFC South and finishing the season 4th in rate of moving the chains differential. They were dominant on both sides of the ball, ranking 6th in rate of moving the chains and 5th in rate of moving the chains allowed. In 2014, the Panthers repeated as NFC South champions, the first time there had been a repeat winner in division history. However, they weren’t nearly as good as they finished at 7-8-1, one of just two teams to ever make the playoffs with a losing record. They were a little bit better than their record in rate of moving the chains, ranking 14th in rate of moving the chains differential, but they still weren’t great. They finished 12th in rate of moving the chains and 18th in rate of moving the chains allowed, both steep drop offs from 2013.

The reason for that is the Panthers lost a lot in free agency last off-season. Cam Newton had the worst quarterback rating of his career at 82.1, completing 58.5% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. However, a lot of that was the fault of his weak receiving corps and offensive line. Newton still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, making it 4 straight seasons where he’s graded out above average to start his career. He graded out 14th in 2011, 11th in 2012, and 15th in 2013.

Even though he was only average as a passer, he remained arguably the best running quarterback in the NFL, rushing for 539 yards and 5 touchdowns on 103 attempts. In his career, he’s rushed for 2571 yards and 33 touchdowns on 467 attempts in just 4 seasons. On top of that, he’s completed 59.5% of his passes for an average of 7.50 YPA, 82 touchdowns, and 54 interceptions, despite generally having weak supporting casts. This off-season he signed a 5-year, 103.8 million dollar extension that locks him in as their franchise quarterback into the future.

Newton’s only issue last season was injuries, but he didn’t let it affect his play much. He only missed 2 games with injury (one of which was actually the result of a car accident), but he dealt with back, ankle, rib, and foot problems throughout the season. However, those were the first 2 games he’s missed with injury in his career. He takes a lot of hits from pass rushers as a result of a weak offensive line, but he generally is able to tough it out through them thanks to his 6-5 244 frame, much like Ben Roethlisberger early in his career, so I wouldn’t call him injury prone at all.

Newton was especially good in his final 4 games after the Panthers’ week 12 bye, as he was able to rest his whole body. He completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.39 yards per attempt, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions over that tiny period, while rushing for 246 yards and 3 touchdowns on 39 attempts. He continued with that in the playoffs, completing 60.3% of his passes for an average of 6.53 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 72 yards on 18 attempts. If the Panthers are able to protect Newton better and his supporting cast is able to be more helpful in 2015, the Panthers should be a much improved offense. Newton is one of their few offensive building blocks.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Of course, it wasn’t just Newton getting healthier that led to the Panthers’ improved offense after the bye. The Panthers moved the chains at a 77.38% rate in their final 5 games, allowing them to steal the division. That includes a game that Newton missed with injury, as backup Derek Anderson led them to move the chains at a 76.32% rate week 15, albiet against the hapless Buccaneers. One of the big improvements after the bye was a season ending injury to Nate Chandler, who graded out 68th among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 11 games at right tackle. He was put on IR during the bye.

It was addition by subtraction and allowed undrafted rookie Mike Remmers to step into the starting lineup. He impressed, grading out above average on 367 snaps in 5 starts. He enters the season as the favorite at right tackle, but he’s hard to trust. No one drafted him last off-season, which is still relevant because he’s still inexperienced. He also struggled mightily in the playoffs. He’s still far from being an established starter, but the Panthers don’t have another option and he has at least some upside.

The biggest issue on the offensive line last season was left tackle, as Byron Bell graded out 83rd among 84 eligible offensive tackles in 15 starts. The Panthers didn’t really do much to fix that position this off-season, replacing one of the worst tackles in the NFL over the past few seasons with another one of the worst tackles in the NFL over the past few seasons, Michael Oher. Oher was cut by the Titans this off-season 1 year into a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal, despite the fact that they paid him 9 million guaranteed for one season. The Panthers inexplicably signed him to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season, didn’t add any competition for him at left tackle through the tackle, and have spent the off-season talking him up. He didn’t deserve anything more than the veteran’s minimum this off-season.

The big contract the Titans gave Oher last off-season seemed doomed from the start. He was coming off of an awful season to end a generally disappointing 5-year tenure in Baltimore, after going in the first round in 2009. In 2013, his final year in Baltimore, he was Pro Football Focus 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. In 2014, his first year in Tennessee, Oher predictably struggled once again, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 75th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible in 11 games, before going down for the season with an injury. He hasn’t graded out above average since his rookie year in 2009.

Between his struggles and Remmers’ inexperience, the Panthers don’t have a strong group of tackles. The Panthers used a 4th round pick on offensive tackle Daryl Williams, but he doesn’t figure to be much of a help as a rookie. Poor tackle play was a big reason why the Panthers’ offensive line was so bad last season, as they ranked 30th on Pro Football Focus in team pass blocking grade and 22nd in run blocking grade. They really missed Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton, key players upfront on the 2013 team who retired last off-season. That’s a big part of why Newton sustained so many injuries. A poor offensive line is definitely not part of the recipe for keeping your highly paid franchise quarterback on the field for 16 games, even as big as Newton is.

Things are better on the interior. Amini Silatolu, a 2012 2nd round pick, played just 1 game after week 6 last season thanks to injury and, like Chandler, he was drastically outplayed by a rookie and seems to have lost his starting job permanently. Andrew Norwell, like Mike Remmers, was an undrafted rookie, but he graded out 15th among guards on 696 snaps in 10 starts so he’s a little bit more experienced than Norwell. Silatolu remains in the mix for the starting job, but is seen as a large underdog. After struggling as a starter as a rookie, Silatolu has been limited to 10 games in the past 2 seasons combined thanks to injury. Norwell is not a proven starter yet, but he’s the better option.

Another rookie played well at right guard too, this time one that was actually drafted. Trai Turner, a 3rd rounder out of LSU, graded out 23rd among guards despite playing just 673 snaps (9 starts in 13 games). He was significantly better than his eventual backup Fernando Velasco, who graded out below average on 407 snaps, so having Turner healthy and starting for the whole season should be a boost, but he’s also unproven. A lot is dependent on unproven young players (who generally weren’t drafted high) upfront for Carolina, which is concerning, but the Panthers played their best offensive football last season down the stretch, thanks largely to these rookies.

Ryan Kalil is the only proven veteran upfront for the Panthers, as the center is going into his 9th year in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in the 2007 NFL Draft. He’s made 100 starts in 8 seasons in the league and has graded out above average in 5 of the last 6 seasons (with the exception being an injury shortened 2012 season), including 11th last season. Still only going into his age 30 season, he’s one of the better centers in the NFL and definitely the Panthers’ best offensive lineman. It should be an improved offensive line this season, but that wouldn’t be saying much and they’re still very dependent on unproven young players.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Cam Newton and the offensive line weren’t the only ones that played better after the bye last season for the Panthers. Running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for 486 yards and a touchdown on 91 attempts in those 5 games (5.34 yards per carry). He was helped by Newton’s strong play and the offensive line’s strong play, but I think he was the single biggest reason why, after the bye, the 2014 Panthers resembled the 2013 Panthers in terms of their ability to move the chains consistently. The difference is Stewart was finally healthy, after missing 3 games with injury and being limited to 84 carries in 8 games before the bye because of injury.

Injuries have been a huge problem with him over the past 3 seasons. Not only did he miss those 3 games, but he also missed 17 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 respectively, making it 20 missed games in 3 seasons. He’s also never had more than 221 carries in a season. He’s a great running back when on the field though, with a 4.63 YPC average and 30 career rushing touchdowns on 1041 attempts, grading out above average in 5 of 7 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He’s also only going into his age 28 season and coming off of a season where he averaged 4.62 yards per carry and graded out 7th at his position on Pro Football Focus. If he can stay healthy, he could have a strong year and go over 1000+ yards for only the 2nd time in his career, but that’s a big if.

The Panthers better hope he can stay healthy because their depth is suspect, after the release of DeAngelo Williams (1167 carries over the past 7 seasons) this off-season. Williams averaged just 3.53 yards per carry last season, so he won’t really be missed, but they don’t have a good alternative #2 back. 5th round rookie Cameron Artis-Payne could easily win the #2 job. His only veteran competition is Jordan Todman, who has rushed for just 450 yards and 3 touchdowns on 111 attempts (4.05 YPC) in 4 years in the league, since going in the 6th round in 2011. It’s not a good backup running back situation, especially for a team who is going to be counting on an injury prone back to have 250+ carries, which would be a career high.

Mike Tolbert is an experienced back who is decently well paid, set to make 2.45 million in the final year of a 4-year, 10 million dollar deal. The 5-9 243 pound fullback type only averages 3.81 yards per carry in his career and averaged just 2.11 yards per carry last season. Once a solid fullback (2nd in 2012 and 3rd in 2013), Tolbert was all the way down at 22nd out of 23 eligible fullbacks last season and looks like a declining player going into his age 30 season. He’s not a real candidate for serious carries. Cam Newton has a very good chance to finish in the top-2 among Panthers in rushing yards for the 4th straight season in 2015.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

In addition to the offensive line, another place the Panthers had serious losses last season was in the receiving corps. Both starting receivers from 2013, Steve Smith and Brandon LaFell, left last off-season. Neither one of them was great in 2013, but both had better seasons elsewhere in 2014 and the Panthers didn’t do a great job of replacing them, leading to a poor receiving corps. A combination of a receiving corps that couldn’t consistently get open and an offensive line that couldn’t consistently protect long enough made life very tough Cam Newton in 2014.

It might sound weird to stay that Newton had a weak receiving corps because the Panthers were one of five teams with two 1000+ yard receivers (Calvin Johnson/Golden Tate, Vincent Jackson/Mike Evans, Randall Cobb/Jordy Nelson, Demaryius Thomas/Emmanuel Sanders). However, that was largely because they didn’t have any receiving options after wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and tight end Greg Olsen. Those two received 49.25% of the Panthers targets, the highest percentage by any two teammates.

Benjamin had a big statistical year as a rookie, as the 6-5 240 pound first round pick caught 73 passes for 1008 yards and 9 touchdowns. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. However, Benjamin didn’t actually play that well. That might sound weird, but any time you finish 20th among wide receivers in receiving yards and 5th among wide receivers in targets, you weren’t very efficient. He graded out 85th among 110 eligible wide receivers as a result. The good news is that Benjamin still has a bright future, only going into his age 24 season, and could definitely be improved in 2015. As I mentioned earlier, it’s tough for even the most talented of rookie receivers to transition to the NFL.

Benjamin was definitely the best of the Panthers’ wide receivers last season though, hence why he got so many targets. The Panthers’ next three wide receivers (Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, and Corey Brown) combined for just 4 more targets than Benjamin last season. Benjamin deserves credit for dealing with weekly double teams as a rookie. The Panthers added Devin Funchess in the 2nd round of the draft and he’s expected to start opposite Benjamin, moving the veteran Cotchery into more of a reserve role. He should have a lot of the same issues adjusting to the NFL quickly as Benjamin did and, talent wise, the 6-4 232 pound collegiate wide receiver/tight end is, at best, a poor man’s Benjamin, so he should have serious efficiency problems. Rated as a major reach by College Football Focus, Funchess is unlikely to be an asset as a rookie and maybe not ever.

Cotchery, meanwhile, will compete with Corey Brown for the #3 receiver job this off-season. Cotchery is the veteran of the bunch, while Brown is yet another undrafted free agent from the 2014 class, but the youngster would seem to have the advantage. He flashed last season, grading out slightly above average on 314 snaps as a rookie, catching 21 passes for 292 yards and 2 touchdowns and adding 8 carries for 93 yards on the year, taking over the #3 receiver job following the release of veteran Jason Avant.

The 5-11 180 pounder has obvious physical limitations and there’s a reason why no one drafted him, but he’s a nice niche player as a slot receiver/gadget player out of the backfield. Cotchery, meanwhile, was overstretched as a starting receiver last year, playing 803 snaps and grading out below average. He’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 5 seasons (averaging 545 snaps per season over that time period) and now heads into his age 33 season. He’s a depth receiver at best at this stage of his career.

The Panthers don’t just have depth problems at wide receiver; they do at tight end as well. The Panthers also really missed blocking tight end Ben Hartsock last season, after he retired as well (like Gross and Wharton). Ed Dickson was the #2 tight end in 2014 and really sucked. That’s no surprise, considering he has graded out below average in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL (4 with the Ravens and the last one with the Panthers), since the Ravens drafted him in the 3rd round in 2010, including each of the last 3 seasons. He’s been especially bad in each of the past 2 seasons, grading out 63rd out of 64 eligible tight ends in 2013 and 60th out of 67 eligible last season. Why the Panthers re-signed him to a 3-year, 6.8 million dollar deal this off-season to play the same role again is beyond me.

Greg Olsen is the saving grace of this receiving corps and their best offensive weapon. Like Benjamin, he had a 1000+ yard season, but, unlike Benjamin, he didn’t need a ton of targets to do it. He finished 2nd among tight ends in receiving yards, only behind Rob Gronkowski, and 3rd in targets. A strong blocker and all-around tight end as well, Olsen was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked tight end last season. This is nothing too new for him (although that was a career best), as he’s graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2007, including above average as a pass catcher in all 8 seasons.

He’s not flashy, but he’s productive (3 straight seasons of 800+ receiving yards), he doesn’t have a weakness, and he’s a huge part of Carolina’s offense. He also hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2007. He’s going into his age 30 season, but, coming off the best season of his career, he’s showing no signs of declining any time soon. The Panthers clearly trust him long-term, giving him a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of a contract year where he was set to make just 5.5 million. He’s scheduled to make 28 million dollars total over the next 4 seasons. Other than him, the Panthers’ receivers are not a strong group at all though, which makes him all the more important.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Not unlike the offense, the defense also declined significantly from 2013 to 2014, and for the same reason, as the Panthers suffered a bunch of losses on defense. The losses were most numerous in the secondary and I’ll get to those, but the biggest loss was the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy. Hardy was one of the best defensive players in the game in 2012 and 2013, leading to the Panthers giving him an 11.3 million dollar franchise tag to keep him away from free agency last off-season. However, Hardy ended up playing just 1 game, missing the final 15 with a team issued suspension, facing public pressure to keep Hardy off-the-field while he was being tried for domestic abuse. Hardy was not brought back this off-season, even though a jury threw out a judge’s conviction on a technicality.

In his absence, they didn’t fare well at his old defensive end spot, as Wes Horton, Mario Addison, and Kony Ealy graded out 49th, 39th, and 56th respectively out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Ealy was the worst of the bunch, despite playing just 368 snaps. No 4-3 defensive end played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. However, he’s the favorite for the starting job in 2015, thanks to his status as a 2014 2nd round pick. He still has upside, but his career is off to a bad start.

Charles Johnson is locked into the other starting spot once again. The 2007 3rd round pick has made 81 starts in 109 games in 8 years in the league and has graded out above average in the last 7, including 11th last season. He was re-signed to a monster 6-year, 76 million dollar deal 4 off-seasons ago and, while he hasn’t lived up to his outstanding 2011 season, when he graded out #3 among 4-3 defensive ends, he’s still been a huge asset for them. Only going into his age 29 season, I expect that to continue, but he’ll need to be a little bit more than just an asset to justify a 11 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016, his age 30 season. This could be his 9th and final season in Carolina.

Wes Horton and Mario Addison return and will compete for the #3 defensive end job, which will rotate heavily with Kony. Horton, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league, grading out well below average on 174 snaps in 2013 and 475 snaps in 2014. He’s a long shot for the #3 job. The real battle will be between Addison and Frank Alexander, who is back on good terms with the team after missing 14 games with suspension last season, as a result of multiple failed drug tests.

Addison, a 2011 undrafted free agent, graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, but wasn’t very good in 2014 and has averaged just 240 snaps per season in his 4-year career. Alexander, meanwhile, played just 24 snaps last season, as a result of the aforementioned suspensions, and graded out below average both as a 4th round rookie in 2012 on 568 snaps and again 2013 on 239 snaps. Outside of Johnson, defensive end is a weak position for the Panthers.

Things are much better at defensive though, where Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will both start for the 3rd straight season, after the Panthers drafted them in the 1st and 2nd rounds respectively in the 2013 NFL Draft. Lotulelei has graded out 17th and 24th among defensive tackles in the last 2 seasons respectively, while Short has graded out 13th and 9th among defensive tackles over those 2 seasons. Short is the better of the two and one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL, but Lotulelei is solid as well. They are a real strength on this team and they should continue to play well, as both are only going into their age 26 seasons.

Dwan Edwards remains as a veteran backup and will once again be the 3rd defensive tackle.  Edwards has graded out below average in each of the last 5 seasons, averaging 595 snaps per season over that time period. In 2014, he graded out 63rd out of 81 eligible defensive tackles on 591 snaps. Going into his age 34 season, things aren’t going to get better. The Panthers overpaid him on a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season. The depth isn’t ideal, but it’s a strong defensive line thanks to the presence of Short, Lotulelei, and Johnson.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Panthers shockingly drafted linebacker Shaq Thompson 25th overall. He wasn’t on a lot of people’s first round radar and he was rated as one of the worst picks of the first round by College Football Focus, who didn’t feel he was anything special as a prospect. The fact that it was seen as a surprise wasn’t just because it was such a reach, but because Thompson’s best attribute is his coverage ability at 6-0 228 an the Panthers already have two outstanding coverage linebackers in Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. They don’t need a 3rd linebacker in sub packages.

Thompson is a raw athlete who can play both linebacker and safety and who also dabbled at running back in college, but he can’t play safety in sub packages. He could play there in base packages, but hasn’t seen much, if any action there this off-season, which suggests he’ll spend his rookie year as the 3rd linebacker, playing just in base packages as a run stopping specialist. Considering stopping the run is the undersized linebacker’s weakness, that’s not a good fit for his skill set and he might not even grade out above average in limited action like AJ Klein did in that role last season.

Klein, as the 3rd linebacker, played just 289 snaps last season because they frequently went to 3-cornerback sets last season, not trusting their secondary to be able to cover with 4 and trusting their linebackers to stop the run with 2. Thompson should play more than that this season, but I don’t see him playing much more than 500 snaps as a rookie. He just doesn’t fill a pressing need and simply adds to a strength. Long-term, his best case scenario is a poor man’s version of Thomas Davis, another undersized outside linebacker at 6-1 231, but in the short-term, I don’t see him being an asset.

Fortunately for the Panthers, Kuechly and Davis are so good. Kuechly, the 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, has graded out 7th, 8th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and is among the best in the game at his position. Only going into his age 24 season, Kuechly might just be entering his prime. He’s owed just 13.2 million over the next 2 seasons, but the Panthers have plenty of incentive to get a long-term extension done with him over the next calendar year ahead of a 2016 contract year, so that deal could happen at some point soon. He’s expected to be the highest paid middle linebacker in NFL history.

Davis is older, already going into his age 32 season, but he’s been almost as good over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 and 5th in 2014. Davis has somewhat miraculously played in 46 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons combined, after being limited to 9 games total from 2009-2011 by 3 separate ACL tears. Davis has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, especially dominating over the past 2. You do worry about him going into his age 32 season with that kind of injury history, but he’s shown no signs of decline yet. The Kuechly/Davis duo is the best part of the Panthers and one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

As I mentioned, the part of the defense that had the most numerous losses from 2013 to 2014 was the secondary. The Panthers lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs, a combined 3200 snaps walking out the door with Captain Munnerlyn, Drayton Florence, Quentin Mikell, and Michael Mitchell. Munnerleyn and Florence were Pro Football Focus’ 10th and 19th ranked cornerbacks in 2013, while Mikell and Mitchell were Pro Football Focus’ 31st and 33rd ranked safeties. All 4 of those players were signed for close to the veteran’s minimum in 2013 though, as the Panthers did a fantastic job finding cheap values. They attempted to do the same again last off-season, but that proved to be easier said than done. Their secondary was definitely worse in 2014 than 2013 and their whole defense was worse, in part, because of that.

They should have more continuity this season, as they only lost cornerback Antoine Cason and safety Thomas DeCoud this off-season. They both sucked last season anyway, grading out 97th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks and 74th out of 87 eligible safeties respectively on Pro Football Focus. In addition to the improved continuity, the Panthers should be better in the secondary this season because those two are gone, addition by subtraction. There’s a reason why both players remain unsigned as of this writing, as free agents.

Bene Benwikere was probably the Panthers’ best defensive back last season, a pleasant surprise on 459 snaps as a 5th round rookie. After grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked cornerback last season, despite the limited playing time, he is expected to get a chance as an every down starting cornerback in 2015. Like guys like Remmers and Norwell on offense, the fact that he fell to the 5th round of the draft isn’t irrelevant for him yet, because he’s so inexperienced, but he has solid upside and could be a solid starter in 2015.

Josh Norman will probably be the other starter, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked cornerback on 647 snaps last season. However, the 2012 5th round pick enters his contract year as a one-year wonder, after grading out 96th among 113 eligible cornerbacks on 788 snaps as a rookie and grading out below average on 103 snaps in an injury shortened 2013 season. He could be a solid starter again in 2015, but he’s really hard to trust because of his history.

Charles Tillman and Melvin White will compete for the #3 job this off-season, moving Benwikere to the slot in sub packages. Tillman was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback as recently as 2012, but was limited to 10 games in 2013 and 2014 respectively by two separate triceps tears. Heading into his age 34 season, Tillman’s best days are definitely behind him and he reportedly considered retirement this off-season, before the Panthers gave him a chance on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. They were likely the only team to offer him more than the minimum. Even if he’s healthy, he could lose out to Melvin White for the #3 job. White is a 2013 undrafted free agent has graded out below average on 697 snaps in 2013 and 522 snaps in 2014. Last season he was especially bad, grading out 94th among 108 eligible cornerbacks.

Meanwhile at safety, Tre Boston, another rookie who graded in limited action last season, will be taking over for DeCoud. He flashed on 369 snaps, grading out above average and 21st among safeties, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. The 2014 4th round pick is in the same boat as Benwikere. He’s flashed in limited action, but it’s hard to trust him in a starting role because of his inexperience and his draft status. However, like Benwikere should be an upgrade over Cason, I do expect Boston to be an upgrade over DeCoud.

Roman Harper is locked into the other starting job again. While the concern with Boston is that he’s too young and inexperienced, the concern with Harper is that he’s going into his age 33 season. While he graded out slightly below average last season, that might not be the case in 2015, especially since Harper really struggled in the seasons prior to arriving in Carolina. He graded out below average in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including 86th among 88 eligible in 2012, which led to a significantly reduced role in 2013 (374 snaps) prior to his release from New Orleans. He’s really hard to trust. It’s once again a patchwork secondary, but they’ve done a solid job patching it together and they’re not quite going to be terrible as a unit.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Panthers had arguably the strongest rookie class in the NFL last season. It’s not even just 1st round pick Kelvin Benjamin, and 2nd round pick Kony Ealy actually really struggled as a rookie. However, 5 players drafted in the 3rd round or later (or not drafted at all) figure to start for them this season and all 5 graded out above average last season, 3rd round guard Trai Turner, 4th round safety Tre Boston, 5th round cornerback Bene Benwikere, undrafted guard Andrew Norwell, and undrafted offensive tackle Mike Remmers.

That makes them a young team, relying on a lot of unproven players who weren’t regarded highly coming out of college, but those 5 will just need to complement their better players as, by my count, they have at least 7 of the top-200 players in the NFL, quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil, defensive end Charles Johnson, defensive tackle Kawaan Short, outside linebacker Thomas Davis, and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. They should be better in 2015 than they were in 2014, especially given the way they closed out last season once all of their young talent started clicking.

That being said, they still have major holes at certain spots and I really don’t like what they did this off-season. They overpaid for washed up veterans like Michael Oher, Dwan Edwards, Ed Dickson, and Charles Tillman, all of whom weren’t worth more than minimum deals. I think they also reached majorly with their first 2 draft picks, Shaq Thompson and Devin Funchess, and they only had 5 draft picks overall. That being said, GM Dave Gettleman did a great job of finding values in the draft and in free agency in his first 2 seasons on the job, taking over a team that was in a lot of trouble cap-wise after the end of the Marty Hurney era. Perhaps he’ll surprise again. If he does, the Panthers should win the NFC South for the 3rd straight year, but I have them right on the borderline with the Saints. The Saints have the better quarterback, but the Panthers have the better team, so it’s tough. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Panthers after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Jul 232015
 

Quarterback

Many see Drew Brees as a declining quarterback, following a 2014 season in which the Saints, with high expectations coming into the season, finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs. However, that’s putting too much value in team wins as an individual quarterback statistic. It’s still a team game and the Saints had the worst defense in the NFL last season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 76.68% rate. The Saints were also better their record, finishing 11th in rate of moving the chains differential, as their offense finished 2nd in the NFL in rate of moving the chains (only behind Green Bay), moving them at a 79.14% rate. The Saints were just kept down by the usual fluky things that common fans put too much stock into that tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year or week-to-week basis, turnover margin (-13), return touchdown margin (-4), fumble recovery rate (37.84%), and record in games decided by a touchdown or less (3-5).

In reality, Brees was the Saints’ best player last season and the biggest reason they had any sort of success, leading a dominant offense. Brees completed 69.2% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions and ranked 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, only behind MVP Aaron Rodgers. That’s very much in line with what we’ve come to expect from Brees and doesn’t suggest any sort of decline has happened yet. He’s graded out 3rd, 7th, 3rd, 4th, 1st, 4th, 2nd, and 2nd respectively from 2007-2014 in the 8 years of Pro Football Focus’ history and has completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.71 YPA, 290 touchdowns, and 130 interceptions over that time period.

He’s the only quarterback in the NFL to grade out in the top-4 in each of the last 6 seasons and the top-7 in each of the last 8 seasons. There’s an argument to be made that he’s still the 2nd best quarterback in the NFL. All this isn’t to say that there isn’t some concern Brees that will decline in the future, as he enters his age 36 season, but the common narrative that this decline has already started isn’t based in any sort of fact and we’ve seen plenty of top level quarterbacks still have success into their mid-30s in recent years (Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, etc.). I’m still very high on Brees. Garrett Grayson, drafted in the 3rd round in this past draft, was drafted much more to be a backup than a long-term successor and certainly isn’t someone who is close to putting any sort of pressure on Brees in 2015. Brees hasn’t missed a game with injury since 2004, so Grayson probably won’t see any sort of real action this season.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Brees may see a decrease in production this season, but the reason won’t necessarily be age. The Saints went all in on last season, a plan that backfired big time for a variety of reasons, and ended up in salary cap hell this off-season, which forced them to completely reinvent their roster. They’re likely going to be better in some ways this season, but there’s no denying that their roster is worse overall, so they’re not a lock to make it back into the playoffs this season, even though they play in a terrible division and were a lot better than their record last season.

The Saints got rid of two of Brees’ favorite targets this off-season, Jimmy Graham and Kenny Stills, and didn’t replace either of them, which will undoubtedly hurt his ability to consistently string together long drives like he did last season. They also figure to pass the ball a lot less often this season, as a result of those moves, after averaging 661 pass attempts per season over the past 5 seasons, most in the NFL during that time period. That will require them to be better defensively and running the ball, but I think they should be.

Brees’ favorite receiver this season could be Brandin Cooks, their 2014 1st round pick. Cooks kind of got lost in last year’s outstanding rookie receiver class because he wasn’t as good as guys like Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, and Kelvin Benjamin and because he missed the final 6 games of the season with a broken wrist, but he was playing pretty well before going down. He finished the season with 53 catches on 65 attempts (81.5%) for 550 yards and 3 touchdowns on 353 routes run, an average of 1.56 yards per route run, while grading out only slightly below average.

Rookie receivers aren’t supposed to produce big numbers, even first round picks. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. By those standards, Cooks had a pretty productive 10 games in his rookie season, especially since he was a young rookie who didn’t turn 21 until last September. Now healthy, Cooks has no one preventing him from being an every down starting receiver and figures to benefit greatly from the 201 vacated targets left behind by Graham and Stills, and, of course, he figures to benefit greatly from having Brees under center. Even if the Saints are more in the 550-600 range in pass attempts this season, Cooks could still push for 90-100 catches. He’ll be a better receiver in fantasy football (currently going in the 4th round on average) than in real life probably, but he could be good in real life too.

A lot of people expected Marques Colston to be cut this off-season, ahead of a scheduled non-guaranteed 7 million dollar salary, but instead it was Stills and Graham going and Colston staying, after he agreed to a restructured contract. He’ll make just 3.8 million this season and another 3.2 million in 2016, if he’s still on the roster then. This season, he’ll start opposite Cooks, though largely for lack of a better option. Colston has been with the Saints since 2006 and has been such a big part of their offensive success over the years, but he’s aging (going into his age 32 season) and coming off arguably the worst season of his career.

He caught 59 passes for 902 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2014, the first season of his career in which he played more than 11 games and caught fewer than 60 passes and the first season of his career in which he played all 16 games and had fewer than 1000 yards. He was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season, grading out below average for the first time in Pro Football Focus’ 8-year history, as Brees made him look a lot better than he was. He’s not completely over the hill yet and there’s definitely some bounce back potential with him, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked wide receiver as recently as 2013, but I don’t have high expectations for him and his best days are definitely behind him.

As I mentioned, the Saints don’t really have another starting option other than Colston. Their depth behind Cooks and Colston is really suspect. Nick Toon, Josh Morgan, Seantavius Jones, Brandon Coleman will all compete for the 3rd receiver job, pushing either Colston or Cooks to the slot in 3-wide sets, where both have experience. Toon is a 2012 4th round pick who missed his whole rookie season with injury and then graded out below average on 205 snaps in 2013 and 241 snaps in 2014. Seantavius Jones and Brandon Coleman are 2014 undrafted free agents who have never played a snap in their career.

Josh Morgan is the only experienced veteran of the bunch, going into his age 30 season and his 8th year in the league, since getting drafted in the 6th round in 2008. The career journeyman is already on his 4th team and has only graded out above average once in his career. Last season, he graded out 84th among 110 eligible wide receivers on 436 snaps with the Bears, including 106th in pure pass catching grade, and he won’t get better as he goes into his 30s. The Saints would be better off going with a younger option who is less of a proven failure and who still has some upside. The Saints options for their 3rd receiver are really poor. The move to send Kenny Stills, Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked wide receiver in 2014, to the Dolphins for a 3rd round pick (which they used on cornerback PJ Williams) and mediocre linebacker Dannell Ellerbe didn’t make any sense, especially since Stills was only going into his age 23 season and was signed very inexpensively for 2 more years on his rookie contract.

The Graham trade made a lot more sense. As good as Graham was last season (Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked tight end), the Saints gained valuable long-term financial flexibility by swapping the remainder of his contract (27 million over 3 years)to Seattle for the remainder of center Max Unger’s contract (9 million over 2 years). Unger isn’t as good as Graham, but he’s a very solid player in his own right and a much better value. On top of that, the Saints got Seattle’s first round pick (which eventually became linebacker Stephone Anthony) in exchange for their 4th round pick, which is obviously good.

That’s not to say that the Saints won’t really miss Graham and they didn’t really do anything to replace him this off-season. The Saints are expected to give both Ben Watson and Josh Hill significant action at tight end this season and also have an outstanding contract offer to former Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham, who has graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including 61st out of 62 eligible in 2012 and 64th out of 64 eligible in 2013. He’s still available late into July because of his recent struggles and because he had off-season back surgery. He’d be a very underwhelming addition, even for a tight end needy team.

Watson is the veteran of the Watson/Hill duo. The 2004 1st round pick has had a solid and underrated 11-year career, first with the Patriots, then the Browns, and now the Saints. Both a solid blocker and pass catcher, Watson has graded out above average 6 times in Pro Football Focus’ 8-year history, but graded out 48th among 67 eligible tight ends last season and is now going into his age 35 season. Despite that, Watson is expected to play more than the 578 snaps he played last season, something he simply might not be able to handle at his advanced age anymore.

On the flip side, Hill is very unproven, going undrafted in 2013 and grading out slightly below average on 179 and 293 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. For what it’s worth, the Saints really seem to like him, but it’s going to take a lot more than being liked by the organization for him to even come close to replacing Graham’s production. If given enough playing time, he could put up decent numbers simply because of who’s throwing the ball to him, but he’s unlikely to do much to help Brees, much like this receiving corps in generally. The Saints did absolutely nothing to replace Stills and Graham this off-season and have one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL as a result.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Max Unger is a great player in his own right. He’ll be a huge upgrade at center for a team that wants to run the ball more often this season. Jonathan Goodwin was their starting center last season, but he graded out 27th out of 41 eligible and was not brought back as a free agent ahead of his age 37 season. He hasn’t officially retired, but that will probably be what he ends up doing, as he’s drawn no free agent interest at his advanced age.

Unger, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center last season, despite playing just 385 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. He missed 10 games with injury last season and the Seahawks desperately missed him when he was out of the lineup, moving the chains at a 6.38% better rate in games he started. That can’t all be credited to him and that’s over just one season’s sample size, but it’s worth noting because Unger was fantastic on the field last season.

Injuries have been an issue for him in the past as he’s missed 29 games in 6 seasons in the league with injury. Inconsistency is also a problem as, while he was dominant on the field last season and while he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2012 too, those are the only two seasons he’s been in the top-10 among centers on Pro Football Focus. Still, he’s graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL and getting him at 9 million over 2 years is a better value than Graham at 27 million over 3, which is very important for the Saints. Add in the swap of picks and I think the Saints made a smart move.

Tim Lelito was going to be their starting center in place of Goodwin before they acquired Unger, after making 2 starts in place of an injured Goodwin last season. Now he slides over to left guard, where he’ll replace Ben Grubbs. Grubbs was a top-16 guard on Pro Football Focus for 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013, but graded out slightly below average last season and was sent to Kansas City for a 5th round pick, ahead of his age 31 season, a move that saved the Saints 6.6 million in cash, 3.6 million of which came off of their cap immediately. Lelito is a downgrade though, as the 2013 undrafted free agent has graded out below average on 162 and 294 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively, struggling at both guard and center. He showed some improvement from 2013 to 2014, but that could have just been because he was playing center instead of guard. I don’t have a lot of faith in him as the starting left guard and he should be a sharp downgrade from Grubbs.

The Saints did use one of their 1st round picks on an offensive lineman, taking Andrus Peat out of Stanford with the 13th overall pick. Either he or right tackle Zach Strief could play left guard this season, but the Saints haven’t really given either of them much if any action at guard this off-season. They seem to prefer starting Lelito at left guard and letting Peat and the veteran compete at right tackle. Strief is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but, if it’s a fair battle, he should be able to keep job over the rookie pretty easily.

A late bloomer who didn’t become a full-time starter since 2011, Strief, a 2006 7th round pick, has made 54 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, excluding an injury plagued 2012 season. He hasn’t just graded out above average; he’s excelled, grading out 12th among offensive tackles in 2011, 9th in 2013, and 17th last season. His age is starting to become a concern, but he’s much more the solution than the problem upfront for the Saints and one of the best right tackles in the game.

I’d keep Strief at right tackle, move the rookie inside to left guard to start his career, and move Lelito to the bench. Even moving Strief inside and starting Peat at right tackle would make more sense than starting Lelito, even though Strief doesn’t have any experience inside and even though he’s been great outside. The Saints have shown no indication that they’re planning on doing that, but there’s still time for them to change their mind. Whatever they do, Strief needs to start because he’s been one of the best right tackles in the game over the past couple of years.

However, they should also avoid letting the 13th overall pick ride the pine as a rookie because he’s good enough to help somewhere immediately and can’t start at his collegiate position of left tackle. That’s because the Saints have Terron Armstead there and the 2013 3rd round pick had a breakout year in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, finishing 27th among offensive tackles, after playing 141 nondescript snaps as a rookie. He’s still a one year wonder, but he has the looks of a long-term starter and still has upside going forward, going into his age 24 season in 2015.

Rounding out the offensive line, Jahri Evans will once again start at right guard. Like ex-linemate Ben Grubbs, Jahri Evans has had a strong career, but was coming off of a down year, getting up there in age, and finding it hard to justify his big non-guaranteed salary for 2015 to the cap strapped Saints. From 2007-2013, he graded out in the top-30 among guards on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight years and the top-9 in 5 of those 7 years, maxing out at #1 overall in 2009. However, Evans slipped all the way to 46th out of 78 eligible in 2014 and is now going into his age 32 season.

Unlike Grubbs, the Saints kept him. He won’t make the 7.5 million he was originally scheduled to make, but he gets 9.5 million guaranteed on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal, which gives him long-term security and essentially secures him 12 million over the 2 seasons. It’s a risky move and the Saints will definitely be hoping he can bounce back at least somewhat. His best days are behind him, but he could be a solid starter this season on a line that’s strong other than left guard Tim Lelito, who will hopefully be benched before the season starts.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

For a team with a lot of cap problems and a lack of long-term financial flexibility, the Saints weirdly spent a lot of money on running backs this off-season, signing CJ Spiller to a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal away from the Bills and re-signing Mark Ingram, also for 16 million over 4 years. Neither one of those deals were bad values, but I didn’t think the Saints needed both of them. I think the Ingram deal is the worse of the two.

Ingram rushed for 964 yards and 9 touchdowns on 226 carries (4.27 YPC) in 2014, but he’s a one year wonder who rushed for 1462 yards and 11 touchdowns on 356 carries (4.11 YPC) in his first 3 seasons combined, after the Saints drafted him in the 1st round in 2011. On top of that, his injury history is concern, with 14 games missed in 4 seasons, and he doesn’t contribute as a pass catcher, as he’s caught just 53 passes in 4 seasons. He’s a naturally talented running back who could continue being a solid early down back, but that’s not hard to find in today’s NFL.

The Saints could have replaced him cheaply internally with Khiry Robinson, a 2013 undrafted free agent who has flashed in 2 seasons in the league, rushing for 586 yards and 4 touchdowns on 130 carries, an average of 4.51 yards per carry. He graded out slightly below average on 76 snaps as a rookie, but then above average on 158 snaps in 2014. He’s unproven, doesn’t add anything as a pass catcher (8 career catches for 63 yards), and I don’t think he’s as talented as Ingram, but, at the very least, he’s a poor man’s version of Ingram at a much cheaper price. He would been a good fit as a complementary #2 back to Spiller, but now he’s a clear 3rd running back instead and will have to wait for an injury for playing time. I think it’s a waste of his talent on a cap strapped team.

Unlike Ingram, the Saints didn’t have anyone like the speedy Spiller on their roster and I think he’s a good fit for their offense. Spiller, a 2010 1st round pick, had a fantastic 2012 campaign, rushing for 1244 yards and 6 touchdowns on 207 carries (6.01 YPC), adding 43 catches for 459 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back. He looked poised for a breakout year in 2013 as a 300+ touch back, but he struggled with injuries over the last 2 seasons (missing 8 games combined and being limited in several others) and he was never a great fit for Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett’s offense.

Over the past 2 seasons, he’s rushed for 1233 yards and 2 touchdowns on 280 carries (4.40 YPC), with 52 catches for 310 yards and a touchdown, combined numbers that many people thought he’d be able to surpass in 2013 alone. He’s never surpassed 207 carries in a season, has annual issues in pass protection (grading out below average in 4 of 5 seasons), and is coming off the worst season of his career, 300 yards on 78 carries (3.85 YPC) in 9 games.

He’s a nice buy low candidate though, as he has a 4.97 YPC average and shows clear first round talent at times. He’s also a good pass catcher out of the backfield, grading out above average 4 times in 5 seasons in that aspect, and, if healthy, has the potential to put up at least Darren Sproles type receiving numbers (an average of 63 catches per season from 2011-2013) on a team that had a league leading 133 targets to running backs last season and now is very short on talented pass catchers for Brees. He’ll complement Ingram well, with Ingram specializing in power running between the tackles, but he would have complemented Robinson well too and Robinson would have come a lot cheaper. It’s a talented stable of backs, but one that could have done without giving Ingram 4 million annually.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Saints had a horrible defense last season, ranking 32nd in rate of moving the chains allowed, after ranking 10th the year before, during a 12-4 season. What happened? Well the player whose play declined the most was Cameron Jordan, who was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013. With defensive coordinator Rob Ryan using far more 4-3 fronts than 3-4 fronts in base packages in 2014 in his hybrid defense, Jordan played 4-3 defensive end in base packages and 4-3 defensive tackle in sub packages and graded out below average.

Jordan, a 2011 1st round pick, also graded out below average in 2011 and 2012 when he played that role. I don’t think you can blame the scheme changes entirely though as Jordan was still rushing the passer from the interior in both schemes. I think he’s just an inconsistent player and one that the Saints probably overpaid on a 5-year, 55 million dollar extension this off-season. He has bounce back potential in 2015, only going into his age 26 season, but he’s definitely hard to rely on.

One player who didn’t really mind the scheme change was Junior Galette, the other starting defensive end. Galette was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and graded out 4th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, showing himself to be easily the Saints’ best defensive player. The undersized 6-2 258 pounder graded out below average as a run stopper, but excelled as a pass rusher, grading out 2nd at his position in that aspect. The 2010 undrafted free agent graded out below average in his first 2 seasons in the league on just 25 and 372 snaps respectively, but has put that far behind him over the past 3 seasons, grading out 16th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 on 301 snaps as a reserve, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position that season, and then dominating as a starter in each of the past 2 seasons.

The problem with Galette is twofold. The first problem is he suffered a partially torn pectoral earlier this off-season. He won’t need surgery though and is expected to be healthy by the start of the season. The bigger problem is the off-the-field stuff. Galette was accused of domestic violence at the start of the off-season and, while the charges were dropped, video surfaced later this off-season of someone who is allegedly him publicly striking a woman in a brawl at a beach back in 2013. The Saints are reportedly interested in cutting him, but that’s simply not feasible. Not only is he too talented to just outright release, doing so would cost the Saints 12 million on the 2015 cap (which they don’t have) because of the way his contract is structured.

Galette signed a 4-year, 41.5 million dollar extension last year and has yet to play a snap on that extension. Cutting him would essentially mean they are giving him 16 million dollars for free (a 3.5 million dollar signing bonus paid last off-season and a 12.5 million dollar roster bonus paid earlier this off-season) and they’d have no chance of getting any of that back without a legal conviction. Galette will remain a Saint in 2015, though he could be facing suspension from the league if they feel there’s enough evidence that a suspension is warranted, though nothing is reportedly imminent from the league. At this point, the Saints need to just hope that Galette can continue dominant play on-the-field and avoid any further trouble off-the-field. The likelihood of the former is strong. The likelihood of the latter is unclear.

The Saints edge rusher depth behind Galette is suspect as well, as 2nd round rookie Hau‘oli Kikaha and Anthony Spencer (in either order) are their next best edge rushers. When Jordan moves inside in sub packages, one of those two players figures to play as the other edge rusher. My guess is the veteran Spencer wins that battle in Training Camp and the rookie is eased into the league as a rotational player. Of course, Spencer has missed 20 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons combined with injury so Kikaha could end up seeing significant action for that reason.

If healthy, Spencer could be a solid player. Spencer, at one point, was given the franchise tag in back to back seasons and was one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the game. From 2007-2012, Anthony Spencer, a first round pick in 2007, was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons, including 4 as an every down starter and maxing out at #1 overall in 2012. After playing so well on the franchise tag the first time in 2012, he was tagged again in 2013, but it didn’t go so well the 2nd time around, as he played just 1 game the season thanks to a serious knee injury that required microfracture surgery.

Spencer was back for 13 games in 2014, but he played just 384 snaps, though he did grade out slightly above average. Going into his age 31 season, it’s very possible he’ll never be the same player again, but he’s be another year removed from the injury and could be decent in a situational role. He has experience in both a 3-4 (from 2007-2012 with the Cowboys) and a 4-3 (from 2013-2014 with the Cowboys and in his collegiate days at Purdue) and he’s familiar with Rob Ryan from Ryan’s days as the Dallas defensive coordinator from 2011-2012. He had the best year of his career in 2012 under Ryan.

Akiem Hicks led Saint defensive tackles in snaps played last season (with 734 snaps) and should do so again in 2015, after grading out above average, among 29th defensive tackles, as an every down player in 2014. The 2012 3rd round pick graded out above average on 383 snaps at 4-3 defensive tackle as a rookie in 2012 and then above average again on 653 snaps at 3-4 defensive end in 2013 too, so he’s not a one-year wonder either. He’s not a spectacular player, but he’s an above average starter who is only going into his age 26 season. He’ll be a free agent next off-season and should get a fair amount of money from someone, though likely not New Orleans with the cap situation they’re in. Even assuming a 150 million dollar cap for 2016, the Saints are already 7 million dollars over the 2016 cap.

It’s unclear who will start next to Akiem Hicks in base packages. John Jenkins is an option and certainly fits the mold of a two-down run stopper at 6-3 359, but the 2013 3rd round pick has graded out below average on 436 and 398 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Brodrick Bunkley returns, after agreeing to slash his salary from 4.5 million to 1.65 million this off-season, but he’s not very good either. There’s a reason why he had to take a pay cut.

Bunkley has been a free agent bust since signing a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle in 2011, including 1st against the run. Bunkley hasn’t been horrible when on the field in New Orleans, but he’s struggled to find a role in either the Saints’ 3-4 or the Saints’ 4-3 since arriving in town and he’s played just 899 snaps in 3 seasons as a result. He’s also graded out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons (each of the last 2 seasons) and missed 10 games over that time period. Even when he had his strong 2011 season, he only played 485 snaps and, even at his best, he’s a two-down player because of his inability to get to the quarterback. That’s all the Saints will need him to be this season, but his best days are far behind him, as he goes into his age 32 season.

Kevin Williams will also be in the mix for snaps after being signed to 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but his best years are also far behind him, far, far behind him. He graded out above average in 7 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, including in the top-9 from 2007-2012 and 27th in 2013, but graded out below average for the first time in his career last season on 445 snaps with the Seahawks and now heads into his age 35 season as a rotational player at best. The other defensive tackle spot is a weakness, but with every down players like Jordan, Galette, and Hicks, it’s really not a bad defensive line. The defensive line wasn’t the problem last season and things will be much better if Jordan bounces back. They’re depth is also much better as their worst defensive linemen last season were Brandon Deaderick and Kasim Edebali, who struggled mightily on 306 and 181 snaps respectively in 2014. They’ve been upgraded.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The linebacking corps was a big part of the problem last season. Curtis Lofton was the worst offender as he made 16 starts at middle linebacker, but graded out 57th among 60 eligible middle linebackers, leading to his release the off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 8.25 million dollar salary for 2015. Ramon Huber was also really bad as the reserve outside linebacker graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on just 449 snaps. The Saints added talent this off-season and have a deeper linebacking corps as a result.

Stephone Anthony, the 31st overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft (the Jimmy Graham trade pick), will start immediately at middle linebacker, in place of Lofton, and should be an every down player from the word go. Dannell Ellerbe came over in the trade from Miami for Stills and will play the two-down outside linebacker role in base packages, though he could be a liability more than anything. Ellerbe signed a 5-year, 34.25 million dollar deal with the Dolphins two off-seasons ago and proceeded to grade out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013. He moved to outside linebacker for 2014, but ended up missing all but 18 snaps with a hip injury, which probably actually helped the Dolphins.

That deal didn’t make any sense for the start.  Ellerbe, a 2009 undrafted free agent, maxed out at 456 snaps in a season from 2009-2011, but he had a solid 2012 season, grading out 14th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 667 regular season snaps and then followed that up with a strong post-season, en route to a Super Bowl victory by the Ravens. That’s what got him paid, but he was a one year wonder that wasn’t worth his contract even at his best. He’s only graded out above average once in 6 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 30 season and coming off of a serious injury.

Ellerbe will only make 4.8 million this season, rather than his originally scheduled 8.45 million dollar salary, but he’s still overpaid. He’d probably be best as a reserve linebacker with Parys Haralson remaining as the two-down outside linebacker. Haralson struggled mightily on passing downs last season, but graded out 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run and graded out above average overall as a result. That’s nothing new for him, as he’s graded out above average overall and against the run in each of the last 3 seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, he’d be a better two-down starter than Ellerbe, but Ellerbe’s salary makes it highly unlikely that he’ll just be a backup.

Outside linebacker David Hawthorne is another player who took a pay cut to stay on the roster, agreeing to a 1.25 million dollar pay cut from 4.5 million to 3.25 million. Like the other players that had to take a pay cut to stay on the roster, there’s a reason he had to do so, as, like many other recent free agent signings by the Saints, he didn’t pan out for the Saints. The Saints gave him a 5-year, 19 million dollar deal 3 off-seasons ago, after he graded out above average in 2009, 2010, and 2011 with Seattle (including 11th among middle linebackers in 2009 and 2nd among outside linebackers in 2010), but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, leading to the pay cut.

Hawthorne wasn’t the biggest problem in the linebacking corps last season, but he graded out 28th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebacker and he’s unlikely to be any better going into his age 30 season this season. The Saints’ linebacking corps is better and deeper than it was last season and guys like Curtis Lofton and Ramon Hurber who were such a big part of the problem last season aren’t going to be playing serious roles again this season, but it’s still not a strong group.

Grade: C

Secondary

The secondary was also a big part of the problem last season, thanks, in large part, to serious down seasons from Kenny Vaccaro and Keenan Lewis. Vaccaro, a 2013 1st round pick, had a great rookie year, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked safety, but struggled mightily in his 2nd season in the league, grading out 85th out of 87 eligible safeties. That greatly dampens future expectations for him, but he’s still young (only going into his age 24 season) and is definitely a bounce back candidate.

Keenan Lewis is also a bounce back candidate, after grading out 98th among 108 eligible cornerbacks in 2014. The 2009 3rd round pick graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, but he never played more than 393 snaps in any of those seasons and then broke out as a starter in 2012 and 2013, grading out 38th and 27th among cornerbacks in those 2 seasons respectively. Still only going into his age 29 season, I think it’s much more likely that he’ll be better in 2015 than worse.

In addition to likely bounce back years from Lewis and Vaccaro (at least somewhat), the Saints’ secondary should be better because Jairus Byrd will return after being limited to 272 snaps in 4 games by a torn meniscus last season. Even when healthy, he struggled last season thanks to a lingering back problem, following off-season back surgery. Prior to last season, he was arguably the best safety in the NFL, which is why the Saints signed him to a 6-year, 54 million dollar deal last off-season.

The 2009 2nd round pick graded out above average in each of his first 5 seasons in the league up until free agency last off-season, grading out 41st, 22nd, 3rd, 2nd, and 8th in 2009-2013 respectively. No other safety graded out in the top-8 in all three seasons from 2011-2013. Injuries are beginning to become a concern, going into his age 29 season, as he missed 5 games with a foot problem in 2013 before last year’s back problems and knee problems, but, assuming he’s healthy, his re-addition should be a big boost to this team.

Rafael Bush, who was decent in Byrd’s absence last season on 479 snaps before suffering a season ending injury of his own week 11, will go back to being the 3rd safety this season. The 2010 undrafted free agent has graded out above average as a reserve in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out at 520 snaps, and could find his way back into the starting lineup if Vaccaro continues to struggle or Byrd gets hurt again. They’d prefer him as a 3rd safety though.

The Saints do still have a serious weakness at cornerback behind Lewis. Corey White, who graded out 106th among 108 eligible cornerbacks as the #2 starter last season, is gone, but free agent acquisition Brandon Browner isn’t very good either. Browner graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL from 2011-2013, after starting his career in the CFL, but I think his best days are behind him, going into his age 31 season. The Patriots won the Super Bowl in spite of him last season as he graded out below average, 79th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks.

That’s largely thanks to the 15 penalties he committed in 9 games, 19 penalties in 12 games if you include the playoffs, after he missed the start of the season with a suspension leftover from the 2013 season, when he didn’t play past week 10. The only thing Browner seems to like more than getting in trouble with the league for performance enhancing drugs is getting in trouble with the refs for various holding and pass interference calls that extend opponent’s drives. His penalty problem isn’t a new thing either as he’s committed 48 penalties in 50 career games, including playoffs, a problem that won’t get better as he goes into his 30s, in a league that is getting increasingly tough on coverage penalties. He was overpaid on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal this off-season.

Not only is Corey White, who was terrible last season, gone, but Patrick Robinson, who was their best cornerback last season, is also gone, after actually grading out slightly above average in 2014. It’s unclear who is going to replace him as the 3rd cornerback. 3rd round rookie PJ Williams is in the mix, as is 2014 2nd round pick Stanley Jean-Baptiste, who played just 8 snaps as a rookie. Delvin Breaux is another inexperienced player, who has spent the last 3 seasons in the Arena League and Canada. He was a premium signing out of the CFL this off-season, getting a 150K guarantee, but he’ll be hard to trust as the 3rd cornerback, as is also the case with Williams and Jean-Baptiste. Breaux has never played a snap in the NFL.

The only veteran in the mix is Kyle Wilson. Wilson was a bust as a 2010 1st round pick. He’s graded out below average in each of the last 4 seasons and made just 27 starts in 5 years with the Jets, including just 1 over the last 2 seasons combined as he could barely get on the field, despite massive issues at the cornerback position for the Jets. 2012 was his only season as a starter, as he played 966 snaps and made 15 starts, and he graded out just 72nd out of 115 eligible that season. He’s not very good. It’s still a weak secondary, but, like the linebacking corps, they should be better this season.

Grade: C

Conclusion

As I said earlier, the Saints were good enough to make the playoffs last season, but won’t necessarily make them this season, as their roster doesn’t seem to be as good. Their defense should be better thanks to additions in free agency and the draft, key players returning from injury, and bounce back years likely from other key players. They should be somewhere between the 10th best defense they were in 2013 and the worst defense they were in 2014, but they still could be closer to 2014. On offense, they have an aging quarterback with a worse supporting cast. If they make the playoffs next season, it’ll be because of their terrible division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Saints after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Jul 192015
 

Quarterback

In the 2011 NFL Draft, the Jaguars made a franchise defining mistake. In a draft that saw JJ Watt, Robert Quinn, Ryan Kerrigan, Randall Cobb, DeMarco Murray, Justin Houston, Richard Sherman, Jason Kelce, Chris Harris, among countless other talented players go outside of the top-10, the Jaguars traded their 1st and 2nd round pick to the Redskins (which became Kerrigan and Jarvis Jenkins) to move up to take quarterback Blaine Gabbert with the 10th overall pick. Gabbert lasted 3 seasons in Jacksonville, winning just 5 of 27 starts, completing 53.3% of his passes for an average of 5.61 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, before getting shipped to the 49ers for a 6th round pick last off-season. Considering what they gave up for him and who else was in that draft class, Gabbert has to go down as one of the biggest draft busts of the 21st century.

The Jaguars started over at the quarterback position in the 2014 NFL Draft, taking Blake Bortles 3rd overall, but, after one year in the league, it looks like the Jaguars might have drafted Blaine Gabbert all over again. Bortles was a disaster as a rookie, completing 58.9% of his passes for an average of 6.12 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. The one positive is he rushed for 419 yards on 56 carries. The Jaguars went just 3-11 in the 14 games he played and the Jaguars moved the chains at a mere 65.84% rate in those 14 games, as opposed to 64.55% on the season, 31st in the NFL.

Bortles’ poor rookie season isn’t necessarily a death sentence for his career, as there are plenty of players at all positions who have found adjusting to the NFL tough, before figuring it out. Bortles admitted after the season that he was out of shape as a rookie and suffered from dead arm as a result. He’s reportedly worked on his conditioning a lot this off-season, dropping from 250 to 238, which is around his combine weight (232). The Jaguars essentially admitted before the season started that they felt Bortles needed a redshirt rookie year, before he was forced into action by Chad Henne’s completely ineffective play in the first 2 and a half games of the season.

Bortles has worked with QB guru Tom House this off-season and the Jaguars upgraded the offensive coordinator position this off-season, firing the ineffective Jedd Fisch, now the University of Michigan’s quarterbacks coach, and replacing him with Greg Olsen, who has more of a track record of success. Bortles is only going into his age 23 season, but until I see it from him on the field, I’m going to be very skeptical of his long-term potential. If Bortles continues to struggle, this offense doesn’t have much of a chance of being effective.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

Of course, Bortles didn’t have a lot of help on offense. A lot of people point to the league leading 54 sacks Bortles took (in just 13 ½ games) as an excuse for his poor rookie year. That has some truth behind that, but a lot of those sacks were Bortles’ fault. The Jaguars finished 17th in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus, not good, but certainly not horrible. Bortles was pressured on just 34.0% of dropbacks, 21st among 39 eligible quarterbacks. However, he also took a sack on 28.9% of pressured dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL among eligible quarterbacks. He also completed just 36.4% of passes while pressured, also worst among eligible quarterbacks. His pocket presence was an issue coming out of the University of Central Florida and something that needs to drastically improve in his 2nd year in the league if he’s going to put up even decent numbers in 2015.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Jaguars didn’t need to find upgrades upfront this off-season and they found a couple, devoting part of their large amount of cap space to the offensive line. The Jaguars took an interesting approach in free agency for the most part. They knew they’d have to overpay people to join their terrible team, but a lot of the players they decided to overpay were players who have been in the league a while, who had flashed in limited action, but never got a chance to be a starters. The Jaguars think they’re finding diamonds in the rough, but the league generally is smart enough to not let guys slip through the cracks that many times.

On the offensive line, that “diamond in the rough” is Jermey Parnell, who they signed to a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal. That’s way too much money to commit to a player like Parnell who has made 7 starts in 6 years in the league since going undrafted in 2009. Five of those starts came in 2014 and he was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked offensive tackle despite playing just 388 snaps last year, with no one grading out better than him on fewer snaps. However, prior to 2014, Pernell had only played 294 snaps in his career combined and had never graded out above average. He should be an upgrade over the trio of Austin Pasztor, Sam Young, and Cameron Bradfield, who all struggled mightily at right tackle last season, but it’s really hard to trust him, given that he’s a one-year wonder in terms of even flashing and given that he’s going into his first season as a starter in his age 29 season.

The Jaguars’ other free agent acquisition on the offensive line came a lot cheaper, as they signed Stefen Wisniewski to a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal. He’ll start at center this season. Stefen Wisniewski, a 2011 2nd round pick, has made 61 starts over the past 4 years for the Raiders. After struggling out of position at guard as a rookie, Wisniewski graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th, 11th, and 22nd ranked center in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, which means that he’s been an average starter. Only going into his age 26 season, the only reason Wisniewski was still available after the draft and available for so cheap was because he had off-season shoulder surgery. Expected to be healthy for Training Camp, 6 months after surgery, he should continue being an average starter and at a cheap price. He’s an upgrade over Luke Bowanko, who graded out 29th among 41 eligible centers last season.

The Jaguars gave a big contract to a free agent offensive lineman last off-season as well, signing Zane Beadles to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal, away from the Broncos. Beadles made all 16 starts in his first season in Jacksonville and graded out slightly above average. That was only the 2nd time in his 5 year career (77 starts) that he graded out above average and, overall, I think he’s overpaid. However, the Jaguars aren’t exactly strapped for cash and he’s more the solution than the problem in Jacksonville, so I think any recent talk of the Jaguars cutting or trading him to start 3rd round rookie AJ Cann is unwarranted.

Cann was originally drafted to start at center, but when the Jaguars were able to bring in Wisniewski, he got sent to the bench. The versatile interior lineman will probably have to wait until 2016 at the earliest to get a chance to start, barring injuries. Cann can’t start at right guard because 2014 3rd round pick Brandon Linder proved to be a steal during a very strong rookie season, grading out 10th among guards. He’s still a one-year wonder, but he’s one of the few young building blocks the Jaguars have on either side of the ball.

Rounding out of the offensive line is another recent draft pick, 2013 2nd overall pick Luke Joeckel. Joeckel has largely been a bust thus far in his career. After grading out well below average on 277 snaps in an injury shortened rookie season in 2013, Joeckel made all 16 starts on the blindside in 2014, but struggled mightily, grading out 67th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. He’ll start on the blindside again this season and, while it’s probably too early to write him off as a bust, he’s definitely entering a make or break 3rd season in the league and, right now, break seems more likely. With the Jaguars upgrading the center and right tackle spots this off-season and adding a versatile reserve in Cann this off-season, the left tackle spot is now the biggest weakness on an offensive line that’s a lot better than a lot of people think. Bortles could easily make them look a lot worse than they are again this season though.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Cann wasn’t the only high pick the Jaguars used on offense, as they used a 2nd round pick on running back TJ Yeldon. The Jaguars gave Toby Gerhart a 3-year 10.5 million dollar deal last off-season, coming over from Minnesota, hoping that the 2010 2nd round pick could emerge as a starter, out of Adrian Peterson’s shadow. Instead, he flopped, rushing for 326 yards and 2 touchdowns on 101 carries (3.23 YPC). Part of that had to do with the offensive line’s ineffectiveness (24th in team run blocking grade), as well a variety of nagging injuries that he dealt with, but he was surpassed on the depth chart by the smaller Denard Robinson by mid-season and Robinson drastically outperformed him.

Robinson flashed in his first season of significant action, making 9 starts and rushing for 582 yards and 4 touchdowns on 135 carries (4.31 YPC), adding 23 catches for 124 yards through the air. However, he’s still unproven, with just 155 career carries, and the collegiate quarterback is undersized at 6-0 197 and doesn’t appear to be built to handle a starting running back’s workload in the NFL. He also proved to be pretty useless as both a receiver and a blocker on passing downs. There’s a reason he fell to the 5th round in 2013 and he didn’t do anything to quell durability concerns by ending the season on injured reserve with a significant foot injury. The 6-1 226 pound Yeldon will take over lead back duties from Robinson, leaving Robinson to be a change of pace back. The Jaguars have talked up Yeldon’s upside and see him as a feature back long-term, but they’ll probably ease him in as a rookie, which means Robinson will still get at least 5-7 touches per game.

Gerhart was kept at a non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary for 2015, but if the Jaguars were even remotely strapped for cap space, they would have let him go easily. Instead, he remains as a clear 3rd running back and occasional fullback at 6-0 231. Gerhart’s career numbers don’t look bad, as he’s rushed for 1631 yards and 7 touchdowns on 377 attempts, an average of 4.33 yards per carry, but that’s largely because he mostly was running in obvious passing situations in Minnesota as a 3rd down back and because he was running behind a strong offensive line. Going into his age 28 season with a career high of 109 carries in a season (2011), Gerhart simply isn’t cut out to be a lead back. The backfield is improved simply because he won’t have a significant role.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Jaguars were not good in the receiving corps either last season. Not only did no one catch more than 53 passes (Cecil Shorts, who is gone), total more than 677 yards (Allen Hurns), or total more than 6 touchdowns (Hurns again), but they didn’t have a single wide receiver or tight end play a snap and grade out above average. In fact, just two players on the Jaguars whole offense played more than 250 snaps and graded out above average, their two guards Zane Beadles and Brandon Linder.

The biggest thing they did to fix this was to sign Julius Thomas away from Denver on a 5-year, 46 million dollar contract. Unlike a lot of the free agents that they gave a lot of money to this off-season, Julius Thomas at least has some starting experience, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t overpaid. Thomas played 50 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, catching 1 pass, after the incredibly athletic former basketball player was drafted in the 4th round in 2011. He broke out in 2013, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was limited by injuries in 2014, catching 43 passes for 489 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games. Thomas is a poor run blocker, has never played all 16 games in a season, has never graded out higher than 13th among tight ends, and a lot of his passing game production was the result of getting to play with Peyton Manning.

Thomas won’t be nearly as productive or efficient with Blake Bortles as he was with Peyton Manning, but he could easily still lead this team in catches, receptions, and touchdowns, even if only by default. He’s definitely better than any tight end they had last season and should be their best offensive weapon in 2015 in his first season in Jacksonville. Clay Harbor and Marcedes Lewis led the team in snaps played among tight ends last season with 489 snaps and 443 snaps respectively, grading out 39th and 48th among 67 eligible tight ends respectively.

Lewis returns this season as the #2 tight end behind Thomas, after agreeing to slash his salary from 6.8 million to 2.65 million. Lewis, a 2006 1st round pick, has been one of the most underrated and underappreciated players of the last decade or so. Lewis hasn’t put up big numbers in the passing game, catching 315 passes for 3789 yards and 27 touchdowns in 128 career games, maxing out with a 58/700/10 line in 2010. However, that’s largely because he’s been stuck with terrible quarterbacks and has been asked to stay in to pass protect more than any tight end in the league over that time period, something he excels at. He doesn’t excel as a pass catcher, but he’s been decent and he’s been a dominant blocker both in the run game and the pass game.

However, he’s now coming off of the worst season of his career, grading out below average for the first time since 2008 and missing 8 games with injury. He’s missed a combined 13 games over the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same player on the field. He’s going into his age 31 season so his best days (like in 2012 when he graded out 5th among tight ends, or in 2011 when he graded out 10th among tight ends) are behind him, but if he can stay healthy, he could be a solid #2 tight end and inline blocking complement for Thomas, who is much more of a pass catching tight end who can be moved around the formation and even split out wide.

Along with the addition of Julius Thomas through free agency, the Jaguars are hoping that a trio of 2nd year wide receivers can take a leap forward in 2015. Aside from Cecil Shorts, who signed in Houston this off-season, the Jaguars’ top wide receivers last season were all rookies. Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee were a pair of 2nd round rookies who played 524 and 501 snaps respectively in 2014, while undrafted rookie Allen Hurns actually led Jaguar wide receivers in snaps played with 805 last season. The Jaguars tried to find a veteran wide receiver this off-season to add to the mix, falling short on Randall Cobb before he opted to stay in Green Bay, and poking around cheaper veteran Greg Jennings before he ultimately signed in Miami. The Jaguars didn’t end up adding a veteran receiver, opting instead to just use a 5th round pick on Rashad Greene so Hurns, Robinson, and Lee (in some order), will be their top-3 wide receivers this season.

Robinson is the one that the organization seems the most excited about. My guess is he leads all Jaguar wide receivers in snaps played, catches, and yards in 2015. He graded out the best of the trio as a rookie, only grading out slightly below average, catching 48 passes on 76 targets (63.2%) for 548 yards and 2 touchdowns on 334 routes run, an average of 1.64 yards per route run. The only problem is he missed 6 games with injury, but he’s now healthy and only going into his age 22 season in his 2nd year in the league in 2015 and could be solid for them as their #1 wide receiver.

Lee and Hurns will compete for the #2 and #3 receiver roles, with Greene working as the 4th receiver at best as a rookie. Lee caught 37 passes on 61 attempts (60.7%) for 422 yards and 1 touchdown on 330 routes run, an average of 1.28 yards per route run, in 13 games. Hurns, meanwhile, caught 51 passes on 91 attempts (56.0%) for 677 yards and 6 touchdowns on 515 routes run, an average of 1.31 yards per route run, in 16 games. Lee has the greater upside because he was drafted in the 2nd round, while Hurns didn’t get drafted at all. He also played a little bit better last season, grading out 94th among 110 eligible wide receivers, as opposed to 104th for Hurns. Neither one of them projects to be very good in 2015, but Lee should be the other starter, even though Hurns played more snaps last season.

The complete wild card in the receiving corps is Justin Blackmon, who remains suspended indefinitely. It’s easy to forget that he is even on the roster as he hasn’t been on the field since week 8 of 2013. Blackmon has missed 28 games combined over the past 2 seasons with drug abuse related suspensions. The 5th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Blackmon had a solid rookie season, catching 64 passes for 865 yards and 5 touchdowns and then excelled in 4 games as a sophomore in 2013 before getting suspended. His 2.58 yards per route run was 4th best in the NFL among eligible receivers in 2013 as he caught 29 passes for 415 yards and 1 touchdown on 161 routes run in those 4 games. However, the Jaguars are operating as if he won’t be able to play in 2015. He’s rumored to have failed another drug test. He’d upgrade the receiving corps if available, but, until that happens, it’s still a below average group.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Jaguars’ biggest need going into the draft was at defensive end, as the Jaguars needed an upgrade on Chris Clemons, who was Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 59 eligible last season and who is going into his age 34 season this season. His struggles last season were a big part of the reason why the Jaguars ranked 22nd in rate of moving the chains allowed. The Jaguars filled that need with the 3rd overall pick, drafting Dante Fowler out of Florida, but then disaster struck, as Fowler tore his ACL in one of his first NFL practices and will miss the entirety of the 2015 season.

That leaves Clemons to start once again, instead of likely being cut to save 4.5 million, all of which would have come off the cap immediately. Chris Clemons had a strong stretch in Seattle from 2010-2012, grading out as a top-12 4-3 defensive end in all 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus, excelling at getting to the quarterback. However, he tore his ACL in the post-season in 2012 and hasn’t been the same since. He was Pro Football Focus’ 43rd ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible in 2013 and he was even worse in 2014. Things won’t be better as he enters his age 34 season.

Free agent acquisition Jared Odrick will be the other starter, after being signed from Miami on a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal. It’s an overpay, but, unlike several of their other free agent acquisitions, he is proven as a starter, grading out 16th and 19th among defensive tackles in 2013 and 2014. In Jacksonville, he’ll replace Red Bryant at defensive end in base packages. Bryant, a 6-5 328 pound run stopping specialist, graded out 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends against the run last season, but 57th out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends as a pass rusher, leading to his release ahead of a non-guaranteed 4.25 million dollar salary this off-season.

Odrick is a much more complete player and will play inside in sub packages at his natural position of defensive tackle, so he’ll play more in the Michael Bennett role than the Red Bryant role if we’re comparing this defensive front to the defensive front in Seattle, where Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley used to be the defensive coordinator. My one concern is Odrick struggled mightily early in his career as both a 3-4 and a 4-3 defensive end, including 59th out of 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends in 2012. It’s possible those days are past him, but I like him more as a pure interior player.

Sticking with the Seattle parallel, free agent acquisition Dan Skuta will play the Bruce Irvin role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and rushing the passer off the edge in at least some sub packages. Skuta was one of the free agents that Jacksonville signed that barely has any starting experience and the 5-year, 20.5 million dollar deal the Jaguars gave him came as a shock to pretty much everyone. I like Skuta as a player. The amount of different positions Skuta has played in the NFL is incredible. He’s played 4-3 defensive end, fullback, 4-3 outside linebacker, 4-3 middle linebacker, 3-4 outside linebacker, and 3-4 middle linebacker, while excelling on special teams. However, I never expected he’d get this kind of deal.

Skuta has graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons, including 2 straight and a 2013 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker on just 304 snaps in San Francisco, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. However, he’s never played more than 398 snaps in a season (setting that career high in 2014) and he’s already going into his age 29 season. He’s a projection to an every-down role. He’s not that young. And the list of guys who break out as starters for the first time in their 7th season in the league isn’t very long. As I said, the league is generally smart enough for guys not to fall through the cracks that many times. It’s a deal that has a lot of possible downside and very little possible upside, as I don’t really see him exceeding his salary.

Along with Odrick, Ryan Davis figures to see a bunch of snaps inside in sub packages. The 2012 undrafted free agent had a shocking breakout year last year, excelling as a tweener defensive end/defensive tackle at 6-2 261. He should see more than the 310 snaps he had last season because he’s arguably one of their best defensive players. He can play both defensive end and defensive tackle, but he did his best work at defensive tackle last season, grading out 11th among defensive tackles on just 212 snaps last season, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. He’ll be most valuable to the Jaguars as an interior pass rusher in sub packages this season, but isn’t bad against the run either and will also likely see some snaps outside at defensive end with Fowler hurt. The only concerns with him are that he’s unproven as a 500+ snap player and that he’s a one-year wonder, only playing 126 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined to start his career.

Sen’Derrick Marks led Jaguar defensive tackles in snaps played last season with 739, but figures to play significantly fewer this season. That’s not just because of the addition of Odrick or Davis’ emergence, but also because Marks tore his ACL week 16 of last season and will be in a race to play week 1. Even if he does and plays all 16 games this season, he could easily not be as good as he was last season, when he graded out 16th among defensive tackles. That’s not just because of the torn ACL, but last season was also the first time in his 6 year career that he graded out above average. His history prior to 2014 is not great, including a 2010 season when he graded out 64th out of 76 eligible, a 2011 season when he graded out 78th out of 88 eligible, and a 2012 season when he graded out 75th out of 85 eligible.

Roy Miller and Ziggy Hood return to play situational roles against the run once again, after playing 492 and 422 snaps respectively in 2014. Neither one is very good and neither one has ever graded out above average in their career, dating back to when both came into the league in 2009, in the 3rd and 1st round respectively. Neither was awful last season, but both have been much worse in the past. Miller graded out 64th among 69 eligible defensive tackles in 2013 and 82nd out of 88 eligible in 2011, while Hood graded out 43rd among 45 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 33rd among 34 eligible in 2012. Still, it’s a solid defensive line and probably the best unit on this team.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

I already mentioned Skuta will be playing outside linebacker in base packages, replacing Geno Hayes, who actually graded out 12th among 4-3 outside linebackers on 587 snaps last season as a run stopping specialist. Telvin Smith and Paul Posluszny will be the every down linebackers, outside and inside respectively. Smith was a steal as a 5th round pick in 2014, making 10 starts in 16 games, playing 723 snaps and grading out slightly above average as a rookie, despite the lack of size (6-3 218) that dropped him in the draft in the first place. He’s still a one-year wonder and I don’t think he’s at the point where the fact that the whole league let him drop to the 5th round is irrelevant, but he could still be a long-term starter.

Posluszny, meanwhile, signed a 6-year, 45 million dollar deal five off-seasons ago and he had a good start to his tenure in Jacksonvillle, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011, including 7th in 2011. However, he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons. Now he’s going into his age 31 season and he missed 9 games with a torn pectoral last season, so his best years are behind him. Originally owed a non-guaranteed 7.5 million dollars this season, Posluszny restructured his deal this off-season and will now make just 5.5 million this season, followed by 4.5 million in 2016 and 5 million in 2017, if he’s still on the roster. He should be an upgrade over JT Thomas, who was Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible last season, but that’s not saying much and he’s at the point in his career where the most valuable thing he offers to a team is leadership. It’s an overall below average linebacking corps, outside of maybe Skuta, who is only a part-time linebacker.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Along with Parnell and Skuta, the Jaguars also gave a 4-year, 24.5 million dollar deal Davon House, who has been in the league for 4 years and has maxed out at 472 snaps. That deal is the best of the trio I think. Not only is House younger (only going into his age 26 season), but he’s only been on one team in his career, so it’s not like he’s bounced around the league unable to find starting work like the other 2 players. House, a 2011 4th round pick, just happens to have gotten stuck on a Green Bay team with solid cornerback depth to start his career. House has always graded out around average in his career and could definitely break out as a solid starter in Jacksonville in 2015 and beyond. It was an overpay, but it wasn’t egregious.

House will essentially replace Alan Ball, a starting cornerback who played 508 snaps in 7 games last season before going down for the season with an injury. He signed in Chicago this off-season. Dwayne Gratz (871 snaps) and Demetrius McCray (834 snaps) remain and will compete for the #2 and #3 cornerback jobs. Aaron Colvin will be in the mix for snaps as well. The 2014 4th round pick played just 281 snaps as a rookie, but that was because he didn’t play until week 12, while he was recovering from a torn ACL that dropped him in the draft in the first place. Colvin was seen as a 2nd round or even a 1st round pick before suffering the injury pre-draft and he showed that talent as a rookie, grading out slightly above average. Now healthy, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Colvin broke out as a solid contributor in 2015, but he’s still unproven.

The Jaguars would definitely like Colvin to grab a role and play well because both Gratz and McCray struggled last season, especially Gratz, who graded out 83rd among 108 eligible cornerbacks, including 100th in pure coverage grade. Gratz, a 2013 3rd round pick, played better as a rookie, grading out above average on 494 snaps as a rookie, but McCray didn’t. The 2013 7th round pick graded out below average on 93 snaps as a rookie. Neither one figures to be very good this season, so the Jaguars will be relying on breakout years from House and Colvin, both of whom are still unproven.

At safety, 2013 2nd round pick John Cyprien is locked in as a starter for the 3rd straight season, after making 30 of 32 possible starts in his first 2 years in the league. After struggling mightily as a rookie, grading out 84th out of 86 eligible safeties, Cyprien was significantly better in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, but still graded out below average. Only going into his age 25 season, he still has upside, but my guess is he’s an average starter at best in 2015.

At the other safety spot, the Jaguars brought in veteran Sergio Brown and 4th round rookie James Sample to compete for the starting job, after Josh Evans graded out 84th among 87 eligible safeties as in 2014. Brown seems to have won that competition by default, as Sample broke his arm in early June. Sample is expected back for week 1, but he’ll simply have missed too much valuable off-season practice as a rookie to unseat the veteran. Brown was likely the favorite even prior to the injury.

Brown was an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame in 2010 and flashed on 94 snaps as a rookie with the Patriots. As a result, he was given a starting job in 2011, but quickly lost it for poor performance and went on to play just 61 snaps over the next 2 seasons, both with Indianapolis. However, Brown got another chance at a starting job in 2014 and made the most of it, making 8 starts and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked safety. He could be a solid starter again in 2015, but Jaguars fans need to remember his history prior to 2014 isn’t great. It’s a mediocre secondary that will be banking on a career journeyman continuing strong play and a pair of unproven youngsters breaking out.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Jaguars were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, finishing 29th in rate of moving the chains differential at -8.37%, thanks to a mediocre defense and a horrible offense. They were a long ways away from the 28th place team, the Jets, who finished at -4.43%. They were squarely in a bottom tier with Oakland, Tennessee, and Tampa Bay. Tennessee and Tampa Bay both added significant quarterback upgrades this off-season, among other upgrades, and, while Jacksonville spent a lot of money this off-season, they overpaid a lot of guys and still don’t have a lot of talent. They’re arguably the least talented team in the NFL when you look at everyone’s roster and should be one of the worst teams in the NFL again with Oakland. They’ll need significantly improved play from 2nd year quarterback Blake Bortles and breakout years from several other unproven players to even be respectable this season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Jaguars after I’ve done all teams’ previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Jul 182015
 

Quarterback

The Texans were an average team in 2014, rebounding from a 2013 season that saw them go 2-14, largely because of a 2-9 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a -20 turnover margin, a -6 return touchdown margin, and a 44.44% rate of recovering fumbles. Those types of things tend to be very inconsistent from year to year and the Texans flipped those in 2014, going 2-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, having a +12 turnover margin, having a +3 return touchdown margin, and recovering 55.81% of fumbles. As a result, they went 9-7, one game out of the post-season, and finished 19th in rate of moving the chains differential at -0.66%.

Their average performance in 2014 was the result of an above average defense that ranked 10th in rate of moving the chains allowed at 70.62% and a below average offense that ranked 22nd in rate of moving the chains at 69.96%. The Texans played 4 different quarterbacks in 2014. Ryan Fitzpatrick started the first 9 games of the season before getting benched for backup Ryan Mallett, who started the next 2 games, but then went down for the season with a torn pectoral. Fitzpatrick started the 3 games after that, but went down for the season early in that 3rd start with a broken leg, forcing 4th round rookie Tom Savage into action. By the end of the game, Savage had sustained a knee injury that caused him to miss the final 2 games of the season. That forced them to sign ex-Texan quarterback Case Keenum off of St. Louis’ practice squad to start the final 2 weeks of the season.

Fitzpatrick was easily the best of the bunch, even though he was the only one of the four to actually ever get benched. In games started and finished by Fitzpatrick, the Texans moved the chains at a 71.90% rate, as opposed to 66.06% in their other 5 games. If he had started all 16 games, there’s a good chance this team would have made the playoffs. In arguably the best season of his career, Fitzpatrick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback and completed 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.96 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, showing himself to be a great fit for first year head coach Bill O’Brien’s system. The rest of the team combined to complete 56.6% of their passes for an average of 5.65 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and all 3 other quarterbacks graded out below average. Fitzpatrick’s initial benching for the unproven Mallett in the middle of a playoff race was inexplicable and his season ending injury ultimately sealed their fate.

Continuing to show their best quarterback no respect, the Texans flipped Fitzpatrick to the Jets for a 7th round pick this off-season, even though he was only owed a very reasonable 3.25 million dollar salary in 2015. The Texans re-signed Ryan Mallett to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal this off-season and brought in Brian Hoyer from Cleveland on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal, both of whom are worse than Fitzpatrick. He may be a career journeyman, but he’s had the best two seasons of his career in 2013 and 2014. He graded out below average in every season from 2008-2012, with Buffalo and Cincinnati, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, for the first two times he’s done that in his career. He may not be nearly as good in 2015 as he was in 2014 because he’s now going into his age 33 season coming off of a broken leg, but he was definitely worth bringing back. The Texans downgraded the quarterback position this off-season, which is never a good idea.

Hoyer and Mallett will compete for the starting job, with Tom Savage, who struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie, completing 10 of 19 for 127 yards and an interception, as the 3rd quarterback, assuming they decide to keep three. Hoyer is the most experienced of the two and the highest paid of the two, so he figures to be the week 1 starter, a hypothesis Texan beat writers have backed up. Hoyer had his moments in the first extended starting experience of his career in 2014, but ultimately proved to not be anything more than a solid backup caliber quarterback. He completed 55.3% of his passes for 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. The former undrafted free agent’s career numbers aren’t much different, as he’s completed 56.5% of his passes for an average of 7.23 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions on 630 career attempts.

Mallett is less experienced, but I’d start him just because he’s younger (going into his age 27 season, as opposed to age 30 for Hoyer) and not as much of a proven failure as Hoyer. Mallett had 4 career pass attempts in 3 seasons as a 2011 3rd round pick before coming to Houston and lasted just 2 games in 2014 before going down for the season with a torn pectoral. He actually played one of his starts with that torn pectoral and, as you can imagine, it was a trainwreck, as he completed 21 of 45 for 189 yards and an interception. He was better in his other start, completing 20 of 30 for 211 yards, 2 touchdowns, and an interception, but he’s still completely unproven. Both figure to see starts this season and the quarterback position figures to be a position of major weakness as a result.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

If Ryan Fitzpatrick played well in the 11 games he started and finished, why didn’t the Texans have anything more than an average offense in those 11 games? Well, weirdly enough, the Texans actually didn’t run the ball that well last season. Arian Foster ran the ball well, rushing for 1246 yards and 8 touchdowns on 260 carries, an average of 4.79 yards per carry. However, because he missed 3 games with injury and because the Texans ran the ball with such regularity due to lack of trust in the passing game, backup Alfred Blue got 169 carries and turned them into just 528 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of 3.12 yards per carry. As a result, the Texans ranked 23rd in the NFL, rushing for 3.92 yards per carry. Despite that, the Texans ran the ball 551 times, most in the NFL (26 more than 2nd place Seattle), which hurt their offense.

Because they’re probably going to have worse quarterback play this season, they’ll have to be run heavy again, so they’ll have to hope that Arian Foster can stay healthy and handle 300-350 carries. Blue proved himself to be completely incompetent as a backup handling any sort of workload last season, grading out 43rd among 57 eligible running backs last season, despite seeing just 341 snaps. I don’t expect much better from him this season, considering he fell all the way to the 6th round in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Texans didn’t do much to upgrade the backup running back position this off-season. The Texans should want him more in the 70-80 carry range. His only real competition for the backup job is Chris Polk, who was signed by the Texans after the Eagles let him go this off-season. The 2012 undrafted free agent has rushed for 270 yards and 7 touchdowns on 57 carries in his career. He might be better, but he’s, at the very least, unproven.

Keeping Foster healthy is going to be easier said than done, especially if he’s seeing 20 carries and 23 touches per game again, which is what he saw last season. The 2009 undrafted free agent has had an impressive career, rushing for 6309 yards and 53 touchdowns on 1391 carries (4.54 YPC), while adding another 2041 yards and 12 touchdowns on 227 catches through the air, but he’s only twice played more than 13 games and he’s missed 11 games with injuries over the past 2 seasons. He’s consistently good, grading out above average in 5 of 6 seasons (including 12th in 2014), but he’s going into his age 29 season so he could decline a little bit this season in terms of effectiveness and he’s not going to become less injury prone as he becomes older. The Texans are going to have to rely on their running game to move the chains this season, but I don’t think they’re strong or deep enough at the running back position to effectively execute that kind of offense with regularity.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Even though the Texans did have to cycle through 4 different quarterbacks because of injury and even though Foster missed time as well, the Texans actually had just the 6th fewest offensive adjusted games lost last season. Part of that is because Fitzpatrick and Foster combined to actually only miss 7 games, but part of that is because they didn’t really have very many injuries anywhere else on the field on offense. On the offensive line, their 5 starters missed a combined 1 game (Brandon Brooks week 6) out of 80 possible. They probably won’t have as good of injury luck upfront this season.

The Texans return 4 of 5 starters and have a replacement who was drafted with this situation in mind waiting in the wings. Chris Myers, who was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked center last season, was released this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 6 million dollar salary, ahead of his age 34 season. He’ll be missed, but the Texans do have a solid replacement plan. To replace him, the Texans will be moving left guard Ben Jones inside to center and starting 2014 2nd round pick Xavier Su’a-Filo at left guard. Su’a-Filo struggled mightily on 130 snaps as a rookie, but he still could be a long-term starter. He’s just unproven.

Jones, meanwhile, was probably their worst starter last season, though he wasn’t bad at all, grading out only slightly below average. The Texans ranked 6th in team run blocking grade and 11th in team pass blocking grade upfront last season, something they’ll have trouble repeating in 2015 thanks to the loss of Myers and the fact that they’ll probably have more injuries upfront. Jones hasn’t played center in the NFL, but he did in college and the 2012 4th round pick is experienced, making 27 starts in 3 seasons in the league and grading out only slightly below average in all 3 seasons. Like Su’a-Filo, he projects as a decent starter in 2015.

Another way the Texans’ offensive line could be worse this season, in addition to the loss of Chris Myers and more injuries, is right tackle Derek Newton could regress, after being re-signed to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Newton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked offensive tackle, grading out below average in pass protection, but excelling in the run game, grading out 4th in that aspect in 2015. The issue, in addition to his struggles in pass protection, is the 2011 7th round pick is a one-year wonder. Newton has started 46 games over the past 3 seasons, but he was horrible in both 2012 and 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible in 2012 and 72nd out of 76 eligible in 2013. He’s very hard to trust and that was a very risky deal.

The two other spots on the offensive line, left tackle and right guard, are very strong though, barring serious injury. Right guard Brandon Brooks has quickly developed into one of the better guards in the NFL and he’s only going into his age 26 season. The 2012 3rd round pick flashed on 111 snaps as a rookie, took over the starting job the following off-season and hasn’t looked back, making 31 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and grading out 10th and 8th in 2013 and 2013 respectively. Heading into his contract year, he figures to be paid very well at some point. The Texans will probably try to lock him up ahead of free agency next March.

At left tackle, Duane Brown is older (going into his age 30 season), but more proven, with 7 years in the league since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008. He struggled to start his career, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, but he’s graded out above average in the last 5, ranking 21st, 3rd, 2nd, 24th, and 10th respectively among offensive tackles in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Even though he’s a little older now and not as good as he was in his prime in 2011 and 2012, he’s still one of the better offensive tackles in the league and should have another strong season in 2015. It’s still a strong offensive line, but one that lost a solid starter from last season, but one should have more injuries this season, and one whose right tackle could easily regress in 2015.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Whoever starts under center for the Texans will have a very talented wideout to throw to, 2013 1st round pick DeAndre Hopkins. Hopkins broke out in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, catching 76 passes on 120 attempts (63.3%) for 1210 yards and 6 touchdowns on 534 routes run, an average of 2.27 yards per route run, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked wide receiver. Hopkins did grade out below average as a rookie and is technically a one-year wonder, but plenty of good receivers struggle as rookies and that doesn’t mean he can’t repeat what he did in 2014 or even continue to get better.

Hopkins will only be in his age 23 season in 2015 and receivers often have a 3rd year breakout year. It’s possible that Hopkins is only scratching the surface on his 1st round talent and will be one of the best few wide receivers in the game in 2-3 years, but even if he just does what he did last year again, he’ll be a huge asset to this team. One concern is he had just 21 catches for 239 yards and no touchdowns in the 5 games that Fitzpatrick didn’t start and finish last season and he could have his numbers kept down by poor quarterback play this season, but that won’t be his fault. He could also see more targets this season with Andre Johnson (141 targets) gone, though he’ll also probably see more double teams as a result. Either way, he’s a very talented young receiver who might just need some help to produce big numbers.

Hopkins’ emergence is a big part of the reason why the Texans felt comfortable letting Andre Johnson go, after 12 years with the team, since they drafted him 3rd overall in 2003. Johnson is going into his age 34 season coming off the worst statistical season of his career in terms of yards per game since his rookie year. He caught 85 passes for 936 yards and 3 touchdowns on 141 targets (60.3%) and 487 routes run (1.92 yards per route run) and only graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked wide receiver. His overall numbers weren’t bad, but if you rank 27th among wide receivers in yards and 6th in targets, it’s a problem. Cutting him not only saved them 8.5 million, but it also freed up more targets for a budding young receiver. It’s tough, but Johnson is on the way down and Hopkins is on the way up, and that’s the way the NFL goes.

To replace Johnson, the Texans signed Cecil Shorts from Jacksonville. Shorts, a 2011 4th round pick, once looked like a very promising young receiver. After a rookie year where he didn’t see the field much (179 total snaps and 2 catches), Shorts caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2012. He was even better than those numbers suggested, as he did that despite missing 2 games with injuries and not playing more than 50% of his team’s snaps until the team’s 6th game of the season. He ran 423 routes on the season, giving him 2.31 yards per route run, 8th in the NFL, and he did that despite playing with the likes of Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne at quarterback.

However, injuries prevented him from taking that next step. He missed 6 games with injury in 2013 and 2014 combined and averaged 60 catches for 667 yards and 2 touchdowns per season. He’s never played a 16 game season in his career, playing 50 out of a possible 64 games in his career and being limited in many others, and he’s only graded out above average once in 4 seasons in the league, with his worst season coming in 2014, when he graded out 98th out of 110 eligible wide receiver. He’s a marginal starting wide receiver at best, but he’s a decent value on a 2-year, 6 million deal. As weird as this sounds, from a financial standpoint, Shorts might be better for the Texans than Johnson would have been in 2015.

The Texans also have better depth at wide receiver than they did last season, as their 3rd receiver last year was Damaris Johnson, who graded out 107th out of 110 eligible wide receivers on 586 snaps. Nate Washington, signed to a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal, coming over from Tennessee, will probably be their 3rd receiver this year. Nate Washington has been around for a while, playing in every game in each of the last 9 seasons, catching 411 passes for an average of 6296 yards and 40 touchdowns with the Steelers and Titans. He’s never been great, with only one season of 1000+ yards, but he’s always been decent and dependable.

However, now he’s going into his age 32 season and coming off of an underwhelming season in which he caught 40 passes for 647 yards and 2 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade. He’s not very good at this stage of his career, but he should be better than Johnson was last season. The Texans also used a 3rd round pick on Jaelen Strong, further adding to their wide receiver depth. The team likes him, but he’ll probably be the 4th receiver at best as a rookie and push for more playing time in 2016 and beyond.

Things aren’t good at tight end either. Garrett Graham, a 2010 4th round pick, was re-signed to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal last off-season, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons, after grading out above average in the first 3 seasons of his career. He graded out 57th out of 64 eligible tight ends in 2013 and 55th out of 67 eligible in 2014. A poor blocker at 6-3 243, Graham has never had more than 49 catches in a season and has just 96 catches in his career. He’s a solid #2 tight end, but he’s not a starting caliber player.

The Texans drafted CJ Fiedorowicz in the 3rd round in the 2014 draft to potentially be a starter long-term, but he was awful as a rookie, grading out 63rd among 67 eligible tight ends on 485 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but I wouldn’t bet on him ever becoming a starting caliber player. Most 3rd round picks don’t. There’s a reason they fall to the 3rd round. Ryan Griffin is also in the mix for snaps, after grading out below average on 339 snaps last season. The 2013 6th round pick also graded out below average on 368 snaps as a rookie and doesn’t appear to be a starting caliber player long-term.

The Texans best tight end is arguably defensive end JJ Watt, who flashed on 9 snaps last season, catching 3 passes for 4 yards and 2 touchdowns. At one point a collegiate tight end, Watt could probably be a starting tight end in the NFL, but he’s far more valuable on defense and the Texans would risk tiring him out by having him play a significant amount of snaps at tight end. He might be able to handle it, but it’s not worth the risk, considering how good he is on defense. He’ll remain a gadget, goal line tight end, if anything. The Texans will struggle to find a consistent target after DeAndre Hopkins and struggle to move the ball through the air.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

Speaking of JJ Watt, he won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season for the 2nd time in 3 years and probably should have won it in all 3 seasons. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top rated player in each of the last 3 seasons. Those ratings aren’t necessarily meant to be compared across positions, but Watt has been so much better than everyone else that it’s a fairly safe assessment to make. With Watt over the past 3 seasons, we’ve witnessed a stretch of dominance by a player that hasn’t been seen since Reggie White’s prime at the most recent. The only season in his career when he didn’t grade out #1 at his position was his rookie year in 2011, when the 11th overall pick “only” graded out 5th among 3-4 defensive ends. Last season was arguably the best season of Watt’s career and his rating on Pro Football Focus reflected that, though the ratings are not meant to be compared across seasons either, which is why I said arguably.

Justin Houston did have more sacks than Watt last season, 23 as compared to 21, but Watt plays a position where it’s tougher to get to the quarterback. Also, while Houston had just 8 quarterback hits, Watt had 44. No one else had more than 21 in the NFL at any position. Watt added 54 quarterback hurries, which is actually less than Houston’s 56, and in terms of overall pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps), Houston was actually the better of the two at 15.7 as compared to 15.0, but, again, Watt plays a much tougher position from which to get to the quarterback. No 3-4 defensive end other than Watt was better than 9.7 in pass rush productivity. Watt’s position is also more important to run defense than Houston.

Watt wasn’t nearly as good at his position against the run as he was as a pass rusher, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect this season. He’ll never be as valuable as a top quarterback and he probably won’t even make the playoffs again until his team figures out the quarterback situation, but he’s definitely the most valuable non-quarterback in the NFL. He’s easily the biggest reason why the Texans ranked 10th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains last season, as the Texans didn’t have a single player other than Watt finish in the top-10 at their position. Extended for 100 million over 6 years last off-season, Watt is locked up through his age 32 season in 2021 and at a very reasonable price, considering Justin Houston and Ndamukong Suh got 101 and 114 million respectively over 6 years.

Watt should actually have some help on the defensive line this season, as the Texans signed Vince Wilfork to a 2-year, 9 million dollar deal. Cut by the Patriots to save 8.5 million, Wilfork isn’t the player he once was, going into his age 34 season, coming off of a torn Achilles in 2013, and he’ll only play a two-down base package role as a nose tackle this season, but he should still be useful to the Texans. At the very least, he should be an upgrade over Ryan Pickett and Jerrell Powe, who played 290 and 277 snaps respectively at nose tackle last season. Both were disastrous, especially Powe, as no one played fewer snaps than Powe at the defensive tackle position and graded out worse.

Wilfork, meanwhile, has graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. One of the seasons he didn’t was his injury shortened 2013 season and he bounced back in his first season back in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end, including 6th against the run, which is his specialty. He’ll move back to his natural position of nose tackle in Houston in 2015, where his run stopping abilities can be best utilized (though he can still play 3-4 defensive end in a pinch), and he should have at least one more season of above average run play left in the tank. He was a risky signing because of his age, but he should work out.

Jared Crick will be the other starting defensive end, opposite Watt and next to Wilfork. The 2012 4th round pick has never graded out above average in his career, grading out below average on 220 and 277 snaps in 2012 and 2013 respectively as a reserve and then last season on 726 snaps as a starter. However, he was only slightly below average last season, so he’s not a horrible starter. The bigger problem is the Texans’ lack of depth behind him. Watt never needs to come off the field, so that’s not a concern, but Tim Jamison was their top reserve last season and he graded out 44th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends on 420 snaps. He’s gone now, but Jeoffrey Pagan, a 2014 6th round pick who struggled mightily on 191 snaps as a rookie, is their top reserve now, which isn’t a better situation. Still, it’s a strong defensive line, almost entirely because of Watt.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While the Texans didn’t have a lot of injuries on offense, they did have more than an average amount of adjusted games lost on defense (20th fewest). That alone doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be a better defense this season, but they do have pair of talented linebackers who had serious injury problems last season that the Texans are hoping can bounce back. The first is middle linebacker Brian Cushing. Cushing, a 2009 1st round pick, has had some fantastic seasons in his career, grading out 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie in 2009, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year, and 3rd among middle linebackers in 2011. He graded out above average in each of the first 5 seasons of his career from 2009-2013, but he missed 20 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 combined, suffering a torn ACL and a broken leg, and it appears those injuries have taken a serious toll on him.

Even though he played in 14 games in 2014, he was nowhere near his old self, grading out below average for the first time in his career, 38th among 60 eligible middle linebackers. Cushing dealt with ankle, wrist, and knee problems for most of the season and had surgery on all 3 of those body parts this off-season. The reviews of him this off-season have been good, so there’s some hope for a bounce back year, only going into his age 28 season in 2015, but it’s very hard to trust him to stay 100%. His last healthy season was way back in 2011. At the very least, I think the Cushing of 2009 and 2011 is gone.

The Texans added Benadrick McKinney in the 2nd round of the draft to start next to Cushing, so if Cushing gets hurt again, Mike Mohamed, who graded out above average on 524 snaps last season, would replace him. Mohamed is a 2011 6th round pick who had played 13 career defensive snaps prior to last season, so he’s hard to trust, but he’s more than adequate as a 3rd middle linebacker. The addition of McKinney makes them much deeper at the position and much better equipped to handle another Cushing injury.

The other linebacker with a serious injury concern is Jadeveon Clowney, the #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Texans improved by 7 games in the win total last season in spite of him, not as a result of him, as he had about as of a disappointing rookie year as he could have had. Not only did he grade out below average, but he was limited to 146 snaps in 4 games by knee problems and had to have off-season microfracture surgery, which puts him in a race to play week 1. Even if he does play all or most of this season, microfracture surgery is a very tough surgery to recover from and he probably won’t come close to fulfilling his huge upside until 2016 at the earliest. It’ll be hard for the Texans to count on either Cushing or Clowney being significantly more valuable than they were last season or either one of them contributing to any sort of defensive improvement.

Unlike middle linebacker, the Texans don’t have good depth at outside linebacker behind Clowney. Brooks Reed, who graded out above average on 799 snaps last season, signed in Atlanta this off-season, leaving John Simon as the 3rd outside linebacker. Simon, a 2013 4th round pick, flashed on 239 snaps last season, after playing just 3 as a rookie, but is a long way away from convincing me that he can be a competent every down outside linebacker if the Texans need him to be. They’ll have to hope that Clowney can stay healthy, allowing Simon to work as a rotational player behind Clowney and Whitney Mercilus.

Mercilus is locked in as an every down player at the other outside linebacker spot in Houston’s 3-4, after getting a 4-year, 26 million dollar extension this off-season. That deal was a classic case of a team overpaying for a marginal talent. Mercilus has largely been disappointing since the Texans drafted him 26th overall in 2012. Mercilus has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the NFL, including 28th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and 42nd out of 42 eligible in 2013. He’s coming off of the best season of his career in 2014, but he still only graded out 35th out of 46 eligible, particularly struggling as a pass rusher. It’s a very underwhelming linebacking corps overall behind a strong defensive line.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph have been a solid duo of starting cornerbacks for the Texans since they brought Joseph in as a free agent four off-seasons ago, but there was at least some potential that one or both of them would not be back in 2015. Jackson was a free agent, as his 5-year rookie deal had expired. The 2010 1st round pick has had an up and down career, grading out 11th among cornerbacks in 2014 and 12th among cornerbacks in 2012, but below average in the other 3 seasons. There are two ways to look at this. One is to see him as an inconsistent player. The other is to see him as someone who got off to a slow start in his career, but has generally been good since then.

Joseph, meanwhile, could have been cut this off-season, ahead of an age 31 contract year, in which he was owed a non-guaranteed 8.5 million dollars. The Texans signed Johnathan Joseph to a 5-year, 48.75 million dollar deal four off-seasons ago and it’s largely been a good deal for them as Joseph has missed just 4 games in 4 seasons and graded out above average in all 4 years. Joseph’s best season came in the first season of his deal in 2011, when he graded out 11th at his position, but he’s played at only about a level lower in the other 3 seasons, grading out 44th, 25th, and 23rd in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively.

The Texans ended up keeping both of them, cutting salary at other spots, namely center (Chris Myers) and wide receiver (Andre Johnson). Joseph will return after signing an extension this off-season. He won’t make 8.5 million this season, but the Texans gave him 11.5 million guaranteed on a 3-year, 22 million dollar deal, which gives him some long-term security, in exchange for giving the Texans some additional financial flexibility. Even though he’s on the wrong side of 30, he should grade out above average for the 8th straight season. Meanwhile, Jackson was re-signed to a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal which is risky, but pretty appropriate. Both should be above average starters again this season.

Despite that, the Texans used their 1st round pick (16th overall) on Kevin Johnson out of Wake Forest. Johnson doesn’t fill an immediate pressing need, but he should be an upgrade on AJ Bouye, who graded out 71st among 110 eligible cornerbacks on 644 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last season, and he should be a long-term replacement for Joseph, whenever the Texans decide to part ways with him. Johnson could take a little bit to get used to the NFL, but it’s a talented trio of cornerbacks.

While things are largely the same at cornerback this season, the Texans underwent a complete overhaul at safety this off-season. Kendrick Lewis (1097 snaps), DJ Swearinger (1037 snaps), and Danieal Manning (591 snaps) were their top-3 safeties last season in terms of snaps played and all 3 are gone. Lewis signed with Baltimore as a free agent and Manning retired ahead of his age 33 season. Both of those two players graded out above average last season and will be missed. Swearinger, however, graded out 78th among 87 eligible safeties last season and got cut with two very affordable years left on his rookie deal because of disciplinary problems, eventually latching on in Tampa Bay. Swearinger played around the line of scrimmage in place of a 2nd linebacker in sub packages last season, with Manning coming in for him in the secondary, but, with the addition of McKinney through the draft, the Texans no longer needed him to do that.

Stevie Brown and Rahim Moore were brought in as free agents this off-season on a 1-year, 825K dollar deal and a 3-year, 12 million dollar respectively and both will play every down as traditional safeties. They’re going to be a solid duo. Stevie Brown, a 2010 7th round pick, played just 151 snaps combined in 2010 and 2011, but had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked safety. Unfortunately for him, he tore his ACL and missed his entire contract year in 2013 and was forced to settle for a one year deal back with the Giants to rehab his value. His 2014 season was a mixed bag. He graded out about average and played all 16 games, but he made just 8 starts and played just 559 snaps, as he was benched for a stretch in the middle of the season. As a result, he was forced to settle for a near minimum deal this off-season and he should be a strong value for the Texans.

Moore should also be a strong value. Given that it was a weak safety market, especially after Devin McCourty re-signed with the Patriots, I thought Rahim Moore had a good chance to be overpaid. There was an argument to be made that he was the best safety that hit the open market this off-season. Moore was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2012 in his 2nd year in the league (only his age 22 season) and it looked like the 2012 2nd round pick had a very bright future. Moore hasn’t quite lived up to the upside he showed in 2012 over the past 2 seasons, and his career was briefly stalled by a frightening, rare leg injury that could have cost him his leg or his life. However, he’s still graded out around average in each of the last 2 seasons on Pro Football Focus and made all 16 starts in his return from injury this season. Besides, he’s only going into his age 25 season so his best football could definitely still be ahead of him. He and Brown are a solid duo in a solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Texans were an average team that won 9 games last season. I have a hard time seeing them being better than that this season, considering they got rid of their best quarterback and considering that there isn’t really anywhere else on the field where they figure to be significantly better this season. With the Titans actually adding a legitimate franchise quarterback (or at least a potential legitimate franchise quarterback) and some nice parts on defense, the Texans could actually be leapfrogged in the division by the Titans. At the very least, they’re closer to the Titans and maybe even the hapless Jaguars than they are to catching the Colts. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Texans after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Jul 162015
 

Quarterback

The Titans were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season, finishing 2-14 and 31st in rate of moving the chains differential. The problem wasn’t just on one side of the ball, as they ranked 30th in rate of moving the chains and 28th in rate of moving the chains allowed. The Titans made a fair amount of moves all over the field to try to fix that, but easily the most franchise defining one was the selection of quarterback Marcus Mariota 2nd overall, turning down multiple trade offers to select the ex-Oregon quarterback and 2014 Heisman award winner.

Most teams that are picking as high as the Titans did in this past draft are doing so largely as a result of poor quarterback play and the Titans are no exception. Jake Locker, Charlie Whitehurst, and Zach Mettenberger all saw significant playing time under center for the Titans last season, as the Titans tried to find some sort of answer and they all struggled. Combined, they completed 58.3% of their passes for an average of 7.29 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions, a huge part of the reason why the Titans moved the chains at a mere 65.44% rate. The Titans were fortunate enough to be picking high in a year where a legitimate franchise quarterback option was available to them and smart enough to pull the trigger.

It’s unclear how good Mariota can be as a rookie, but he’ll probably be an upgrade over the trio that played last season. That being said, he is pretty raw, only turning 22 this season, coming over from what was very much a college style offense at the University of Oregon and now having to adapt to a Ken Whisenhunt offense that has historically not been very friendly to young quarterbacks. For what it’s worth, Whisenhunt has said he will tailor his offense to fit Mariota’s skill set and incorporate some of what Mariota did well in college.

I think, long-term, Mariota will be better than Jameis Winston, who went #1 overall to Tampa Bay, because of his superior accuracy and athleticism, but he could struggle as a rookie. Over the past 10 years, quarterbacks drafted in the top-5 have completed just 57.7% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 148 touchdowns, and 140 interceptions, finding life in the NFL much harder than they expected it to be. With a weak supporting cast around him, the Titans fans shouldn’t expect too much more than that from their rookie signal caller. Those kinds of numbers wouldn’t be a death sentence, as that group includes the likes of Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Matt Stafford, but it’s definitely a reality. Developing a young quarterback is a marathon, not a sprint.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Titans’ weak offensive supporting cast around Mariota isn’t for lack of trying, as they spent both a 2nd and a 3rd round pick on the offense. This shouldn’t be a surprise, considering how often teams that select a quarterback in the first round use their subsequent pick on an offensive player to help that quarterback. Since 2005, 19 of 25 teams that have selected a quarterback in the first round have used their next pick on an offensive player, which I don’t think is a coincidence.

For the Titans, that next pick was 40th overall in the 2nd round (after a trade down) and they used it on former Missouri and Oklahoma wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. DGB has great talent, great upside, and off-the-charts athleticism (4.49 40 at 6-5 237), but was kicked off the Missouri football team for a variety of off-the-field issues and didn’t play at all last season, only practicing with the Oklahoma football team. If not for the off-the-field stuff, he would have been an easy top-10 pick, but between his unreliable character and the fact that he hasn’t played in a real game since 2013, he’s one of the riskiest picks in the draft. He’s the definition of a boom or bust draft pick. As a rookie, he’ll battle for playing time in an overall very unresolved receiving corps.

Nate Washington led the way with 782 snaps last season, grading out 80th among 110 eligible wide receivers, including 96th in pure pass catching grade. He signed as a free agent in Houston this off-season and, though he had some good years in Tennessee, he won’t really be missed, going into his age 32 season. Kendall Wright (678 snaps) and Justin Hunter (605 snaps) remain, but they also graded out below average. Wright wasn’t terrible, but Hunter graded out 89th out of 110 eligible wide receivers. In addition to adding Green-Beckham, the Titans also signed veteran Harry Douglas, who was cut by the Atlanta Falcons.

Wright is the only one locked into a role and should lead Titan wide receivers in catches for the 4th straight year. The 2012 1st round pick graded out below average as a rookie, but seemed to have a breakout year in 2013. He caught 94 of 134 passes (70.1%) for 1079 yards and 2 touchdowns on 539 routes run, an average of 2.00 yards per route run, and graded out 18th among wide receivers that season. However, he saw his slash line fall to 57/715/6 in 2014 and, while he wasn’t horrible, he still graded out below average.

In 3 seasons in the league, he’s caught 215 of 315 passes (68.3%) for 2420 yards and 12 touchdowns on 1407 routes run, an average of 1.72 yards per route run. Part of his inability to put up #1 receiver numbers has to do with poor quarterback play and he hasn’t been a bust or anything, but he hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than a complementary receiver and the Titans are asking him to be a coverage changing #1 guy. The Titans picked up his 7.32 million dollar option for 2016, but that’s guaranteed for injury only, so the fact that they did that doesn’t tell us a ton. They’ll be hoping he can have a bounce back year and provide a consistent target for their rookie quarterback.

The other three (Green-Beckham, Hunter, and Harry Douglas) will compete for the other starting job and playing time in 3-wide receiver sets. Hunter was predicted by many to have a breakout year last season and he certainly has the athleticism, as the 2013 2nd round pick ran a 4.44 40 at 6-4 196, but instead he fell flat on his face. He also graded out below average on 340 snaps as a rookie and has overall been a disappointment thus far. The Titans are probably holding out hope that he can have a breakout year this year, but the selection of Green-Beckham suggests they’re not too confident. Hunter could wind up as far down the depth chart as 4th.

Douglas, meanwhile, has never graded out above average in his career, since the Falcons took him in the 3rd round in 2008, largely playing as a slot specialist. Even in 2013, when he caught 85 passes for 1068 yards and 2 touchdowns in place of an injured Julio Jones, he wasn’t very efficient, as he was targeted 126 times. Things won’t get better as he heads into his age 30 season in 2015. He was cut by the Falcons this off-season to save 3.5 million and the Titans signed him as veteran insurance, bringing him in on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal that actually pays him more than 3.5 million annually. If he has to play a significant role this season, the Titans are in trouble in the receiving corps, but that could very well happen.

Tight end Delanie Walker actually led the Titans in catches and receiving yards last season, catching 63 passes on 100 attempts (63.0%) for 890 yards and 4 touchdowns on 503 routes run, an average of 1.77 yards per route run. Primarily a blocker throughout his career, since going in the 6th round in 2006, the Titans signed him to a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago with the intention of turning him into an every down tight end who could contribute in the passing game. It was a weird move and it looked like it wouldn’t work out as Walker put up just a 60/571/6 slash line in his first season in Tennessee, grading out below average in pass catching grade once again.

However, Walker inexplicably broke out as a pass catcher in 2014, grading out above average in pass catching grade for the first time since 2008 (when he played just 143 snaps). Overall, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked tight end. Now going into his age 31 season, I’m skeptical that he can replicate that strong season as a receiver, but he should once again be a strong blocker at the very least. He’s graded out above average as a run blocker in all 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. He’s not a bad player, but when he’s your best offensive playmaker, you’re in trouble.

Anthony Fasano, who the Titans signed to a 2-year, 5.25 million dollar deal this off-season, will probably be the #2 tight end, focusing primarily on blocking in two-tight end sets. Anthony Fasano played 678 snaps in 2014 for the Chiefs at tight end, but he struggled mightily, grading out 61st out of 67 eligible, and now he’s going into his age 31 season. The Chiefs cut him to save 3.1 million. Fasano graded out above average in every season from 2007-2012, including 6th in 2011 and 18th in 2012, but those days are likely long gone. He’s a decent #2 tight end at best. It’s not a good receiving corps that Mariota has to work with.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Not only did the Titans use a 2nd round pick on Dorial Green-Beckham after taking Marcus Mariota 2nd overall, they also used their 3rd round pick on an offensive player, taking offensive lineman Jeremiah Poutasi. He could start at right tackle as a rookie, following the release of Michael Oher, who graded out 75th among 84 eligible offensive tackles last season in 11 starts, before going down for the season with injury. That would definitely be a problem, especially since many draft experts thought he’d need to move to guard in the NFL because of his lack of athleticism, but the Titans don’t have another option.

Poutasi will compete with veterans Byron Bell and Byron Stingily. Bell is experienced, with 56 starts in 4 seasons since the Panthers signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011, but he’s not very good at all. He was horrible to start his career at right tackle, grading out 69th out of 76 eligible in 2011, 61st out of 80 eligible in 2012, and 53rd out of 76 eligible in 2013. Predictably, he wasn’t better in 2014 when forced to play the blindside, grading out 83rd out of 84 eligible. Stingily, meanwhile, was a 2011 6th round pick. He’s graded out above average just once in 4 seasons in the NFL (2012) and has never played more than the 248 snaps he played last season. He played horribly in limited action last season. Even with Oher gone, right tackle remains a massive problem, to the point where the Titans’ best option might be to start a 3rd round rookie.

Taylor Lewan will start on the other side. The 2014 1st round pick was stuck behind veterans Michael Oher and Michael Roos when he was drafted, but made his first start week 6, after Roos went down for the season with injury. Lewan graded out above average on 359 snaps before going down for the season week 12 with an injury of his own. With Roos retiring ahead of his age 33 season this off-season, Lewan will go into his 2nd season as the undisputed starter and, now healthy, he has the talent to have a breakout year on the blindside. That’s not necessarily going to happen and he’s still unproven, but he is one of the few bright spots on this offensive line and having him healthy and starting for a whole season will be a boost to this team.

With so many injuries and inconsistencies upfront, the Titans had 12 different offensive linemen play a snap last season. Only 3 of them graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, the retired Roos, Lewan, and right guard Chance Warmack. Warmack, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, hasn’t quite lived up to his potential, but he’s made 32 starts in 2 seasons in the league and played decently, grading out slightly below average as a rookie and slightly above average last season. That, by default, makes him one of the best players on the Titans’ offensive line, and, only going into his age 24 season, he still has a good chance to continue improving. During the final 7 weeks of last season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard, a small sample size, but a very good sign for 2015 and beyond.

At the other guard spot, Andy Levitre will start once again. The 2009 2nd round pick has made all 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but graded out below average for the first time since his rookie year in 2014. The Titans, who signed him to a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, kept him at a scheduled non-guaranteed 6.5 million dollar salary for 2015 because they have a bunch of cap space, no better alternative, and they believe he can bounce back. Levitre graded out 36th, 5th, 8th, and 13th in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively and he is only going into his age 29 season, so there definitely is bounce back potential.

Outside of Lewan and Warmack and maybe Levitre, the rest of the offensive line is in trouble. I already mentioned their problems at right tackle; things at center aren’t any better. Brian Schwenke was the starter there last season, grading out 32nd among 41 eligible centers before going down for the season week 12. He wasn’t any better as a 4th round rookie in 2013, grading out 30th among 35 eligible centers on 573 snaps, no surprise given where he was drafted. He doesn’t project as a starting caliber player long-term, but the Titans don’t have another option.

Chris Spencer took over for him after he went down for the season, but he was even worse and now is a free agent expected to retire ahead of his age 33 season, leaving the Titans with only 6th round rookie Andy Gallik behind Schwenke. Gallik probably won’t be an upgrade, but he could see action as a rookie because it’s such a problem position. It’s not a good offensive line, but if Lewan can stay healthy, Levitre can bounce back, and Warmack can continue developing, they should be improved this season and help this offense move the chains more effectively.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Another thing the Titans can do move the chains better in 2015 is to run the ball better, after they rushed for 4.06 yards per carry last season, 18th in the NFL. Even worse, they picked up just 75 first downs on the ground, 25th in the NFL, 19 of which came from quarterbacks and wide receivers. You can’t really blame the offensive line for that as, while they ranked 28th in team pass blocking grade last season, they were middle of the pack (14th) in run blocking. Bishop Sankey and Shonn Greene led the team in carries with 152 and 94 carries respectively and combined for just 44 rushing first downs on 246 carries. Sankey rushed for 569 yards and 2 touchdowns on 152 carries, an average of 3.74 YPC, while Greene rushed for 392 yards and 2 touchdowns on 94 carries, an average of 4.17 YPC.

Greene was let go this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 3.35 million ahead of his age 30 season, but Sankey remains. The 2014 2nd round pick was a bust as a rookie, not just struggling on the ground, but also struggling as a receiver, adding just 18 catches for 133 yards. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are definitely no guarantees. More of a finesse runner at 5-10 209, Sankey could end up splitting carries in 2015 with 5th round rookie David Cobb, who is more of a powerful runner at 5-11 229, but fell in the draft because of a severe lack of speed and agility. It’s an underwhelming young duo of running backs.

Dexter McCluster remains as gadget player and an obvious passing situation running back behind both of them. The running back/wide receiver hybrid rushed for just 131 yards on 40 carries last season and has a career average of just 4.13 yards per carry on 192 carries, but he did add 26 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown last season and graded out above average on 238 snaps as a result. He definitely wasn’t worth the 3-year, 9 million dollar deal the Titans gave him last off-season, as they really like overpaying for marginal offensive talent (Shonn Greene, Anthony Fasano, Harry Douglas, etc.), but he does a serve. With Leon Washington (22 catches for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns last season) gone and the coaching staff, for whatever reason, talking about getting McCluster more involved, he could have 30-40 catches this season. He won’t help the Titans on the ground though.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Titans didn’t take any meaningful steps to improve their offense in the short-term (aside from maybe the selection of Mariota), they did take steps on defense, adding cornerback Perrish Cox, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo, and safety Da’Norris Searcy, all of whom are above average starters, in order to fix what was one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season. They didn’t really do anything on the defensive line, but that might not be the end of the world, as their defensive line wasn’t a huge problem last season.

Jurrell Casey led the way with 931 snaps played, epitomizing an every down player. The 2011 3rd round pick has developed into one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL and got a well-deserved 4-year, 36 million dollar extension last off-season. Casey spent the first 3 years of his career in a 4-3, grading out 16th, 8th, and 5th among defensive tackles, and then showed his scheme versatility when the Titans switched to a 3-4 last off-season. He graded out 7th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014, as one of the Titans’ lone bright spots. Only going into his age 26 season, I expect more of the same from him this season, only with a better supporting cast.

The rest of the Titans’ 3-man defensive line is largely up for grabs, but there are some talented players in the mix. Sammie Lee Hill (597 snaps), Ropati Pitoitua (394 snaps), Mike Martin (357 snaps), Karl Klug (338 snaps), Al Woods (297 snaps), and DaQuan Jones (143 snaps) all played a decent amount last season and all 6 will return and play a decent amount of snaps again. Sammie Lee Hill was their starting nose tackle last season. The 2009 4th round pick graded out above average in every season from 2010-2013, but never played more than 437 snaps in any of those seasons and graded out below average last season on a career high 597 snaps. He probably won’t play as many snaps again this season and he should be in the 300-500 snap range again. He’s a solid rotational player who has a good chance to bounce back in 2015. The 6-4 329 pounder can play both nose tackle and defensive end in a 3-4 defense.

Ropati Pitoitua played 12 games last season, starting 11 of them, and primarily playing in base packages. He graded out 9th among 3-4 defensive ends in pure run stopping grade, but didn’t do much as a pass rusher. This is nothing new for him as he’s graded out above average as a run stopper in each of the last 2 seasons, but hasn’t graded out above average as a pass rusher since 2009, when he played just 48 snaps. The 2008 undrafted free agent is already going into his age 30 season and is only a base package player. Like Hill, Pitoitua will probably play fewer snaps per game this season because the Titans have mentioned they see 2014 4th round pick DaQuan Jones as a starter this season and he should have a regular role, at least in base packages, after he played just 143 below average snaps as a rookie. The 6-4 323 pounder could see action at both nose tackle and defensive end. I don’t have a ton of faith in him, but he could surprise.

Mike Martin and Karl Klug fit in as sub package rushers. Both graded out above average as pass rushers last season. Martin, a 2012 3rd round pick, has never played more than 435 snaps in a season and has only once graded out above average against the run, but he’s graded out above average as a pass rusher in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at 10th among defensive tackles in 2013. He should have a similar season again this year on 300-400 or so snaps. Klug, meanwhile, is a similar, but probably slightly better player. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out above average as a pass rusher in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at 10th in 2013, but has never graded out above average as a pass rusher or played more than 520 snaps in a season.

Woods rounds out the group and is probably the worst of the bunch, grading out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league since getting drafted in the 4th round in 2010, never playing more than 297 snaps in a season. The 6-4 314 pounder was a backup nose tackle last season. He won’t have a very big role at all this season and will almost definitely play the fewest snaps of the bunch. Things won’t be too much different on the defensive line this season, but that’s not going to be a big issue because the defensive line wasn’t the problem last season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The problem last season was the linebackers and the secondary and the Titans did a good job of adding talent there in free agency. Brian Orakpo comes over as a free agent from Washington on a 4-year, 31 million dollar deal, upgrading a position where Kamerion Wimbley, Shaun Phillips, and Quentin Groves were awful last season on 549, 362, and 249 snaps respectively. Wimbley and Phillips graded out 44th and 43rd respectively out of 46 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers, while Groves would have graded out 4th worst at the position if he had been eligible, despite such limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position than Groves.

Orakpo should be a substantial upgrade. Orakpo was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and was franchised tagged as a result. However, Orakpo ended up missing 9 games with a torn pectoral in 2014, the 3rd time in his career that he’s torn his pectoral. Now he hits free agency again having missed 24 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons with torn pectorals. He’s very talented when he’s on the field though. In addition to his strong 2013, the 2009 1st round pick also ranked 7th at his position in 2011. He’s an obvious injury risk, but he has a huge upside, still only going into his age 29 season.

He’ll play opposite Derrick Morgan, who was re-signed to a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal this off-season. A rare first round hit by the Titans, Derrick Morgan’s career got off to a slow start as he was limited to 112 snaps by a torn ACL as a rookie in 2010 and struggled in his return from that injury in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 67 eligible. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the past three seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013, and 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014. Most importantly, he’s missed just 2 games over the past 4 seasons and doesn’t have any significant injuries on his record other than that torn ACL. His scheme versatility and his pass rush ability are very valuable and the Titans did well to lock up a talented young player. The only issue at outside linebacker is depth as 6th round rookie Deiontrez Mount could be their 3rd outside linebacker, which would become an issue if Orakpo were to get hurt again. However, Orakpo and Morgan are one of the best edge rusher duos in the NFL, as long as both are healthy.

Inside at middle linebacker, Avery Williamson was a steal as a 5th round rookie last season, playing 834 snaps, making 12 starts, and grading out above average, 17th among middle linebackers. He’s still a one-year wonder and I don’t think he’s at the point where the fact that the whole league let him drop to the 5th round is irrelevant, but he definitely looks like a steal and could easily be a long-term starter. He should remain a starter in 2015.

Zach Brown, who missed all but 4 snaps last season with a torn pectoral, opening the door for Williamson, will compete with fellow veteran Wesley Woodyard for the other starting middle linebacker job and appears to be the favorite right now. The 2012 2nd round pick Brown graded out slightly above average as a rookie and slightly below average in 2013, making a combined 27 starts in those 2 seasons at outside linebacker in the Titans’ old 4-3 defense. Prior to last season, he had never missed a game with injury in his NFL career so I wouldn’t classify him as injury prone and he should be able to have a solid bounce back year.

Woodyard, meanwhile, signed a 4-year, 15.75 million dollar deal last off-season, coming over from Denver, but struggled in his first season in Tennessee, grading out 42nd among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The 2008 undrafted free agent is experienced, with 48 starts over the past 4 seasons, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons. With Brown and Williamson being better starting options, Woodyard could be just an expensive backup this season, making 2.75 million. He fits the Titans’ recent theme of overpaying for marginal veterans. With Brown healthy and Orakpo coming in, it’s a much improved linebacking corps.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was a problem last season as well for the Titans and one they tried to fix this off-season with the additions of cornerback Perrish Cox and safety Da’Norris Searcy on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal and a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal respectively. Cox will start at cornerback, where Blidi Wreh-Wilson started last season and graded out 106th among 110 eligible cornerbacks. Cox should be a significant upgrade, coming over from San Francisco. He was Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked cornerback last season in a breakout year.

Cox’s career has had an interesting trajectory. He was a 5th round pick by the Broncos in 2010 and graded out above average on 787 snaps as a rookie, but was let go after one year after being arrested on multiple sexual assault charges. Cox was out of the league entirely in 2011 because of those charges, coupled with a history of off-the-field issues from his collegiate days at Oklahoma State, which dropped him in the draft in the first place. However, early in 2012, he was found not guilty and the 49ers gave him another chance. He didn’t play much in either 2012 or 2013, playing 168 snaps in 2012 and 81 snaps in 2013 (11 of which were actually with the Seahawks). However, injuries opened up a starting role for him back with the 49ers in 2014 and he didn’t look back, playing 965 snaps, making 14 starts, and grading above average. He’s obviously a risky signing given his history, but he clearly has talent, showing it in both of his stints as a starter.

Cox will push Blidi Wreh-Wilson to 3rd on the depth cornerback at best. The 2013 3rd round pick flashed on 93 snaps as a rookie in 2013, but proved incompetent in his first season as a starter in 2014, leading to the addition of Cox. There’s still time for him to turn it around and I like him better as a 3rd cornerback, but I don’t have a ton of hope for his future. He’ll have to hold off Coty Sensabaugh for the #3 job. Sensabaugh, a 2012 4th round pick, has been the #3 cornerback for the past 2 seasons, after struggling on 319 snaps as a rookie. He graded out above average on 509 snaps in 2013, but graded out 96th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 737 snaps in 2014. Whoever wins this battle, I expect them to struggle.

Searcy, meanwhile, will take over a starting spot at safety where the Titans had struggles last season. Bernard Pollard played decently through 5 games and 351 snaps there last season for the Titans, but then went down for the season, leaving George Wilson to start and he graded out 82nd among 87 eligible safeties. Going into his age 34 season, Wilson remains unsigned as of this writing and will likely have to retire. Searcy, a 2011 4th round pick, should be an upgrade.

Searcy played just 511 snaps in his first 2 seasons in 2011 and 2012, but he made 20 starts over the past 2 seasons as a hybrid safety/linebacker at 5-11 223. He’s never played more than 753 snaps in a season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked safety in 2014 (on 666 snaps) and only slightly below average in 2013, so I expected someone would give him starter’s money to be a traditional, every down starting safety for them. It’s a risky move for the Titans, but, like the Cox deal, I think it’s a solid value and, like the Cox deal, I think it will really help this secondary.

At the other two starting spots in the secondary, the Titans will be counting on bounce back years from cornerback Jason McCourty and safety Michael Griffin. McCourty graded out below average last season for the first time since he was a 6th round rookie in 2009. He’s made 63 of 64 starts since 2011 and graded out 20th, 8th, 6th, and 11th respectively from 2010-2013. A lot of that has to do with his strong play against the run, but he still graded out 15th, 32nd, 23rd, and 17th respectively in those 4 seasons in coverage grade (all above average) and the fact that he was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL against the run in those 4 seasons is just a cherry on top. Only going into his age 28 season, I like his bounce back potential, which would really help this secondary.

Griffin’s bounce back potential is a little bit more questionable. The 2007 1st round pick has had some great seasons, but he’s also been incredibly inconsistent throughout his career. Griffin has graded out 37th, 9th, 41st, 10th, and 14th among safeties in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013 respectively, but also 87th out of 88 eligible in 2009, 87th out of 88 eligible in 2012, and 83rd out of 87 eligible in 2014. It’s really tough to know what to expect from him next season, especially as he goes into his age 30 season. The Titans kept him on board at a 6.3 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in hopes that he’d bounce back, but that was mostly because they had so much cap space that they could afford to. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s more likely that he’s better this season than worse. He still might not be good, but he’s part of a secondary that should be much improved from last season on a defense that should be much improved from last season.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

I think the Titans had a pretty good off-season. They added a quarterback who I think will be the best quarterback in this draft class and a franchise quarterback long-term. He might not be great right away in the short-term, but he should be an upgrade over what they had last season and the Titans added talent to their defense to help in the short-term. I don’t see this team sneaking into the playoffs or anything, unless Mariota goes crazy as a rookie and elevates a poor offensive supporting cast that is only relying on bounce back years to improve, but they have a pretty easy schedule and should win a decent amount of games. They should also be healthier after having the 11th most injuries in the NFL last season, in terms of adjusted games lost, including some to some of their better players (Zach Brown and Taylor Lewan come to mind).

The Titans over/under right now is 5.5 wins. Teams that have an over/under of 6 or fewer usually go over more often than not. This year, Tennessee is joined by Oakland, Jacksonville, and Tampa Bay in that group and I definitely think Tennessee has a better chance to go over than both Oakland and Jacksonville and maybe even Tampa Bay, who also adds a rookie quarterback. There’s money to be made here. At the very least, the Titans won’t be the pushover they were last season when they lost 10 games by more than a touchdown and will be much tougher for teams to beat. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Titans after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Jul 152015
 

Quarterback

It might not show it in the win/loss column, as the Colts have gone 11-5 in each of Andrew Luck’s first three seasons in the NFL, but the Colts have gotten significantly better in each of Luck’s first three seasons in the NFL. In Luck’s rookie year, they went 9-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and, while they’ve done well in close games in every season, they’ve gotten progressively less reliant on eeking out close victories in each season, going 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2013 and 4-2 in 2014. This has been noticeable in the playoffs, as the Colts have gone from losing in the wild card round, to losing in the divisional round, to losing in the AFC Championship game, one win away from the Super Bowl, over the course of those 3 seasons, though there are other ways to tell that they’re improving as a team.

In 2014, much more so than the other two seasons, the Colts were an 11-5 team that deserved to be an 11-5 team. Far fewer of their victories were close games that could have gone either way. They finished the 2014 season 5th in rate of moving the chains differential, as the offense ranked 10th in rate of moving the chains, and their defense actually ranked 6th in rate of moving the chains allowed. It’s important to remember that the Colts play in a terrible division that has allowed them to go 12-0 in divisional games (as opposed to 10-10 in non-divisional games) over the past 2 seasons. The division should be better this season, but not to the point where the Colts will be an underdog in any divisional game, either home or away, this season. The Colts should also be better too, after having the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury last season. Even though they’ve been somewhat propped up by a bad division, this still looks like one of the most talented teams in the AFC.

So how have the Colts improved over the years? Well, they’ve spent a lot of money in free agency in recent off-seasons, with this off-season being no exception. They haven’t always spent that money wisely, but sometimes they have and they’ve had a lot of money to play with because many of their good players are under rookie contracts. That’s going to change rapidly over the next two off-seasons and it’s going to be impossible to keep everyone, so the Colts are largely in win now mode this season, but they have at least a decent chance to do exactly that.

And, of course, the biggest reason the Colts have improved is Andrew Luck. He might not be as “magical” in close games as he was when he was a rookie, but it’s much more important to be good in the NFL and Luck certainly has gotten better every season, grading out 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012, 12th in 2013, and 9th in 2014, completing 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.73 YPA, 40 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions last season. He set career highs in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and touchdowns with those numbers.

He’s not quite a top level elite quarterback, but he’s very close and, only going into his age 26 season, he could certainly keep getting better. He’s signed for about 19.5 million total over the next 2 seasons, but he’s expected to get a long-term extension sometime in the next 12 months or so, ahead of his 2016 contract year, and will probably set an NFL record for average salary. Right now, Aaron Rodgers’ 22 million dollar annual salary is the record and Luck reportedly could get 25 million. That’s going to make it hard for the Colts to keep talent around Luck, even with a rapidly increasing salary cap, but they won’t have much of a choice but to keep a guy who could be the best quarterback in the NFL in 2 or 3 years.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

One of the players the Colts brought in through free agency this off-season is former 49er running back Frank Gore, who was signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. He was brought in to fix a running game that averaged just 3.88 yards per carry last season, 25th in the NFL. Their top-3 running backs last season in terms of carries were mega-bust Trent Richardson, veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, who broke his leg week 11 and missed the rest of the season, and the unproven Boom Herron. That being said, the Colts will probably live to regret giving Frank Gore a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal and guaranteeing him 6.5 million of the 7.5 million he’s scheduled to make over the next 2 seasons.

Gore’s rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. However, he’s also going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. He might not have looked it last year, when he rushed for 1106 yards and 4 touchdowns on 255 attempts (4.34 YPC), caught 11 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown, and graded only slightly below average, but he’s close to the end. This deal reminds me of when the Falcons signed an aging Steven Jackson two off-seasons ago, expecting him to be the missing piece to a Super Bowl team.

If Gore has a rapid decline or suffers an injury and another running back needs to step into a bigger role, the Colts don’t really have a good option. Ahmad Bradshaw wasn’t re-signed this off-season, going into his age 29 season, following an off-season marijuana arrest that got him suspended for the first week of the 2015 season, and the Colts next 4 running backs on the depth chart behind Gore right now are Herron, Vick Ballard, Zurlon Tipton, and Josh Robinson.

Herron is almost definitely the favorite for the #2 job right now. Even though he was a 2012 6th round pick with 9 career carries going into last season, Herron ended up being the lead back for the Colts down the stretch and into the playoffs. He wasn’t terrible, but he graded out below average in the regular season and was horrible in the post-season. Between the regular season and the playoffs, he rushed for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns on 123 carries (4.24 YPC) and showed himself to be pretty good as a receiver, catching 41 passes for 301 yards. Those numbers aren’t bad, but they weren’t great either and he also fumbled 4 times, a really high rate for the number of carries he had and a serious problem. He’s a decent backup, but little else.

The rest of the bunch is even more uninspiring. Vick Ballard hasn’t played since week 1 of the 2013 season, thanks to a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season and a torn Achilles that ended his 2014 season before it even started. He’s reportedly a candidate to start this season on the physically unable to perform list and miss at least the first 6 games, if he can even make the roster. He hasn’t proven himself to be a very good runner even when healthy, rushing for 877 yards and 2 touchdowns on 224 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC, in his career, while adding just 18 catches for 147 yards and another touchdown through the air. The 2012 5th round pick’s career is still very much in jeopardy, almost a whole year after the Achilles tear.

Tipton, meanwhile, was a 2014 undrafted free agent who rushed for 86 yards and 1 touchdown on 28 carries, an average of 3.07 yards per carry, with 9 catches for 90 yards and another touchdown through the air, between the regular season and post-season as a rookie. Josh Robinson, a 6th round rookie, rounds out an uninspiring group of backup running backs behind a starting running back who is at the end of his line. The Colts could be better on the ground than they were last season, but they might not be and I don’t expect them to get their money’s worth out of free agent acquisition Frank Gore.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Sticking with the theme of overpaying over 30 veterans, the Colts signed Andre Johnson to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, after the Texans released him to save 8.5 million dollars. He’ll probably help the Colts more than Gore, but I thought he’d get something closer to what Anquan Boldin got from the 49ers last off-season, a 2-year, 12 million dollar deal with 6 million guaranteed.

Johnson is going into his age 34 season coming off the worst statistical season of his career, in terms of yards per game, since his rookie year. He caught 85 passes for 936 yards and 3 touchdowns on 141 targets (60.3%) and 487 routes run (1.92 yards per route run) and only graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked wide receiver. That’s not bad, but it’s worse than what we’ve come to expect from him. He’s currently #12 on the NFL’s all-time receiving yardage list and likely Hall-of-Fame bound someday, but even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Johnson is a declining player who could soon become a rapidly declining player.

He could still be an asset to this team though, simply by being an upgrade over Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks, who played 881 and 602 snaps respectively last season and graded out 106th and 105th respectively out of 110 eligible wide receivers. Neither was brought back as a free agent and the former remains unsigned and will likely retire at some point, ahead of his age 37 season. The Colts have already ruled out bringing him back. His last 1000 yard season was in 2012 in his age 34 season, just another reminder of how quickly a wide receiver can lose it.

The Colts also have a pair of young wide receivers, 2014 3rd round pick Donte Moncrief and rookie 1st rounder Phillip Dorsett. Moncrief flashed on 421 snaps as a rookie, stealing snaps from Wayne and Nicks down the stretch. He was seen as a breakout candidate prior to the addition of Johnson in free agency and Dorsett through the draft, but now will only play a situational role this season at most, at least to start the season. Dorsett will also only play a situational role at most and was likely drafted with the future in mind. Dorsett is 5-10 185, ran a 4.33 at the combine, and has a skill set similar to TY Hilton did when the Colts drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012. Hilton is going into his contract year and is reportedly far apart with the Colts on a long-term deal. With a lot of talent and expensive players to keep under the cap long-term, the Colts likely see Hilton as expendable and Dorsett as his long-term replacement.

As for 2015, Hilton is locked in as the #1 receiver. Like his fellow draft classmate Andrew Luck, Hilton has improved in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, leading to a 2014 season in which he caught 82 passes on 123 attempts (66.7%) for 1346 yards and 7 touchdowns on 572 routes run, an average of 2.35 yards per route run. He’s graded out 86th, 34th, and 10th in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and should have another strong season this year, only his age 26 season. It’s definitely helped him to have played with Andrew Luck, but he’s a great receiver in his own right and someone who will make a lot of money on his next deal. That deal just might not come from the Colts.

With so much wide receiver depth, the Colts will probably use a bunch of 3-wide receiver sets this season, at the expense of two-tight end sets, which they ran a lot of last season, with Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener. Allen’s the better of the two and has the better all-around game, which should earn him more playing time than Fleener. The 2012 3rd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, including 2nd among tight ends as a rookie, thanks to great all-around play. Allen missed all but 1 game and 30 snaps with injury in 2013 and wasn’t as good in 2014 as he was as a rookie, but he still graded out 9th among tight ends on 633 snaps in 13 games. He’s never had more than 45 catches in a season, but he’s still a solid tight end with decent hands and great blocking abilities at 6-3 255.

Fleener, meanwhile, has 103 catches over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average as a pass catcher in both seasons, but grading out below average as a run blocker in both seasons at 6-6 247. He’ll still have a role this season, but he won’t play the 812 snaps he did last season most likely, barring another injury to Allen. He’ll primarily play as a #2 tight end, coming in for the #3 receiver in two-tight end sets, helping the Colts effectively pass out of two-tight end sets. With their wide receivers going 4 deep, their tight ends going 2 deep, Andrew Luck under center, and limited talent at running back, expect the Colts to pass a ton this season, even when they have a lead, and probably even more than last season, when they had 661 pass attempts (1st in the NFL) to 415 rushes (17th in the NFL). Their passing game is simply, by far, their most effective way of moving the football.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Colts had a lot of injuries last season, 3rd most in the NFL in terms of adjusted games lost. That was the case in 2013 as well and arguably their most injury prone player (other than Vick Ballard) over that time period has been Donald Thomas. The Colts signed Thomas to a 4-year, 14 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, which looked like a good idea at the time as Thomas graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked guard in 2012 in 7 starts with the Patriots and looked like a budding starter.

However, Thomas has played just 72 snaps in 2 seasons with the Colts, missing 30 games with injury, including all of last season. He’s already going into his age 30 season and who knows what kind of playing shape he will be in after two separate thigh tears, but he’s graded out above average in every season he’s played a snap since being drafted in the 6th round in 2008. He’s only made 21 starts in his career though and he’s not expected to be back until training camp at the earliest and, if he can’t nail down a starting job, the Colts could cut him to save 3.5 million in cash, 3.25 million of which will come off their cap immediately.

Thomas will be competing with Jack Mewhort and Joe Reitz for the starting job. The former is a 2014 2nd round pick who graded out slightly above average as a rookie, making 13 starts at left guard and 2 starts at right tackle, where he spent the majority of his time in college at Ohio State. Reitz, meanwhile, is a veteran journeyman who went undrafted in 2008 and who is going into his age 30 season. He didn’t play an offensive snap until the 2011 season and he graded out below average in both 2011 and 2012 on 544 and 479 snaps, but he graded out above average in both 2013 and 2014 on 149 and 277 snaps respectively. The Colts gave him a 3-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season so they clearly value him and his ability to play both guard and tackle.

One of Mewhort or Reitz could start the season at right tackle in 2015 if oft injured right tackle Gosder Cherilus can’t get healthy in time for the start of the season, after off-season knee surgery. Cherilus has had some good seasons since being drafted in the 1st round in 2008 by the Lions, grading out above average in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013, including 12th in 2012 and 26th in 2013. There’s a reason the Colts gave him a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago.

However, he’s had major issues with his knees throughout his career, including microfracture surgery, and his recovery from this latest knee problem is taking a while. He’s also going into his age 31 season and coming off of a season in which he graded out 70th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. The Colts couldn’t cut him this off-season as it would have cost them 1.8 million on the cap, but he’ll need a very good season to justify a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016, 4.1 million of which the Colts would save on the cap immediately.

At center, mediocre linemen Khaled Holmes and Jonotthan Holmes will battle it out for the starting job. AQ Shipley actually started last season at center for the Colts, making the first 4 starts of the season and grading out 3rd among centers over that time period before being inexplicably benched for the rookie undrafted free agent Harrison, who made 10 starts and graded out 35th among 41 eligible centers. Holmes finished out the season there, making the final 2 starts, and is reportedly seen as the favorite to start there this season. However, the 2013 4th round pick has played just 193 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and likely wouldn’t be an upgrade. He struggled in those 2 starts last season. Shipley, their only competent center last year, was let go and could start in Arizona this season.

The other two spots, right guard and left tackle, seem pretty settled. At right guard, Todd Herremans should start, after signing a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from Philadelphia. Herremans is an accomplished veteran who has made 124 starts for the Eagles over the past 10 years since they drafted him in the 4th round in 2005, but he missed 8 games with injury in 2014 (making it 16 games missed over the last 3 seasons) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th ranked guard out of 78 eligible.

Herremans was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard in 2013, so he could bounce back in 2015, but he’s also going into his age 33 season. Also, the only reason Herremans graded out so high overall in 2013 was because he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked guard in run blocking. He struggled mightily in pass protection, grading out 79th out of 81 eligible in that aspect. In fact, Herremans hasn’t graded out above average in pass protection since 2009. He’s still a capable run blocker, but pass protection is more important in today’s NFL and it’s an area that Herremans has major issues in, especially at this stage of his career. The Colts are hoping he can at least be an upgrade over Hugh Thornton and Lance Louis, who played 584 and 543 snaps respectively and graded out 48th and 62nd among 78 eligible guards respectively.

Meanwhile at left tackle, Anthony Costanzo is locked into the spot where he’s been since the Colts drafted him in the 1st round in 2011, making 60 of 64 starts in 4 seasons in the league and grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, he ranked 36th, 27th, and 12th among offensive tackles and should have a similar season in 2015. Assuming Cherilus misses some time with injury, I expect their offensive line to be (from left to right) Castonzo, Mewhort/Reitz, Holmes/Harrison, Herremans, and Reitz/Mewhort to start the season, with Reitz moving into a super-sub 6th offensive lineman role when Cherilus returns. Reitz could still see significant action at either right tackle or right guard if Herremans or Cherilus get hurt again or struggle more. It’s a below average offensive line overall I think.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

On the defensive line in the Colts 3-4 defense, Cory Redding and Ricky Jean-Francois led the way in snaps played with 757 and 647 respectively last season. Both graded out above average, even if only slightly, but both are gone, the former signing in Arizona as a free agent and the latter getting cut ahead of a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and signing in Washington. The Colts brought Kendall Langford in as a free agent on a 4-year, 17.2 million dollar deal, coming over from St. Louis, to replace Redding.

Langford was cut by the Rams this off-season, but it wasn’t because he played badly last season. They cut him because his 6 million dollar salary was too much to pay for a 3rd defensive tackle. Langford graded out about average last season, but only saw 494 snaps as he was stuck behind recent 1st round picks Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers. The Colts get him at less than 6 million annually and he’s still a starting caliber player, only going into his age 29 season. I like Langford in a 3-4 more than a 4-3 anyway. He had some success in St. Louis’ 4-3, but graded out below average twice in three seasons. In a 3-4 to start his career in Miami, he graded out above average in 2 of 4 seasons, including 7th at his position in 2009 and then 7th again in 2010. He might not be an upgrade over what Redding was last season, but he’s a lot younger than Redding so he’s better long-term.

Opposite Langford, the Colts are hoping to get more out of Arthur Jones, who they signed to a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal last off-season. Jones was limited to 371 snaps in 9 games by an ankle injury last season and really struggled when on the field, grading out 40th among 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends, despite the limited playing time. Now healthy, he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also a one-year wonder. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in his career, the contract year of his rookie deal in 2013, which is why the Colts gave him such a large contract. He graded out 12th among 3-4 defensive ends that season, but it’s very possible the Colts made a big financial mistake giving that much money to a one-year wonder. We’ll see if he can come close to replicating that season in 2015. He’ll start opposite Langford, with 3rd round rookie Henry Anderson seeing a decent amount of action as a reserve.

Starting between them at nose tackle will be the 6-1 316 pound Josh Chapman, purely a two-down player. The 2012 5th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but played 243 in 2013 and 385 in 2014. He graded out above average against the run in each of those 2 seasons, but below average overall because of his complete incompetence as a pass rusher. He’s good in his current role, but is a limited player. The Colts also have a pair of big defensive linemen, Montori Hughes and Zach Kerr, who will see limited action across the defensive line in base packages. Hughes, 6-4 335, has seen 272 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 5th round in 2013, while Kerr, 6-2 335, graded out below average on 289 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014. Like on offense, they’re mediocre in the trenches defensively.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Sticking with their theme of adding 30+ veterans, the Colts signed Trent Cole to a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal this off-season, after the Eagles cut him to avoid paying him a non-guaranteed 10.025 million dollar salary for 2015. However, unlike Johnson and Gore, Cole was still playing at a high level last season and has a good chance to continue at least solid play this season. Cole has still graded out above average in every season of Pro Football Focus’ 8-year existence, including 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 19th in 2014. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he could still be the best edge rusher on a team that really needed help there.

Bjoern Werner (762 snaps) and Erik Walden (669 snaps) led the team in snaps at the 3-4 outside linebacker position last season and both struggled. Werner was a 1st round pick by the Colts in 2013, but has largely been a bust thus far, grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, culminating in him being a healthy scratch in the AFC Championship game last season. There’s still time for him to turn it around and he’s probably the favorite to start opposite Cole, but he’s unclear if he can do that. A better run stopper than pass rusher, he’s someone who could benefit from seeing only base package snaps, something the Colts have the outside linebacker depth to do.

Walden, meanwhile, is a 2008 6th round pick who hasn’t graded out above average once in 7 seasons in the league. He hasn’t been as bad in Indianapolis as he was in his final 2 seasons in Green Bay in 2011 and 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons, but he hasn’t been worth the undeserved 4-year, 16 million dollar deal the Colts gave him two off-seasons ago. Going into his age 30 season, he’s not going to get better going forward.

Like Werner, Walden also probably won’t have to play as many snaps this season as he did last season and could be purely a rotational reserve. There are three reasons for that and the first and most obvious one is the arrival of Cole. The second reason is that Jonathan Newsome, a 2014 5th round pick, flashed on 397 snaps as a rookie and deserves a bigger role, especially on passing downs. He should siphon off a fair amount of pass rush snaps that previously went to Walden and Werner.

The third reason is that the Colts expect to get more out of Robert Mathis this season than they did last season. Of course, that’s not going to be hard, considering Mathis missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. What’s still unclear is how much they’re going to get out of him and how good he’s going to be. Mathis was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker the last time he played in 2013 and he graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, but he’s now going into his age 34 season, coming off of a serious injury and, as good as he was in 2013, he did grade out below average in 2012, so he had shown some signs of aging even prior to the injury.

His recovery from the injury reportedly hasn’t been going great, not a surprise considering his age, and he’s unlikely to be ready for training camp, which would put him in a race to play week 1 and make him a candidate to start the season on the physically unable to perform list and miss the first 6 games of the season. The addition of Cole suggests that they aren’t too confident in him. Even before the injury, he was never a very good player against the run, grading out below average against the run in 4 of 7 seasons from 2007-2013, so, when he returns, he should be limited to pass rush snaps in sub packages. If the Colts can get 10 games of above average pass rush from him in a situational role, they should consider that a win.

The Colts struggled at middle linebacker last season, as Jerrell Freeman and D’Qwell Jackson graded out 39th and 46th respectively among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The Colts signed Nate Irving to a 3-year, 7.25 million dollar deal this off-season and he should play at least a situational role at middle linebacker this season. A 2011 3rd round pick of the Broncos, Irving never played more than 353 snaps in a season in Denver, but graded out above average overall in each of the last 2 seasons and above average against the run in each of the last 3 seasons.

In 2014, he graded out 22nd among middle linebackers, including 12th against the run, on 353 snaps, before going down for the season with a torn ACL after week 9. Through 9 weeks, he ranked 4th against the run. His recovery is going well and he should be ready for week 1, 10 months removed from the injury. He should play at least a situational base package role against the run and, unless he struggles in his first year back from the torn ACL, he should be an asset for them in that role.

Irving’s snaps in base packages should come at the expense of Freeman, an undersized middle linebacker at 6-0 220 who graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in coverage last season, but 59th out of 60 eligible against the run. This isn’t anything new. In 3 seasons in the league since coming over from the CFL, he’s graded out above average in coverage twice, but he’s never graded out above average against the run. Going into his age 29 season, I expect more of the same from him this season, though in a role that better suits his skill set.

Jackson will remain an every down player, which could definitely be a problem again. Jackson was a solid player when he was younger, but he’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including 35th out of 55 eligible middle linebackers in his final season in Cleveland in 2013 and then 46th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers in his first season in Indianapolis in 2014. Things probably won’t get better as he enters his age 32 season in 2015 and he’ll need a strong season to justify a 5.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016. There’s depth in this linebacking corps and guys who can play roles, but they’re only an average linebacking unit at best.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While the front 7 struggled last season, the Colts still performed well overall defensively because of great play from their secondary (poor competition also helped). Cornerback Vontae Davis was their 2nd most important player last season, behind Andrew Luck and ahead of TY Hilton. Davis was drafted in the first round by the Dolphins in 2009, but, when Joe Philbin’s coaching staff came in before the 2012 season, they felt he was out of shape, benched him, and put him on the trade block. Even though Davis had graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league (29th, 13th, and 39th) and even though he was still very young (only going into his age 24 season in 2012), they shipped him to the Colts for a 2nd and a 6th round pick before the 2012 season.

It looked like the Dolphins had won the trade at first, as Davis graded out below average in his first season in Indianapolis and missed 6 games with injury, which seemed to give some truth to the accusations that he was out of shape. However, Davis has developed into one of the top few cornerbacks in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out 4th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 2nd among cornerbacks in 2014. He joins Darrelle Revis as one of two cornerbacks to grade out in the top-4 in each of those 2 seasons.

The Colts signed him to a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, risky considering his history of injuries (10 games missed from 2011-2012) and inconsistency, but now that deal looks like a steal after he backed up an incredible 2013 season by doing it again in 2014. He heads into his age 27 season having graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the league and as one of the best defensive players in the game, living up to his first round talent and then some. Still in the prime of his career, I expect nothing less than another dominant season from him again in 2015.

Mike Adams also had a dominant season in for the Colts in the secondary last season, but his was much more surprising. Adams graded out 7th among safeties in 2014 and made his first Pro Bowl, even though it looked like his career was over until the Colts signed him in June of last year. He wasn’t left unsigned because he played badly prior to last season, as he was a solid starter in 2011, 2012, and 2013, grading out above average in 2011 and 2012 and only slightly below average in 2013. He was left unsigned because of age, as he was going into his age 33 season. He was able to dominate in spite of that last season, but I think it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be able to repeat the best season of his career in his age 34 season in 2015. Still, there’s a good chance that he is an above average starter again and once again proves to be a good value. The Colts re-signed him to a very reasonable 2-year, 4.25 million dollar deal this off-season.

The Colts have another good value at the other safety spot, as they signed Dwight Lowery to a veteran’s minimum contract this off-season. Lowery has always been a solid starting safety when healthy. The Falcons signed Lowery cheap last off-season, but there was a reason he was available so cheap, even though he graded out above average in every season from 2008-2012, including 18th among safeties in 2012. Lowery missed 20 games in 2012-2013 combined and he hadn’t played all 16 games since his rookie year in 2008.

Lowery proved to be a smart signing by the Falcons, as he graded out above average again and, more importantly, made all 16 starts. His health is still a concern long-term, but, if healthy, he should once again prove to be a smart signing, this time by the Colts. I expected him to draw more interest in the open market after he managed to stay healthy last season, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. The Colts will be the beneficiary of that. The Colts also used a 4th round pick on Clayton Geathers, who would see action at safety if Lowery gets hurt or Adams seriously declines. He’s also seen action in sub packages at middle linebacker this off-season and could see some action there this season in place of D’Qwell Jackson, who didn’t play well in coverage last season. The 6-2 218 pound Geathers has the size to play around the line of scrimmage in the right situation and could see a decent amount of action as a rookie (300-500 snaps) if everything goes right for him.

The rest of the secondary is a little bit more suspect as the Colts don’t have great cornerback depth behind Davis. Greg Toler figures to be their other starting cornerback again this season, but he graded out 99th among 108 eligible cornerbacks last season. The 2009 4th round pick has never played all 16 games in a season, has missed 34 games with injury in 6 seasons in the league, and has graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons, with his worst season coming last season. I don’t think he’ll get better, going into his age 30 season in 2015.

Darius Butler, meanwhile, will be the 3rd cornerback again. Butler was a 2nd round bust of the Patriots in 2009 and bounced around from the Patriots to the Panthers to the Colts by 2012. Butler graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, but had the best season of his career in 2012 with the Colts, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked cornerback on 380 snaps, earning a 2-year deal worth 4 million that off-season. Butler remained inconsistent though, grading out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. Butler has never played more than 704 snaps in a season, has averaged 501 snaps a season, and has graded out below average in 4 of 6 seasons in the NFL. The Colts re-signed him to a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s little more than a depth cornerback.

They also brought in D’Joun Smith in the 3rd round of the draft. He could push either Toler or Butler for playing time, but probably won’t see a significant role until 2016. As a rookie, I expect him to be the 4th cornerback. The Colts’ secondary is definitely the best part of this defense once again. It’s hard to figure out how the Colts’ defense had a strong performance overall last season from looking at the talent, except for they played such a bad schedule, and their defense doesn’t seem to be too much more talented this season. Their competition should be somewhat stronger this season, which will hurt them, and their defense should be closer to the middle of the pack this season.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

It might not seem like it, but the Colts are in win now mode. With Luck’s impending record extension, impending free agency for guys like TY Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Anthony Castonzo, among others, 32 million in cap space for 2016 currently (at a projected cap of 150 million), and 10 key players going into their age 30+ season (Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Todd Herremans, Gosder Cherilus, Joe Reitz, Trent Cole, Robert Mathis, D’Qwell Jackson, Mike Adams, Greg Toler), this season is probably going to be the best chance the Colts have at a Super Bowl victory for a few seasons.

They’re going to be very good in certain areas. They have a great quarterback and a talented receiving corps and secondary. Trent Cole is better than any pass rusher they had last season and they should have better health than they had last season. As a result, they should be good at moving the chains through the air and stopping the pass. However, they still will have major issues running the ball, blocking on the offensive line, and stopping the run.

They made it to the AFC Championship game last year, but that was because they lucked out and caught the Broncos at the right time, before getting crushed in the AFC Championship 45-7 in New England. New England, Baltimore, and Denver were all better than they were last season in terms of rate of moving the chains differential and I think that should continue this season, especially with the Colts’ division gaining on them at least somewhat. They’re on my Super Bowl short list, but I think they ultimately come up short. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Colts after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC South

Jul 132015
 

Quarterback

The Lions underachieved in terms of wins and losses in both 2012 and 2013, going 11-21. However, that was largely as a result of a 6-14 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, a -25 turnover margin, and a -10 return touchdown margin. Those things tend to be inconsistent from year-to-year and, in 2014, everything swung the other way with the Lions. They went 6-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less, had a +7 turnover margin, and had a +1 return touchdown margin. As a result, they went 11-5, but ranked 15th in rate of moving the chains differential, after going 7-9 and ranking 6th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013. As weird as this sounds, the Lions were worse in 2014 than 2013, despite their record. There’s a reason why their over/under win total is only 8.5 at sports betting site sportsbook.ag. Many think they’re due for a regression.

One of the big reasons why they weren’t as good in 2014 as they were in 2013 was quarterback Matt Stafford. Stafford, who graded out 7th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 7th in 2013, graded out below average in 2014, coming in 22nd out of 39 eligible, all rankings from Pro Football Focus. The 1st overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft has shaken off early career injury issues and made all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and has generally played pretty well, so there’s bounce back potential here. That would go a long way in fixing an offense that was way more the problem than the solution in 2015, finishing 19th in rate of moving the chains. In 2013, they were 10th, which I think is a reasonable goal for this season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

An offensive line that struggled in 2014, after playing great in 2013, was also part of the problem. In 2013, they ranked 6th in team pass blocking grade and 16th in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus. In 2014, those rankings fell to 16th and 18th respectively. The Lions underwent some changes upfront on the offensive line this off-season, letting left guard Rob Sims and center Dominic Raiola go, going into their age 32 and age 37 seasons respectively. Both graded out below average last season, Sims grading out slightly below average and Raiola grading out 37th among 41 eligible centers.

Sims will be replaced by first round rookie Laken Tomlinson, who could be a steal of the first round, after dominating at Duke with, largely with a combination of intelligence and technique. Meanwhile, Travis Swanson will take over for Raiola. He struggled at guard as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 on 277 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position, but he could be better back at his natural position of center. He played decently there in a week 17 start, in place of a suspended Raiola, but he’s obviously hard to trust.

The Lions did not let right tackle LaAdrian Waddle go this off-season or anything, but his status is still in doubt for the start of the season, as he recovers from a week 15 ACL tear. Waddle played well as an undrafted rookie in 2013, making 8 starts down the stretch and grading out 30th among offensive tackles on 553 snaps, but had a little bit of a sophomore slump. Waddle went into the season as the starter this time, but missed 6 games with injuries, including, eventually, that torn ACL. He still graded out above average on 561 snaps, but wasn’t as good as he was in 2013. The Lions are hoping he can be back for week 1, just 9 months after the injury, and that he can play all 16 games and play well, but that might not happen. Cornelius Lucas would be his replacement if needed, but he struggled on 455 snaps in Waddle’s absence last season as an undrafted rookie.

Another player who had a relative sophomore slump was 2013 3rd round pick Larry Warford. Warford had a fantastic rookie year in 2013, grading out 4th among guards and not missing a single snap. However, in 2014, Warford missed 3 games with injury and “only” graded out 16th among guards. That certainly wasn’t bad, but the Lions will be hoping for a bounce back year from a player who is a young building block. He’s much more likely to bounce back than Waddle, simply because he’s not recovering from a torn ACL.

On this young offensive line, Riley Reiff is actually the most experienced one and he’s only going into his 4th season in the league. The 2012 1st round pick flashed on 336 snaps as a backup during his rookie season, but has made 31 out 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. He graded out slightly below average in 2013, but ranked 23rd among offensive tackles in 2014. He’s an ascending player on a young offensive line that has a lot of upside, but that probably won’t reach it for at least a year or two. They’ll probably be better upfront than they were last season though.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Lions also struggled to run the ball in 2014, averaging 3.59 yards per carry as a team, 29th in the NFL. They weren’t a great running team in 2013, when they averaged 4.03 yards per carry, but they were noticeably worse in 2014. You can’t really blame the offensive line here, as they weren’t horrible at run blocking last season, nor were they great at run blocking in 2013. In 2013, Reggie Bush was the lead back, rushing for 1006 yards and 4 touchdowns on 223 carries, an average of 4.51 YPC, while backup Joique Bell rushed for 650 yards and 8 touchdowns on 166 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC.

With Bush aging, the Lions made Bell the starter in 2014. His YPC didn’t look good in 2013, but he graded out 10th among running backs because of his passing down abilities and he also picked up 43 first downs on those 166 carries, a good ratio. 2014 was a different story for him. He rushed for 860 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries, an average of 3.85 YPC, similar to 2013, but he only picked up 43 first downs on 223 carries. He graded out above average as a pass catcher, but ended up grading out below average overall because he didn’t run well. Though he only missed 1 game with injury, a variety of nagging injuries were blamed as the culprit. Bush, meanwhile, was limited to 11 games by injury and rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries, an average of 3.91 YPC, though he did add 40 catches, 3rd on the team.

Bush signed in San Francisco this off-season, while Bell heads into his age 29 season with a career 4.08 YPC average. He’s been a better runner than that suggests for the most part and he does add value on passing downs, but he’ll have to compete with 2nd round rookie Ameer Abdullah to keep his job. Abdullah has drawn comparisons to Reggie Bush for his speed and pass catching abilities. He should start the season as a complement to Bell, working in rotation, and, like in 2013 when Bush and Bell caught a combined 107 passes, there should be plenty of opportunity for both to get involved in the passing game. Abdullah will eventually overtake Bell as the starter though. It’s just a question of if he’ll do that before this season starts, during the season, or in 2016 and beyond. They’re hoping that the combination of Bell and Abdullah will get them out of the cellar in YPC, where they were last season.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The Lions didn’t have a significant amount of injuries on either side of the ball last season, finishing in the middle of the pack in adjusted games lost, both offensively and defensively. However, they did have some significant injuries to very important players and that definitely had a noticeable effect on this team. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson missed 3 games and was a decoy in another 2 (catching just 3 passes for 19 yards) because of a severely sprained ankle. In the 11 games he played healthy, the Lions moved the chains at a 72.59% rate, as opposed to 68.92% in the other 5 games.

I think we can attribute most of that to Megatron. When healthy, he still put up great numbers, catching 68 passes for 1056 yards and 8 touchdowns in 11 games, which extrapolates to 99 catches for 1536 yards and 12 touchdowns over 16 games. Those are absurd numbers, but Johnson averaged 95 catches for 1564 yards and 11 touchdowns per season from 2010-2013, so those numbers are just another day at the office for him. He “only” averaged 2.29 yards per route run in 2014, but, if you take out the 2 weeks he played hurt, that average becomes 2.46. From 2010-2013, he averaged 2.37 yards per route run, best in the NFL over that time period.

Despite playing two games at significantly less than 100% last season, Johnson still finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked wide receiver on 705 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. If you throw out the weeks he was hurt, he graded out 3rd among wide receivers. Johnson graded out in the top-5 among wide receivers in every season from 2010-2013, something no one else can say, and now he’s graded out in the top-7 in each of the last 5 seasons, again something no one else can say. There are some people who think that, with Johnson going into his age 30 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, that we’re starting to see the beginning of a decline with him. That may be true and guys like Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas, and even Dez Bryant may be better than him, but he’s still one of the best players in the NFL and having him healthy all season will be a big boost to this team.

The one thing that was better for the Lions offensively in 2014 was the addition of Golden Tate, who signed a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal last off-season that looks like an absolute bargain right now. Tate graded out 16th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and caught 99 passes on 136 targets (72.8%) for 1331 yards and 4 touchdowns on 626 routes run, an average of 2.13 yards per route run. He was especially productive when Johnson was out, as Tate routinely beat double coverage to give Stafford at least one option to throw to with Megatron injured. He caught 39 passes for 599 yards and 3 touchdowns in those 5 games. He wasn’t bad in the other 11 games though, catching 60 passes for 732 yards and 1 touchdown, 87 catches for 1065 yards and 1 touchdown over 16 games.

That came as a surprise to a lot of people, as he never had even a 1000+ yard season in his career prior to 2014, but that was because his numbers were kept down by a run heavy offense in Seattle. He averaged 1.80 yards per route run in 2012 and 2.01 yards per route run in 2013, so his 2.13 yards per route run average in 2013 was barely a career high. He also graded out 16th in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus in 2012 and 16th in 2013. He didn’t suddenly become better last season and he’s not a one-year wonder. He’s just finally in a good offense for him. His numbers could take a hit this season with Johnson healthy and stealing targets, but he still produced at a high level with Johnson out last season. He’ll see plenty of single coverage opposite Johnson and should finish in the 1000-1200 yard range. Johnson and Tate are arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.

The problem is the Lions really didn’t have a good 3rd option in the passing game last season, leaving them really top heavy and very vulnerable if an injury like Johnson’s hit. There’s a reason Bush was 3rd on the team with 40 catches, despite only playing 11 games and despite being a backup running back. Jeremy Ross was their #3 wide receiver last season and actually played the 2nd most snaps among Lion wide receivers last season, because of Johnson’s injury.

Ross graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 723 snaps, 107th in pure pass catching grade. The 2011 undrafted free agent played just 190 snaps in his career prior to last season and has never graded out above average. He probably won’t have to play as many snaps this season, as long as Tate and Johnson stay healthy, but he’s a bad insurance option. He’ll have to hold off Corey Fuller, a 2013 6th round pick who graded out below average on 405 snaps last season in his first career action, and TJ Jones, a 2014 6th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, for the job. The 3rd receiver spot remains a serious weakness for the Lions.

By far the Lions’ best option to step up and be a reliable 3rd option in the passing game for them (aside from running backs Bell and Abdullah) is tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron was the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, but struggled mightily as a rookie, catching just 25 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown and grading out 45th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 452 snaps. However, the Lions knew he’d be raw when they drafted him and he still has great upside. A young rookie, Ebron is only going into his age 22 season and ran a 4.60 40 at 6-4 250 at the combine. He should take over the starting tight end job from incumbent veteran Brandon Pettigrew and play at least 600-700 snaps this season. The Lions will be happy with 50 catches from him in 2015.

Pettigrew, meanwhile, was horrible last season, in the first year of an ill-advised 4-year, 16 million dollar contract that the Lions re-signed him to last off-season. He graded out 57th out of 67 eligible tight ends on 598 snaps last season and caught just 10 passes for 70 yards, giving him a position worst 0.34 yards per route run. He’s a solid blocker at 6-5 263, but didn’t even play that well in that aspect last season. The 2009 1st round pick has been a bust through 6 seasons, grading out below average as a pass catcher in all 6 seasons and grading out below average overall in each of the last 4 seasons. Already going into his age 30 season, Pettigrew will play a complementary, situational role this season. The only reason he’s on the roster still is because his 2.8 million dollar salary is fully guaranteed. It’s a talented receiving corps, but still not a very deep one.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Lions’ offense should be better this season, their defense could be a lot worse, after finishing 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed last season. That’s because they had a ton of losses on the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and CJ Mosley were their top-3 defensive tackles last season and all 3 of them left as a free agent. Also gone is defensive end George Johnson, who played 502 snaps in a situational role last season. They were unable to really do much to replace them.

Suh will be the biggest loss as he was Pro Football Focus 3rd ranked defensive tackle last season and one of two defensive tackles (Gerald McCoy) to grade out in the top-4 among defensive tackles in each of the last 3 seasons. He signed a 6-year, 114 million dollar deal with the Dolphins, the richest contract ever given to a defensive player. The losses of Fairley, Mosley, and Johnson will hurt though too. Fairley and Mosley graded out 18th and 26th respectively among defensive tackles on 297 and 503 snaps respectively, while George Johnson graded 24th among 4-3 defensive ends (including 15th in pure pass rush grade) on 502 snaps.

The Lions brought in Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker at defensive tackle. They’re not bad players, but they’re a clear downgrade. Ngata comes over in a trade from Baltimore for a 4th and 5th round pick and will make 8.5 million dollars in the final year of his contract in 2015. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007. He’s played in both 3-man and 4-man fronts in his career and both stops the run and rushes the passer well, even at 6-4 340, so he’ll fit in well in Detroit. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should have another strong season.

Walker isn’t nearly as established as Ngata, getting non-tendered by the Saints this off-season as a restricted free agent, rather than being paid 1.54 million, but he’s flashed in limited action thus far in his career and could be a steal for the Lions on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal. The 2012 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but graded out above average on 119 snaps in 2013 and then 308 snaps last year, grading out 21st among defensive tackles last season, despite the limited action.

The 6-3 294 pounder played both defensive end and defensive tackle in New Orleans and will be a pure 3-technique defensive tackle in Detroit. It’s unfair to assume that he’ll definitely have a breakout season in his first season as a starter, because he’s so unproven, but he has potential and he could be a big time steal. The Saints could be kicking themselves for letting him go. Also in the mix for snaps at defensive tackle are 4th round rookie Gabe Wright, 2014 5th round pick Caraun Reid, who struggled on 112 snaps as a rookie last season, and starting defensive end Jason Jones, who has the size to play inside on passing downs.

Jones and fellow starting defensive end Ezekiel Ansah remain. Ansah was the 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and has made 28 starts in 2 seasons in the league. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, but broke out in his 2nd season in the league in 2014, finishing 5th among 4-3 defensive ends. The Lions are obviously hoping that he can, not only continue that strong play, but become even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015. With so many losses along the defensive line, he becomes even more important to this team.

Jones, however, is not nearly as good. He was signed to a 3-year, 9.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago by the Lions, but he was limited to 87 snaps in 2013 by a torn patellar tendon and then graded out 47th out of 59 eligible this season as a starter. He played the run pretty well, but didn’t offer anything as a pass rusher. The Lions could have cut him to save 3.15 million in cash and cap space this off-season, but opted to bring him back, largely because they couldn’t afford to lose more experience on the defensive line. He’s had more career success at defensive tackle than defensive end so the Lions could use him more inside more on passing downs this season, with an opportunity open. In his career as a defensive tackle, the 6-3 274 pounder has graded out above average on limited snaps inside in both 2009 and 2012 and also graded out 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in his only season as a starter at defensive tackle in 2010.

As a defensive end, he hasn’t been nearly as good, including 2011 season in which he graded out 62nd among 67 eligible and last year’s poor play. Regardless of whether or not he moves inside in sub packages, he won’t be seeing many sub packages, if any, at defensive end, so the Lions will need someone to step up into George Johnson’s old spot. The candidates aren’t great. They include Devin Taylor, a 2013 4th round pick who has struggled on 535 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, and Larry Webster, a 2014 4th round pick who didn’t play a single snap as a rookie.

Kyle Van Noy, a 2014 2nd round pick, is also in the mix. The 6-3 252 pounder was supposed to be a starting outside linebacker/defensive end last season, playing the Von Miller role, outside linebacker in base packages and defensive end in sub packages. However, he was limited to 51 snaps in 8 games by injuries. Even when he was healthy, he didn’t play much because he hadn’t gotten the system down (thanks to a lot of missed practice time with injury) and there were other guys ahead of him for snaps that were playing well. This season, with guys gone, he could see snaps on passing downs at defensive end. It’s certainly not the same defensive line as it’s been in recent years, but there is still talent here, though the depth is weak.

Grade: B

Linebackers

On offense, the major injury was to Calvin Johnson. On defense, it was to talented middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who looked on his way to another strong season before tearing his ACL week 3, which ended his season after 130 snaps. Tulloch graded out 2nd among middle linebackers in 2013, 6th among middle linebackers in 2011, and has graded out above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. He could bounce back, but he’s going into his age 30 season, coming off of a serious injury, and he’s had problems with his knee before (in 2012, the only season he graded out below average, it was because he played through a serious knee problem). Given that, him bouncing back is not such a sure thing, but it will be good to have him back.

Tahir Whitehead played middle linebacker in his absence and played pretty well, struggling in coverage, but doing a good enough job against the run to grade out above average overall. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked middle linebacker against the run. With Tulloch gone, Whitehead will move to his natural position of outside linebacker and compete for the pure base package outside linebacker role with Van Noy, which better fits his skill set, as it’ll allow him to focus on the run and not have to drop in coverage as often. Even though he’s unproven, going undrafted in 2012 and never playing a single defensive snap before last season, he should be considered the heavy favorite for that role.

At the other outside linebacker spot, the every down spot, DeAndre Levy remains and might be the Lions’ best defensive player now, with Suh gone and Tulloch coming off of an injury. Levy has been a starter since the Lions drafted him in the 3rd round in 2009, making 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he graded out below average in each of his first 4 seasons. The Lions re-signed him two off-seasons ago anyway, bringing him back on a 3-year, 9.75 million dollar deal, and that’s been an absolute steal as Levy has broken to be a late bloomer.

He’s graded out 9th and 3rd among 4-3 outside linebackers in the last 2 seasons respectively and is one of the best in the game at his position. I don’t expect anything else from him in 2015, still only his age 28 season. Levy is going into his contract year and the Lions would obviously like to lock him up ahead of that. Whether he gets paid now or next off-season on the open market, you can bet someone will pay a lot more money for his services than the Lions did two off-seasons ago. He and Tulloch make a great pair of every down linebackers, while Whitehead fits well in the two down role, meaning this is one of the most complete set of 4-3 linebackers in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

While all of the Lions’ losses on the defensive line will hurt them, the defensive line wasn’t the only area where the Lions had success defensively last season, as evidenced by their strong linebacking corps. They also had a strong secondary last season, as both starters at both cornerback and safety graded out above average. We’ll see if they can do that again this season as they have a pair of aging veterans in the secondary. Safety James Ihedigbo heads into his age 32 season, while cornerback Rashean Mathis heads into his age 35 season.

Mathis is in the more precarious position age wise. Rashean Mathis looked done 2 years ago, after the 2012 season, as he graded out below average in 2012, missed 11 games with injury in 2011 and 2012 combined, and was going into his age 33 season. He didn’t get signed until mid-August in 2013, but he’s turned back the clock in Detroit over the past 2 seasons, making 29 starts and grading out 26th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 12th in 2014. We’ll see how long that lasts, but he’s a nice stopgap starter and is once again a bargain on a 2-year, 3.5 million dollar deal the Lions gave him this off-season.

The problem is the Lions don’t really have any good depth behind him. It’s unclear who the 3rd cornerback will be, as youngsters Nevin Lawson and Alex Carter, along with journeymen veterans Josh Wilson and Chris Owens will compete for that job. Lawson is a 2014 4th round pick who struggled on 63 snaps as a rookie, before dislocating his ankle, while Carter is a 3rd round rookie. Owens was Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible last season in Kansas City on 500 snaps, though he has been better in the past, grading out above average in both 2012 and 2013. He’s graded out above average in 3 of 6 seasons since he was drafted in the 3rd round in 2009 (2010 was the other season), though he’s maxed out at 545 snaps. He’s a decent depth cornerback at best.

Wilson, meanwhile, comes over from Atlanta. It’s hard to believe that Josh Wilson was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked cornerback in 2010. Wilson has never done anything like that other than that season, but he did grade out above average in each of the first 6 seasons of his career, from 2007-2012. However, he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons and is arguably coming off of the worst season of his career in 2014, grading out 75th among 108 eligible cornerbacks on 458 snaps. That’s not a good trend, as he goes into his age 30 season. Like Owens, he’s a decent depth cornerback at best. It’s not a horrible quartet of cornerbacks, but there isn’t a clear good choice for the 3rd cornerback job (Nevin Lawson is reportedly the favorite) and some of these guys won’t even make the roster.

While Mathis is heading nearing the end of his career, fellow starting cornerback Darius Slay is just going into his prime and coming off of a strong season. The 2013 2nd round pick really struggled on 353 snaps as a rookie, but had a breakout year in 2014, making all 16 starts and grading out 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Only going into his age 24 season, the Lions are hoping that Slay can continue his development, become a true #1 cornerback, and one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He certainly has the potential and, even if that doesn’t happen this season, he’s still the Lions’ best cornerback and a real asset to this team.

Ihedigbo is also locked into a starting job, despite his age. A late bloomer, Ihedigbo only graded out above average once from 2007-2012, after going undrafted in 2007, and never made more than 12 starts in a season during that time period. However, he’s made 29 of 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, grading out 15th among safeties in 2013 in Baltimore and 14th among safeties in 2014 in Detroit, who signed him to a 2-year, 3.15 million dollar deal last off-season. Unhappy with his contract (owed just 1.6 million in 2015), Ihedigbo skipped some voluntary workouts this off-season, sensing that, given his age, this was the best chance he was going to get to cash in. He came gave up on that pretty quickly though and will be on the field this season. If he can continue his strong play, he could get a decent amount of money on a short-term deal next off-season, but that’s not necessarily going to happen, given his history and his age.

At the other safety spot is Glover Quin, who is probably their best defensive back. Quin, a 2009 4th round pick, has graded out above average in each of the last 5 seasons, 1 at cornerback (2010), and the last 4 at safety. He’s been especially good since signing a 5-year, 23.5 million dollar deal with the Lions two off-seasons ago, grading out 10th and 3rd respectively among safeties in those 2 seasons and making all 32 starts. He hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year. He’s a one year wonder in terms of being the type of dominant safety he was last season, but he’s still one of the best players on a defense that won’t be as good as it was last season thanks to off-season losses, but that will still be a solid unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

In 2012 and 2013, the Lions were significantly better than their record. In 2014, they were significantly worse than their record and worse than they were in 2013, when they won 4 fewer games. This season could be a case of the team playing better, but winning fewer games. The offense definitely has bounce back potential (thanks to Matt Stafford’s bounce back potential and a presumably healthy Calvin Johnson) and could be closer to the top-10 offense they were in 2013.

However, the defense sustained a lot of losses on the defensive line and probably won’t be as good as they were in 2014, when they ranked 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed. They’ll probably be better than 15th in rate of moving the chains differential, where they were last season, but that might not translate to another playoff appearance. They’re one of the teams that will be in the mix for a wild card spot, but they’re squarely behind Green Bay in the division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Lions after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North

Jul 112015
 

Quarterback

The Vikings seem to have struck gold with the 32nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. After using the 9th overall pick on Anthony Barr (also a good pickup), the Vikings looked like they would head into day 2 with only Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel at quarterback. Instead, they moved up from the 2nd round to grab quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who was sliding down the board, but likely wouldn’t have been available at the Vikings’ original 2nd round pick. Bridgewater had a fantastic college career and a lot of great tape, but concerns about his size, deep accuracy, and his poor Pro Day knocked him down boards.

The Vikings’ gain is the rest of the league’s loss. The Jaguars picked Blake Bortles 3rd overall over Bridgewater and the Browns picked Johnny Manziel 22nd over Bridgewater, despite spending 100K on a study that told them that Bridgewater would be the best quarterback in the draft class (because Browns). Both of those quarterbacks struggled mightily as rookies and the latter’s career could be over before it starts if he doesn’t get his act together on and off the field. On top of that, there are several other teams that had a chance to draft Bridgewater in the first round (or trade back up into the first round) that probably would prefer Bridgewater to their current quarterback, including the likes of Cincinnati, Arizona, the Jets, Houston, Oakland, Buffalo, St. Louis, Philadelphia etc.

As a rookie, Bridgewater completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, rushed for 209 yards and a touchdown on 47 carries (4.45 YPC), graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, and ranked 15th among eligible quarterbacks. It’s important not to get too ahead of ourselves with Bridgewater, as he has a long way to go to become a proven franchise quarterback, but the future looks bright for the quarterback who is only going into his age 23 season. He certainly seems to have the brightest future of any quarterback in last year’s draft class and he definitely was the best of any rookie quarterback in the NFL last season.

The Vikings only ranked 24th in rate of moving the chains last season, but they were significantly better in the 12 games that Bridgewater started, moving the chains at a 70.52% rate, as opposed to 66.36% in their other 4 games. They were also significantly better in their final 6 games of the season, moving the chains at a 72.29% rate. Over those 6 games, Bridgewater completed 68.9% of his passes for an average of 8.14 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions, while grading out 2nd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus over that time period. It really seemed like something clicked for the rookie. You can’t necessarily extrapolate those 6 games to a whole career or even to the 2015 season, but I think there’s a very good chance that Bridgewater is better in his 2nd year in the league than he was in his first.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The one thing that Teddy Bridgewater will have this season that he didn’t last season is future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson, who missed 15 games last season with team suspension, after getting arrested for child abuse after week 1. In his absence, Matt Asiata led the team in carries with 164, but only turned them into 570 yards (though 9 touchdowns), an average of 3.48 yards per carry. He graded out 56th among 57 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus as a result.

Jerick McKinnon, a 3rd round rookie, was better, rushing for 538 yards on 113 carries, an average of 4.76 yards per carry. He graded out above average as a runner, but below average overall because of his struggles on passing downs. His struggles on passing downs caused him to drop to the 3rd round in the first place, but he’s a good runner. His strong YPC average last season was part of the reason that the Vikings averaged 4.36 yards per carry on the season overall (11th in the NFL), despite Asiata’s struggles. On top of that, they had some fluky long runs, as the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson, Jarius Wright, Andrew Sendejo, and Jerome Felton all had 20+ yard runs. That’s two wide receivers, a fullback, and a safety.

Peterson will be a big boost to this offense, but you shouldn’t expect him to be the same back who rushed for 2000+ yards in 2012. As good as he’s been throughout his 8-year career, he’s only rushed for 1400+ yards twice and never in back-to-back seasons. In 2013, following that 2000+ yard year, he rushed for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 yards per carry, good, but not incredible. He barely played last season, rushing for 75 yards on 21 carries, and now he’s going into his age 30 season with 2054 career carries. He ranks 28th all-time in rushing yards with 10,190, but, of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He could be fresh off of a season off, but he could just as easily be rusty.

He should still be a big asset for them, as he ranked in the top-11 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013, the only running back in the NFL who can say that. The Vikings will probably still give him 300+ carries as long as he stays on the field, because Norv Turner has always preferred feature backs who frequently carry the ball 20 times per game, but there’s no guarantee that the Vikings will average more yards per carry than they did last season, when they averaged 4.36 yards per carry. They will probably be more consistent on the ground though and pick up more than 90 rushing first downs on the season. McKinnon will work as a strict backup and probably only on running downs because he doesn’t possess any passing down abilities, though Peterson isn’t that good on passing downs either (neither is Asiata for that matter).

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Vikings’ offensive line wasn’t nearly as good in 2014 as it was in 2013, even though they returned the same starting 5. They weren’t bad as run blockers, grading out 10th in team run blocking grade, but they ranked 25th in team pass blocking grade, after grading out 7th in that aspect in 2013. The biggest culprit was injuries. After their starting 5 missed a combined 3 games with injury in 2013, they missed 20 games with injury upfront in 2014.

The biggest loss in terms of sheer games was right guard Brandon Fusco, who was limited to 176 snaps in 3 games by a torn pectoral. Fusco graded out 8th among guards in 2013 when healthy, earning him a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal last off-season. He’s still a one year wonder, who graded out 73rd among 81 eligible guards in 2012 in his first season as a starter, but having him back and healthy will be good for this team. Joe Berger was decent on 626 snaps last season, but Vladimir Ducasse struggled mightily on 417 snaps, grading out 61st among 78 eligible guards.

Left guard Charlie Johnson also missed 2 games with injury so Joe Berger also played a little bit there last season. Johnson is gone, after grading out 56th among 78 eligible guards last season, so Berger could start there this season. Berger has actually never graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history, as a super-utility man, playing left guard, right guard, and center, but he’s also only made 38 starts over that time period. He’s also going into his age 33 season, though he could still be decent this season. Long-term, he’ll face competition from 2015 4th round pick TJ Clemmings, who was seen as a 2nd round pick before a pre-draft foot injury. Berger is the favorite in my mind, with 2014 5th round pick David Yankey, who didn’t play a snap a rookie, also in the mix.

Right tackle Phil Loadholt missed 5 games with injury last season, which was a big loss, as backup Michael Harris struggled on 376 snaps in his absence. Loadholt graded out only slightly above average last season in 11 games, though he’s been better in the past. The 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL, including the last 4. In 2012 and 2013 respectively, he finished 21st and 11th among offensive tackles, proving himself as one of the best right tackles in the game. Only going into his age 29 season, he should bounce back to at least have a solid year in 2015.

On the other side of the offensive tackle, Matt Kalil made all 16 starts, but he was horrific. The 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft had a great rookie year, grading out 21st at his position. He slipped to 51st in 2013, but a knee injury was blamed as the culprit. I don’t know what happened in 2014 though, as he graded out 81st out of 84 eligible, allowing 12 sacks and committing 12 penalties. He had more knee problems (though he’s never missed a game with injury), but it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever bounce back. The Vikings picked up his 11.09 million dollar option for 2016, but that’s only guaranteed for injury, so his future with the Vikings is definitely not secure. They really need him to play well, but he’s highly unlikely to live up to such a large scheduled salary.

The only Viking offensive lineman who started all 16 games and played well was center John Sullivan, who graded out 12th among centers in 2014. He’s been better in the past though and, only going into his age 30 season, I think he’s still one of the better centers in the NFL. The 2008 6th round pick was a late bloomer, not really coming around until his 4th season in the league in 2011, but he graded out 3rd that year, 1st in 2012, and 3rd in 2013, meaning last season was actually a down season for him. He’s made 63 out of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and should remain a valuable asset in the middle of their offensive line. They can’t count on being as healthy on the offensive line as they were in 2013, but they should be healthier than they were in 2014 and I think Joe Berger (assuming he wins the job) is probably an upgrade on Charlie Johnson, so things are looking up on the offensive line.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The offensive line wasn’t the only place the Vikings had significant injuries on offense last season as they had the 10th most adjusted games lost to injury on offense last season. Tight end Kyle Rudolph missed 7 games with sports hernia surgery, in the first year of a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar extension that the Vikings have him last off-season ahead of his contract year. They gave him that extension even though he missed 8 games with injury in 2013, because he was very solid in his first two years in the league in 2011 and 2012, grading out 12th among tight ends in both seasons. That was largely because of his blocking abilities at 6-6 259, but he still showed decent pass catching ability with upside and the Vikings clearly wanted him to be a part of their future.

Now his future looks a little bleaker. Rudolph only missed 1 game with injury in the first 2 seasons of his career, after an injury riddled tenure at Notre Dame that caused him to fall out of the first round, but he’s missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same player even when on the field. He’s going into his age 26 season so a bounce back year that gets his career back on track is still a possibility, but he’s hard to trust.

In his absence, Rhett Ellison and Chase Ford played 564 and 345 snaps respectively. Ellison is a fullback by trade (and a very good one) but moved to tight end out of desperation. He wasn’t bad, but he did struggle and ultimately proved he’s more valuable at fullback, where he graded out 4th as a 4th round rookie in 2012 and 8th in 2013. With another talented fullback Jerome Felton gone, Ellison should move back to his old spot, where he could see a fair amount of action, even as a situational player. Ford, meanwhile, is a 2012 undrafted free agent who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but graded out above average on 151 snaps in 2013 and then on 345 in 2014. He’ll compete with 5th round rookie MyCole Pruitt for the #2 job and he should be the heavy favorite.

Greg Jennings has been the Vikings’ leading receiver in each of the past two seasons. However, he’s never put up very big numbers 68/804/4 in 2013 and 59/742/6 in 2014, which is disappointing, considering the Vikings brought him in to be a difference maker in the receiving corps, when they gave him a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago. Part of that was quarterback play and he didn’t grade out below average in either season, but the Vikings made the right move releasing him this off-season, ahead of his age 32 season in 2015. That move saved the Vikings 9 million in cash, 5 million of which immediately comes off their cap. The Vikings ended up paying him 18 million over 2 years.

The problem is the Vikings didn’t spend that 9 million in freed up money well, as they traded a late round pick to the Dolphins for Mike Wallace and his 9.9 million dollar salary for 2015. The Dolphins probably would have outright released him if the Vikings hadn’t traded for him, even though he still had 3 million in guaranteed money left on his deal that they would have had to pay either way. There’s a reason why the Dolphins were trying to get rid of Wallace so badly. Wallace is a solid receiver, but his last 1000+ yard year was in 2011, also the last season he graded out above average.

In his final year in Pittsburgh in 2012, he held out long into the off-season, which caused him to have a horrible season. His 64/836/8 slash line wasn’t terrible, but he caught just 55.2% of his targets and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible. That didn’t stop the Dolphins from giving Wallace a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal two off-season ago and he predictably didn’t live up to it, grading out below average in both seasons, putting up slash lines of 73/930/5 and 67/862/10, and reportedly quitting on his team on multiple occasions. He’s younger than Jennings and fits well into offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense, but I don’t think he’s necessarily an upgrade. He’s an average starting wide receiver and someone who should not be your #1 receiver, which he’ll be in Minnesota.

Opposite him, Cordarrelle Patterson and Charles Johnson will compete for the starting job. Patterson was brought in during the same off-season as Jennings and the Vikings expected them to turn around their receiving corps and play together long-term. That really didn’t work out, as Patterson looks like a bust through 2 years in the league and Jennings is gone. Patterson has provided some value, but not doing things that wide receivers are supposed to do. He’s averaged 29.4 yards per kickoff return on 77 kickoff returns, with 1 touchdown. He’s rushed for 275 yards and 4 touchdowns on 22 carries. However, he hasn’t graded out above average as a receiver in either season and has only caught 78 passes on 130 targets (60.0%) for 853 yards and 5 touchdowns on 656 routes run, an average of 1.30 yards per route run.

Patterson spent most of his rookie year behind journeyman Jerome Simpson, won the starting job late in the season, started 2014 as the starter, but struggled and lost his starting job to the unproven Charles Johnson. Now and he Johnson will compete for the starting job opposite Wallace and it’s very possible that Johnson, who is well liked by the coaching staff, wins that job. That would push Patterson into possibly the #4 wide receiver job, working in on offense as primarily a gadget player and specializing in returning kickoffs.

Johnson didn’t play a snap as a 7th round rookie in Cleveland in 2013, but ended up starting the final 6 games of the 2014 season for the Vikings and playing 451 snaps. His numbers in those final 6 games are solid, as he caught 19 passes for 328 yards and 2 touchdowns, but that was largely to do with Teddy Bridgewater’s play over those 6 games, as Johnson still graded out below average on the season. Even over those final 6 games, Johnson only caught 19 of 36 passes (52.8%). As I mentioned, the coaching staff likes him and his size (6-2 215), but he’s not guaranteed to ever develop into a solid starter or anything beyond a situational deep threat.

Jairus Wright is probably locked into the slot job regardless. The 5-10 180 pounder couldn’t make a living outside, but does a decent job on the slot and should remain there. He’s not a spectacular player, only grading out above average once in 3 years in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2012, but he’s caught 90 passes on 137 targets (65.7%) for 1332 yards and 7 touchdowns on 805 routes run, an average of 1.65 yards per route run. Expect more of the same from him this season. It’s a receiving corps with a lot of unresolved issues, holding back an otherwise strong offense.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

The Vikings’ defense wasn’t great in 2014, as they finished 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed, but they were noticeably better than 2015, when they finished 30th in that aspect. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering Mike Zimmer’s history and background. Zimmer spent a whopping 14 years at the defensive coordinator level and did a great job across 3 stops, Dallas, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. When the Vikings hired him as their head coach last off-season, it was long overdue and the results were immediately noticeable, even if it didn’t get the team into the playoffs right away. The Vikings were helped by having the 3rd fewest defensive adjusted games lost to injury last season, something they won’t be able to count on again, but they have a good enough mix of talent and coaching where they can overcome that. With Zimmer and Bridgewater in the fold, the Vikings seem to finally have quarterback/head coach stability that they can build around.

Like on offense, the Vikings benefitted significantly from a first round rookie on defense, as 9th overall pick Anthony Barr contributed in a big way as a rookie, great to see from a guy regarded as really raw coming out of UCLA. He’s only going into his age 23 season and only his 4th season on offense after spending the first 2 seasons of his collegiate career as a fullback. He wowed at the Combine running a 4.66 40 at 6-5 255, looking like a running back in a pass rusher’s body, and he has a great future after such a strong rookie year. He ranked 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookie, largely playing as a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker, dropping into coverage on 340 of 455 pass play snaps. With minimal depth on the defensive line, Barr could play more of a hybrid role this season, rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages, while staying at 4-3 outside linebacker in sub packages. He was much more effective as a pass rusher than he was in coverage as a rookie, and predictably so.

The Vikings were also helped by a breakout year from 4-3 defensive end Everson Griffen. The Vikings gave Griffen a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar contract ahead of free agency last off-season, keeping their 2010 4th round pick long-term. It was a risky move because Griffen was largely unproven, but he broke out in 2014 in his first season as an every down player, grading out 8th among 4-3 defensive ends. It still was a weird move for three reasons.

One, it’s unclear who else would have paid him that much. Second, he never graded out better than 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in the first 4 years of his career, from 2010-2013. Part of that had to do with lack of playing time, but he only graded out above average in 2 of those 4 seasons and, in that season he ranked 20th, he actually played 717 snaps, so it wasn’t like he didn’t have any chances. And third, Griffen is still unlikely to exceed the value of that contract long-term, even if he does play well, so it’s a contract with much more downside than upside. All that being said, with full hindsight, the move does appear to have been the right one. Griffen has experience playing defensive tackle in sub packages and he has the size to do it effectively at 6-3 273 so he could do that more this season, with Barr rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages.

One of the weaknesses of the Vikings’ defense last season was the other starting defensive end, Brian Robison. Kept long-term instead of Jared Allen, the Vikings gave Robison a 4-year, 22.4 million dollar extension during the 2013 season, but he bombed in 2014, grading out 52nd among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Going into his age 32 season, it’s very possible that his best days are behind him. He graded out above average in every season from 2008-2013, both as a starter and a backup, so there’s definitely bounce back potential here, but he can’t be allowed to play 932 snaps (5th at the position) again in 2015.

The Vikings should give Barr more pass rush snaps and should use 2014 3rd round pick Scott Crichton in a larger capacity, after he played just 16 nondescript snaps as a rookie. They also added Danielle Hunter in the 3rd round of the draft this year. Robison will need a good year to stay on the roster at his scheduled 4.05 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2016. At the very least, the Vikings will have better depth at defensive end than last season, when Corey Wootton was their 3rd defensive end. He played just 275 snaps, but still was Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite the limited playing time. No one graded out worse at the position on fewer snaps.

Along with Everson Griffen and the rookie Barr, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd also had a breakout year in 2014, in his first year in Mike Zimmer’s system. The 2013 1st round pick graded out below average on 472 snaps as a rookie, but he lived up to his billing and then some in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle. The 6-3 305 pounder seems to be Mike Zimmer’s new Geno Atkins. He’s still a one year wonder, but he has a ton of talent and is in a great system for his abilities. Only going into his age 24 season, he could even be better in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. He should be more in the 700-800 snap range as an every down player.

Linval Joseph is the other starter. He signed a 5-year, 31.5 million dollar deal last off-season and played solid in his first season in Minnesota, grading out above average on 743 snaps. The 2010 2nd round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, maxing out at 24th among defensive tackles (2013), after grading out below average in each of the first 3 years in his career. He’s a solid, but unspectacular starter. The 6-4 328 pounder is primarily a run stopper, but he’s not useless on passing downs either. If Griffen plays inside on passing downs more this season, it would probably be at the expense of Joseph.

Tom Johnson was re-signed this off-season to a 3-year, 7 million dollar deal and will return as a talented reserve. Johnson graded out 23rd among defensive tackles on just 444 snaps as a reserve in 2014, but he’s going into his age 31 season and has never graded out above average in his career prior to last season, dating back to when he went undrafted in 2006, so he’s unlikely to be as good again. Shamar Stephen, meanwhile, was the 4th defensive tackle last season as a 7th round rookie and he played like a 7th round rookie, grading out 67th among 81 defensive tackles on just 414 snaps played. With Griffen expected to line up inside more often this season and Floyd expected to play more snaps, Stephen should rightfully have his role reduced this season. It’s a strong defensive line, with the exception of the declining Robison. It’ll help to not have guys like Shamar and Wootton playing significant roles.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

One of the reasons the Vikings figure to be deeper on the defensive line this season, a big problem for them last season, is because Barr is expected to play more at defensive end. That’s only possible because they probably will have a middle linebacker capable of playing every down this season, freeing up Barr to play defensive end in sub packages. That middle linebacker is Eric Kendricks, a 2nd round rookie. He might not be great as a rookie, but he’s not as limited of a player as Jasper Brinkley, their starting middle linebacker last season. Brinkley graded out above average among middle linebackers, including 8th against the run, but really struggled in coverage and played just 471 snaps as a result. He’ll be missed against the run, but Kendricks is a much more versatile player with greater upside.

Chad Greenway has been an every down starting outside linebacker since the Vikings drafted him in the 1st round in 2007, making 124 of 128 starts in 8 seasons in the league, missing the first 4 games of his career only last season. However, he could lose his starting job to youngster Gerald Hodges. Greenway almost got cut this off-season, owed a non-guaranteed 7.1 million in his contract year in 2015, and only was brought back when he agreed to a 3.1 million dollar pay cut. Greenway signed a 5-year, 40.6 million dollar deal after the 2010 season, but he hasn’t graded out above average since then. He’s been especially bad over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2013 and their 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2014.

Going into his age 32 season, it sounds like the Vikings are finally going to stop giving him too much credit for past performance and his starting job could be in jeopardy as a result. If it’s a fair competition battle, Hodges should be the starter, but that might not be the case. Hodges is unproven, but the 2013 4th round pick played 495 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. Most of those snaps came when Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway were hurt last season and played great, grading out 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers. He’s better than Greenway, but the Vikings may continue giving the veteran the benefit of the doubt, to their own peril. With a rookie inside, Anthony Barr will be the only saving grace of this linebacking corps if Hodges doesn’t start and he’s only going to play there in base packages, with Kendricks, Greenway/Hodges playing every down.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Vikings’ secondary was strong last season. Their top-5 defensive backs (3 cornerbacks and 2 safeties) all graded out above average and they missed a combined 1 game, as part of a defense that had great luck with injuries in 2014. Despite that, the Vikings still felt like they needed to upgrade the secondary, adding veteran Terence Newman and rookie first round pick Trae Waynes to the mix. The former is going into his age 37 season and coming off of a down season in which he graded out below average.

However, he’s been with Zimmer in both Dallas and Cincinnati and has always played better with Zimmer around. Newman had his career revived once before by Zimmer, grading out above average as recently as 2012 and 2013, despite ranking 96th out of 109 eligible cornerbacks in 2011 in his final season in Dallas. It’s also possible that he’s just done as a quality player in the league at his age. He’s reportedly the favorite for the starting job right now over the rookie and he’ll make a decent amount of money this season (2.5 million), but Waynes should overtake him in the starting lineup sooner or later.

With Newman or Waynes occupying one starting spot, Captain Munnerlyn, who started all 16 games last season, will be pushed to the 3rd cornerback job and will be purely a slot specialist in sub packages. The 2008 7th round pick has played well in recent years, grading out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, and 4 of the last 5 seasons, maxing out at 10th among cornerbacks in 2013. He’s also made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons. However, the 5-8 186 pounder does have some issues with bigger wide receivers outside and does his best work on the slot as a result. Over the past 3 years, he’s allowed 1.39 yards per coverage snap outside and 1.08 yards per coverage snap on the slot. He should be a good slot cornerback, with the loser of the Newman/Waynes battle falling to 4th on the depth chart.

Josh Robinson was the 3rd cornerback last season, but, with Newman and Waynes coming in, he seems to have fallen out of favor with the coaching staff and will serve as nothing more than strong, experienced depth as the 5th cornerback. Robinson played alright last season, grading out above average in his 3rd year in the league, after going in the 3rd round in 2012. However, maybe the Vikings are right for still not trusting him, after he graded out 109th among 113 eligible cornerbacks in 2012 and 99th among 110 eligible in 2013. On top of that, he tore his pectoral earlier this month and could miss a significant portion of the season as a result, but that won’t really matter because of all the talent the Vikings have in front of him on the depth chart.

The one thing that remains the same at cornerback is that Xavier Rhodes will once again be their #1 cornerback. A first round pick in 2013, Rhodes impressed on 686 snaps as a rookie and then was even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. He struggled against the run and committed 12 penalties, but ranked 14th among cornerbacks in pure coverage grade, allowing 53.0% completion, 6.34 YPA, and deflecting 15 passes (2nd at the position). Rhodes could be even better in his 3rd season in the league in 2015, only his age 25 season.

He’s one of 8 first round picks the Vikings have made over the past 4 seasons, thanks to a series of trades back up into the end of the first round, and the 1st rounder they got from Seattle for Percy Harvin, which was a steal by the Vikings. Constantly trading back up into the first round was a risky strategy that could have really backfired if they missed on a bunch of those picks, but they have generally done well with these 8 first rounders (Matt Kalil, Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Sharrif Floyd, Cordarelle Patterson, Anthony Barr, Teddy Bridgewater, and Trae Waynes) and that’s a huge part of the reason why the team is on the up.

Harrison Smith might be the best of the bunch, which is saying something. The talented safety shook off a sophomore season in 2013 in which he graded out below average and missed 8 games with injury, by playing all 16 games and grading out 2nd among safeties in 2014. He played at an All-Pro level and he’s not a one-year wonder either. His 2013 wasn’t great, but he played all 16 games and ranked 19th at his position in 2012. The Vikings made the no brainer move to pick up his 5th year rookie option this off-season (another benefit of moving up into the first round to grab him) and hope that he continues this kind of top level play into his age 26 season in 2015 and beyond. They’ll try to sign him to a long-term extension over the next calendar year and it could rival or even surpass deals given to Earl Thomas (4 years, 40 million), Devin McCourty (5 years, 48.5 million), and Jairus Byrd (6 years, 54 million). He’s one of the best safeties in the NFL.

At the other safety spot is another safety from the 2012 draft class, but a much more unheralded one. Robert Blanton was a 5th round pick in 2012 and was actually a teammate of Smith’s at Notre Dame, where Blanton played cornerback. Blanton flashed on 59 snaps as a rookie and then 405 snaps in 2013 (grading out above average both times) before winning the starting safety job in 2014, making 15 starts and grading out 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. He’s still a one-year wonder, but I see no reason he couldn’t continue being at least a solid starter, considering he’s always played well when given a chance. Another strong season would set him up for a significant payday in free agency next off-season, assuming the Vikings are unable to lock him up beforehand.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Vikings were fairly mediocre on both sides of the ball last season, en route to a 7-9 finish and a 27th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential. However, they should be better on both sides of the ball this season. They’ll have Teddy Bridgewater under center for the full season this year and he could take another step forward in his 2nd year in the league. On top of that, Adrian Peterson will be back and they should have fewer injuries on the offensive line.

On defense, they won’t be able to count on fewer injuries and will probably have more, but they have a lot of young talent and they should work in more fitting roles this season. Their defense was largely brought down by players like Brian Robison, Shamar Stephens, Corey Wootton, and Chad Greenway. The first 3 should definitely play smaller roles this season and Greenway could as well. This team still has weaknesses in the receiving corps and the linebacking corps, but they have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot in the NFC. Whether or not they make the playoffs and how far they go once they get there is largely going to be on Teddy Bridgewater, but things are looking up and the future looks bright. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Vikings after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North

Jul 072015
 

Quarterback

In case there was any doubt, Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in football, something he proved last season. With Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees aging and Andrew Luck not quite there yet, Rodgers could keep that title for a couple years, at least. In 2014, Rodgers completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 8.43 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, quarterbacked a team that moved the chains at a 79.38% rate, best in the NFL, graded out #1 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, won the NFL’s MVP, and came close to knocking off the Seahawks in Seattle in the NFC Championship game and going to the Super Bowl.

It was about as good of a return from injury as the Packers could have expected from Rodgers after he missed 7 games and most of an 8th game with a broken collarbone in 2013. The Packers went 2-6 without Rodgers in 2013 and they are 18-6 with him over the past 2 seasons combined. Even in 2013, when injuries limited him to 592 snaps, he still graded out 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Since 2009, Rodgers has graded out 4th, 5th, 2nd, 3rd, 8th, and 1st respectively among quarterbacks, with his only season out of the top-5 coming in an injury shortened season.

Over that time period, Rodgers has only missed 9 games with injury, so he’s usually durable. He’s completed 66.3% of his passes, for an average of 8.41 YPA, 197 touchdowns, and 43 interceptions since 2009, winning 64 of 86 games (74.4%). He’s also added 1577 yards and 16 touchdowns on 309 carries on the ground (5.10 YPC), as he simply doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He’s going into his age 32 season in 2015, but that’s nothing for a top level quarterback. Plenty have had great success at that age and beyond. He could easily be the best quarterback in the NFL again, led the NFL’s top offense again, and pick up his 3rd MVP. He’s one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As well as Rodgers played last season, he only wasn’t the only reason for the Packers’ offensive success. The Packers have done a great job of surrounding Rodgers with good offensive talent. An offense that used to be so reliant on their quarterback and receivers has gotten significantly “tougher,” to use a cliché, over the past few seasons, meaning that now they have a strong running game and offensive line. The Packers return 11 of 11 starters from 2014 and look poised for strong offensive play once again. Their only real obstacle to being the #1 offense again is injuries, as the Packers really had none offensively last season, having the 3rd fewest offensive adjusted games lost to injury. Of course, top offenses like Dallas (4th), Denver (5th), and Pittsburgh (3rd) also had no offensive injuries last season, so the Packers aren’t alone. Ironically, only the Saints (2nd) had a strong offensive performance despite some offensive injuries.

Eddie Lacy has proven to be a great complement for Aaron Rodgers in the backfield. In 2 years in the NFL since the Packers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013, Lacy has missed just 1 game with injury and rushed for 2317 yards and 20 touchdowns on 530 carries (4.37 YPC), while adding 77 catches for 684 yards and another 4 scores through the air. Certainly, Rodgers’ presence helps Lacy, but Lacy also helps Rodgers and is a fantastic running back in his own right. He graded out 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus as a rookie in 2013, winning Offensive Rookie of the Year, and then finished 3rd in 2014. He joins Marshawn Lynch as the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 in each of the last 2 seasons. Only going into his age 25 season at a position where youth is such an asset, Lacy is one of the best running backs in the game.

James Starks will be his primary backup. A 2010 6th round pick, Starks flashed some starting running back potential early in his career, but injuries eventually did him in, as he missed 26 games with injury in his first 3 years in the NFL from 2010-2012, which led to the Packers’ selection of Eddie Lacy in the 2013 NFL Draft. Starks has injury problems dating back to his collegiate days, which is why he fell to the 6th round, but he’s played in 29 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons as Lacy’s backup, including all 16 for the first time in his career last season. His career numbers aren’t bad, as he’s rushed for 1760 yards and 7 touchdowns on 407 carries (4.32 YPC), while adding 63 catches for 491 yards and another score through the air. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons in the NFL and is a solid backup. Obviously, any injury to Lacy would be a huge loss for this team, but Starks isn’t a bad 2nd option.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Packers have a strong offensive line too. They ranked 1st in team pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season and 17th in team run blocking grade. Their only real weakness is left tackle David Bakhtiari, who has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons since the Packers took him in the 4th round in 2013, but has largely played like a 4th round pick, grading out 62nd among 76 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie and then 53rd out of 84 eligible last season. He’ll start again in 2015, largely out of necessity, but the Packers are good enough across the rest of the line to make up for it.

They might have the best guard combination in the NFL in Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. Sitton is the better of the two and arguably one of the best guards in the NFL. The 2008 4th round pick has made 94 of 96 starts since 2009 and graded out 8th, 5th, 2nd, 6th, 2nd, and 4th respectively in the 6 seasons since then. No other guard has graded out in the top-8 in each of the last 6 seasons, or even come close to that. He’s graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league and, only going into his age 29 with minimal injury history, he’s still in the prime of his career. He should be dominant again in 2015.

Lang isn’t quite as proven, but he’s had a very impressive career as well, and the 2009 4th round pick is only going into his age 28 season, so he too is still in the prime of his career. He’s made 63 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 6 at right tackle. He’s struggled at right tackle, but he’s graded out above average at guard in all 4 seasons that he’s been the primary starter from 2011-2014, including 22nd in 2011, 15th in 2013, and 3rd last season. He and Sitton are a great combination, and one that is incredibly durable.

The Packers got a great center to go in between Lang and Sitton last off-season, drafting Corey Linsley in the 2014 draft. You wouldn’t expect a 5th rounder like Linsley to have the kind of rookie year that he did last year, but he exceeded all expectations, making 16 starts, grading out 5th among centers, and having one of the year’s best rookie seasons by an offensive player, regardless of position. He’s still a one-year wonder and I don’t think he’s at the point where the fact that the whole league let him drop to the 5th round is irrelevant, but he definitely looks like a steal and could easily be a long-term, above average starter.

Rounding out at the offensive line at right tackle is Bryan Bulaga, who the Packers re-signed to a 5-year, 33.75 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season. Bulaga has been a starter for the Packers since they drafted him in the 1st round in 2010, making his debut as a starter in week 5 of 2010. However, despite that, he’s only made 48 starts in 5 seasons, as he’s missed 30 games with injuries over that time period, including all of 2013 with a torn ACL. When on the field, he’s been up and down. He struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 71st out of 78 eligible in 2010, but he ranked 7th among offensive tackles on 12 starts in 2011. In 2012, he graded out below average in 9 starts before missing all of 2013, but he returned in 2014 to make 15 starts and grade out 16th among offensive tackles. He’s a risky player and the deal they gave him to stay was a risky deal as a result, but it’s good that the Packers kept him for continuity reasons, even if it’s very tough to count on him being as healthy or as good as he was last season. It’s an overall strong offensive line again though.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Along with Bryan Bulaga, the Packers also re-signed Randall Cobb ahead of free agency this off-season, settling on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal with the wide receiver, after a long negotiation period that seemed like it would end with Cobb taking more money elsewhere. The Packers upped their offer from 9 million annually to 10 million annually at the last second and Cobb took less money to stay in Green Bay, passing on a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal from the Oakland Raiders. It’s the kind of compromise where both sides win.

In Oakland, Cobb would have likely struggled to put up numbers on a losing team and could have easily been cut midway through his contract for not putting up numbers comparable to his large salary. In Green Bay, he’s much more likely to be kept for the duration of the contract and he’ll hit free agency again in 4 years going into his age 29 season with a chance at another big payday. Even though he took less money to return to Green Bay, this deal likely maximizes his career earnings potential. Because of that and the obvious increased chance of getting a ring in Green Bay, Cobb was the real winner, but the Packers have to be pretty happy with the deal too.

The Packers didn’t get Cobb quite as cheaply as they would have liked, but they still got a discount over what he would have gotten on the open market and a solid value. While it’s not hard to get good production out of receivers when you have Aaron Rodgers under center, Cobb is still a very valuable part of this offense. Cobb didn’t see a ton of playing time as a 2nd round rookie in 2011 and he missed 10 games with a broken leg in 2013. However, in his other two seasons, he put up 80/954/8 (in 2012) and then 91/1287/12 (in 2014). Cobb was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in 2012 and then 9th in 2014. Other than the leg injury, he doesn’t have much of an injury history and he’s only going into his age 25 season so he could keep getting better.

Cobb will once again be a starter at wide receiver opposite Jordy Nelson. Much like Sitton and Lang at guard, Nelson and Cobb are among the best wide receiver duos in the NFL. Obviously, having Rodgers under center is great for both of them, but in their own right they’re both great wide receivers and both a big part of the reason why this offense works so well. Nelson, a 2008 2nd round pick, has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 2nd in 2013 and then 2nd again in 2014, and is only going into his age 30 season in 2015.

Davante Adams worked as the 3rd receiver in 2014 as a 2nd round rookie. He was drafted with Cobb’s impending free agency in mind, but now gets stuck behind Cobb and Nelson indefinitely with Cobb returning long-term. It’s a tough situation for Adams, but it’s for the best for the Packers. Adams struggled as a rookie in 2014, grading out 99th out of 110 eligible wide receivers. It’s not uncommon for a rookie wideout to struggle and that rough rookie year doesn’t doom his career, but he’s far from someone you can trust with a significant role. Bringing Cobb back was well worth it.

Adams will work solely in sub packages outside, moving Cobb to the slot in 3-wide sets. While he’ll be blocked for serious playing time barring injury, he still gets to catch passes for Aaron Rodgers with great help around him, so if he ever figures his game out, he can put up pretty decent numbers, like guys like James Jones did before him. This offense is a well-oiled machine in all facets and you can put up decent numbers even if you’re just along for the ride.

I mentioned earlier that 11 of 11 starters return for the Packers from their #1 offense in 2014. That might not end up being completely the case if they decide to cut tight end Andrew Quarless (11 starts in 2014), after he was arrested in an incident where he allegedly fired a firearm in public while involved in a fight. That happened just a few days ago so it’s unclear what the Packers response will be, but it could be to cut him, and, even if they don’t cut him, he could be suspended.

It wouldn’t be a huge loss. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out just once in 5 seasons in the NFL and he only played 60.2% of the Packers’ offensive snaps last season, despite playing in all 16 games. The 323 receiving yards he had last season were a career high. It’s possible the Packers were planning on moving him into more of a situational role this year anyway, in favor of having 2014 3rd round pick Richard Rodgers becoming the new starting tight end. He struggled mightily on 491 snaps as a rookie, but it could be worth seeing what he has, especially if Quarless’ off-the-field situation looks bad. Rodgers could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but he has a long way to go if he’s going to turn the tight end position into a strength. 6th round pick Kennard Backman could be the #2 tight end if Quarless gets cut. The Packers’ lack of a good tertiary receiving option/tight end is the only weakness on an offense that could once again be the best in the NFL, barring major injuries.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

While things were great on offense for the Packers last season, that was not the case at all on defense, where they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 74.75% rate, 27th in the NFL. That’s why they “only” finished in 6th in rate of moving the chains differential despite an outstanding offense. Returning essentially the same offense for this season, the Packers could be the Super Bowl Champion in 2015 if their defense is better. That is going to be easier said than done though.

One of the things the Packers are banking on improving their defense is the return of BJ Raji from injury, after he missed all of last season with a torn biceps. However, Raji is overrated and not the nearly consistently dominant player people think he is. At best, he’s inconsistent. At worst, he’s a liability. He graded out 7th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2012, but graded out dead last at his position in 2013 and then missed all of last season. The 2009 1st round pick has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the NFL and his stock isn’t looking up, going into his age 29 season already and coming off of a significant injury. Besides, it’s not like the Packers had a ridiculous amount of defensive injuries last season or anything. They had more on defense than they had on offense, but they still had the 11th fewest adjusted games lost on defense so they won’t be able to count on better health to make them a better defense.

Letroy Guion started in Raji’s absence last season and he was arguably better. That doesn’t mean he was good, but he was still probably better than Raji would have. Guion has graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons in the league since he was drafted in the 5th round in 2008, including 4 straight seasons, a 2012 season in which he ranked 85th out of 85 eligible defensive tackles and a 2013 season in which he ranked 60th out of 69 eligible. He wasn’t good last season and he could be even worse this season. With Raji likely taking back the nose tackle job from the undersized 6-4 303 Guion, I expect him to see the majority of his playing time as a rotational player at 3-4 defensive end. I don’t expect him to be an asset.

The Packers are hoping that 2013 1st round pick Datone Jones can nail down one of the starting jobs at defensive end. His career hasn’t been off to a good start. Despite plenty of opportunity, he’s played just 586 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career combined. He graded out below average in 2013 as a rookie, struggling mightily in limited action, and, while he graded out above average in 2014, he still struggled against the run. The 6-4 285 pounder is a solid situational pass rusher, but he might just not have the size to hold up every down on the defensive line in a 3-4. He’s also suspended for the first game of the season because of marijuana. Josh Boyd is also in the mix for rotational snaps on the defensive line. The 2013 5th round pick has played just 495 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career combined and hasn’t shown much potential, grading out below average in both seasons. The 6-3 310 pounder was used primarily in base packages against the run last season, but he isn’t very good against the run, or as a pass rusher for that matter.

The only redeeming part of this defensive line is Mike Daniels. Daniels was drafted in the 4th round in 2012 and, after 231 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, Daniels has blossomed into a strong interior defensive lineman, with upside only going into his age 26 season. Daniels graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and followed that up by grading out 8th at the positon in 2014. The 6-0 294 pounder is a better pass rusher than run stopper, but is far from a liability in either area. Going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, Daniels would stand to make a lot of money next off-season if he can continue his strong play. He’s the only bright spot on a weak defensive line and one of the few bright spots on this weak defense.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

One of the other ways the Packers expect to be better this season is with better play at middle linebacker, a position that was a huge weakness for them last season. AJ Hawk, Sam Barrington, Jamari Lattimore, and Brad Jones all graded out below average last year and Hawk and Jones both graded out among the 10 worst middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. That, combined with their horrible defensive line, was the source of their issues against the run and a big part of the reason why this defense was so bad last season.

Things got so bad last season that they had to move Clay Matthews inside to middle linebacker in base packages and it seems like they’re planning on doing that even more this season, in an effort to turn around their defense. Hawk, Jones, and Lattimore are gone, but Sam Barrington remains and the likes of Carl Bradford and Jake Ryan don’t exactly seem like starting caliber going into 2015. The former is a 2014 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, while the latter was drafted in the 4th round in this past draft. Barrington, meanwhile, has played 367 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league since the Packers took him in the 7th round in 2013. At least one of that trio, if not two, will have a significant role at middle linebacker for the Packers this season. That’s a problem.

Despite the Packers’ lack of talent at middle linebacker, I still don’t think moving Matthews inside to play regular snaps is the right move. Even though it’s only in base packages, it still reduces his chances at rushing the passer, which is really where he’s best. He’s solid in coverage, but he’s better moving forward than backward. He also struggled against the run last season, largely due to the significant amount of time he spent out of position. On top of that, Matthews himself reportedly doesn’t like playing middle linebacker because he has such great pass rush ability and sacks get contracts. This move doesn’t make sense all around.

Matthews graded out 18th among 3-4 outside linebackers overall last season, doing his best work as a pass rusher, ranking 16th at the position in that aspect. That’s pretty good, but he’s been much better in the past when he’s played a more traditional role. Prior to an injury plagued 2013 season, Matthews graded 6th, 6th, 5th, and 1st respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers from his rookie year in 2009 to 2012 and was one of the best defensive players in the game, primarily rushing the passer off the edge. The Packers shouldn’t mess with that.

One of the probable reasons why the Packers seem to want to experiment with Matthews inside is because they think their depth at outside linebacker is better than their depth at inside linebacker. That’s true, but it’s largely by default. Mike Neal was their 3rd outside linebacker last season, seeing a lot of playing time with Matthews sometimes playing inside in base packages and Julius Peppers sometimes playing defensive tackle in sub packages. He was horrible though, grading out dead last among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2014, after grading out 40th out of 42 eligible in 2013.

The 2010 2nd round pick was better earlier in his career at 3-4 defensive end, but the Packers moved him to 3-4 outside linebacker two off-seasons ago and insist on keeping him there despite his struggles. The 6-3 294 pounder is not a natural fit for the position at all. He’s expectedly decent against the run, but doesn’t generate any pass rush. Maybe Nick Perry, their 2012 1st round pick, can beat him out for the #3 job, but that would require him to stay healthy, as he’s missed 16 games in 3 seasons in the league. Even when on the field, he hasn’t been good. He has graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, maxed out at 376 snaps in 2013, and averaged just 24.5 snaps played per game (32.9% of snaps) in 2014 as the clear 4th outside linebacker. The Packers have essentially admitted he’s a bust by declining his 5th year option for 2016, despite the fact that it’s guaranteed for injury only. Neither he nor Neal is good to have playing a regular role off the edge.

Julius Peppers is the other primary outside linebacker besides Matthews. Other than Matthews and Daniels, he’s one of just a few redeeming parts of this weak front 7. He primarily plays 3-4 outside linebacker and rushes the passer off the edge, but has the size at 6-5 283 to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, which he did occasionally in 2014. Peppers’ career looked like it was coming to a close at this time last year, after he got cut by the Bears following a 2013 season in which he graded out 40th out of 52 eligible among 4-3 defensive ends.

While Green Bay picked him up and gave him a good amount of money, his future still looked bleak going into his age 34 season. Peppers proved a lot of people wrong by grading out 7th among 3-4 outside linebackers in his first year at the position in 2014, after spending the rest of his career at 4-3 defensive end. However, he’s unlikely to repeat that in his age 35 season in 2015 and could see his abilities fall off a cliff. Even though he’s only graded out below average once in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and even though he’s likely Hall of Fame bound with 125.5 career sacks (16th most all-time), he’s hard to trust this season. Peppers and Matthews make a good 3-4 outside linebacker duo, but the former is getting pretty old and the latter is having his position fiddled with. They certainly aren’t enough alone to boost this mediocre linebacking corps or this mediocre front 7.

Grade: C

Secondary

Given how bad the Packers’ middle linebackers were last season, I actually had them taking middle linebackers with their first 2 picks in the draft in my final mock draft. Taking two guys at the same position with your first two picks in a draft is rare, but the Packers had a serious need there, few pressing needs elsewhere, and the value made sense both times. The Packers didn’t draft a middle linebacker with either of those two picks, but they did double up on a position, taking a pair of cornerbacks in Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. As a result, they didn’t address the middle linebacker position until the 4th round, as they added a return man/depth receiver in Ty Montgomery in the 3rd round.

The secondary wasn’t nearly as big of a need as middle linebacker, but the two picks do make sense, after the Packers lost Tramon Williams (1032 snaps) and Davon House (411 snaps) to free agency. Williams was good, but aging, going into his age 32 season and House was unproven. However, those two losses did leave them thin at the position. Prior to the draft, Sam Shields, Casey Hayward, and Micah Hyde were their top-3 cornerbacks, which is fine, but not ideal and they had no proven depth whatsoever.

Even with the 2 rookies coming in, Sam Shields remains locked into one starting cornerback spot, overpaid on a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal the Packers gave him last off-season. He graded out below average in the first season of that deal and missed 2 games with injury. That shouldn’t be surprising though, as the 2010 undrafted free agent has never played a full 16 game season and has only once graded out higher than 30th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his career. He’s certainly not a bad player and he’s a deserving starter, but he does get paid like something more than that.

Casey Hayward should be the starter opposite him. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out 4th among cornerbacks on 703 snaps as a rookie and some (including me) thought he should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year. However, he missed 13 games with injury in 2013 and fell down the depth chart, playing just 435 snaps in 2014, as the 4th cornerback. He still graded out 9th among cornerbacks on those 435 snaps though, making it 2 times in 3 years that no one has played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position than Heyward. Even in the season he largely missed with injury, he graded out above average. An every down starting job is long overdue and it looks like he’ll get his chance in 2015, which could lead to a big-time breakout year and an expensive contract next off-season.

Micah Hyde could be the 3rd cornerback, but he’ll have to hold off the rookie Randall. Randall, their first round pick, played both slot cornerback and safety in college at the University of Arizona, but it looks like he will focus on the slot cornerback job in the NFL. The Packers also reportedly think he has outside cornerback abilities, at least long-term, but he’d probably need Heyward to leave as a free agent to free up that kind of role.

Hyde, meanwhile, did play 720 snaps as the 3rd cornerback last season, but he graded out below average. He flashed on 428 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, but couldn’t translate that to more playing time. They didn’t need to upgrade him with Randall, but they probably did and Randall could take Hyde’s job away as soon as week 1. Rollins, on the other hand, will need to wait until someone like Heyward leaves as a free agent to get a significant role and won’t do much outside provide great depth as the 5th cornerback as a rookie.

Randall is a collegiate safety and Rollins is a physical cornerback, one who plays bigger than his 5-11 195 frame, but neither of them will be able to find a path to regular playing time at the safety position anytime soon, as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett seem pretty entrenched there, entering their 2nd season together. Clinton-Dix did grade out below average as a 1st round rookie in 2014, but not by much and could easily be noticeably better in his 2nd year in the league. He has good upside and doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere soon.

Burnett, meanwhile, is not the best safety in the league by any stretch of the any imagination, but he’s made 60 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and graded out above average in 3 of those 4 seasons, including 16th in 2014. Also important is the fact that Burnett is only going into his age 26 season and signed fairly cheaply long-term, owed just 13.25 million dollars over the next 3 seasons combined. He also isn’t going anywhere anytime quickly. They’re not the best safety duo in the league, but they’re a solid group that could be playing together for a while, at least in football years. It’s a solid and deep secondary, but not one that will be able to mask the flaws of the front 7 completely.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Packers had the best offense in the NFL last season and return all 11 starters on a unit that doesn’t have a single player over 30 besides the quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who will be 32 later this year). They’ll probably have more injuries on offense this season, but, barring anything catastrophic, they have so much talent that they could still overcome a normal amount of injuries and be the best offensive team in the NFL again in 2015. If they can even be average defensively, this is probably the favorite to win the Super Bowl.

However, things are not nearly as good on defense as they are on offense. They had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last season and didn’t do much to fix it this off-season, aside from adding 2 cornerbacks in the first 2 rounds of the draft, neither of whom fill a big need and the latter of whom probably won’t see much, if any, defensive action as a rookie. They still have major needs on the defensive line and at middle linebacker and figure to struggle mightily against the run again this season, allowing opponents to mount long scoring drives once again.

They could even be worse this season with Tramon Williams gone, Julius Peppers going into his age 35 season, and Clay Matthews getting unnecessarily moved all around the formation. This is still the favorite in the NFC North and on a short list of Super Bowl contenders, but they do have a major weakness, one that will likely do them in sooner or later. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Packers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North

Jul 052015
 

Quarterback

The Bears gave Jay Cutler a 7-year, 126.7 million dollar deal last off-season with 54 million guaranteed in the first 3 years. It’s a lot of money, but it’s the market rate for a franchise quarterback. The Bears assumed Cutler was a franchise quarterback based on his previous play last off-season, but now, one year later, that deal looks like a huge mistake. Cutler is coming off of arguably the worst season of his career, as he completed 66.0% of his passes for an average of 6.80 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. He was also benched before week 16 for Jimmy Clausen as the organization wanted to get a better look at the quarterback who hadn’t thrown a pass since 2010, when he bombed as a 2nd round rookie in Carolina. Clausen also would have gotten the week 17 start too if he hadn’t suffered a concussion.

Cutler’s numbers from last season look decent, but much of his strong production came in garbage time. He completed 68.2% of his passes for an average of 8.27 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions when the Bears were down by 17 or more points last season. On top of that, he graded out 32nd among 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. That’s a big part of the reason why the Bears moved the chains at “only” a 73.17% rate, 15th in the NFL, after ranking 4th in that aspect in 2013.

The Bears tried pretty hard to move Cutler and get out of his contract this off-season, but they couldn’t find a taker. One deal would have sent Cutler home to Tennessee along with the 7th overall pick and probably something else for the Titans’ 2nd overall selection, which the Bears would have used on Marcus Mariota, but Tennessee predictably had no interest. The Bears’ inability to move Cutler could be somewhat of a blessing in disguise as you never want to have to sell low on a quarterback. Cutler will probably remain overpaid, but I think there’s decent bounce back potential with him.

Prior to last season, Cutler had graded out above average in 4 straight seasons from 2010-2013, including 10th among quarterbacks in 2013 and 15th in 2011. In his career, he’s completed 61.7% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 183 touchdowns, 130 interceptions, despite the fact that he routinely had much weaker supporting casts than the one he had last year for most of his career. He’s going into his age 32 season which hurts, but we’ve certainly seen quarterbacks play well into their mid-30s before, including guys who bounced back from uncharacteristically bad seasons (Philip Rivers and Eli Manning come to mind).

It’s possible that Cutler doesn’t bounce back, but there’s definitely solid potential a solid year from him in 2015. Cutler loses former Head Coach Marc Trestman, a strong offensive mind, but Cutler didn’t play well in his final season under Trestman so maybe that’s a good thing. On top of that, new offensive coordinator Adam Gase is a rising offensive mind who was tied to head coaching jobs this off-season and will likely get one within the next 2-3 years. Cutler’s upside isn’t huge, but I could definitely see him being at least an average starting quarterback this season, which is hard to come by. That would really help turn this offense around.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

If Cutler is going to bounce back in 2015, he’s going to have to do it without the player to whom Cutler has thrown the most career passes, Brandon Marshall. Marshall caught 279 passes for 3524 yards and 31 touchdowns over the past three seasons of his career in Chicago and also played with Cutler for 4 years when they were in Denver, from 2006-2009. However, Marshall caught just 61 passes for 721 yards and 8 touchdowns last season, grading out just 26th among wide receivers, including just 46th in pure pass catching grade. Going into his age 31 season off of a down year, the Bears shipped him off to the Jets for a 5th round pick, a move that saved the Bears 7.7 million in cash. He had some bounce back potential, but he’s hardly the indispensable player he once was.

Alshon Jeffery remains as now the undisputed #1 receiver and he’s a lot more indispensable. He graded out 28th among wide receivers last year, including 22nd in pure pass catching grade. On top of that, he graded out 9th among wide receivers in 2013 and is only going into his age 25 season, so he still has upside, as he enters his prime. Since struggling in limited action as a 2nd round rookie in 2012, Jeffery has caught 174 passes for 2554 yards and 17 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons combined. The Bears want to lock him up long-term ahead of his contract year in 2015 and any extension he’s given will be paid for with the money they saved by moving on from Marshall.

Who starts opposite Jeffery in place of Marshall is unclear right now. The Bears used the 7th overall pick on Kevin White, a receiver from West Virginia, to be the long-term answer, but he’s currently listed as the 4th receiver on the depth chart. That might just be deference to the veterans and something White can easily overcome, but new Head Coach John Fox is known for being very tough on rookies, so it could be something that continues into the season. Besides, rookie wide receivers, even first round picks, tend to not be very good right away. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Expecting White to produce like Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans, and Odell Beckham did last year during their incredible rookie years just isn’t realistic.

The Bears signed Eddie Royal in free agency for 15 million over 3 years and he’ll be, at the very least, the 3rd receiver and a big part of this offense as a slot specialist. Eddie Royal caught 91 passes for 980 yards and 5 touchdowns as a 2nd round rookie in 2008, but combined for just 138 catches for 1361 yards and 5 touchdowns from 2009-2012 combined. Royal bounced back over the past 2 seasons in San Diego though, catching 47 passes for 631 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2013 and 62 catches for 778 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2014, grading out above average in both seasons. Now he reunites with Jay Cutler, with whom he put up those big rookie numbers. That alone doesn’t ensure he’ll put up those numbers again, but it definitely helps his chance of continuing his strong play from San Diego (and, for what it’s worth, he and Cutler are reportedly great friends).

Marquess Wilson is also in the mix and he’ll compete with White for snaps outside, at least early in the season. The Bears have always thought highly of the 2013 7th round pick because of his size at 6-4 194. He would have been a much higher pick if he hadn’t been kicked off the football team at Washington State for disciplinary reasons. However, he’s really struggled in 2 years in the league. He graded out below average on 76 snaps as a rookie and then 97th out of 110 eligible receivers in 2014 on just 386 snaps. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league in 2015, only his age 23 season, but the Bears are probably better off with him as the 4th receiver, White seeing most of the snaps opposite Jeffery, and Royal playing on the slot.

Tight end Martellus Bennett actually led all Bear wide receivers and tight ends with catches last season with 90 and finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards behind Jeffery, taking those 90 catches for 916 yards and 6 touchdowns. Stuck behind future Hall of Famer Jason Witten for 4 years in Dallas to start his career, Bennett has broken out as a talented starting tight end over the past 3 years out of Witten’s shadow. He’s caught 210 passes for 2301 yards and 16 touchdowns combined over the past 3 seasons, grading out 6th, 19th, and 6th respectively among tight ends and playing in 48 out of 48 possible games.

Even when he was playing a more limited role as the #2 tight end in Dallas, he graded out above average every season, meaning the 2008 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 7 seasons of his career. A well rounded tight end who can catch passes and block at 6-6 259, Bennett has graded out above average as a run blocker in all 7 seasons of his career and above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 3 seasons as a starter. He was understandably upset about his contract this off-season, owed just 10.185 million combined over the final 2 seasons of his contract in 2015 and 2016, but it doesn’t look like he’ll get his wish this off-season and it doesn’t look like that will lead to any sort of holdout. He attended mandatory minicamp and is expected to show up for the start of training camp later this month.

The Bears rarely use two-tight end sets, but Dante Rosario is expected to be the 2nd tight end again, after serving in that role and playing 323 snaps last season. Those 323 snaps were the most he played in a season in 5 years and he’s graded out below average 4 times in those 5 seasons, so, going into his age 31 season, he’s a low end #2 tight end at best. Fortunately, he won’t play a big role, especially with the Bears likely going to even more 3-wide receiver sets this season. It’s a talented and deep receiving corps, even without Marshall. The additions of White and Royal make up for the loss of the fading wide receiver.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

I mentioned earlier that Martellus Bennett led all Bear wide receivers and tight ends with 90 catches last season. I made sure to specify wide receivers and tight ends because running back Matt Forte actually led the team with 102 catches, turning them into 808 yards (3rd on the team behind Jeffery and Bennett) and 4 touchdowns. Forte caught 176 passes over the past 2 seasons combined as Marc Trestman loved to feature him as a receiver out of the backfield. He won’t catch as many passes with Trestman gone, but he’s still averaged 63 catches per season over his 7 year career and he’s a great receiver, grading out above average as a receiver on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He could catch another 60 balls this season.

Forte isn’t just a good receiver out of the backfield. He’s a good all-around running back, also grading out above average as a runner on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons. He’s been a feature back since the Bears drafted him in the 2nd round in 2008, missing just 5 games with injury in 7 seasons and rushing for 7704 yards, 51st all-time, and 41 touchdowns on 1807 carries, a solid average of 4.24 YPC that gets even better when you take out his first 2 seasons in the NFL (4.45 YPC). His 11,431 all-time yards from scrimmage are 65th all-time regardless of position.

There is one problem. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. Forte is only at 1807 carries, but he’s going into his age 30 season, with a bunch of extra touches from catches, and he’s also not as good as the top-25 all-time leading rushers. He could have another one or two strong seasons left in the tank, but he’s at the point where Bears fans should start to be a little concerned.

Also concerning is the Bears’ lack of depth. Jacquizz Rodgers was signed as a veteran backup from Atlanta this off-season, but nothing about his career 3.66 YPC average on 305 career carries suggests he could handle the load if Forte went down with an injury or push Forte for carries if his effectiveness starts to decline. Ka’Deem Carey was a 4th round pick in 2014, but he struggled on 100 snaps as a rookie. The Bears used another 4th round pick on a running back, Jeremy Langford, in this past draft, but there’s no guarantee he’s any better than Carey or Rodgers.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

In addition to a likely bounce back year from Jay Cutler, another reason I expect the Bears to be an improved offensive team this season is that they should have fewer injuries, after having the 6th most offensive games lost to injury last year. The vast majority of those injuries came on the offensive line. After the line of Jermon Bushrod, Matt Slauson, Roberto Garza, Kyle Long, and Jordan Mills made a combined 80 of 80 starts in 2013, they all returned for 2014, but made a combined 59 out of 80 starts. None of the five played all 16 games.

Left guard Matt Slauson missed the most time as he missed 11 games with a torn pectoral. Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 2013 was limited to 272 lackluster snaps in 2014 as a result. However, considering he’s only going into his age 29 season, and that he graded out average in every season from being drafted in the 6th round in 2009 to 2013, and that he made all 64 starts from 2010-2013 without missing a game, I like his bounce back potential. That will be very good for the line. 2013 was uncharacteristic for him, but he’s a solid player at worst when healthy and he’s usually durable.

Center Roberto Garza missed the 2nd most time, missing 4 games. He’s gone completely now, after the Bears cut him this off-season, saving 1.1 million on the cap in the process. They cut him to replace him with Will Montgomery, who is younger, better, and cheaper. Montgomery is no spring chicken, going into his age 32 season, part of why he was available for just 900K, but he’s still younger than Garza, who is going into his age 36 season. He’s also better, grading out 15th among centers last year, while Garza graded out 21st.

Montgomery reunites with both John Fox and Adam Gase in Chicago. Montgomery was drafted by John Fox’s Panthers in the 7th round in 2006, played one season there, and then played another season for Fox in Denver last season, where Gase was also the offensive coordinator. The former late round pick has carved out a solid career for himself. After starting his career at guard and struggling, Montgomery has graded out above average as a center in each of the last 4 seasons, maxing out at 5th in 2012. As I mentioned, age is a concern, but the Bears should still be able to expect solid play from him at center in 2015.

Jermon Bushrod rounds out the left side of the offensive line and he missed 2 games with injury last season. The Bears gave him a 5-year, 35.965 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, but they were tricked. Bushrod made 68 starts for the Saints from 2009-2012, including the post-season, and allowed just 20 sacks. However, that was largely because of Drew Brees’ quick release. Bushrod actually graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons and allowed 205 combined hits and hurries. Now in 2 seasons in Chicago, he’s graded out below average both times.

He was brought in and paid to be a positive difference maker upfront, but instead he’s been a weak spot on an otherwise pretty solid offensive line. He’s entering a make or break age 31 season in 2015, as another bad season should get him cut ahead of a non-guaranteed 6.5 million dollar salary due in 2016. That simply won’t be justifiable given his age and ability. Considering he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has graded out above average just one in 8 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the 4th round in 2007, I think break is much more likely than make.

With Slauson, Garza, and Bushrod missing significant time with injury, Michael Ola and Brian De La Puente saw significant action in relief, playing 844 and 501 snaps respectively. Ola made 3 starts at left tackle, 6 starts at left guard, 1 start at right guard, and 2 starts at right tackle, but struggled mightily at all 4 spots. He may seem versatile, but I think versatility requires a certain level of competence to be legitimate. De La Puente was better, making 4 starts at center and 2 starts at left guard, grading out above average overall and ranking 7th among centers on just 320 snaps. No one played fewer snaps at the position and graded out better. De La Puente is gone as a free agent, but Ola remains, which isn’t a good combination of news.

The reason the Bears’ offensive line wasn’t worse in 2014 despite significant more injuries is the development of the right side of the offensive line. Kyle Long and Jordan Mills at right guard and right tackle respectively were rookies in 2013 and both played better in their 2nd year in the league in 2014. Long missed a game with injury last year, something he didn’t do as a rookie, but it’s just one game. Long went from 43rd among guards in 2013 to 12th in 2014. He was an older rookie and will be in his age 27 season in 2015, but expectations should still be fairly high for him.

Mills, meanwhile, missed 3 games with injury, something he also didn’t do at all as a rookie. He did improve, but anything would have been an improvement over how he played as a rookie, grading out 74th among 76 eligible offensive tackles. He still struggled in 2014, grading out 66th among 84 eligible offensive tackles. The 2013 5th round pick doesn’t seem like a long-term starter. The Bears could move Long from right guard to right tackle, bench Mills, and start someone new at right guard who could be an upgrade. Better health, a still matured Kyle Long, and no Jordan Mills should make this a better offensive line in 2015, but the latter of those three things is not as promising as the former two.

That’s because the Bears don’t have any good options at right guard. Michael Ola would be a contender for the right guard job if Long moved outside, but I already mentioned how he struggled in 2014. The 2013 undrafted free agent is a long-term utility backup at best. The Bears drafted center Hronniss Grasu in the 3rd round this year and he could be an option at right guard, but relying on a 3rd round rookie converted center at right guard isn’t ideal. Vlad Ducasse is also in the mix, but the ex-Jet graded out 55th out of 81 guards on 331 snaps in 2013 and 61st out of 78 eligible on 417 snaps in 2014. As much as Mills sucks, I don’t think it’s worth moving a talented guard like Long to a place like right tackle where he’s never played in the NFL just to swap out Mills for someone like Ducasse, Ola, or Grasu on the offensive line. It’s overall a decent line though. I expect them to perform better than last season on an offense that will probably perform better than last season in general.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The offense wasn’t that bad last season. Their defense was a much bigger part of why they finished 5-11 and 24th in rate of moving the chains differential, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 75.71% rate, 30th in the NFL. They weren’t good in 2013 either, finishing 31st in opponent’s rate of moving the chains, but their offense was good enough to make up for it that year. This year, their defense should be actually improved. While the offense should be improved by better health and a bounce back year from Jay Cutler, the defense should also have better health (ranking 26th in defensive adjusted games lost in 2014), but they also added a fair amount of talent this off-season.

One of those talents added was actually not a player at all. It was Vic Fangio, ex-49ers defensive coordinator, who will serve in that same position in Chicago. One of the best defensive coordinators in the league under Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Fangio asked to be named Head Coach upon Harbaugh’s departure this off-season and walked away when he didn’t get his request. He was a hot name on the open market and the Bears got a good one. He’ll be a big upgrade on Mel Tucker, defensive coordinator for the past 2 seasons, who proved to be in over his head, coaching two separate terrible units. He’s now the secondary coach at the University of Alabama.

Fangio will transition this defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4, like he ran in San Francisco, and the Bears have done a good job this off-season getting personnel to fit the new scheme. Eddie Goldman was added through the draft and will likely slot in as the starting nose tackle. He was only a 2nd round pick so he could be unreliable as a rookie, but the 6-4 336 pounder filled a big need as no other Bears defensive lineman is bigger than 315 pounds. He might just be a two-down run stuffer, but that’s all they need him to be.

Stephen Paea signed a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal this off-season with the Redskins, following a breakout 2014 season where he graded out 11th among defensive tackles. He’ll be missed and he wasn’t really replaced, but the Bears added more than enough talent in other area defensively to make up for it. The Bears added Ray McDonald as a free agent this off-season, in an attempt to replace Paea. They were hoping to get a steal with someone who was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season with Fangio’s 49ers and only got cut because of off-the-field issues.

However, McDonald got arrested again after signing with the Bears and was immediately cut. It’s no harm, no foul on the part of the Bears because he never played a snap or made a dime. Some will all the Bears enablers, but that assumes that McDonald wasn’t going to get arrested anyway. If anything, the Bears gave him a reason to stay clean, but he just couldn’t do it and they let him go. The Bears really could have used him though. That being said, Ego Ferguson, their 2nd round pick in 2014, was drafted with Paea leaving as a free agent in mind. After playing 318 non-descript snaps as a rookie, Ferguson will be a starter in 2015 at 3-4 defensive end in 2015. He’ll be tough to rely on, but there’s upside with him, particularly as a run stopper.

Jay Ratliff will be the other starter. The veteran looked like he was done at this time last off-season, missing 21 games with injury in 2012 and 2013 combined, getting cut mid-season by the Cowboys, struggling in 5 games down the stretch with the Bears, and going into his age 33 season. However, he was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle last season on 474 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps at the position and grading out better. He still missed 5 games with injury last season and, with his injury history and his age, as he goes into his age 34 season, he’s very unlikely to play as well as he did last season. However, he could still be a capable starter at worst.

Will Sutton and Jarvis Jenkins will be reserves on the defensive line. The former has the size to play nose tackle if needed at 6-0 315, but the 2014 3rd round pick graded out 70 out of 81st eligible defensive tackles on 465 snaps as a rookie. Jarvis Jenkins, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent from Washington where he was a starter last year, but he came very inexpensively (1 year, 745K) because he struggled mightily in the first 4 years of his career in Washington. The 2011 2nd round pick graded out 45th out of 47 eligible last season and has never graded out above average. The Bears will hope that neither has to play very much this season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

I don’t expect either of them will. In fact, most of the Bears’ 3-4 defensive linemen will be primarily base package players who will see very few snaps in sub packages as interior pass rushers. Ratliff is their only decent or better interior pass rusher on the defensive line and both of the Bears’ starting base 3-4 outside linebackers are very comfortable rushing for the interior in sub packages. LaMarr Houston has been a 4-3 defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid throughout his career, while Pernell McPhee saw significant playing time outside linebacker, defensive end, and defensive tackle in Baltimore, where he spent the first 4 years of his career from 2011-2014.

McPhee was signed as a free agent this off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014 despite playing just 540 snaps. He’s not a one year wonder as that type of player either as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle as a 5th round rookie in 2011 on just 348 snaps and has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league. The 6-3 278 pounder is supremely versatile with experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 4-3 defensive end, a 3-4 defensive end, and a 4-3 defensive tackle. He’s never played more than 540 snaps in a season, so he’s still unproven as a full-time starter, and he’s still unproven outside of Baltimore, where they have such great supporting talent defensively. However, he’s also only going into his age 27 season and could break out as one of the better front 7 players in the game if he’s given a bigger role. He was a great add on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal.

Houston, meanwhile, was signed as a free agent last off-season (5 years, 35 million), after spending the first 4 seasons of his career in Oakland, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010. He was decent on 405 snaps last season, but missed 8 games with a torn ACL. He is only going into his age 28 season, will be 10 months removed from the injury by week 1, and never missed a game with injury in the NFL prior to last season, so I like his bounce back potential. The 6-3 305 pounder graded out 20th, 11th, and 13th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively before signing with the Bears. Getting him back from injury is like adding another free agent, along with McPhee. They’re both very big outside linebackers at 278 and 305 pounds, but they’ll only play there in base packages and see the majority of their snaps inside in sub packages. They should both be able to make significant positive impacts at both spots.

The Bears have a ton of depth at outside linebacker too with guys like Jared Allen, Willie Young, Sam Acho. They’ll see significant roles, primarily as edge rushers in sub packages. The former two were the Bears’ leaders in snaps played at defensive end last season with Houston hurt. Allen has had a fantastic career. He has 134 sacks in 11 seasons in the NFL, most among active players and 9th most all-time, setting him up with a really good Hall-of-Fame case. However, he’s going into his age 33 season. While he graded out above average last season, he only ranked 19th among 4-3 defensive ends, which is a significant fall from his prime, and he also graded out below average in 2013. He also hasn’t graded out above average against the run since 2011, so he’s best off as a mere situational pass rusher at this stage of his career. He’s never played in a 3-4 in his career, but he’ll rarely have to drop in coverage in his expected role, so that doesn’t really matter.

Acho was a free agent acquisition this off-season, signing for 745K on a one-year deal. He was a 4th round pick by the Cardinals in 2011. He made 26 starts in his first 2 seasons combined, but it was clear he was forced into starting action too quickly, as he graded out 25th out of 28 eligible in 2011 and 31st out of 34 eligible in 2012. In 2013, he played just 104 snaps in 3 games (2 starts) before going down for the season with a broken leg, but he bounced back to grade out above average in 2014 for the first time in his career, doing so on 483 snaps.

Willie Young, meanwhile, graded out below average last season, though he did grade out 15th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 with the Lions in his first career season as a starter and he has graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league since the Lions took him in the 7th round in 2010. The 6-4 254 pounder is a good fit as a situational pass rusher. With so much depth at outside linebacker and no real dominant interior pass rushers, it makes sense for the Bears to regularly use Pernell McPhee, LaMarr Houston, and two of Jared Allen, Willie Young, and Sam Acho as their primary pass rushers in sub packages.

Middle linebacker, however, is serious a problem for the Bears. Jon Bostic, Lance Briggs, Christian Jones, and DJ Williams were their top-4 non-rush linebackers in terms of snaps played last season. They didn’t play well as a group, as Briggs was the only one to grade out above average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season, but missed 8 games with injury and was not brought back as a free agent this off-season, ahead of his age 35 season. Briggs played 12 seasons in Chicago and made 7 Pro Bowls, but his career might be over. He’s a borderline Hall-of-Fame candidate.

Williams is also gone as a free agent, while Christian Jones will compete for a starting job with free agent acquisition Mason Foster. Jones struggled on 443 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014 and doesn’t project as anything more than a reserve long-term. Unfortunately, Foster isn’t much of a better option. He was a starter from the word go in Tampa Bay, after they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2011. In 4 years with the team, Foster played 57 of 64 games, starting all but 3 of them. However, he graded out below average in all 4 seasons, including 43rd out of 60 eligible in 2014. There’s a reason he was available for 825K on a one-year deal as a free agent. He’ll probably be a starter by default again.

Bostic, meanwhile, will be the other starter, also largely by default, even though he’s never played more than 614 snaps in a season or graded out above average in his career. He’s still young, going into his 3rd year in the league and an age 24 season in 2015, so there’s still upside for the 2014 2nd round pick. He also made a big leap from his rookie year to his 2nd year, grading out 51st among 55 eligible middle linebackers as a rookie, but moving up to 25th in 2014. Still, it’s tough to count on him as an above average starter.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Bears drafted Kyle Fuller in the first round (14th overall) in 2014, in an effort to turn around their horrible defense from 2013. However, like 2nd round pick Ego Ferguson and 3rd round pick Will Sutton, who were drafted for the same reason, Fuller failed to make a positive impact as a rookie. Fuller flashed to start the season, but ended up struggling mightily overall, thanks in large part to a variety of injuries he dealt with. Fuller didn’t miss a game, but hip, knee, and hand injuries undoubtedly had something to do with his poor season, as he graded out 107th among 108 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie. The Bears are really hoping that he can be better in his 2nd year in the league, with those injuries behind him and a full year of experience under his belt. There’s obviously no guarantee though.

More likely, Tim Jennings will remain the Bears’ top cornerback. Jennings is getting up there in age, going into his age 32 season, but he’s graded out above average in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. The days of him grading out 15th among cornerbacks like he did in 2010 and 2011, or 7th like he did in 2012 are probably behind him, but he’s not totally over the hill yet and could have another strong season as the Bears’ de facto #1 cornerback.

The Bears have a trio of safeties that will all compete for playing time, Ryan Mundy, Brock Vereen, and Antrel Rolle. The former two led the position in snaps played last season, while Rolle comes over from the Giants on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal. Mundy is a late bloomer who never played more than 292 snaps in a season in the first 5 years of his career from 2008-2012 and who only graded out above average once in that time frame. However, he’s graded out slightly above average in each of the last 2 seasons on 667 snaps in 2013 and 966 snaps in 2014. Going into his age 30 season, it’s hard to depend on the journeyman, but he’s their best safety and should be a starter once again.

Vereen, meanwhile, played 512 nondescript snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2014 and could lose his starting job to Rolle, who was clearly signed to play a significant role, as evidenced by his contract. The problem is Rolle isn’t very good and he’s also old, so he’s certainly not getting any better any time soon. He’s graded out below average in 5 of the last 6 seasons and now he’s going into his age 33 season and coming off of one of the worst seasons of his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 87 eligible. The Bears would be better off leaving Vereen as the starter just to see what the youngster has. Rolle seems like he’s done and just no one told the Bears.

One option for the Bears could be to play 3 safeties in sub packages, bring in Vereen, and move Rolle to slot cornerback, where he has experience from earlier in his career. He won’t be better at slot cornerback and would also struggle there, but if they insist on playing him as an every down player, this would allow them to get Vereen some action and take care of a slot cornerback position where there isn’t a clearly good option.

Those options include Alan Ball, Tracy Porter, and Demontre Hurst. The former two were cheaply signed free agents (1 year, 3 million, and 1 year, 870K million respectively), while the latter is a 2013 undrafted free agent who graded out below average on 373 snaps in 2014 in his first career action. Ball would seem to be the favorite of the bunch because he’s the highest paid. Ball, a 2007 7th round pick, graded out below average 5 of the first 6 seasons in his career, but has played decently over the past 2 seasons in Jacksonville. He graded out 22nd among cornerbacks on 1020 snaps in 2013 and then graded out above average again in 2014 in 7 games before tearing his biceps and going down for the season. He’s a decent player, but also a journeyman with no upside going into his age 30 season.

Porter, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick of the Saints in 2008 and played well in 2008 and 2009, including a pick six in Super Bowl XLIV, but he hasn’t graded out above average since 2009. He graded out 103rd among 110 eligible cornerbacks in Oakland in 2013 and still managed to get a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal from the Redskins last off-season. He predictably flopped in Washington, grading out below average on 89 snaps and getting cut this off-season. He’s a depth cornerback at best. The Bears’ front 7 should be better than it was last year and, as a result, the defense should be better overall, but the secondary is still a real problem.

Grade: C

Conclusion

As I’ve outlined, the Bears should be better in 2015 on both sides of the ball, after a 5-11 season in 2014. Jay Cutler should bounce back from the worst season of his career, the additions of Kevin White and Eddie Royal should make up for the loss of Brandon Marshall, while the addition of Pernell McPhee more than makes up for the loss of Stephen Paea. They also should have significantly fewer injuries than they did in 2014, when they were one of the most injury prone teams in the NFL. Importantly, guys like Matt Slauson and LaMarr Houston will be back, after missing large chunks of last season. Neither one has a history of injuries so both should bounce back to their original form, which is consistently above average. I don’t know if this gets them into the playoffs or anything, but the arrow is pointing up. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Bears after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North

Jul 052015
 

Quarterback

In 2012, the rookie year of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin, and Russell Wilson, it was a legitimate debate which of the three was the best and a debate that Griffin often won. He won with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award voters, who gave him that award in 2012 ahead of Luck and Wilson. It all seemed well deserved, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback that year, and he seemed to have an incredible future ahead of him. Instead, while Luck and Wilson saw their careers progress, Griffin’s potential came to a screeching halt, as he’s had a pretty bad past two seasons.

It all started with an ACL tear suffered in a playoff loss to the Seahawks to end the 2012 season. Griffin made it back for week 1 in 2013, but he wasn’t the same, completing 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. His rushing totals fell from 815 yards and 7 touchdowns on 120 carries in 2012 (6.79 YPC) to 489 yards and 0 touchdowns on 86 carries in 2013 (5.69 YPC). He missed the final 3 games of the season, in part to rest his knee with the season essentially over, in part because the organization wanted to get a better look at backup Kirk Cousins.

Griffin’s 2014 should have been better, but he didn’t bounce back. Excuses can be made. He suffered another injury, dislocating his ankle in week 2. He was never a good fit for new head coach Jay Gruden’s offense and Gruden never gave him a fair chance and refused to tweak his offense for him. It was evident all season long that Gruden never really thought much of the quarterback he inherited, even leaving him on the bench when healthy upon return from injury for a little bit to test out other quarterbacks.

Griffin enters 2015 as the starter, if only for lack of a better option, as only Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy return as alternatives again. However, Griffin is still an injury prone quarterback who hasn’t produced good tape since 2012 (the last time he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus) and who isn’t a great system fit for his head coach’s quick drop back, quick throw offense. If he plays like he did last season, when he graded out 33rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks, the Redskins could pull the plug on him for good. They picked up his 5th year option for 2016, but that’s guaranteed for injury only, so if he can’t prove he’s worth that 16.2 million, the Redskins won’t give it to him. Griffin is likely playing for his next contract this season, but it’s unlikely that contract comes from Washington.

As I mentioned, the other Redskin quarterbacks, Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy, are not better alternatives. Cousins is a 2012 4th round pick who has played horribly over the past 2 seasons since flashing in limited action as a rookie. He’s completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in his career. McCoy, meanwhile, is a 2010 3rd round pick and is on his 3rd NFL team already, bouncing from Cleveland to San Francisco to Washington. He drew a few starts last season, but once again showed what’s been clear for his whole career, that he isn’t anything more than an NFL backup. He’s completed 60.3% of his passes for an average of 6.57 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions in the NFL. The Redskins better hope Griffin can flash his rookie year form, otherwise they’ll be in trouble this season. Gruden would be wise to study Griffin’s 2012 tape to figure out how he can tweak his offense to best fit his skill set.

Grade: C

Running Backs

One of the side effects of Robert Griffin’s diminished performance over the past two years has been the decreased productivity of the running game as a result. And I’m not just referring to Griffin’s own decreased rushing productivity. When Griffin was at his best in 2012, he was a dual threat that forced opponents’ defenses to stay honest with both his arm and his ability to take off and run. That made life easier for starting running back Alfred Morris. Over the past two years, however, Morris has seen his YPC drop from 4.81 in 2012 to 4.62 in 2013 to 4.05 last season. Morris’ YPC particularly dropped from 2013 to 2014 for two reasons. One was that his run blocking was much worse than it was in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. The second was that Morris really missed the Shanahan and Son zone blocking scheme that always gets the most out of running backs and offensive linemen. The latter is likely related to the former as well.

There are a lot of good things about Morris. His career YPC of 4.52 is solid and he’s graded out above average in pure running grade in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, with the exception of last season, when he only graded out slightly below average in that aspect. He also hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons in the league and his 876 carries over the past 3 seasons is 2nd in the NFL over that time period behind only Marshawn Lynch. He’s been an absolute steal since the Redskins drafted him in the 6th round in 2012. However, he’s not a great fit for Jay Gruden’s system and he’s a poor pass catcher, grading out below average in that aspect in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and totaling just 37 catches in 48 games over that time period.

The Redskins drafted Matt Jones in the 3rd round of the draft and have been heaping praise on him this off-season, some of which I’m sure is deserved. Jones is unlikely to cut much into Morris’ workload as a runner this season, but he’ll play a significant role on passing downs like Roy Helu did last season. Helu had 42 catches and 40 carries in 2014 and Jones could easily surpass both of those and push Morris below his career low of 265 carries. Jones is also likely seen as the feature back of the future, which means that, like fellow Shanahan draft pick Robert Griffin, Morris is auditioning for a new contract that will likely come from another team in the final year of his rookie deal this year.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Redskins’ offensive line struggled in their first season with Jay Gruden as the head coach and the Shanahan and Son zone blocking scheme gone. They went from grading out 4th in team pass protection grade and 9th in team run blocking grade in 2013 to 10th and 24th in 2014. The biggest issue was at right tackle, where Tyler Polumbus went from Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked offensive tackle in 2013 in 16 starts to 62nd out of 84 eligible in 7 starts in 2014. Tom Compton also saw significant playing time at right tackle and graded out 68th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles. Seeing the position as a big need, the Redskins drafted Brandon Scherff with the 5th overall pick in the draft. He’ll be an immediate upgrade, but the Redskins definitely reached for him that early. He did not grade out like a top-5 pick on College Football Focus and was seen as one of the biggest reaches in the draft by them.

The other big difference from the 2013 offensive line to the 2014 offensive line, aside from the significant decline in performance at right tackle, was the addition of Shawn Lauvao in free agency. Handpicked by Jay Gruden as a strong fit for his blocking scheme, Lauvao was given a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. He made 15 starts at left guard, but graded out below average overall, no surprise considering he’s never graded out above average in his career, dating back to his rookie year in 2010. The former 3rd round pick has 59 career starts, but has never been much better than a borderline starter.

Lauvao’s arrival pushed Kory Lichtensteiger from left guard in 2013 to center in 2014. Litchtensteiger played well at center, grading out 9th among centers last season, but Will Montgomery, their 2013 center, already was a solid starter, grading out 15th among centers in 2013 and then continuing to play well in his next stop in Denver in 2014. He just wasn’t a good fit for Gruden’s new offensive system so he was released. Lichtensteiger should continue to play well in 2015, having graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons, both at center and guard, but there’s no denying that the Montgomery for Lauvao swap upfront hurt this offensive line.

Speaking of guys who were released for not being a good fit for the offense, Chris Chester was let go this off-season, despite grading out above average last season. He was going into his age 32 season and was owed 4 million non-guaranteed, but it’s rare that teams just cut functioning starters unless they’re really overpaid. Spencer Long, more in the mold of what Gruden looks for in an offensive lineman, will take over, despite playing just 18 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2014. He’s completely unproven and 3rd round picks more often than not never develop into solid starters, so I don’t have a lot of hope for him.

The only constant on the offensive line from 2013 to 2014 was that Trent Williams remained by far their best offensive lineman, regardless of scheme. He didn’t grade out #1 among offensive tackles again in 2014 like he did in 2013, but very few players are able to repeat that kind of season. Williams still graded out 18th at his position, despite dealing with some nagging injuries in the 2nd half of the season, making it 3 straight years that he’s graded out top-18 at his position. Only Joe Thomas, Andrew Whitworth, and Joe Staley can also say that. Only going into his age 27 season, Williams should be dominant once again in 2015. The Redskins hope to lock him up long-term ahead next off-season, when he’ll hit free agency. He makes the offensive line a look a lot better, but they still have a lot of problems.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

One player who saw a big decrease in production from 2013 to 2014 was Pierre Garcon, who had a 113/1346/5 slash line in 2013 and only a 68/752/3 slash line in 2014. Garcon averaged 2.38 yards per route run in his first 2 seasons in Washington in 2012 and 2013 combined, including a 2012 season where he missed 6 games with injury and was limited in several others. That number fell to 1.37 in 2014. However, that wasn’t totally his fault as the addition of DeSean Jackson opposite him took away lot of his targets, as he went from 174 in 2013 (2nd among wide receivers) to 99 in 2014 (38th among wide receivers). He was targeted on 28.6% of routes run in 2012-2013, but that fell to 18.1% in 2014 upon Jackson’s arrival.

The Redskins have spoken on several occasions about how they need to get Garcon the ball more in 2015, but the 2008 undrafted free agent has never graded out above average in his career outside of 2012 and 2013 and maxed out at 25th among wide receivers in his best NFL season (2013), so maybe that’s not the best idea. He’s purely a volume receiver and not one who can take the top off of the defense or gain a lot of yards after the catch. Jackson, who graded out 23rd among wide receivers in pass catching grade last season, is the better receiver.

Jackson put up good numbers last season, catching 56 passes for 1169 yards and 6 touchdowns, though he could see fewer targets in 2014 if the Redskins are serious about featuring Garcon more. That being said, Jackson only saw 87 targets in 2014 as strict deep threat so it wasn’t like the Redskins were forcing the ball to him on every play like they did with Garcon in 2013. He’s never been consistently as good as he was in 2013 with the Eagles, when he graded out 8th among wide receivers and caught 82 passes for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns, but he’s graded out above average in 3 straight seasons and has surpassed 1000+ yards 4 times in 7 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round by the Eagles in 2008. His skill set and Garcon’s skill set complement each other well.

The problem is the Redskins’ receiving depth after Jackson and Garcon. Andre Roberts flopped in the first year of a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal last season, grading out 86th among 110 eligible (including 108th in pure pass catching grade) as the Redskins’ 3rd receiver. That shouldn’t have been a surprise as he’s never graded out above average once in his 5-year NFL career, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010 by the Cardinals. That includes a 2011 season in which he graded out 111th out of 115 eligible wide receivers and a 2012 season in which he graded out 102nd out of 105 eligible wide receivers. The contract that the Redskins gave him was a big mistake. They’ll hope that either Ryan Grant or Jamison Crowder can push him for snaps this season. The former is a 2014 5th round pick who struggled on 187 snaps as a rookie last year, while the latter is a 4th round rookie. Neither projects as much of an upgrade.

Niles Paul led all Redskin tight ends in snaps played last season with 585. One of Mike Shanahan’s pet projects was converting the big bodied collegiate receiver into a professional tight end, after the Redskins drafted Paul in the 5th round in 2011. Ironically, he didn’t post good receiving numbers until Shanahan left, as Paul had 14 catches for 228 yards and a touchdown in the first 3 seasons of his career combined, but had 39 catches for 507 yards and a touchdown last season. He graded out about average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus, but, as you’d expect from a 6-1 224 pound former wide receiver, Paul struggled mightily as a run blocker, grading out 62nd in that aspect among tight ends out of 67 eligible. That led to him grading out 59th out of 67 eligible overall. He’s never graded out above average in his career. The Redskins re-signed him to a 3-year, 6 million dollar deal this off-season, but they’d probably still prefer him to be a complementary piece more than a starting tight end.

In order for that to happen, Jordan Reed will have to stay healthy, something the 2013 3rd rounder has yet to do in his career, missing 12 games with injury over the past 2 seasons. He was dominant in limited action as a rookie, both as a pass catcher and a run blocker, grading out 7th among tight ends on 384 snaps, but took a step back in his 2nd year in the league, grading out slightly below average on 377 snaps. Only going into his age 25 season, there’s definitely upside here, but he remains tough to rely on.

Logan Paulsen is also in the mix at tight end, but he’s purely a blocker with 79 catches in 75 career games. Paulsen hasn’t graded out above average as a pass catcher since his rookie year in 2010 when he barely played, but the 6-5 264 pounder former undrafted free agent has graded out above average as a run blocker twice in the last 3 seasons. The Redskins really have to hope Reed can stay healthy to give them a 3rd option in the passing game.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Redskins didn’t just have problems on offense last season, moving the chains at a 70.34% rate, 21st in the NFL. Their defense wasn’t good either, as they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 73.24% rate, 24th in the NFL, leading to a -2.90% differential that ranked 25th in the NFL. Unlike the offense, where they didn’t really do much this off-season, they made some significant additions to their defense in free agency. On the defensive line, those significant additions were Stephen Paea and Terrance Knighton, who got a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal and a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal respectively from the Redskins this off-season. Both were solid deals.

Paea comes over from Chicago, where he was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2014. He’s a one-year wonder because he graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the NFL from 2011-2013, after the Bears took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he was a very solid value as a free agent and he has a good chance to have another strong year in 2015. He’ll move to defensive end in Washington’s 3-4. He wouldn’t seem to be a great scheme fit at 6-1 303, but he should be an immediate and noticeable upgrade over Jarvis Jenkins, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 47 eligible last year. He’s gone as a free agent.

Knighton, meanwhile, will line up at nose tackle next to Paea. Knighton was one of the better defensive tackles in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their 12th ranked in 2014. I expected him to get a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million over 5 years, but he didn’t come close to that because of concerns about his weight. The big defensive tackle known as Pot Roast reportedly played around 330 last season, which seems to be a comfortable playing weight for him, given how well he played last season, but when a player is that big, there’s always a chance his weight gets out of control and it’s very possible that he’s gotten out of shape since the season ended.

That’s a very real concern, but this deal is still an absolute steal. Not only is it significantly less money annually that what I was expecting him to get, but there’s no risk beyond this season if he does show up to Training Camp overweight. On top of that, the fact that he could only get this type of deal could serve as a wakeup call for him and I like that he’s betting on himself with this type of deal. He’ll have every reason to remain motivated this season and that should translate to continued strong play. Even though he’s 330 pounds, he’s a decent pass rusher and has a good chance to stay on the field in some sub packages, meaning he won’t just be a pure base package, two-down run stopper.

At the other defensive end spot opposite Paea, Jason Hatcher, a free agent acquisition last off-season, will once again be the starter. Like Paea and Knighton, Hatcher was a great value on a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal last off-season. The 2006 3rd round pick has been a late bloomer, but has graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, including the last 4 as a starter. Over those past 4 seasons, he’s graded out 6th among 3-4 defensive ends (2011), 4th among 3-4 defensive ends (2012), 8th among defensive tackles (2013), and then 10th among 3-4 defensive ends last season, in his first year in Washington. He’s going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but he could still have a strong season in 2015. He’s yet to really show any decline. He was the only Redskins’ defensive lineman to grade out above average last season, but he’ll have a lot more help this season.

Also coming in as a free agent is Ricky Jean-Francois, who the Redskins signed to a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal this off-season. He’ll provide valuable depth. In Ricky Jean-Francois’ first trip to the open market in two off-seasons ago, he was given a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal by the Colts, a very weird move considering RJF had played just 715 snaps in 4 season with the 49ers from 2009-2012, after they drafted him in the 7th round. He did flash, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011, but he didn’t deserve that kind of deal then and it predictably didn’t end well. The Colts cut him this off-season after two seasons. He made 23 starts in 26 games with the Colts and graded out about average in both seasons, but the Colts didn’t see him as worth his salary for 2015. He’s a decent player though and one who is in a much more appropriate role at a much more appropriate salary now. The Redskins have turned this defensive line around in a hurry over the past 2 off-seasons.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Redskins did lose Brian Orakpo to free agency this off-season, as he signed with the Titans, but he missed 9 games with injury last season and graded out only 22nd among 3-4 outside linebackers as a result, so he won’t be missed too much. Trent Murphy, who played 595 snaps and made 8 starts in Orakpo’s absence as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, is a capable starter with upside. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. The Redskins also drafted Preston Smith in the 2nd round this year and the rookie will see some action as a rotational reserve in 2015. Murphy is a better run stopper than pass rusher so, if Smith develops well as a rookie, he could steal sub package snaps from Murphy down the stretch.

Along with Murphy’s promising rookie year and Orakpo’s history of injuries, one of the major reasons why the Redskins were comfortable letting Orakpo go is Ryan Kerrigan, who has emerged as a strong edge rusher and 3-4 outside linebacker on the other side. Kerrigan will once again play every down in 2015 after playing 1000 snaps in 2014 (5th most at his position) and he is expected to be signed to a long-term extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year, with money that the Redskins saved by letting Orakpo go. Younger than Orakpo (going into his age 27 season, as opposed to age 29 for Orakpo) with no games missed in 4 years in the NFL, Kerrigan, a 2011 1st round pick, has graded out 19th, 7th, 26th, and 5th among 3-4 outside linebackers from 2011-2014 and deserves to be well paid going forward.

Things aren’t as good at middle linebacker. Keenan Robinson and Perry Riley were Pro Football Focus’ 44th and 48th ranked middle linebackers out of 60 eligible in 2014. Robinson is a 2012 4th round pick who had played 69 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined before struggling as a starter last season, so he doesn’t profile as a long-term starter. Riley, a 2010 4th round pick, played well to start his career from 2010-2012, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, including as a 16-game starter in 2012, but he’s graded out well below average in each of the last 2 seasons so his stock is sinking. He’ll need to improve in 2015 if the Redskins are going to keep him at a non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary for 2016, his age 30 season. Without much of an internal alternative for either Robinson or Perry, they’re stuck with both again this season. Middle linebacker is a weakness in an otherwise quietly strong front 7.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While things in the front 7 are solid, the Redskins’ secondary is still a mess. Things were so bad at cornerback last season that they desperately missed DeAngelo Hall, who missed 13 games with a torn Achilles. Hall isn’t great, but those 3 games he played were the only 3 games the Redskins had anyone resembling an NFL starting cornerback out there. David Amerson, Bashaud Breeland, and EJ Biggers were the Redskins top-3 cornerbacks last season in terms of snaps played and they finished 108th, 99th, and 102nd respectively out of 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, meaning the Redskins regularly played 3 of the worst 10 cornerbacks in the NFL last season.

The Redskins did make a good move to fill a major need at the position by signing Chris Culliver, previously of the 49ers, to a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season. He was just a 3rd round pick of the 49ers in 2011, but he’s quietly one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He had a significant role from the word go in 2011, playing 425 snaps and then 691 in 2012, grading out above average in both seasons, including 29th at his position in 2012. He missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL, but he bounced back in a big way from that torn ACL in 2014 in his first full season as a starter, making 14 starts and grading out 14th at his position. On top of that, that 2013 ACL tear is really the only issue he’s had with injuries, missing a combined 2 games in his other 3 seasons as a pro. He’s easily the Redskins’ best defensive back.

That’s where the good news ends in the secondary for the Redskins. DeAngelo Hall will be the other starter likely. While he was their best cornerback last season, that was only by default as he still graded out below average. On top of that, he’s going into his age 32 season, coming off of a significant injury, and hasn’t graded out above average since 2010. The only reason he’s still on the roster at his non-guaranteed 4 million dollar salary is out of desperation. He’s a weak starter.

With EJ Biggers gone, Bashaud Breeland and David Amerson will compete for the #3 job. The organization seems to have soured on Amerson, a 2013 2nd round pick, and rightfully so, as he’s graded out 84th out of 110 eligible and 108th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks in the first 2 seasons of his career respectively. He’s unlikely to beat out Breeland and win this job. Breeland struggled as a 4th round rookie in 2014, grading out 99th out of 108 eligible, but the Redskins seem to think he can turn it around going forward. They don’t have much of a choice. They’re also probably hoping that Breeland can lock down a starting job, which would allow Hall to focus on the slot as the 3rd cornerback, but I think it’s more likely that Breeland starts the season as the 3rd cornerback, playing outside in sub packages only and moving Hall inside in sub packages.

As bad as things were at cornerback, things at safety might have equally bad. Brandon Meriweather and Ryan Clark were the starters last season and they graded out 60th and 87th out of 87 eligible safeties respectively. Neither one returns to the Redskins in 2015, with the former still available as a free agent going into his age 32 season and the latter retiring ahead of his age 36 season. However, that doesn’t mean that their safety play will be much better this season.

Dashon Goldson was acquired to be one starter, coming over in a trade from Tampa Bay for a future late round pick. I’m shocked that the Buccaneers got anything for him, as he was heading into a year where he was owed 8 million, including 4 million guaranteed. The Buccaneers signed Goldson to a 5-year, 41.25 million dollar contract 2 off-seasons ago and he proceeded to be one of the worst safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. Goldson was Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 and their 87th ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2014. He was better before signing that deal, back when he was in San Francisco, grading out 20th in 2012, but that’s still one of only two seasons in his career that he’s graded out above average. Going into his age 31 season, I don’t think he’ll be very good this season. Even though the Buccaneers are paying the 4 million dollar guaranteed part of his salary, the Redskins still owe him 4 million this season if he’s on the roster and I don’t see him being worth that.

Jeron Johnson is expected to be the other starting safety, after the Redskins signed him to a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal this off-season. Johnson spent the first 4 seasons of his career in Seattle, stuck behind Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. He never played more than 130 snaps in a season as a result and only made 1 start, but he graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons. The 2011 undrafted free agent is still incredibly unproven and hard to trust, but new Redskins GM Scot McCloughan was in Seattle’s front office from 2011-2013 so maybe he knows something we don’t. More likely, Johnson is just the best of a bad group of options.

The Redskins also get Duke Ihenacho back from injury after he missed all but 5 snaps last season with a foot injury. He really struggled in his last significant action before the injury, grading out 72nd out of 86 eligible safeties in 2013 with the Broncos. He’s never graded out above average in his career since he went undrafted in 2012 and he’s not a legitimate starting option, even in this weak secondary. He’ll backup both Johnson and Goldson. Outside of Culliver, it’s a really thin secondary.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Redskins struggled on both sides of the ball last season. I don’t see their offense being much better unless Robert Griffin can flash his 2012 form, unlikely considering his injury history and the fact that he’s not a good fit for the system. However, they did add some serious talent defensively this off-season, with guys like Stephen Paea, Terrance Knighton, and Chris Culliver coming in. Brian Orakpo was their only significant loss in free agency and he missed most of last season with injury anyway, so that loss should be able to be nullified by youngsters Trent Murphy and Preston Smith. The Redskins are unlikely to make the playoffs or climb out of the cellar of a strong NFC East, but they should win a few more games this season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Redskins after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Jun 302015
 

Quarterback

The Cowboys shocked a lot of people by going 12-4 last season and they were easily my biggest whiff last off-season, as I had them 4-12 in my season preview last year. I expected them to have historically bad defense and for the offense to not be able to compensate. Instead, both units vastly exceeded my expectations, the offense doing so by being one of the best in the NFL, finishing 4th in rate of moving the chains. Things were perfect for the Cowboys offensively last season, with only one player playing more than 200 snaps and grading out below average, starting wide receiver Terrance Williams. Things were actually too perfect for the Cowboys offensively last season, as they had the 2nd fewest adjusted games lost to injury offensively last season. That’s unlikely to continue.

Speaking of being too perfect, Tony Romo overcome age and back problems to complete 69.9% of his passes for an average of 8.52 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions last season, a QB rating of 113.2 that was over 10 points higher than his previous career high QB rating and over 15 points higher than his career average QB rating. Part of that was his supporting cast, which won’t be as good again this season because of likely increased injuries and the loss of DeMarco Murray (more on that later). Part of that was him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked quarterback, a career high. Romo’s never really been a bad quarterback, grading out 8th, 23rd, 16th, 9th, 9th, 10th, and 13th from 2007-2013 respectively, but he’s also unlikely to repeat the best season of his career in his age 35 season in 2015, supporting cast aside.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the big off-season loss by the Cowboys offensively was DeMarco Murray. Murray rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) in 2014, before signing a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Eagles as a free agent this off-season. While much of that was an offensive line that ranked 2nd in run block grade on Pro Football Focus’ last season and while he probably wouldn’t have been able to replicate that kind of season again in 2015 and while they made the right move not overpaying him, he will be missed. He was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back last season, a big part of their offensive success, and someone who took the pressure off of Romo in a big way. Romo’s 435 pass attempts were just 23rd among quarterbacks (though he did miss 1 game with injury).

The Cowboys surprisingly didn’t add a running back through the draft, so they’ll be relying on an underwhelming group of veterans this season and hoping that the offensive line will make them look good. I believe in their offensive line, but there’s only so good these running backs can be made to look and there’s no question in my mind that they won’t run the ball as well as they did last season. 2013 5th round pick Joseph Randle, a backup for the past 2 years, seems like the heavy favorite to be the lead back. Randle struggled mightily as a rookie, rushing for 164 yards and 2 touchdowns on 54 carries (3.04 YPC), but flashed in limited action in 2014, rushing for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns on 51 carries (6.73 YPC). His career 4.83 YPC looks good, but he’s very unproven and wasn’t highly drafted so it’s hard to get too excited about him as the starter.

Free agent acquisition Darren McFadden projects as the primary backup. McFadden has never been able to live up to his billing as the 4th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and was never able to live up to his huge 2010 season, in which he rushed for 1157 yards and 7 touchdowns on 223 carries (5.19 yards per carry) and added 47 catches for another 501 yards and 3 scores. In 4 seasons since, he’s played a total of 45 games out of 64 and he’s rushed for just 2234 yards and 13 touchdowns on 601 carries (3.72 yards per carry). On top of that, he has been under 3.4 yards per carry in each of the last 3 seasons. A change of scenery and better blocking could help him, but he’s not a good runner.

Lance Dunbar should have a decent sized role on passing downs. The 2012 undrafted free agent played a career high 140 snaps last season and was fantastic as a pass catcher, catching 18 passes for 217 yards on 82 routes run, a strong 2.65 average per route run. In his career, he’s rushed for 324 yards on 80 carries (4.05 YPC) and added 31 catches for 309 yards through the air. He’s graded out above average in each of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, but, with 284 career snaps, he’s incredibly unproven. Also in the mix is Ryan Williams, a 2011 2nd round pick who has played just 5 career games thanks to injuries, hasn’t played a snap since 2012, and has rushed for just 164 yards on 58 career carries, a weak 2.83 YPC average. He’s no lock to make the roster, let alone make a positive impact. It’s a weak bunch of running backs.

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

The Cowboys ranked 3rd in team pass protection grade and 2nd in team run blocking grade last season, with everyone who played more than 75 snaps on the offensive line grading out above average on the season. They return all 5 starters from last season so they definitely have the potential to be the best offensive line in football again, but they’ll need to avoid the type of major injuries upfront that they didn’t have last season. Left guard Ronald Leary missed one game with injury, while Doug Free missed 5 games, but that was it.

Free was re-signed by the Cowboys for 15 million over 3 years this off-season, a very solid deal for the Cowboys. He’s going into his age 31 season and he struggled mightily in 2011 and 2012, to the point where he was briefly benched down the stretch in 2012. He graded out 51st out of 76 eligible in 2011 and 68th out of 80 eligible in 2012. However, those two seasons were sandwiched in between 4 seasons in which he graded out above average, including 20th in 2013 and 21st in 2014. The 8-year veteran has made 83 starts for the Cowboys over the past 6 seasons and has generally played well.

In Free’s absence last season, Jermey Parnell made 5 starts, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle on 388 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. Pernell is gone, parlaying that strong stretch into a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars this off-season, but the Cowboys did add someone on the offensive line that helps make up for that.

The Cowboys signed La’el Collins as an undrafted free agent this off-season, essentially the same as getting a free 1st round pick, as Collins was a projected 1st rounder before his name was tied to the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend. Collins was the victim of poor timing as the story broke right before the draft and he wasn’t able to speak to police to clear his name until after the draft. Once he did and it was clear that Collins had nothing to do with it, he became an incredibly hot commodity as a free agent and he was a big pickup by the Cowboys.

A collegiate offensive tackle, Collins will probably move to guard with the Cowboys, a position many thought pre-draft would be his best pro position. He’ll compete at left guard with incumbent Ronald Leary. Leary, a 2012 undrafted free agent, didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but has made 31 starts over the past 2 seasons. He graded out below average both as a run blocker and a pass protector in 2013, but improved mightily as a run blocker in 2014, grading out 5th at his position in that aspect and above average overall. He’s never been a very good pass protector, which is why he could still lose out to the rookie, but, either way you look at it, the Cowboys have 6 legitimate starting offensive linemen once again, so they can probably manage one significant injury, like they did last year when Free went down.

Of course, if one of Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, or Travis Frederick gets hurt, it will be very noticeable, as the talented trio all made 16 starts last season. Those are their 3 best offensive linemen. All three are recent first round picks and all three have panned out, which is how this offensive line has become so good, so quickly. Martin is the most recent first rounder, as he went 16th overall in 2014 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard in 16 starts at right guard as a rookie. The center Frederick was a first rounder the year before, grading out 8th among centers as a rookie in 2013 and then 2nd last season, while making all 32 starts.

Smith is the veteran of the bunch, going 9th overall in 2011. The USC product has made 63 of 64 starts in 4 years in the league and is only going into his age 25 season. He’s graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively. One of the best offensive tackles in football, the Cowboys locked Smith up on a 8 year, 97.6 million dollar extension, with 22.118 million guaranteed, last off-season. Barring major injuries, the Cowboys’ offensive line should be arguably the best in football again this season.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

The receiving corps is another area where the Cowboys should expect to have more games lost to injury, as their top-5 wide receivers and their top-3 tight ends all played all 16 games last season. There’s already a chance that the Cowboys could lose a game from their most important receiver, Dez Bryant, without any injury, as he’s reportedly threatening to sit out the first game of the season in protest of his lack of a new contract, after being franchise tagged this off-season. It’s unclear how real of a threat that is and Bryant has shown up at the Cowboys’ facility a few times this off-season in a show of good faith, but it’s clear he’s serious about getting a long-term deal done that would pay him as the top wide receiver in the NFL and doesn’t want to play out 2015 on his 12.82 million dollar franchise tender with no long-term security.

Dez Bryant has always been productive, with 381 career catches for 5424 yards and 56 touchdowns in 75 career games in 5 seasons, since being drafted in the first round in 2010. He’s been especially good over the past 3 seasons, as he’s had 3 straight seasons of at least 80 catches for 1200 yards and 12 touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game in those 3 seasons and has caught 273 passes for 3935 yards and 41 touchdowns in that time period, which are video game numbers. However, 2014 was easily his best season. After grading out 39th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2010, 10th in 2011, 52nd in 2012, and 27th in 2013, Bryant graded out 2nd in 2014. Drops have been a serious issue for him in the past and he’s always been a target monster so he hasn’t always been the most efficient player, but, in the unlikely case that he holds out into the season, he’d definitely be missed. The other concern the Cowboys have to worry about is that Bryant holds out deep into training camp and that hurts him during the season, as has been the case with players before.

If Bryant misses time, Terrance Williams would be the #1 guy, which is a problem because, while he’s a serviceable starter, he’s an unspectacular player. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out below average on 700 snaps as a rookie and then on 830 snaps last season. Meanwhile, Cole Beasley remains locked in as the #3 receiver and a pure slot specialist pretty much no matter what. He’s an ascending slot receiver who has seen his snaps go up in every season since he went undrafted in 2012, playing 128 snaps in 2012, 247 snaps in 2013, and 443 snaps in 2014, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons. Devin Street is the #4 receiver and would see significant playing time if anyone missed time, a problem because the 2014 5th round pick played poorly on 150 snaps as a rookie.

At tight end, Jason Witten is Mr. Consistency. The 12-year veteran hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003. He’s caught between 64 and 110 passes, between 1 and 9 touchdowns, and totaled between 703 and 1145 yards in each of the last 11 seasons. He’s graded out above average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, finishing 3rd, 4th, 1st, 1st, 9th, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd from 2007-2014 respectively. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season so he’s going to start to decline at some point, but he hasn’t showed it yet, especially not with his 2nd place rank among tight ends last season. The likely future Hall of Famer is both a fantastic pass catcher and a tough run blocker.

James Hanna was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 335 snaps, after the 2012 7th round pick graded out below average on 109 snaps as a rookie in 2012 and then on 315 snaps in 2013. He’s a serviceable #2 tight end in a smaller role, but the Cowboys would probably like 2013 2nd round pick Gavin Escobar to surpass him at some point. Escobar has been decent on 207 and 263 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively thus far in his career and could be deserving of a bigger role in 2015, as he goes into his 3rd year in the league and only his age 24 season. It’s still a strong offense, but the loss of DeMarco Murray hurts, they’ll have more injuries, and Tony Romo is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in his age 35 season.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

If the Cowboys are going to go to the playoffs again, they’ll probably need their defense to be better. Like their offense, their defense exceeded expectations last season, but, unlike their offense, they only did so by managing to not be one of the worst defenses in league history, as it looked like they could be on paper before the season. They still finished just 26th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains, leading to an 8th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential.

How did the Cowboys exceed expectations in 2015? Well it was a combination of great coaching by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (underratedly one of the best in the business) and guys having breakout years. The latter was largely a product of the former. The biggest breakout year was by Tyrone Crawford, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle after starting the first 3 games of the season at defensive end.

The 6-4 285 pounder “tweener” is a great fit as a one gap penetrator inside in Rod Marinelli’s defense. He’s a one year wonder, after struggling on 303 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then missing all of 2013 with injury, but he could easily have another strong year inside for the Cowboys, which would set him up for a big payday as a free agent next off-season. He’s not very good against the run, but he’s a nightmare for opponents’ interior offensive linemen as a pass rusher.

The problem at defensive tackle is everyone except Crawford. Henry Melton, Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle last season, is gone as a free agent. Nick Hayden remains, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s completely overmatched as a starter, grading out worst among defensive tackles in 2014 and 2nd worst in 2013. This should be no surprise, considering he was out of the league entirely in 2012, played just 33 snaps in 2011, and graded out 68th out of 76 eligible defensive tackles in 2010. I have no idea what the Cowboys see in him, but he seems to be locked into a starting role for the 3rd straight season.

With Melton gone, either Terrell McClain or Ken Bishop will be the 3rd defensive tackle. The latter is a 2014 7th round pick who played 66 snaps as a rookie, grading out below average. The former is a 2011 3rd round pick who played so badly as a rookie (83rd out of 88 eligible in 2011) that he saw just 203 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined, grading out below average both times. The Cowboys actually got decent play out of him on 329 snaps last season, but he’s really hard to trust in a larger role. Also, neither he nor Bishop nor anyone else on the roster who could win the #3 job is anywhere near the pass rusher Melton was.

The Cowboys will probably use defensive end Jeremy Mincey inside in sub packages in obvious passing situations next to Crawford. He doesn’t have much experience inside and he’ll be undersized at 6-3 263, even in sub packages and even in a Rod Marinelli scheme that highlights the strengths of smaller defensive linemen, but he could get solid pass rush inside in certain situations next to Crawford. Mincey graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end in a bounce back season, but he’s going into his age 32 season and has a history of inconsistency.

From 2007-2009, Mincey played just 166 snaps, but he became a starter in 2010 and 2011, grading out above average in both seasons, including 13th in 2011. He turned that into a 4-year, 27.2 million dollar deal, but fell flat on his face in the first year of the deal in 2012, grading out 47th among 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Mincey continued not to live up to expectations in 2013 and also had injury problems and got himself cut mid-season, finishing out the year in Denver, before signing in Dallas as a free agent last off-season. He can be a solid player, but he’s tough to rely on and he’s aging. He’ll start outside in base packages this season, moving inside in sub packages.

In an effort to improve their defense, the Cowboys signed Greg Hardy from the Panthers as a free agent. If all things are right, he’ll start opposite Mincey, but the Cowboys signed Hardy knowing about his history of legal troubles. He was found guilty of domestic violence last off-season by a judge, though he remained in legal limbo because he was appealing the decision to a jury. After starting the opener last season, Hardy served a 15 game suspension imposed by the Panthers last off-season, in response to public outcry. Hardy got the charges dropped on a technicality this off-season, but was still subject to league discipline. The Cowboys were expecting 4-6 games, but the league instead handed down 10, which Hardy is appealing. There’s talk it could be shortened to 4-6 upon appeal.

Not to defend someone who did what he did, but I think 10 games is excessive given that he already missed 15 games last season. I realize that was team imposed and that he still got paid, but something like an additional 4 game league suspension and a 10 game league fine would be more appropriate, giving him some sort of credit for time already missed. A total 25 game suspension would be unprecedented for this kind of thing, especially a first offense.

The Cowboys would obviously be much happier with 4-6 games than 10 because they signed him with the intention of having him be the starting defensive end for most of the season. When on the field in recent years, he’s been fantastic, grading out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 and 6th in 2012. The Cowboys took a risk by signing him, beyond the obvious PR risk, because Hardy hasn’t played in basically a year and will miss even more time, but he’s only going into his age 27 season so he could easily still dominate when on the field. Whether he misses 4-6 games or 10 is going to matter a lot to this defense.

In his absence, the Cowboys will be counting on a pair of recent 2nd round picks, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. The former was a 2014 2nd round pick and was limited to 223 snaps as a rookie, in part because of injuries, while the latter is a 2nd round rookie. Lawrence did flash as a rookie though and Gregory was seen as a top-10 pick before he failed a combine drug test, weighed in under 240, and before concerns about his personal life and his mental health came up. Despite being seen as the best natural pass rusher in the draft class by many in the league before the draft, Gregory fell to the 60th pick, which makes him the definition of a boom or bust pick. With Hardy suspended and Mincey expected to play inside in sub packages, both youngsters should see significant action in 2015, particularly in pass rush situations. It’s tough to grade this unit without clarity on Hardy’s situation, but it’s a unit that has some talent, but a lot of problems.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The other breakout star the Cowboys had last season was Rolando McClain. Like Crawford, he’s part of the reason why this defense was at least passable at times. Out of the league entirely in 2013 because of off-the-field problems, McClain graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked middle linebacker last season. That’s no fluke, as the 2010 8th overall pick has been impressive whenever he’s been on the field in his career, grading out above average in all 3 seasons from 2010-2012, including 14th in 2010 and 11th in 2012.

The fact that he’s been arrested 3 times is concerning, as is the fact that he got kicked off the Raiders in the middle of a productive season in 2012. He suffered multiple concussions down the stretch in 2014 and was given a 4 game fine for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He received a very cold free agent market this off-season, settling for 3 million over 1 year with the Cowboys, but he’s so good whenever he’s on the field that he should be a bargain for the Cowboys, provided he can stay on the field.

Speaking of staying on the field, Sean Lee will return from a torn ACL that cost him all of 2014 and caused the Cowboys to bring in McClain out of retirement in the first place. With McClain locked in at middle linebacker, Lee will play outside for the Cowboys this season, provided he can stay healthy. Lee has injury issues that date back to his collegiate days at Penn State, has never played all 16 games in a season in 5 years in the league, has missed 31 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons, and missed all of last season with a torn ACL. However, he’s never graded out below average in his career and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2011, 2nd ranked before injury in 2012 (6 games), and 1st ranked before injury in 2013 (9 games). Only going into his age 29 season, Lee should still be able to play at a high level in 2015, provided he can stay on the field. He’s never played outside linebacker in his career, but the 6-2 236 pounder has a good skill set to play every down out there. He should be an upgrade over Bruce Carter, who graded out 35th among 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers last season.

The Cowboys better hope he can stay healthy because, with Carter and Justin Durant gone as free agents, that would leave Anthony Hitchens, expected to only see two-down work opposite Lee, to play an every down role outside in Lee’s absence. Hitchens is a much better fit in a two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. The 2014 4th round pick graded out 34th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus last year, but also graded out above average as a run stopper. Kyle Wilbur will back up all 3 spots and see action if anyone can’t stay on the field, but the 2012 4th round pick and one-time defensive end has never graded out above average in his career. It’s a strong group if everyone can stay on the field, but also an unreliable group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was a serious problem going into the draft so they drafted cornerback Byron Jones in the first round. Jones won’t fix all their issues overnight though, as rookies, even talented ones, can be very tough to rely on. Sterling Moore (Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback in 2014) is gone, but Brandon Carr remains, which is a problem. The Cowboys signed him to a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after he had graded out above average in 3 straight seasons from 2009-2011. However, he’s never graded out better than 52nd among cornerbacks in 3 seasons in Dallas and finished last season 90th out of 108 eligible. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s some bounce back potential here, but I’m pretty surprised that he’s still on the team at his currently scheduled non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary, especially after the addition of Jones.

Orlando Scandrick will work as the other starter opposite Carr, with Jones playing the #3 cornerback role. Scandrick has graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 3 straight and 10th overall among cornerbacks in 2015. Scandrick turned that strong 2014 season into a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar extension this off-season, but is still signed for just 20 million over the next 5 seasons. He might not repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, but he’s only going into his age 28 season and should once again be an asset for the Cowboys in the secondary and their top defensive back.

Things were not good at safety last year. There’s some talk that Jones could start his career at safety, but that would require a healthy Morris Claiborne at cornerback. The Cowboys are hoping that Claiborne, who missed 12 games with a torn patellar tendon last season, can contribute this season, but the Cowboys are used to being disappointed by Claiborne. After the Cowboys traded a 1st and 2nd round pick to move up to get Claiborne 6th overall in 2012, he’s played in just 29 games in 3 seasons, missing 19 games with injury.

Claiborne has also never graded out above average in his career. His future certainly didn’t get brighter when he tore his patellar tendon, arguably the most significant lower body injury a player can suffer. The list of guys who have returned to form after such an injury is basically non-existent and Claiborne’s recovery reportedly isn’t going well, as he’s lost 15-20 pounds and is now down to 172 pounds. The Cowboys declined his 5th year option for 2016 this off-season, even though it was guaranteed for injury only, and Claiborne will now head into his contract year with major questions around his future

That means Jones will likely stick at cornerback as a rookie, leaving JJ Wilcox and Barry Church to once again start at safety. Church wasn’t bad last season, but Wilcox graded out 76th out of 87 eligible safeties last season in the first extended starting experience of his career (he made 5 starts during a 2013 season in which he played 530 snaps). The 2012 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career and doesn’t profile as a starter long-term.

Church was better than Wilcox last year, but still graded out below average, something the 2010 undrafted free agent has done in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3. However, he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and has never really been that bad, grading out only slightly below average both times. He’s not a great player or anything, but he’s a serviceable starter and, unlike Wilcox, doesn’t need to be upgraded. It’s a weak secondary outside of Scandrick and possibly the rookie Jones though.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

This is still a talented team, but I have a hard time seeing them winning 12 games again this season. For one, winning 12+ games in 2 straight seasons is very tough to do and rarely happens. Two, the Cowboys were slightly worse than their record suggested last season, finishing just 8th in rate of moving the chains differential. Three, their offense probably won’t be quite as good as it was last season due to the loss of DeMarco Murray, likely regression in Tony Romo’s play, and likely more injuries. The defense gets Sean Lee back, but who knows for how long and the Cowboys didn’t have enough injuries defensively last season where they can point to that as a reason why they’ll be better this season.

Greg Hardy’s addition is important, but it’s unclear how much he’ll actually get to play this season, while the losses of guys like Henry Melton and Sterling Moore will hurt more than people realize. Outside of Crawford, Scandrick, McClain and maybe Lee, Hardy, and Mincey, it’s a pretty thin defense. They’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they certainly won’t be guaranteed one. Obviously, much depends on Hardy’s availability. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Jun 282015
 

Quarterback

In 2013, Nick Foles seemed to set the world on fire, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, after the 2012 3rd round pick took over for an injured Michael Vick early in Chip Kelly’s first season in Philadelphia. He had a QB rating of 119.2, actually the 3rd best QB rating all-time. However, that was largely the result of the system and the surrounding offensive talent, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback.

Chip Kelly always seemed to understand that and didn’t overvalue Foles. Because of that and the fact that Foles, who was drafted by Kelly’s predecessor Andy Reid, never was an ideal fit for what Chip Kelly wants from a quarterback in terms of having strong mobility and pocket presence, Foles was heavily shopped this off-season, after a down 2014 season. Last season, he completed 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, missed 8 games with a broken collarbone, and graded out 25th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks. It was very similar to his rookie year, when he completed 60.8% of his passes for an average of 6.41 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and graded out 31st among 38 eligible, so his above average 2013 season looks like a fluke now.

I have no problem with Kelly trusting his system and not seeing Foles as a long-term solution, especially with Foles going into the contract year of his rookie deal, with average or better quarterbacks getting boatloads over the past few years. However, I don’t think they got a fair return in the trade that sent Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. Not only did the two teams swap quarterbacks, but the Eagles sent a 4th rounder and a 2016 2nd rounder to St. Louis for a 5th rounder, which suggests they see Bradford as an upgrade on Foles.

As lukewarm as I am on Foles, I disagree with the Eagles’ assessment. In 5 seasons in the NFL, Bradford missed 31 games (including 25 straight over the past 2 seasons with a twice town ACL), completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions. He’s been better than his stats have suggested, as he always had horrible supporting casts in St. Louis, and he actually graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013 before his extended absence, but he’s still very tough to trust, especially coming off the injury. Early reports of him at practice haven’t been great.

The Eagles are also in the same situation contract wise with Bradford as they were with Foles as both are in the final year of their rookie deals, but the difference is Bradford’s rookie deal was the #1 overall’s under the old CBA, while Foles is a former 3rd round pick whose deal was signed after the new CBA passed. That means that Bradford is owed just under 13 million this season, while Foles is under a million.

For that reason, many thought the Rams would outright cut him this off-season. Certainly I don’t think anyone would have thought they could have gotten a 2nd round pick and a cheap functional quarterback for him. Many also thought the Eagles just acquired Bradford to flip to the Browns for a first rounder to move up for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who Kelly coached in college, but Bradford wasn’t even in their final offer for Mariota, so it’s clear they legitimately like Bradford. Bradford is a decent fit for Kelly’s offense and Kelly should be able to get the most out of him, but it’s unclear how much that actually is.

With Bradford’s health looming large, his backup is relevant. That backup is still Mark Sanchez, who backed up Foles last season and made 8 starts in his absence. Everyone was quick to say that Mark Sanchez had turned it around in Philadelphia last year working with Chip Kelly instead of Rex Ryan, but Sanchez was still a backup caliber quarterback. Overall though, he really didn’t turn it around. He completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Out of the league in 2013 because of injury, Sanchez has ranked 27th (2014), 37th (2012), 36th (2011), 27th (2010), and 39th (2009) on Pro Football Focus since being drafted in the first round by the Jets in 2009. He’s somehow made 76 starts over that period of time. If he has to make starts, the Eagles will be in trouble, as his previous employers have been when he’s had to start.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, part of Foles’ success in Philadelphia was his supporting cast. The Eagles don’t have quite the same supporting cast as they used to though, which hurts Bradford’s chances. It’s still better than what he was used to in St. Louis, but that’s not saying much. Last off-season, it was DeSean Jackson getting cut after a career best 82/1332/9 year in 2013 because the Eagles thought he was overpaid. That wasn’t as big of a deal as it could have been because the Eagles had Jeremy Maclin coming back from injury and he had a career best 85/1318/10 year in 2014, grading out 14th among eligible receivers, but now he’s gone too. I don’t blame them for not matching Kansas City’s 5-year, 55 million dollar deal as that’s a lot for a guy with one career 1000+ year, but there’s no doubt he’ll be missed.

In order to replace him, the Eagles drafted Nelson Agholor in the first round and are expected to give a bigger role to 2014 2nd round pick Jordan Matthews. As a rookie, Matthews caught 67 passes on 98 targets (68.4%) for 876 yards and 8 touchdowns on 484 routes run, an average of 1.81 yards per route run, grading out above average as a pass catcher on 779 total snaps as the #3 receiver, primarily focused on the slot. He’ll see more action this season and could be their leading receiver. Rookie wide receivers usually don’t produce like he did as a rookie, as even first round pick wideouts have averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns as rookies since 2005, even when you include last year’s insane wide receiver class, which is not the norm. That’s good news for Matthews, who could push for 1000+ yards, but also a reminder that Agholor could take a year or two to be what they think he’ll be.

Riley Cooper and Josh Huff will compete for the #3 job, largely playing outside with Agholor and Matthews both seeing significant snaps in the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. Huff, a dynamic kick returner, graded out below average on 210 snaps as a 3rd round rookie last year, but has a good chance to win the #3 job because of how horrible Riley Cooper was last season. The veteran caught 55 passes on 91 targets (60.4%) for 573 yards and 3 touchdowns on 561 routes run, an average of 1.02 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked wide receiver as a result.

The big 6-3 222 pounder showed an incredible inability to get separation or gain yards after the catch and was infrequently targeted as a result, only redeeming himself slightly as a run blocker on the outside. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because the Eagles foolishly signed him to a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal last off-season and his 4 million dollar salary for 2015 is guaranteed whether he’s on the roster or not. It doesn’t guarantee him a role though, as the Eagles will roll with the youngster if they feel they have to. The Eagles are hoping that Cooper flashes the form that got him that deal, when he graded out slightly above average in 2013, but that’s unlikely. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league, that 2013 season, and is the definition of a one-year wonder.

With Maclin leaving, the Eagles are likely to use more two-tight end sets at the expense of three-wide receiver sets. That looked like the case to many people last season as well, with DeSean Jackson leaving, and it never really panned out, but that was because of Jeremy Maclin’s return from injury. They don’t have anyone like that walking through those doors this year with Agholor likely at least a year or two away, so a greater focus on tight ends makes a lot of sense, especially since Bradford has always liked to focus on the short to intermediate parts of the field, thanks to limited deep ball arm strength.

Brent Celek has been the Eagles’ starting tight end for many years, but the added focus on tight ends should benefit “#2” tight end Zach Ertz more than anyone. Ertz has graded out above average in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2013, grading out 9th among tight ends in 2013 on 459 snaps and 5th in 2014 on 603 snaps. Celek has graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons, but the 6-4 261 pounder is a better run blocker than pass catcher and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in 2 of the last 3 seasons, including last season.

Celek already had fewer routes run last season (297 to 397 for Ertz), even though he played more snaps, and he should play even more of a complementary role this season in his age 30 season, setting Ertz up for a breakout 3rd year in the league. Having averaged 1.83 yards per route run thus far in his career, he could have a 900+ yard year on 500 or so routes run this season, especially with Maclin gone and Bradford’s tendency to target intermediate options. He has the potential to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL. If the Eagles want to get their best players on the field regardless of position in the receiving corps, frequently going two-tight ends with Agholor, Matthews, Ertz, and Celek makes a lot of sense.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Eagles also suffered a major loss on the offensive line as they released Evan Mathis, who graded out #1 among guards in 2011, #1 in 2012, #1 in 2013, and then #2 in 2014, despite missing 7 games with injury last season. The Eagles seemed to want him on the team for 2015, keeping him into June, but eventually granted him his release after he demanded his contract be dealt with, rightfully so, as Mathis was owed just 5.5 million in the final year of his contract. He wanted either long-term security or a short-term pay raise and the Eagles were unwilling to give him either. Even though he’s going into his age 34 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, he’s still been one of the best offensive linemen in the game when healthy over the past few years and he missed just 1 game from 2011-2013. He’s still unsigned as of this writing, but he’s expected to get both more money annually and more years on the open market. He’s going to be missed in Philadelphia.

Allen Barbre is expected to start in his absence. He graded out above average last season, but went down for the season with a season ending ankle injury week 1, starting at right tackle in place of the suspended Lane Johnson. Prior to last season, the 2007 4th round pick had never graded out above average, so, going into his age 31 season, he’s about as big of a downgrade as you can get from Mathis. He was originally supposed to be the starter at right guard, where Todd Herremans was also let go this off-season. Herremans struggled mightily last season (57th out of 78 eligible) and missed 8 games with injury so he won’t be missed immediately, but he played well as recently as 2013 so the Eagles have gone from really strong to really weak at the guard position really quickly.

With Barbre switching sides, it’s unclear who will start at right guard. Matt Tobin is reportedly the favorite, but he’ll face competition from Andrew Gardner and maybe even Dennis Kelly. None of them are good options. Tobin made 7 starts last season when Mathis was hurt and finished 52nd out of 78 eligible guards, after not playing an offensive snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Gardner also graded out below average last season on 683 snaps, struggling mightily in 2 starts at offensive tackle early in the season, but playing decently in 6 starts at guard down the stretch.

The big 6-7 304 pound converted tackle is probably a better option than Tobin, but the 2009 7th round pick has never graded out above average in a season in his career and he had never played more than 35 snaps in a season prior to 2014, so he’s a very uninspiring option in his age 29 season. The longshot Kelly has also never graded out above average in his career, since the Eagles drafted him in the 5th round in 2012. He struggled on 202 snaps last season, didn’t play a snap in 2013, and was horrible in 2012, grading out 70th out of 80 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie.

Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is still strong. Jason Peters is also getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s never graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and he’s arguably played the best football of his career over the past few seasons. With the exception of a 2012 season lost to a torn Achilles, Peters has graded out in the top-4 among offensive tackles in each of the last 4 seasons, including #1 in 2011 and #1 last season. His age is a concern, but he should have at least two more good seasons left in the tank.

On the other side, the Eagles have a much younger player, as right tackle Lane Johnson will be only in his age 25 season in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. An athletic freak who ran 4.72 at 6-6 303 at the Combine, Johnson was drafted 4th overall in 2013. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in pass protection, but he was dominant as a run blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in run blocking grade. In 2014, he put it all together, doing well in both aspects and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle, after missing the first 4 games of the season with suspension. In his 3rd year in the league in 2015, he should once again have a strong season and could even be better.

The Eagles also have another young stud at center. Jason Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center last season despite missing 4 games with injury. A 2011 6th round pick, Kelce was forced into action too quickly as a rookie and graded out 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, but he flashed in 2 starts in 2012 before going down for the season and then graded out 1st in 2013, before backing it up again last season. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s in the prime of his career and one of the best centers in the game. There’s still talent upfront on this line, but they aren’t what they used to be.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Trading Foles for Bradford, releasing Mathis and Herremans, letting Maclin sign with the Chiefs, and drafting Nelson Agholor in the first round were not the only things the Eagles did to shake up their offense this off-season. They also made another trade earlier in the off-season, sending LeSean McCoy to the Bills for Kiko Alonso. The Eagles were seen as the clear losers of that trade, but I think that’s because people either didn’t take McCoy’s contract into account or overestimated how good McCoy was (or underestimated how good Alonso is, but that’s a point for another time).

It’s hard to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2013 production, when he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC) and added 52 catches for 539 yards and another two touchdowns through the air. It’s not that tough to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2014 production, when he rushed for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries (4.23 YPC) and added just 28 catches for 155 yards through the air. McCoy fell from being Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in 2013 to their 3rd worst in 2014.

Because of the 7.8 million in difference between McCoy’s and Alonso’s salary, the Eagles were able to sign DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back. The Eagles didn’t downgrade the running back position this off-season and basically got a free above average middle linebacker. That doesn’t mean the Eagles didn’t overpay Murray, but the McCoy trade allowed their overpay of Murray to not be so bad. I wrote in my Cowboys off-season preview that Murray was one of the top candidates to be overpaid this off-season and that he should come with a buyer beware label on his forehead, for a variety of reasons.

For one, since 1988, only 4 of 26 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. Those 26 backs averaged 365 carries per season, rushed for 1612 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns in the season they led the league in carries. The following season, they averaged 262 carries per season, rushed for 1053 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Murray already saw his YPC drop from 5.14 in the first 8 games of the season to 4.23 in the final 8. There’s a reason backs are rarely given more than 350 carries, as teams don’t want to ruin that player for the following season. The Cowboys knew Murray wasn’t coming back in 2015 though so they didn’t care. They reportedly didn’t come close to making a competitive offer for him this off-season.

Murray has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days too. He made it through all 16 games in 2014 (not without a broken hand), but he missed 11 games in first 3 seasons and fell to the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of injury concerns. Even if Murray stays healthy in 2015, he’s highly unlikely to even come within 50 carries of his 2014 total, a problem as his 4.71 YPC in 2014 was good, but not outstanding or anything. He got to 1800+ yards on volume largely. He also was helped out drastically by the Cowboys offensive line, as the Cowboys were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked team in run blocking grade. The Eagles had a strong run blocking offensive line last season, but the loss of Mathis deals a big blow to that.

The Eagles strangely also signed Ryan Mathews this off-season. What reportedly happened is they had a handshake deal with Matthews before they ended up signing Murray and didn’t want to go back on their promise so they kept Matthews as a backup. Going into last season, I thought of Matthews and Murray very similarly. Obviously, they both had very different 2014s, as Matthews missed 10 games with injury, but I think he’s still a good value on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal as a bounce back candidate.

Mathews obviously has an injury history, playing all 16 games just once in 5 seasons, missing 20 games combined, including 10 last season. However, when he’s healthy, he has feature back potential. In 2011, he rushed for 1091 yards and 6 touchdowns on 222 attempts (4.91 YPC), with 50 catches for 455 yards. In 2013, he rushed for 1255 yards and 6 touchdowns on 285 attempts (4.40 YPC), with 26 catches for 189 yards and another touchdown. He’s a strong replacement if Murray gets hurt and will provide valuable, frequent breathers for Murray. The Eagles clearly plan to run the ball a lot in 2015 and I could see them getting like a 70/30 split with Murray seeing around 280-300 carries and Matthews seeing around 120-130.

Darren Sproles remains and, even with Murray and Matthews both in the fold, his role is so unique that it’ll likely remain unchanged. The only potential issue with Sproles is he’s going into his age 32 season, an advanced age for running backs usually, especially ones so reliant on speed. However, Sproles doesn’t see a ton of action, so he’s avoided a lot of hits in his career, and he’s also coming off of a fantastic season. Last season, he rushed for 329 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (5.77 YPC) and added another 40 catches for 387 yards through the air, grading out above average overall. Over the past 5 seasons, Sproles has graded out above average all 5 times and has been between 50 and 87 carries and 40 and 86 catches in all 5 seasons, while missing just 5 games with injury. I expect more of the same from him this season.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Eagles also had a bunch of personnel changes on defense this off-season, though everything on the defensive line remains the same. Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, and Bennie Logan will continue to be the starters in base packages on Philadelphia’s 3-man defensive line. All 3 graded out significantly above average against the run, but only Fletcher Cox also graded out above average as a pass rusher. Cox, a 2012 1st round pick, has blossomed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, grading out 19th among defensive tackles as a rookie, 13th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and then 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014. His career trajectory is very impressive and, only going into his age 25 season, Cox could continue to get better.

Thornton is the other starter and, while he’s graded out 3rd and 8th among 3-4 defensive ends against the run in 2 years as a starter, he’s also graded out below average as a pass rusher both seasons. The 6-3 309 pounder is a great two-down base player, but that’s it. Nose tackle Bennie Logan is in a similar boat, though that’s naturally supposed to be a two-down position. After grading out below average in both aspects as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Logan improved his run play in 2014, but struggled so much as a pass rusher that he still graded out below average overall.

In sub packages, Logan comes off the field, as does Thornton, and pass rush specialist Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox are the primary interior pass rushers. The 6-3 266 pound Curry is basically the polar opposite of the bigger Thornton. He struggles against the run, but is a very tough interior pass rusher. The 2012 2nd round pick has been in his current role for 2 seasons and has graded out 8th and 9th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends in pass rush grade in 2013 and 2014 respectively, doing so on 322 snaps in 2013 and 397 snaps in 2014. He should play a similar role in 2015. The pieces on this defensive line fit together really well. The only difference between 2014 and 2015 could be that the Eagles had very few injuries on defense in general, 2nd in defensive adjusted games lost. They’re unlikely to have such good luck again in 2015.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham will be the primary 3-4 outside linebackers and will also rush the passer off the edge in sub packages with Cox and Curry inside. The Eagles released Trent Cole this off-season, after 10 productive seasons with the team. The moved saved the Eagles 10.025 million in cash and 8.425 million in cap space and Cole was going into his age 33 season, but Cole did still play well last season, grading out 19th among 3-4 outside linebackers on the season. The Eagles are hoping that they can make up for that loss by giving Brandon Graham an every down role for the first time in his career. They opted to keep the younger Graham on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season, rather than retaining Cole.

That should prove to be the right move long-term as Graham could easily break out as one of the top edge rushers in the game in an every down role, which would make him an obvious bargain at 6.5 million annually. Graham is seen as not being able to play in a 3-4, but, while he’s probably better in a 4-3, he’s shown over the past two seasons that he can play in both schemes. After struggling with injuries in the first two seasons of his career, Graham, a 2010 1st round pick, had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012. He didn’t get a ton of playing time (435 snaps), which is why it’s hard to call it a true breakout year, but he still graded out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends that season, despite the limited playing time.

Moving to a 3-4 in 2013, he only saw 331 snaps, but he still graded out 15th at his position, making it two straight years where no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position. In 2014, he was still the 3rd outside linebacker, but he set a career high in snaps played with 524 snaps and graded out 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers. For the third straight year, no one graded out better at his position on fewer snaps. As a 700-800 snap guy, Graham has the potential to break out as one of the best edge rushers in the game. It’s somewhat risky considering he’s never played a significant amount of snaps, but he’s handled everything he’s been given in his career very well and the Eagles aren’t risking a ton of money here. His only weakness is coverage, but he won’t be asked to drop in coverage all that much. This opportunity to be an every down player has been a long time coming and it’s long overdue.

Connor Barwin remains the every down player on the other side. He had 16 sacks last season, which is impressive, but when you take into account that he only added 11 quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries on 349 pass rush snaps, he only ranked 6th at his position among eligible players in pass rush productivity, not quite as good as the sack numbers suggest. He also graded out below average both against the run and in coverage, leading to him grade out only 24th at his position, despite the big sack numbers.

That’s also not the norm for him as the 2009 2nd round pick has only graded out above average in one other season in his career, not including a 2010 season where he missed 15 games with injury. He’s never graded out better than 16th at his position. Going into his age 29 season, Barwin is still an asset and a solid starter, but he’s not as good as you’d think just from looking at pure sack numbers. The Eagles also have Marcus Smith in the mix. A surprise first round pick in 2014, Smith struggled in practice as a rookie and only made it onto the field for 74 underwhelming snaps. He should have a slightly bigger role in 2015, but he remains a clear backup.

Inside at middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso is the big addition. Not only did the McCoy trade free up the cap space to sign DeMarco Murray, but Alonso was also Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker as a rookie in 2013, before missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL. At the end of the day, the final score of that trade was LeSean McCoy for DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso and, if you think about it that way, it looks like a much better trade for the Eagles. Alonso’s knees are a concern, as he tore his other ACL in college as well, and he’s technically only a one year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season, he’s going to be 15 months removed from the ACL tear by week 1, and he should be good for the Eagles inside at middle linebacker this year.

The McCoy trade looked like it would free up more than just McCoy’s salary, as Alonso’s arrival seemed like the end for DeMeco Ryans with the Eagles. Cutting him would have saved the Eagles 6.9 million in cash and cap space and seemed like a no brainer with Alonso and Mychal Kendricks seemingly locked in as the starters. However, the Eagles made the peculiar move to keep Ryans on a restructured 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal, with 4 million guaranteed in the first year.

They should have just outright cut him instead. Even forgetting the fact that Ryans isn’t necessary anymore with the Kiko Alonso trade, Ryans just isn’t that good. He’s coming off a torn Achilles that limited him to 8 games last season and he’s going into his age 31 season. He wasn’t horrible in those 8 games in 2014, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013, his last healthy season. He also hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. The Eagles keeping him, but not Mathis baffles me.

Kendricks should be the other starter next to Alonso, though the Eagles did shop him this off-season, ahead of his contract year. His name was featured in some prominent trade rumors for Marcus Mariota and they also reportedly independent shopped him, but couldn’t find anyone willing to give up a 2nd round pick for a guy in a contract year. He could still get moved, but I think it’s likely he stays in Philadelphia for at least one more year.

A 2012 2nd round pick, Kendricks graded out below average in both 2012 and 2013 on 955 and 1022 snaps respectively, but had a breakout 2014, grading out 6th among middle linebackers. He and Alonso should form a strong middle linebacker duo as long as both are healthy, but it’s unclear what Ryans role will be behind them. At the very least, he should provide better depth than the likes of Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho, who struggled in Ryan’s absence last year, but the Eagles need to avoid giving Ryans too much playing time at the absence of Alonso or Kendricks, who are clearly superior players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The secondary is the unit where the Eagles arguably underwent the biggest changes this off-season, as they return just 1 of 4 starting defensive backs from last season. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are both gone, the former as a cap casualty and the latter as a free agent. They won’t really be missed as both graded out below average last season and finished 49th and 92nd respectively among 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

To replace Williams, the Eagles signed Byron Maxwell from Seattle. Maxwell was at the top of my list of guys I expected to get overpaid this off-season and sure enough he was overpaid, as his deal is worth 63 million over 6 seasons, with 25 million over the first 2 years guaranteed. Maxwell was a 6th round pick in 2011, played 152 snaps in his first 2 seasons combined, and then broke into the starting lineup in 2013. He flashed top cornerback ability in limited action in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback on 494 snaps with 5 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better among cornerbacks in 2013.

However, Maxwell has never shown that kind of ability over a full season, grading out about average overall in 2014 as a 13-game starter (he missed 3 games with injury) opposite Richard Sherman. He was Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014 and allowed 63.4% completion. Things aren’t going to get easier for him now that he’s away from Seattle’s scheme, coaching, and supporting cast. He should be better than Williams was, but, considering Kareem Jackson got 8.5 million annually and Brandon Flowers got 9 million annually this off-season, it’s absurd that Maxwell got 10.5 million annually.

To replace Fletcher, the Eagles drafted Eric Rowe in the 2nd round and he’ll compete with veteran Nolan Carroll. The veteran would seem to have the upper hand right now. As the #4 cornerback last year, Carroll graded out above average on 388 snaps, including a week 17 start, and he also has prior starting experience back in his days in Miami. Carroll, a 2010 5th round pick, made 26 starts from 2011-2013, including 23 in 2011 and 2012 and 13 in 2013. He graded out slightly below average in both 2011 and 2012, but graded out slightly above average in 2013. He’s only a marginal starting caliber player, but he’ll function as a stopgap as Rowe develops. Rowe should slot in as the #4 cornerback as a rookie.

Brandon Boykin remains as the slot #3 cornerback. He’s been so good on the slot over the past 3 years since the Eagles grabbed him as a steal in the 4th round in 2012 that he now wants to be an every down starting cornerback and see more time outside. The Eagles reportedly aren’t budging on that because they don’t think the 5-9 182 pounder has the size to regularly play outside and Boykin reportedly isn’t happy about this. Going into a contract year, this could easily be his final season in Philadelphia. In 3 years in the league, Boykin has graded out 48th, 12th, and 21st respectively from 2012-2014 on 526, 635, and 524 snaps respectively. He should have another strong season on 500-600 snaps as a slot specialist 3rd cornerback.

Safety Nate Allen also left as a free agent. He had an up and down tenure in 5 years in Philadelphia, but he graded out 28th among safeties last season and signed a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal in Oakland this off-season, so he will be missed. Replacing him will either be Earl Wolff or free agent acquisition Walter Thurmond. Wolff graded out below average on 538 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013 and then graded out below average on 79 snaps last season. Thurmond is reportedly seen as the favorite, but talent has never been the problem for the converted cornerback.

In 5 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 by the Seahawks, Thurmond has missed 44 games with injury and played in just 36 thanks to injury issues that date back to his collegiate days. Last year, in his only season with the Giants, he missed 14 games with a torn pectoral. If he can stay healthy, he could be solid at his new position. He’s graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2013 season where he was Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback. Of course, he’s never played more than 480 snaps in a season and he might be undersized at safety at 5-11 183 and he’ll probably just get hurt again, but the upside is certainly there. Wolff would see starts if Thurmond got hurt and Eric Rowe could even see some time at safety as a rookie, assuming he doesn’t win a starting job at cornerback. The 6-1 205 pounder is a big corner and could fit in at safety in the short-term.

The only remaining starter from last season in Philadelphia’s secondary is Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins had a great first season in Philadelphia, after the 2009 1st round pick spent the first 5 seasons of his career in New Orleans, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety, but it’s important to remember his inconsistent history. In 5 years in New Orleans, he only twice graded out above average and never finished higher than 33rd among safeties. He graded out 103rd among 107 eligible cornerbacks in 2009, 88th among 88 eligible safeties in 2012, and 65th among 86 eligible safeties in 2013. He’s unlikely to be as good in 2015 as he was in 2014, given his history. This secondary is the weakness on an otherwise strong defense.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Eagles were the only 10 win team to miss the playoffs last season and they finished 16th in rate of moving the chains, 12th in opponent rate of moving the chains, and 12th in differential, which suggests they were a borderline playoff team. The Eagles made a ton of moves this off-season designed to get them over the hump and into the playoffs. I don’t expect their passing game to be better, losing Jeremy Maclin and going from Nick Foles/Mark Sanchez to a hobbled Sam Bradford and likely Mark Sanchez again at some point. The running game could be better because DeMarco Murray is coming in as a replacement for LeSean McCoy and McCoy really didn’t play well last year, but losing Evan Mathis, their top run blocker, really hurts.

Defensively, they should be solid again. They have same defensive line again and, while they lost Trent Cole, they add Kiko Alonso inside and Brandon Graham could have a breakout year in the biggest role of his career. The secondary still has problems, but, once again, the front 7 should prop up a mediocre back 4. Whether or not they break into the playoffs is going to be largely dependent on Sam Bradford’s health and his effectiveness. Injuries will likely strike more than they did last year, but their supporting cast on both sides of the ball is one of the best in the NFL overall. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Jun 252015
 

Quarterback

At this time last year, there was a good deal of concern about Eli Manning. He was coming off of a season in which he had a 69.4 QB rating, worst since his rookie, as he completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus for the first time since their origin in 2007, grading out 30th out of 42 eligible quarterbacks. Seemingly making matters even worse, Manning had a new offensive coordinator coming in for the first time since 2007 and he was reportedly having a lot of issues with Ben McAdoo’s new system during the off-season.

Instead, the results were strong. Manning finished the season completing 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.34 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He graded out 18th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and finished 15th in QB rating among eligible quarterbacks. Going into his age 34 season, the days of him grading out 8th among quarterbacks in he did in 2012 or 6th like he did in 2011 are probably done, but he could easily still be in the top half of starting quarterbacks this season and grade out above average once again. In his career, he’s completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 259 touchdowns and 185 interceptions, while making a league best 167 consecutive regular season starts, 178 if you include the playoffs.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Manning was able to have his bounce back year despite having a bunch of injuries around him on offense. Injuries weren’t exclusive to the offense last season, as they finished with the most adjusted games lost in the NFL, a good sign that the Giants should be better this season, after finishing 18th in rate of moving the chains differential last season (17th on offense, 21st on defense) and finishing with a 6-10 record. A big part of Manning’s success last season was rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, despite the fact that he missed 4 games to start the season and most of the off-season with hamstring problems.

Beckham finished the season with 91 catches for 1302 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing valuable off-season time and doing so in just 12 games. That’s incredible and virtually unheard of for a rookie. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Only 11 rookie wideouts have had a 1000+ yard season in the last 20 years. 1302 yards in 12 games is absurd.

Beckham’s 108.8 yards per game led the NFL. And it wasn’t like Eli was just forcing him the ball as he was targeted just 129 times (14th most in the NFL), catching 70.5% of them for 91 catches, that as opposed to just 2 drops. Beckham also caught 12 touchdowns and only 2 balls intended for him were intercepted. Eli had a 127.6 QB rating throwing to Beckham this season, 4th best among eligible wide receivers, meaning Eli’s quarterback rating was 35.5 points better when throwing to Beckham than it was overall, the best margin by an eligible wide receiver this season. Beckham’s 2.74 yards per route run were also 4th in the NFL. For his efforts, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver as a rookie, including 2nd in pure pass catching grade, meaning he basically played at an All-Pro level, despite missing 4 games with injury. If you take out the first 4 weeks of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver both overall and in pass catching grade.

Beckham was even better down the stretch as he started to get a feel for the offense. Beckham had 85 catches for 1233 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final 10 games of the season and 60 catches for 842 yards and 9 touchdowns in the final 6 games of the season. The latter translates to 160 catches for 2245 yards and 24 touchdowns over a 16 game season, which would break all sorts of records. Even Beckham isn’t good enough to put up those kinds of numbers, but it’s just another reminder that Beckham could easily be more productive in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. It’s usually hyperbolic to say that someone with 12 career games played is one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position, but, in this case, it’s true.

Beckham’s breakout year was especially valuable for the Giants because Victor Cruz missed the final 10 games of the season with injury. Remember how good Beckham’s numbers were in the final 10 games. Cruz had just 23 catches for 337 yards and a touchdown in 6 games, grading out below average on 382 snaps before going down, but he was also the Giants’ leading receiver in every season from 2011-2013 and a team leader in the locker room, so his injury really did hurt them. He totaled 241 catches for 3626 yards and 23 touchdowns from 2011-2013 and graded out 26th, 42nd, and 40th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus during that stretch, all above average.

Cruz is somewhat miraculously expected to be ready for the start of training camp, after tearing his patellar tendon last October, which would be a 9 month recovery.  A torn patellar tendon is about as bad as it gets because the patellar tendon is far larger than any knee ligament. When you tear it, your kneecap gets dislodged and shoots up into your thigh because the patellar tendon is what holds the kneecap in. It’s also what surgeons use to make new knee ligaments when you tear one. The history of guys who tore their patellar tendon and then returned to form is basically none existent.

I believe the optimistic reports, but the Giants should consider 12 games as the #3 receiver on the slot for Cruz in 2015 a win and hope for 2016 and beyond. Still, he should be more productive for the Giants than he was last season and he should be better than Preston Parker, a journeyman who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 605 snaps last season. We never truly got to see Beckham and Cruz on the same field last season as Beckham was still working his way back in the 2 games he played with Cruz last season. We might not truly see that this season either, but the possibility certainly exists.

Rueben Randle should be the #2 receiver opposite Beckham again this season. Randle quietly had a mini-breakout year last year in his 3rd season in the league, after the Giants drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012. He caught a career high 71 passes for a career high 938 yards and 3 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked wide receiver on 987 snaps, most by a Giants wideout. His career progression has been promising, as he flashed on 250 snaps as a rookie, graded out slightly below average in 2013, but played 589 snaps, and then had the best season of his career in 2014. Only going into his age 24 season, Randle should once again have a solid season in 2015 and could push for the first 1000+ yard season of his career.

Tight end Larry Donnell also had a decent season as a receiver, catching 63 passes for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns, grading out only slightly below average as a pass catcher, a pleasant surprise from a 2012 undrafted free agent who had played 109 nondescript snaps in his career prior to 2014. Donnell probably won’t be as productive of a pass catcher this season, especially if Cruz returns and allows the Giants to regularly use 3-wide sets.

His numbers took the biggest hit from Beckham’s return to the lineup as he had 25 catches for 236 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season and then just 38 catches for 387 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 12 games. He also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible in blocking grade last season, causing him to grade out 54th out of 67 eligible overall. The 6-6 269 pounder has the frame to be a good blocker, but hasn’t shown it yet. He’s a marginal tight end, but you can do a lot worse as a 4th receiving option.

Daniel Fells was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 434 snaps, primarily due to his blocking abilities. He’ll have to hold off Adrien Robinson, a 2012 4th round pick who has just 80 career snaps in 3 seasons, but flashed as a blocker on 77 snaps last season. With Fells going into his age 32 season, Robinson could easily beat him out. Whoever wins the job probably won’t see a lot of action though, as the Giants figure to use more 3-wide sets at the expense of 2-tight end sets. It’s a healthier and subsequently improved receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Giants also had a significant injury on the offensive line as right guard Geoff Schwartz was limited to 93 snaps in 2 games by injuries, in the first year of a 4-year, 16.8 million dollar contract. Schwartz played exclusively at right tackle last season because Justin Pugh was hurt during those 2 games. He has the versatility to play right tackle, having played there earlier in his career, and he played well in limited action there last season, but the Giants ultimately see him at right guard. Even after last year’s lost season, he still has the potential to be a steal on that 4-year deal.

Schwartz has always been good when on the field, grading out above average in every season of his career in which he’s played a snap, dating back to his rookie year in 2008. In 2013, he graded out 9th among guards and, in 2010, he graded out 18th among guards. The problem with him has always been injuries. He’s played all 16 games just once in his career and, between last season and 2011 (when he missed the whole season with a hip problem), he’s essentially had two lost seasons because of injuries. If he can stay on the field, Schwartz’s return should be a big boost to this offensive line.

As I mentioned earlier, the Giants had the most games lost due to injury last season. That type of thing does tend to even out in the long run, but it’s hard to explain that to Giants fans as they have somehow managed to have the most games lost to injuries in the NFL in 2 straight seasons. If the Giants can be healthier this season, they could be a lot better, but the odds of that don’t look good right now as Will Beatty tore his pectoral this off-season and is expected to miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Giants will have a lot of other injuries again this season, but Beatty will be missed. He’s made 57 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 47 starts over the past 3 seasons, and he’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. While he struggled in 2013, grading out 64th among 76 eligible, he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and then ranked 14th last season.

In his absence, rookie Ereck Flowers, the 9th overall pick in the draft, will start at left tackle. He could do alright there, but he’ll still be a downgrade from Beatty. Besides, he was drafted to be the starting right tackle, at least immediately, moving Justin Pugh inside. Now with Beatty hurt, it’s unclear if he’ll still be moving inside. Pugh hasn’t been bad at right tackle in 2 seasons since the Giants drafted him in the first round in 2013, grading out slightly above average as a rookie and then slightly below average last season, but the Giants like him better inside. If he’s staying outside, that makes left guard a big problem.

John Jerry started 16 games at right guard last season and would be the likely starting option at left guard if Pugh moves back outside, but he was terrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked guard out of 78 eligible. The 2010 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career. 2014 2nd round pick Weston Richburg was the starting left guard last season, but he’s not a real candidate to play there this season as he’s permanently moved back to his natural position of center. The Giants don’t have another starting option at center and Richburg struggled out of position last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked guard out of 78 eligible. The Giants are hoping he can bounce back from that in his 2nd year in the league back at his natural position. The Giants’ offensive line will get a boost with Schwartz returning and rookie Ereck Flowers coming in, but the Beatty injury really hurts.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In addition to serious injuries suffered by Geoff Schwartz, Odell Beckham, and Victor Cruz last season, the Giants were also without lead back Rashad Jennings for 5 games, in the first season of a 4 year, 10 million dollar deal he signed last off-season. In his absence, 4th round rookie Andre Williams really struggled, rushing for 721 yards and 7 touchdowns on 217 carries on the season, a 3.32 YPC, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 49th ranked running back out of 57 eligible. Jennings wasn’t exactly better though, also grading out below average and rushing for 639 yards and 4 touchdowns on 167 carries, an average of 3.83 YPC. As a result, the Giants finished 30th in team YPC, averaging 3.57 yards per carry on the season. Part of the problem was an offensive line that ranked 26th on Pro Football Focus in team run blocking grade, an area they should be better this season, but there’s no denying that Giant running backs did not play well.

Jennings is unlikely to bounce back this season. The 167 carries he had last season still were a career high, as the 2009 7th round pick has just 554 carries, largely working as a backup at best for most of his career. He’s averaged an underwhelming 4.18 YPC for his career on those 554 carries. On top of that, he’s going into his age 30 season and has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the NFL. His only redeeming quality is that he’s caught 66 passes in 26 games over the past 2 seasons, showing good hands for a 6-1 231 pounder.

The Giants added Shane Vereen as a free agent this off-season, signing him to a 3 year, 12.35 million dollar deal. The 2011 2nd round pick was primarily a passing down back in New England for the first 4 years of his career, but the Giants apparently see him as much more than that. With serious issues at the position, it’s worth giving him a shot. The speedy 5-10 203 pounder has graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league and he had 99 catches in 24 games over the past 2 seasons in the Kevin Faulk/Danny Woodhead role in New England. His career 4.18 YPC average on 217 carries is underwhelming, but, like I said, it’s worth a shot to give him more carries.

At the very least, Vereen gives them a strong passing down back and an open field weapon out of the backfield, unlike anything they had last season. Williams, meanwhile, will be a pure backup to both Jennings and Vereen on early downs and should have a drastically reduced role this season after leading the team in carries and snaps played at the running back position last season. That’s for the best, as, in addition to struggling as a runner, he’s completely useless as a pass catcher with 18 catches as a rookie (on 28 targets) and 10 catches in his entire career at Boston College. Their running game should once again struggle to be an adequate complement to a strong passing game.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As you can imagine, the Giants’ injuries were not limited to the offense last season. On the defensive line, their biggest one was Robert Ayers, who went down for the season with a torn pectoral. Ayers only missed 4 games, but he was great when on the field and the Giants were finally just getting around to giving him the playing time he deserved when he went down, as his final game of the season was also his first start of the season. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite playing just 386 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. 2014 was definitely the best season of the 2009 1st round pick’s career, but him having success is definitely not unprecedented. Ayers had graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in his career, including 3 straight and a 2013 season in which he finished 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. With Mathias Kiwanuka (57th among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season on 558 snaps) gone, Ayers should be the starter and could have a very strong season on 600-700 snaps.

Jason Pierre-Paul will be the other starter. JPP was able to bounce back from a down 2013 season in which he dealt with serious back problems all season, grading out 7th among eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. He’s graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and, with the exception of that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s been very dominant recently, finishing #6 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, #3 in 2012, and then last year’s #7 finish. Only going into his age 26 season with his back problems behind him, JPP should have another strong season in 2015, playing on the 14.813 million dollar franchise tag, setting him up for a huge payday in free agency next off-season.

The Giants’ top two reserves at the position are George Selvie and Damontre Moore. Selvie was signed to a cheap 1 year, 1.4 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, coming over from Dallas. The 2010 6th round pick played just 424 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career, but flashed on 238 snaps in 2012 and then saw his snap count rise to 762 in 2013 and 515 in 2014, grading out only slightly below average in both seasons, playing well against the run, but struggling to get consistent pass rush.

Moore, meanwhile, has graded out slightly below average in each of his first two seasons in the league since being drafted in 2013, doing so on 136 snaps as a rookie and then 326 in 2014, though he did grade out above average as a pass rusher last season. The Giants’ signing of Selvie suggests they don’t see him as ready for a bigger role, outside of being a situational passer. The 6-5 250 pounder might just not be big enough to ever be anything more. His skill set does complement Selvie’s well though, as they compete for snaps behind JPP and Ayers.

Inside at defensive tackle, the Giants have another very talented defensive lineman, Johnathan Hankins. After flashing on 195 snaps in 2013 as a 2nd round rookie, Hankins got a chance to be the starter in 2014 and dominated, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle on 700 snaps. Though he’s 6-2 320, Hankins isn’t just a big run stuffer as he graded out well above average as both a run stopper and a pass rusher last season. Hankins should remain an every down player.

Cullen Jenkins was the other starter last season. He graded out above average, as he has 7 times in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history, but he was limited to 366 snaps in 12 games. A significantly better pass rusher than run stopper, Jenkins should be limited to situational work as he goes into his age 34 season. The problem last season was their depth at defensive tackle was abysmal. Mike Patterson, who made starts last season when Jenkins was hurt, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible on 429 snaps, while Markus Kuhn finished 78th out of 81st eligible despite playing just 254 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position.

Patterson is gone and remains unsigned as a free agent going into his age 32 season, while Kuhn is not expected to have a big role this season. The Giants signed Kenrick Ellis as a free agent this off-season for depth purposes. A 2011 3rd round pick, Ellis was buried on the depth chart with the Jets for the first 4 years of his career, never playing more than 239 snaps in a season, but he definitely flashed, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons, excelling as a run stopper. At 6-5 330, he’s purely a base package player, but he should have a career high in snaps this season and his skill set complements Cullen Jenkins’ well. The Giants are also hoping that 2014 3rd round pick Jay Bromley, who graded out below average on 113 snaps as a rookie, is ready for a bigger role this season. This defensive line should be better this season simply because Ayers is healthy and Kiwanuka, Patterson, and Kuhn won’t play big roles. Led by Ayers, JPP, and Hankins, this is quietly one of the best defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The big injury at linebacker last season was to Jon Beason, their starting middle linebacker who was limited to 162 snaps in 4 games by recurring toe problems, in the first season of a 3-year, 16.8 million dollar deal that the Giants re-signed him to last off-season.  This shouldn’t have been a surprise though as Beason missed 28 games with injury from 2011-2013. His healthiest season, by far, came in 2013, when he played 15 games, which is why the Giants re-signed him long-term. However, even that season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Beason used to be a good player, but injuries have sapped his abilities and he hasn’t graded out above average since 2010. Even if he can stay on the field this season, his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to be an asset, particularly not in coverage. The Giants brought him back this off-season only because he agreed to a pay cut and because they didn’t have a better option.

Jameel McClain was Beason’s replacement inside last season, but he struggled mightily, grading out 51st out of 60 eligible middle linebackers. He’s expected to move to outside linebacker and compete with incumbent Devon Kennard for the two-down outside linebacker role. Kennard is a limited coverage athlete at 6-3 251, but he graded out above average on 338 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season in that two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. He should be the heavy favorite to keep that job, moving McClain into a reserve role. McClain hasn’t graded out above average since 2011 and is unlikely to get any better in his age 30 season in 2015.

At the other outside linebacker spot, JT Thomas is seen as the favorite after signing a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from Jacksonville. Thomas, a 2011 5th round pick, played 202 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league before playing 729 snaps last season. Thomas struggled mightily in 434 snaps at middle linebacker, grading out 55th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers, so, while he actually graded out above average on 295 snaps as an outside linebacker last season, his history doesn’t really instill a lot of confidence that he’ll be a good 3-down outside linebacker. He’s never graded out above average in his career. The Giants simply don’t have another choice, especially after overpaying him in free agency, because both Kennard and reserve Mark Herzlich are not good in coverage and McClain is best suited for a reserve role. It’s a weak linebacking corps overall.

Grade: C-

Secondary

If you’re sensing a theme here, yes there was a significant injury in the secondary as well, as cornerback Prince Amukamara went down with a torn biceps mid-season and missed the final 8 games of the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback when he went down last season and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback on 464 snaps. The 2011 1st round pick has graded out above average in 3 straight seasons since his rookie season.

He’ll play his age 26 season in 2015 on a 6.898 million dollar salary after the Giants picked up his 5th year option last off-season. If he can stay healthy, he should be in line for a fairly sizable contract next off-season, though it’s worth noting that he’s played 8 or fewer games in 2 of 4 seasons in the league, thanks to last year’s injury and a serious foot injury he suffered as a rookie that limited him to 7 games that season. He’s missed 20 games in 4 seasons in the league, so there’s reason to at least be somewhat concerned about his long-term durability.

When he’s on the field, Prince Amukamara will serve as the 1A cornerback to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s 1B, or vice versa depending on how you want to look at it. They’re comparably good corners. DRC was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback last season, in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. That’s not as good as he was in 2013 with Denver, when he graded out 6th, but the Giants will definitely take that from him every year. He could be better this season in his age 29 season because he dealt with a variety of nagging injuries all last season. He didn’t miss any games, but, often playing on a snap count, he was limited to 767 snaps on the season and even came off the bench once.

The Giants also have to be pretty happy that DRC seems to have put his early career inconsistencies behind him. From his rookie year in 2008, when he was a 1st round pick by the Cardinals, through 2012, he graded out 63rd, 4th, 100th, 84th, and 91st respectively, before playing very well over the past 2 seasons. The 6-2 193 pounder has always had talent, but there have been some questions about his effort in terms of staying in shape, playing physical, and providing run support, all of which he’s been better about recently. Those were the reasons he had to “settle” for a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal last off-season while cornerbacks like Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, and Aqib Talib all received more lucrative contracts. The Giants took a risk signing him, but they have to be happy about how this deal has played out so far, considering he’s the 19th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average salary.

The slot cornerback job is completely up for grabs though. Walter Thurmond started the season there last year, but ended up playing just 2 games before going down with injury and then signed in Philadelphia as a free agent this off-season. The Giants had a bunch of different cornerbacks see significant snaps at the position because of injuries, including Zackary Bowman (458), Chykie Brown (375), Mike Harris (224), and Trumaine McBride (215).

McBride was the #3 cornerback last season after Thurmond went down, though he too suffered a season ending injury, going down week 6. He was also the #3 cornerback in 2013, playing 621 snaps, and is reportedly seen as the favorite for the #3 job this season. The 2007 7th round pick is a late bloomer, as he’d never graded out above average in his career until 2013 and he was out of the league entirely in 2009, 2011, and 2012. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, including 24th in 2013, though he’s going into his age 30 season. The other three cornerbacks are still in the mix for the job, but they’ll likely end up providing depth, if they even make the roster. Mike Harris was the only one of the other 3 to grade out above average last season.

The Giants are hoping that solid cornerback talent can mask a huge problem at safety. Antrel Rolle, Quintin Demps, Stevie Brown were their top 3 safeties last season and they all left as free agents this off-season. The Giants used a 2nd round pick on Landon Collins to fill one of the starting spots, though he could struggle as a rookie. Meanwhile, the other spot is a major hole, where 2013 5th round pick Cooper Taylor (5 career snaps), Nat Berhe (32 career snaps), and 5th round rookie Mykele Thompson will compete for the starting job. They’re all highly unlikely to turn into a solid starter. It’s a weak position in a back 7 that is weak outside of the cornerback position. The Giants will have to hope their strong front 4 can prop the up the back 7.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

As I’ve strongly hinted at, the Giants’ success is going to be highly dependent on whether or not they can stay healthy, something they haven’t come close to doing in recent seasons, finishing worst in adjusted games lost in each of the last 2 seasons. This type of thing tends to even out in the long run, but the Giants do have more than their fair sure of injury prone players. They should be at least somewhat healthier this season and if they can have average to above average health, they have a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl winning season in 2011. The NFC East is wide open with the Eagles completely retooling this off-season, the Cowboys vulnerable, and the Redskins a ways away. The Giants definitely have major weaknesses, but they also have significant strengths at quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, and on the defensive line. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Giants after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Jun 192015
 

Quarterback

The Seahawks have quickly ascended to the top of the NFL. They didn’t win the ultimate prize last season, but they literally came within inches of winning the Super Bowl, before a goal line interception cemented a 28-24 Super Bowl loss. It’s unfair to suggest that they should have won that game because it was a fluky interception, because it took a fluky, crazy catch to even get them down to the goal line and because the Patriots did slightly outplay them statistically, but, looking at the whole body of work, it’s hard to say that the Seahawks weren’t one of the best teams in the NFL last season, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. When you add in their Super Bowl victory in 2013, the Seahawks look like the most accomplished team in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, winning the NFC’s #1 seed and the NFC Championship game in both years.

The Seahawks are so deep and talented on both sides of the field that it’s unfair to attribute their recent success to one person, but this team has certainly been a lot better over the past 3 seasons since they drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012 and solidified the quarterback position. In 2011, they had a strong defense that included many of the same players that headline the defense now, but they missed the playoffs because of a stagnant offense led by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.

In 3 years in the league, Wilson has made 48 of 48 starts, winning 36 of them. It’s unfair to give him all the credit for those wins considering the defense he has supporting him, but he’s been a big part of it, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 7.95 YPA, 72 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions, while grading out 6th, 4th, and 13th among quarterbacks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He’s also added 1877 yards and 11 touchdowns on 308 carries (6.09 YPC). His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that he’s had little offensive support from his receiving corps or offensive line in his career. Going into his contract year, Wilson wants to be paid like a top-5 quarterback. He might not be quite that good, but he’s close, he’s young (going into his age 27 season), and the Seahawks don’t have another choice but to pay him. Quarterbacks like him are far too indispensable.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

While Wilson doesn’t get much help from his receivers or his offensive line, he does get a lot of help from feature back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is well known for his hilarious interview answers, but he’s also a hell of a football player as well. As a result of Lynch’s dominance, Wilson has only had to throw 1252 passes in 3 seasons in the league, an average of 417.3 per season, which has made life easier for him. Part of that is because Wilson himself is a gifted runner in the open field and someone who has averaged 102.7 carries per year in his career, but Lynch is the main reason for the Seahawks’ run first offense. He’s averaged 298.7 carries per season over the past 3 years and hasn’t missed a single game with injury.

Over the past 3 seasons, Lynch has rushed for 4153 yards and 36 touchdowns on 896 carries, an average of 4.64 YPC and he’s been even better than his numbers suggest as, like Wilson, he has to deal with a poor offensive line and a receiving corps that rarely draws double teams. The fact that the Seahawks finished 9th in rate of moving the chains last season on offense despite just 4 players who played more than 300 snaps and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus (Lynch, Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Max Unger) is a testament to how good both Wilson and Lynch are.

Lynch has graded out 5th, 4th, and 2nd on Pro Football Focus in those last 3 seasons respectively and his 221 broken tackles on carries lead the NFL over that time period. He’s also the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. There’s a case to be made that he’s been the best running back in football over the past 3 seasons, despite what guys like Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, and LeVeon Bell have done over single seasons over the past 3 years.

One issue is that he’s going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. That suggests that Lynch has about 2, maybe 3 good years left in the tank and that possibly his best days are behind him. The only other issue is that Lynch isn’t a great pass catcher, as he has just 96 catches over the past 3 seasons and hasn’t graded out above average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus since his rookie year in 2007. That’s nitpicking though and he should still have a strong year in 2015.

The Seahawks also have good depth behind him with backups Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. Turbin, a 2012 4th round pick, has rushed for 928 yards and 0 touchdowns on 231 attempts in 3 years in the league, an average of 4.02 YPC. He’s also added 43 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. Michael, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2013. He has the bigger upside and has been more productive than Turbin in limited action, rushing for 254 yards and 0 touchdowns on 52 attempts (4.88 YPC), while adding 1 catch for 12 yards. With Turbin missing time this off-season with a hip problem, Michael could end up as Lynch’s primary backup. Ultimately it won’t matter much though because Lynch is a workhorse who rarely cedes carries. If Lynch were to get hurt, it would likely be a committee replacing him, with Michael as the primary runner and Turbin as a passing down back. They’re good depth behind a great starter.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Seahawks had problems in the receiving corps last season. In order to remedy that, they made a shocking trade with the cap strapped Saints for Jimmy Graham, who the Saints brought back on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. There’s no doubt that Graham will instantly be their best receiver and, owed just 27 million over the next 3 years, the Seahawks are getting a good value. However, the price was steep as the Seahawks swapped their first round pick to the Saints for a fourth rounder and also had to give up center Max Unger, who was their best offensive lineman last season and very reasonable paid, making just 9 million combined over the next 2 seasons. On top of that, while Graham’s contract is a good value, it’s another big contract for a team that has a lot of highly paid talent and soon-to-be highly paid talented to figure out how to keep under the cap long-term.

In the short term, there’s no doubt Graham makes them a better team though. Graham has caught 386 passes for 4752 yards and 51 touchdowns on 576 targets (67.0%) and 2281 routes run (2.08 yards per route run) in his career, the 2nd most yards per route run by a tight end only behind Rob Gronkowski over the past 5 years. He’s also graded out 7th, 15th, 4th, and 11th among tight ends in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He might not post the same composite numbers this year that he’s had over the past 4 years in New Orleans, when he’s averaged 89 catches for 1099 yards and 12 touchdowns, because the Seahawks are not nearly as pass heavy as the Saints and have a slightly worse passing quarterback, but he could still be Seattle’s first 900+ yard receiver since TJ Houshmanzadeh in 2009 and he’ll definitely make this offense better. Graham isn’t seen as an ideal fit in Seattle because he’s not seen as a great run blocker, but the big 6-6 259 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, so I’m not worried about that.

Graham is certainly an upgrade on the likes of Luke Willson, Tony Moeaki, Cooper Helfet, and Zach Miller, all of whom saw snaps for the Seahawks at tight end last season. Willson led the way with 579 snaps played and should be the #2 tight end this season behind Graham. A slightly better run blocker than pass catcher with 42 catches for 634 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2 seasons in the league since the Seahawks drafted him in the 5th round in 2013, Willson has graded out about average in both seasons he’s been in the league, on 415 snaps as a rookie and then 579 last season. He’ll fit in well as the 2nd tight end.

Doug Baldwin remains as the #1 wide receiver. Like Golden Tate before him, he doesn’t get a ton of respect because he plays in a run heavy offense and doesn’t put up big numbers, but he’s graded out 17th, 27th, 20th, and 20th respectively in 4 seasons in the league since the Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011. In his career, he’s caught 196 passes for 2761 yards and 15 touchdowns on 294 attempts (66.7%) and 1502 routes run, a strong average of 1.84 yards per route run. Unlike Tate, the Seahawks wisely locked Baldwin up long-term last season on a 3-year, 13 million dollar deal that looks like a steal.

The problem is the Seahawks don’t have many options after Graham and Baldwin. Jermaine Kearse was the other starter last year and will probably be the other starter again this year, a problem because he isn’t very good. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season. He’s been better in the past, grading above average on 486 snaps in 2013, after struggling on 78 snaps as a rookie, but the former undrafted free agent is probably better off as a #3 receiver.

The Seahawks drafted Paul Richardson in the 2nd round in 2014 with this situation in mind and he was decent on 516 snaps as the #3 receiver as a rookie, but he tore his ACL during the playoffs in January and his 2015 season very much is in doubt. Even when he’s on the field, he’ll be the #3 wide receiver at best, assuming he holds off the likes of Ricardo Lockette and Tyler Lockett for the job. The former is a 2011 undrafted free agent who has played 284 nondescript snaps in 4 seasons in the league, while the latter is a 3rd round rookie drafted primarily for his special teams ability. It’s an improved receiving corps thanks to Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin is very underrated, but there are still a lot of problems here.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

While the receiving corps should be better this season thanks to Jimmy Graham’s arrival, their offensive line should be worse now without Max Unger. Unger was the 4th ranked center on Pro Football Focus and the only Seahawk offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average. Even more impressive, he ranked 4th despite only playing 385 snaps and missing 10 games with injury. No center played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position last season. The Seahawks desperately missed him when he was out of the lineup. In games he started in the regular season, the Seahawks moved the chains at a 78.89% rate, as opposed to 72.51% in games he missed. You can’t necessarily attribute all of that to Unger, but it’s worth noting. Unger’s replacement, Lemuel Jeanpierre, was horrible in 4 starts down the stretch last season. The 2010 undrafted free agent has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league and is a steep downgrade.

The Seahawks also won’t be able to hide him because the rest of the offensive line sucks too. Also leaving this off-season was James Carpenter, who signed a 4-year, 19.1 million dollar with the Jets, after starting 13 starts at left guard for the Seahawks in 2014. He wasn’t nearly as big of a loss as Unger, primarily because Carpenter struggled last season. He’s someone who was overpaid by the Jets and someone who can be upgraded. It’s just unclear if the Seahawks have anyone who can be an upgrade.

Alvin Bailey is penciled in as the starter at left guard right now. He flashed on 84 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and made his first career starts in 2014, but struggled in the first significant action of his career, making 2 starts at left tackle and 3 starts at left guard, grading out below average at both positions. Bailey probably isn’t a downgrade from Carpenter, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade either. He could be pushed for snaps by 4th round rookie Terry Poole later in the season.

At the right guard spot, the Seahawks have JR Sweezy, a 2012 7th round pick defensive tackle turned offensive lineman. The good news is he’s started 34 games in 3 seasons in the league and is coming off the best season of his career, but, even in the best season of his career, he was a mediocre starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked guard out of 78 eligible in 2014. He’s never graded out above average in his career and is unlikely to become an average starter this season.

The only recent big investment the Seahawks put into their offensive line was when they used a 2nd round pick in 2014 on Justin Britt. He made all 16 starts at right tackle last season, but graded out 74th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles. The Seahawks are hoping he can be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are definitely no guarantees. The only potential saving grace on this offensive line is left tackle Russell Okung and I should emphasize potential.

Russell Okung was the 6th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, but that type of dominance has been rare from him and he generally hasn’t lived up to his billing. He’s graded out below average in his other 4 seasons in the NFL, never played all 16 games in a season, and missed 21 games in 5 seasons with injury. It’s strange to think that the Seahawks’ offensive line could be one of the league’s worst, but they were one of the worst last season without Unger and that really hurt their ability to move the chains. Now, Unger is gone permanently. The Jimmy Graham trade doesn’t just make them definitely better.

Grade: D

Defensive Line

While the Seahawks’ offense was good last season, their defense was still better, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed. Guys in the secondary like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor get a lot of the credit in Seattle, but defensive lineman Michael Bennett is arguably as valuable as or more valuable than any of those three. He’s been a top-7 4-3 defensive end in each of the last 4 seasons, including a career best #2 last season, dominating as both a run stopper and a pass rusher at 6-3 274.

Bennett has been in the news this off-season because he’s not happy with his current contract and at times there have been rumors he wants to be traded. While I expect Bennett to be in Seattle this season, Bennett does seem serious about his demands. It’s a weird situation. Bennett gave the Seahawks a big hometown discount last off-season, signing a 4-year, 28.5 million dollar deal to remain in Seattle. However, after making 10 million in the first year of the contract (thanks to a big signing bonus), owed just 18.5 million remaining over 3 years, Bennett seems to have changed his mind. It’s not that Bennett wasn’t worth 10 million last season or that he doesn’t deserve a raise, but the Seahawks, given all of their expensive players, can’t really afford to be giving raises to guys who have 3 years left on their deal. Either way, Bennett should be on the field and dominating for the Seahawks this season.

Cliff Avril will start opposite Bennett once again. After seeing just 574 snaps in a largely situational role in the first year of a 2-year, 13 million dollar contract in 2013, Avril saw 736 snaps in 2014. Avril has graded out 12th and 13th  in 2013 and 2014 respectively since arriving in Seattle, but he is still probably better off in a situational pass rush role playing 500-600 snaps instead of 700-800. A 2008 3rd round pick, Avril has graded out above average as a pass rusher in 6 of 7 seasons in his career, but has also never graded out above average against the run. The 6-3 252 pounder is very much a finesse player. The Seahawks drafted defensive end Frank Clark out of Michigan in the 2nd round and he’s expected to eat into his snaps as a rookie. The 6-1 270 pounder should be a better run defender.

Bennett sees a lot of snaps inside in sub packages and, when he moves inside, much more often than not, the Seahawks drop down outside linebacker Bruce Irvin to be the other edge rusher, playing in that Von Miller/Khalil Mack-esque hybrid role. Irvin actually graded out below average as a pass rusher, but graded out 11th among 4-3 outside linebackers thanks to his run abilities and coverage abilities. Irvin, who graded out 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 as well, graded out above average as a pass rusher in both 2012 and 2013, after the Seahawks made him a surprise 1st round pick in 2012. There was controversy after the Seahawks decided not to pick up his 5th year option and Irvin was talking about being traded to his hometown Atlanta Falcons. It seems weird that the Seahawks would decline the option when it’s only guaranteed for injury, but the Seahawks might just know they can’t give him a big salary because of their long-term cap issues and see him as expendable. He’s likely to be in Seattle next season though.

At defensive tackle, the Seahawks had 4 different players see significant snaps. The player that saw the fewest of the quartet was Brandon Mebane, who played just 289 snaps thanks to a hamstring injury that cost him the final 7 games of the season. He was much better in 2013 on the Super Bowl team, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle, but that’s not the norm for him, as he’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. Going into an age 30 season, Mebane is primarily just a base package run stopper at this point in his career. He’ll be good to have back though.

Tony McDaniel should be the other base down player inside. He really struggled last season, grading out 72nd out of 81 eligible defensive tackles. He was much better in 2013, grading out as 15th among defensive tackles, including 4th in pure run grade. However, like with Mebane, that’s not the norm for him. Like Mebane, 2013 is the only season he’s graded out above average in the last 4 seasons and he’s graded out above average just twice in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history. Going into his age 30 season, already his 10th season in the NFL, he’s a weak spot upfront.

In sub packages, McDaniel will cede snaps to Jordan Hill, a 2013 3rd round pick who graded out below average on 366 snaps last season, but excelled as a pass rusher. The Seahawks lost their 4th defensive tackle Kevin Williams in free agency this off-season, but they did add Ahtyba Rubin from the Browns. Rubin was one of the worst defensive tackles in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible. He’s not generally this bad, but the last time he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus was 2009, so he’s not great either. He’s mere insurance and depth as the 4th defensive tackle right now. It’s once again a strong front, but there are some problems.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I mentioned that Bruce Irvin plays linebacker in base packages, lining up outside as the 3rd outside linebacker in a primarily run stopping role, which, as I mentioned, he does quite well. In sub packages, it’s just Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, who are one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Wright, a 2011 4th round pick, has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, ranking 17th, 14th, 13th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively.

Wagner, meanwhile, is a 2012 2nd round pick who has graded out 2nd, 12th, and 5th in 3 seasons in the NFL. Especially impressive about his 2014 season was that he did that despite missing 5 games with injury. If you take out the 5 week stretch where he didn’t play, he ranks 2nd at his position.  In the 5 games he missed, the Seahawks allowed opponents to move the chains at a 72.38% rate, as opposed to 66.45% in the 11 games he played in the regular season. His presence was so noticeable that Tony Dungy actually cast his MVP vote for him because, as he explained, it’s most “valuable.” That’s absurd. Yes, the Seahawks did really miss him when he was hurt, but basic interference suggests that the Packers would have missed Aaron Rodgers far more if he were hurt or the Texans with JJ Watt.

However, Wagner did have a fantastic season. Going into his age 25 contract year, the Seahawks are trying to lock him up now so they’ll have the franchise tag free next off-season for Russell Wilson. Wagner is rumored to be in line to be the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL. His only real issue is he’s missed 7 games with injury over the past 2 seasons. He, Wright, and Irvin make a very strong linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

Everyone knows about the Seahawks’ secondary, the legion of boom. There’s debate about who is the best member of it. Earl Thomas is a great coverage safety, but he missed too many tackles for me to consider him the best of this bunch. Instead, I think that title should go to Richard Sherman, who has made 48 of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons and 58 in 4 seasons in the league, since the Seahawks grabbed him as a steal in the 5th round in 2011. In 4 seasons in the league, he’s graded out 16th, 2nd, 5th, and 3rd from 2011-2014 respectively. He’s the only cornerback in the league to grade out in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons and is firmly in that top tier of cornerbacks with Darrelle Revis and Chris Harris.

At safety, the Seahawks have Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who are among the best safeties in the league and complement each other very well. Both were drafted in 2010, but they’ve both taken different paths to the starting lineup. A first round pick, Thomas was a starter from the word go and has made 80 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league. Thomas has graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league, grading out 30th, 8th, 36th, 10th, and 5th in 2010-2014 respectively.

Chancellor, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2010 and took a year to break into the starting lineup, flashing on 138 snaps as a rookie and then making 61 of 64 in the 4 seasons since. He’s graded out 5th, 20th, 12th, and 20th respectively from 2011-2014. Because the Seahawks have so much talent in the secondary, particularly Thomas and Sherman, Chancellor often plays near the line of scrimmage, playing 81.3% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2014, 2nd most often in the NFL among eligible safeties, a great role for the 6-3 232 pounder. Meanwhile, the 5-10 208 pound Thomas played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on just 8.1% of snaps, 3rd least often in the NFL among eligible safeties. Thomas has missed 66 tackles in 5 seasons in the league, but, other than that, he’s great and he’s coming off the best season of his career in 2014.

The Seahawks lost Byron Maxwell at the other cornerback spot to a monster 6-year, 63 million dollar deal that he signed with the Eagles. However, Maxwell was massively overpaid as he was just Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014. The Seahawks replaced him with Cary Williams, who he ironically replaced in Philadelphia, on a much more reasonable 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Williams might not have Maxwell’s upside and he is going into his age 31 season, but he graded out 49th among cornerbacks last season, very similar to Maxwell. Williams has made 64 starts in the last 4 seasons, grading out 57th, 69th, 80th, and 49th respectively, slightly below average overall. He’s not very good, but he should be able to hold his own opposite Richard Sherman this year.

The slot cornerback spot should remain the only weak part in this secondary and there are 4 players who could conceivably play there. Jeremy Lane is the least likely to win the battle, even though the 2012 6th round has flashed on 524 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. That’s because he tore his ACL and broke his arm on the same play in the Super Bowl. He won’t be ready for the start of the season and he could easily miss the entire year. Tharold Simon is an option, after the 2013 5th round pick graded out slightly below average in the first experience of his career last season, playing 305 snaps, but he struggled mightily in the playoffs.

Realistically, the battle is between Marcus Burley and Will Blackmon. Burley began the season in the #3 role last season and ended up grading out above average on 328 snaps, after not playing a snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Blackmon, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent Jacksonville, where he played under former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who is the Head Coach in Jacksonville. Blackmon had the best year of his career in 2013 in Jacksonville in Bradley’s system, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback on 682 snaps and he has the requisite size to play cornerback for Pete Carroll at 6-0 198, but 2013 is the outlier in his career. He’s graded out above average just 2 times in 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history and has only played 66 games in 9 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2006. With Blackmon going into his age 31 season, the Seahawks would be better off with the youngster Burley. Despite uncertainty on the slot, it’s still arguably the best secondary in the NFL.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Seahawks should once again be one of the best teams in the league this season. The NFC West is getting worse with Arizona unlikely to have as good of luck with turnovers and close games this season, the Rams still a little bit away, and San Francisco self-destructing, so Seattle has a fairly easy journey to the top of the NFC West for the 3rd straight year. Their offensive line is a big problem, but they’re strong pretty much everywhere else, particularly on defense. The only concern is that the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl last year and it’s been 40 years since a Super Bowl loser won the following year and 20 years since a Super Bowl loser even went back to the Super Bowl. That’s more than a fluke I think because teams that go that far and lose can be dejected and tired the following season. That’s certainly a possibility for a Seahawks team that has played 38 games in the last 2 seasons and 56 games in the last 3 seasons, but they should be one of the best teams in the NFL again. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Seahawks after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Jun 172015
 

Quarterback

The Cardinals made the playoffs last season at 11-5, but they finished the season 17th in rate of moving the chains differential, behind non-playoff teams like Kansas City, New Orleans, Miami, San Diego, and Philadelphia and worst among playoff teams. Arizona’s 11-5 record was buoyed by a 4-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and their +11 point differential was 2nd worst among qualifying playoff teams. The Cardinals also benefitted from tough to sustain things like a 62.07% rate of recovering fumbles (best in the NFL), a +8 turnover margin, and a +4 return touchdown margin. They were especially bad down the stretch, losing 5 of their last 7 games, including a loss in Carolina in the playoffs to a 7-8-1 Panthers team (who still finished the season ahead of them in rate of moving the chains differential). Even though the scoreboard only read 27-16 in their playoff loss, they had just 8 first downs to Carolina’s 25.

However, there is some hope that the Cardinals might not regress in the win column. Part of the reason the Cardinals struggled last season, particularly down the stretch, was that they were essentially down to their 4th string quarterback by the end of last season. 1st and 2nd string quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton both missed significant time with injury, while 3rd string quarterback Logan Thomas struggled mightily in limited action as a 4th round rookie and did not impress in practice either. That forced the Cardinals to bring in Ryan Lindley over from San Diego’s practice squad to start down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Lindley completed just 48.4% of his passes for an average of 6.04 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions and then completed 16 of 28 for 82 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions in the playoff loss. Arguably the worst quarterback in NFL history to ever start a playoff game, Lindley has completed 50.8% of his passes for an average of 4.98 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in his career and might never throw another NFL pass. Not only are the Cardinals highly unlikely to have to resort to signing someone from another team’s practice squad in November to make starts this season, if they do have to do that, chances are that quarterback will be better than Lindley. Even for a 4th string quarterback, he’s horrible. His 50.3 career QB rating is the worst in the NFL over the past 10 years among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 200 passes.

The Cardinals moved the chains at a 73.58% rate in games started by Carson Palmer (6 games) last season and a 67.03% rate in games started by other quarterbacks. Carson Palmer is expected to be back for week 1, after a torn ACL ended a 2014 season in which he completed 62.9% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He might not be quite that good again this season. For one thing, ACL tears can be tough to bounce back from, especially when it’s a knee you’ve injured before (he tore that same ACL in 2005). On top of that, he’s going into his age 36 season. That won’t make his recovery easier and he probably would have declined this season anyway. Being in your age 36 season is tough and coming off of a twice torn ACL is tough, but doing them together could be especially tough.

It doesn’t help that Palmer’s ACL tear was in November, relatively late in the season, which gives him less recovery time. Early reports out of camp are good, but you can’t always trust those. Also, Palmer is unlikely to throw an interception on just 1.3% of his passes again next season, as his career average is 3.2%. He could struggle this season by his standards, after grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2009-2014.

If he gets hurt again, next in line is Drew Stanton, who made 8 starts last season, before going down for the season with an injured knee. Even if Palmer isn’t himself anymore, Stanton would still be a noticeable downgrade from Palmer, like he was last season. Last season, he completed 55.0% of his passes for an average of 7.13 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. Head Coach Bruce Arians is a great offensive mind and has incredibly won 2 of the last 3 Coach of the Year Awards, but there’s only so much you can do if the talent’s not there.

A 2007 2nd round pick, Stanton has completed 55.3% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, never grading out above average in Pro Football Focus’ history and not throwing a pass from 2011-2013. He’s a low-end backup quarterback at best and he won’t get any better in his age 31 season. They might not have great quarterback play this season, but they should exceed last year’s production, when they completed 56.3% of their passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Only their 2.1% QB rating seems hard to repeat, as they threw a fluky low amount of interceptions last season. Turnovers are already kind of fluky because they only happen on such a low percentage of snaps, but it’s especially fluky that the Cardinals had such few interceptions last season when their quarterback play was as bad as it was and when they threw down field as much as they did last season. They won’t necessarily dominate the turnover/return touchdown battle again this season, but improved quarterback play should offset that, at least somewhat.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Outside of the quarterback position, the Cardinals didn’t really have many games lost on offense, as they finished 8th in offensive adjusted games lost, so they can’t exactly count on reinforcements returning from injury outside of the quarterback spot. The only other big injury they had on offense was Andre Ellington. Ellington only missed 4 games with injury, but was limited by injuries all season, most notably a toe injury he suffered in the pre-season. As a result, he rushed for 660 yards and 3 touchdowns on 201 carries, an average of 3.28 YPC. Ellington’s ineffectiveness on such a large volume, as well as the Cardinals’ lack of running back talent behind him on the depth chart, led to the Cardinals averaging a league worst 3.30 yards per carry. Ellington’s injuries aren’t really reflected in their low amount of offensive adjusted games lost because there was usually little doubt he’d play, but the Cardinals’ inability to run the ball last season contributed to their offense being stagnant.

Ellington was much better as a 6th round rookie in 2013, underutilized on 118 carries, rushing for 652 yards and 3 touchdowns, an average of 5.52 YPC. However, that’s no guarantee that he won’t continue to struggle in 2015. Ellington might just not be cut out to be a lead back and handle that type of workload, at 5-9 199, with a history of injury problems that date back to his collegiate days at Clemson. He should be more effective this season and he’s got strong pass catching abilities with 85 catches in 27 career games, but it’s highly possible he never becomes an above average starting running back.

The Cardinals used a 3rd round pick on David Johnson in this past draft, but despite his 6-1 224 frame, he might not be the power complement to Andre Ellington that they need. He plays faster and smaller than his listed size and is a solid receiver out of the backfield. In fact, Bruce Arians has compared Johnson to Ellington, suggesting that they see him as a clear backup and someone who can play a similar style if Ellington gets hurt. That’s something they didn’t have last season and Ellington should be more productive, but this isn’t exactly a perfect tandem.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The one area the Cardinals had no injuries was the offensive line, a big part of the reason why they had such few adjusted games lost. The Cardinals had 5 guys make 78 out of 80 starts and 3 of those guys played every snap. Only right guard Paul Fanaika missed time with injury, missing weeks 14 and 15 and being replaced by Jonathan Cooper. However, just because the Cardinals were healthy on the offensive line, doesn’t mean they played well, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked run blocking offensive line and 23rd ranked pass blocking offensive line. Only one player played a snap upfront for the Cardinals and graded out above average. That didn’t help them move the chains.

That above average player was left tackle Jared Veldheer, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. Veldheer was one of several recent big investments by the Cardinals since new GM Steve Keim came in 3 off-seasons ago, in order to turn around a perennially poor offensive front and he looks like a steal thus far. He should be able to repeat that season in 2015, only going into his age 28 season. A 2010 3rd round pick, Veldheer graded out 16th, 15th, and 9th among offensive tackles in 2011, 2012, and 2014 respectively, with a 2013 season mostly lost to injury in between. Basically, whenever he’s been healthy, he’s been good and, aside from 2013, he’s never missed a game.

Another recent investment by the Cardinals upfront is Mike Iupati, who was signed to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal by the Cardinals this off-season. He’ll be a clear upgrade at left guard over Ted Larsen, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season. The 17th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the 49ers, Iupati has graded out in the top-14 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league, with the exception coming in an injury plagued 2013, when he still graded out above average. Despite that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s missed just 4 games in 5 seasons, all coming in 2013. One concern is that, while he’s annually one of the top run blocking guards in the NFL, he has graded out below average as a pass protector in 3 of 5 seasons so, as talented as he is, he’s not that well-rounded and he does have a glaring weakness. He’ll be a big asset though.

In addition to bringing in Iupati, the Cardinals also used their first round pick on DJ Humphries, an offensive tackle out of Florida. Bruce Arians is talking up incumbent Bobby Massie and saying that Humphries won’t have anything handed to him and referring to Massie as a starter, but it’s early and he’s likely just giving Massie his due respect as a veteran and challenging the newcomer. Even though Humphries is raw, only going into his age 22 season as a rookie, it’s unlikely that the Cardinals used a 1st round pick on him just to have him ride the pine. Massie graded out below average last season, something he’s done in all 3 seasons in the league in 32 starts, since the Cardinals drafted him in the 4th round in 2012.

If the Cardinals want to get their best 5 offensive linemen out there regardless of position, they might have either Humphries or Massie start at right guard this season, before Massie hits free agency next off-season. Massie was a below average starter at right tackle, but could be a better fit inside or Humphries could find life easier for him inside early in his career. Currently penciled in as the starting right guard is Jonathan Cooper, the 7th overall pick in 2013 and someone who has been a massive bust thus far. Injuries and ineffective play in practice have limited him to 189 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and he hasn’t shown much more on the field, despite being called the best interior line prospect in a decade when he came out. He’s entering a make or break year could easily end up not starting if the Cardinals decide to move Massie or Humphries inside. 2013 4th round pick Earl Watford is reportedly also in the mix to start, but he has played 9 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league and isn’t a likely starting option, especially if Massie or Humphries moves inside.

Cooper could see time at center if he’s unable to nail down the right guard spot. Currently competing for the starting center job is Ted Larsen and AQ Shipley. Larsen, as I mentioned earlier, struggled mightily at left guard last season. He’s also graded out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league, splitting time between center and guard. Shipley, meanwhile, struggled mightily at guard in 2013, grading out 66th out of 81 eligible, but has graded out above average as a center in both 2012 and 2014. He was weirdly benched after 4 weeks in Indianapolis last year, despite being Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center at the time. The Cardinals seem to actually believe in him and he’s likely the favorite over Ted Larsen. He’s definitely flashed. Either one of them should be an improvement over Lyle Sendlein, who was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked center last season. He was cut by the Cardinals and remains unsigned as a free agent this off-season. It’s definitely an improved offensive line, but also one that still has holes.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The big decision the Cardinals had to make heading into this off-season involved Larry Fitzgerald, the face of the franchise and a player who has been with the Cardinals since they drafted him 3rd overall in 2004. Fitzgerald signed a 7-year, 113 million dollar extension 4 off-seasons ago, but hasn’t had a 1000+ yard season since 2011, the first year after the extension. There was no way he’d be back next in 2015 at his 16 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It was only a question of whether or not they’d bring him back at a cheaper rate or outright cut him.

The Cardinals opted to do the former and I think it was a huge mistake. Yes, it lessens Fitzgerald’s cap hit for 2015, which was scheduled to be 23.6 million, but if that was the most of a pay cut that Fitzgerald was willing to take, they should have just outright cut them, a move that would have saved them about 9 million on the cap immediately and gotten him off their cap completely for 2016. This deal pays Fitzgerald 22 million dollars over the next 2 seasons, all of which will show up on their cap at some point because it’s all fully guaranteed.

That 11 million dollar annual average is 5th highest in the NFL behind Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, and Vincent Jackson. Fitzgerald is not the 5th best wide receiver in the NFL at all, not any more. From 2005-2011, Fitzgerald averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games, even though he never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years. He was fantastic then. That’s why he got that deal in the first place.

However, 2011 was his last 1000+ yard season. His 71/798/4 line in 2012 was understandable because he had supremely terrible quarterback play, but even with better quarterback play in 2013 and 2014, he only averaged 73 catches for 839 yards and 6 touchdowns in 15 games. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked wide receiver in passing grade in 2013 and their 28th ranked in that category in 2014. He’s still a solid receiver, but he’s not the same player he was when he was in his prime. It’s promising that he had 32 catches for 483 yards and 2 touchdowns in Palmer’s 6 starts last season, 85 catches for 1288 yards and 5 touchdowns over 16 games, but he’s still unlikely to have another 1000+ yard season again ever.

Part of the reason why is because the Cardinals like to spread it around to three different wide receivers, Fitzgerald, 2012 1st round pick Michael Floyd, and 2014 3rd round pick John Brown. Fitzgerald had 100 targets on 506 routes run, Floyd 93 targets on 585 routes run, and Brown 94 targets on 459 routes run last season. Floyd caught just 47 of those targets, but he did turn them into 841 yards and 6 touchdowns. Still, he wasn’t nearly as good as he was in his 2nd season in the league in 2013, when he graded out 22nd among wide receivers and caught 65 passes for 1041 yards and 5 touchdowns. He’s hoping to have a bounce back year in his 4th year in the league in 2015, as he angles for a long-term deal, and improved quarterback play should help.

Brown, meanwhile, caught 48 of those passes for 696 yards and 5 touchdowns. The 3rd rounder was a one-dimensional deep threat as a rookie and the only one of the trio to grade out below average last season. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league in 2015 and Bruce Arians has had success with similar receivers like TY Hilton and Mike Wallace in previous stops, but he was only a 3rd round pick so, while Hilton and Wallace were only 3rd rounders as well, there isn’t any guarantee he ever becomes a complete receiver. He’ll technically be the #3 receiver behind #2 Floyd and #1 Fitzgerald, but they’ll spread the ball around and use a bunch of 3-wide sets once again this season. All three of them should be more productive simply because the quarterback play should be better and they are a trio of solid targets.

As Bruce Arians’ offense loves throwing downfield to 3 different wide receivers, the tight end position is not as important as it is in other offenses. Starter John Carlson was horrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 65th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. He fortunately retired this off-season, while Rob Housler, who graded out below average last season as well, signed with Cleveland as a free agent. 2014 2nd round pick Troy Niklas was drafted to be a big part of their offense and will get a chance this season, as he’s penciled into the starting role right now, but he’ll have to stay healthy.

That’s not something he was able to do as a rookie, when he struggled mightily on 90 snaps. This off-season, he’s still having ankle problems. The Cardinals didn’t draft a tight end until the 7th round so Darren Fells, who flashed last season on 229 snaps, the first snaps of his career, will be their only insurance. That leaves them dangerously thin at the position, which knocks this receiving corps down a little bit. They should be better offensively this season thanks to better health at quarterback and running back and increased talent on the offensive line.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

While the Cardinals were poor offensively last season, they were strong defensively, allowing opponents to move the chains at the 3rd lowest rate in the NFL. They might not be as good this season, as a result of offensive losses. Dan Williams signed with the Raiders on a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal this off-season, while Tommy Kelly remains unsigned going into his age 35 season and is likely considering retirement. Those were two of their 3 starters on their 3-man defensive line last season. Williams graded out 14th among defensive tackles, while Kelly ranked 17th among 3-4 defensive ends. They’ll be tough to replace.

In order to try to replace them, the Cardinals signed Corey Peters and Cory Redding. Cory Redding was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and their 11th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013. The problem is he’s going into his age 35 season, so it’s hard to trust him going forward. He ranked 27th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and could regress to that level in 2015 given his age. He’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons and the Cardinals risked very little with a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, but he can’t necessarily be counted on to be an asset.

Peters, meanwhile, will be a two-down player inside nose tackle, a position he’s never played and somewhere where he might be undersized at 6-3 305. Peters tore his Achilles in 2013 at the worst possible time, in a meaningless week 16 game, just before he was set to hit free agency. Peters was forced to settle for a cheap one year deal back in Atlanta in an attempt to rehab his value and he did a decent job. He played 15 games (except week 1 when he was kept out for precautionary reasons) and graded out about average on 535 snaps.

Other than that Achilles tear, he doesn’t have a significant injury history, as he’s missed just 9 games in 5 seasons combined since the Falcons drafted him in the 3rd round in 2010. Peters struggled in the first 3 seasons of his career, grading out below average in all 3 seasons, including a 2010 season in which he graded out 62nd out of 76 eligible and a 2012 season in which he graded out 83rd out of 85 eligible, but he’s graded out right about average in each of the last 2 seasons and he’s going into his age 27 season. We’ll see how he does at a new position.

Frostee Rucker remains and will once again play in a rotational reserve position at 3-4 defensive end, as he did last season, when he played 487 snaps. He should be in the 400-500 range once again this season. He graded out above average for the first time in his career last season, but the 9-year veteran is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in an age 32 season in 2015. He’ll rotate snaps with Redding and is best in a reserve role.

Also still around is Calais Campbell, which is obviously good because he’s their most indispensable player on either side of the field (only behind maybe the quarterback Carson Palmer). He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season and has graded out in the top-4 in each of the last 4 seasons at the position, something no one else can say. Only going into his age 29 season with just 7 games missed in 7 seasons in his career, I see no reason that can’t continue next season. Aside from JJ Watt, he’s arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the game.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

John Abraham led the 2013 Cardinals with 12 sacks, but was limited to 37 snaps by the Cardinals in 2014 thanks to concussion problems and he’s expected to retire this off-season, ahead of his age 37 season. In his absence, Alex Okafor led the way with 8 sacks, but he didn’t play that well overall, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 46 eligible, particularly struggling against the run. Last season was the first significant action of his career, after playing just 5 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He’ll be back as a starter in 2015 and could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Cardinals better hope he improves because they don’t really have another option.

On the other side, Sam Acho was 2nd among Cardinal outside linebackers in snaps played last season, grading out above average on 483 snaps, but he’s now in Chicago, leaving as a free agent. The Cardinals used a 2nd round pick on Markus Golden as a replacement and, while he definitely fills a need and could be a solid player for them long-term, but he’s very raw and not someone the Cardinals are going to be able to depend on as a rookie, even in obvious passing situations.

Acho split time with Matt Shaughnessy last season and Golden will do that this season as well, working as a situational pass rusher with Shaughnessy playing early downs as primarily a run stopper. That’s a good role for him as, while he’s graded out below average as a pass rusher in 4 straight seasons, the big 6-5 270 pounder has also graded out above average as a run stopper in 5 straight seasons, playing both 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker since the Raiders drafted him in the 3rd round in 2009. He only played 341 snaps last season because he missed 8 games with injuries, but he should have a much bigger role in 2015.

Inside, Paris Lenon was one of the worst middle linebackers in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible. He made the smart decision to retire ahead of his age 35 season this off-season and is now a member of the Cardinals’ coaching staff. The Cardinals are hoping Daryl Washington can replace him, but he has yet to be reinstated. He was suspended all of last season because of substance abuse and domestic violence and his status for 2015 is very much up in the air. Most expect him to be reinstated and then serve an additional 4-6 game suspension, but that’s unknown at this time. Washington, a 2010 2nd round pick, graded out above average in every season from 2010-2013, including 11th among middle linebackers in 2010, 9th in 2011, and 3rd in 2012. It’s tough to know what to expect from him after missing an entire season, but he should be an asset for them when on the field.

The Cardinals signed Sean Weatherspoon as a free agent as insurance, but the problem is they don’t have an insurance policy for him and, if his history is any indication, they might need one. It’s been a steep drop off for Weatherspoon since he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in his 2nd year in the league in 2011 after being drafted in the 1st round in 2010. He’s played in just 20 of 48 games combined over the past 3 seasons, grading out below average in 2012 and 2013 and missing all of 2014 with a torn Achilles. 2011 remains the only season in his career that he’s played all 16 games and the only season in his career in which he’s graded out above average, as he missed 5 games as a rookie and graded out below average when on the field. He’s missed 33 games in 5 seasons.

If and when Washington is on the field this season, Weatherspoon will compete for snaps at the other middle linebacker spot with the incumbent Kevin Minter. I’m not so sure that Weatherspoon wins that battle. Minter, 2013 2nd round pick, is a limited player, particularly in coverage, but he’s a good run stopper and graded out above average overall last season. That middle linebacker job was just a two-down role last season because the Cardinals would drop a safety down to the box in sub packages, rather than using a 2nd linebacker. They love doing that type of thing and they have the safety depth to continue doing so, which means that the other middle linebacker position could easily remain a two-down role, which is perfect for Minter. Another option the Cardinals have is to line Daryl Washington up on the edge in some obvious passing downs, as he’s been a strong pass rusher thus far in his career, primarily as a blitzer. It’s a weak linebacking corps overall, but one that is better because of Lenon’s retirement.

Grade: C

Secondary

I mentioned how deep the Cardinals’ are at the safety position. Last season, they had 4 different safeties play at least 438 snaps and 3 different safeties play at least 697 snaps. Ironically, the safety who played the fewest might be the best, as Tyrann Mathieu was limited last season by injuries, including recovery from a late 2013 ACL tear. He graded out above average last season in limited action and, only going into his age 23 season, close to 2 years removed from the injury, Mathieu has a very good chance to bounce back to what he was as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, when he was an every down player and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback, splitting snaps between safety in base packages and cornerback in sub package. With Antonio Cromartie leaving as a free agent unreplaced at cornerback (more on that later), Mathieu should continue in that hybrid role in 2015.

At the other safety spot in base packages, Rashad Johnson was the starter last season and played every snap of the season except 8 as a traditional safety. The problem is Johnson was horrible, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. He’s been better in the past, but he’s always been a part-time player, maxing out at 643 snaps played in 2013, before last year’s career high. He should move into a situational role again this season, with 2014 1st round pick Deone Bucannon moving into the every down starting role.

Bucannon struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. However, that’s because he wasn’t really used properly, seeing 98.2% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, easily most among eligible safeties, effectively spending the vast maority of his time as a linebacker. As a result, he struggled mightily against the run and as a pass rusher, as he weirdly had 109 pass rush snaps and predictably had trouble getting into the backfield. In coverage, he was just about average. In his 2nd year, in the league in a role that’s still hybrid, but that plays the 6-1 208 pounder as a traditional safety more often, Bucannon should have a better season.

In this scenario with Bucannon starting next to Mathieu, Johnson and Tony Jefferson would come in during sub packages when Bucannon and Mathieu move to linebacker and cornerback respectively. Jefferson was an undrafted free agent in 2013, but has been a pleasant surprise through two seasons in the league. After flashing on 202 snaps as a rookie, he graded out just slightly below average in a bigger role on 697 snaps in 2014. He should continue being a solid-part time player.

As I mentioned, the Cardinals lost Antonio Cromartie as a free agent this off-season and didn’t really replace him, suggesting they want Mathieu to play more cornerback this season. That pushes Jerraud Powers back into a starting role. That’s not a problem. For one thing, while Cromartie started last season well, he struggled down the stretch with an ankle problem and ended up grading out slightly below average on the season. On top of that, Powers is plenty experienced and a solid player. The 2009 3rd round pick made 58 starts from 2009-2013 and graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons. Even last season, as the “#3” cornerback, he played 761 snaps and graded out about average. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s a solid starter.

Patrick Peterson will be the other starter and he’s made 64 of 64 starts since the Cardinals drafted him 5th overall in 2011. Peterson is believed by many to be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, up there with Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, but he certainly didn’t play that well last season, grading out below average and finishing 3rd in touchdowns allowed (8) and 4th in penalties committed (13) among cornerbacks. Peterson says last year’s struggles were the result of undiagnosed diabetes, which makes a lot of sense. He says he has it under control right now, something he’ll have to prove on the field. Only going into his age 25 season, having graded out 16th and 14th among cornerbacks in 2012 and 2013 respectively, Peterson’s bounce back chances are good. He headlines a secondary that is still strong and deep despite the loss of Cromartie.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

As I mentioned, the Cardinals should have a better offense this season, thanks to a healthier Carson Palmer, a healthier Andre Ellington, and an improved offensive line. Defensively, they lost Antonio Cromartie, Sam Acho, Tommy Kelly, and Dan Williams, as well as their incredible defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, but they get Tyrann Mathieu back healthy for a whole season, hopefully will get something from Daryl Washington, should get a bounce back year from Patrick Peterson and add guys like Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, and Cory Redding.

They won’t be as good defensively this season, but they could be a more talented overall team than last season, especially down the stretch when they had so many injuries. The problem is they won’t be as lucky as they were last season in other aspects, including turnovers, return touchdowns, close games, and converting on big chunk plays. They’ll probably be better than the 17th they finished in rate of moving the chains last season, but I don’t see it translating to more wins on the field, or even another playoff spot. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cardinals after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Jun 142015
 

Quarterback

The Rams have been a mediocre team over the past decade or so, not winning more than 8 games in 11 straight seasons, but winning between 6 and 8 games in 7 of those 11 seasons. They’ve never been very good, but they haven’t been bad either, seemingly always a piece away. After a 2-14 2009 season, the Rams used the 1st overall pick in 2010 on Sam Bradford, but the results have of the Sam Bradford era never really showed up in the win column, as the Rams won 6 or 7 games in 4 of 5 seasons, but never any more than that.

The Rams, at least in my opinion, have their most hope in years going into this season though. The Rams were mediocre in 2014 again, going 6-10 and finishing 22nd in rate of moving the chains differential. However, their problems were primarily on the offensive side of the ball, where they ranked 25th in rate of moving the chains. Their defense, on the other hand, ranked 5th in opponent rate of moving the chains differential. The defense should continue to be good in 2015 and the offense has a real chance to take a leap forward this season.

The biggest reason for that is they should have noticeably better quarterback play this season. The Rams’ 2014 season took a big hit before it even started as Sam Bradford tore his ACL, leaving the veteran Shaun Hill (who hadn’t played regularly since 2010) and Austin Davis, n 2012 undrafted free agent, to split starts for the Rams last season. They combined to complete 63.5% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions and graded out 26th and 29th respectively among 39 eligible quarterbacks.

Sam Bradford won’t be back in St. Louis this season, as the Rams traded him to Philadelphia for quarterback Nick Foles, improving their draft position in the process, moving up from the 5th round to the 4th round in 2015 and adding a 2nd round pick in 2016. It was a smart move by the Rams as they not only improved their draft position, but also upgraded the quarterback position, sending off a quarterback who has missed 31 games in 5 seasons, including the last 25 straight with a twice torn ACL, and who has only completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions in his career.

Foles will be the new quarterback and he’s completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.56 YPA, 46 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions since the Eagles drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012. Foles is a one year wonder who had by far the best season of his career in 2013, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. As good as his numbers looked that season, he only ranked 17th among quarterbacks, suggesting much of his production was a result of the system and offensive supporting talent. In his other 2 seasons, he’s graded out below average, 31st out of 38 eligible in 2012 and 25th out of 39 eligible in 2014. In Philadelphia, he always had a strong supporting cast offensively and a good offensive system, especially over the past 2 seasons with Chip Kelly. Life won’t be as easy for him in St. Louis.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The Rams used the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on some offensive supporting cast help for Foles, as many expected them to. However, it wasn’t the position many expected. Instead of using the pick on a wide receiver like Devante Parker or an offensive lineman like Andrus Peat, the Rams opted for running back Todd Gurley. It was a weird move because the offensive line and wide receiver positions were both big needs, while Tre Mason did a solid job at running back as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and seemed worthy as being the lead back in 2015. Gurley is also likely to miss the first month of the season after tearing his ACL last fall at the University of Georgia. The Rams are banking on Gurley, who some called the next Adrian Peterson, living up to his potential.

As a rookie, he’s unlikely to make much of an impact. Even once he’s able to return from his ACL tear, it would be unfair to expect him to be anything close to his potential, especially since he’ll be a rookie. He’s unlikely to have his breakout year until 2016 or beyond. Mason will be the lead back in Gurley’s absence and the primary backup upon his return. As a rookie, he rushed for 765 yards and 4 touchdowns on 179 carries (4.27 YPC) and added 16 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown. Benny Cunningham will be the #3 back, the #2 back in Gurley’s absence. He’s a 2012 undrafted free agent who has rushed for 507 yards and 4 touchdowns on 113 carries, a solid 4.49 YPC. The Rams were pretty set at running back going into the draft so they have to hope that Gurley can become a transcendent player.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Rams have problems on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. Those two units certainly are not what Foles was used to in Philadelphia. The Rams’ offensive line finished 27th in team pass blocking grade and 23rd in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season. The Rams lost 4 players who combined for 52 starts on the offensive line in 2014 this off-season, Jake Long (7 starts), Scott Wells (16 starts), Davin Joseph (13 starts), and Joe Barksdale (16 starts). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Wells was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked center last season and Joseph finished 75th out of 78 eligible guards. However, Barksdale was decent last season, as was Long, before an ACL tear that put his career in jeopardy. Besides, the players the Rams brought in to replace those players aren’t necessarily upgrades.

Greg Robinson remains from last season and he’ll move over to Long’s old spot at left tackle, which was the ultimate plan when the Rams drafted him 2nd overall in 2014. Robinson had a brutal rookie year though, grading out below average in 3 early season starts at guard and then really struggling in the final 9 games of the season at left tackle, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible on just 559 snaps. From week 9 on at left tackle, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked offensive tackle. Only going into his age 23 season, the Rams are hoping that Robinson turns it around in a hurry on the blindside.

Rodger Saffold returns at left guard, where he made 12 starts last season (3 at right guard and 1 at left tackle). He graded out just below average on the first year of a 5-year, 31.347 million dollar deal. Saffold is versatile, making starts at left tackle (37 starts), right tackle (2 starts), left guard (12 starts), and right guard (9 starts) in 5 years in the league, since getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. However, he’s graded out below average in 2 of 5 seasons and has missed 17 games in 5 seasons with injury. Saffold made all 16 starts in 2014 for the first time since his rookie year and, with the amount of money they gave committed to him long-term, the Rams are hoping that becomes a trend. Even if it does, he’s unlikely to quite live up to his contract.

Saffold is the only experienced projected starter on the St. Louis offensive line this season, other than maybe Robinson, depending on how you define experienced. At center, right guard, and right tackle, the Rams will have 3 new starters and none of their options are proven. 2nd round rookie Rob Havenstein is expected to start at right tackle. Another rookie could be starting at right guard, either 3rd round pick Jaron Brown or 4th round rookie Andrew Donnal.

Also in the mix at right guard are Brandon Washington, a 2012 6th round pick who has played 17 career snaps, and Barrett Jones, a 2013 4th round pick who has played 23 career snaps. Jones will also compete at center with Tim Barnes, a 2011 undrafted free agent with 282 career snaps. The most likely lineup will have Jones at center, Brown at right guard, and Havenstein at right tackle, but whatever the lineup is, it won’t be what Foles was used to in Philadelphia. It also won’t help their running game much in Gurley’s rookie year. It’s one of the worst offensive lines in football.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

Things are better in the receiving corps, but there are still problems. Kenny Britt led the team with 748 receiving yards, which sadly were the most by a Rams receiver since 2008. Kenny Britt has definitely had an interesting career trajectory, for better or worse. The 2009 1st round pick looked on his way to a promising career in 2010 and 2011. After averaging 1.86 yards per route run as a rookie in 2009, Britt averaged an absurd 3.07 yards per route run in 2010 and 2011, catching a combined 59 passes for 1064 yards and 12 touchdowns on a combined 347 routes run. However, a good as he was in 2010 and 2011, he only played a combined 15 games thanks to multiple injuries, including a torn ACL that derailed his career big in a big way.

Upon his return from that torn ACL in 2012, he averaged just 1.49 yards per route run in 14 games, after starting the season with a 1 game suspension as a result of a checkered off-the-field history that includes 9 arrests. He was noticeably slowed by surgeries to both of his knees. In 2013, his final year in Tennessee, he was a train wreck. Britt was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked wide receiver, despite playing just 305 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He only caught a third of his 33 targets, with 11 catches for 96 yards and he dropped 7 passes. He averaged just 0.48 yards per route run on 201 routes run. He was the definition of awful and also got into it with his coaches.

That’s why he had to settle for a minimum deal in free agency last season, rejoining ex-head coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, where he was able to bounce back. He caught 48 of 81 targets (59.3%) for 748 yards and 3 touchdowns on 468 routes run, an average of 1.60 yards per route run. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked wide receiver, above average. It’s hard to trust Britt, but he should be able to remain a solid receiver this season. He’ll never be the receiver he looked on to his way becoming early in his career, but, as long as he stays out of trouble, he should be an asset in a weak receiving corps. The Rams re-signed him to a 2-year, 9.15 million dollar deal worth up to 14 million in incentives this off-season.

Brian Quick was on his way to a solid season as well, catching 24 passes for 365 yards and 3 touchdowns during the first 6 games of the season, before going down for the year week 8, needing shoulder surgery. The 2012 2nd round pick should be a starter again in 2015 in a make or break 4th year in the league and also a contract year. With Foles coming in, Quick could put up solid numbers if he stays healthy, as could Kenny Britt, but, like Britt, he’s not a #1 caliber receiver, something they could have found at #10 overall.

The Rams drafted Tavon Austin 8th overall in 2013 to be the #1 receiver, but he’s really disappointed thus far in 2 years in the league. As a rookie in 2013, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade on 434 snaps and then 100th out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade on 552 snaps in 2014. He’s caught just 71 passes for 660 yards and 4 touchdowns in 28 career games. He does add value on the ground, grading out above average in that aspect in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, rushing for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns on 45 career attempts. He also adds value on special teams. But he hasn’t nearly been worth the 8th overall pick and, while it’s too early to declare him a bust, his career seems to be heads in that direction unless he can establish himself as a receiver. His best shot of doing that would be on the slot.

Even on the slot, I’m not so sure that Austin can hold off Stedman Bailey for the #3 job this off-season. Bailey, a 2013 3rd round pick, has graded out above average in each of the two seasons he’s been in the league, including on 420 snaps last season. He caught 30 passes for 435 yards and a touchdown in 14 games, the majority of which came after Quick got hurt. Austin’s teammate at West Virginia, Bailey doesn’t have Austin’s blazing speed and he’s not big either at 5-10 193, but he’s at least shown the requisite strength to play on offense in the NFL, something that’s eluded the 5-8 174 pound Austin thus far in his career. Realistically, I think they give Austin one more shot and Bailey starts the season backing up all 3 receiver spots.

The Rams will also use a fair amount of two-tight end sets again this season, after Jared Cook played 706 and Lance Kendricks played 613 last season. Kendricks is the #2 tight end, but he got paid pretty well this off-season, re-signing on a 4-year, 18.5 million dollar deal. Considering he played 588 snaps in 2013 (33rd among tight ends) and 613 snaps in 2014 (27th among tight ends) as the “#2” tight end, the money makes some sense, but the problem is he’s a marginal talent, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2011.

Jared Cook will return as the starting tight end, going into the 3rd year of a 5-year, 35.11 million dollar deal. Cook was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked tight end last season, a career best, but he’s never been bad either, always grading out above average, average, or slightly below average throughout his 6-year NFL career. After posting 51/657/5 and 52/634/3 slash lines throughout his first 2 seasons in St. Louis, despite shoddy quarterback play, Cook stands to see a boost in production with Foles coming in, which should be the case throughout the offense. The problem is the offensive supporting cast is still really lacking around Foles. While Cook is a solid player, if he’s arguably your best offensive player, it’s not a good offense. If the Rams are going to make the playoffs this season, their defense is going to have to come up big once again.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Rams went from 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 to 5th in 2014, a big part of the reason why there’s a ton of hope for them in 2015. It’s not fair to suggest any one player or change was responsible for the Rams’ improved defense, but one player who had a huge impact was rookie Aaron Donald, the 14th overall pick and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year. I thought Khalil Mack should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year, but I love Mack and Donald is only slightly behind him in my book. Like Mack, he ranked #1 at his position on Pro Football Focus, doing so at defensive tackle. Reminiscent of a pre-injury Geno Atkins, Donald dropped to the 14th overall pick only because of his height at 6-1 288. That hasn’t been an issue. He’s got a great future.

The Rams were without highly paid defensive end Chris Long for much of last season as he missed 10 games with injury. Long not only missed significant time with injury, but he wasn’t himself even when on the field for most of the season, as the injury happened 31 snaps into Long’s season. In the final 5 games of the season, after Long’s return, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end from week 13 through week 17. Only going into his age 30 season, Long should bounce back to form, especially since he had never missed a game with injury in 6 seasons prior to last season.

However, it’s important to note that the form he should bounce back to is not quite the form that the 43 sacks he had from 2010-2013 would suggest. While Long is a feared pass rusher, grading out 7th, 4th, 7th, and 7th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010-2013 respectively, he’s never graded out above average against the run, including a 3-year stretch from 2010-2012 where he was in the bottom-3 among 4-3 defensive ends against the run in every season. Long actually graded out below average in his last healthy season in 2013. He should be a situational player at this point in his career and could easily be going into his final season in St. Louis, owed an 11.75 million non-guaranteed in 2016.

In his absence, William Hayes was actually an upgrade because he’s more of a complete player, grading out above average as a pass rusher and a run stopper and finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Hayes isn’t a one year wonder either, grading out above average in 5 of 7 pro seasons, including three straight. Prior to last season, Hayes was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive and 8th ranked 4-3 defensive end on 378 and 354 snaps respectively and in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He should continue to see more snaps in 2015, especially in obvious running situations and base packages, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run last season.

Robert Quinn will be the other starter on the outside of the Rams’ 4-man defensive line. Quinn, a 2011 1st round pick, lived up to his massive potential in 2013. After grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, the 2011 14th overall pick had the best defensive season in the NFL in 2013, aside from maybe JJ Watt. Quinn graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end by a wide margin, thanks in large part to his 19 sacks and 21 hits.

He couldn’t repeat it in 2014, but few can and, after grading out 10th at his position last season, it’s now clear that Quinn is not a one-year wonder. Only going into his age 25 season, Quinn is one of the best defensive players in the NFL and him alongside Aaron Donald is even deadlier. The other good news about Long returning is that Eugene Sims won’t play a prominent role again this season, after grading well out below average in each of his first 5 seasons in the NFL, since the Rams took him in the 6th round in 2010. He’ll be the 4th defensive end at best this season. The Rams go legitimately 3-deep at defensive end, more so than any other team in the league.

The same can basically be said about the Rams’ defensive tackles. I already mentioned Donald’s dominant rookie year. He’ll play alongside a duo of Michael Brockers and free agent signing Nick Fairley. Brockers was a 1st round pick in 2012 and made 16 starts for the Rams last season. He hasn’t developed as a pass rusher the way the Rams would have liked, but the 6-5 322 pounder has graded out above average against the run in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league. That includes a 2014 season where he graded out above average for the first time in his career.

Brockers will continue to start for the Rams in base packages this season, but will cede more snaps to backup Nick Fairley than he did to ex-backup Kendall Langford, who played 494 snaps last season, before signing in Indianapolis this off-season. Fairley will technically replace Langford, but he also represents a large upgrade and someone capable of playing a much bigger role, especially on passing downs.

Fairley has been a frustrating player during his 4 year career. He went 13th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, but it’s still not clear how good of a player he is. It’s clear how good he can be, but he’s been so inconsistent. Fairley only played 236 snaps as a rookie, largely because of injuries, but he still played well and, in 2012, he was even better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle on just 511 snaps. Fairley looked primed for a breakout year in 2013, but weight problems caused him to only grade out slightly above average on 693 snaps. As a result, the Lions didn’t pick up his option for 2015, making 2014 his contract year, and briefly benched him for CJ Mosley last off-season.

That seemed to wake him up as he played very well to start the season, but he missed 8 games with injuries. He still graded out 18th among defensive tackles on just 297 snaps and he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle through 7 weeks before the injury. He’s shown top defensive tackle talent and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s inconsistent, he’s had discipline problems dating back to his collegiate days, and he’s missed 18 games with injuries in 4 years in the league. However, the one-year prove it deal (worth 5 million) the Rams signed him to this off-season has the best chance to get his elite upside out of him because it’ll keep him motivated. He’ll work in rotation with Brockers and can be a dominant player on 500-600 snaps this season. It’s an absolutely loaded defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Rams also have an outside linebacker who can rush the passer off the edge if needed. It probably won’t be needed behind Quinn, Long, and Hayes, but it’s nice to have Akeem Ayers’ versatility. Besides, Ayers, who signed for just 6 million over 2 years this off-season, is a fantastic run stopper in base packages. He’s graded out above average as a run stopper in all 4 seasons of his career, at both 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebacker, including 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run in 2013. In addition to being able to rush the passer decently in sub packages, he can also cover decently in sub packages, but Ayers probably won’t be doing much of that this season either.

James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree will be the two every down linebackers, with Ayers playing situationally, serving as a significant upgrade on JoLonn Dunbar, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible last season on just 432 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. Unfortunately, Laurinaitis and Ogletree weren’t much better as they also graded out below average last season. This is nothing new for them as Ogletree has graded out below average in each of his 2 seasons in the league, since the Rams drafted him in the 1st round in 2013. Laurinaitis, meanwhile, has graded out below average in 3 straight seasons since signing a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension. The Rams’ linebackers are not nearly as good as their defensive linemen.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Another big reason why the Rams had an improved defense last season is because they had an improved secondary, thanks to some breakout years from young players. That includes both of their safeties, TJ McDonald and Rodney McLeod, who both graded out above average last season and started all 16 games each. McDonald and McLeod also complement each other well. The 6-2 219 pound McDonald graded out above against the run, but below average in coverage and played with 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 65.8% of snaps, 7th most in the NFL among safeties. Meanwhile, the 5-11 183 McLeod graded out above average in coverage, but below average against the run, and played just 6.3% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, the lowest percentage in the NFL among safeties.

It’s important to remember that both are still one year wonders. McDonald was Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 as a 3rd round rookie, while missing 6 games with injury. McLeod also struggled in 2013, making all 16 starts, but grading out 75th out of 86 eligible safeties in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career (he played 3 snaps as a rookie). Both players seem to have bright futures, but this is important to remember.

At cornerback, the breakout star was 6th round rookie EJ Gaines, who, despite his draft status, was able to take advantage of some injuries and lead Ram cornerbacks with 964 snaps played, making all 15 starts before missing week 17 with injury. The rookie was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked cornerback and showed the ability to play both outside and inside on the slot. Like McDonald and McLeod, he’s a one-year wonder. That trio might not all match their 2014 season in 2015, but they’re all young so it’s possible one of them is even better next season.

The Rams’ other two cornerbacks, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, are also young, as both come from the 2012 class (2nd and 3rd round respectively), which means both are heading into their contract years right now. Jenkins has made 43 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but has graded out below average in all 3 seasons. However, he’s been better since a rough rookie year and has only graded out slightly below average over the past 2 seasons. Johnson, meanwhile, flashed as a rookie, grading out above average on 366 snaps, but has also graded out slightly below average over the past 2 seasons as he’s started taking on a bigger role. He also missed 7 games with injury to start last season, which is how Gaines was able to get his chance. Both are decent young cornerbacks, but not much else. It’s a solid, but unspectacular secondary.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Rams have been frustrating close to breaking through over the past few years. This could be their breakout year, but it also could be another disappointing year. Nick Foles represents an upgrade on Shaun Hill and Austin Davis, but he doesn’t really have much of any offensive supporting cast. They should be better this season offensively and their defense has a good chance to be strong again, but them being a top-5 unit again largely relies on a bunch of young, unproven players to match or improve upon career best year’s, including Aaron Donald, who played otherworldly last season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Rams after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Jun 142015
 

Quarterback

Colin Kaepernick burst onto the scene in 2012. A 2011 2nd round pick, Kaepernick played well enough in a spot start in relief of an injured Alex Smith that he got Smith, who was leading the NFL in completion percentage at that point, benched and proceeded to start the rest of the season, easily head coach Jim Harbaugh’s most controversial decision in San Francisco, but also his most signature decision. Kaepernick started the final 7 games of the regular season plus three playoff games en route to a Super Bowl loss in which they were a few yards away from winning. Kaepernick finished the 2012 season with a combined 62.1% completion, 8.77 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions between the playoffs and regular season, while rushing for 679 yards and 8 touchdowns on 88 carries (7.72 YPC). Smith was traded to Kansas City for a pair of 2nd rounders and Kaepernick was the undisputed starter going into 2013.

The 2013 season was more of the same. The 49ers didn’t return to the Super Bowl, but made the NFC Championship for the 3rd year in a row, losing a close one in Seattle. Kaepernick completed 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.69 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while rushing for 524 yards and 4 touchdowns on 92 carries (5.70 YPC). Of course, all good things must come to an end and the hype train about Colin Kaepernick being the next big thing came to a crashing halt over the past year or so.

Kaepernick became much more expensive, signing a 6-year, 126 million dollar extension ahead of a 2014 contract year, which inevitably came with more responsibility and greater expectations. The 49ers would not be able to keep all of their talent under the cap long-term with Kaepernick’s contract eating up so much of the cap and, after 3 straight fantastic seasons that failed to yield a Super Bowl ring, the 49ers’ championship window seemed to be getting tighter in a hurry.

A year later, that window seems to be shut. The 49ers went 8-8 in Kaepernick’s first season on the extension. Kaepernick gets a lot of the blame, rightfully so coming off of down season performance wise, but the reality is that Kaepernick was just what he always was, an average to above average quarterback that can win the Super Bowl, but needs help, the kind of guy you have to pay top quarterback money to keep, even though he’s not necessarily a top quarterback. Kaepernick completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.05 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 639 yards and 1 touchdown on 104 carries (6.14 YPC). Those were similar to his career numbers, as he’s completed 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.53 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while rushing for 1576 yards and 10 touchdowns on 261 carries (6.04 YPC) in his career. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th, 18th, and 28th ranked quarterback in 3 seasons as a starter.

The fact that he hasn’t really progressed as a pocket passer, particularly in terms of his accuracy, is concerning and the flaws that dropped him to the 2nd round are still present and probably permanent at this point, as he heads into his 5th year in the league, his age 28 season. But the biggest issue with San Francisco isn’t Kaepernick; it’s that they don’t have the dominant supporting cast around him anymore. And how that supporting cast deteriorated so fast is the particularly fascinating part of this team.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Last season, the problem for the 49ers was injuries as they finished with the 5th most adjusted games lost in the NFL. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story as that doesn’t take into account that Aldon Smith missed 9 games with suspension and that the players they lost to injuries weren’t all just average starters. Smith is their best pass rusher and Patrick Willis (10 games missed) and NaVorro Bowman (16 games missed) were among the best middle linebackers in the NFL.

The 49ers should have fewer injuries this year, but, that being said, that won’t necessarily translate into the win column. The 49ers finished last season 21st in rate of moving the chains differential, even worse than their 8-8 record would have suggested, and it’s hard to argue that the 2015 49ers, when healthy, are more talented than the 2014 49ers were last year, even with all the injuries. The 49ers had an off-season full of losses on both sides of the field and at head coach, as Jim Harbaugh left for the University of Michigan, leaving first time head coach (minus one interim start in 2010) Jim Tomsula in charge.

Say what you want about Jim Harbaugh’s big personality clashing with management and sometimes players, but there’s no denying he’s an amazing offensive mind who injected life into this franchise and that he’ll be sorely missed, especially on the offensive end. Jim Tomsula, while well liked, is strictly a defensive minded coach and the top offensive mind on the staff is Geep Chryst, who has very limited experience as a playcaller. It won’t help Kaepernick’s development that he’ll be learning a new offense for the first time in his career, coming off of the worst season of his career.

Meanwhile, some of those players who suffered injuries last season will not return this year because they’ve retired. Right tackle Anthony Davis is one of them. One of four 49er starters from 2014 to retire this off-season, Davis’ retirement might be the most interesting of them. Davis was limited to 7 games by injury in 2014 and graded out below average, but he graded out 9th in 2012 and 29th in 2013, so he was still a player that could have helped them this season. Even more interesting is Davis, a former 1st round pick, was only going into his age 26 season and was scheduled to make 3.65 million.

Davis says he’s just giving himself a year for his mind and body to recover and he did suffer a serious concussion in 2014. That suggests he could be back in 2016 ready to pick up where he left off under the same contract. I’m inclined to believe that story, but that doesn’t help them in 2015. Davis was smart waiting until after the draft to announce this so the 49ers couldn’t draft his replacement and his job would still be there in 2016, but that really leaves the 49ers in a pickle. That’s what makes Davis’ retirement so interesting.

Jonathan Martin started at right tackle in Davis’ absence last season, but he was awful, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible, which got him waived this off-season, so he isn’t even there anymore. In his absence, it’ll likely be veteran Erik Pears, with 7th round rookie Trent Brown as the backup. That’s not good news because Pears is not a starting caliber player in the NFL anymore. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season and is going into his age 33 season. Borderline unworthy of a 53-man roster, Pears represents a steep downgrade on Davis. He’s one of the worst starters in the NFL.

The 49ers could and should look for alternatives on the open market, as the rookie probably isn’t ready, but Davis coincidentally also waited until after Joseph Barksdale left the open market, leaving the right tackle market very thin. The 49ers could also move either right guard Alex Boone to right tackle or left guard Brandon Thomas to right tackle. However, Boone is a solid right guard so they might not want to mess with something that works, while Thomas has still never played a snap in the NFL. Besides, either of those two moving outside would force either Joe Looney or Marcus Martin to start at guard and both of those two players were horrible last season.

The most likely scenario is that Pears or a free agent starts at right tackle, with Thomas and Boone starting at left guard and right guard respectively. Thomas hasn’t played an NFL snap, going in the 3rd round in 2014 and missing his whole rookie year with a torn ACL, but, if not for the ACL tear, he would have likely been a first round pick. He’ll replace Mike Iupati, who was Pro Football Focus’14th ranked guard in 2014 and who signed a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Cardinals this off-season. Thomas is unproven, but there is upside here with a first round talent. A collegiate offensive tackle, he’s a better fit inside at guard in the NFL.

Boone, meanwhile, is much more experienced. He hasn’t been as good as he was in his first year as a starter, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked guard in 2012, but he’s been solid, grading out 39th in 2013 and 18th in 2014. On top of that, he’s made 46 out of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons combined (one of which was at left tackle), after the 2009 undrafted free agent was able to get over early career alcohol problems that dated back to his time at Ohio State. Another collegiate offensive tackle who is a better fit at guard in the NFL, Boone is the 49ers 2nd best offensive lineman.

At center, it’ll be a battle between Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin. Kilgore should win the job, but Martin, a 2014 3rd round pick, was drafted to be the starter at this point. Kilgore won the starting job over Martin when he was a rookie last year, but he proved to be better than just a stopgap, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked center, despite being limited to 463 snaps in 7 games by injuries. Through week 7, prior to his injury, Kilgore was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked center. Martin took over and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked center out of 41 eligible. From week 8 on, he ranked 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, a steep drop-off from Kilgore. Kilgore, assuming he’s healthy, should be the week 1 starter again. Inexperienced with 7 career starts since going into the 5th round in 2011, Kilgore has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL. His return will help this line.

The only offensive lineman who is locked into a position right now is left tackle Joe Staley, who fortunately remains as one of the best offensive linemen in football. A remainder of their previously dominant seasons, Staley is just one of 4 players on either side of the ball that are starters now that were also starters in 2011 (Vernon Davis, Ahmad Brooks, and NaVorro Bowman are the other 3). A 2007 1st round pick, Staley has started 114 games over the past 8 seasons, grading out above average in every season except 2010. Since 2012, Staley has graded out 1st, 5th, and 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, the only offensive tackle in the league to finish in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, he’s one of the best offensive tackles in the game. He’s the saving grace of a crumbling offensive line.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Not only do the 2015 49ers have just 4 starters in common with the 2011 team, but they actually have 2 starters at wide receiver in common with the 2012 Ravens team that beat them in the Super Bowl, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. I guess if you can’t beat them, sign them. Smith was their big free agent acquisition this off-season and he’ll actually be an upgrade over the departed Michael Crabtree (who graded out 95th out of 110 eligible wide receivers last off-season), but the 49ers did overpay him on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal. The 49ers would have been better off keeping Crabtree on a cheap 1-year deal (he signed with the Raiders for 3 million) and using that money to re-sign Mike Iupati or add at another position.

Torrey Smith has played all 64 games since he’s been in the NFL, starting the last 62 of them, and he’s been decently productive with 213 catches for 3591 yards and 30 touchdowns. Only going into his age 26 season, Smith is a fantastic deep threat, but he’s not particularly good at anything else. He’s still an inconsistent route runner and has caught just 117 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in 4 seasons. He’s also never graded out higher than 37th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in any of his 4 seasons in the league. The 49ers are playing too much money for someone of Smith’s skill set as he’s more of a complementary receiver than a #1 guy.

He’ll be the #1A receiver to Anquan Boldin’s #1B (or vice versa), much like was the case in Baltimore. The problem is that Boldin is now several years older than he was when he played in Baltimore, going into his age 35 season. The 49ers are putting a lot of faith in an aging receiver. He’s been very productive in two seasons in San Francisco, topping 1000+ yards in both seasons and totaling a combined 168 catches for 2241 yards and 12 touchdowns, all at the price of a 6th round pick and 12 million dollars over 2 years (he’ll take home another 6 million this season, in the final year of his current contract). Boldin has had a fantastic career and could be eventually bound for the Hall of Fame, with 12,406 receiving yards currently, 19th all-time.

However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Boldin may have had his last 1000+ yard season ever in 2014 and could easily see his abilities fall off a cliff in his contract year in 2015. That’s not good news, especially with how thin the 49ers are at wide receiver, after losing #3 receiver Steve Johnson this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver on just 305 snaps last season, averaging 2.14 yards per route run, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the wide receiver position.

With Johnson and fellow veteran Brandon Lloyd gone, it’ll be a 3-way battle for the #3 job between Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, and DeAndre Smelter. Patton is a 2013 4th round pick who has played 151 underwhelming career snaps, while Ellington is a 2014 4th round pick, grading out slightly above average on 96 snaps as a rookie. Smelter, a 4th round rookie, is a long-shot at this point. Whoever wins that battle, it’ll be tough to count on them to be as productive as Johnson was last season. Also, if Boldin’s abilities fall off a cliff or either Boldin or Smith suffer an injury, whoever wins that battle will be tough to trust in a larger role.

Without much depth at wide receiver, the 49ers could opt to use a bunch of two-tight end sets this season. However, despite the fact that they’ve put a lot of resources into the tight end position, the 49ers aren’t very good there. The 49ers kept Vernon Davis this off-season, even though he was scheduled to make a non-guaranteed 4.9 million and even though he was coming off of a career worst season, out of desperation at the position.

Not only was Davis’ 2014 26/245/2 slash line his worst production since his rookie year in 2006, but he also struggled as a run blocker, an area he’s generally been very good in. Davis had that minimal production despite 47 targets (55.3% catch rate) and 417 routes run (0.59 yards per route run) and was Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. The 49ers are banking on a bounce back year (he graded out above average in every season from 2010-2014), but, in his age 31 season, Davis might not be able to deliver.

Vance McDonald, a 2013 2nd round pick, is going to be the #2 tight end again. McDonald hasn’t shown anything as a pass catcher in two years in the league, catching 10 passes in 23 games and grading out below average in both seasons as a pass catcher, but the 6-4 267 pounder is a phenomenal run blocker, grading out above average in that aspect in both seasons in the NFL. He only played 218 snaps in 2014, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked run blocking tight end if he were eligible. He should have a bigger role in 2015 in a make or break 3rd season for the youngster. The 49ers would obviously really like him to come around as a pass catcher, but there are no guarantees he ever develops into anything more than a 6th offensive lineman.

The 49ers also use a fullback a fair amount as fullback Bruce Miller played 473 snaps last season, most in the NFL by a fullback. He graded out 3rd at his position, adding 18 catches for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns, and has graded out 10th, 7th, 5th, and 3rd in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, since being drafted in the 5th round in 2011. The problem is he could be facing a suspension after domestic violence, though his spousal abuse charges did get dropped to misdemeanor vandalism. The 49ers also used a 4th round pick on Blake Bell, a collegiate quarterback turned tight end, but he probably won’t have a big role until 2016 at the earliest. It’s a weak and thin receiving corps beyond Smith and Boldin.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Another starter the 49ers lost this off-season was Frank Gore, who signed with the Colts on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. Frank Gore had a fantastic 10-year run with the 49ers, rushing for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns on 2442 carries, playing all but 12 games at one of the most physical positions in the NFL. He added 342 catches for 2883 yards and another 11 scores through the air, while being one of the best pass protecting running backs and one of the best teammates in the NFL. He was everything the 49ers could have asked out of the 2005 3rd round pick, talented, complete, durable, and a great teammate. His rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. He’s definitely bound for the 49ers’ Ring of Honor.

However, all good things must come to an end. Gore is going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He might not have looked it last year, but he’s close to the end. The 49ers were wise to move into the future at the position, rather than signing him to a multi-year deal with 7.5 million guaranteed like the Colts.

In his absence, the 49ers will use a committee at running back, with 2014 2nd round pick Carlos Hyde as the clear lead back. Hyde rushed for 333 yards and a touchdown on 83 carries (4.01 YPC) as a rookie as Gore’s primary backup, grading out above average as a runner, but below average in the passing game, an issue he’s had dating back to his collegiate days at Ohio State (34 career catches in 3 seasons). He’s definitely unproven as an NFL player, but he was drafted with this situation in mind.

To help mask Hyde’s deficiencies as a pass down player, the 49ers signed the veteran Reggie Bush to be the primary passing down back. Bush came cheaper than Gore, 2.5 million over 1 year, but he’s not nearly as good. Bush became a solid starter from 2011-2013 with the Dolphins and Lions, averaging 222 carries for 1026 yards and 5 touchdowns and 44 catches for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns over that time period. Those days appear behind him now though, as he heads into his age 30 season, coming off of a season where he was more of a complementary back behind Joique Bell. Bush rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries (3.91 YPC) in 11 games and caught 40 passes for 253 yards.

Aging and injury prone throughout his career, Bush could be pushed for his role by 4th round rookie Mike Davis or Kendall Hunter, who will also compete to be Hyde’s primary backup. Hunter, a 2011 4th round pick, has rushed for 1202 yards and 7 touchdowns on 262 career carries (4.59 YPC), adding 27 catches for 268 yards. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL though and isn’t built to be a feature back at 5-7 199. Davis is obviously less proven, but built better at 5-9 217 and caught 66 passes in his final 2 seasons at South Carolina combined.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the 49ers had 4 players retire this off-season, 3 of whom were defensive starters last season. On the defensive line, the 49ers lost Justin Smith to retirement, though that should not have been seen as a surprise as he was going into his age 36 season. Still, it’s a big loss because Smith proved last season that he could still play, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 16 starts. Also gone is Ray McDonald, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 14 starts last season, before being released late in the season, following rape allegations.

In their absence, the trio of Tank Carradine, Arik Armstead, and Darnell Dockett will rotate at the position. Carradine and Armstead are both very athletic and have huge upsides, but neither one of them is proven. Carradine was a 2013 2nd round pick and would have been a lock 1st rounder if he hadn’t torn his ACL late in his final collegiate season. Carradine sat out his whole rookie season with that ACL tear and then played just 146 snaps as a deep reserve last season. He’s completely unproven and entering a make or break 3rd season in the league. Armstead, meanwhile, was their first round pick in this past draft and the rookie is incredibly raw. He has athleticism and upside, but his production and tape at the University of Oregon do not suggest someone that should have been a 1st round pick.

Armstead might spend his rookie year behind the veteran Dockett, especially since Armstead is missing valuable off-season practice because of a late graduation. That isn’t good news because Dockett was massively overpaid on a 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Anything more than a minimum deal with incentives for Dockett would have been too much. Dockett is going into his age 34 season after missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL, but that’s not the only problem. He wasn’t that good before the injury either as he was perennially one of the NFL’s most overrated players, particularly struggling mightily against the run. From 2007-2013, he graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons, including 26th out of 28 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2008, 31st out of 39 eligible in 2009, 34th of out 42 eligible in 2010, and dead last among eligible in 2012.

Glenn Dorsey returns from injury, after missing all of 2014 with a torn biceps. Where he plays remains a mystery. Dorsey played at nose tackle in 2013 with the 49ers, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked defensive tackle, including 9th against the run. However, in his absence last season, Ian Williams played very well. He only played 219 snaps in 9 games before going down for the season with an injury, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle last season if he had been eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. It’s a concern that Williams has been limited to 11 games over the last 2 seasons with ankle problems but, Quinton Dial, who was the nose tackle down the stretch in Williams’ absence, also graded out above average last season.

With the 49ers seemingly set at nose tackle without Dorsey and issues at 3-4 defensive end, Dorsey could see the majority of his on the outside, after spending the first 5 seasons of his career as a 3-4 defensive end in Kansas City. However, Dorsey graded out below average as a 3-4 defensive end in every season in Kansas City, except 2012, when he played just 4 games. He’s also missed 28 games with major injuries over the past 3 seasons combined. Without McDonald and Smith, this defensive line doesn’t look nearly as good.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The 49ers also had retirements in their linebacking corps as two players retired at middle linebacker and both of them were surprises. Patrick Willis was the first one to retire, cutting his Hall-of-Fame career short ahead of his age 30 season, after recurring foot problems caused him to miss 10 games the previous season. Willis was a top-3 player on Pro Football Focus in every season from his rookie season in 2007 to 2013 before the injury plagued 2014 season. Even during that injury plagued final season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker through 5 weeks.

That being said, the 49ers were shockingly fine without Willis last season thanks to the emergence of 3rd round rookie Chris Borland. Borland started for Willis down the stretch and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked middle linebacker on just 487 snaps, with no one playing more snaps and grading out higher at the position. From week 6 on, Borland was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked middle linebacker, only behind New England’s Jamie Collins. However, Borland shocked the football world by announcing his retirement this off-season as well, after just one season in the league, citing long-term health concerns.

As shocking as guys like Jake Locker, Patrick Willis, and even Anthony Davis retiring early was, all of those guys had noticeable injury woes and Davis even said he’d be back when he was healthy. Borland didn’t seem to, which would make him comparable to only Jason Worilds, another player who shockingly retired this off-season. The difference is Worilds has already made a lot of money. Borland comparatively didn’t make much and much of what he did make was his rookie signing bonus, a large portion of which he had to pay back when he retired. Borland just wanted to do something else.

As strange as this might sound, the 49ers are still in solid position at linebacker without Willis and Borland, as nice as it would have been to have both of them. NaVorro Bowman returns at middle linebacker, after missing all of last season with multiple ligament tears in his knee. There’s concern about whether or not he’ll return to form, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and he’ll be about 19 months removed from the devastating injury by week 1. Even if he’s less than 100% in his first year back, he’ll still be a huge asset to them. A 2010 3rd round pick, Bowman ranked 1st, 6th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Michael Wilhoite, who started 16 games in Bowman’s absence last season, returns as the starter next to him. He graded out below average, ranking 37th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers, but you could do a lot worse than him and he has the ability to play every down.

At outside linebacker, Aldon Smith has stayed out of trouble and seems poised to play his first 16 game season since 2012, which will also be a big boost to this San Francisco defense. Smith missed 5 games in 2013 while attending rehab and then missed 9 games in 2014 with suspension, but the 49ers have stood by him and believed in him, largely because of his immense talent. Now it looks like they’re going to be rewarded. Smith ranked 2nd and 3rd in 2011 and 2012 respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers, after going 7th overall in 2011. In 2013, he ranked 5th despite missing 5 games and #1 during the time he actually played. In 2014, he ranked 11th from week 11 on, after his return, and 20th overall on the season, despite missing 9 games with suspension. Smith has the potential for a huge 2015 season and he has every incentive to make good on that potential, going into a contract year with a potential 10+ million dollar annual salary on the line. The 49ers used a 3rd round pick on Eli Harold in case anything goes wrong with Smith.

Opposite Smith, it’ll be a battle between Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks. Lynch seems like the heavy favorite in that battle and many expected he’d be an every down player this season, with Dan Skuta leaving as a free agent and Brooks likely getting cut. Skuta is gone, but Brooks still remains, despite a non-guaranteed 7.3 million dollar salary and a declining game. Still, I expect Lynch to once again outplay Brooks and get him cut going into 2016. Lynch, a 2014 5th round pick, flashed on 521 snaps last season in the absence of Aldon Smith, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked 3-4 outside linebacker despite the limited playing time. Meanwhile, Brooks was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker as recently as 2012, but he graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014. Now he’s going into his age 31 season. Simply put, Brooks is a descending player, while Lynch is an ascending player on the outside. Lynch’s potential, along with the full-time returns of both Smith and Bowman keep this a strong position group.

Grade: A-

Secondary

At cornerback, the 49ers lost both starters this off-season, as Chris Culliver (14 starts) signed with the Redskins and Perrish Cox (15 starts) signed with the Titans. They both graded out above average and ranked 15th and 35th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, so it’s hardly a small loss. The good news is that Tramaine Brock, a starter in 2013, returns after missing 13 games with various injuries last season. Brock was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback on 678 snaps in 16 games (7 starts) in 2013, causing the 49ers to lock him up long-term on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal, which had the potential to be a long-term steal if Brock could stay healthy. Now he returns and, while he’s still a one year wonder, as the 2010 undrafted free agent had played 145 career snaps from 2010-2012 prior to his 2013 breakout year, his return should still help them deal with the loss of Cox and Culliver.

He’s really the only one who will help them deal with the loss of Cox and Culliver. Shareece Wright, who they signed from San Diego to be the other starter, has been atrocious as a starter over the past 2 seasons. Wright was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and barely played in his first 2 seasons in the NFL, playing a combined 124 snaps in 2011-2012, but he’s been a starter over the last 2 seasons. In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. Going into 2014, the Chargers brought in Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft and Brandon Flowers through free agency to send Wright to a #3 cornerback role, but an injury to Verrett forced Wright to play 853 snaps and make 14 starts. He once again struggled, grading out 105th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. I’m shocked he’s getting a 3rd chance to be a starter.

Jimmie Ward will once again play in as the 3rd cornerback, primarily on the slot. He started there week 1 last year, but the 2014 1st round pick had a rough rookie year overall, being limited to 270 snaps in 8 games by injuries, going down for the season week 10, and struggling mightily on the occasions where he did play. His foot problems are reportedly lingering into the off-season. The 49ers don’t seem worried about him missing any time to start the season, but he’s missing valuable practice time. If Ward or Brock misses any time again or Wright needs to be benched, Dontae Johnson is the 4th cornerback and the backup at all 3 spots. He was forced into action as a 4th round rookie in 2014, grading out only slightly below average on 512 snaps. He could be an upgrade over Wright, but Wright’s 3 million dollar salary suggests the 49ers want him to be the guy.

Things are fortunately better at safety. Eric Reid, their 2013 1st round pick, will start at one spot. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety in 2013 as a rookie and, though he took a step back as a sophomore, grading out slightly below average, he’s still a solid starter with upside going into his 3rd year in the league. He’ll once again play opposite Antoine Bethea, who was a bright spot for the 49ers in 2014.

The veteran looked like he was on the decline last off-season, grading out below average in both 2012 and 2013, after grading out above average from 2007-2011. Bethea proved he still had something left in the tank though last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety. His age is a concern as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should be dependable again and he hasn’t missed a start in 7 years, since 2007. The 49ers weirdly used a 2nd round pick on Jaquiski Tartt to be Bethea’s long-term successor when they had other pressing needs. Dumb moves like that are part of the reason why this team has quickly gone from one of the league’s best to one of the league’s worst.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The 49ers’ season in 2014 was ruined by injuries, as they had the 5th most injuries in the league, including 22 games lost by the best inside linebacker duo in the country, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, not including 9 games lost to suspension by one of the best edge rushers in the game, Aldon Smith. They should have better health in 2014, but they won’t be a better team. Bowman is back, but Willis retired, along with Justin Smith, Anthony Davis and Chris Borland, who was in line to be Willis’ long-term replacement.

On top of that, the 49ers lost Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Ray McDonald, Perrish Cox, and Chris Culliver this off-season. Their efforts to replace all of their lost players in free agency did not go well as the 49ers were only able to overpay Shareece Wright, Torrey Smith, Reggie Bush, and Darnell Dockett. Their draft didn’t go much better as the 49ers used their 1st round pick on a player who isn’t ready and their 2nd round pick on a clear backup that won’t be able to get onto the field as a rookie. The 49ers are unlikely to get much impact out of their rookie class as a result.

One of their biggest losses was head coach Jim Harbaugh, who dragged this team out of irrelevance over his first 3 seasons with the team from 2011-2013 before injuries hit in 2014 and who only was allowed to leave to go to the University of Michigan because he was clashing with management. Also gone are talented coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, leaving ex-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula as the head man. Tomsula is reportedly loved by his players, but his head coaching experience consists of one interim start in 2010 and his top offensive mind is Geep Chryst, who hasn’t called plays since 2000. That won’t help Colin Kaepernick, who is coming off of a down year and doesn’t have anywhere near the supporting cast he once had. This team was even worse than their 8-8 record last season and should be even worse this year. In a tough NFC West, the 49ers could easily come in last. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the 49ers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Jun 122015
 

Quarterbacks

The Browns have infamously had 22 different starting quarterbacks since they returned to the league in 1999, most in the NFL over that time period. Over that time period, Brown quarterbacks have combined to complete just 57.2% of their passes for an average of 6.35 YPA, 275 touchdowns, and 301 interceptions. As you can imagine, that hasn’t translated to a lot of winning as the Browns have gone 84-172 over that stretch, making the playoffs just once and losing in the first round.

The Browns have tried to find a franchise changer at quarterback many times, using a 1st round pick on a quarterback four times in that 15 year stretch. However, those 4 picks have yielded them Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, and, most recently Johnny Manziel, a 2014 1st round pick who is unlikely to be the week 1 starter in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. That week 1 starter is likely to be Josh McCown, who would be the 23rd quarterback in new Browns franchise history.

McCown will make a guaranteed 5.25 million this season, after signing a 3-year, 14 million dollar deal with the Browns this off-season. That’s a ridiculous amount considering that McCown is going into his age 36 season and coming off of a horrendous season in Tampa Bay, completing just 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible and went 1-10 in his 11 starts.

The previous off-season, he got a 4.75 million dollar first year salary as a free agent, signing in Tampa Bay on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal. That was when he was a year younger and coming off of a 2013 season in which he randomly played brilliant in the absence of an injured Jay Cutler, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. However, last season proved that 2013 season was a flash in the pan. 2013 is his only season of a 70+ QB rating since 2006. Going into his age 36 season, he might be the worst week 1 starting quarterback in the NFL.

The Browns would definitely like Johnny Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in 2014, to be able to beat McCown out, but that doesn’t seem likely after he had about as bad of a rookie year as you can have. Manziel had to wait until week 15 to make his first NFL start, despite the fact that Brian Hoyer was struggling, finishing with 55.3% completion, 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and grading as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. There were reports that Manziel wasn’t learning the playbook quickly, wasn’t displaying maturity on or off the field, and generally didn’t seem ready for the NFL.

Once Manziel got onto the field, he was a disaster, completing 51.4% of his passes for an average of 5.00 YPA, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. After the season ended, even more reports came out detailing just how bad it was behind the scenes with Manziel last season. Manziel also spent a 3 month period of time in rehab for drug and alcohol related issues. The Browns were linked to both Marcus Mariota and Sam Bradford on draft day, armed with two 1st round picks. Manziel is back at practice now and the Browns didn’t draft a single quarterback, but the Browns have reportedly borderline moved on from him and see McCown as the clear starter ahead of him, especially since Manziel’s play in off-season practices hasn’t been good either.

Even before you take McCown’s advanced age into account, he’s a downgrade from Brian Hoyer, the Browns’ quarterback last year and now a competitor for the starting job in Houston. McCown played even worse last season than Hoyer did. McCown ranked slightly farther from the bottom on Pro Football Focus’ quarterback rankings than Hoyer, as McCown ranked 34th out of 39 eligible and Hoyer ranked 35th, but McCown also did that on about 300 fewer snaps. McCown was also worse in pure passing grade, 36th to Hoyer’s 32nd. McCown QB rating was significantly lower (76.7 vs. 70.5) and Tampa Bay’s offense moved the chains at a 63.46% rate when McCown started, while the Browns’ moved at a 69.36% rate when Hoyer started. This might be the worst quarterback situation in the NFL.

Grade: F

Receiving Corps

Hoyer was more productive with the Browns’ offensive supporting cast last season than McCown was with the Buccaneers’ offensive supporting cast. That was despite the fact that McCown was throwing to Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, who persevered through terrible quarterback play to be one of four wide receiver duos to each go over 1000+ receiving yards. The Browns don’t have anything like that. They added a few veterans to the receiving corps this off-season, but no one game changing. They also didn’t add a pass catcher in the draft until the 4th round, even though it was arguably their biggest need, and they saw tight end Jordan Cameron sign with the Dolphins.

The Browns go into 2015 with Dwayne Bowe as their #1 receiver, which might have been fine in 2012, but not so much now, especially as he goes into his age 31 season. From 2007-2012, Dwayne Bowe caught 415 passes for 5728 yards and 39 touchdowns in 88 games in his career, despite playing with the likes of Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, and Brady Quinn at quarterback. That earned him a 5-year, 56 million dollar deal, but it’s been all downhill for Bowe over the past 2 seasons since signing that deal. Despite playing with Alex Smith over the past two seasons, who has been easily the best quarterback he’s had in his career, but Bowe has put up 57/673/5 and 60/754/0 slash lines in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

The Browns are really banking on his reduced production over the past two seasons being the result of Alex Smith’s love of throwing over the middle and fear of throwing to outside receivers, but it’s also very possible that Smith’s inability to complete passes outside the numbers over the past 2 seasons had to do with his lack of talent in that area, notably Bowe. Besides, it’s not like McCown is a better outside thrower. He might throw there with more volume, but he’s certainly a downgrade. Bowe has graded out below average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons and his best days are behind him. The Browns are in trouble with him as their #1 receiver and drastically overpaid him on a 2-year, 12.5 million dollar deal with 9 million guaranteed.

Opposite him, the Browns brought in a younger player to be the likely other starter, but he has a similar skill set to Bowe. That player is Brian Hartline. Hartline was one of the worst wide receivers in the NFL in 2014, which led to his release from the Dolphins, a move that saved Miami 5.95 million in cash and 3.15 million on the cap. Hartline played all 16 games in 2014, but caught just 39 passes for 474 yards and 2 touchdowns on 62 attempts (62.9%) and 490 routes run, an average of 0.99 yards per route run. He was also Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. However, he graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, putting up 1000+ yard seasons in both of those years. Only going into his age 29 season, Hartline has a good chance to bounce back in 2015. He’s not that athletic, but he’s big, sure handed, and a good route runner.

Andrew Hawkins will likely be the slot receiver. Even though he’s 5-7 175, I think he’s more than just a slot receiver and he should push the underwhelming duo of Bowe and Hartline for outside snaps. He ran 42.4% of his routes not on the slot last season. On 234 snaps on the slot, he had 394 yards, an average of 1.68 yards per route run. Meanwhile, on snaps where he was not on the slot, he had 431 yards on 172 routes run, an average of 2.51 yards per route run. Those figures are both very solid considering the quarterback play. Buried on the depth chart in Cincinnati to start his career, Hawkins finally got a shot in 2014 and led Cleveland wide receivers in snaps played, 667 snaps overall, and receiving yardage last season, 825 yards, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in the process. More versatile than he’s given credit for, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Browns if he led them in routes run again in 2015.

Taylor Gabriel will then slot into the #4 receiver job, where he’ll provide very strong depth. Gabriel, a 2014 undrafted free agent, flashed in limited action as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked wide receiver on 629 snaps (2nd among Brown wide receivers), catching 38 passes on 71 targets (53.5%) for 633 yards and a touchdown on 334 routes run, an average of 1.90 yards per route run, mostly in the absence of Josh Gordon to start the season. Capable of playing both inside and outside, Gabriel will backup all 3 spots and could push for snaps on the outside at the absence of either Bowe or Hartline. The Browns have a quartet of decent wide receivers, but no one to really fear. Rookie 4th round pick Vince Mayle is unlikely to have much of an impact as a rookie.

Former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron was 2nd on the team in receiving yards in 2013, behind Josh Gordon’s league leading 1646 yards. Cameron caught 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, but saw those numbers go down to 24 catches for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Browns passed less, he missed 6 games with injury, and his receiving abilities generally slipped. Still, his loss hurts the team because Jim Dray, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible in 2014 on 612 snaps as Jordan Cameron’s replacement while he was injured, will now compete with free agent acquisition Rob Housler for the starting tight end job.

Rob Housler came into the NFL with a lot of promise, drafted in the 3rd round in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cardinals after running a 4.55 40 at 6-5 248. However, he never lived up to that potential, grading out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL and averaging 418 snaps played per season, including just 327 snaps in his contract year in 2014. He never developed as a blocker and caught just 105 passes in 55 career games. He’s expected to be the starting tight end in Cleveland with Cameron’s departure, with Dray focusing on being a blocker. It’s a position of weakness in an overall underwhelming receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

With a weak passing game once again, expect the Browns to try to be as run heavy as possible, which was the case last season as well. They finished last season with 477 carries, 6th in the NFL, as opposed to 502 pass attempts, 26th in the NFL. With a strong defense supporting them again, the Browns should be able to achieve a similar mix in 2015. The Browns signed Ben Tate to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal to be their lead back last off-season, after he spent a successful 4-year tenure in Houston as Arian Foster’s backup. However, Tate ended up getting hurt, averaging 3.14 yards per carry on 106 carries, and getting cut midway through the season, not even finishing his first season in Cleveland.

Instead, it was a pair of rookies, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, who carried the load for the Browns. West was the higher draft pick, going in the 3rd round, but the undrafted Crowell had the better rookie year statistically. Crowell had a tumultuous collegiate career that saw him get kicked off the Georgia team and end up at Alabama State, but he was, at one point, a 5-star recruit and he rushed for 607 yards and 8 touchdowns on 148 carries as a rookie, an average of 4.10 yards per carry. West, meanwhile, rushed for 673 yards and 4 touchdowns on 171 carries, an average of 3.94 yards per carry. As long as he stays out of trouble, Crowell should be the lead back in Cleveland, with West working as the backup.

The Browns also used a 3rd round pick on Duke Johnson, a smaller scatback at 5-9 207 who can provide a change of pace from Crowell (5-11 225) and Terrance West (5-10 225). He’s also a much better pass catcher than either of them as Crowell and West caught just 9 and 11 passes respectively as rookies, while Johnson caught 38 passes in his final season at the University of Miami. There’s going to be opportunity for all three running backs, though I should point out that both West and Crowell graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season and both looked better than they were as a result of a strong offensive line that finished 11th in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season. Even still, the Browns averaged just 3.62 yards per carry last season, 28th in the NFL. They run better than they pass, but neither is a very good option for this team in terms of trying to move the chains.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As a mentioned, the Browns have a strong offensive line. Not only did they finish 11th in run blocking grade, but they also finished 2nd in pass blocking grade. The Browns have an extreme lack of offensive skill position players, but they do have an offensive line that makes things close to as easy as can be for them. Given that, it was perplexing why the Browns used the 19th overall pick on offensive lineman Cameron Erving. Erving is a talented player, but the pick doesn’t make any sense.

Erving played all over the line at Florida State, but didn’t really see his draft stock move into the 1st round until he moved to center as a senior. In Cleveland, the center position is taken by Alex Mack, who, despite the fact that he broke his leg last season, is still one of the top centers in the NFL. Mack has the ability to opt out of his contract after this season, which he very well could do, so Erving makes sense long-term there if the Browns have already resigned themselves to the fact that they’re going to lose him, but he’s not a short-term option there.

Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is probably the weak point on this offensive line, but the 2012 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been at the league, making 41 starts at right tackle. He ranked 33rd among offensive tackles last season. A better player inside than outside, Erving would not be an immediate upgrade at right tackle, though he could be a long-term option there if the Browns don’t have interest in re-signing Schwartz to an extension, ahead of a 2015 contract year.

It looks a lot like the Browns drafted Erving for the future, which isn’t the worst idea, but it also means the Browns, as much cap space as they have, don’t think they’re going to be able to keep this offensive line together long-term. It would have made more sense to take someone who could make an immediate impact at wide receiver and then dealt with the offensive line in next year’s draft or in a later round just in case one of Mack or Schwartz leaves. In the short-term, Erving is expected to battle John Greco for the starting right guard spot.

Unless the Browns are desperately to get the rookie onto the field, Erving is unlikely to beat out Greco and I think the Browns would be making a mistake forcing Erving onto the field over Greco, as Greco graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard last season. A reserve early in his career, Greco has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of his 7 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3 seasons as a starter. Making 40 starts over the past 3 seasons, 20 at left guard, 15 at right guard, and 1 at center, Greco has graded out 19th, 30th, and then 11th respectively in each of the last 3 seasons respectively. He and Schwartz form a solid right side of the offensive line and the Browns shouldn’t mess with that.

At center, Mack returns after missing 11 games last season. The 2009 1st round pick had made 85 straight starts at center to begin his career before going down with that broken leg last season, so he should be able to bounce back. Mack graded out in the top-11 among centers in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, one of two centers to grade out that well in every season from that time period (2009-2013), with the other being Houston’s Chris Myers. Through the first 5 weeks of the season last year, Mack was 4th among centers before the injury. He should be able to pick up right where he left off in 2015.

It’s worth noting that the Browns moved the chains at a 76.83% rate in games that Mack started, as opposed to 62.34% in their other games. It’s unfair to give Mack all that credit and suggest that Mack was the missing piece to a strong offense. The Browns also didn’t have terrible offensive injury luck in general last season (ranking 16th in offensive adjusted games lost) so I don’t think it’s quite accurate to suggest that the Browns are going to have significantly better offensive health in 2015 and that alone will get their offense out of the cellar, but Mack’s return is definitely welcome.

Part of that is just how bad their center play was in his absence. Paul McQuistan and Ryan Seymour were horrific in limited action, while Nick McDonald, who made 7 starts at center, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked center out of 41 eligible despite playing just 481 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position. In that sense, the addition of Erving could be valuable. As long as they don’t force him into the starting lineup over an established starter, Erving can provide value as a utility 6th offensive line capable of playing anywhere if injuries strike. He doesn’t provide as much value in that role as someone like wide receiver Breshad Perriman would have as an upgrade outside over Brian Hartline, but still.

Things are very good on the left side as well with Joel Bitinio at left guard and Joe Thomas at left tackle. Bitinio had a fantastic rookie year as a 2014 2nd round pick, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard. He’s obviously still a one year wonder as he’s only played one year in the league and the 2nd rounder doesn’t have a great, high ceiling or anything, but he should once again have a strong year at left guard.

Meanwhile, at left tackle, Joe Thomas is one of the best players in the league.  Since being drafted 3rd overall in 2007, Thomas has made 128 of 128 starts and graded out as a top-10 offensive tackle in all 8 seasons, including 4th overall in 2014. With 5 All-Pros and 8 Pro-Bowls, Thomas’ career is on a Hall of Fame track. It’s just too bad he’s had to spend that career in an offense habitually without talented skill position players. Only going into his age 31 season, another dominant year should be on its way. It’s one of the best offensive lines in football on one of the worst offenses in football. One final thing that should be noted is that the Browns lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who always has done good work with running games and offensive lines like his father, and replaced him with first time play caller John DeFilippo, which doesn’t help this offense.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

As bad as the Browns’ offense was last season, they still did manage to finish with 7 wins, which isn’t horrible. That was as a result of a defense that ranked 11th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Their defense was able to prevent opponents from consistently moving the chains on them, which allowed them to run the more conservative offense they wanted to, despite the fact that their run defense was pretty bad. They allowed 4.53 yards per carry, 28th in the NFL.

A big part of the problem was Athyba Rubin, a veteran who struggled mightily at nose tackle, grading out 74th among 81 eligible defensive tackles. He left as a free agent and was replaced by Danny Shelton, the 12th overall pick in the draft. Shelton has drawn comparisons to Dontari Poe, a player who was drafted in relatively the same spot in 2012 who has become an every down player in a traditional nose tackle’s body. However, while Shelton could become an every down player long-term, he’ll see the majority of his snaps as a rookie in base packages and a two-down run clogger.

The Browns are also getting defensive linemen John Hughes and Phil Taylor back from injury, after they each missed 11 games last season. Hughes was given a 4-year, 14.4 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year, which suggests the Browns still see him as a big part of their future defensive line. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013 on just 402 snaps and was poised for a bigger role in 2014, before being limited to 212 snaps in 5 games thanks to injuries. He still played well in 2014 when on the field and, without much of a serious injury history, Hughes should have a fairly significantly role this season, particularly as a run stopper in base packages.

Taylor’s role is less clear. A 2011 1st round pick, Taylor has largely been a bust thus far in his career and there’s talk that, even though they don’t need the cap space, the Browns could cut him to save 5.477 million in cash and cap space. After playing just 133 snaps in 5 games last season, he has now missed 20 games in 4 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the first round in 2011 and only graded out above average once, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked defensive tackle in 2013. He can play both defensive end and defensive tackle, but if he’s unable to carve out a role on a deep defensive line, very much a possibility, he could be shown the door in final cuts, if not sooner.

Speaking of this deep defensive line, Desmond Bryant will return as a starter at one spot and could lead the defensive line in snaps played for the 2nd straight year. Bryant signed a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle in 2012, but he hasn’t lived up to it, grading out below average in both seasons in Cleveland. He graded out 31st out of 45 eligible in 2013 and 37th out of 47 eligible in 2014. He’s a well-rounded player with a solid history of success earlier in his career in Oakland, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd year with the Browns. He could be cut next off-season if he doesn’t turn it around. Even if he does lead the Browns in snaps played on the defensive line again, he probably won’t see 749 snaps again because of the depth the Browns added this off-season and the guys the Browns have returning from injury.

Another player who should see a smaller role in 2015 is Billy Winn, who finished 2nd on the Browns’ defensive line in snaps played with 511 last season, largely playing in the absence of Hughes. With Hughes healthy now, Winn will be a pure reserve, which is a good thing because he’s graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, including 39th out of 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends last season.

While Shelton was an addition through the draft (replacing Rubin) and Hughes and Taylor are additions in terms of returning from injury (assuming Taylor makes the final roster), the veteran Randy Starks was an addition through free agency, signing with the Browns on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal after the Dolphins cut him to save 5 million in cash and cap space. He graded out below average on 544 snaps last season, the first time he had graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ history, since 2007. Starks could bounce back in 2015, but, going into his age 32 season, it’s more likely that his best days are behind him. He’s solid depth though.

The Browns also added Xavier Cooper in the 3rd round of the draft, but he’ll probably have to wait for 2016 to get any sort of real playing time. With Danny Shelton, Phil Taylor, John Hughes, Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn, Randy Starks, and Cooper, the Browns have plenty of depth, but no real game changers on the defensive line. Still, it should be a better group than last year’s, which relied heavily on Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn, and Ahtyba Rubin, all of whom struggled mightily.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The linebacking corps and the secondary was where the real strength of the Browns’ defense was last season. Paul Kruger led the way with 12 sacks last season and returns to an every down role. Kruger has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including the last 3 as starters, ranking 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012, 20th in 2013, and 14th in 2014. The Browns signed him to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, a risky deal because he had only been a starter for one year, but the Browns’ risk has paid off.

Jabaal Sheard was the starter opposite Kruger last season, but he left as a free agent, signing with the Patriots on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal. He might have taken a significant discount to play for a contender in New England, but I’m still surprised that the Browns, armed with a bunch of cap space, weren’t able to keep a valuable contributor. Barkevious Mingo, who played 681 snaps as the 3rd 3-4 outside linebacker last season, will be the starter in his absence. The 2013 6th overall pick struggled on 668 snaps as a rookie, grading out 38th out of 42 eligible, but graded out 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers last season and could have a breakout 3rd year in the league in his first season as an every down player in 2015. 2nd round rookie Nate Orchard, meanwhile, will be the primary reserve.

At middle linebacker, Karlos Dansby will once again be an every down player, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker last season, after being signed to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. He’s graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, in the top-12 among middle linebackers in 5 straight seasons, and above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. The issue is he’s going into his age 34 season and he won’t be able to play like this forever. His abilities could fall off the cliff at any point, including this season.

At the other middle linebacker spot, it’ll be a competition between Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson for playing time. Robertson, a 2011 undrafted free agent, struggled mightily in 2012 and 2013, after not playing a snap as a rookie. In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible, prompting the Browns to draft Kirksey in the 3rd round in 2014. Robertson turned it around in 2014 though, grading out above average for the first time in his career, ranking 18th among middle linebackers on 674 snaps. Kirksey, meanwhile, graded out below average on 693 snaps. Kirksey might have to wait until Robertson, a free agent next off-season, leaves Cleveland before he can become an every down player. In 2015, I expect the Browns to once again use Robertson in base packages and Kirksey in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Browns lost Buster Skrine in free agency and he was a 16-game starter at cornerback for them last season. However, he won’t really be missed as the Jets massively overpaid him on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season. Skrine was just a 5th round pick of the Browns’ in 2011, but he made 37 starts in 4 seasons with the Browns and started 31 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons. The problem is he’s not very good, grading out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst year coming in 2013, when he graded out 105th out of 110 eligible, leading the position in both missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. Last season, he graded out 82nd out of 110 eligible thanks, in large part, to a whopping 17 penalties. The Browns drafted Justin Gilbert in the first round in 2014 to be an upgrade over him and Skrine only remained a starter last year because Gilbert was a slow learner as a rookie.

The Browns replaced Buster Skrine by signing Tramon Williams to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal, a better deal than the one the Jets gave to Skrine. Williams is going into his age 32 season, but he should still be a solid starter next season. He’s not the player he was in 2009, when he graded out 9th, or 2010, when he graded out 8th, but he’s graded out above average in 6 straight seasons and made 95 of 96 starts over that time period.

Of course, the signing of Williams signals the Browns still are not confident in Justin Gilbert, the 8th overall pick in 2014. Gilbert will now compete with 2014 undrafted free agent K’Wuan Williams for the #3 cornerback job and Gilbert might not win it. Even though Gilbert went 8th overall and Williams didn’t get drafted, Williams had easily the better rookie year. While Gilbert graded out below average on just 373 snaps before getting suspended for the final game of the season for a violation of team rules, Williams graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback on 351 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better, as Williams allowed just 4.91 yards per attempt into his coverage last season. Gilbert still has more long-term upside than Williams, but Williams played so well on the slot last year that they might just keep him there. That would put Gilbert in as the 4th cornerback, waiting for an injury.

Joe Haden remains the #1 cornerback and will start opposite Williams. The Browns signed him to a 5-year, 68 million dollar deal last off-season, making him the highest paid player on the team. Haden didn’t quite live up to that last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked cornerback, but he’s still a very valuable member of this secondary. Since being drafted 7th overall in 2010, Haden has graded out 6th, 10th, 20th, 17th, and 28th in all 5 seasons of his career respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Things are strong at safety as well. Tashaun Gipson is coming off of a breakout year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety. He’s still a one year wonder though as the 2012 undrafted free agent graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, including 69th out of 86 eligible in 2013 in his first year as a starter. He’ll need to prove it again. He’s going into a contract year, but the Browns don’t seem too eager to give him a long-term deal. They’ll have the franchise tag available next off-season and they don’t want to commit too much guaranteed money to a one-year wonder, especially one who missed the final 5 games of the season with a knee injury, which the Browns apparently still have concerns about.

Opposite him, the Browns have a veteran who is also coming off of a strong season, as Donte Whitner graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety. Whitner, a 2006 1st round pick, was just an average player in 5 years in Buffalo to start his career, but was a much more dominant player on his 2nd contract in San Francisco from 2011-2013 and then continued that into his 3rd contract in 2014 with the Browns, after signing on a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal last off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety in 2011, 7th ranked in 2013, and then 11th in 2014 (with a below average season in 2012 in between). He’s going into his age 30 season, but he should have another strong year.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Browns are frustrating. As you can see, they do have a good deal of talent, especially in the secondary and on the offensive line. However, their lack of offensive skill position talent, particularly at the quarterback position, will keep them out of the playoffs and in the cellar of the AFC North. With even an average quarterback, they have a good shot to make the playoffs as their supporting cast is better than San Diego’s, Pittsburgh’s, Kansas City’s, among others, but Josh McCown is a veteran journeyman at the end of his run and Johnny Manziel doesn’t seem like he’s going to beat him out any time soon. The Browns won 7 games last year with a similar team. This year, they might be more talented, but they might not win as many games. Their schedule gets much tougher, after they had the 8th easiest schedule in the league in 2014, and they weren’t quite as good as their record suggested last season, finishing 26th in rate of moving the chains differential. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Browns after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North