Steven Lourie

Jul 272014
 

Quarterback

The Panthers had a breakout year last year, finally getting over their issues in close games (2-12 in the first two years of the Cam Newton era, 5-2 last season) and overall improving in terms of talent and level of play. They finished 12-4, winning the NFC South and getting the NFC’s #2 seed and a first round bye, before losing their first playoff game at home in a hard fought battle against the San Francisco 49ers. They finished 4th in rate of moving the chains differential at 7.51%. They were the only team in the league to finish in the top-6 in rate of moving the chains and rate of moving the chains allowed, moving the chains at a 75.00% rate (6th) and allowing opponents to move the chains at a 67.49% rate (5th).

However, no team suffered more off-season losses than the Panthers this off-season. They lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs from that dominant defense, a combined 3200 snaps played. They lost all of their wide receivers who played a single snap last season, with the exception of Marvin McNutt, who played 4 snaps last season. They lost their top blocking tight end, Ben Hartsock. They also lost their best two offensive linemen, Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton. And they didn’t really have the ability to replace any of them this off-season because of cap reasons.

To make things worse, Cam Newton is coming off of serious off-season ankle surgery. It’s a minor issue in terms of his ability to be 100% this season, but it’s a major issue because of how much offensive turnover there has been this off-season. Missing practice time with a new offensive line and receiving corps could really hurt him and this offense. He’s back now for training camp, but he missed OTAs and minicamp.

In 3 years in the league, Newton has completed 59.8% for an average of 7.66 YPA, 64 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions, while rushing for 2032 yards and 28 touchdowns on 364 attempts, an average of 5.58 YPC. He’s gotten slightly better in quarterback rating in each of the three seasons he’s been in the league and he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th, 11th, and 15th ranked quarterback in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. The Panthers picked up his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. He could easily have his worst statistical year this season though, as result of the lack of talent around him and the lack of chemistry he’ll have with them.

The Panthers are also in serious trouble if Newton has to miss regular season time. It’s unlikely, even after his ankle surgery, because he hasn’t missed a game in 3 years in the league. However, if he went down, they’d be stuck with backup quarterback Derek Anderson under center. Anderson has thrown 4 passes in 3 seasons as Newton’s backup since getting run out of Arizona. In his career, he’s completed 52.8% of his passes for an average of 6.39 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 55 interceptions. Again, it’s unlikely he sees action, but it’s worth mentioning who Newton’s backup is considering Newton had serious off-season surgery.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The single biggest loss the Panthers suffered this off-season was left tackle Jordan Gross, who retired this off-season. Gross would have been going into his age 34 season this year, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle last season and he’ll be seriously missed. Also retired is left guard Travelle Wharton, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard last season. He would have been going into his age 33 season, but, like Gross, he’ll be seriously missed.

The good news is that Ryan Kalil is still here. He’s easily their best offensive lineman remaining. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked center last season, in his first year back after being limited to 292 snaps in 5 games with a foot injury in 2012. Prior to the injury, he was one of the best centers in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked center in 2009, 7th ranked in 2010, and 7th ranked in 2011. Now that he’s healthy again, he’s gone back to being one of the best centers in the league.

The rest of the offensive line is a mess though. Nate Chandler is expected to be the blindside protector. The Panthers really like the 2012 undrafted free agent’s upside, but I don’t really understand that. There’s no evidence to suggest that he can be even close to a solid left tackle. He was a collegiate defensive tackle and played defensive tackle as a rookie in 2012, struggling on 131 snaps, before being converted to the offensive line in 2013. He looked like a converted undrafted defensive lineman, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 501 snaps. This will be his 2nd season as an offensive lineman, so he’ll be more familiar with it, but I don’t see him finding an easier time at left tackle.

Right tackle Byron Bell isn’t much better. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season in his 3rd year in the league, after going undrafted in 2011. Sadly, that was the best year of his career, as he graded out 61st out of 80 eligible in 2012 and 69th out of 76 eligible in 2013. I don’t envision him turning into even an average starter in his 4th year in the league and he could easily regress back to 2011-2012 form and be even worse than he was last season.

Amini Silatolu returns from injury at left guard. Silatolu was a 2012 2nd round pick so he has talent and he looked good on 171 snaps in 3 games last season, but he tore his ACL week 3 and missed the rest of the season, which is how Wharton came into the lineup and stabilized their offensive line. Now Silatolu coming off of a serious injury and the only full season he has as a starter on his resume is 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. He’s fully expected to get his starting job back with Wharton gone and he has some upside, but he could easily struggle again.

The right guard position is a three-way battle. Chris Scott was the week 1 starter there last season, but ended being so bad that he was benched for converted defensive lineman Nate Chandler after 8 starts. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 506 snaps. Garry Williams made 7 starts at the position in 2012 and 2 starts at right tackle, but graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in terms of composite grade. It was only slightly below average, but he also graded out 52nd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 2010, the other season in his career in which he saw significant action, making 11 starts at right tackle. Last season, he was limited to 15 snaps. The Panthers might just have to start 3rd round rookie Trai Turner week 1, which wouldn’t be ideal. Cam Newton is going to spend a lot of time under pressure this season thanks to one of the worst offensive lines in the league in front of him.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

As I mentioned, the Panthers lost every single wide receiver who played a snap for them last season except Marvin McNutt, who played 4 snaps. The Panthers’ wide receivers weren’t great last season (Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn, Domenik Hixon), but they had to re-tool the wide receiver position this off-season from scratch with little to no cap space to work with. As a result, they bargain shopped for veterans Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery and drafted Kelvin Benjamin in the first round, 28th overall.

Avant was cut by the Eagles this off-season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season in pass catching grade, catching 38 passes on 71 attempts (53.5%) for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns on 462 routes run, an average of 0.97 yards per route run. Avant is a feisty run blocker in the slot, grading out above average as a run blocker in each of the past 6 seasons, but he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in 5 of those 6 seasons and now he’s going into his age 31 season. He’ll just be a slot receiver and a mediocre one at that.

Cotchery is expected to be one of the starting outside receivers. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he’s better than Avant. Cotchery was a very good wide receiver with the Jets from 2007-2009, grading out above average in all 3 seasons, catching a combined 210 passes for 2809 yards and 10 touchdowns, and maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver overall in 2009. However, he struggled mightily in 2010, grading out below average, including 101st out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade.

He ended up in Pittsburgh, where he played just a combined 553 snaps in 2011-2012. However, in 2013, he got a bigger role and caught 46 passes on 74 attempts (62.2%) for 607 yards and 10 touchdowns on 440 routes run, an average of 1.38 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th wide receiver, though he was only about average as a pass catcher. Most of his strong grade was as a result of him being Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked run blocking wide receiver. Like Avant, he’s consistently graded out as a strong run blocker, but he’s an average pass catcher at best and probably below average as he ages.

As a result, Kelvin Benjamin could be forced into the #1 wide receiver role. Benjamin certainly has talent, but he’s very raw, as he only played two seasons of college football and only had one season where he had meaningful production. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle anyway, even first round talents.  Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

Benjamin is rawer than most wide receivers drafted in the first round and was a very late first round pick. He could exceed those averages in terms of pure numbers because of the size of his role and the caliber of quarterback he has throwing to him, but he probably won’t play well or be that efficient. He showed himself to be incredibly athletic and physical both in college and at the combine (6-5 240 4.61 40), but he’s purely a deep threat at this point in his football career.

The good news is tight end Greg Olsen was their leading receiver last season and he’s still around. He will almost definitely lead them in receiving again this season. Last season, he caught 73 passes on 102 attempts (71.6%) for 816 yards and 6 touchdowns on 482 routes run, an average of 1.69 yards per route run. He ranked 9th among eligible tight ends in yards per route run and 4th in pure pass catching grade. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 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 7 seasons. He hasn’t always been a great run blocker, but there have been seasons in which he showed himself to be strong in that aspect. He’s an above average tight end and one of the Panthers’ best offensive players.

The Panthers will, however, miss blocking tight end Ben Hartsock. Hartsock is not a well-known player, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall tight end last season, despite playing just 324 snaps. He didn’t catch a single pass on 45 routes run and the 6-4 262 pounder has always been useless in the passing game, with 4 catches since 2009. However, he’s a dominant run blocker, grading out 1st in that aspect last season by a large margin, the only reason why he graded out #1 overall. Obviously take his #1 ranking with a grain of salt knowing that pass catching is more important to a football team, but know the Panthers will miss him.

The Panthers replaced him with Ed Dickson, who was actually Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end and their worst ranked run blocking tight end last season. Blocking isn’t his only issue, as he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league since getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He’s also graded out below average overall in 3 of 4 seasons, including last season and a 2010 season in which he ranked 61st out of 63 eligible. Not only is he a significant downgrade from Hartsock, but he’ll see a larger role as the Panthers than Hartsock did as the Panthers will go to more two-tight end sets this season, because of their lack of talent at wide receiver. The Panthers are in trouble in the receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

In addition to running more two-tight end sets this season, the Panthers will also call more run plays, given the sorry state of their receiving corps. The issue is the Panthers don’t have much talent at the running back position. Cam Newton does everything he can to make life easier for the Panthers’ running backs, both carrying the ball (an average of 121 carries for 677 yards and 9 touchdowns a season in 3 years in the league) and opening up running room for running backs, as defenses have to respect his deep ball and his ability to take off and run. In spite of that, the Panthers averaged just 4.19 yards per carry last season, including Cam Newton’s 5.27 yards per carry. They ran a lot last season (483 carries to 473 pass attempts), but they could run even more this season.

DeAngelo Williams will probably be the lead back again. Williams has had an impressive career, averaging 4.84 yards per carry over 1370 career carries. However, he’s now going into his age 31 season and has graded out below average in rushing grade on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, averaging just 4.22 yards per carry over those 2 seasons combined. He’s clearly declining and could decline even more this season. He’s also only gone over 200 carries 3 times in 8 seasons (including last season) and doesn’t offer much in the passing game, with 173 catches in 111 career games, including just 39 over the past 2 seasons combined.

Williams has had some issues with injuries in his career, but Jonathan Stewart has had even bigger problems with injuries. He only missed 2 games in his first 4 seasons combined, but he was consistently playing through injuries and it appears to have caught up with him over the past 2 seasons, as he’s missed a combined 17 games and carried the ball just a combined 141 times over those past 2 seasons. He’s also been limited to 3.66 yards per carry over the past 2 seasons.

He’s a talented player when healthy, averaging 4.64 yards per carry for his career, despite his struggles over the last 2 seasons, but he’s rarely healthy. He’s also only gone over 200 carries in a season once in 6 years in the league and he’s only caught 105 passes in 77 games. With Williams aging and the Panthers’ run blocking expected to be a lot worse this season with Gross, Wharton, and Hartsock gone, the Panthers really need Stewart to step up. I’m skeptical whether or not he can do that and the fact that he’s already nursing a significant hamstring injury a few days into training camp doesn’t quell my skepticism.

The Panthers’ best back might be fullback Mike Tolbert, who led Panther backs with 606 snaps played last season. He only averaged 3.57 yards per carry (361 rushing yards on 101 carries), but that’s partially because he was doing a lot of the dirty work and short yardage running. He picked up 2.02 yards per carry after contact and 31 first downs on 101 carries. He also was their best pass catching running back, catching 27 passes (which led Panther running backs) for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns.

He was also a strong blocker (both run and pass) and played as their 3rd down back, leading Panther running backs with 352 snaps on passing plays. The jack-of-all-traits had at least 100 carries, routes run, snaps in pass protection, and snaps as a lead blocker, grading out above average in all 4 aspects and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked fullback. This is nothing new for him as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked fullback in 2012 and graded out above average in 2 of his final 3 seasons in San Diego as both a running back and fullback from 2010-2012. For his career, the 5-9 243 pounder has averaged 3.94 yards per carry, picked up 136 first downs on 496 carries, scored 40 total touchdowns, and caught 163 passes for 1464 yards.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

I mentioned that the Panthers also lost essentially their entire secondary from 2013, in addition to all of their losses on offense. However, they can still have a very good defense this season. Their defensive front 7 is the best in the league and, while their secondary played well last season, all 4 of the players they lost (Michael Mitchell, Captain Munnerlyn, Quintin Mikell, Drayton Florence) were signed to close to minimum deals the previous off-season. Their defensive front 7 and the coaching of defensive coordinator Sean McDermott (a finalist for the Washington head coaching job) probably made them look better than they were.

The best player on this defensive line and arguably on the whole defense is defensive end Greg Hardy, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end, after ranking 6th in that aspect in 2012. Hardy was franchise tagged as a result this off-season, though the Panthers have yet to reach a long-term deal with him. There is concern with Hardy because he was arrested this off-season and eventually found guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his girlfriend. Hardy is appealing the ruling and the NFL probably will wait until the appeal fails before suspending him, which means he should be fine for this season.

That being said, he fell to the 6th round of the draft in 2010 because of character concerns, primarily motivation issues, but the fact that this happened in the off-season right after he got franchise tagged is a serious concern. With 13.116 million guaranteed this season, there is concern that he might coast on-the-field as well, though there are obvious financial incentives for him giving 100% and putting up another dominant season, as he is set to hit free agency again next off-season. This could easily be his final season with the Panthers because of a combination of the Panthers’ rough cap situation and Hardy’s off-the-field problems.

The Panthers drafted Kony Ealy in the 2nd round, another sign that they might be preparing for life without Hardy in 2015. Ealy could have a significant role as a rookie, even behind Hardy and counterpart Charles Johnson, as an interior nickel rusher. The 6-4 273 pounder is a natural defensive end and that’s probably his position long-term, but he has the size to be an interior rusher in sub packages as a rookie. The selection of him in the 2nd round gives them even more talent on this defensive line and solidifies their depth.

Charles Johnson, as I mentioned, is the other defensive end opposite Hardy. He too could be entering his final year with the Panthers, owed 9.75 non-guaranteed in 2015 on a cap strapped team. Johnson signed a gargantuan 6-year, 76 million dollar deal with the Panthers following a breakout season in 2010 in which he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end. That was his first season as a starter, so the Panthers were paying for a one-year wonder and it hasn’t quite paid off.

That isn’t to say he’s been bad, as he’s been a strong pass rusher, grading out 18th, 2nd, and 11th in pure pass rushing grade in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. However, he’s graded out below average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons and has overall not proven himself to be the player he was in 2010. He’s not going to be worth 9.75 million and 10.75 million in 2015 and 2016 respectively, his age 29 and his age 30 seasons respectively. For now, he’ll continue to be a strong pass rusher who struggles against the run.

Defensive tackle used to be a position of weakness for the Panthers but they turned it from a weakness to a strength with 2 draft picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, taking Star Lotulelei and Kawaan Short in the first and 2nd round respectively. Both had fantastic rookie years, getting Defensive Rookie of the Year consideration and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th and 13th ranked defensive tackles last season respectively. Both are obviously one year wonders, as they were just rookies, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if one or both had an even better season this season.

Short is better than Lotulelei, not just because he ranked higher on fewer snaps (528 to 620), but because he was more well-rounded, while Lotulelei struggled as a pass rusher and excelled against the run. The 6-2 315 pounder might just be a pure two-down player (though an excellent one, grading out 5th overall against the run), which is how Kony Ealy’s role could come into play. Run stoppers are also less valuable than pass rushers in the NFL. That being said, he was a first round pick just last year so he could easily become at least a decent pass rusher and allow himself to stay on the field in every situation. Either way, Short is going to see a larger role this season. It’s an overall dominant defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Things are equally good in the linebacking corps. Luke Kuechly won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, though I don’t think he deserved it. Kuechly definitely had a great season, but he’s not nearly as flawless as people seem to think he is. Defensive Player of the Year usually goes to the best defensive player (or the most noticeably good defensive player) on a top defense, rather than the best defensive player in the league. Kuechly was definitely noticeable on a strong Carolina defense with 141 total tackles (115 solo, 26 assists).

As good as Kuechly is against the run, he can struggle in coverage. Only one middle linebacker (the Jets’ Demario Davis) allowed more completions than the 55 Kuechly allowed, as Davis allowed 56. Putting up a ton of tackles is great, but it’s an overrated stat because not all tackles are equal. If you’re tackling a guy after a 9 yard completion, you’re not doing a lot of good. Kuechly also missed 14 tackles, 6th at his position.

Kuechly had just 39 tackles for a “stop” against the run, meaning a tackle within 4 yards of the line of original line of scrimmage on first down, 6 yards on 2nd down, or the full distance on 3rd or 4th down. He did this on 325 run snaps, a rate of 12.0% that was 7th among eligible middle linebackers. That’s certainly not bad, but considering his run play is his best attribute, it’s hardly Defensive Player of the Year material and he was helped by a fantastic defensive line eating up blocks in front of him.

All this might sound like nitpicking, but nitpicking is what you have to do when picking a single defensive player for an award. Carolina certainly has a great defense and Kuechly is a big part of the reason why, but he has a fantastic supporting cast. You could make an argument that he’s not even the best defensive player on his team with the way Greg Hardy played last year. Hell, you could make an argument that he wasn’t even the best linebacker on his team with the way Thomas Davis played. Still, he’s a very good player who graded out 8th at his position last season and 7th in 2012.

Speaking of Davis, he also had a fantastic season last year. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, including #1 in coverage, as the 6-1 231 pounder looked as fluid as a safety in coverage and showed great closing speed after allowing a completion (the 7.1 yards per completion he allowed were 3rd best at his position). There’s definitely concern whether or not he keeps this up though, as he’s going into his age 31 season with 3 torn ACLs on his resume.

The fact that he’s even still able to play, let alone dominate like he did last season, is incredibly impressive, but his injury history is a serious elephant in the room with him. Thomas played a combined 9 games from 2009-2011 thanks to injuries. He’s missed just 1 game over the past 2 seasons, grading out 11th at his position in 2012 and then 3rd last season, so he could be fine going forward. He was also good prior to his injury, grading out above average in both 2007 and 2008. It’s just hard to expect a player to repeat the best season of his career at age 31 with essentially 3 seasons lost to injury in his career.

The 3rd linebacker is Chase Blackburn and he plays a largely irrelevant role as a base package player. The Panthers rarely use 3 linebackers. Blackburn graded out below average on 199 snaps after taking over the role mid-season from Jon Beason, who was traded to the Giants. His history is inconsistent, as he’s graded out below average in 4 of the last 7 seasons, but, again, it’s largely irrelevant. The other 6 players in the front 7 are all very good at what they do.

Grade: A

Secondary

As I mentioned, the Panthers lost 4 of their top-5 defensive backs this off-season, 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, 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 last off-season though, as the Panthers did a fantastic job finding bargains who fit their scheme and making them look better than they were with a combination of strong coaching and strong front 7 play. They’ll attempt to do the same again this off-season, which is easier said than done.

The one player who played a significant amount of snaps for the Panthers in the secondary last season who remains on the roster is Melvin White. Like the other 4, the Panthers found White in the bargain bin, but the undrafted rookie graded out only slightly below average on 693 snaps. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league or he could regress and show why he went undrafted in 2013. He’s expected to at least begin the season as a starter.

Free agent pickup Antoine Cason is expected to be the other starter. Cason fits the bargain hunting theme, but he might not work out. The 2008 1st round pick has largely been a bust in his career. He started out his career fine, grading out above average in each of his first 3 years in San Diego, but he graded out below average in his final 2 seasons, including 108th out of 113 eligible in his contract year in 2012. Last season, in Arizona, he was unable to establish a role and was limited to 169 snaps. He also graded out below average for the 3rd straight season. The Panthers are hoping he can bounce back and the last time he graded out above average he was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback, but that was in 2010 so those days could easily just be gone.

On the slot, the Panthers are expected to play Charles Godfrey. Godfrey was limited to 114 snaps last season by a torn Achilles suffered week 2. He’s graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2008. He was especially bad in 2011 and 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked safety out of 87 eligible in 2011 and their 82nd ranked safety out of 88 eligible in 2012 and now he’s coming off of a serious injury. The Panthers are hoping that by moving the collegiate cornerback to the slot they can turn his career around, but it’s a serious long shot. The Panthers have 5th round rookie Bene Benwikere as their 4th cornerback to turn to if anyone struggles, which highlights how bad their depth is at the position.

At safety, they have a three-way battle for the two starting jobs. 2nd year player Robert Lester might be the best of the bunch. Like White, Lester was an undrafted free agent last season and, though he only played 301 snaps, he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety last season. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. He could be ready for a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league and emerge as a solid starter or he could show why he went undrafted and either lose a position battle in training camp or win the job and struggle afterwards.

Thomas DeCoud and Roman Harper are the veteran options, coming over from Atlanta and New Orleans respectively this off-season, after cutting cut. The Panthers are hoping DeCoud can return to 2009-2011 form, when the 2008 3rd round pick graded out above average in each of the first 3 seasons he was a starter in the league, which earned him the 5-year, 21 million dollar deal he was released from this off-season. DeCoud graded out below average in 2012 and 2013 after signing the deal and ranked 82nd out of 86 eligible in 2013. He should bounce back somewhat if he wins a starting job, but he could easily still struggle.

Harper, I think, is the worst option of the three, as he goes into his age 32 season. He was a very solid safety from 2007-2010, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons, maxing out at 9th overall in 2007 and 2010 and earning himself a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal. Harper did not prove to be worth that deal, grading out below average as a starter in 2010 and 2011, ranking 86th out of 88 eligible in 2011. That got him benched and got his salary slashed. He played 374 snaps in 2013, grading out below average, and then was cut. He’s unlikely to bounce back and be even an average starter at his age. Overall, the Panthers need to work a miracle in the secondary. They did so last season, but they might not be as lucky this season.

Grade: C

Conclusion

I don’t think it’s any question that the Panthers will decline this season. They simply lost too much. They’re easily the favorite to be this year’s team that goes from a first round bye to out of the playoffs (there’s one almost every year). However, they might not be as bad as people think as they still have a lot of talent. As bad as their offensive line, receiving corps, secondary, and running backs are, they have an above average quarterback who happens to be one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the game and they have the league’s best defensive front 7.

It’ll be interesting to how this team fares as they are probably the top heaviest team in the NFL. They have 7-9 guys who could end up in my top-200 players list coming out next month, but they also have a number of guys in significant roles who simply don’t deserve to be in those roles. If I had to guess, they’ll still be the 2nd best team in the Cam Newton era record wise, meaning they’ll surpass the 6 wins they had in 2011 and the 7 wins they had in 2012. If I had to guess, they’re more likely to go over their 8 win odds makers projection than under (though a push is a really realistic possibility). I’ll have an official win total for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 262014
 

Quarterback

The Saints once again had an explosive offense last season. They ranked 10th in points per game allowed, but they were better than that, finishing 3rd in rate of moving the chains, moving the chains at a 76.98% rate. That’s nothing new as they are a consistently top level offense, ranking #1, #1, #11, #2, and #3 in points per game in 2008-2012 respectively. However, they haven’t necessarily been a consistently top level team. They won 11 games in 2010 and 2013 and 13 games in 2009 and 2011, but they also won just 7 games in 2012 and 8 games in 2008.

The years they’ve missed the playoffs, they’ve still had explosive offense, but their defenses struggled. For instance, in 2012, they allowed the 2nd most points in the NFL. That was something they needed to turn around and they did so last season as Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 defense got the most out of their defensive personnel. They ranked 10th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 68.85% rate. As a result, they were 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential at 8.13%.

They were even better than their 11-5 record suggested as they did that despite a turnover margin of +0. They weren’t reliant on the turnover margin to win, which is good because the turnover margin is so hard to rely on. As hard as it is to rely on, they should be better in that aspect next season because of how well quarterbacked they are. They only turned the ball over 19 times, as Drew Brees only threw an interception on 1.85% of attempts.

That’s really good, but he’s thrown an interception on 2.49% of his attempts since joining the Saints in 2006 so he should be able to keep that up. He may have a few more interceptions next season, but not too many. Defensively, they should force more turnovers after forcing just 19 last season, especially after recovering 44.83% of fumbles overall last season, 24th in the NFL. They should have a positive turnover margin next season, as tough as turnover margins can be to predict.

Speaking of Drew Brees, he’s obviously the engine that makes this explosive offense go. Since joining the Saints in 2006 and uniting with Sean Payton, he’s completed 67.3% of his passes for an average of 7.76 YPA, 283 touchdowns and 124 interceptions. He’s been a top-4 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, the only quarterback who can say they’ve had that level of consistent dominance over that period of time. Even in 2007 and 2008, he was #3 and #7 respectively. He’s going into his age 35 season, but he’s shown no signs of decline. Last season, he completed 68.6% of his passes for an average of 7.94 YPA, 39 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Like Brady and Manning before him, Brees is another quarterback who could remain dominant into his mid-30s. The Saints will once again have an explosive offense this season because of him.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Brees did lose some weapons this off-season, as the Saints had to cut Lance Moore and trade Darren Sproles for financial reasons, with Moore ending up in Pittsburgh and Sproles ending up in Philadelphia. Moore didn’t have a huge impact in 2013 though and he was going into his age 31 season. Moore was limited to 452 snaps in 13 games. He did run 334 routes, but he caught just 37 passes on 52 attempts (71.1%) for 457 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of just 1.37 yards per route run. He was hardly the player who graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2008, maxing out in 2012 with 65 catches for 1041 yards and 6 touchdowns.

To replace him, the Saints drafted Brandin Cooks and they have 2nd year wide receiver Kenny Stills, who could possibly be ready for a bigger role. Rookie wide receivers rarely do anything. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies. If Cooks can end up winning a starting job or a significant role, he could surpass those numbers, not because he’s more talented than the average 1st round wide receiver (or Johnson or Fitzgerald obviously), but because of the situation he was drafted into with Drew Brees throwing him the football.

Stills could easily win the starting job though. The 2013 5th round pick struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible, including 87th out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade. He caught 32 of his 46 targets (69.6%) for 641 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he did so on 496 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run. He was a rarely deep threat. That being said, rookie wide receivers almost always struggle, as I mentioned earlier, and he definitely flashed at times, so he could be improved in his 2nd year in the league.

Marques Colston remains as the #1 wide receiver. He showed statistical decline last season, catching 75 passes for 943 yards and 5 touchdowns. It tied a career low for touchdowns and it was only the 2nd season of his 8-year career in which he went under 1000 yards, with the other season being a season in which he played just 11 games. However, he was still really efficient, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked wide receiver, catching 70.1% of his targets and averaging 1.77 yards per route run. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since they began in 2007. He should have another solid season and probably lead Saint wide receivers in catches and yards.

Jimmy Graham is listed as a tight end, but he’s their de facto #1 receiver. I do agree with the decision by the league that he should be designated as a tight end. He did run 49.8% of his routes from the slot last season, but that was actually 16th out of eligible tight ends. The tight end position has simply changed significantly over the past 5 or so years. Graham is just a really, really good pass catching tight end that rarely blocks and isn’t great when he does it. Gronkowski is a significant better blocker and a more well-rounded tight end, but he has a significant injury history so Graham is the best pass catching tight end in the league.

In 4 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010, he’s caught 301 passes for 3863 yards and 41 touchdowns on 454 targets (66.3%) and 1758 routes run, an average of 2.20 yards per route run. He barely played as a rookie, but he’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd, 7th, and 1st ranked pass catching tight end in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s “only” graded out 7th, 15th, and 4th in those 3 seasons respectively overall, but that’s because he’s graded out below average as a run blocker in 2 of those 3 seasons. He’s their best pass catcher and a significant weapon for them in the passing game. He’s well worth the 4-year, 40 million dollar deal the Saints gave him this off-season, after franchise tagging him.

Graham wasn’t the only highly ranked tight end the Saints had last season, as Ben Watson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked tight end on 507 snaps, flashing as both a pass catcher (16th) and a run blocker (8th). He caught 19 passes for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns on 28 attempts (67.9%) and 131 routes run, an average of 1.73 yards per route run. There are no guarantees he keeps that up. He’s graded out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons on Pro Football Focus since their origin in 2007, but he’s going into his age 34 season.

While Moore won’t be really missed, they will miss Darren Sproles. Sproles didn’t do much as a rusher, carrying the ball 53 times for 220 yards in 2013, an average of 4.15 YPC. However, he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade last season, catching 71 passes for 604 yards and 2 touchdowns on 84 targets (84.5%) and 265 routes run, an average of 2.28 yards per route run (best at his position). They’ll miss that.

They still have Pierre Thomas to catch passes out of the backfield, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked running back in pass catching grade last season. He caught 77 passes for 513 yards and 3 touchdowns on 82 targets (93.9%) and 301 routes run, an average of 1.70 yards per route run. That being said, I don’t know how much more pass catching volume Thomas can take on. He’s also not nearly as explosive as Sproles is in the open field. The Saints will probably have to either transition to throwing downfield more often or to throwing screens to guys like Stills and Cooks more often. Brees will miss Sproles, but he was fine without him in New Orleans from 2006-2010. Brees still has plenty of weapons to work with in the passing game.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

I mentioned what Thomas does in the passing game. He also contributes as a runner as well and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back overall on 578 snaps played (390 in pass snaps, 188 on running snaps). He only averaged 3.73 yards per carry last season (549 yards on 147 carries), but he also averaged 2.20 yards per carry after contact and broke 43 tackles on 224 carries, giving him the 18th best elusive rating at his position among eligible players. On top of that, he’s averaged 4.56 yards per carry for his career and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons he’s been in the league, maxing out at #2 overall in 2011. He’s going into his age 30 season and he’s only maxed out at 147 carries in a season (twice), but he’ll still have a significant role as a passing down back.

The running down back role will go to either Mark Ingram or Khiry Robinson. Most likely, one of those two will lead this team in carries. Ingram was a first round pick in 2011, but he’s been a bust thus far in his career. He’s had just 356 carries in 3 seasons, averaging 4.11 yards per carry (1462 yards) and scoring 11 touchdowns. He’s missed 11 games in 3 seasons and has shown nothing as a pass catcher, only catching 24 passes for 143 yards in his career.

Robinson, meanwhile, saw 76 snaps as an undrafted rookie and rushed for 224 yards and a touchdown on 54 carries, an average of 4.15 yards per carry. He doesn’t offer anything on passing downs either. The coaching staff really likes him though so, right now, I’d say that he’s the favorite to be their lead back right now. He flashed in the post-season, rushing for 102 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, an average of 4.86 yards per carry. The Saints still lack the feature back they’ve been searching for as a complement to Brees and the passing game for years.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

In addition to Moore and Sproles, the Saints also lost two starters on the offensive line this off-season, making it four straight off-seasons in which they’ve lost at least one starter on the offensive line. Those two starters were left tackle Charles Brown and center Brian De La Puente. Brown won’t be missed as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season and got benched down the stretch for rookie Terron Armstead. Armstead will now be the starter on the blindside. The 2013 3rd round pick played 141 nondescript snaps as a rookie and is a complete unknown as a starting caliber player. It won’t be hard for him to be better than Brown was though.

They will miss Brian De La Puente. I don’t know why they didn’t re-sign him, given that he was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked center last season and signed with the Bears for close to the minimum. The Saints brought in Jonathan Goodwin on a minimum deal this off-season. Goodwin was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked center last season and he’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 of the last 6 seasons, but he graded out 22nd in pass blocking grade. He was 7th as a run blocker, but pass protection is more important. He’s also going into his age 36 season. Interior offensive linemen tend to have longer careers than most positions so he could have another season as a starting caliber player left in the tank. However, the Saints reportedly do not view him as the likely starter at that position, in favor of starting Tom Lelito.

That doesn’t make much sense. The 2013 undrafted free agent struggled through 162 snaps at right guard last season. Only one player at his position graded out worse than him and played fewer snaps. He surrendered 4 sacks and 5 hurries in two starts against Arizona and Atlanta. No one drafted him last year. He doesn’t have center experience. And he really struggled last season. He’s not a starting caliber player so the Saints would be wise to start Goodwin, but it doesn’t look like they want to do that.

The Saints did keep Zach Strief at right tackle, retaining him on a 5-year, 20.5 million dollar deal, which was a good move. The late bloomer has only been a starter for 3 years in his career (since the Saints lost Jon Stinchcomb after the 2010 season) and he’s already going into his age 31 season. He’s also missed 10 games in 3 seasons and struggled through injury in 12 games in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible. He’s also only a pure right tackle, which isn’t quite as valuable as someone who can play on the blindside. However, he’s been dominant in his other two seasons as a starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus 12th ranked offensive tackle (6th ranked right tackle) in 2011 and 9th ranked offensive tackle (1st ranked right tackle in 2013). He’s not perfect, but the Saints did a good job bringing him back on a reasonable deal.

The Saints’ longest tenured offensive lineman is right guard Jahri Evans, who has been a starter there for 8 years since the Saints drafted him in the 4th round in 2006, missing just 2 games over that 8-year span. He’s also their best offensive lineman, dominating throughout his career. Those 2 games he missed were last season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked guard. That’s actually the 2nd lowest he’s ranked in his career, which is a concern, when coupled with his injury and the fact that he’s going into his age 31 season. He could be declining. However, he was so good in his prime (grading out in the top-30 in 7 straight years and the top-9 in 5 of those 7 years, maxing out at #1 overall in 2009), that even a declining Evans is one of the best guards in the game.

The guard position is definitely the strength of this team. At the left guard position, they have Ben Grubbs, who they signed to a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal after the 2011 season, replacing the departed Carl Nicks. Grubbs has been worth that, grading out 7th at his position in 2012 and 11th in 2013. Grubbs, a 2007 1st round pick, broke out in his 3rd year in the league in 2009 and has been a top-16 guard in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Only Green Bay’s Josh Sitton can also say the same. This offensive line certainly has problems, particularly at left tackle and center, but there are some really talented players here. They’ll remain an explosive offense next season, despite some minor losses.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Saints defense was much improved last season under Rob Ryan. The biggest reason for that is because his schemes fit their personnel much better. The player who benefitted the most was 3rd year defensive lineman Cameron Jordan, who finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end. The 2011 1st round pick was largely a large average player in his first 2 years in the league, struggling as a pass rusher and excelling against the run.

Last season, Jordan moved back to his collegiate position of 3-4 defensive end, from 4-3 defensive end, and the 6-4 287 pounder was a much better fit. He did grade out below average against the run, but his play as a pass rusher (2nd at his position) was enough to make up for it. That’s the most important part of a defensive lineman’s job and he’s fantastic at it. He’s just a one year wonder, but, only going into his age 25 season, Jordan could have another dominant year in 2014. The Saints picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

Akiem Hicks will continue to start opposite Jordan. Hicks flashed on 383 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then became the starter in the new 3-4 under Rob Ryan 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked 3-4 defensive end on 653 snaps. The 6-5 318 pounder is an ideal fit for a 3-4 and moves very well for his size. The Canadian prospect was seen as very raw, but very talented coming out of the University of Regina and he’s only going into his age 25 season. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, he could have his best year and his biggest role yet. John Jenkins remains as the nose tackle. Jenkins played 436 snaps as a 3rd round rookie last year and ended up struggling, both as a run stopper and a pass rusher. The 6-3 359 could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there no guarantees. It’s a very young 3-man defensive line, but there is a lot of talent.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Another player the scheme switch really helped was edge rusher Junior Galette, who broke out last season in his first season as a starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. The 2010 undrafted free agent flashed as a pass rusher in 2011 and 2012, grading out 31st and 17th among 4-3 defensive ends in that aspect in those 2 seasons respectively in a part-time role, but he was limited to 372 and 301 snaps in those 2 seasons respectively because the 6-2 258 pounder sucked against the run. Moving to 3-4 outside linebacker, the run game became easier for him and he was able to play 848 snaps. He still graded out slightly below average against the run, but it wasn’t as big of a deal at his new position, especially since he ended up ranking 10th at his position rushing the passer.

Galette is one of two every down players in the Saints’ linebacking corps, playing 3-4 outside linebacker in base packages and providing edge rush in sub packages. The other one is Curtis Lofton, a middle linebacker who led the Saints’ defense with 946 snaps played last season. He unfortunately struggled, grading out below average and ranking 29th out of 55 eligible at his position. He also struggled in his first year in New Orleans in 2012, after grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons with the Falcons after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He graded out 43th out of 53 eligible in that 2012 season. His strong play in Atlanta got him a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago and, owed 6.9 million non-guaranteed in 2015, this could easily be his last year in New Orleans. For now, they’re stuck with him as an every down player, for lack of a better option.

David Hawthorne and Parys Haralson are two-down players in the linebacking corps, for the most part, as safety Kenny Vacarro comes down and plays linebacker in sub packages. Hawthorne had a bigger role than Haralson last season, playing 689 snaps (340 on running plays). Like Lofton, he was a big free agent signing 2 off-seasons ago, getting a 5-year, 19 million dollar deal after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked middle linebacker in 2009, 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2010, and 18th ranked middle linebacker in 2011 in 3 seasons as a starter in Seattle. Like Lofton, he’s struggled in 2 years with the Saints, grading out 35th out of 43 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012 and 35th out of 55 eligible middle linebackers in 2013. Owed 4.5 million non-guaranteed in 2015, this is likely to be his last year with the team.

Haralson, meanwhile, played 367 snaps last season (196 on running plays), grading out slightly above average in limited snaps. The veteran is going into his age 30 season and graded out below average in 3 of 5 seasons as a significant contributor in San Francisco and only grading out slightly above average in the 2 seasons he was above average, but he’s decent at what he does. The good news for the Saints is they will be getting Victor Butler back from injury.

Butler missed all of last year with a torn ACL, which hurt the Saints because he was supposed to be a starter. The 2009 4th round pick flashed in limited action in Dallas, grading out well above average in every season from 2010-2012, but maxing out at 300 snaps in 2012 because he was stuck behind DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer. His best season was 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker on just 300 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. Torn ACLs are tough to bounce back from in a player’s first year back, but he should at least have a role as a situational edge rusher opposite Galette in sub packages. That’s something they really lacked last season.

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, safety Kenny Vaccaro plays linebacker in sub packages. He played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 70.6% of snaps last season, 3rd most in the NFL among eligible safeties. He also played solid overall, grading out 23rd overall among safeties, including 3rd overall against the run. The issue is he broke his ankle week 16 and missed the final 2 weeks of the season and the playoffs, which hurt them. Now going into his 2nd year in the league, the 15th overall pick in 2013 should be healthy and could be even better than he was last season.

The Saints added Jairus Byrd this off-season, signing him to a 6-year, 54 million dollar deal. He’ll play safety next to Vaccaro and give the Saints arguably the top safety duo in the NFL. Byrd has been in the league 5 years, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, and he’s been an above average starter on Pro Football Focus in each season. He’s been especially dominant over the past 3 seasons, grading out 3rd in 2011 among safeties and 2nd in 2012.

In 2013, he was “just” 8th because he missed 5 games to start the season, but he was just as dominant upon return as he was before the injury and he doesn’t have an injury history, missing 2 games from 2009-2012 combined. Even still, he’s one of just two safeties to grade out in the top-8 in all 3 seasons from 2011-2013, along with Eric Weddle. He’s the best deep safety in the NFL and arguably the best overall safety. He’s what everyone thinks Earl Thomas is (not that Thomas is bad). He had off-season back surgery, but he should still be able to have another strong season. He’ll be a perfect complement for box safety Vaccaro and a significant upgrade over the inconsistent Malcolm Jenkins, the previous starter who is now in New Orleans.

The Saints 3rd safety is Rafael Bush. He played a big role last season, playing 520 snaps as the 3rd safety, coming in when Vaccaro moved to linebacker. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked safety last season in that role, grading out slightly above average. The 2010 undrafted free agent didn’t play a defensive snap in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he flashed on 123 snaps in 2012. He’s a talented 3rd safety and good in his role as a sub package player, excelling in coverage. He was re-signed to a well-deserved 2-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season, which suggests that they envision him having a significant role going forward.

Keenan Lewis was a big free agent acquisition last off-season, signing a 5-year, 25.5 million dollar deal. He did a solid job in his first year with the Saints, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked cornerback, including 16th in pure coverage grade. The 2009 3rd round pick only played a combined 432 snaps in his first 3 years in the league, but he’s had two solid seasons as a starter, including a 2012 season in which he ranked 38th among cornerbacks, which is why he got that deal last off-season. He should continue being a solid starting cornerback this season.

The 2nd and 3rd cornerback jobs are still up for grabs. The Saints signed Champ Bailey this off-season to a 2-year deal worth 3.75 million dollars in base salary (500K guaranteed and another 3 million available through incentives). The common narrative is that Champ Bailey is done, after he struggled through just 333 snaps (193 regular season, 140 post-season) last season thanks to injury and with him going into his age 36 season.

However, he had a great 2012 season, at least in the regular season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback and he has such an impressive history (grading out in the top-17 on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2007-2012, including top-10 in 5 of 6 seasons) that it wouldn’t shock me if he had one more season in the tank, provided he can stay healthy. He showed enough in the post-season last year to suggest that’s a decent possibility. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was done. The Saints will find out in training camp.

Corey White is also in the mix for playing time, after playing 560 snaps last season. The 2012 5th round pick graded out above average last season, but he sucked in 2012 as a rookie, so it’s tough to count on him. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked middle linebacker out of 113 eligible on 529 snaps in 2012. He’s currently penciled in as the 3rd cornerback, going into his 3rd year in the league. Patrick Robinson is another veteran who could get a significant role, even though the 2010 1st round pick was limited to 22 snaps in 2 games by injury last season and largely looks like a bust at this point.

Robinson was also benched to start the season last year, even before the injury, because of a rough pre-season and a 2012 season in which he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. He played well in 2011, grading out 19th among cornerbacks, after only playing 264 snaps as a rookie, so he could be decent this year, but he definitely has an inconsistent history and there’s no guarantee he even earns a significant role. Stanley Jean-Baptiste was their 2nd round pick in this past draft and he could also see playing time, but more likely they drafted him for 2015, when Robinson will be a free agent and Bailey will be going into his age 37 season. The Saints’ safeties are better than their cornerbacks, but it’s an overall solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Saints went 11-5 last season, but they were even better than their record suggested, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. They also might be more talented than they were last season. They lost Darren Sproles and Brian De La Puente, which will hurt their offense a little bit, but they should still have a strong offense. Defensively, they added Jairus Byrd, which could take a solid defense to the next level. This is one of the best teams in the NFL and they are one of a few teams that I think could win the Super Bowl. Obviously how far they go into the playoffs largely depends on whether or not they get home field advantage, given how much home field matters to this team. I’ll have an official wins prediction for this team when I finish every team’s write up.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 252014
 

Quarterback

The Redskins declined significantly in 2013, going from 10-6 and in the playoffs to 3-13 and the 2nd worst team in the league last season. To make matters worse, they didn’t have their own first round pick this year, thanks to the RG3 trade made in 2012, so they don’t have the luxury of adding a top caliber talent to this team. Why did they decline last season? Well, teams that have big win total improvements, like the Redskins did in 2012, going from 5-11 to 10-6, tend to decline by an average of half that total. The Redskins obviously declined by more than that, but it’s just an average and it shows that teams that have big win improvements tend to do it on the backs of unsustainable things.

For the Redskins, that unsustainable thing was the turnover margin as they finished with a +16 turnover margin in 2012. That type of thing tends to be very tough to depend on. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04.

Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. It was unreasonable to expect RG3 to continue throwing an interception on just 1.3% of his throws. No quarterback has ever kept that up for a career (1.8% is the best all-time career interception rate). It was also unreasonable to expect the Redskins to continue recovering 67.39% of their fumbles, as that always tends to even out towards 50% in the long-run.

On top of that, RG3 declined significantly last season, and not just in terms of interceptions. As a rookie, he completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 8.14 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while rushing for 815 yards and 7 touchdowns on 120 carries (6.79 YPC). Last season, he completed 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 489 yards and no touchdowns on 86 carries (5.69 YPC). He went from Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback to their 26th.

He also was shut down for the final 3 games of the season and Kirk Cousins struggled mightily in his absence, completing 52.3% of his passes for an average of 5.51 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, effectively killing any trade value he might have had. Even in the 13 games when RG3 played, the Redskins moved the chains at a 71.73% rate, which would have been 17th in the NFL over a full season. That simply wasn’t good enough as their defense was horrific, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 74.56% rate, 24th in the NFL.

The good news is he should bounce back this season. Most of his struggles last season were the result of the torn ACL he suffered in January of 2013. He was able to make it back for week 1, but it clearly limited him. Even Tom Brady struggled, by his standards, in his first year back from his torn ACL and Griffin is much more reliant on his legs and had less time to recover (Brady’s injury was in September). Griffin won’t match his insanely low interception rate from his rookie year, but he should be noticeably improved over last season, both running and throwing the ball.

Griffin is still a special talent when healthy and will prove to be worth what the Redskins gave up for him over the long-term. The wild card for Griffin and the rest of this offense is that offensive minded head coach Mike Shanahan was fired and replaced with former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. Shanahan is a two-time Super Bowl winning head coach and his system worked masterfully in 2012, but it didn’t work nearly as well in 2013 and he’s coached some other poor offenses in the past. Gruden, meanwhile, is an unknown as a head coach. We’ll see how he and his new offensive scheme affect this offense.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

While the Redskins did have a hobbled Griffin for 13 games last season and then they lost him for 3 games, they, overall, didn’t have a lot of injuries, as they finished 4th in adjusted games lost. Griffin should be healthier this season, but they will have more injuries around him, which is why I don’t totally buy that this team, overall, has the talent to get back into the playoffs. One player who missed a significant amount of time with injury in 2012 who stayed on the field in 2013 was wide receiver Pierre Garcon.

Garcon missed 6 games and was limited in others in 2012, in the first year of a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal that was highly speculative when he signed it because he had never had a 1000 yard season in four years with the Colts, three with Peyton Manning. However, Garcon still flashed in 2012 on 403 snaps, grading out well above average and catching 44 passes for 633 yards and 4 touchdowns on 215 routes run, an average of 2.94 yards per route run that was 2nd best in the NFL. Given that he did that with a bad foot, it was very promising for 2013.

He wasn’t quite as efficient in 2013, but that’s to be expected considering he had significantly more playing time and his quarterback play was significantly worse. He was still really good, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked wide receiver. He caught 113 catches on 174 targets (64.9%) for 1346 yards and 5 touchdowns on 615 routes run, an average of 2.19 yards per route run, 12th in the NFL. He was largely a volume receiver, catching primarily underneath targets, with only 25 catches 10+ yards downfield, and finishing 2nd in the NFL in targets, so he wasn’t quite as good as his numbers suggested. However, he should be even more efficient this season as a possession receiver with a healthy Griffin and DeSean Jackson coming in to take some of the defense’s attention off of him and open up the short-to-intermediate part of the field.

As I just mentioned, to help Robert Griffin bounce back, the Redskins signed DeSean Jackson, after the Eagles cut him. There were rumors that the Eagles cut him because of gang ties, but more likely, they cut him because they just didn’t feel he was worth his 10.7 million dollar salary, even coming off of the best season of his career. Jackson was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver last season, catching 82 passes for 1332 yards and 9 touchdowns, all either career highs or tying career highs. He caught 68.9% of his targets and averaged 2.45 yards per route run, 6th in the NFL.

However, the Eagles still cut him because they felt he was largely a product of Chip Kelly’s system, because of his inconsistent past, and because of his salary. The Redskins are paying him less money, 24 million over 3 years, so it’s not a bad value, but expecting him to be the player he was last season is a little short-sighted. From his rookie year in 2008 to 2012, Jackson maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked wide receiver. He’s not historically nearly as efficient as he showed himself to be last season. He could have another strong year, but I doubt he reaches last year’s numbers.

While the Redskins didn’t have a lot of injuries last season, one player who did miss a significant period of time that really hurt them was Jordan Reed. Reed, a 3rd round rookie last season, missed 7 games with concussions, but still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked tight end last season despite playing just 384 snaps. He was very well-rounded too, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked pass catching tight end and 13th ranked run blocking tight end.

Reed caught 45 passes on 60 attempts (75.0%) for 499 yards and 4 touchdowns on 228 routes run, an average of 2.19 yards per route run, 3rd in the NFL. If he stays healthy, he could have a breakout year in 2014. He probably won’t be as efficient as he was last season with more snaps, but he’ll have better quarterback play. He won’t be targeted as often with Jackson coming in, but he’ll have more room to operate in with Jackson downfield taking the defense’s attention off of the short-to-intermediate part of the field. Assuming the trio of Jackson, Garcon, and Reed stays healthy (as is the case with any player), they could be one of the best trios of pass catchers in the NFL.

After that trio, the Redskins have experienced depth in the receiving corps, but the talent isn’t really there. At wide receiver, they signed Andre Roberts to a 4-year deal worth 16 million this off-season. He’ll line up as their primary slot receiver this season. The Redskins really struggled for depth at wide receiver last season, as, other than Pierre Garcon, no wide receiver graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. Santana Moss was Pro Football Focus’ 107th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in terms of pure pass catching grade.

Things won’t be much better this season though, outside of Garcon, Jackson, and Reed. Roberts was a slot receiver last season in Arizona. However, he’s graded out below average in each of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including 102nd out of 105 eligible in 2012 and 111th out of 114 eligible in 2011. Meanwhile, Logan Paulsen will be the #2 tight end. He’s been the Redskins’ leading tight end in terms of snaps played over the past 2 seasons because of injuries to Fred Davis and Jordan Reed respectively. He’s probably better suited to be a #2 tight end, grading out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league and played more than 100 snaps, since going undrafted in 2010. Last season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible. There’s more talent in the receiving corps than there was last season, but there are still some issues outside of the talented trio of Garcon, Jackson, Reed.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

I mentioned that the Redskins had very few injuries last season. Their healthiest unit last year was the offensive line. The same starting 5 played every snap last season except 20 snaps. No offensive line had fewer snaps missed by their original starting five last season and they ranked tied for first in adjusted games lost by an offensive line (tied with Chicago). That’s unlikely to continue this season, which is unfortunate for the Redskins because they had pretty solid offensive line play last season, ranking 4th in pass blocking grade and 9th in run blocking grade. The reason for that is twofold. One, they’re unlikely to have as few injuries as last season. Two, they are switching blocking schemes with Jay Gruden coming in and they will have maximum 3 starters from 2013 in the same position that they started 16 games in last season. They could have as few as one such starter if a couple things go a certain way.

That one starter locked into the same position he was in last season is Trent Williams and with good reason. Williams played 1170 snaps out of 1172 snaps possible last season at left tackle and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle last season. Joe Thomas was the better pass protector last season, which is much more important for a left tackle, and he has the more proven history, but Williams might be the 2nd best offensive tackle in the game. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, grading out 27th in 2011 and 16th in 2012.

The 4th overall pick in 2010, he has finally reached his potential and could easily continue be dominant in the future, only going into his age 26 season. He might not be #1 again, but I expect more dominance from him. He’s going into his contract year and the Redskins are reportedly in discussions with him to make him the highest paid offensive tackle in the league. He was the primary reason why their offensive line graded out so well last season.

Kory Lichtensteiger will continue to start on the offensive line, but, with the team transitioning from the zone blocking scheme they ran under Mike Shanahan, he’ll move from left guard at center. Lichtensteiger graded out slightly above average last season, but he’s never started a game at center and graded out below average in both 2010 and 2012, the other two seasons he was a starter in the NFL. In 2012, he was Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked guard out of 81 eligible. If I had to guess, he’s more likely to grade out below average rather than above average this season at center.

Taking his spot at left guard will be Shawn Lauvao, who they massively overpaid on a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal this off-season. The new coaching staff likes the 6-3 315 pounder’s scheme fit, but he struggled mightily in the first 4 years of his career in Cleveland, after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He graded out below average in each of those 4 seasons, including 3 seasons as a starter. He was Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked guard out of 81 eligible in 2013. He’s not a starting caliber player, even if the coaching staff thinks he is. The Redskins’ scheme change forced them to cut the inexpensive Will Montgomery (Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked center last season), move Lichtensteiger out of position, and sign Lauvao to a starter quality deal. It’s a downgrade overall.

The only starter to grade out below average last season for the Redskins was right guard Chris Chester. Chester, owed 3 million non-guaranteed, is a popular cap casualty candidate going into his age 31 season. He could easily be cut if he loses his position battle to 3rd round rookie Spencer Long. Having to start a 3rd round rookie wouldn’t be great for the Redskins, but it’s a possibility considering Chester is aging, struggled last year, and isn’t a good scheme fit. Chester was Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked guard out of 81 eligible last season, though the veteran had graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons from 2008-2012.

At right tackle, the Redskins have another veteran competing with a 3rd round rookie to remain at the same position where he started last season. That veteran is Tyler Polumbus, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked offensive tackle last season. As well as he played last season, there are legitimate reasons why he’s facing competition from 3rd round rookie Morgan Moses. The 6-8 308 pounder is a poor fit for the new blocking scheme and his history is not consistent with how well he played last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked offensive tackle out of 80 eligible in 2012, his only other season as a starter at right tackle, and graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons from 2009-2011. The offensive line is unlikely to be as good as it was last season.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Along with RG3, the other offensive player they need to get going again is Alfred Morris. Morris rushed for 1613 yards and 13 touchdowns on 335 carries as a 6th round rookie in 2012, an average of 4.81 YPC, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in terms of rushing grade. In 2013, he rushed for 1275 yards and 7 touchdowns on 276 carries, an average of 4.62 YPC, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked running back in rushing grade. That’s obviously not a bad season, but he wasn’t as good as he was as a rookie.

The good news is that he should find more running space with a healthy Robert Griffin functioning as a dual option at quarterback. The bad news is that Jay Gruden is coming in as head coach and wants to open up the passing offense. Morris has caught 20 passes in 2 seasons and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in each of his two seasons in the league. Gruden is on record saying that he wants to give passing down back Roy Helu more snaps. Last season, Helu played 547 snaps while Morris played 611 snaps. Morris will have a role similar to BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who had 472 snaps in Cincinnati, as opposed to 627 snaps for passing down back Giovani Bernard.

BJGE still had 220 carries last season and Morris is much more talented than him, while Helu is not as talented as Bernard. It could be a more even split in snaps and Morris could still see 240-260 carries this season, including all the goal line carries, and average a high YPC, but Helu will have a bigger role than last season. He’s only averaged 4.26 yards per carry in 3 seasons in the league, but he’s caught 87 passes for 675 yards and a touchdown, and he’s been a top-5 pass blocking running back on Pro Football Focus in 2 of 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2011.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Redskins had one of the worst defenses in the league, last season, ranking 24th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 74.56% rate. They also didn’t have a lot of injuries on either side of the ball and there’s no savior returning from injury to help them on this side of the ball. Fortunately, they did sign free agent Jason Hatcher to a 4-year, 27 million dollar deal. It was a risky deal because Hatcher is going into his age 32 season, but, provided he’s healthy (he had off-season knee surgery and is questionable for the start of camp), he should be able to provide them with value this season.

Hatcher is the only player on this 3-man defensive line expected to be an every down player, playing 3-4 defensive end in base packages and then moving inside to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages. Hatcher has experience in both a 3-4 and a 4-3 and has been dominant over the past 2 seasons, playing in a 3-4 in 2012 and a 4-3 in 2013. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2012 and 8th ranked defensive tackle in 2013. He was a deadly interior pass rusher in a 4-3, but he’s probably better suited to be a 3-4. His all-around game was better in 2012 in a 3-4 as the undersized 6-6 285 pounder did struggle against the run in a 4-3 in 2013, grading out below average in that aspect. The late bloomer was also Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2011 as a talented reserve on 428 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher that season.

Hatcher isn’t the only player they gave a significant contract to this off-season, as they re-signed defensive Chris Baker to a 3-year, 9 million dollar deal. It was a weird deal because the 6-2 325 pounder is only a two-down player and he’s not a proven player at all. The 2009 undrafted free agent out of Hampton had played a combined 216 snaps in 4 seasons before last year and then struggled mightily last year on 418 snaps as primarily a base package player, playing 3-4 defensive end and nose tackle. His composite grade would have been 6th worst among 3-4 defensive end and 9th worst among defensive tackles, despite his limited playing time. He wasn’t even good against the run. It was a weird deal.

The Redskins have another two defensive linemen on big contracts, as Barry Cofield and Stephen Bowen signed a 6-year, 36 million dollar deal and a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal respectively in the off-season before the 2011 season. Neither has really lived up to it in 3 years. Cofield has been the better of the two, but last season was the first season he had graded out above average in 3 seasons with the team. He’s a great pass rusher, especially last season, when he graded out 6th among defensive tackles in that aspect, but he’s horrible against the run, grading out 8th worst, worst, and 7th worst among defensive tackles in that aspect in 2013, 2012, and 2011 respectively. That makes sense as he’s undersized for a nose tackle at 6-4 303, but the Redskins continue to play him there, at least in base packages. He led the defensive line in snaps played with 739 last season, but he should have a smaller role this season, going into his age 30 season with Jason Hatcher coming in.

Bowen has been even worse, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked 3-4 defensive tackle out of 32 eligible in 2011, 26th out of 34 eligible in 2012, and 39th out of 45 eligible in 2013. He’s been so bad that the Redskins have cut his snaps from 816 in 2011 and 808 in 2012 to 422 snaps in 2013, missing 6 games with injuries. Now going into his age 30 season, he should have a similar role and continue to struggle. He’s still not completely recovered from knee surgery. Kedric Golston and Jarvis Jenkins are also in the mix on the defensive line, after they played 472 snaps and 333 snaps respectively last season. Both played primarily in base packages and both also struggled mightily, grading out 40th and 35th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends last season. Adding Hatcher to the mix helps this defensive line, but they still have a ton of problems.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The star is this defense and one of the only things that kept it afloat last season is Brian Orakpo. Orakpo bounced back in a big way from a torn triceps injury that limited to him to 87 snaps in 2012. Last season, Orakpo graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker and showed a fantastic all-around game. He graded out above average as a run stopper, pass rusher, and in coverage, grading out 9th at his position as a pass rusher, 4th as a run stopper, and 2nd in coverage. The 2009 13th overall pick was also Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011. The Redskins franchise tagged him this off-season, as they obviously didn’t want him to get away, though they were unable to agree to a long-term deal.

Opposite him, the Redskins have another former first round pick in Ryan Kerrigan, who was the 16th overall pick in 2011. He’s also talented, though he’s nowhere near as good as Orakpo. He’s graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, but only slightly and in the season he graded out above average, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012. He’s also excelled in pure pass rush grade, while grading out below average against the run in all 3 seasons and below average in coverage in 2 of 3 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in pass rush grade in 2011, 5th in 2012, and 12th in 2013, which is notable because the most important part of his job is rushing the passer. The Redskins have picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

The Redskins also have decent depth at the outside linebacker position. Rob Jackson graded out slightly below average on 114 snaps in 2011 and 186 snaps in 2013, but, in the only season in his career in which he saw serious action, he graded out above average. Playing 610 snaps in Orakpo’s absence, he graded out above average in 2012. He graded out slightly below average against the run and as a pass rusher, but he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in coverage grade, playing 112 coverage snaps. They also have Trent Murphy in the mix at the position. The 2nd round rookie won’t see a significant role as a rookie and was mostly drafted as long-term insurance with Orakpo going into his contract year and Kerrigan having two years left on his deal, which is disappointing because it suggests they won’t try to keep both Orakpo and Kerrigan long-term, but he’ll provide solid depth in the short-term if needed.

Things aren’t nearly as good at middle linebacker. The Redskins re-signed middle linebacker Perry Riley to a 3-year, 13 million dollar deal this off-season. Riley, a 2010 4th round pick, has been starting for the Redskins at middle linebacker for about 2 ½ years, since the middle of the 2011 season. He was about an average starter in both 2011 and 2012, for the first 1 ½ year and a half of his career, but he struggled mightily in his contract year last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Given that, the Redskins are overpaying. He could bounce back, but there are no guarantees.

London Fletcher was the opposite starter last season, but he retired this off-season. As good of a career as Fletcher had (he may end up in the Hall-of-Fame), him retiring gave the Redskins an opportunity to upgrade his spot, as he struggled mightily in his age 38 season last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked middle linebacker last season. The Redskins didn’t really make the most of that opportunity though.

Keenan Robinson is currently expected to be the starter, but the 2012 6th round pick played 69 snaps as a rookie and didn’t play a snap as a rookie. The new coaching staff reportedly likes his upside, but he’s still a complete unknown as an NFL player. Akeem Jordan and Darryl Sharpton are the veteran options. Jordan was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked middle linebacker last season, including 5th ranked against the run, but he only was a two-down player, playing 483 snaps and grading out below average in coverage. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since going undrafted in 2007, but he’s primarily been a reserve and situational middle linebacker in his career, maxing out at 556 snaps in 2009.

Sharpton, meanwhile, has graded out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010. He’s also missed 22 games in 4 season with injury and only played 550 snaps from 2010-2012. He appeared in 15 games in 2013, starting 8 and playing 743 snaps. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season, which isn’t terrible, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked middle linebacker (out of 55 eligible) in coverage last season. He was 2nd as a run stopper, but coverage is more important. He should really be limited to two-down work, as should Jordan, which is, perhaps, why the coaching staff is pumping up Robinson so much. He’s the only player with the ability to potentially play all 3 downs opposite Riley. The middle linebackers sink this whole linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Easily the worst part of this team is the secondary and they have arguably one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. They don’t have a savior on the way as they had the 4th fewest adjusted games lost in the secondary last season. The biggest free agent acquisition they brought in was Ryan Clark, but he’s going into his age 35 season. The veteran safety graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season for the first time to 2008. He could be close to done.

He should still be their best safety and an upgrade on what they had last season, as Reed Doughty, Bacarri Rambo, and EJ Biggers graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th, 79th, and 80th ranked safeties respectively last season, out of 86 eligible, playing just 414, 340, and 432 snaps respectively. Brandon Meriweather was 77th, leading the position in snaps played for Washington, playing 748 snaps, but he’ll remain as a starter because they don’t have a better option. Now 30 years old, the veteran hasn’t graded out above average in a season in which he played more than 50 snaps (he was limited to 44 in 2012) since 2009. He’s also missed 23 games combined over the past 3 seasons.

At cornerback, the Redskins brought back DeAngelo Hall on a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. It was a weird move. Last off-season, DeAngelo Hall was cut from his large contract by the Redskins and brought back on a cheap one-year deal worth about a million dollars. It made sense. He was going into his age 30 season and had graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of his last 5 seasons, dating back to 2008. The only season he graded out above average was 2010. In 2011, he was Pro Football Focus’ 67th ranked cornerback out of 109 eligible and in 2012 he was 64th out of 115 eligible. He struggled again in 2013, grading out 85th out of 110 eligible and, now going into his age 31 season, I thought he’d have to settle for another cheap one year deal on the open market. I guess the Redskins had different idea. He should continue to struggle this season.

The Redskins didn’t bring back Josh Wilson this off-season. Wilson isn’t very good, grading out 76th among cornerbacks, but his absence will mean a bigger role for 2nd year player David Amerson, who graded out 84th last season (including 93rd in pure coverage grade) on 694 snaps as the 3rd cornerback. Rookie cornerbacks tend to struggle so the Redskins are obviously hoping that Amerson can be improved in his 2nd year in the league and turn into a functional starting cornerback, especially since they currently lack one of those on their roster, but there are no guarantees.

Wilson leaving also meant that the Redskins had to find a new #3 cornerback and to fill that role they, for some reason, gave a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal to Tracy Porter. Porter was Pro Football Focus’ 106th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season with Oakland and 91st out of 109 eligible in 2011 with New Orleans, with an injury plagued season in Denver in between (316 snaps in 6 snaps). He hasn’t graded out above average since 2009 and his career has gone severely downhill since he scored a pick six in the Super Bowl in his 2nd year in the league in 2009. He wasn’t worth much more than a minimum deal, but the Redskins overpaid him and locked him into a significant role. It’s an overall horrible secondary on a defense that should continue to be very easy to move the chains on.

Grade: C-

Conclusion

The Redskins will be better this season. I mentioned in the opening that teams that have big win improvements, on average, decline by half that amount the following season. Well the opposite is also true. That would put the Redskins at 6-7 wins if they fall in line with the average. Robert Griffin should be healthy this season, play the whole season, and resemble the quarterback he was as a rookie in 2012. New head coach Jay Gruden coming in is the wild card and he won’t maintain his absurd interception rate from 2012, but he should have a very good season.

The Redskins have a lot of offensive skill position players with RG3, Pierre Garcon, DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, and Alfred Morris, but I don’t think that’s going to be enough to get the Redskins back into the playoffs. They had minimal injuries last season outside of Griffin. Their defense will be very easy to move the chains on once again. Their offensive line won’t be nearly as good this season. They won 10 games in 2013, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested that season. They should finish this season in between 2012 and 2013, near that aforementioned 6-7 win range. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them once I’ve finished every team’s write up.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 212014
 

Quarterback

The Giants started last season 0-6, but they were able to finish the season 7-3 and end up at 7-9. A big part of that was that their turnover margin went from -16 in their first 6 games to +1 in their last 10 games. They still finished the season at -15 though, thanks to a 45.10% rate of recovering fumbles, in addition to a few other things. Fortunately, that type of thing tends to be really inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis, especially fumble recovery rates.

Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04.

Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. They also had a league most adjusted games lost from injury and they added a significant amount of talent in free agency.

Given that, it might seem like I think the Giants are going to be significantly improved this season. I think they will, but that might not show up in their record. They went 7-9 but they had a -89 point differential, ranked 27th in DVOA, and 26th in rate of moving the chains. Their 7 wins came against opponents that finished a combined 42-68-2, 24-55-1 if you exclude the two playoff teams they beat who were starting backup quarterbacks (Green Bay with Scott Tolzien and Philadelphia with Michael Vick).

The biggest wild card for the Giants is whether or not Eli Manning can bounce back to form. Manning was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked quarterback in 2009 and 2010, 6th ranked quarterback in 2011, and 8th ranked quarterback in 2012. He completed 61.5% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 113 touchdowns, and 70 interceptions over those 4 seasons from 2009-2012. However, last year, he struggled mightily, grading out 30th out of 42 eligible, completing 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions.

That could just be a down year, but he’s also going into his age 33 season, so it’s a serious concern. His interception rate was 4.9% last season, which should fall back towards his career average of 3.4%. As I mentioned, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis and interception rates tend to be so as well, given that interceptions occur on such a small percent of plays. It’s more accurate to evaluate a quarterback on things like YPA and completion percentage and Eli’s were much lower than they previously were at 57.5% and 6.93 YPA.

If Manning can bounce back, it’ll really help them, as their offense was the main problem last year. They moved the chains at a 64.92% rate (31st in the league), while their defense was actually solid, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.77% rate, 13th in the league. The Giants fired long-time offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride (who was in New York for Eli’s entire career, 2004-2006 as quarterbacks coach and 2007-2013 as offensive coordinator) and replaced him with Ben McAdoo, previously a quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, in an attempt to get Eli turned around. I’m skeptical of whether or not that happens though, as he moves into his mid-30s.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

One thing that would help Eli is if his offensive line could play better. They had 9 players play 100 or more snaps on the offensive line last season and only one of them graded out above average, as the team ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst in pass blocking grade. That one did was first round rookie Justin Pugh. Pugh struggled in pass protection, but he played well as a run blocker and graded out above average overall at right tackle. He could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league and improved as a pass protector.

The Giants also added Geoff Schwartz at left guard and Weston Richburg at center this off-season. Schwartz could easily be their best offensive lineman this season. Schwartz is one of the most underrated players in football and the Giants got a steal getting him for 16.8 million over 4 years with 6.2 million guaranteed. He played well in 2010 with the Panthers, in 11 games at guard and 5 games at tackle. His composite grade would have been 5th among guard and 13th among tackles on Pro Football Focus.

However, he missed the entire 2011 season with injury and was relegated to reserve work in Minnesota in 2012, impressing in limited action. In 2013 with the Chiefs, he played 549 snaps at left guard, right guard, and right tackle and his composite grade would have been 7th among guards and 15th among tackles, despite the limited playing time. Now that he’ll be a full-time starter, Schwartz has the ability to emerge as a top-10 or even a top-5 guard in the NFL.

Richburg, meanwhile, was their 2nd round pick and he could easily be their week 1 starting center. He’ll compete with free agent acquisition JD Walton for the starting job. Walton got 5 million over 2 seasons this off-season, but he’s not very good. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst center as a 3rd round rookie in 2010 and their worst center in 2011. In 2012 and 2013, he missed all but 4 games with an ankle injury and complications. Wichburg should beat him out, even as a 2nd round rookie, and if he can’t, it’s a concern.

The Giants have incumbents at left tackle and right guard to round out the offensive line, two players in William Beatty and Chris Snee, who are both coming off of disappointing seasons. Beatty was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible last season and then broke his leg in the final game of the season. He’s expected to be ready for training camp, but that injury doesn’t help his chances of bouncing back. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, which got him a 5-year, 37.5 million dollar deal, but that’s looking like a mistake.

As good as his 2012 season was, he’s still just a one year wonder. He played a combined 1243 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s had a history of injury problems and, while he was solid from 2009-2011, he has only once been as good as he was in 2012. Now coming off of another significant injury, his chances of bouncing back to 2012 form is really unlikely, but I do expect him to be better than he was last season.

Meanwhile, at right guard, Chris Snee is coming off of a season in which he struggled and missed 13 games with injury. Now going into his age 32 season, there is still concern that Snee isn’t healthy and his status for the start of the season is in doubt at the moment. He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked guard in 2012 and he has a history of dominance, grading out above average in 5 of 6 seasons from 2007-2012, including #1 in 2007, #2 in 2008, and #3 in 2009, but those days could easily be long gone, even if he can get onto the field.  There are rumors that he’ll announce his retirement in the next couple of weeks.

The Giants’ top reserve at right guard behind Snee is John Jerry, who was signed as a free agent to a near minimum contract. He’s started 32 games over the past 2 seasons in Miami, so he has experience, but he’s graded out below average in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. Still, he’s never been terrible and, as far as backups go, Jerry is a pretty good one. The Giants are in semi-competent hands if Snee can’t get on the field or needs to be benched. It’s an improved offensive line, but there are still a lot of issues.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Giants also kind of remade their receiving corps this off-season. Hakeem Nicks is gone, after the once dominant wideout saw his abilities sapped by injury and graded out below average last season. To replace him, the Giants used their first round pick on Odell Beckham, a wide receiver from LSU. He’s talented, but rookie wide receivers rarely do anything. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies.

Beckham will probably start the season as the 3rd wide receiver and guys like Rueben Randle and Jerrel Jernigan will get bigger roles as a result of Nicks’ absence. Randle was a 2nd round pick in 2012 who graded out above average on 250 snaps as a rookie and below average on 589 snaps last season. He’s caught 60 of 108 targets (55.6%) for 909 yards and 9 touchdowns on 580 routes run in his career, an average of 1.57 yards per route run. The Giants will be hoping for a 3rd year breakout year from him.

Jerrel Jernigan, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2011. He played a combined 41 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he was very good on 221 snaps last season, catching 29 passes on 42 attempts (69.0%) for 329 yards and a touchdown on 147 routes run, an average of 2.24 yards per route run. He’s still unproven, but he’s shown himself deserving of a bigger role. He’s currently the 4th receiver, but he could see 300-400 snaps, rotating with Randle and Beckham. We’ll see how he handles it this season.

Victor Cruz remains as the #1 wide receiver and an every down player. He also moves to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. The undrafted free agent from the University of Massachusetts in 2010, Cruz didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Over the past 3 seasons though, he’s caught 241 passes on 376 attempts (64.1%) for 3626 yards and 23 touchdowns on 1541 routes run, an average of 2.35 yards per route run. He hasn’t been quite as good as his numbers have suggested, grading out 28th on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 44th in 2012, and 44th in 2013, but he’s still a very solid wide receiver.

The bigger issue for the Giants is at tight end. 2013 starter Brandon Myers wasn’t very good, but he’s gone and so is talented blocking specialist Bear Pascoe. They didn’t replace either of them. Adrien Robinson is penciled in as the starter. He’s incredibly athletic (6-4 264 4.58), but he was incredibly raw when the Giants drafted him in the 4th round in 2012 and he’s played just 3 snaps in 2 seasons, including none last season. The off-season reports about him haven’t been that great either.

The problem is their competition for him isn’t much better. Larry Donnell is the only tight end who played a snap for the Giants last season who remains on the roster, but the 2012 undrafted rookie struggled mightily on 109 snaps in his first season of NFL action. Kellen Davis and Daniel Fells are the veteran options, but neither is likely to make a positive impact. Fells is going into his age 31 season, after being out of the league last season and playing 308 snaps as a blocking specialist in 2012. Davis, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked pass catching tight end in 2012, catching 19 passes on 44 attempts (43.2%) for 229 yards and 2 touchdowns on 362 routes run, an average of 0.63 yards per route run. He also dropped 8 passes. Last season, he played just 156 snaps. There isn’t anything resembling a starting caliber tight end here.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Giants also added a new starting running back this off-season, signing Rashad Jennings to a 4-year deal worth 10 million with 2.98 million dollars guaranteed to come over from Oakland. Jennings was impressive last season, taking the starting job away from the struggling Darren McFadden mid-season. He rushed for 733 yards and 6 touchdowns on 163 carries, an average of 4.50 YPC, and also added 36 catches for 292 yards, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked running back overall, on 567 snaps.

The issue is that he’s a one year wonder. He didn’t play a snap in 2011 thanks to injuries and then rushed for 283 yards and 2 touchdowns on 101 carries in 2012, 2.80 YPC. In his career, he’s rushed for 1677 yards and 13 touchdowns on 387 carries (4.33 YPC), catching 97 passes for 746 yards. He’s never played all 16 games in a season and has only played 53 out of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 7th round in 2009. He’s also already going into his age 29 season, after being 24 years old when he was drafted. The Giants are counting on him to be a” bell cow” feature back, but there are no guarantees obviously.

If Jennings doesn’t work out, the Giants have Andre Williams, who they drafted in the 4th round of this past draft. David Wilson is the wild card of the bunch. Wilson was drafted in the first round in 2012 and, after 358 yards and 4 touchdowns on 71 attempts as a rookie (5.04 YPC), Wilson was set to become the feature back in 2013 with Ahmad Bradshaw gone and Andre Brown injured. However, he had issues with fumbling and then suffered a significant neck injury, so he was limited to 146 yards and a touchdown on 44 attempts, an average of 3.31 YPC. He’s expected to be good to go for 2014, but he’s a serious injury risk, he’s fumble prone, and he only has 121 career touches, so it’s really tough to know what to expect from him going into his 3rd year in the league, even if he was a high draft pick.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Giants had a ton of injuries last season. The biggest injury was to Jason Pierre-Paul, who had back and shoulder problems. JPP didn’t miss that many games, missing 5, but he was a shell of his normal self, grading out just about average on 583 snaps, grading out below average as a pass rusher and above average as a run stopper. Jason Pierre-Paul has 9 sacks over the past 2 seasons combined, after 16 sacks in 2011, but he’s only had one down year.

In 2012, he had only 7 sacks, but he also had 4 hits and 45 hurries, giving him a solid 10.7% pass rush rate on 523 pass rush snaps. He was even better against the run and overall graded out 3rd overall on Pro Football Focus among 4-3 defensive ends. That’s actually better than his 2011 breakout year, when he graded out 6th at his position. He wasn’t as good against the run and he only had a 9.7% pass rush rate, with 16 sacks, 14 hits, and 26 hurries on 580 pass rush snaps. JPP is expected to be 100% this season and, only going into his age 25 season, he has a very good chance to bounce back and be a top defensive end again.

The Giants will need him to be because they lost Justin Tuck, who had a vintage year last year, stepping up in JPP’s absence, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Tuck is now in Oakland. To replace him and the 896 snaps he played last season, the Giants will be giving a bigger role to 2nd year defensive end Damontre Moore and they added Robert Ayers through free agency. Moore was a 3rd round pick of the Giants in 2013 and struggled on 136 snaps as a rookie. How he’ll fare in a larger role is completely unknown at the moment.

Ayers, meanwhile, comes over from Denver. Robert Ayers was a bust as the 18th overall pick in 2009 because he never developed beyond being a solid rotational player, but he’s still a solid rotational player. He had his best season in his contract year in 2013, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end, excelling against the run, ranking 6th at his position in that aspect. He only played 514 snaps and he’s never been as good as that in the past, but it was still an impressive season from him. He At 6-3 274, he’s a better run stuffer than pass rusher, but he also has the ability to move inside and play some defensive tackle in sub packages as sort of a Justin Tuck-lite for the Giants.

Mathias Kiwanuka will also play some snaps, though not as many as he did last season, when he played 892 snaps and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 42 eligible. He’s never been that terrible, but he’s going into his age 31 season and he graded out below average in 2012 as well, playing at 4-3 outside linebacker that season. The hybrid was Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 43 eligible in 2012. He’ll play a situational role as a 4-3 defensive end this season.

Along with Justin Tuck, the Giants also lost Linval Joseph to free agency this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked defensive tackle last season. He’ll be replaced by promising youngster Johnathan Hankins, a 2013 2nd round pick who excelled on 195 snaps as a rookie. Despite the limited playing time, he still would have been Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle if eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better than him, both as a run stopper and overall. He’s still unproven and he struggled as a pass rusher, but, at the very least, he should be solid in base packages.

The Giants also have a pair of veterans at the position in Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson. Jenkins is going into his age 33 season and has seen his abilities decline over the past 2 seasons, grading out below average in 2012 and about average in 2013, doing so on 718 snaps last season. He’ll remain the starter, but he could easily see fewer snaps this season. Patterson, meanwhile, is going into his age 31 season and has graded out below average in each of his last 2 seasons, doing so on 413 snaps last season. He’ll have a backup role again this season and could be pushed by 3rd round rookie Jay Bromley. Most likely, Bromley will have to wait for 2015 for a bigger role, when Patterson could be gone as a free agent and when Jenkins could be a cap casualty, owed 2.2 million non-guaranteed going into his age 34 season.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

As many injuries as the Giants had last season, one of their most injury prone players held up for the whole season. That player is Jon Beason, who they acquired from Carolina mid-season. After missing 27 of 32 games from 2011-2012 with a variety of injuries, Beason only missed 1 game last season and played in 12 of 12 games with the Giants. However, he suffered a foot injury this off-season and could miss the first month of the season, very concerning when you consider his injury history. That could really put him behind the 8-ball.

He’ll be replaced in the meantime by Jameel McClain, who has struggled mightily in each of the last 2 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 41st ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible in 2012 on 753 snaps with Baltimore. The Ravens only played him on 376 snaps in 2013, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He graded out above average in every season from 2009-2011, but those days seem behind him. He should struggle in every down work in the middle in Beason’s absence.

Beason won’t be much better though. He graded out above average in 3 of his first 4 seasons in the league from 2007-2010, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked middle linebacker in 2009 and getting a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal before the 2011 season, but he’s not the same player after dealing with all those injuries. He was demoted to two-down work in Carolina upon his return and then benched completely and traded to the Giants for a late round pick.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible with the Giants last season, including 52nd out of 55 eligible in coverage. The popular narrative by people who just look at tackle totals is that he got his career back together last season, but he’s simply not that kind of player any more. The Giants overpaid him on a 3-year, 16.8 million dollar extension this off-season. Things won’t be better for him as he comes off of a serious foot injury and after missing all of training camp, the pre-season, and the first month or so of the season. He’s also a significant re-injury risk.

McClain is expected to play a two-down, base package role outside when Beason is healthy, which is probably a better fit for him. The Giants also have Spencer Paysinger and Jacquian Williams, who played 707 and 622 snaps respectively last season, both grading out about average. One of them will probably be an every down player at outside linebacker this season. Paysinger is probably their best bet. Both were rookies in 2011, Paysinger an undrafted rookie and Williams a 6th round rookie. Paysinger only played 187 snaps in his first 2 years in the league, but he flashed on those 187 snaps. Williams, meanwhile, played 814 snaps over those 2 seasons and struggled. He should have a more limited role than Paysinger this season. Both will see the field at the same time frequently when Beason is hurt.

Grade: C+

Secondary

I mentioned in the opening that the Giants added a lot in free agency this off-season. The area they added the most to was their secondary. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was their biggest addition, signing a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. That’s a risky move considering his inconsistent history, but it could pay off if he plays his best. A 2008 1st round pick, DRC made the Pro-Bowl in 2009 and looked on his way towards cementing his place as one of the league’s best cornerbacks, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback that year.

However, 2010 was the exact opposite for him, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ dead last ranked cornerback, which turned him into a throw-in to Philadelphia in the Kevin Kolb trade. His tenure in Philadelphia wasn’t good, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 84th ranked cornerback out of 109 eligible in 2011 and 91st ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible in 2012 as part of a massively disappointing Philadelphia secondary. That earned him a one-year prove it deal in Denver, worth about 4 million dollars, but he did prove it, grading out 6th among cornerbacks. There’s no guarantee he doesn’t struggle and coast now that he’s gotten paid though.

Prince Amukamara remains as the opposite starter. He only played 144 snaps as a rookie because of injuries, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons as a starter. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked cornerback in 2012 on 741 snaps (missing another 3 games with injury) and then was even better, grading out 34th on 1108 snaps in 2013. The Giants picked up his 5th year option for 2015 and he could have his best year in the NFL this season. He’s a solid young player.

On the slot, the Giants have another free agent acquisition, Walter Thurmond. I was concerned that someone would overpay Thurmond, after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback last season on just 480 snaps, dominating on the slot, ranking 7th in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks, allowing 0.85 yards per coverage snap on the slot on 229 snaps. He’s still a one year wonder, playing a combined 590 snaps in 2010-2012 after going in the 4th round in the 2010 NFL Draft. He’s only played a combined 1070 snaps in 4 years in his career. He has a significant injury history, dating back to his collegiate days. He also is only proven on the slot, not outside, and doesn’t have much experience without Seattle’s dominant defense around him.

The Giants didn’t overpay for him though, giving him 3 million over 1 season. The fact that it’s a one year deal means that there won’t be long-term issues with this deal if he gets hurt, proves to be a one-year wonder, or struggles without Seattle’s supporting cast. He joins a team that has two starting outside cornerbacks. It’s also inexpensive enough that the Giants aren’t committing a ton of money just to a slot cornerback. In the short-term, there are no guarantees he continues to be a dominant slot cornerback, but he could easily be solid in that role this season in a part-time role.

The Giants also brought back Stevie Brown this off-season to a 1-year prove it deal worth 2.775 million. Brown was a big part of their 2012 defense, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL. The 2010 7th round pick only played a combined 163 snaps from 2010-2011, but broke out in 2012 with the Giants, intercepting 8 passes and playing 846 snaps. He wasn’t quite as good as the 8 interceptions would suggest because you can’t go just on pure interception totals, but he was still an above average safety on Pro Football Focus, grading out as their 27th ranked safety in 2012.

He’s still a one year wonder and he’s coming off of a serious injury that could sap his explosiveness this season, which is why a one-year prove it deal made a lot of sense, but he could easily be an asset for them this season. He’ll essentially replace Will Hill. He won’t be nearly as good as Hill though, after Hill was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked safety last season. The supremely talented Hill went undrafted in 2011 because of character concerns. Hill showed that supreme talent last season, but he’s also shown his character concerns, getting arrested once and suspended three times since entering the league. He was suspended for 6 games for 2014 this off-season and the Giants waived him. Despite his talent, he went through waivers unclaimed, which suggests the league might just be done with him. Either way, Brown is likely a downgrade.

The other starting safety will continue to be Antrel Rolle. Rolle was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked safety last year, but that’s not typical for him. He graded out below average in 5 of 6 seasons since 2007-2012, bottoming out in 2011, when he graded out 85th out of 87 eligible safeties. He’s now going into his age 32 season, which makes it even less likely he’ll repeat what he did last season. I expect average play from him at best, though this is overall a solid secondary on a defense that has a good chance to remain an average stop unit.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Giants were one of the worst teams in the league last season, worse than their record. They should be an improved team this year with fewer injuries, a better turnover margin, and talent coming in this off-season through free agency. However, that might not necessarily show up in their record as they weren’t as good as their 7-9 record suggested last season. Eli Manning is the wild card here, given how important the quarterback position is. If Manning continues to decline, the Giants could be one of the worst teams in the NFL. I’ll have an official wins prediction for the Giants after I do every team’s write up.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 192014
 

Quarterback

Cowboys fans must be sick of going 8-8, after the last 3 seasons ended in the same way, with the team finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs after losing essentially a divisional play-in game week 17. The good news is that the Cowboys could be pretty bad this season, so Cowboy fans won’t have to worry about the monotony. This team was a lot worse than their 8-8 record suggested as they finished 22nd in rate of moving the chains differential, at -3.51%. They were very reliant on a +10 turnover margin and a 66.67% fumble recovery rate to be successful last season.

Their offense was really strong, moving the chains at a 74.15% rate, 9th in the NFL. However, their defense was horrible, ranking dead last in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 77.66% rate. That should remain the case this season. The Cowboys spent their first round pick (16th overall) on Zack Martin, who will slot in immediately as a guard and help their offense. However, they also lost DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher on defense this off-season.

They have Henry Melton coming in as a free agent and Anthony Spencer coming back from injury, but both are coming off of serious leg injuries and the latter’s status for the start of the season is still very much in doubt. 2nd round rookie DeMarcus Lawrence is going to have to play a significant role as a rookie and their top defensive player, middle linebacker Sean Lee, is already out for the season with a torn ACL. Like last season, when they allowed 388 first downs and 50 touchdowns to 61 punts, they’re going to have a hard time getting off the field defensively without forcing turnovers, which obviously can’t be relied on.

Let’s start with the good though, meaning their strong offense. Tony Romo is obviously the quarterback of that offense. Romo takes an unnecessary amount of heat because he’s the Cowboys’ quarterback, so every mistake he makes is magnified and last season every mistake he made was especially magnified because of how bad their defense was. However, he’s coming off of a very strong season, completing 63.9% of his passes for an average of 7.16 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, a QB rating of 96.7. For his career, he completes 64.6% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 208 touchdowns, and 101 interceptions.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked quarterback last season, including 7th in passing grade. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 7 seasons since 2007, including 8th in 2007, 16th in 2009, 9th in 2010, 9th in 2011, 10th in 2012, and, of course, 13th last season. The concern with Romo isn’t a lack of clutch (whatever that means). It’s that he’s going into his age 34 season coming off of a significant back injury with his YPA declining in every season since 2011 (8.02 YPA, 7.57 YPA, 7.16 YPA) and his completion percentage declining in every season since 2010 (69.5%, 66.3%, 65.6%, 63.9%).

He had a strong interception rate (1.9%) last season, but interceptions happen on such a small percentage of snaps that it’s better to evaluate quarterbacks on YPA and completion percentage. That interception rate should be closer to his career rate of 2.7% this season. That’s not bad, but if he declines and throws an interception on 3% of attempts and continues to see his YPA and completion percentage drop as he ages coming off of back surgery, it’s an issue. I’m not that concerned yet, but it’s something to note.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, Zack Martin was the Cowboys’ first round pick in this past draft, going 16th overall. He’ll instantly slot in at one guard spot, forcing Mackenzy Bernadeau and Ronald Leary, the starters last season, to compete for the other starting job. He might not be an upgrade as a rookie over what either of those two was last season, but both of those two can’t be counted on going forward for different reasons and Martin has far more long-term upside.

Leary struggled last season as a 16 game starter, grading out 54th out of 81 eligible guard last season, after the 2012 undrafted free agent didn’t play a snap as a rookie. He’s unlikely to get much better going forward given his history and his draft status, so Mackenzy Bernadeau is probably the better choice at the other guard spot. However, Bernadeau’s history is shaky as well. While he was the Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard in 2013, he graded out well below average at both guard and center in 2012 in his first year as a starter. Before that, he played an average of 352 snaps per season in Carolina from 2008-2011 after being drafted in the 7th round in 2008, grading out above average only once, in 2011, when he played just 125 snaps.

There was some talk that Martin, a collegiate offensive tackle, could play right tackle for the Cowboys and move Doug Free inside to guard. That’s not going to happen, but Martin could still end up at right tackle at some point as Free will be a free agent going into his age 31 season next off-season. As for 2014, Free will line up at right tackle, but it’s tough to know what to expect from him. The 2007 4th round pick played a combined 17 snaps in his first 2 years in the league and then broke out as a starter at right tackle in 2009, grading out 30th on 571 snaps.

He was even better in 2010 on the blindside, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked offensive tackle. However, he then struggled in 2011, grading out 51st out of 76 eligible and was moved back to right tackle. That positional move didn’t really help him in 2012, as he graded out 68th out of 80 eligible. The Cowboys slashed his salary for 2013 and 2014 and he responded well, grading out 20th among offensive tackles at right tackle last season. There’s obviously no guarantee he can be as good as that again in 2014 given his history, but he saved his job for 2014 with a strong 2013 season.

The Cowboys also have a pair of former 1st round picks at left tackle and center in Tyron Smith and Travis Frederick respectively, giving them three former 1st round picks on the offensive line, including Martin. Smith is the better of the two. The 2011 9th overall pick graded out 3rd in 2011 and 7th in 2013, with a down 2012 season in between, when he graded out slightly below average. He played right tackle as a rookie, had some growing pains at left tackle in 2012, but then put it all together last season. Only going into his age 24 season, Smith is one of the better young left tackles in the game. The Cowboys picked up his 5th year option for 2015.

Frederick isn’t as good as Smith, but he’s still a strong offensive lineman. He was a surprise pick as the 31st overall pick in 2013, but he impressed as a rookie, grading out 7th at his position. He struggled in pass protection, grading out 32nd out of 35 eligible in that aspect, which is unfortunate considering pass protection is more important than run blocking, but he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked run blocking center and he could be even better in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. It’s a strong offensive line overall.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Cowboys also have plenty of talent in the receiving corps. Dez Bryant is the leader of this unit, though he’s not quite as good as his numbers would suggest. He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in 2010 as a first round rookie, 12th in 2011, 40th in 2012, and 14th in 2013. He’s averaged 1.97 yards per route run in his 4 year career and caught 63.1% of his targets, which is above average, but not fantastic. He’s averaged 2.09 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons, but he’s also dropped 22 passes. Still, he’s going into his age 26 season only and he could have a very big contract year.

The Cowboys got rid of Miles Austin this off-season, after the injury plagued, aging former 1000 yard receiver caught just 22 passes for 244 yards in 11 games last season and averaged 0.76 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 100th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in terms of pure pass catching grade last season. He could have bounced back this season, but it was his age 30 season and he was owed a lot of money so the Cowboys are going to move forward with some young receivers after Bryant on the depth chart.

The heavy favorite to be the #2 wide receiver is Terrence Williams, who was 2nd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver last season with 700, ahead of the injury plagued Austin. The 3rd round rookie caught 44 passes on 72 targets (61.1%) for 736 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns on 490 routes run, an average of 1.50 yards per route run, which isn’t great. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus overall and actually ranked 89th out of 111 eligible in pure pass catching grade. Still, he has upside and he could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league considering rookie wide receivers rarely do anything.

Meanwhile, 3rd year wide receiver Cole Beasley is going to have a significantly bigger role this season as the slot receiver. The 2012 undrafted free agent has played just 375 snaps in 2 seasons, but a ridiculous 312 of them have been routes run. He’s caught 54 passes on 76 attempts (71.1%) for 496 yards and 2 touchdowns, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. He has a lot of potential but the 5-8 177 pounder is only a slot man, running 293 of his 312 routes on the slot (93.9%) and he’s still unproven. We’ll see how he does as the full-time slot man. Their competition behind him and Williams is also really young as Devin Street is a 5th round rookie and Dwayne Harris is primarily a return man who has played 414 snaps in 3 seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2011.

At tight end, Jason Witten remains one of the best and most reliable tight ends in the NFL. Since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2003, he’s missed one game, missing one as a rookie when he broke his jaw. He played in the opener in 2012 less than 3 weeks after rupturing his spleen and needing to sign a waiver to get onto the field. Excluding his rookie year, he’s always been between 64 and 110 catches 754 and 1152 yards and 1 and 7 touchdowns.

He’s also a fantastic run blocker, as the 6-6 261 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker on Pro Football Focus in every season since they started keeping track in 2007. He’s also been a top-9 tight end in each of the last 7 seasons (something no other tight end can say) and a top-4 tight end in 6 of the last 7 seasons on Pro Football Focus, maxing out at #1 in 2009 and 2010 and grading out 3rd last season. He’s going into his age 32 season, which is a concern, but he should still be a dominant tight end.

With a lot of youth at wide receiver, the Cowboys are probably hoping they can run more two-tight end sets this season than last season. They drafted Gavin Escobar in the 2nd round in 2013 for a reason, but he only played 207 snaps as a rookie. He wasn’t bad on those 207 snaps so he could be fine in a bigger role in 2014. If he can’t win the #2 tight end job, it’ll be disappointing and it’ll once again be up to 2012 7th round pick James Hanna to be the #2 tight end. Hanna has played 424 snaps in 2 seasons and struggled mightily on 315 snaps last season, especially struggling as a run blocker. Despite his limited playing time, he still graded out 59th out of 64 eligible tight ends last season. After Bryant and Witten there are question marks in the receiving corps, but there’s young talent.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Cowboys were able to have a well-rounded offense last season because they ran the ball well. They didn’t run that often, running 336 times to 586 passes (something that won’t change with Scott Linehan coming in from Detroit), but they were effective when they ran, rushing for 1504 yards and 12 touchdowns, an average of 4.48 YPC. That’s because DeMarco Murray had the best season of his career, rushing for 1121 yards and 9 touchdowns on 217 attempts, an average of 5.17 YPC. He also added 53 catches for 350 yards and a touchdown through the air.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back overall and had the 7th highest elusive rating last season with 53 broken tackles on 270 touches and 2.71 yards per carry after contact. The Cowboys’ strong run blocking offensive line helped, but he also showed fantastic running ability himself. I’m skeptical whether or not he can repeat that kind of season, given his injury history. He’s been banged up dating back to college, even missing 2 games last season, and missing a combined 11 games in 3 seasons in the league. He’s never played more than 14 games in a season and the 270 touches he had last season blew his previous career high of 196 out of the water.

If Murray misses time, it’ll be a bigger role for Lance Dunbar, who could have a significant role either way. Scott Linehan, coming in from Detroit, sees Dunbar as someone who can be a Reggie Bush/Darren Sproles/Danny Woodhead type weapon so he’ll have a significant role on passing downs and make Murray largely a two-down running back. He won’t see a lot of carries unless Murray gets hurt, but he could see 40-50 catches. The 2012 undrafted free agent has seen 143 carries in 2 seasons in the league.

The 5-8 188 pounder could have trouble carrying the load if Murray gets hurt though so the #3 running back position in Dallas is important. There’s currently a positional battle for that role between Joseph Randle and Ryan Williams. Randle is currently leading the battle, even after struggling mightily on 121 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season. Williams was a 2nd round pick in 2011, but injuries have derailed his career. He’s had injury problems dating back to his days at Virginia Tech and, as a professional, they’ve caused him to be limited to 5 games and 58 carries in his career and caused him to averaged just 2.83 yards per carry. There’s talent at running back with DeMarco Murray, but, because of his history with injuries, he’s unlikely to match what he did last season and their depth at the position is less than ideal given that situation.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Cowboys’ offense was strong last season, their defense was terrible, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 77.66%, easily worst in the NFL. They had 20 players play at least a snap on the defensive line last season and only two of them graded out positively. As bad as they were defensively last season, they could be even worse this season. The Cowboys had 4 players play more than 100 snaps on defense last season and grade out above average on Pro Football Focus. Two of them (Jason Hatcher and DeMarcus Ware) are gone, while another one (Sean Lee) is out for the season with injury.

When the Cowboys lost Jason Hatcher this off-season, their defensive tackles might have been the single worst position group any team had at any position in the NFL. Fortunately, they signed Henry Melton from Chicago, who reunites with former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, but he’s coming off of a torn ACL and a rough start to the 2013 season, in which he struggled mightily on 125 snaps before getting hurt.

He could return to form this season, back with Marinelli, and he’s still young, only going into his age 28 season, but ACL injuries are tricky. At his best, he’s a very good defensive tackle and the 6-3 260 pounder is a fantastic fit as a one gap penetrator in a scheme like Marinelli’s. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 14th ranked defensive tackle in 2011 (grading out well above average as a pass rusher and below average as a run stopper in both seasons), after struggling on a combined 353 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league after being drafted in the 4th round in 2009. A return to form would obviously really help this defense, but there are no guarantees.

After him, the depth chart at defensive tackle is pathetic. Nick Hayden led the defensive line in snaps played last season with 843. That’s absurd because Hayden was out of the league in 2012, played 33 snaps in 2011, and struggled mightily in his last significant action in 2010, grading out 68th out of 76 eligible defensive tackles on just 484 snaps. He played about as well as you’d expect him to last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle, showing himself to be extremely overstretched in such a large role. I don’t expect him to be any better this season. He could have a smaller role, but anyone else who plays significant snaps at the position won’t be much better.

The biggest competitor for Hayden’s starting job is Terrell McClain, a 2011 3rd round pick who is already on his 4th team. He’s graded out below average in each of the three seasons he’s been in the league and he’s played a combined 203 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined. In his only season of significant action as a rookie in 2011, he graded out 83rd out of 88 eligible defensive tackles on just 481 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. He won’t be much of an upgrade over Hayden if he wins the starting job. They really need Melton to stay healthy. If he can’t, McClain and Hayden would both have to start and the 3rd defensive tackle would be 7th round rookie Ken Bishop. The fact that Bishop is currently their 4th defensive tackle just reinforces how bad things are at the position.

As I mentioned, the Cowboys also lost DeMarcus Ware this off-season. Ware is on the decline, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end last season, on an otherwise horrible defense. The Cowboys will attempt to replace him with a combination of Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Lawrence. Spencer has a very impressive history. The 2007 1st round pick was a top-11 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons from 2008-2012, including 4 as an every down starter and topping at #1 overall in 2012. As a result, he was franchise tagged by the Cowboys twice, but he played just 38 snaps on his 2nd franchise tag in 2013, missing most of the season with a knee injury.

He was brought back on a one year, prove it deal this off-season, but he’s going into his age 30 season and coming off of serious microfracture surgery and reports haven’t been good. He’s reportedly out of shape, not close to on schedule in terms of his recovery, and could begin the season on the reserve/PUP list, which would cost him the first 6 games and put him severely behind the 8-ball. His health is something to monitor throughout training camp and the pre-season, if he’s even able to get onto the field then. Lawrence, meanwhile, is a 2nd round rookie who will be counted on in a significant role as a rookie, especially if Spencer can’t stay healthy.

George Selvie will remain the starter on the other side. In an overall very bad year for the Cowboys’ defense, one of the positives was Selvie. He wasn’t great or anything and he didn’t even grade out above average (grading out slightly below average, 27th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive end), but it was nice to see the one-time dominant college pass rusher finally make a positive contribution. He had 14 sacks as a sophomore in 2007, but he combined for just 8 sacks in 2008 and 2009 and ended up falling to the 7th round of the 2010 NFL draft. In the first 3 seasons of his career, he combined to play 662 snaps, struggling when on the field, but Rod Marinelli was able to get the most out of him last season and get him to give at least some positive contributions. However, he’s still very much a one year wonder so he could regress in 2014.

One defensive end who could get a significant role, especially if Spencer can’t play, is Jeremy Mincey, a free agent acquisition and their 4th defensive end. Mincey was a 6th round pick in 2006 and played just 166 snaps from 2007-2009, before breaking out as a solid starter in 2010 and an above average starter in 2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That convinced the Jaguars to give him a 20 million dollar deal over 4 years with 9 million guaranteed. Mincey then proved that his 2011 season was a fluke, grading out 47th out of 62 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and then getting cut midway through 2013, combining for just 304 snaps on the season between Jacksonville and Denver. He could bounce back this season, but he’s already going into his age 31 season. The Cowboys’ defensive line, overall, might be even worse than it was last season.

Grade: C

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Cowboys also lost Sean Lee in addition to DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher. It’s usually tough to know how a team will play without a certain guy, but Lee also missed 5 games with injury last season (this torn ACL will make it 31 games missed 3 games) so we have some reference point. The Cowboys’ defense was awful overall, but they were even worse without Lee, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 79.51% rate in the 6 games in which Lee played fewer than 50% of snaps, as opposed to 76.60% in the other 10 games.

Lee is incredibly talented, but has injury problems dating back to his days at Penn State, which is why he fell to the 2nd round in 2012. As a professional, he’s missed 18 games over the past 4 seasons combined with another 16 on the horizon, but he’s been dominant when on the field, grading out 7th in 2013 on 717 snaps and 8th in 2012 on 331 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher in 2012. He was 14th at his position in 2011 and excelled on 169 snaps in 2010, grading out 16th at his position, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher.

Lee will be replaced at middle linebacker by Justin Durant, who played 202 snaps in a two-down role last season, grading out slightly below average. Prior to last year, he had graded out above average in each of his first 6 seasons in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2007. He averaged 620 snaps per season over those 6 seasons, playing both outside and inside linebacker. He’s never been spectacular, but he had always been solid prior to last season. He struggled last season, but he’s only going into his age 29 season, so he could bounce back. The issue is that he struggles in coverage, grading out below average in that aspect in 4 of 6 seasons, as good as he is against the run, so he could be limited to two-down work, as he often has been in his career.

DeVonte Holloman took over for Lee when he was hurt last season, but the 6th round rookie was horrible in 2013. He played just 214 snaps as a rookie, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th worst ranked middle linebacker despite the limited playing time, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse. The wild card in the linebacking corps is Rolando McClain. The Cowboys took a long shot trading a late round pick to the Ravens for him.

McClain was out of the league completely last year after “retiring” after his 3rd year in the league in 2012. He got kicked off the Raiders’ roster in 2012 because of issues with his coaching, got signed by the Ravens, but then retired after his 3rd arrest since being drafted. However, he was the 8th overall pick in 2010, graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league, including 14th in 2010 and 11th in 2012, and is only going into his age 25 season, so it was a worthwhile gamble, there’s just no guarantee it works out. He’s had a variety of issues and is reportedly out of shape after his year off. The Cowboys also used a 4th round pick on Anthony Hitchens.

Any of the players who lose the middle linebacker battle can play the two-down role outside, where Durant played last season. Right now, the Cowboys have Durant as an every down player inside and Kyle Wilbur playing a two-down role on the outside. Wilbur, unfortunately, is definitely only a two-down player. The 6-4 246 pounder is a converted defensive end who has struggled at defensive end and linebacker on 529 snaps in 2 seasons after going in the 4th round in 2012. Things are very much up for grabs in the linebacking corps.

The one thing that is certain is that Bruce Carter will be an every down player on the outside. The 2011 2nd round pick was supposed to have a breakout year last year, but, like the rest of the defense, he struggled, grading out 32nd out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He struggled on 41 snaps as a rookie, but graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker in 2012. A lot of people thought he would breakout in his 3rd year in the league back at his natural position of outside linebacker, but that didn’t happen. His future now looks a lot bleaker than it did last season, going into his contract year, and, on top of that, he’s missed 12 games in 3 seasons due to injury. The 6-2 240 pounder played well in coverage, but struggled mightily against the run, showing a lack of physicality that’s been an issue for him dating back to his collegiate days. This unit is pretty bad without Sean Lee.

Grade: C-

Secondary

I mentioned that the Cowboys had 4 defensive players who played more than 100 snaps and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. DeMarcus Ware and Jason Hatcher are gone, while Sean Lee is hurt. The 4th one was cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked cornerback. He struggled mightily against the run, but dominated in coverage, grading out 15th in that aspect. He was forced into the starting lineup (starting 15 games and playing 1118 snaps) because Morris Claiborne struggled and got demoted to 3rd cornerback.

He’ll compete with Claiborne to keep that starting job. The Cowboys traded up in 2012 to draft Claiborne 6th overall, but he’s largely been a bust through the first 2 seasons of his career. He graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, doing so as a starter in 2012 and as the #3 cornerback in 2013. There are no guarantees that Scandrick can continue to hold him off though and not even necessarily because Claiborne is ready to breakout or anything. Scandrick has a very inconsistent history at best. Scandrick graded out below average in 3 of his first 5 seasons in the league from 2008-2012 and never graded out above average in a season he played more than 395 snaps before last season. There are no guarantees he can keep it up and hold off Claiborne.

Brandon Carr remains locked in as the other starter by virtue of his absurd salary, 7.5 million. The Cowboys gave him a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar contract with 25.5 million guaranteed  before the 2012 season, but he’s only graded out about average in his first 2 seasons in Dallas. He got that deal because he was very good in Kansas City, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback in 2009, 12th ranked cornerback in 2010, and 30th ranked cornerback in 2011. That player seems to be gone so this could be easily be Carr’s last season in Dallas, owed a non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary in 2015.

Things aren’t terrible at cornerback, but they are at safety. Barry Church was their best safety last season and he is locked in at one starting spot. He didn’t even grade out above average, though he wasn’t terrible. The other starting spot has bigger problems, as JJ Wilcox and Jeff Heath will battle for the other starting job. They played 530 and 613 snaps respectively last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 57th and 62nd ranked safeties respectively out of 86 eligible. Wilcox probably has the better long-term potential, as he was a 3rd round pick in 2013, while Heath was an undrafted rookie last year, but it’s very possible that neither is the solution at that position. It’s a defense that has the potential to be truly terrible and once again the worst in the NFL.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Cowboys were significantly worse than their record last season because of a horrific defense and this year their defense could easily be even worse without Jason Hatcher, DeMarcus Ware, and Sean Lee. That could make them one of the worst teams in the league, even if they have a solid offense. Last year, the only way their defense could get off the field was forcing turnovers, which isn’t sustainable, especially since they needed to recover 66.67% of fumbles to do that. They should be completely awful on that side of the ball. I’ll have an official wins prediction when I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 162014
 

Quarterback

The Eagles made the head coaching splash of last off-season, hiring supposed offensive mastermind Chip Kelly from the University of Oregon. There was no doubt that Kelly’s offenses were explosive and revolutionary on the collegiate level, but it still remained to be seen whether or not that could translate to the NFL level. Things started out sluggish, but that was mostly because Michael Vick was the quarterback.

Kelly actually did a solid job with Vick given what he was working with, as Vick completed 54.6% of his passes for an average of 8.62 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns on 36 carries. He did that despite grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible in passing grade, which suggests that much of his production was a result of the system, the coaching, and the talent around him.

However, things with this offense really took off when Vick was benched for 2nd year player Nick Foles. Foles broke into the lineup because of a Vick injury (what else) and took the starting job and ran with it, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He led the league in QB rating at 119.2, ahead of even Peyton Manning, and finished with the 3rd best QB rating season all time. In games in which Nick Foles started and finished the game, the Eagles moved the chains at a 78.69% rate, as opposed to 70.04% in their other games. That’s the difference between the 2nd and the 20th best offense last season.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback, which is less impressive than his statistics, which again suggests that much of his production was a result of the system, the coaching, and the talent around him. Still, he had a strong season last year and the Eagles have a great combination of quarterback and head coach. The Eagles probably won’t move the chains at a 78.69% rate again next season. It’ll be near impossible for Foles to repeat the 3rd best quarterback rating season all-time, especially not over a full 16 game season.

He definitely won’t throw an interception on just 0.6% of his passes again (2 interceptions on 317 attempts). Opponents also now have a full season of tape of Kelly’s offense, so they won’t catch opponents off guard as much, though part of what makes Kelly so great is his ability to adapt. The Eagles will also have a tougher schedule after they faced the 4th easiest schedule last season in terms of DVOA. Still, they should be one of the top offenses in the NFL, possibly top-5.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One other thing that could easily hurt the Eagles’ offense is the loss of DeSean Jackson. Jackson was coming off of the best season of his career, catching 82 passes on 119 attempts (68.9%) for 1332 receiving yards on 544 routes run (2.45 yards per route run), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked wide receiver. However, he was still cut. There were rumors that he was cut because of potential gang ties he might have, but regardless of whether or not that’s true, it’s more likely that he was cut because he was owed 10.7 million by the Eagles and Chip Kelly felt he could replace Jackson’s production with a number of different players and some schematic changes.

One player who got paid by the Eagles this off-season was Riley Cooper, though he got paid a lot less than DeSean Jackson, re-signing for 22.5 million over 5 years with 10 million guaranteed. Cooper, a 2010 5th round pick, had a breakout year last year, catching 47 passes on 81 attempts (58.0%) for 835 yards on 526 routes run, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. However, he only graded out about average on Pro Football Focus and he’s the definition of a one year wonder.

A year ago, Cooper was the Eagles 4th receiver and had 46 catches for 679 catches and 5 touchdowns in the first 3 years of his career. He struggled to start the 2013 season as well, catching 8 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in his first 5 games in a starting role, before breaking out down the stretch. He had only played 1054 snaps before last season and graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league. He’s a great fit for the Eagles’ offense and Chip Kelly could easily continue to get the most out of him, but he’s a one-year wonder and he could struggle without Jackson opposite him. He’s certainly not the coverage changing receiver that Jackson was.

The more promising wide receiver is Jeremy Maclin. Maclin missed all of last season with a torn ACL. Maclin is actually a more versatile player as compared to Riley Cooper and even DeSean Jackson and I think he can be a strong fit in Chip Kelly’s offense, though he’s yet to play for Kelly in a regular season game. Injuries have been the problem for Maclin throughout his career as the 2009 1st round pick has missed 21 games in 5 years in his career, including all of last season and has only once played all 16 games. He’s averaged 1.57 yards per route run throughout his career. The 2009 1st round pick could have the best season of his career in 2014 if he can stay healthy.

The Eagles also spent a 2nd round pick on a wide receiver to help make up for the loss of DeSean Jackson, drafting Jordan Matthews out of Vanderbilt. Rookie wide receivers tend to struggle in their first year in the league, but he should still be an upgrade on the slot over incumbent Jason Avant, who is in Carolina now. Avant was Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season in pass catching grade, catching 38 passes on 71 attempts (53.5%) for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns on 462 routes run, an average of 0.97 yards per route run. The Eagles also used a 3rd round pick on Josh Huff, but he won’t have much of a role as a rookie. Matthews will because the Eagles frequently go 3-wide, as Avant played 807 snaps last season.

The Eagles will probably play fewer 3-wide sets this season though because one of the other things they’re going to do to make up for the loss of DeSean Jackson is use more two-tight end sets, which is a good idea because they have a pair of talented tight ends. Brent Celek was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked tight end last season, largely because he was their 2nd ranked run blocking tight end, but he still graded out about average as a pass catcher, catching 32 passes on 47 attempts (68.1%) for 502 yards and 6 touchdowns on 319 routes run, an average of 1.59 yards per route run. Celek has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2009, including last year’s #2 finish, a #13 finish in 2011, and a #13 finish in 2009.

Zach Ertz, meanwhile, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked tight end last season as a 2nd round rookie, despite playing just 459 snaps. He too was a solid blocker, but he graded out above average as both a pass catcher in addition to as a run blocker. He caught 36 passes on 55 attempts (65.5%) for 469 yards and 4 touchdowns on 243 routes run, an impressive 1.93 yards per route run. Going into his 2nd year in the league, the 6-5 250 pound Stanford product will have a bigger role and be used all over the formation.

The Eagles also added “running back” Darren Sproles, who will help in the passing game. I put running back in quotations because he’s had 291 catches to 238 carries over the past 4 seasons combined and he wasn’t brought to Philadelphia to help in the running game. He’ll backup feature back LeSean McCoy, but McCoy played 890 snaps last season and his backup played 199 snaps, including 75 carries. Sproles will help out as a versatile weapon in the passing game and often play at the same time as McCoy, lining up in the other side of the backfield and in the slot primarily.

Sproles was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked pass catching running back in 2009, 7th ranked in 2010, 7th ranked in 2011, 5th ranked in 2012, and 1st ranked in 2013. He’s going into his age 31 season, which is a minor concern, but he should still be an asset for them on about 6-8 touches per game. McCoy will also help out in the passing game. He caught 52 passes for 539 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked pass catching running back. The loss of Jackson will hurt, though the Eagles’ system, the return of Jeremy Maclin, the addition of Jordan Matthews, and the greater emphasize on Zach Ertz will help combat that.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Speaking of LeSean McCoy, he was another huge part of this strong offense last season and, unlike Jackson, he’s still around, fortunately. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back last season, grading out by far #1 in run grade and #7 as a pass catcher, only struggling in pass protection. He rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 attempts, an average of 5.12 yards per attempt, and caught 52 passes on 539 yards and 2 touchdowns. He broke 75 tackles on 366 touches and averaged 2.38 yards per carry after contact, giving him the 9th best elusive rating in the NFL.

There’s obviously no guarantee he continues that kind of success. It’s hard to repeat that at any position, especially at running back, especially when you’re a 5-10 198 pounder who had 366 touches (391 including post-season). This was the first time in his career he had graded out above 10th among running backs on Pro Football Focus (55th in 2009, 12th in 2010, 19th in 2011, 10th in 2012), so he’s a one year wonder in terms of this kind of dominance. Still, he’s arguably the best running back in the NFL (Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles give him competition) and he’s a great fit for Chip Kelly’s offense so he could have another dominant season.

As I mentioned, Sproles will be his backup. Sproles is going to be much more valuable as a pass catcher, but he’s also averaged 5.08 yards per carry in his career (2221 yards and 11 touchdowns on 437 attempts). He’s not a good runner inside the tackles and he’s certainly not a guy capable of carrying the load if McCoy goes down with an injury, but he’ll be valuable on 6-8 touches per game. The guy who will be the lead back if McCoy gets hurt is Chris Polk, who will otherwise have a situational short yardage role. The 2012 undrafted free agent is 5-10 222 and has played 47 career snaps, rushing for 98 yards and 3 touchdowns on 11 attempts.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

One of the other reasons why the Eagles had such a good offense last season was their drastically improved offensive line. They weren’t great in pass protection, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive line in that aspect, but they were easily #1 in run blocking, part of why LeSean McCoy was able to have such a good season. Both were better than 2012, when they were 27th in pass protection and 6th in run blocking.

The biggest difference was the return of Jason Peters from injury. Peters missed all of 2012 with a torn Achilles, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 offensive tackle by far in 2011. Upon his return in 2013, he barely seemed slowed at all, grading out 4th at his position. He’s graded out above average in every healthy season since 2007, grading out 14th in 2007, 19th in 2009, and 13th in 2010. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he should still be able to have another strong season on the blindside for the Eagles.

Left guard Evan Mathis remained the best guard in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard for the 3rd straight year. No one at any other position has graded out #1 in each of the last 3 seasons. The Eagles wisely snatched him up from the Bengals before the 2011 season, after he excelled as a reserve in 2010 and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard in 2009 on 648 snaps in 7 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher that season. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector, but he’s great in both aspects. He’s going into his age 33 season, but he should have another dominant season this year, provided he doesn’t hold out (he’s reportedly considering it because he’s unhappy with his deal). There might not be a more dominant player at any position in the NFL.

The Eagles also got a breakout year from 3rd year center Jason Kelce, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked center last season. He’s still a one year wonder though, which is especially concerning considering he was just a 6th round pick in 2011. He struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 33rd out of 35 eligible among centers. In 2012, he flashed on 139 snaps in 2 games before going down for the season with torn ACL and MCL. This is obviously nitpicking and he’s a very good player obviously, but expecting him to be as dominant as he was last year is a little short-sighted. The Eagles signed him to a 6-year, 37.5 million dollar extension this off-season, one that could turn into a steal if Kelce keeps this up, when you consider that fellow centers Alex Mack and Maurkice Pouncey got 42 million and 44 million respectively over 5 seasons this off-season.

Things aren’t as good on the right side. Right guard Todd Herremans’ return from injury in 2013 definitely helped this offensive line, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard. However, he struggled mightily in pass protection, grading out 3rd worst at his position in that aspect. He was dominant as a run blocker, grading out 2nd only to teammate Evan Mathis in that aspect, but his issues in pass protection are concerning, considering that’s the more important part of an offensive lineman’s job and considering he’s going into his age 32 season.

At right tackle, Lane Johnson was an upgrade for them as a rookie, but the 4th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft graded out below average. He was great as a run blocker, grading out 9th in that aspect, but he was 67th out of 76 eligible in pass protection, which, again, is a the more important part of an offensive lineman’s job. He really seemed to be getting it down the stretch last year as the incredibly athletic, but raw Oklahoma product graded out well above average in 5 of his final 8 games and well below average in none. This was after graded out well above average in 2 of his first 8 games and well below average in 5. He also had a strong playoff game. He looked on his way to a breakout 2nd year in the league.

The issue is that Johnson got suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, which will not only cause him to miss 4 games, but could also put him behind in the 8-ball and postpone his breakout year. He could still have a breakout year, but he could just as easily, if not more easily, not. In his absence, Allen Barbre will be the starter. He’s played a combined 94 snaps over the past 4 seasons, struggled the last time he saw significant action, grading out 64th out of 77 eligible on 544 snaps in 2009, and is going into his age 30 season. The Eagles clearly like him, giving him a 3-year extension this off-season worth 4.5 million dollars, but I don’t get it. He’ll be their utility reserve 6th offensive lineman when everyone upfront is in the starting lineup.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

While the Eagles had a great offense last season, they had a poor defense, ranking 22nd, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 73.10% rate. If the Eagles continue to move the chains at a 78.69% rate, as they did last season in games that Nick Foles started and finished, that won’t be a big issue, but if their offense struggles to maintain that type of success over 16 games, with a year of tape on their offense for opponents to watch and no DeSean Jackson, they’re going to be in some trouble. And even if their offense remains prolific, their defense could still hold them back from the next level.

They have talent on the defensive line though. Fletcher Cox was their 1st round pick in 2012 and he has a lot of talent. He graded out above average on 525 snaps as a rookie and then was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season on 908 snaps, in the defensive tackle’s first experience in a 3-4. He’s a significantly better pass rusher than he is a run stopper, but he graded out positive in both aspects this season. Going into his 3rd year in the league, he could continue improving this year and emerge as one of the better players in the league at his position.

Cedric Thornton graded out higher than Cox, grading out 10th at his position, but Cox is the better football player. Thornton is just a one year wonder. He was undrafted and didn’t play a snap as a rookie and then struggled on 406 snaps in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked defensive tackle out of 85 eligible, before last season’s big year. He’s also a terrible pass rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked in that aspect, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked run stopper at his position. The more important aspect of a defensive lineman’s job is to get after the quarterback, so that’s concerning. He’d be better off playing a two-down base package role.

If Thornton moves to a two down role or at least is on the field for fewer than the 436 pass rush snaps he was on the field for last season, it’ll be a gain in snaps for Vinny Curry. That’s a good thing, another reason why Thornton should be moved to a pure base package role. Curry was a 2nd round pick in 2012, but only played 89 snaps as a rookie. The 6-3 266 pounder turned out to be a better fit as a situational interior pass rusher in a 3-4 than he was as a defensive end in a 4-3. Curry was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season, despite just playing 322 snaps, excelling as a pass rusher. He had 5 sacks, 5 hits, and 22 hurries on just 228 pass rush snaps (a rate of 14.0%). He could be even more valuable in a 500 or so snap role with 300-350 pass rush snaps.

The nose tackle will be Bennie Logan, who will play a two-down base package role this season. Logan took over from Isaac Sopoaga mid-season last year, after Sopoaga got traded to the Patriots. Logan struggled on 488 snaps and 8 starts last season, grading out below average. The 2013 3rd round pick could be better in his second year in the league, but he’s not an ideal fit for the nose tackle position at 6-2 309 so he could easily struggle again. Unfortunately, the Eagles don’t have much competition for him. The only true nose tackle on their roster is 7th round rookie Beau Allen, a 6-2 333 pounder out of Wisconsin. There are issues on this defensive line, but it’s probably their best defensive unit.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Things aren’t great in the linebacking corps either, but they do have some talent. I’ll start with the good. Trent Cole had a revival year last year in his first year in a 3-4, as the 6-2 260 pounder graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. I call it a revival year because he struggled by his standards in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked 4-3 defensive end. That was his worst season since 2007 as he had graded out in the top-6 among 4-3 defensive ends in every season from 2008-2011, including #1 in both 2010 and 2011. That was a concern because Trent Cole is an aging player, which remains a concern even after his strong 2013 season. He’s going into his age 32 season. The Eagles drafted Marcus Smith in the 1st round in this past draft with the idea of him being Cole’s long-term replacement, as Cole will be owed 10 million going into his age 33 season in 2015.

Connor Barwin was the opposite starter and will continue to be the opposite starter this season. He played 1158 snaps last season, 120 snaps more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker, including 297 snaps in coverage. That allowed Trent Cole to only have to drop on 124 snaps last season, which was good because the first time linebacker struggled in coverage last season. The issue is that Barwin didn’t really play that well, grading out below average. He was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2011 (after struggling on a combined 377 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2009), but he’s graded out below average in each of the last two seasons, including 30th out of 35 eligible in 2012. He could be better in a smaller role next season.

Another reason why Barwin playing a smaller role next season would be a good thing is because it would be more playing time for Brandon Graham. The 2010 1st round pick was drafted as a defensive end and was impressive as a rookie on 482 snaps, but he suffered a broken leg down the stretch and played just 56 snaps in 2011. He had a fantastic 2012 season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end on just 485 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher at his position, showing that 1st round talent.

However, the Eagles moved to a 3-4 last off-season and Graham was moved to outside linebacker. The coaching staff didn’t feel the 6-1 274 pounder was a good fit for the position, signing Connor Barwin to start over him, limiting Graham to 331 snaps. Still, Graham impressed in that limited playing time, grading out 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher at the position. The Eagles obviously also have Marcus Smith, an aforementioned 2014 1st round pick. They’d be in better shape if they let Barwin be a two-down player and give more pass rush snaps to Graham and Smith. Graham is probably above the rookie on the depth chart, with Smith being brought in primarily for 2015, when Cole could be a cap casualty and Brandon Graham could leave as a free agent.

The Eagles have bigger problems at middle linebacker, where they have an aging veteran and an inexperienced youngster. That aging veteran is DeMeco Ryans, who graded out 53rd out of 55 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus last season and who is going into his age 30 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2012, but that was in a 4-3 and now the Eagles are in a 3-4, a system that the 6-1 229 pounder has never been comfortable in. Ryans has graded out above average in every season in his career in which he’s played in a 4-3, but he was limited to part-time work as a middle linebacker in a 3-4 in 2011 and got himself traded to Philadelphia and then struggled last season back in a 3-4.

The youngster is Mychal Kendricks, who NBC’s Cris Collinsworth is obsessed with for some reason. He graded out below average last season. He missed a position leading 21 tackles and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. He was better than when he was a 2nd round rookie in 2012 and graded out 2nd worst among 4-3 outside linebackers and he could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but he might also just not be that great of a player.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The worst part of the Eagles’ defense is the secondary. It hurts that easily their best coverage player (and only defensive back to grade out above average in coverage) is Brandon Boykin, a 5-9 182 pounder who can only play the slot. The 2012 4th round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked cornerback last season on 635 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He was even better in pure coverage grade, grading out 2nd in that aspect. He also graded out above average on 526 snaps as a rookie. He’s played a combined 107 snaps not on the slot over the past 2 seasons combined and he’ll have to remain purely a slot cornerback this season.

A trio of cornerbacks will compete for the 2 starting jobs, Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher, and Nolan Carroll. Williams and Fletcher were the starters last season. Fletcher graded out above average last season, after being limited to 677 snaps over the previous 2 seasons thanks to injury. He’s graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league and he’s a solid starter when healthy, so he should stick around as a starter.

The same is not necessarily true of Cary Williams, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season. The ex-Raven graded out slightly below average in 2012 and slightly above average in 2011, after the 2009 7th round pick played a combined 59 snaps over the first 3 seasons of his career. He averages out as a slightly below average starter. His 4.25 million dollar salary is already guaranteed for 2014, but that doesn’t mean he can’t lose his starting job.

Nolan Carroll signed a 2-year 5.25 million dollar deal this off-season, which suggests the Eagles see him as a legitimate competitor for a starting job. He has the talent to beat out Williams too.  Carroll has seen his snap count increase in each of the past 3 seasons, going from 330, to 653, to 809 snaps from 2011-2013. He’s been roughly an average player on Pro Football Focus the whole time and is now an average starter. Last season he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked cornerback, right in the middle of the pack, allowing 47.8% completion, which was actually the 4th lowest in the NFL among eligible cornerbacks.

The Eagles made another free agent acquisition in the secondary, signing Malcolm Jenkins to a 3-year deal worth 15.5 million. Jenkins will be an upgrade over Patrick Chung, who graded out 68th out of 86 eligible safeties last season. However, he won’t be a huge upgrade and he was overpaid. He’s failed to live up to his billing as the 15th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. He struggled mightily as a slot cornerback as a rookie before being moved to safety, where he was an average starter according to Pro Football Focus in both 2010 and 2011. However, in 2012, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety and in 2013 he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 65th ranked safety out of 86 eligible, just slightly above Chung.

At the other safety spot, the Eagles brought back Nate Allen on a one-year deal worth 2 million dollars and he’ll be given the first chance to remain the starter. Allen was awful in 2012, grading out 84th out of 88 eligible safeties, but he was better in 2013, grading just below average. It’s obviously still very tough to count on him as a starter, which is why he was forced to settle for a one-year prove it deal. Earl Wolff is the backup and the 2013 5th round pick could make his way into the starting lineup at some point. He struggled on 538 snaps as a rookie and, given where he was drafted, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a starter. It’s a weak secondary on an overall weak defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Eagles had a poor defense last year, ranking 22nd in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 73.10% rate. They’re unlikely to be better on that side of the ball. Fortunately, they should be better on offense with a full season of Nick Foles under center, after ranking 7th, moving the chains at a 74.91% rate. They’re unlikely to be as good as they were in 2013 in games Foles started and ended though, when they moved the chains at a 78.69% rate. It’s hard to project that to a 16 game season, especially with a still inexperienced Foles under center, a whole season of tape for their opponents to study, and the loss of DeSean Jackson. They should still move the chains around a 75-76% rate and they are definitely the best team in the weak NFC East, but they have issues keeping them from the top of the NFL. I’ll have an official wins prediction after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 132014
 

Quarterback

The Vikings went 10-6 in 2012 and made a surprise run to the playoffs, after going 3-13 the year before. A team going from 5 wins or fewer to the playoffs isn’t as uncommon as it sounds, as at least one team does so almost every season, but the same is true of the opposite and the Vikings seemed like the most likely team to do so going into 2013. They weren’t the only ones who did so (Houston, Atlanta, and Washington joined them in a bizarre season), but the Vikings did end up going 5-10-1.

There are a number of reasons why that regression should have been predictable. Teams that make big leaps in win totals tend to decline by an average of half the amount the following season. The Vikings also barely had any injuries in 2012 (2nd in adjusted games lost) and they went 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less. They also had significant personnel losses like Percy Harvin and Antoine Winfield last off-season. The biggest reason they declined last season though is because Adrian Peterson was, predictably, unable to repeat one of the greatest seasons by a running back in NFL history.

He dragged them into the playoffs in 2012, rushing for 2097 yards and 12 touchdowns on 348 carries (6.03 YPC). That allowed them to make the playoffs even though quarterback Christian Ponder completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of just 6.08 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. Since 2006, 22 teams have averaged 6 yards or fewer per attempt. Of those 21 teams, 20 won 5 or fewer games, none won more than 7 and as a group they averaged 4.0 wins per season and 14.8 points per game. The Vikings won 10 games and averaged 23.7 points per game. I know the Vikings technically averaged 6.08 YPA, but I don’t really think that extra 8/100 of a yard was what got them the extra 6 wins. It was Peterson.

In 2013, Peterson was “just” very good, missing 2 games with injury and rushing for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 YPC. Christian Ponder raised his YPA to 6.90 YPA, and completed 63.6% of his passes, but threw 9 interceptions to 7 touchdowns and got benched on several occasions, with Matt Cassel finishing the season as the starter. Ponder is now the 3rd string quarterback in Minnesota behind the veteran Cassel and promising 1st round rookie Teddy Bridgewater. Either Cassel or Bridgewater will be the starting quarterback this season (they could both see starts) and it’s unlikely that Ponder sees much meaningful action this year.

Fortunately, the Vikings offense wasn’t bad under Matt Cassel last season, as they moved the chains at a 70.97% rate, in the 7 games in which Cassel played the majority of the snaps, as opposed to 70.25% in their other 9 games. It’s not a huge difference, but it is a difference and it’s even more impressive when you consider that Peterson was either out or limited in each of the Vikings’ final 4 games (all of which Cassel started), combining to rush for 58 yards on 18 carries in those 4 games. Cassel, on the season, completed 60.2% of his passes for an average of 7.11 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked quarterback last season out of 42 eligible, while Ponder was 35th.

Cassel is obviously not a long-term solution, going into his age 32 season, but he’s a decent placeholder for promising rookie Teddy Bridgewater, who could easily end up just winning the starting job in training camp. Bridgewater fell to 32 because of concerns about his size and arm strength, but he was a dominant collegiate player in the intermediate part of the field and he’s NFL ready after running a fairly complex offense at the University of Louisville. Cassel’s numbers last season were better than his career averages, which is concerning (59.0%, 6.66 YPA, 93 touchdowns, and 66 interceptions), but part of that is also just that the Vikings have a surprisingly strong offensive supporting cast around the quarterback. Bridgewater, if he’s ready to start, will enjoy the benefits of that strong supporting cast as well.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The obvious part of this strong supporting cast is the running back Adrian Peterson, but I’m going to start with something less obvious, which is that the Vikings have a strong offensive line. The best player on the offensive line is center John Sullivan, who might be the best center in the NFL. He had a rough start to his career as a starter, after getting drafted in the 6th round in 2008, but he’s been a top-3 center on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, the only center in the game who can say so. He’s developed into a fantastic interior offensive lineman and should continue to play very well this season.

Phil Loadholt is also a dominant offensive lineman. The 6-8 343 pounder is solely a right tackle, but he’s still a huge asset for them, dominating in run blocking and holding up well in pass protection. He’s been a 5-year starter for them since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, making 78 of 80 starts, and he’s graded out above average in 4 out of 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons. He’s gotten better in each of the last 3 seasons, going from Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, to 21st in 2012, to 11th last season, the best season of his career. He should have another strong season in 2014.

Right guard Brandon Fusco also had a great season last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked guard. He doesn’t have a history of doing that kind of thing though, as the 2011 6th round pick played 26 snaps as a rookie and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible in 2012 in his first year as a starter. Fusco could easily have another strong season in his 4th year in the league in 2014, also his contract year, but he remains a one year wonder.

While Fusco broke out last year, left tackle Matt Kalil regressed, after the 2013 4th overall pick had a strong rookie season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle in 2012, but he was their 51st ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2013. He dealt with a knee injury throughout the season, which he blames for his struggles. He had off-season surgery on his right knee and is expected to be healthier for this season. A return to form for the talented young blindside protector would be a big boost to this already strong offensive line and would counteract any regression that Fusco might show.

The only issue the Vikings had on the offensive line last season was left guard, where Charlie Johnson was the starter. Johnson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked guard out of 81 eligible, below average. This is nothing new for him as he’s graded out below average in each of the last 7 seasons, struggling at both left tackle and left guard. Now going into his age 30 season, things are unlikely to get any better. He’ll be pushed for his starting guard by Jeff Baca, a 2013 6th round pick who played 4 snaps as a rookie. Baca might not be an upgrade though. It’s a position of weakness on any otherwise very strong offensive line. They were Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive line in terms of run blocking in 2013 and their 7th ranked offensive line in terms of pass blocking.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Adrian Peterson is obviously a big part of their strong offensive supporting cast. He didn’t repeat the 2000 rushing yard season he had in 2012, but he still impressed, rushing for 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns on 279 carries, an average of 4.54 YPC. In his career, he’s rushed for 10,115 yards (already 27th all-time) and 86 touchdowns on 2033 carries, an average of 4.98 YPC. He wasn’t Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in terms of run grade last season, like he was in 2012, but he still ranked 4th in that aspect. In the past 4 seasons, he’s ranked 2nd, 1st, 1st, and 4th respectively in that aspect.

However, his weakness is that he struggles both as a receiver and a pass protector, grading out below average in the first aspect in 6 of the 7 seasons he’s been in the league and in the second aspect in 5 of the 7 seasons he’s been in the league. He’s caught 206 passes for 1697 yards and 5 touchdowns in 103 career games. The Vikings lost backup Toby Gerhart this off-season to free agency so they used a 3rd round pick on Jerick McKinnon, who will play a significant passing down role as a rookie. McKinnon has reportedly been very impressive in off-season practices, even being called their best rookie by Adrian Peterson himself.

McKinnon will also help take some of the load off of Peterson over the next few seasons as he ages. Peterson is going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. He’s one of the all-time greats and will be enshrined in Canton someday, but the average top-20 all-time rusher (in terms of yards) has their last 1000 yard season at 30-31 on average, plays another 2 seasons after that on average, and averages 567 yards and 4 touchdowns on 151 carries (3.75 YPC). Peterson should have another couple of seasons as a dominant back left in him, but it’s something to begin taking notice of.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Vikings had a thin receiving corps in 2012 and then they lost Percy Harvin, which made things even thinner, so they brought in veteran Greg Jennings through free agency and Cordarrelle Patterson as a 2013 1st round pick last off-season. Jennings was dominant in Green Bay from 2007-2011, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st, 24th, 17th, 16th, and 16th ranked wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in those 5 years respectively, while averaging 2.12 yards per route run over that stretch (5532 yards on 2604 routes).

However, he missed 3 games with injury in 2011 and then another 8 in 2012 and that seemed to sap his abilities. He averaged just 1.28 yards per route run in 2012 and, though he was healthier last year, he averaged just 1.62 yards per route run and was Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked wide receiver. He caught 68 passes on 101 targets (67.3%) for 804 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The drop off in quarterback play from Aaron Rodgers to Ponder/Cassel obviously had a lot to do with this, but he’s not the same player as he used to be. Now he’s going into his age 31 season so, while he could easily have a solid year again, he’s not the #1 receiver they expected him to be when they signed him to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal with 17.8 million guaranteed after the 2012 season.

Cordarrelle Patterson, meanwhile, ended up grading out higher than Jennings, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked wide receiver. However, much of that was because of what he did as a runner and he actually graded out below average in pass grade. The 29th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Patterson flashed his incredible athleticism, rushing for 158 yards and 3 touchdowns on 12 carries and returning 43 kickoffs for 1393 yards and 2 touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver in terms of run grade and their #1 ranked kick returner.

He also averaged 6.4 yards per catch after the catch and broke 10 tackles on 45 catches, but he showed serious issues with route running, catching just 10 passes farther than 10 yards downfield and just 3 passes farther than 20 yards downfield. He was limited primarily to short routes and screens and also dropped 5 passes. He caught 45 passes on 72 targets (62.5%) for 469 yards on 292 routes run (1.61 yards per route run). He’s expected to have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league and he has the natural ability to have a breakout year, but he’s only going into his age 23 season so there should be no surprises if he continues to be raw.

Jarius Wright, a 2012 4th round pick, could also have a bigger role this season. He’s played 636 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, including 443 routes run, and has averaged 1.68 yards per route run, catching 48 passes for 744 yards and 5 touchdowns. He could be the 3rd receiver this year. Gains in playing time by youngsters Patterson and Wright would come at the loss of veteran Jerome Simpson, who the Vikings brought back on a deal close to the veteran’s minimum this off-season. He’s had a variety of off-the-field issues and could be facing a suspension of up to 4 games to start the 2014 season after a recent DUI arrest.

He’s also a one dimensional deep threat who doesn’t catch a high percentage of his targets. Since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2008, Simpson has caught just 54.1% of his targets for an average of 1.52 yards per route run and only graded out positive once in terms of pass catching grade. His worst season was in 2011, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 110th ranked wide receiver out of 115 eligible, catching 52.1% of his targets for an average of 1.28 yards per route run in Cincinnati with Andy Dalton. The 6-2 190 pounder is a good blocker and can reel in some deep passes, but that’s about it and he can’t stay out of trouble off-the-field either.

Kyle Rudolph is the tight end and someone who could have a big breakout year. The 2011 2nd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked tight end in each of his first 2 seasons in the league in 2011 and 2012, but that was largely because of his blocking abilities, both as a run blocker and a pass protector. He averaged just 1.11 yards per route run and ran just 30.1% of his routes from off the line. In 2013, he looked on his way to a much better receiving year, as he averaged 1.34 yards per route run, running about 40.3% of his routes from off the line. Unfortunately, he went down for the season with a foot injury after 8 games.

However, now he returns for his contract year and tight end guru Norv Turner is coming in. Rudolph has slimmed down to 6-6 260 from 275 and will be used more as a pass catcher and line up all over the formation in passing situations, much like Turner did with Antonio Gates in San Diego and Jordan Cameron in Cleveland. It wouldn’t be ridiculous to expect him to average 1.50 yards per route run (especially with better quarterback play) and for him to be 2nd on the team in receiving, while providing strong blocking on running plays as well.

Rhett Ellison, meanwhile, will be the #2 blocking tight end. He’s lined up all over the formation over his first 2 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2012 and he’s continued to be the strong point of attack blocker he was in college at USC. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked fullback in 2012 and 8th ranked in 2013. He’ll be more of a traditional tight end this season, as he was in college, and come in for two-tight end sets and help them in the running game. He’ll likely continue to not provide much in the passing game though, but that’s not his job. The rest of the receiving corps is sneaky solid. If the Vikings can get good quarterback play, they could be a strong offense.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Vikings’ offense was actually pretty decent last season, especially with Cassel on the field, but their defense was horrible, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.91% rate, 30th in the NFL. The Vikings fired head coach Leslie Frazier, who has a background in defense, and replaced him with Mike Zimmer, one of the best defensive coordinators of the decade and a guy whose shot at a head coaching job was long overdue. There are plenty of great coordinators who don’t do well as head coach, but, at the very least, Zimmer should help this defense improve in his first season with the team.

The Vikings clearly wanted to add to their defensive line this off-season and get younger and more talented. Over 30 veterans like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are gone and the Vikings added 4 players who could see snaps on the defensive line this season. Their biggest free agent acquisition, in terms of money, was defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who they gave a 5-year 31.5 million dollar deal to come over from the Giants. Linval Joseph, a 2010 2nd round pick, was a 3-year starter with the Giants from 2011-2013.

He didn’t have a great 3 years in New York and he was probably overpaid, but he got better every season, grading out 60th in 2011, 36th in 2012, and 24th in 2013. He’s still only going into his age 26 season so he could be even better this season. He could be an upgrade over Kevin Williams, who was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked defensive tackle last season. Joseph will start inside next to Sharrif Floyd. Floyd, the 23rd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, struggled as a rookie on 472 snaps, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league.

The biggest contract the Vikings gave out this off-season was to Everson Griffen, who they re-signed to a 5-year, 42.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Griffen has potential and could blossom in a bigger role this season with the declining Jared Allen (who graded out below average last season) gone, but this was a very speculative deal because he’s still a projection to that role. I also don’t know who else would have paid him that kind of money.

Everson Griffen has one career start. It’s not quite as bad as that sounds because he’s been a talented reserve and he has upside. However, the Vikings really seem to be overestimating his upside. Sure, he has 14 sacks over the past 2 seasons despite being a reserve, but he’s actually played as much as some starters in terms of pass rush snaps with 423 pass rush snaps played in 2012 and 449 pass rush snaps played in 2013. When you consider that, he doesn’t seem as efficient as he once did.

He only ranked 29th out of 62 eligible in pass rush efficiency among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012 and only ranked 21st out of 52 eligible in pass rush efficiency among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and 20th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013. He’ll have a much bigger role this season (probably 700-800 snaps) and the 6-3 273 pounder will play outside in base packages and move inside in sub packages.

Anthony Barr, meanwhile, will be the defensive end in sub packages when Griffen goes inside. Barr was the 9th pick overall in the 2014 NFL Draft and will play a significant role even as a rookie. The Vikings want him to play in the Von Miller role, playing outside linebacker in base packages and moving down to defensive end and rushing the passer from the edge in sub packages. The 6-5 255 pounder is incredibly athletic, but he was playing running back as recently as 2011 so he’s still really raw on defense. He compares to Aaron Maybin and Jerry Hughes and, while Hughes eventually put it together, neither of them did much as a rookie so Barr might not have much of an impact, despite his high draft status. The Vikings obviously really like him though, which is worth mentioning.

Along with Barr and Joseph, the Vikings also brought in Corey Wootton and Scott Crichton this off-season to play rotational roles on the defensive line. Wootton can play both inside and outside, much like Griffen, at 6-6 270. The 2010 4th round pick has graded out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league though. Meanwhile, Crichton is a 3rd round rookie and might not be able to have much of an impact in his first season in the league.

Brian Robison remains as the other starter. A late bloomer, the 2007 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the past 3 seasons as a starter, grading out 26th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 18th in 2013. He’s also averaged 936 snaps a season over the past 3 seasons, not missing a single game, but he’ll probably have his snap count down to the 700-800 range this season because of the added depth the Vikings have on the defensive line. That could be good for him as he goes into his age 31 season in 2014. The Vikings overpaid Joseph and Griffen and Anthony Barr is still really raw, but this is a younger, deeper defensive line than last season. There’s talent here for the talented Mike Zimmer to play with and coach up.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Things aren’t as good in the linebacking corps. I mentioned Anthony Barr and how he’ll play a base package outside linebacker role. Chad Greenway will be the every down outside linebacker opposite him. The issue is that Greenway is going into his age 31 season and really struggles in coverage. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season and the worst at his position in coverage, allowing 829 receiving yards, easily the most at his position. He also missed a league leading 21 tackles. He used to be solid, but those days are behind him and probably not coming back as he goes into his 30s. The last season in which he graded out above average was 2010.

At middle linebacker, it’ll be a position battle between Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole for the starting job to replace Erin Henderson, who was let go for off-the-field reasons. Henderson graded out above average last season, though he did struggle in coverage once again. Cole might be the favorite right now. The 2012 7th round pick has only played 333 career snaps, but he played 332 of them last season and he was pretty decent, grading out right about average. Obviously he’s a projection to an every down middle linebacker role, but he has potential.

Brinkley, meanwhile, was actually their starting middle linebacker in 2012, but that didn’t go well as he graded out 50th out of 53 eligible middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus, particularly struggling in coverage. He then went to Arizona and now is back in Minnesota. He was a 5th round pick in 2009 and has played just a combined 443 snaps in the other 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including 210 last season. He’s never really shown himself to be a starting caliber player, now going into his age 29 season, so they might as well try Audie Cole. Unless Cole has a breakout year, they’ll have serious issues at linebacker.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Vikings also made a big free agent acquisition in the secondary, signing Captain Munnerlyn to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal at cornerback, coming over from Carolina. The undersized Captain Munnerlyn (5-8 186) has been a late bloomer in his career, after struggling mightily early in his career after getting drafted in the 7th round in 2009. He graded out below average in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league, with his worst season coming in 2009, when he graded out 99th out of 107 eligible cornerbacks.

Very similar to the way the similarly sized Tim Jennings developed, Munnerlyn has emerged as an above average cornerback in the NFL. He had a solid 2012 year, grading out just about average, and the Panthers wisely brought him back on a cheap one year deal for 2013 after the market devalued him. Munnerlyn ended up being a big part of the reason why the Panthers had such a strong defense, doing his best Antoine Winfield impression (showing in coverage on the slot and the outside, as a run stopper, and as a blitzer) grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback, though “only” their 22nd ranked cornerback in terms of pure coverage grade.

Munnerlyn is now with the Vikings, Antoine Winfield’s old team, a team that missed Winfield significantly last season. Munnerlyn does his best coverage work on the slot, but he can also play outside and he’s above average as a run stopper and blitzer for a cornerback. He’ll presumably start outside and move inside to the slot in sub packages in the role in which Adam Jones thrived under Zimmer in Cincinnati. He’ll be an asset for them as an addition to this once miserable secondary.

Xavier Rhodes will be the opposite starter. He was the 25th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and flashed as a rookie on 686 snaps, grading out slightly above average. Cornerbacks tend to take a year or two to get adjusted to the NFL so his rookie year was pretty impressive. He allowed 56.6% completion on the season and was especially good in his final 4 games before missing 3 games with injury, allowing 16 of 32 (50.0%) for 202 yards (6.31 YPA), 1 touchdown, and 0 interceptions. He could have a breakout year in his 2nd year in the NFL, especially with Mike Zimmer coming to town, but there are obviously no guarantees.

The issue is the 3rd cornerback. Josh Robinson is expected to serve in that role, playing outside in sub packages when Munnerlyn plays on the slot. He was Pro Football Focus’ 109th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible as a 3rd round rookie in 2012, grading out 2nd worst among cornerbacks in pure coverage grade. He wasn’t much better in 2013, grading out 99th out of 110 eligible. In 2 seasons in the league, he’s allowed 77.9% completion for an average of 8.61 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. I don’t expect much more from him in his 3rd season in the league.

The Vikings should also be getting a boost from the return of Harrison Smith at safety 8 games with a turf toe injury last season. He struggled last season, only playing 5 games before the injury, not enough to establish himself and then being limited upon his return, grading out below average on 537 snaps. He could easily have a bounce back year this year if healthy, after playing well as a 1st round rookie in 2012. The 29th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety that season. He should be an upgrade over Andrew Sendejo, who graded out slightly below average as an injury replacement this season.

Sendejo will compete with Jamarca Sanford for the other starting safety job. Sanford was alright last season, grading out 35th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, slightly above average (Sendejo was 45th). Sanford was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked safety in 2012, though he graded out as the worst safety in the league in 2011, in his first year as a starter. Sendejo, meanwhile, played a combined 3 snaps from 2010-2012, after going undrafted in 2010. Sanford should win that starting job, while Sendejo settles in as a solid 3rd safety and depth player. The defense, overall, should be improved under Mike Zimmer, but they still have a lot of issues and places where they lack talent.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

As I mentioned in the opening, teams that have big win increases (like the Vikings did from 3 to 10 in 2012) tend to regress by about half the amount of wins they improved the previous season. The Vikings went from 10-6 to 5-10-1. However, the opposite is also true and the Vikings could easily be an improved team this season. Christian Ponder is no longer their starting quarterback and either Matt Cassel or Teddy Bridgewater should be an upgrade. They have a strong supporting cast on offense to help them out, which is good because one is a veteran stopgap and one is an inexperienced rookie.

Defensively, they probably won’t be very good, but they should be improved over last season. They’ve added some talent. They’re getting players back from injury. They have young players that could be improved this season. And, most importantly, they added defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer as their head coach. They still have a lot of issues on that side of the ball, because they have positions where they really lack talent and they don’t have any standout defensive stars, but they’ll be improved defensively and as a team as a whole. I think, at the very least, they’ll be a slightly improved team over last season and they have the potential to be a lot better if Teddy Bridgewater can have a strong rookie year. I’ll be conservative with their projection right now. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 112014
 

Quarterback

The Bears fired Lovie Smith after the 2012 season after years of disappointing offensive performances, replacing him with Marc Trestman, a well-regarded offensive mind, who had previously been a quarterback guru, a Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator, and a successful Head Coach in Canada. It clearly made a significant impact on their offense as they moved the chains at a 75.68% rate, 4th best in the NFL. However, their once dominant defense struggled, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 76.92% rate, 2nd worst in the NFL. As a result, they missed the playoffs once again and die-hard fans probably didn’t even recognize the team.

Lovie Smith was a fantastic defensive mind whose biggest issue was that he kept putting incompetent people in charge of his offense. I worry that, as good as Marc Trestman is at coaching offense, he might just be the reserve, a fantastic offensive mind who sticks with incompetent defensive coordinator. Mel Tucker is in way over his head coordinating this defense (his track record is poor prior to Chicago as well), but Marc Trestman brought him back on board. Mel Tucker is a significant downgrade from Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli.

Let’s discuss the good Trestman did first, which is on the offensive side of the ball. Jay Cutler set a career high in QB rating, completing 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.38 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, a QB rating of 89.2, significantly better than his career average of 84.6. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked quarterback. He was even better before suffering an ankle injury week 7, completing 65.9% of his passes for an average of 7.51 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.

Even when Cutler missed time with injury, missing 5 full games and parts of 2 others, the Bears still moved the ball with ease. The Bears moved the chains at a 73.91% rate in the first 6 games of the season with a healthy Cutler. They actually moved the chains at a higher rate in the 6 games that Cutler that either missed all or most of. With Josh McCown at quarterback, they moved the chains 78.57% rate. In their other 4 games, in which Cutler was limited, they moved the chains at a 73.33%.

Josh McCown actually outplayed Cutler, though on fewer snaps (643 snaps for Cutler to 427 for McCown). He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback, ahead of Cutler, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher at his position. He completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception last season. He’s gone now though so either Jimmy Clausen, Jordan Palmer, or David Fales will be the backup if Cutler goes down again.

Clausen was out of the league last season and hasn’t attempted a pass since he was a 2nd round rookie in 2010, when he completed 52.5% of his passes for an average of 5.21 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, a pathetic 58.4 rating. Jordan Palmer has 15 career attempts since being drafted in the 6th round in 2007. David Fales is a 6th round rookie. Trestman is a great quarterbacks coach and he worked his magic with McCown last year, but most likely, the Bears will be in trouble if Cutler has to miss any time.

That’s a concern because Cutler has missed a combined 13 games in the last 4 season and hasn’t played a full 16 game season since 2009. Even if Cutler plays all 16 games, the Bears could be in trouble if they “only” move the chains at the 74% or so rate that they moved them in the 6 games Cutler was fully healthy last season. That’s still really good, but they’ll need the defense to improve significantly to compensate if that happens if they have any hope of making the playoffs.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Part of the reason why Jay Cutler was able to have a career year last year (and why McCown flashed in limited action) was the tutelage of Marc Trestman, but also the Bears have significantly improved their offensive supporting cast over the past 2 off-seasons. They brought in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery before the 2012 season, trading for the former and drafting the latter in the 2nd round. Now they’re arguably the best wide receiver duo in the NFL.

Brandon Marshall made an immediate impact in 2012, as he has everywhere he’s played. Marshall has had some issues with teammates and off-the-field, but on-the-field, he’s been as steady as they come, with 7 straight 1000 yard seasons in which he’s missed a combined 4 games. As a result, he’s already 55th all-time in receiving yards with 9050. Among active receivers 30 or younger, only Calvin Johnson has more and, if Marshall keeps this up, he has an outside shot at the Hall of Fame.

He hasn’t always been dominant, grading outside of the top-10 on Pro Football Focus in 4 of 7 seasons as a starter, and he’s had issues with drops, dropping 91 passes in 7 seasons. However, he’s been dominant since coming to Chicago (grading out in the top-8 in both seasons); He’s averaged 2.32 yards per route run over the past 7 seasons and he’s caught enough passes to make up for the drops. Last season, he was actually Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver by a large margin.

That was mostly because of his absurd run blocking grade and that’s obviously not his primary job, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked pass catching receiver and the fact that he can dominate on the outside on running downs is a nice added bonus. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver in run blocking grade 3 times in 7 seasons. The 6-4 222 physical specimen has no issue pushing around smaller defensive backs. He was Pro Football Focus’ #8 ranked wide receiver in 2012 (9th in pass catching grade, 7th in run blocking grade) and he should have another dominant season going into his age 30 season in 2014.

While Marshall had an immediate impact, Alshon Jeffery didn’t have an impact until his 2nd season in Chicago. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out below average on 445 snaps as a rookie, but was dominant on 973 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver. He caught 89 passes for 140 targets (63.6%) for 1421 yards on 601 routes run, an average of 2.36 yards per route run. He isn’t as proven as Marshall and he didn’t draw as much coverage as Marshall did last season, but he was more productive than him in the passing game last season. Like Marshall, he’s a big bodied receiver at 6-3 216 and can push smaller defensive backs around, grading out above average in the run blocking game. Going into his 3rd year in the league, Jeffery could easily be just as, if not more productive next season. Having Jeffery and Marshall to throw to makes life easier for the Bears’ quarterbacks.

The Bears also have Martellus Bennett in the mix, signed to a 4-year, 20.4 million after the 2012 season. Bennett proved to be worth it in his first season with the team in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked tight end and providing another big receiving target at 6-6 265. The 2008 2nd round pick spent the first 4 seasons of his career in Dallas as a backup and blocking specialist behind Jason Witten. He was dominant in that role, grading out above average as a run blocker in all 4 seasons, including grading 11th, 5th, and 4th as a run blocker in 2009, 2010, 2011 respectively. He only caught 85 passes for 846 yards and 4 touchdowns in 4 seasons, but he only ran 678 routes (1.25 yards per route run) behind Bennett and on only 144 of those routes did he line up off the line.

He was signed by the Giants before the 2012 season to be a starter. He continued to be a good blocker, but he also impressed as a pass catcher in a full-time role (945 snaps), grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked tight end, grading out above average as a pass catcher, a pass blocker, and a run blocker. He wasn’t quite as good last season, grading out 19th, but he still graded out above average as a pass catcher and run blocker. He’s averaged 1.47 yards per route run on 943 routes run over the past 2 seasons, though he’s played 552 of them off the line, 58.5%. He’s an above average, well rounded tight end who has played at least 900+ snaps in back-to-back seasons and I expect more of the same from him in 2014.

The Bears really don’t have much depth in the receiving corps at either wide receiver or tight end, so it’ll be hard for them to find a competent 11th offensive player to be on the field with Cutler, Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett, Forte, and the offensive line. Things would be especially bad if they had players miss time with injury. The Bears will probably use 3-wide receiver sets a lot this season, more often they use two-tight end sets or two-back sets. Earl Bennett, their 3rd receiver last year, played 545 snaps, while their #2 tight end played 186 snaps and the fullback played 239 snaps.

Bennett is gone and the Bears will be replacing him with Marquess Wilson, who the organization is reportedly very high on. The Bears won’t miss Bennett, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 96th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible last season in pure pass catching grade. Wilson might not be much of an upgrade though because he’s a 2013 7th round pick who struggled on 76 snaps last season as a rookie. The Bears like that he fits with their tall pass catcher theme at 6-4 184, but he’s yet to prove he’s anything more than just tall. Dante Rosario returns as the #2 tight end. He struggled as a pass catcher, but did well as a run blocker last season in a small role. He should do the same this season. Meanwhile, Tony Fiammetta returns as the starting fullback, after grading out below average last season.

Offensive Line

The Bears have also significantly improved the offensive line recently, adding 4 new starters last off-season. Kyle Long and Jordan Mills were added to the right side through the draft, while Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson were added to the left side in free agency. Their starting 5 offensive linemen missed a combined 48 snaps last season, fewest in the NFL by an offensive line. That continuity was very important, though it’s unlikely to happen again this season as injuries will strike.

Matt Slauson was easily their best addition to the offensive line last off-season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard. That was the first year he had done anything like that, but he also graded out above average in each of his first 3 seasons as a starter in the league from 2010-2012 with the Jets. The Bears got a steal signing him on a one-year deal prior to last season and they’re getting a steal again bringing him back on a 4-year, 12.8 million dollar deal this off-season. He hasn’t missed a start in the last 4 seasons and he should have another strong season in 2014.

Their other veteran addition, Jermon Bushrod, didn’t work out as well. He was overpaid on a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal last off-season, after Drew Brees made him look better than he was protecting his blindside in New Orleans from 2009-2012. Bushrod made 68 starts over those 4 seasons, including the post-season, and allowed just 20 sacks, including 11 in his final 3 seasons, but he also allowed 205 combined hits and hurries. Drew Brees has such a quick release, which is why the sack total was so low. Including last season, Bushrod has graded out below average in 4 of his 5 seasons as a starter. That above average season was a 2011 season in which he graded out 14th at his position, but he was also as bad as 69th out of 78 eligible in 2010. Last season, he was 55th out of 76 eligible and, going into his age 30 season, I don’t expect much different from the middling talent this season.

On the right side, Kyle Long played every snap at right guard as a first round rookie. He graded out slightly below average, but he could easily be better, possibly a lot better, in his 2nd year in the league. Jordan Mills, meanwhile, you can’t say the same about. He was awful as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked offensive tackle, including worst ranked in pass protection. He allowed a combined 75 hits and hurries last season, easily the most in the NFL at any position. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but, at the same time, he was just a 5th round pick so it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he never develops into even a decent starter. It’s possible the only reason they kept him as a starter was for continuity reasons.

The only holdover from the 2012 offensive line for Chicago was center Roberto Garza, who also played every snap last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked center. There’s no guarantee he’ll be nearly that good again in 2014, especially as he heads into his age 35 season, especially when you consider his history.  Formerly a solid guard in his prime, Garza struggled at center in 2010-2012, especially struggling in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked center. It’s an improved offensive line over the Lovie Smith era, but there are still issues.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Another part of their strong offense last season was running back Matt Forte, a mainstay on this offense since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2008. He’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons and last season he was the definition of a three-down back, leading the position in snaps played with 940, 50 snaps more than any other running back in the NFL. It’s rare to find a running back who is well-rounded enough to stay on the field for every passing down and, as I mentioned earlier, he was a big part of their passing game last season.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked running back in terms of run grade last season, rushing for 1339 yards and 9 touchdowns, 4.63 YPC. However, he was even better as a pass catcher, grading out 6th at his position in that aspect. He caught 74 passes on 86 targets (86.0%) for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns on 433 routes run (1.37 yards per route run). If he doesn’t get injured or decline, he should have another strong season, but there’s a good chance he does get injured or decline. He’s going into his age 29 season with 1892 career touches in 6 seasons so it’s starting to become a concern.

Especially concerning is that the Bears have no real depth behind him. They have a less than stellar trio competing for the backup job. Ka’Deem Carey, a 4th round rookie, is probably the most promising of the bunch, but he’s still a rookie. Michael Ford was a 2013 undrafted rookie that didn’t play a snap offensively last season, focusing on special teams. Shaun Draughn is the only one with any offensive experience in the NFL, but he’s rushed for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns on 63 carries (3.73 YPC) since going undrafted in 2011.

The Bears don’t really have much depth at all on offense, especially after losing Josh McCown. They’re depth at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and the offensive line is all really thin. This wasn’t a concern last season as they barely had any injuries on offense. The only player to miss significant time was Jay Cutler and they were actually better without him in the lineup. They had the fewest offensive adjusted games lost last season, something they probably won’t have the fortune of having again this season.

The Bears’ offense was slightly worse than Cutler was in the lineup last year anyway, but if they have members of their supporting cast miss time as well, they’re going to be a noticeably inferior offense to last season. And if Cutler misses time, they’re in serious trouble. They should still be an above average offense, but they’ll need the defense to be a lot better if they’re going to compete for a playoff spot in the loaded NFC and the tough NFC North.

Grade: B+

Defensive End

The defense could be better, as they overhauled the defensive end position. Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton, and Shea McClellin led the position in snaps played. Peppers and Wootton are gone, while McClellin has been converted to linebacker. The Bears freed up a lot of cap space by cutting Julius Peppers this off-season and they used a significant portion of that cap space to sign free agent LaMarr Houston to a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal.

The aging Peppers (going into his age 34 season) graded out below average last season, while Houston is still in the prime of his career (going into his age 27 season) and coming off of a season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That’s nothing new for him as the 2010 2nd round pick was 11th at his position in 2012 and 20th at his position in 2011. He’ll be an upgrade over Peppers for both the short-term and the long-term.

On the other side, the Bears will start another free agent acquisition, Jared Allen. Allen, like Peppers, is an aging pass rusher, going into his age 32 season. He’s also declining. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season (35th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends), after grading out positive in every season from 2007-2012 (ranking in the top-10 4 times and maxing out at 4th in 2007), and he’s probably not getting any better any time soon.

Sure, he had 13 sacks last season, but you can’t rely on pure on sack numbers. He had 18 quarterback hits and 34 quarterback hurries, but he did that on 677 pass rush snaps. His pass rush productivity (sacks + .75 hits + .75 hurries divided by pass rush snaps played) was 36th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. As he ages, he won’t be able to play nearly every snap as he usually does and his sack numbers will go down significantly. He’ll also probably become less efficient.

LaMarr Houston will move inside on passing downs next season, like he did in Oakland, and like Corey Wootton did for the Bears last season. Willie Young, another free agent acquisition, will be the nickel rusher opposite Allen. Willie Young, a 2010 7th round pick, was a valuable reserve from 2010-2012, playing 618 snaps total. His best season as a reserve was 2011. He only played 259 snaps, but if he were eligible for Pro Football Focus’ rankings, he would have ranked 13th among 4-3 defensive ends despite his very limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps and graded out as highly as he did.

He wasn’t nearly as good in 2012, as he actually graded out below average, but he got a chance to start in 2013 and made the most of it, playing 801 snaps and grading out as Pro Football Focus 15th ranked 4-3 defensive ends. He’s still somewhat of a one year wonder, given that he was only a one-year starter, but he showed enough as a reserve that I’m fairly confident he can continue being a solid contributor in a significant role. The trio of Young, Allen, and Houston should be much better than the trio of Peppers, Wootton, and McClellin, who graded out 40th, 45th, and 50th respectively out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, a huge part of the reason why the Bears’ defense was so bad last season.

The Bears still have issues at defensive tackle. While the Bears had little to no injuries on offense last season, they still ranked middle of the pack in terms of adjusted games lost at 14th, which means they did have some significant injuries on defense. Arguably the biggest injury was to Henry Melton, who was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2012. He went down with a torn ACL week 3 after 125 snaps and the Bears’ defensive tackle play in his absence was horrible. Seven players played at least 10 snaps at the position and none graded out above average (even Melton struggled to start the season before he got hurt). Some of the worst offenders were Landon Cohen (348 snaps), 63rd out of 69 eligible (no one played fewer snaps and graded out worse), and Stephen Paea (480 snaps), 52nd out of 69 eligible.

Unfortunately for the Bears, Melton signed with the Cowboys this off-season and they didn’t add anyone proven at the position, so their defensive tackle play should still be very poor. LaMarr Houston will move inside in sub packages and rush the passer and he’ll help their edge run defense on base downs, but the Bears should still be very easy to run down the middle on. Stephen Paea led the position in snaps played last season with 480 and returns as the starter, as the 2011 2nd round pick goes into his 4th year in the league and his contract year. As I mentioned earlier, he really struggled last season and he doesn’t really have an impressive history. Last year was the worst year of his career, but he’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league.

Jay Ratliff will be the other starter. Ratliff was on the streets mid-season in 2013, after the Cowboys let the injury riddled defensive tackle go, and landed with the Bears towards the tail end of the season, playing 210 snaps in 5 games and struggling. Ratliff was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle as recently as 2011, but he has played a combined 11 games over the past 2 seasons, struggling when on the field, and now he’s going into his age 33 season. He’s a very poor starter. The Bears will have 2nd and 3rd round rookies Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton rotate in heavily. It’s still a position of major weakness unless a rookie steps up big time.

Grade: C

Linebackers

Another player the Bears had suffer a significant injury last season was Lance Briggs, who missed 7 games and played just 565 snaps last season. That was a huge loss because Briggs was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012. He’s also graded out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including last season. However, it’s fair to wonder if Briggs will ever be the same going into his age 34 season in 2014, coming off of a significant injury. He showed signs of decline in the 7 games before the injury and overall graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 35 eligible. Losing Lovie Smith probably also hurt him.

The Bears will need him to have a good year, because the rest of their linebacking corps is a mess. Jon Bostic and DJ Williams will compete for the starting middle linebacker job. Bostic is the favorite after the 2013 2nd round pick took over the starting job from struggling veteran Williams during week 7 of last season, but Bostic was horrible, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible on 614 snaps. No one at his position played fewer snaps and graded out worse. Bostic showed a disturbing lack of physicality against the run.

Williams is not necessarily any better though. The veteran struggled on 217 snaps last season as essentially a pure base package player, losing his starting job after 6 starts (Bostic then took over and became an every down player when Briggs went down with injury). He’s played a combined 348 snaps over the past 2 seasons and the last time he was a starter was in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 45 eligible. Now going into his age 32 season, he’s unlikely to get any better and he should be pretty close to the end of the line. He’s certainly not capable of being the every down middle linebacker the Bears need inside.

The wild card in the linebacking corps is Shea McClellin, a 2012 1st round pick. McClellin has been awful in his first two years in the league at defensive end, grading out below average on 368 snaps as a rookie, and then grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible last season as a starter. The 6-3 260 pounder has shown a serious inability to get off of blocks in the running game, grading out as easily Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked run stopping 4-3 defensive end last season, in addition to an inability to get to the quarterback from the trenches. McClellin played some linebacker in college and, after proving to be too unphysical to handle defensive end, the Bears are moving him to outside linebacker in a pure base package role in an attempt to salvage the career of a player who looks like a bust. He’ll see rare, if any, snaps on the defensive line, even in sub packages.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Another player who missed significant time with injury on defense was Charles Tillman, who played 438 snaps in 8 games before going down for the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback in 2012, so that really hurt them. Tillman could be healthier this season, but he’s also going into his age 33 season and struggled mightily last season before going down with injuries, so, like Lance Briggs, there’s a very good chance he doesn’t return to form. Losing Lovie Smith seemed to especially hurt Tillman, but age was also obviously a factor.

Tillman and Briggs are two of the four age 30+ starters the Bears have on defense. Jared Allen is the third and the Bears’ other starting cornerback, Tim Jennings, is the 4th. Jennings was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback in 2012 and their 15th ranked cornerback in both 2011 and 2010, so he had a down year last season, grading out just about average. Compared to the rest of this defense, he wasn’t bad. In fact, you could argue he was their best defensive player last season, as he and Briggs were the only two players to play more than 10 snaps on defense and grade out above average. Jennings could bounce back this year, but he’s going into his age 31 season and probably also misses Lovie Smith, so there are no guarantees.

With two aging starting cornerbacks, the Bears drafted Kyle Fuller 14th overall in this past May’s draft. Fuller will work as the nickel cornerback as a rookie and could provide a boost to this secondary, even though cornerbacks tend to take a year or so to adjust to the NFL. Fuller could also play some safety this season, as the 6-0 190 pounder is physical. The reason they need him to play some safety is because what they have at the safety position right now is horrible. The Bears got rid of Major Wright, addition by subtraction as he was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety last season, but the cast of characters they have competing for the two starting safety jobs going into 2014 still isn’t very good.

Chris Conte is an incumbent, starting next to Wright last season, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season so his starting job isn’t safe, even if the competition isn’t great. The 2011 3rd round pick has graded out below average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league. Ryan Mundy is another option, who the Bears signed from the Giants this off-season. He graded out about average on 667 snaps last season, but the 2008 6th round pick played a combined 787 snaps from 2009-2012 and graded out above average just once in those 4 seasons. He might be their best safety, but that’s not saying much.

MD Jennings was signed from the Packers this off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season, though the 2011 undrafted free agent was better on 593 snaps in 2012. The Bears also signed Adrian Wilson from the Patriots, but he’s going into his age 35 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked safety in 2011, but he struggled as a starter in 2012, and missed all of last season with injury in New England. Most likely, he’s done. The Bears also have 4th round rookie Brock Vereen, but if the Bears are turning to a mid-round rookie at safety (which they easily could at some point this season), they’re in trouble. There are still a lot of issues on this once great defense.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Bears went 8-8 last season, but they were worse than their record. They had a -33 point differential, which suggested they should have won about 7.3 games. They were 18th in rate of moving the chains differential at -1.24%. They had some injuries last season, but the majority of them were to guys who are aging and might not bounce back (Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs), to guys who are gone (Henry Melton), or to guys who the team played better without last season (Jay Cutler).

Josh McCown, who played very well in relief of Cutler last season, is gone, leaving them with minimal depth at quarterback behind a consistently injury prone Jay Cutler. They also have minimal depth all over the offense so if they have more offensive injuries than they did last season (when no starter other than Cutler missed a game), it’s going to be a problem. They’re unlikely to be as good as they were last season offensively, when they moved the chains at a 75.68% rate, 4th in the NFL. They were in the high 73% range last season with a healthy Cutler and they could easily be down into the 72% range this season if they have more injuries. They’ll be an above average offense, but they’re way closer to the 8-12 range than the top-5.

Meanwhile, defensively, it’s unclear if they’ll be much better. The guys who are returning from injuries are 2 of 4 declining age 30+ starters. They did overhaul the defensive end position this off-season, but they have major issues at defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety still. They’ll need significant contributions from their rookie class if they’re going to significantly improve a defense that ranked 31st, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 76.92% rate.

I actually have this as one of the least talented teams in the NFL. In a tough division with Detroit and Green Bay both looking poised to be improved this season in terms of win total, the Bears are going to have a hard time being an average team and even getting to .500. This lack of talent stems from their issues drafting in the tail end of the Jerry Angelo era (2001-2012). No first round pick from before 2013 figures to make much of a positive impact this season.

They didn’t have first round picks in 2009 and 2010 and drafted busts in 2008, 2011, and 2012, taking Chris Williams, Gabe Carimi, and Shea McClellin respectively. They didn’t draft well enough after the first round to make up for it. Outside of Alshon Jeffery in the 2nd round in 2012 and Matt Forte in the 2nd round in 2008, their picks outside of the first round from 2008-2012 included the likes of Brandon Hardin (3rd round in 2012), Stephen Paea (2nd round in 2011), Chris Conte (3rd round in 2011), Major Wright (3rd round in 2010), Corey Wootton (4th round in 2010), Jarron Gilbert (3rd round in 2009), Juaquin Iglesias (3rd round in 2009), Earl Bennett (3rd round in 2008), and Marcus Harrison (3rd round in 2008). Henry Melton (4th round in 2009) was a strong pick, but he’s gone. This team has a lot of problems. I’ll have an official win prediction for them after I do every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 072014
 

Quarterback

The Packers have been killed by injuries over the past few seasons. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost in 2013, the most adjusted games lost in 2012, and the most adjusted games lost in 2010. They’ve still had success in spite of that, going 11-5 in 2012, going 10-6 and winning the Super Bowl in 2010. In 2011, when they had an average amount of injuries (16th), they went 15-1, though they were unfortunately knocked out in their first playoff game.

However, last season, they were unable to be successful in spite of all the injuries they suffered, going 8-7-1, making it to the post-season, but doing so with the worst record among playoff teams. That’s because their stabilizer, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, missed essentially 8 games (he had 2 attempts in their week 9 game against the Bears before breaking his collarbone). The Packers went 6-2 in the 8 regular season games that Rodgers played and then they lost by a mere field goal in their playoff game against the 49ers with Rodgers. That’s opposed to 2-5-1 in the 8 games that Rodgers missed.

In the 8 games that Rodgers played, the Packers moved the chains at a 77.78% rate, which would have been 3rd best in the NFL. In their other 8 games, they moved the chains at a 72.33% rate, which would have been 13th best in the NFL. They needed that explosive offense because their defense allowed opponents to move the chains at a 74.60% rate, 25th in the NFL. If they have an average amount of injuries and keep Rodgers on the field all season, they should be a much improved team on both sides of the ball and once again be one of the best teams in the NFL. They have the talent. I’m confident that they should have fewer injuries this season as injuries tend to even out in the long run.

Obviously Aaron Rodgers is the important one to keep healthy. Even if they have an absurd amount of injuries again, the Packers should be an improved team as long as Rodgers stays healthy all year, though they’ll need the rest of the team to stay healthy around Rodgers as well if they are going to make another Super Bowl run. Over the past 5 seasons, Rodgers has played 71 games (only missing 2 games combined from 2009-2012) and completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.40 YPA, 159 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions, a QB rating of 108.2. He’s also rushed for 1308 yards and 14 touchdowns on 266 carries, an average of 4.92 YPC.

He was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback last season despite missing half the season, with no one grading out higher at the position and playing fewer snaps. From 2009-2012, he was a top-5 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons. Only Drew Brees also did that. As long as he’s on the field (and his injury history is pretty limited), Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the game, if not the best. If the Packers can stay healthy around him, they have the talent to be a Super Bowl contender. Their Super Bowl odds of 14-1 might be worth a play.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As I mentioned earlier, the Packers’ offense was significantly worse without Aaron Rodgers on the field, moving the chains at a 72.33% rate, close to 6% lower than their rate with Rodgers in the lineup. However, that rate still would have been 13th best in the NFL over the course of a full season. They were still able to move the chains decently well even with the likes of Scott Tolzien, Seneca Wallace, and Matt Flynn, below average backup caliber quarterbacks, on the field. Part of that is their offensive coaching staff, led by head coach Mike McCarthy, but it also has to do with how good their offensive supporting cast is.

A big part of that supporting cast was running back Eddie Lacy. Lacy rushed for 1178 yards and 11 touchdowns on 284 attempts, an average of 4.15 YPC. He also added 35 catches for 257 yards, en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. That YPC doesn’t seem terribly impressive, but he consistently carried the load, got positive yardage, and moved the chains. He had 73 first downs on 319 targets, including 61 first downs on 284 carries. He was 5th among running backs in rushing first downs.

He also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back, grading out above average as both a runner and a pass catcher. On top of that, he played his best football when Aaron Rodgers was out of the lineup, helping to carry this team. He rushed for 666 yards and 7 touchdowns on 151 carries, an average of 4.41 YPC, and added 21 catches for 164 yards in the 8 games Rodgers missed. In their other 8 games, he rushed for 512 yards and 4 touchdowns on 133 carries, an average of 3.85 YPC, and added 14 catches for 103 yards. Going into his 2nd year in the league, Lacy could be even better, after playing most of his rookie year through an ankle injury. A full season of Aaron Rodgers will give him more running room and touchdown opportunities and if he runs like he did when Rodgers was out last year, he’ll give the Packers an incredibly potent balanced offense.

The Packers also got great play from backup running back James Starks last season, as he rushed for 493 yards and 3 touchdowns on 89 carries, an average of 5.54 YPC. The Packers brought him back as a free agent in the same role. He’s dealt with injuries dating back to his collegiate career at the University of Buffalo, which is why the talented runner fell to the 6th round in 2010. He’s averaged 4.43 YPC for his career, but he’s also never played more than 13 games in a season. As long as he’s healthy, he should provide them a solid backup running back, but he’s frequently hurt.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Part of the Packers’ strong offensive supporting cast was their strong receiving corps. Jordy Nelson was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked wide receiver last season. Nelson caught 85 passes on 120 targets (70.8%) for 1314 yards and 8 touchdowns on 645 routes run, an average of 2.04 yards per route run. He was outstanding in the 8 games that Rodgers played last season, catching 49 passes on 67 targets (73.1%) for 810 yards and 8 touchdowns on 327 routes run, an average of 2.48 yards per route run. However, he was still alright when Rodgers was out of the lineup, catching 36 passes on 53 targets (67.9%) for 504 yards and a touchdown on 318 routes run, an average of 1.54 yards per route run. Last year was a career high for him in catches and yards and he should have another strong year this year.

Nelson may see fewer targets this season because Randall Cobb is coming back from injury. The dynamic slot man was limited to 340 snaps last season because of a broken leg. A 2011 2nd round pick, Cobb caught 25 passes on 31 targets (80.6%) for 375 yards and a touchdown on 174 routes run, an average of 2.16 yards per route run. He then had a breakout year in 2012, catching 80 passes on 102 targets (78.4%) for 954 yards and 8 touchdowns on 422 routes run, an average of 2.26 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ #11 ranked wide receiver that season. He looked on his way to a similar season in 2013, but injuries derailed that, limiting him to 6 games. He caught 31 passes on 40 targets (77.5%) for 433 yards and 4 touchdowns on 209 routes run, an average of 2.07 yards per route run. Going into his contract year this year, without much of an injury history, he should have another year similar to 2012.

Jarrett Boykin stepped up in Cobb’s absence, catching 49 passes on 75 targets (65.3%) for 681 yards on 410 routes run, an average of 1.66 yards per route run. Boykin was a 2012 7th round pick and only played 96 snaps as a rookie. James Jones is gone so Boykin will probably replace him and his production. He had 59 catches on 88 targets (67.0%) for 817 yards on 527 routes run (1.55 yards per route run) and 3 touchdowns last season. Boykin is expected to be the 3rd receiver behind Nelson and Cobb. He’ll get some competition from 2nd round rookie Davante Adams, but most likely Adams won’t see a big role until 2015. Both Cobb and Nelson are free agents this off-season and the Packers seem unlikely to re-sign both, so that’s why they brought in Adams.

Jermichael Finley is another guy who got knocked out with a serious injury, going down with a neck injury after 259 snaps. That injury was career threatening and he’s still available as a free agent because of concern about his spinal fusion surgery. Andrew Quarless led Packer tight ends in snaps played last season with 703. The Packers re-signed Quarless to compete for the starting job. Quarless has graded out below average in 2 of the 3 seasons he’s played since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010. He’s also missed 21 games in 4 seasons. He’ll compete with 3rd round rookie Richard Rodgers, who is reportedly impressing in off-season practice. Most likely, Quarless, the superior blocker, will work as an inline blocking tight end, while Rodgers functions as a pass catching tight end. It’s a strong receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The issue offensively for the Packers is their offensive line, which is clearly their weakest unit. Things could be worse this season as they lost center Evan Dietrich-Smith to free agency this off-season. Evan Dietrich-Smith took over as the starting center from Jeff Saturday late in the 2012 season and played solid in limited action. He then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked center in 2013 in his first full season as a starter. Either JC Tretter, a collegiate offensive tackle and a 2013 4th round pick who missed his whole rookie year with injury, or 5th round rookie Corey Lindley will be the starter this season. It’s a position of weakness.

It’s not all losses for the Packers upfront though, as they get Bryan Bulaga back from an injury that cost him the entire season. He’s missed 23 games in the past 2 seasons combined and 27 games over the past 3 seasons combined so he’s still an injury concern. He’ll slot back in at right tackle, where he graded out below average on 587 snaps in 2012. He could continue to struggle as he returns from injury. He was Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked offensive tackle out of 78 eligible as a rookie in 2010, but he was 7th in 2011, so it’s tough to know what to expect from him, if he can even stay healthy. He should be an upgrade over Don Barclay, who started at right tackle and graded out 57th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles last season.

The Packers got poor play from both tackle spots last season, but unfortunately they were unable to upgrade the blindside this off-season. 2013 4th round pick David Bakhtiari struggled mightily as a rookie, grading out 62nd out of 76 eligible rookies, even worse than Barclay. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are also reasons why he fell to the mid rounds so there’s obviously no guarantee. He’s one of the worst blindside protectors in the league.

Fortunately, things are much better at guard, where left guard Josh Sitton and right guard TJ Lang graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd and 15th ranked guard respectively in 2014. Sitton has done this kind of thing before and he’s one of the best guards in the NFL. He’s been a top-8 guard in each of the past 5 seasons, something no other guard has done. Lang has been more inconsistent. A 3-year starter with the versatility to play any position other than center if needed (but he’s best at guard), Lang graded out below average in 2012, but ranked 22nd in 2011. Last season was his first full year at right guard and that might just be the best spot for him, so he could easily have another strong year, but his history of inconsistency is worth mentioning. There’s definitely some talent here, but it’s their weakest offensive unit.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Packers had a lot of issues defensively last year, but a big part of that was that they had key players miss significant time with injury. They should be better this year. The biggest bright spot on their weak defense last season was the emergence of 2nd year player Mike Daniels at 5-technique. The 2012 4th round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season on 517 snaps. The 6-0 294 pounder was primarily an interior pass rusher in sub packages and he should primarily be that again, though he will probably see more snaps. He played 275 snaps in the Packers’ final 8 games. He’s still a one year wonder, grading out below average on 231 snaps as a rookie, but he could easily have another strong year.

Datone Jones was the Packers’ 2013 first round pick. He struggled on 263 snaps as a rookie. If he had been eligible, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst ranked 3-4 defensive end, despite his limited playing time. No one graded out lower and played fewer snaps at his position. He’ll have a bigger role in 2014 and the Packers are expecting him to be a lot better in the 2nd year in the league, which he very well could be. He’s very unproven though.

BJ Raji will start at nose tackle. Raji reportedly turned down a 5-year, 40 million dollar extension from the Packers before last season. If that’s true, he has to be kicking himself hard, as he ended up re-signing for 4 million over 1 year. The Packers originally offered Raji that 1-year, 4 million dollar deal before the start of the off-season, but he turned it down in favor of hitting the open market. Clearly, the open market did not prove to be as lucrative as he expected as he was forced to settle for that one-year deal. It was a rough off-season for him.

However, that’s what happens when you have as bad of a season as Raji had last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. This type of thing is nothing new for him. Sure, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2012 (with 3 games at nose tackle in which he was about average), but he has a history of inconsistency. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked defensive tackle in 2011, but in 2010, he was their 35th ranked defensive tackle before a dominant post-season on the Packers’ Super Bowl run. It’s really tough to know what to expect from him. The 6-1 337 pounder will probably only be a base package player this year. He can rush the passer from time to time, but the Packers have other guys capable of doing so better. The Packers also drafted Khryi Thornton in the 3rd round and the 6-3 304 pounder could contribute in base packages.

One of those better pass rushers is Mike Neal, a 6-3 294 pounder. The Packers will be moving him back to his old role as a situational interior pass rusher after a failed experiment playing him at outside linebacker, which seemed doomed from the start. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. However, he graded out above average as a defensive linemen in 2 out of 3 seasons from 2010-2012, doing so on 266 snaps in 2012 and he should have a situational interior pass rush role this season. The Packers also have Jerel Worthy, a 2012 2nd round pick. Worthy struggled as a rookie, grading out 30th out of 34 eligible on 467 snaps played, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out lower. He then tore his ACL late in the season and was limited to 12 snaps in 2013 by a combination of his ACL and his previous struggles. He could have a role this season, but he might just be a bust.

The Packers big off-season signing was Julius Peppers, who they gave a 3-year, 26 million dollar deal upon the potential future Hall-of-Famer’s release from Chicago. He’s had a great career, but his best days are behind him, so this was an overpay, even if only 8.5 million over 1 season is guaranteed. A once dominant edge rusher, who graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2008-2012 and in the top-10 among 4-3 defensive end in every season from 2008-2011, Peppers has graded out 17th and 40th among 4-3 defensive ends over the last 2 seasons respectively. Last season, he actually graded out below average and that 40th place finish came out of just 52 eligible at the position. Peppers will play a versatile role as a 3-4 outside linebacker, a 3-4 defensive end, an a sub package edge rusher and interior rusher, at 6-5 283. He’s also never played in a 3-4, which is another minor concern.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Part of the reason why the Packers brought in Peppers was to provide depth at the edge rusher position. Clay Matthews has missed 9 games over the past 2 seasons, while Nick Perry has missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons. Last year, they missed a combined 10 games, part of the Packers’ consistent, season long injury problems, and Mike Neal led the position in snaps played with 746 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker.

At the same time, rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer had to play 304 snaps and 200 snaps respectively. Both struggled mightily, as is to be expected since they were an undrafted rookie and a 6th round rookie respectively. Mulumba was Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible, despite his limited snap count, while Palmer was Pro Football Focus’ 9th worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker regardless of snap count. Assuming Matthews and Perry can stay healthier this season, and Julius Peppers doesn’t see his abilities completely fall off the cliff, the Packers should get better play from the edge rusher spots.

When Matthews is healthy, he’s one of the better edge rushers in the NFL. The 2009 1st round pick graded out as a top-6 3-4 outside linebacker in every season from 2009-2012, including #1 in 2012. No other 3-4 outside linebacker did the same thing. He struggled last season by his standards, even when on the field, on 571 snaps, playing through injury and grading out just about average. However, if he’s healthy, he could easily have another dominant year this year, only going into his age 28 season. That would be a big boost to this defense.

Nick Perry, meanwhile, is supposedly very talented, going in the first round in 2012, but he hasn’t been able to be healthy enough to show it yet. He’s played a combined 585 snaps in 17 games in 2 seasons in the league and generally graded out about average. If he can stay healthy, he could have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league, but that’s a big if. His injury history is a big part of the reason why they brought in Peppers. As I mentioned, they should get better play from the edge rusher spots this season.

AJ Hawk and Brad Jones remain as starters at middle linebacker. Jones had issues with injuries last season as well, missing 4 games and playing a total of 594 snaps. Jones struggled, grading out below average when he played. He was much better in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker, making 10 starts and playing 687 snaps, but he’s still a one year wonder. The 2009 7th round pick played a combined 763 snaps from 2009-2011 and wasn’t particularly impressive, grading out below average in all 3 seasons. In the only good season he’s had in the league, he still only made 10 starts. He could have a bounce back year in a healthier season, but there are no guarantees.

AJ Hawk, meanwhile, is a mainstay, missing a combined 2 games in 8 seasons since being drafted 5th overall in 2006. Hawk has been a bust in that he’s never lived up to where he was drafted, but he keeps staying around. I don’t know he keeps staying around though, as he’s graded out below average in every season but 1 since 2007, including 47th out of 55 eligible last season. He’s always been better in coverage than against the run and he struggled mightily against the run last season, grading out 4th worst at his position in pure run grade. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s not getting any better any time soon. There’s a chance that Jamari Lattimore could push him for snaps at some point this season. Lattimore is inexperienced (310 career snaps) and went undrafted in 2011, but he flashed on 272 snaps last season, grading out slightly above average.

Grade: B-

Secondary

One of the biggest re-additions from injury for the Packers going into 2014 (along with Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, and Randall Cobb) is cornerback Casey Hayward, a 2012 2nd round pick who I argued should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. He was the Packers’ nickel cornerback, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have an important role. Because the Packers are in their sub packages so frequently, Hayward played on 703 of the Packers’ 1118 regular season defensive snaps, around 63%. He also made 7 starts when injuries struck.

Despite not being a full-time starter, only three players (Tarell Brown, Antoine Winfield, Cortland Finnegan) played more pass snaps and didn’t surrender a touchdown and Hayward’s interception total, 6, was double the high of anyone in that group. He also got his hands on 12 more balls, deflecting them, a number that was tied for the most among players who didn’t surrender a touchdown and was tied for 6th overall in the NFL. His 6 interceptions, meanwhile, were 4th in the NFL.

As you can imagine, when a player allows 0 touchdowns and picks off 6 passes, his QB rating against must be pretty low. That was exactly the case with Hayward. His 31.1 QB rating allowed was not only the best in the league among those eligible, but among players ineligible, only Darrelle Revis played more than 29 snaps and allowed a lower QB rating and he only played 93. Only Richard Sherman played more snaps than him and had a QB rating that even rivaled his and his was 10 points higher at 41.1.

It wasn’t just a great touchdown to interception ratio powering that low QB rating. Hayward allowed 33 completions all year, on 74 attempts, a 44.6% completion percentage. He surrendered just 456 yards, 6.2 YPA. He also was not penalized all year and played the run well, as well. He ranked 4th among eligible cornerbacks in run stop % and missed just 3 tackles all season. For all his efforts, he was ProFootballFocus’ 3rd ranked cornerback. Hayward played 88 snaps last season thanks to hamstring problems and their secondary suffered as a result. He’ll return to the slot this season and could turn into a starter if needed.

He could be needed to become a starter, especially if he continues to play well. The Packers re-signed Sam Shields to a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal this off-season, but that was a massive overpay. He was Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked cornerback this past season (though he was 35th in pure coverage grade). Shields has definitely flashed in the past, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked cornerback in 2012 and dominating down the stretch as an undrafted rookie in 2010 on the Packers’ Super Bowl run. However, he also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 92nd ranked cornerback in 2011 and then there was last year. He’s also never played a full 16 game season, missing 11 games in 4 seasons, including 6 games missed in his dominant 2012 season. That’s a very inconsistent history.

Tramon Williams had a better season last season than Shields, grading out as Pro Football Focus 39th ranked cornerback, above average, but he’s going into his age 31 season. He’s shown decline over the past few seasons, since grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback in 2009, 8th ranked cornerback in 2010 and 8th ranked cornerback in coverage grade in 2011 (25th overall). He was Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked cornerback in 2012 (though he was 29th in coverage grade) and then 39th last season. He might have another season as an above average starter in him, but it’s possible that Hayward is just their best cornerback.

The Packers used their first round pick in this past draft on HaHa Clinton-Dix and he should give them an upgrade at one safety spot over the combination of Jerron McMillian and MD Jennings that manned that position last season. The former was their week 1 starter, but was so bad that he ended up getting benched and then cut, despite a very minimal salary. He played 196 snaps, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th worst safety last season despite his very limited playing time, if he was eligible. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. The latter, Jennings, took over as the starter from there on out, playing 809 snaps, but he wasn’t much better, grading out 70th at his position out of 86 eligible. Clinton-Dix should be at least a decent starter as a rookie.

Morgan Burnett returns as the other starting safety and he too struggled last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked safety out of 86 eligible. He could bounce back though, based on his history as a starter. The 2010 3rd round pick graded out above average in his first 2 seasons as a starter in 2011 and 2012, ranking 15th in 2012 and 31st in 2011. His potential bounce back season is another reason why the Packers should be an improved defensive team this year.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Simply having Aaron Rodgers healthy this season should make the Packers one of the better teams in the NFL again this season. Rodgers went 46-16 as a starter from 2009-2012, missing a combined 2 games (one was because the Packers had already clinched the #1 seed in the NFC) and then he was 6-2 last season in games in which he started and finished. He’s so talented and has such a strong offensive supporting cast that the Packers can push to be the best offensive team in the league if Rodgers is healthy all year, which he should be.

However, if they can have at least average health around Rodgers, that could take them to the next level. Losing guys like Randall Cobb, Clay Matthews, and Casey Hayward to significant injuries last season around Rodgers also really hurt them. On paper, this is one of the more talented teams in the NFL, provided they can stay healthy. The Broncos showed last season that even an average defense, when paired with a dominant offense, can make for a dominant football team. I’ll have an official prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 062014
 

Quarterback

The Lions went 4-12 in 2012, but they were much better than their record suggested. They went 3-8 in games decided by a touchdown in 2012 and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 6.5 wins, coming from their -65 point differential. That point differential would have been much better if they hadn’t allowed 10 return touchdowns, while scoring none for themselves. If that was zeroed out, they would have had a +5 point differential and essentially been an 8-8 team.

Going off of that, they had an unsustainably poor turnover margin of -13, largely because of an unsustainably poor fumble recovery rate of 32.56%. Turnover margins (and along with that return touchdown margins) are really unpredictable and inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins.

Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. The Lions ranked 16th in DVOA in 2012 despite their record and they were supposed to be a significantly improved team last season.

They were an improved team, going 7-9, but they still missed out on the playoffs and they still were better than their record. They still had a -12 turnover margin, driven by a 42.55% fumble recovery rate. They still went 3-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a Pythagorean Expectation of 8.5 wins. The things that are supposed to even out in the long run (record in close games, fumble recovery, turnover margin) have not been evening out for this team over the past 2 seasons. The Lions fired head coach Jim Schwartz in an effort to fix this.

They replaced him with Jim Caldwell, which was kind of a weird move. The Lions will be hoping that they’re getting the coach who went 24-8 in his first 2 years with the Colts, the coach who was recommended by Peyton Manning, and the offensive coordinator who turned the Ravens’ offense around mid-season in 2012 en route to a Super Bowl victory, rather than the coach who went 2-14 in his only season with the Colts without Peyton Manning, getting fired, and the offensive coordinator who led one of the worst offenses in the league last season in Baltimore.

Either way, the Lions could easily see their poor record in close games and their poor turnover margin even out in their first year under Caldwell. They were 6th in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013, with a differential of 5.42%. They moved the chains at a 73.92% rate, 10th in the NFL, and they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 68.50% rate, 9th in the NFL. They have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NFL, which this preview will demonstrate. Almost every season, one team goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye. I think the Lions have a good chance to be that team, if anyone does. I feel the same way about the Lions as I did about the Panthers before last season, when I predicted them to go 12-4, win the NFC South, and get the #2 seed in the NFC.

Quarterback Matt Stafford is a big part of that talent. His numbers last season weren’t great, as he completed 58.5% of his passes for an average of 7.33 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, a QB rating of 84.2 that ranked 19th in the NFL last season. However, Stafford also had a league high 58 passes dropped for a combined 513 yards in the air. When you look at his adjusted QB rating, which takes into account dropped passes, throw aways, spikes, and yards in the air, he was 15th in the NFL.

Meanwhile, he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked quarterback last season and graded out 4th in terms of pure passing grade. He did struggle as a runner, grading out below average in that aspect and rushing for 69 yards on 37 carries, an average of 1.86 YPC. Still, he’s better than his numbers suggest, leading an offense that ranked highly in rate of moving the chains despite consistent dropped passes by his receiving corps.

Stafford, the first overall pick in 2009, struggled in his first 2 years in the NFL, missing 19 games and completing 54.5% of his passes for an average of 5.92 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. However, he’s played all 48 games over the past 3 seasons, completing 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.24 YPA, 90 touchdowns, and 52 interceptions. He’s also been better than his numbers, as he had 46 passes dropped in 2011 (most in the NFL), 49 passes dropped in 2012 (2nd most in the NFL), and then, of course, he had the most passes dropped in the NFL last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback in 2011 and 13th ranked quarterback in 2012.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Lions obviously still have Calvin Johnson, who is one of, if not the best wide receiver in the game. He had a “down year” in 2013 with 84 catches for 1492 yards and 12 touchdowns, his lowest catch and yardage totals since 2010. That was really only because he missed 2 games with injury (after playing all 16 games in the previous 2 seasons). His absence was definitely missed as Matt Stafford completed 47 of 73 for 479 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions in the two games Johnson didn’t play as the Lions scored 22 points and lost both games.

Last season was actually the best season of Johnson’s career in terms of yards per route run, as he averaged 2.72 yards per route run. He’s averaged 2.55 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons since Stafford broke out as a starter. Even in 2011, when the Lions had poor quarterback play, he averaged 1.87 yards per route run and graded out 3rd at his position. He’s been a top-5 wide receiver in the NFL on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons, the only receiver in the league to do so.

The Lions clearly needed to upgrade the receiving corps around Johnson this off-season. They really needed a #2 wide receiver opposite Johnson and they definitely needed someone who could step up as a #1 receiver if Johnson does miss some games. To fix this issue, they signed Golden Tate to a 5-year, 31 million dollar deal with 13.25 million guaranteed. Golden Tate has never had a 1000 yard season, but he’s been stuck on a run heavy team in Seattle, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. He caught 45 passes on 65 attempts (69.2%) for 688 yards and 7 touchdowns on 378 routes run (1.80 yards per route run) in 2012. In 2013, he caught 64 passes on 93 attempts (68.8%) for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns on 447 routes run (2.01 yards per route run).

He’s also dropped just 5 passes to 109 catches, which has to be music to Matt Stafford’s ears. Tate will see plenty of single coverage opposite Calvin Johnson and could run 500-600 routes in a pass heavier offense. He won’t see any downgrade in terms of his quarterback’s passing ability going from Russell Wilson and Matt Stafford and he could easily have 1000 receiving yards. He and Calvin Johnson instantly give the Lions one of the best wide receiving duos in the NFL.

That’s a big difference compared to last season when Kris Durham led Lion pass catchers in routes run with 586. Durham was Pro Football Focus 2nd worst ranked wide receiver last season, catching 38 passes on 82 targets (46.3%) for 490 yards on 568 routes run (0.86 yards per route run). He also dropped 10 passes. Durham will be no higher than the 4th wide receiver this season. He’ll have a minimal role, if he has any at all, and he’s on the roster bubble. Aside from Calvin Johnson, of the 7 wide receivers who played a snap for the Lions last season, 6 of them graded out below average.

In addition to Golden Tate coming in, Ryan Broyles is coming back from injury. Broyles is tough and a fast healer, but it’s easy to be skeptical about his recovery. Broyles is a talented player who was a 2nd round pick in 2012 and he could have gone in the first round if he didn’t tear his ACL in his senior season at Oklahoma. However, he’s missed 16 games over the past 2 seasons combined, tearing his other ACL in 2012 and then his Achilles in 2013. That’s an intense injury history. He’s expected to be ready for the start of next season, but he’s an unproven, playing 476 snaps over the past 2 seasons respectively and he’s already admitted he’s not as explosive as he once was, which is definitely understandable. He’s also a serious re-injury risk.

Running back Reggie Bush will also be a big part of their passing game and line up in the slot from time to time. He caught 54 passes for 506 yards and 3 touchdowns last season on 303 routes last season, an average of 1.67 yards per route run. He’s not a fantastic pass catcher (grading out right about average as a running back in pass catching grade), but he could see more pass catching production this season with Joe Lombardi coming in as offensive coordinator from New Orleans, where he was the quarterbacks coach from 2009-2013. He’s expected to utilize Bush the same way that the Saints utilized Darren Sproles, who caught an average of 77 passes over the past 3 seasons.

Eric Ebron, the 10th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, will also line up in the slot from time to time. He’ll play a bunch of different roles as a move tight end and the #2 tight end as a rookie. Brandon Pettigrew was brought back as the starting tight end on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal. He’ll be primarily a blocking tight end. I think that deal was a mistake, not just because it means that Eric Ebron won’t have a bigger role, but also because Pettigrew was one of the inefficiencies in this offense last season. He’s not worth that kind of money and the cap strapped Lions could have easily used that money elsewhere. The Lions also have 2nd year tight end Joseph Fauria, who graded out above average as a pass catcher and a run blocker on 312 snaps, as an undrafted rookie last year. He’ll have a much smaller role this season, even though he’s probably better than Pettigrew.

Pettigrew has graded out above average as a run blocker in 4 of the last 5 seasons, but he’s graded out below average as a pass catcher in every season he’s been in the league, since being drafted in the first round in 2009. He was Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible in 2012, including 61st as a pass catcher as he averaged 1.18 yards per route run and dropped 9 passes. In 5 years in the league, he’s averaged 1.28 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end in pass catching grade last season and averaged 0.98 yards per route run. The Lions should phase him out of the offense over the next 2 seasons in favor of the incredibly athletic, but still raw Ebron. With the additions of Tate and Ebron, it’s a much improved receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Lions use Reggie Bush in the passing game a lot. Bush has gotten over his early career injury problems, playing 45 out of 48 games in the past 2 seasons as a starter in Miami and Detroit. However, he still hasn’t been the type of running back he was supposed to be when the Saints took him 2nd overall in 2006. He’s averaged 4.62 YPC over the past 3 seasons as a starter, doing so on 666 carries, but he hasn’t been as good as that suggests.

He graded out below average in run grade in 2011 and 2012 and about average in 2013 and he’s fumbled 13 times over the past 3 seasons. He’s going into his age 29 season so he’s not getting any better. The Lions are planning on scaling back Bush’s role as a runner, as new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes over from the Sean Payton coaching tree in New Orleans and plans to use Bush as they did with Darren Sproles in New Orleans. Sproles caught an average of 77 passes over the past 3 seasons. Reggie Bush has caught an average of 44 over the past 3 seasons and could catch 60 passes this season. At the same time, he could see his carries drop down from 223 to the 140-160 range.

Any loss in carries by Bush will be the benefit of Joique Bell, which Bush has said publicly he is fine with. The Lions have been a pass happy, 3-wide receiver team over the past 3 seasons, averaging 680 pass attempts over the past 3 seasons. Now they will be more of a traditional offense. They used their first round pick on Eric Ebron, which means they’ll use more two-tight end sets (though they obviously still have the ability to throw out of two-tight end sets). They signed a traditional fullback in Jed Collins, who comes with Lombardi over New Orleans, where he’s graded out above average in 2 of the past 3 seasons as a starter, including a 2011 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked fullback.

They also gave a 3-year, 9.3 million dollar extension to restricted free agent Joique Bell, who figures to lead the team in carries in their new more traditional offense. The 5-11 220 pounder is their best traditional runner. He doesn’t have as many breakaway runs as Bush, but he had 65 first downs on 219 touches last season, while Bush had 68 first downs on 277 touches. The Lions could easily be getting a steal with that 3-year deal.

Over the past 2 seasons, Bell has been one of the more important backup running backs in the NFL. Last season, he played 562 snaps, 23rd most in the NFL among running backs. A former undrafted free agent, Bell graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked running back in 2013 and 12th ranked in 2012. In the past 2 seasons, he’s averaged 4.29 yards per carry, while serving as a valuable goal line back (11 touchdowns) and receiver out of the backfield (105 catches).

Bell’s pass catching ability might actually be better than Bush’s (though the Lions don’t split him into the slot nearly as often) and his pass catching ability allows the Lions to pass out of traditional running formations, as does Ebron. Bell was actually 2nd on the team in receiving yards, catching 53 catches for 547 yards last season. Bush is owed 3.25 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2015 so Bush could be gone next off-season and Bell could be a three-down feature back that season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

As good as Calvin Johnson is, the best unit on the Lions’ offense is their offensive line. The Lions allowed 23 sacks last season, 2nd fewest in the NFL, which is even more impressive when you consider that they passed 634 times, 5th most in the NFL. Part of that is how quickly Matt Stafford gets rid of the ball and how strong his pocket presence is. Stafford averaged 2.41 seconds from snap to throw last season, 8th fastest among eligible quarterbacks, and he was sacked on 11.9% of pressured snaps, 3rd most infrequently among eligible quarterbacks. This isn’t a new trend. In 2012, he was sacked on 13.3% of pressured snaps, 4th most infrequently among eligible quarterbacks, even though he got rid of the ball in 2.56 seconds from snap to throw on average.

However, much of that low sack number had to do with how well the Lions’ offensive line played. The biggest addition to the unit was rookie right guard Larry Warford, a 2013 3rd round pick, who I argued should have been Offensive Rookie of the Year last season. Warford played every snap one of Detroit’s 1158 offensive snaps as a rookie. Warford didn’t allow a single sack from the right guard spot and only allowed 5 quarterback hits and 10 hurries, while committing just 4 penalties this season. That’s insane, regardless of how quickly his quarterback gets rid of the ball and how good his quarterback’s pocket presence is.

Warford played every snap over a 16 game season and only allowed his man to even get close to the quarterback 15 times. In fact, he only allowed more than 2 quarterback pressures in a game once and that was against Cincinnati, when he was frequently matched up with all-everything defensive tackle Geno Atkins, before Atkins’ injury. On top of that, the right guard gap produced 4.77 yards per carry for the Lions, a team that averaged just 4.04 yards per carry overall. As a result, Warford was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked guard and was an obvious Pro-Bowl snub. He’s obviously still a one year wonder, as he was a rookie last year, but I’m confident he can have another dominant year.

Warford wasn’t the Lions’ only talented rookie last season, as undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle played very well as a rookie, taking over as the starter at right tackle in week 8 and playing 553 snaps on the season. He played much better than veteran Corey Hilliard, who graded below average to start the season on 459 snaps. Waddle graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked offensive tackle, despite the limited playing time. He’s expected to enter the season as the starter again. He could easily have another strong season, possibly even stronger now that he’ll be the starter for the full season, though the fact that he was only an undrafted free agent in 2013 is still a concern. About 14 months ago, no name in the NFL believed he was worth being drafted.

On the flip side, the Lions have an aging player at center in Dominic Raiola. He’s going into his age 36 season, and he looked done as recently as 2010-2011, when he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, including 5th worst among centers in 2010. However, he’s put together back-to-back strong seasons over the past two seasons, grading out 13th and 2nd among centers in 2012 and 2013 respectively. At his age, he doesn’t have much time left, but he could easily have another strong season left in the tank, so credit the Lions for keeping him at a very reasonable rate (1.5 million over 1 season) this off-season.

Warford didn’t miss a snap all last season. Raiola missed 2 snaps all last season. On top of that, left guard Rob Sims didn’t miss a snap all last season either. Sims did have a down season, grading out only about average. However, he was awesome from 2009-2012. He graded out well above average in each of those 4 seasons, grading out 10th in 2009, 33rd in 2010, 13th in 2011, and 11th in 2012. He’s going into his age 31 season so the fact that he had a down season last year is a concern, but he could bounce back.

Riley Reiff at left tackle, meanwhile, only missed 31 snaps all of last season, though he did struggle last season, grading out below average. The 2012 1st round pick was in his first year as a starter, though he impressed on 336 snaps as a rookie. Going into his 3rd year in the league, the talented offensive lineman could be better and show some of the talent that flashed in his rookie season. It’s a very strong offensive line overall either way.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Lions have a pretty weak secondary, but so did the Panthers going into last season. The Lions also had a weak secondary last season and their defense actually still played pretty well, ranking 9th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains allowed. That’s because their defensive line played so well, getting consistent pressure on the quarterback, as they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked team in terms of pass rush grade last season.

Much of that was powered by a fantastic year by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked defensive tackle last season. He’s had a strong career since being drafted 2nd overall in 2010, but last season was arguably the best season of his career. He’s never matched the 10 sacks he had as a rookie, but he’s become a much better run stopper and gotten much more consistent pass rush since then.

He actually graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in the first 2 seasons of his career in 2010 and 2011 because of his poor run play. In fact, last season was the first time in his career that he had graded out above average as a run stopper. However, he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 4th and 2nd ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He and Gerald McCoy are the only two defensive tackles to grade out in the top-3 in each of the last 2 seasons. Aside from McCoy and maybe the versatile Kyle Williams (who can play 3-4 defensive end, 4-3 defensive tackle, and 3-4 nose tackle), Suh is probably the best defensive tackle in the NFL.

Next to Suh, the Lions have another defensive tackle who has the potential to be one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL like Suh, but he’s yet to show the consistency necessary for him to be one. Nick Fairley, the 13th overall pick in 2011, flashed as a rookie on 236 snaps, grading out above average, and then was dominant in 2012 on 511 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle, one slot below Suh. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher.

He looked poised for a breakout year in a bigger role in his 3rd year in the league in 2013, but he graded out just about average on 693 snaps. The Lions have had issues with his discipline and his weight and he’s also committed 22 penalties over the past 2 seasons. The Lions are putting the pressure on him going into his contract year. They didn’t pick up his 5th year option on his rookie deal so he’s going into his contract year. He’s reportedly responded by slimming down to 295 pounds from 322 and he could have a big year with financial motivation on the line. However, he’s had motivational issues dating back to his collegiate days at Copiah-Lincoln Community College and then at Auburn University, so there are no guarantees.

The Lions also have talented reserve CJ Mosley in the mix at defensive tackle. Mosley was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked defensive tackle on just 333 snaps last season, excelling against the run. This is nothing new as Mosley has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, doing so as a reserve in 2011 and 2013 and as a starter in Jacksonville in 2012. The Lions also have Jason Jones coming back from injury. He’ll play defensive end in base packages and move inside on passing downs and rush the passer occasionally.

Jones is coming back from a torn patellar tendon he suffered week 3 of last season, which cut his season to 87 snaps. He’s expected to be ready for the start of the season, but that’s a tough injury to come back from. The 6-5 274 pounder has played both defensive end and defensive tackle in his career. He’s played well inside, grading out above average on limited snaps inside in both 2009 and 2012 and grading out 6th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus as a starter in 2010. However, he’s struggled whenever he’s played defensive end, grading out 62nd out of 67 eligible among 4-3 defensive ends as a starter in 2011 and then struggled before going down last season. Now coming off of a serious injury, I expect him to continue struggling as a base defensive end.

Devin Taylor could also get snaps at defensive end, as the Lions attempt to replace Willie Young, who played 801 snaps and graded out above average last season, but who is now in Chicago. Taylor graded out about average on 308 snaps as a 4th round rookie last season and could see a bigger role this season. The Lions also drafted Kyle Van Noy in the 2nd round and they are expected to use him in a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role, playing him in a base role at outside linebacker and a sub package role at defensive end, essentially the Von Miller role. He should lead the left end spot in pass rush snaps played.

At the right end spot, Ezekiel Ansah is expected to be an every down defensive end in his 2nd year in the league. The 5th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Ansah graded out slightly below average on 581 snaps as a rookie. He’ll have a bigger role and he could easily play better. The 6-5 271 pounder was regarded as extremely raw coming out of BYU, as he only started playing football in 2010, and he played his best football of the season down the stretch last season. The Lions’ defensive line still has the ability to be one of the better pass rush teams in the league, which will help their defense play well in spite of their secondary.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Lions also have a strong linebacking corps, which helps their defense play well in spite of their secondary. I already mentioned Kyle Van Noy will be play outside in a base package role. He’ll replace Ashlee Palmer, who graded out below average on 367 snaps last season, playing primarily as a run stopper. Van Noy should be an upgrade in that regard in addition to providing pass rush in sub packages from the defensive line.

Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy return in every down roles, roles they excelled in last season. Tulloch graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked middle linebacker, while Levy graded out 9th among 4-3 outside linebackers. Tulloch has done this kind of thing before, as he graded out above average as a starter in every season from 2008-2011, maxing out at 6th overall in 2011. He struggled in 2012, grading out below average, but only because he was playing through a serious knee injury. He bounced back in a huge way in 2013 and should continue to play really well in 2014.

Levy, however, has never really done this kind of thing before as the 2009 3rd round pick graded out below average in each of his last 4 seasons as a starter from 2009-2012, playing both middle linebacker and outside linebacker. He had a strong season last year, particularly in coverage, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in coverage (Tulloch was dominant in coverage too, which helped their secondary). However, he’s still a one year wonder and I’m skeptical he can do this again based on his history, but he can definitely prove me wrong.

Grade: B+

Secondary

I mentioned the issues the Lions have in the secondary multiple times, but it’s not all bad. Glover Quin was one of the best safeties in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons, playing cornerback in 2010 and then safety in 2011-2013. Last year was a career year for him so he might not repeat that kind of season, but he could easily have another above average season for a secondary that needs it.

The Lions lost Louis Delmas this off-season, cutting him rather than paying him 6 million. The formerly injury plagued safety played all 16 games last season and graded out above average, but the Lions didn’t feel he was worth his salary and let him go. They brought in veteran journeyman James Ihedibgo to be his replacement, paying him 3.15 million on a 2 year deal, which is obviously cheaper than Delmas. Ihedibgo graded out higher than Delmas did last season, grading out 15th among safeties, while Delmas graded out 25th.

However, much of that was because Ihedigbo was dominant against the run, grading out 2nd at his position against the run. He really struggled in coverage, grading out 15th worst at his position in that aspect. He’s also going into his age 31 season and joining the 4th team of his career. He had a strong season last year, but that’s not the type of player he’s been in the past. Prior to last season, he had only once played more than 294 snaps in a season, doing so as a starter with the Patriots in 2011, when he graded out below average. He could easily regress this season, especially at his age, and he’s a downgrade compared to Delmas.

Things are worse at cornerback, where the Lions will be counting on an aging veteran to keep it together and two youngsters to step up. That aging veteran is Rashean Mathis, who is going into his age 34 season. Mathis looked done going into last season, as an aging cornerback who had graded out below average in 2 of the previous 3 seasons and missed 11 games in the previous 2 seasons. As a result, he was still available into mid-August, when he was snatched up by the Lions, and only played a combined 161 snaps in the Lions’ first 4 games.

However, he ended up making 13 starts, playing in 15 games, and playing 799 snaps. He was a big time contributor, allowing opponents to complete 48.9% of their passes against him and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked cornerback. It was a vintage year for the veteran. The Lions brought him back on another one-year deal, but considering his recent history and his age, as he’s now going into his age 34 season, it’s fair to be skeptical that he can be as good as he was last season.

With the injury plagued Chris Houston getting cut this off-season (he graded out well below average last season), Mathis is locked into a top-3 cornerback role on this team, along with Bill Bentley and Darius Slay, both of whom graded out well below average last season. Slay was a 2013 2nd round pick and the natural talented 6-0 192 pounder could have a better year in his 2nd year in the league. It’s tough for rookie cornerbacks to adjust to the NFL and Slay showed that, grading out 92nd out of 110 eligible cornerbacks on just 353 snaps.

Bentley, meanwhile, was a 2012 3rd round pick. He’s graded out well below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, doing so on 177 snaps as a rookie and 498 snaps last season. The Lions also used a 4th round pick on Nevin Lawson and he could push for a significant role at cornerback down the stretch if things are bad. The secondary is easily the Lions’ weakest unit on the team, but they have an explosive offense and we’ve seen teams play well defensively even with a weak secondary if they have strong front 7 play. We saw the Panthers do it last year. We’ve seen the 49ers do it recently. We even saw the Lions do it last year, as they ranked 9th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Lions are one of the top-10 talented teams in the NFL and the numbers agree with me, as they were 6th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential. They’ve had serious issues with turnovers and losses in close games over the past 2 seasons, which has stopped them from reaching the win totals they are capable of reaching. Both of those things usually even out in the long run. It might not seem like they will for the Lions because they’ve had so many issues in those aspect over the past 2 seasons, but that’s just because it hasn’t happened yet.

Replacing Jim Schwartz with Jim Caldwell could easily help even those things out, which would help the Lions become one of the better teams in the NFL. With essentially the same core, the Lions went 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a +11 turnover margin in 2011, en route to a 10-6 season. I think they’re now more talented than they were then, but they’ve gone 6-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less and has a -25 turnover margin over the past 2 seasons. I think this team has the best chance to be this year’s team who goes from out of the playoffs to a first round bye. I’ll have an official wins prediction after I do every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 062014
 

Quarterback

The Jaguars have the smallest win total over/under in the NFL at 4.5, which suggests that the odds makers think they are the worst team in the NFL. Bet now on the greatest NFL lines here. However, teams with win totals of 6 or lower go over the total about 2/3rds of the time in that situation, as it’s very hard to be really bad for a long time. The Jaguars are a popular “sleeper” team and are popularly seen as one of the most improved teams in the NFL this off-season. I don’t understand that at all.

They signed Toby Gerhart, a backup from Minnesota, to be their starting running back. They overpaid for Zane Beadles and Ziggy Hood for the offensive and defensive lines respectively. They signed a pair of aging ex-Seahawk defensive linemen in Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. They have young players that could be improved this season, but I really don’t get why people see them as so improved. They drafted a pair of wide receivers in the 2nd round, but rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and they’ll probably be without suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon for the entire season. I don’t see anyone on the team who is in the top-200 players in the NFL.

They had the 3rd overall pick in the draft, but they spent it on Blake Bortles, who won’t help them much this season. Bortles could end up being a great quarterback long-term, but the Jaguars are vowing that they’re going to go slow with him and ideally they wouldn’t play him as a rookie. He’ll only end up playing as a rookie if the starter struggles. That’ll probably happen, but either way, Bortles won’t be on the field until it’s too late for him to solve anything, even if he plays great. Obviously, there’s no guarantee he can do that, especially as a rookie.

That starter is Chad Henne, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked quarterback last season, completing 60.6% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. The 2008 2nd pick has completed 59.5% for an average of 6.00 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 62 interceptions in his career. He’s attempted 1876 passes in 6 seasons in the league. He’s 18-32 in his career and needs everything around him to be right for him to make the playoffs.

Grade: C

Running Backs

Everything definitely isn’t right around Henne. The Jaguars signed former Vikings backup running back Toby Gerhart to a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar deal worth 4.5 million guaranteed. He’ll be the starter and the Jaguars are talking him up as a 300+ carry three-down back. The 2010 2nd round pick clearly has some talent, averaging 4.73 YPC on 276 carries (1305 rushing yards and 5 touchdowns) in 4 years in the league.

However, he has limited action, with an average of 69 carries per season and just 1125 snaps played in his career (an average of 281 snaps played per season). He’s graded out above average in 2 seasons and below average in 2 seasons and has played the majority of his snaps in passing situations, meaning, when he does carry the ball, he’s doing it against a defensive front that’s not expecting the run. The 6-0 231 pounder has caught 77 passes in his career, which is solid, but unspectacular, which is the same way he is as a pass protector. He has some three down potential, but he’s a serious projection to that role. The Jaguars are expected to pound the rock with Gerhart to take the pressure off of their passing game, though that plan is best executed when leading, which the Jaguars probably won’t be doing a lot of this season.

The Jaguars really don’t have another option to run the ball after Gerhart, which is probably why they’re talking him up as a feature back. Jordan Todman will probably be the primary backup. The 2011 6th round pick has 79 career carries, 76 of which were last season. He averaged 3.37 YPC last season, rushing for 256 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries. In his career, he averages 3.34 YPC, rushing for 264 yards and 2 touchdowns on 79 carries. Last season, in the only season in his career in which he saw significant action, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked running back out of 55 eligible, despite such limited playing time. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He’s not a very good backup. 7th round rookie Storm Johnson could also see action this season. That’s how bad things are.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Gerhart generally ran behind a good offensive line in Minnesota, but that won’t be the case in Jacksonville. They graded out as easily Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked run blocking team last season, a big part of the reason why they averaged 3.33 YPC last season. They were better in pass protection, but still not great, grading out 19th among teams in that aspect. Things don’t figure to be much better this season. The Jaguars signed Zane Beadles this off-season, but they overpaid the ex-Bronco on a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal with 13 million guaranteed.

The 6 million dollars in annual value on that deal is the 10th highest in the NFL among guards. He’s not a top-10 guard. Beadles has been a starter since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010, but he’s been massively inconsistent. As a rookie in 2010, he was very solid as a guard, grading out 22nd among guards on 523 snaps played, but struggled mightily as a tackle. In 2012, he had his best season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked guard. However, in 2011 he was 73rd out of 78 eligible and in 2013 he was 49th out of 81 eligible. All in all, he’s about an average starting guard.

He’ll be an upgrade over Will Rackley, who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked guard in 2011 and 3rd worst ranked guard in 2013 (with a season he missed with injury in between). However, he was still overpaid. Meanwhile, they downgraded the right guard position, cutting decent starting veteran Uche Nwaneri and replacing him with 3rd round rookie Brandon Linder. Linder will be forced into the starting lineup as a rookie, which just shows you how little talent they have, and he should struggle.

The Jaguars also have a downgrade at the center position, with long-time center Brad Meester retiring. Meester struggled in his final year in the league, grading out 29th out of 35 eligible centers, but replacement Mike Brewster could still easily be worse. Brewster was an undrafted free agent in 2012 and has struggled mightily in 2 years in the league, primarily at left guard. Brewster was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked guard in 2012, despite only playing 556 snaps. He then struggled this season on 230 snaps, again primarily playing left guard, but also playing some right guard. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league back at his collegiate position of center, but he’s also a former undrafted free agent who has yet to show that he should have been drafted, so it’s definitely not an ideal situation.

The most promising player on the offensive line for the Jaguars is left tackle Luke Joeckel, who was the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Joeckel struggled mightily as a rookie on 280 snaps at right tackle before going down with a season ending leg injury. He could easily be better in his 2nd year, at his natural position on the blindside, but the blindside is harder than right tackle, where he struggled, he’s coming off of a serious injury, and, while he went 2nd overall, he did so in arguably the weakest draft class of the past 15 or so years. We’ll see how he does in his 2nd year in the league.

At right tackle, it’ll either be Austin Pasztor or Cameron Bradfield, who manned the tackle positions for the Jaguars most of last season with Joeckel out. Both of them struggled. Pasztor is probably the better of the two, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. That doesn’t sound good, but it’s better when you consider that Bradfield graded out 73rd. Pasztor, a 2012 undrafted free agent, is unproven, but he’s also not quite the proven failure that Bradfield is. He was alright on 219 snaps at right guard as a rookie. Bradfield, meanwhile, went undrafted in 2011 and has struggled mightily in both seasons he’s been a starter in the NFL. I already mentioned how bad he was last season and he graded out 62nd out of 80 eligible as a starter in 2012. Any way you look at it, it’s an awful offensive line.

Grade: C-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

By default, things are probably best in the receiving corps. The Jaguars drafted Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson in the 2nd round of the 2014 NFL Draft and both should have significant roles as rookies, which is a concern considering that rookie wide receivers tend to struggle. The reason they were drafted is because the Jaguars are not expecting suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon to play at all this season. Blackmon barely played last season, playing 253 snaps, but the Jaguars will still miss getting anything from him.

Blackmon was pretty impressive when he was on the field last season, catching 29 of 46 targets (63.0%) for 415 yards and a touchdown on 161 routes run, an average of 2.58 yards per route run that was 4th in the NFL. He did all of that despite horrible quarterback play. Lee and Robinson should be upgrades over Ace Sanders and Mike Brown, who were 2nd and 3rd on the team in snaps played by a wide receiver last season, grading out 88th and 104th respectively out of 111 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. However, both will probably struggle as rookies and they’ll miss Blackmon.

With Blackmon likely out for the season, Cecil Shorts will remain as the #1 receiver. Shorts showed potential in 2012, when he caught 55 passes for 979 yards and 7 touchdowns on 423 routes run, an impressive average of 2.31 yards per route run, especially when you consider the Jaguars’ quarterback play. The 2011 4th round pick seemed poised for a breakout year in 2013, in his 3rd year in the league, in a bigger role. However, Shorts didn’t live up to expectations and showed himself to pretty much just be a complementary receiver who needs someone opposite him to take the pressure off of him. He clearly doesn’t have that right now.

Shorts caught 66 passes on 117 targets (56.4%) for 777 yards and 3 touchdowns on 472 routes run in 2013, an average of 1.65 yards per route run, grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus. He’s not bad receiver and he’s honestly probably their best offensive player, but that’s not saying much. He’s not the #1 coverage changing wide receiver they need. He’s also never played more than 14 games in a season in the 3 seasons he’s been in the league, showing a tendency to get injured.

The only player who gives Shorts competition for the top offensive player on the Jaguars (assuming Joeckel doesn’t have a massive breakout season) is tight end Marcedes Lewis. Lewis isn’t a fantastic pass catcher, but he’s averaged 1.58 yards per route run since 2009, including 1.37 yards per route run last season. That’s pretty impressive considering what he’s had to deal with at quarterback. His raw pass catching totals don’t seem that good (206 catches for 2577 yards and 20 touchdowns since 2009 in 73 games), but that’s because the way the Jaguars utilize his skill set limits his pass catching production (in addition to poor quarterback play).

The 6-6 261 pounder is a very good run and pass blocker. As a result, he’s very often asked to stay in and pass block, which limits his pass catching production. Since 2009, he has 1 pass block snap for every 3.53 routes he runs, which means he pass blocks more often than almost any tight end. The Jaguars also very rarely line him up off the line, because he’s so good as a blocker. That also limits his pass catching production. Since 2009, only 31.7% of his routes run have come on the slot, which means he lines up off line as infrequently as almost any tight end in the game.

He’s graded out above average every season since 2009 and he was a top-10 tight end in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out at #2 overall in 2010. Much of that is run blocking grade, which isn’t the most valuable part of a tight end’s job, but he graded out above average as a pass catcher in 3 of those 4 seasons. He didn’t do so last season and he only graded out slightly above average overall and also missed 5 games with injury. That’s a concern as he heads into his age 30 season. However, he should remain an asset for them as long as he stays on the field and the 2006 1st round pick only missed a combined 3 games from 2006-2012. Clay Harbor, meanwhile, remains as the #2 tight end. He struggled as a pass catcher and a run blocker on 363 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible. Overall, it’s a pretty talentless offense.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Things aren’t much better on defense, though this is probably their better unit. They don’t have a ton of talent, but head coach Gus Bradley is a smart defensive mind, coming over from the Seahawks, where he was defensive coordinator. Bradley coached up several players last season. Going into his 2nd year as a head coach, Bradley is reunited with Chris Clemons and Red Bryant, two defensive ends who he had when he had a lot of success in Seattle. The issue is that both are aging right now and both are not the players they once were. Both were cut by the Seahawks for cap purposes this off-season.

Clemons was a top-12 4-3 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2012 with the Seahawks. He graded out below average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons, but he excelled as a pass rusher, grading out 4th, 6th, and 4th in pure pass rush grade in 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively. However, Clemons tore his ACL in the 2012 post-season and was a shell of his former self in 2013. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 43rd ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 52 eligible on 585 snaps. He still struggled as a run stopper and he wasn’t nearly as good rushing the passer, though he did great out slightly above average in that aspect. He’ll be about 20 months removed from that torn ACL for week 1 so he could be better, but he’s also going into his age 33 season, so there’s a very good chance that he’ll never close to being the same player he once was.

Red Bryant, meanwhile, is going into his age 30 season. He’s actually coming off of a solid season in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus, grading out above average as a run stopper and below average as a pass rusher. The 6-5 321 pounder is a pure base defensive end, playing 488 snaps last season. At his best, he’s a strong run stuffer and a poor pass rusher, which is what he was last season. He was a similar player in 2010, before missing half the year with injury, and then he struggled mightily in both 2011 and 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 60th 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible in 2012 and 56th out of 67 eligible in 2011. Bryant isn’t as old as Clemons, but he’s aging and he never was as good or as big of a part of Gus Bradley’s success in Seattle as Clemons was.

With Bryant and Clemons aging and both essentially being situational players anyway (Bryant as a base defensive end, Clemons as a sub package edge rusher), the Jaguars are going to need a 3rd defensive end to play a significant role. They may also need a 4th to play a significant role. That 3rd defensive end will be Andre Branch, who played 604 snaps in this role last season. He graded out below average, ranking 32nd among 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. That’s not great, but it’s better than what he did as a rookie, when he ranked 50th out of 62 eligible on 421 snaps. The 6-4 259 pounder is better against the run than as a pass rusher, but he’s not great in either aspect. We’ll see what he does in his 3rd year in the league.

That 4th defensive end will probably be Tyson Alualu and he probably won’t have a big role. Alualu had a big role last season, playing 754 snaps, but he was awful, grading out 47th out of 52 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, struggling as both a run stopper and especially as a pass rusher. Red Bryant is essentially his direct replacement and he’ll almost definitely be an upgrade. Alualu started his career at 4-3 defensive tackle, getting drafted 10th overall in 2010, but he’s been a massive bust and the 6-2 294 pounder was moved to defensive end last season. He played 3-4 defensive end in college.

He’s graded out significantly below average in every year he’s been in the league, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked defensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2010, their worst defensive tackle in 2011, and their 2nd worst defensive tackle in 2012. The position change didn’t help him and it’s good news for the Jaguars that he won’t play much this season. Owed a 2.37 million dollar salary in his contract year, Alualu is also squarely on the roster bubble.

Things aren’t much better at defensive tackle. Sen’Derrick Marks got a big contract this off-season, re-signing with the Jaguars for 22 million over 4 seasons with 8 million guaranteed. That deal doesn’t make a lot of sense. Marks is coming off of the best season of his career, particularly as a pass rusher as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle in terms of pass rush grade. However, he still graded out below average because he was horrific against the run, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked defensive tackle against the run.

He definitely was better last season than he normally is, largely thanks to the tutelage of Gus Bradley, but he’s still not a great player. He was horrible before last season. The 2009 2nd round pick struggled mightily as a rookie on 200 snaps. He then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked defensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2010, 78th ranked defensive tackle out of 88 eligible in 2011, and 75th out of 85 eligible in 2012. There’s a reason all he could get was a one year deal worth 1.5 million last off-season. He could easily regress a little bit this season and he wasn’t that great last year anyway.

Sadly, Marks is their best defensive tackle. Roy Miller is going to be the other starter for a 2nd straight season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 64th ranked defensive tackle out of 69 eligible in 2013. The 2009 3rd round pick has graded out significantly below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league. He was Pro Football Focus 73rd ranked defensive tackle out of 87 eligible in 2009, their 3rd worst defensive tackle in 2010, and their 82nd ranked defensive tackle out of 88 eligible in 2011. His best season in the league was 2012, when he graded out 64th out of 85 eligible. That’s sad.

What’s even sadder is that he isn’t even the Jaguars’ worst defensive tackle. In the weirdest move of the off-season, the Jaguars gave Ziggy Hood, a 2009 1st round pick mega-bust former of the Steelers, a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal with 5.5 million guaranteed. He spent 5 seasons in Pittsburgh as a 3-4 defensive end and graded out as a bottom-4 player at his position in each of the last 4 seasons. The only reason he was even remotely good was his rookie year, when he only played 225 snaps and graded out about average. A switch back to his collegiate position of 4-3 defensive tackle could help him, but I expect him to still struggle mightily in a rotational role. This might be the worst defensive line in the NFL.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

Paul Posluszny had 162 total tackles last season, which was 2nd in the NFL, but that’s misleading. Think about it. Someone had to stop plays for the Jaguars last season. They were bad, but they weren’t letting the other team score on every single play, so someone had to get a bunch of tackles. That doesn’t necessarily mean that player was great. Posluszny wasn’t bad, but he was still Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season. The Jaguars are keeping him at a 6.45 million dollar salary for 2014 because they have a ton of cap space and need his veteran leadership.

He’s been better in the past, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked middle linebacker in 2011 and their 9th ranked middle linebacker in 2009, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of his last 4 seasons and each of his last 2 seasons. In 2012, he was even worse, grading out 47th out of 53 eligible middle linebackers. Now going into his age 30 season, Posluszny will be an average starter at best this season, even if he does, once again, get a bunch of tackles.

Geno Hayes will probably be the other every down linebacker, a role he served in last season, grading out 28th out of 35 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He was once an above average starting outside linebacker in Tampa Bay, grading out well above average in his first 2 seasons as a starter in 2009 and 2010, but he graded out 40th out of 45 eligible at his position in 2011 and then only played 141 snaps in 2012 with the Bears. Those days could easily be behind him now and he should have another season of being a below average starter on the outside.

The other outside linebacker role will probably be just a two-down role and there’s a three way competition for the job right now. Chris Smith and Telvin Smith are a pair of 5th round rookies, while Dekoda Watson is a relative veteran who appears to be the favorite right now. Watson, a 2010 7th round pick, has flashed in his career, grading out above average in 3 out of 4 seasons in the league, though he’s done it as a reserve on only a combined 742 snaps. He should be qualified for two-down work, provided he wins the starting job. It would be his first season as a starter in his career.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The secondary was the Jaguars’ best defensive unit last season (and maybe their best unit on either side of the ball). That could continue to be the case, but they do have some guys coming off of career years that could regress. However, they could continue to play well thanks to the tutelage of Gus Bradley and they have a pair of 2nd year safeties who could be better this season. Those two safeties are Jonathan Cyprien and Josh Evans, who went in the 2nd round and 6th round respectively in 2013.

They graded out 84th and 76th out of 86 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus last season. Evans was the better player last season, but Cyprien definitely has more long-term upside, which is why he went in the 2nd round. Evans, meanwhile, was benched for Winston Guy down the stretch and will need to compete to win his starting job back. A foot injury has him behind the 8-ball at the moment. He fell to the 6th round so it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into a starter. Winston Guy, a 2012 6th round pick, played 8 snaps as a rookie with the Seahawks and then reunited with Gus Bradley in Jacksonville last season. He struggled on 363 snaps, grading out 73rd out of 86 eligible safeties despite the limited action. He won’t be much better than Evans so it’s really a toss-up who wins this job.

Cyprien, meanwhile, played pretty well in the 2nd half of last season. In the Jaguars’ first 9 games of the season, he graded out significantly below average in 8 of them and below average in all 9. In their final 7 games, he graded out above average in 4 games and significantly above average in 3 games. He missed 1 game with injury and graded out below average in 2 games and significantly below average in 1. The 33rd pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Cyprien could carry over that strong finish into his 2nd year in the league this year.

Things were much better at cornerback, though they might not be as good this season as two players had easily the best years of their career last season and could regress. Alan Ball led Jaguar cornerbacks with 1020 snaps played and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback. However, the hybrid cornerback/safety had graded out below average in 5 of the 6 previous years he had been in the league prior to last year, since being drafted in the 7th round in 2007.

The only season he had graded out above average prior to last year was 2009, when he played just 303 snaps and he played a combined 598 snaps in 2011-2012. The only other season he was ever a starter was 2010, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked safety out of 85 eligible. He could have another strong year this year and Gus Bradley seems to have gotten the most out of the long, lanky 6-1 168 pounder (which is Bradley’s type of cornerback), but he could just as easily regress.

Will Blackmon will continue to start at cornerback opposite Ball. He also had the best year of his career last season, grading out 22nd on Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks, tied with teammate Alan Ball. However, much of that was run grade as he graded out slightly below average in coverage, but ranked 2nd against the run. Run play is important for a cornerback, but it’s not nearly as important as coverage so he wasn’t quite as good as his rank suggested. On top of that, he’s the definition of a one year wonder. He played a combined 31 snaps from 2009-2012. Like Ball, he could have another solid year under Gus Bradley’s tutelage and he has the length that Bradley works well with at cornerback (6-0 199), but he could just as easily regress this season.

2013 3rd round pick Dwayne Gratz will start the season as the 3rd cornerback again, but he could easily have a bigger role than the 494 snaps he played last season if either Ball or Blackmon struggles. He graded out above average last season. He graded out slightly below average in coverage, but he played the run well and he still showed a lot of potential. He has some breakout potential going into his 2nd year in the league. Their secondary is more talented than the rest of their defense, but there are still issues here.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Jaguars may have won 4 games last season, but they were even worse than their 4-12 record would have suggested and they were the worst team in the NFL. They finished dead last in DVOA and point differential, with 10 of their 12 losses coming by double digits. Their 4-12 record was buoyed by a 4-2 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Those 4 wins came against teams that finished a combined 15-49. They also ranked easily dead last in rate of moving the chains differential. They were dead last in rate of moving the chains, moving them at a 64.19% rate. Meanwhile, their defense was 29th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.85% rate. That’s a differential of -11.66%. No one else was worse than -7.45%.

When you look at this roster, it’s easy to see why they struggled. They were grossly mismanaged in the Gene Smith era and they’re only going into the 2nd year of their new front office and it’s going to take time to rebuild. I don’t really see how they are going to be significantly better this season. They didn’t have an unsustainably poor turnover margin or fumble recovery rate last season. They didn’t have an enormous amount of injuries last season. They didn’t have a hard schedule last season. They didn’t have bad luck and lose a lot of close games.

They didn’t add a lot of talent this off-season. They signed Toby Gerhart, a backup from Minnesota, to be their starting running back. They overpaid for Zane Beadles and Ziggy Hood for the offensive and defensive lines. They signed a pair of aging ex-Seahawk defensive linemen in Red Bryant and Chris Clemons. They drafted a pair of wide receivers in the 2nd round, but rookie wide receivers tend to struggle and they’ll probably be without suspended wide receiver Justin Blackmon for the entire season. I don’t see anyone on the team who is in the top-200 players in the NFL.

They used the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Blake Bortles. He may be their long-term savior, but the Jaguars are wisely going to let him develop on the bench as a rookie so he won’t contribute much, leaving Chad Henne to quarterback an awful supporting cast. This has all the makings of another horrible season this year, possibly even worse than last season in terms of win total. I think this is easily the least talented team in the NFL. I’ll have an official win total after I do every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jul 022014
 

Quarterback

The Titans were the definition of nondescript last season in every facet of the game. They moved the chains at a 71.66% rate, 17th in the NFL, while their opponents moved the chains at a 71.71% rate, 19th in the NFL. Their -0.05% rate of moving the chains differential was not only the closest rate to zero in the NFL, it also ranked 16th in the NFL, right in the middle of the league. They went 7-9, but probably deserved to go 8-8, though that obviously wouldn’t have made a difference in their efforts to make the playoffs.

Ryan Fitzpatrick had to start 9 games and play in 11 in the absence of injured quarterback Jake Locker. Fitzpatrick arguably had the best season of his career last year. He had graded out below average on Pro Football Focus every season since 2008 prior to last year (he didn’t play in 2007), including 34th out of 37 eligible in 2008 and 35th out of 38 eligible in 2012. However, he graded out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus last season (21st out of 42 eligible). He completed 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA (both career highs), 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and also rushed for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns on 43 carries (5.23 YPA).

Fitzpatrick is now gone, with the Titans putting all their stock in Jake Locker staying healthy this season. Locker has had serious issues staying healthy in his career so the Titans could easily regret letting Fitzpatrick go if either Charlie Whitehurst (64.6 QB rating on 155 career attempts since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2006) or Zach Mettenberger (6th round rookie) has to make starts in Locker’s absence. At the same time, if Locker stays healthy, he should be an upgrade at quarterback for the Titans.

Injuries have sidetracked the former 8th overall pick’s career and now he heads into the contract year of his rookie deal without an extension or any expectation of getting one until he proves himself. He’s played in just 23 games in 3 seasons, working as a backup to veteran Matt Hasselbeck as a rookie and then missing a combined 14 games over the past 2 seasons with a variety of injuries. When on the field, he’s definitely flashed, completing 57.2% of his passes for 7.06 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions on 563 career attempts, essentially a season’s worth. He’s also rushed for 502 yards and 4 touchdowns on 73 attempts (6.88 YPC).

He was on his way to the best season of his career last year, as he completed 60.7% of his passes for an average of 6.86 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions, while rushing for 155 yards and 2 touchdowns on 24 carries (6.46 YPC). He was Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. The Titans went 4-2 in games he played more than 50% of snaps in and they probably would have had a better record on the season if he had stayed healthy.

He suffered a hip injury after 4 starts, wasn’t the same upon his return, and then suffered a season ending foot injury 3 starts after his return from the first injury. In 2012, it was his shoulder. He seems really brittle. It’s obviously a make or break year for him as he goes into his contract year, with a new regime than the one who drafted him now in power. It helps that his new head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, has a strong history with quarterbacks, though he’s always struggled to develop young quarterbacks.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Titans probably would have had a better record last season if Locker had stayed healthy. The framework was in place for the team to be an above average team, even if only a slightly above average team, with slightly improved quarterback play. The issue is the Titans had one of the most head-scratching off-seasons of any team in the league and are a noticeably worse team now around the quarterback than they were last season. These head scratching decisions were most noticeable on the offensive line.

The Titans cut long-time starting right tackle David Stewart, which wasn’t a bad idea, even though he can probably still play (he’s still available on the open market right now, but plenty of veterans available late into the off-season made impacts last season). He was still a decent starter last season, grading out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, but he’s going into his age 33 season, coming off of a couple of injury plagued seasons, and the Titans saved about 6 million on the cap by cutting him.

The biggest issue is that instead of using the freed up cap space to re-sign talented cornerback Alterraun Verner (who signed with Tampa Bay on a very reasonable 4-year, 26.5 million dollar deal), they used it to sign Michael Oher from Baltimore to a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal with 9.35 million guaranteed. Oher will be a significant downgrade over Stewart. That was a ridiculous deal. I thought Oher would have to settle for a one-year prove it deal on the open market.

That’s because Oher had the worst year of his 5-year career last year, as the 2009 1st round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible on the right side in Baltimore. Oher has actually regressed in almost every season as a pro. He had a strong rookie year, grading out 15th at his position, but then went 40th, 38th, 57th, and then, of course, 68th last season. He could be a little better than he was last season, but there are no guarantees and he could still struggle either way.

After that, the Titans, for some reason, used the 11th pick in the draft on another offensive tackle instead of adding a replacement for Verner at cornerback, like Kyle Fuller (who went 3 picks later to Chicago). That offensive tackle was Taylor Lewan. That pick makes some sense in that Michael Roos at left tackle is going into an age 32 contract year and it’s possible that Lewan was just far and away the best prospect on their board available at that point, but it still doesn’t change the fact that they used the 11th overall pick on someone who probably won’t play as a rookie and that they decided to sign Oher instead of re-signing Verner. Lewan won’t help them this season.

Theoretically, Lewan can push Oher for the starting job this season. He’s a better football player after all, even as a rookie. That would be the right move if we assume that insane Oher deal is a sunk cost at this point, but they’re likely going to be way too proud to admit their mistake on that one this soon, after guaranteeing him 9.35 million. The worst part of that deal is that the guaranteed money includes almost all of his 2015 salary as well so he’s probably locked in as a starter for at least two years.

That means that Lewan will probably get his chance to start next season at left tackle, which means that this is probably Michael Roos’ last year in Tennessee. That’s a shame, even if he is going into his age 32 season, and it makes their offensive moves at offensive tackle even more confusing. Roos has been a quietly dominant left tackle and a huge asset for the Titans since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2005.

He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2007, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 2012 (he was also 4th in 2008). He graded out 16th last season and has been a top-16 offensive tackle in each of the last 3 seasons, something only Joe Thomas, Andrew Whitworth, and Eugene Monroe can also say. He’s also missed just 1 start since 2007. It’s a shame that he’ll probably be gone next season, but it a good thing that the Titans didn’t cut him going into this season to put Lewan at left tackle and save 6.625 million in cash and cap space. This was actually reportedly discussed as an idea by a Titans team that seems to have serious issues with personnel decisions.

Things are much more stable at guard, where Chance Warmack and Andy Levitre will return at right and left guard respectively, after both joined the team last off-season. The Titans used big resources on both, drafting Warmack with the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft and giving Andy Levitre a 6-year, 46.8 million dollar deal. Only one of those investments worked out in their first year with the team as Chance Warmack struggled as a rookie, grading out below average and ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 46th guard out of 81 eligible. He could easily be better in his 2nd year in the league though and he was seen as a one in a decade type guard prospect by many coming out.

Levitre, meanwhile, had a “down” year in his first year with the team, but he was still a huge asset, grading out 13th at his position. The only reason last year was a “down” year for him is because he graded out 6th at his position in 2011 and 9th at his position in 2012. Even still, only Evan Mathis and Josh Sitton also have graded out in the top-13 in each of the last 3 seasons among guards. The 2009 2nd round pick has made all 80 starts in 5 years in the league and graded out above average in all 5 seasons. He should have another strong year this year.

The center position is an issue for the Titans. They, for some reason, cut Fernando Velasco in final cuts last year even though he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked center in 2012. Velasco turned out to not be as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, playing as an injury replacement in Pittsburgh, but he was still better than what the Titans had at center last year. Veteran Robert Turner started the first 6 games of the season before being benched for poor performance. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center despite only playing 401 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower.

4th round rookie Brian Schwenke then took over as the starter from there on out and wasn’t much better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th worst ranked center on 573 snaps. Turner is gone and remains an unsigned free agent right now so the starting job is all Schwenke’s. They don’t have another player on the roster who has ever played a snap at center. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league and his first full season as a starter, but there are no guarantees with a former mid-round pick like him. Center is an obvious position of weakness. The Titans have made their offensive line worse over the past calendar year, but there’s still talent here, particularly at left tackle and left guard.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Titans also attempted to revamp the running back position this off-season, though they did a better job with that than they did on the offensive line. Chris Johnson was cut, which needed to be done because he was a declining player and clearly not worth his salary. He’s good for a few highlight reel plays, but he won’t he missed much. He averaged just 3.86 yards per carry last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked running back out of 55 eligible.

The Titans will replace him with Bishop Sankey, who was drafted in the 2nd round out of Washington. Sankey doesn’t have ideal size at 5-9 209, but he ran a 4.49 40 and he runs harder than his size. He showed the ability to carry the load at Washington, with 677 touches over his final 2 seasons combined, but he doesn’t even turn 22 until September so his legs should be pretty fresh. He has three down ability and some considered him the top running back in the draft class. The Titans obviously did, making him the first running back off the board, 53rd overall, the latest the first running back has ever come off the board (breaking the record set in 2013).

Sankey should get the opportunity to be the feature back immediately in Tennessee because they don’t have much else at the running back position. Shonn Greene, who played 154 snaps and had 77 carries last season, remains in that backup role. It was a weird move when the Titans gave him a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal last off-season because he’s only a backup caliber running back. He’s averaged just 4.14 YPC on 899 career carries and offers nothing on passing downs, with just 71 catches in 72 career games. He’s not going to get any better going into his age 29 season.

Greene’s roster spot shouldn’t be safe at a non-guaranteed 2.3 million dollar salary. He might be kept only because their other big back option is Jackie Battle, who is going into his age 31 season with 321 career carries and a career 3.64 YPC. The Titans will have to be awfully reliant on a rookie at running back this year, though it’s not worse than last season, when they were way too reliant on a clearly declining Chris Johnson.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Part of the reason why Ryan Fitzpatrick was able to have the best statistical year of his career last year and why Locker was able to have success as well was solid play in their receiving corps (in addition to their offensive line). The biggest difference between 2012 and 2013 in the receiving corps was a breakout season from 2012 1st round pick Kendall Wright in his 2nd year in the league. Wright only averaged 11.5 yards per reception and only scored twice and in his career he only averages 10.8 yards per reception and only has 6 touchdowns, but he gobbles up underneath targets and dominates that part of the field.

Wright caught 94 passes on 134 targets (70.1%) and totaled 1079 yards on 539 routes run, an average of 2.00 yards per route run, 21st among eligible wide receivers. He also had more than half of his yardage after the catch, as he totaled 583 yards after the catch and averaged 6.2 yards per catch after the catch. That was 10th at his position among eligible wide receivers. He did drop 8 passes, but that’s a relatively low drop rate when you consider how many passes he caught and he also broke 19 tackles, which was 2nd most at his position. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked wide receiver and he could easily be better in his 3rd year in the league, a common breakout year for wide receivers. He can become a more complete receiver by catching more passes downfield.

On top of that, Nate Washington continued his solid play, catching 58 passes for 919 yards and 3 touchdowns on 558 routes run, an average of 1.65 yards per route run. Over the past 3 seasons, Washington has caught 178 passes for 2688 yards and 14 touchdowns and averaged 1.62 yards per route run. Last season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked wide receiver and he’s graded out above average in 2 of the past 3 seasons. He’s more of a deep threat than Wright, averaging 15.2 yards per catch in his career and 15.8 yards per catch last season, but there’s some concern as he goes into his age 31 season. Both Wright and Washington are strong run blockers, which boosted their ranks on Pro Football Focus, but they still graded out 22nd and 23rd respectively in pass catching grade.

Wright spent 68.5% of his snaps on the slot last season, part of the reason why he rarely scored and averaged so few yards per catch. He could see slightly fewer snaps there this season though as slot specialist Dexter McCluster comes over from Kansas City. McCluster will not be the true slot receiver he was in Kansas City, but he’ll play there some, in addition to lining up as a passing down running back, and also possibly returning kickoffs and punts. He’ll play the Danny Woodhead role in Ken Whisenhunt’s offense, with Bishop Sankey playing the Ryan Mathews role.

McCluster caught 53 passes for 511 yards and 2 touchdowns last season and more than half of his yards per reception (5.1 per catch) came after the catch. He did that on 429 routes run (1.19 yards per route run), graded out below average, and ran 79.5% of his routes from the slot. McCluster, a 2010 2nd round pick, has 172 career catches for 1500 yards and 5 touchdowns. He has 152 carries for 662 yards (4.36 YPC) and a touchdown.

He’s also returned 79 punts for 959 yards and 3 touchdowns and 52 kickoffs for 1087 yards. He’s not as good as Woodhead, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, but he graded out above average in the one season he spent primarily as a passing down back and he’ll provide versatility on offense. He’s probably not worth the 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal they gave him though, as his biggest impact will probably be on special teams.

One player the Titans are hoping can step up this season is Justin Hunter. If Hunter, a 2013 2nd round pick, were to lock down one of the top-3 wide receiver jobs, they could run with Washington and Hunter outside in 3-wide sets and line Wright up on the slot, with McCluster fitting in as an obvious passing situation back and 4th wide receiver. Hunter played 340 snaps as a rookie and was pretty ordinary. He caught 18 passes for 354 yards and 4 touchdowns on 212 routes run, an average of 1.67 yards per route run. That’s a solid average, though he only caught 18 of 41 targets (43.9%) and had 5 drops. Rookie receivers don’t usually do much anyway though and Hunter was regarded as really raw coming out of the University of Tennessee. Going only into his age 23 season, the height, weight, speed freak (6-4, 196, 4.44 40) could become a contributor in 3-wide receiver sets.

The Titans’ receiving corps as a whole should become more efficient with Kenny Britt gone. Britt still has potential and could show that potential this season in St. Louis, but he was awful in Tennessee last season and his “loss” will be addition by subtraction. 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 awful.

The Titans don’t get much pass catching production from their tight ends, which is why Wright was so important last season catching underneath targets. The Titans signed Delanie Walker from the 49ers on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal last off-season, hoping that Walker, whose had never caught 30 passes in a season before last year, would become a better receiver with more playing time in Tennessee as the starting tight end. He was a backup to Vernon Davis in San Francisco.

Walker was more productive, catching 60 passes for 571 yards and 6 touchdowns, but he wasn’t that efficient, averaging just 1.19 yards per route run and grading out below average as a pass catcher. He wasn’t as bad as he was in 2012, when he dropped 9 passes, as opposed to 21 catches, but he’s never been a good pass catcher. Fortunately, he’s a strong run blocker, which makes up for it. He’s graded out above average as a run blocker in each of his last 7 seasons in the league and below average as a pass catcher in 6 of the last 7 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, that’s unlikely to change.

Neither Craig Stevens nor Taylor Thompson is much of a pass catcher either as both graded out above average as a run blocker and below average as a pass blocker last season. This also isn’t anything new for either of them. Stevens has graded out below average as a pass catcher and above average as a run blocker in 5 of the 6 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2008. Meanwhile, Thompson has graded out below average as a pass catcher and above average as a run blocker in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 5th round in 2012. It’s still an above average pass catching group, but the tight end position isn’t great in that aspect.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

I already mentioned some of the ways the Titans have a weaker supporting cast than last season. They replaced David Stewart with Michael Oher, lost Alterraun Verner, and then used the 11th overall pick on a backup for Oher. The other thing they did to weaken themselves is they switched defensive schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Ray Horton comes over as the new defensive coordinator. He has a strong history so this isn’t a knock on him, but they’re converting to a system that their two best front 7 players don’t really fit.

Casey was probably their best defensive player last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle. He was 8th in 2012 and 16th as a 3rd round rookie in 2011. Going into his 4th season in the league, only his age 25 season, Casey is a supremely talented young defensively lineman, but he’s a questionable fit for a 3-4 at 6-1 290. He’ll play 3-4 defensive end, where he’s not as natural or experienced as he is at defensive tackle and he could struggle by his standards as a result. Casey also lost 15 pounds, going from 305 to 290, for this new role, which could be risky.

The Titans had a lot of depth on the defensive line in terms of big players last season, with guys like Ropati Pitotua, Sammie Lee Hill, Karl Klug, and Mike Martin all playing rotational roles. Those 4 are all still with the team and will continue in rotational roles on the Titans’ new 3-man defensive line. The 6-4 329 pound Hill is most likely to be their nose tackle this season. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons, though he’s maxed out at 437 snaps. His best season was 2010, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked defensive tackle on just 367 snaps. He’s never played in a 3-4 as a professional, but he should be fine in the middle.

Pitotua, meanwhile, will start as the other 3-4 defensive end. The 6-8 290 pounder played 585 snaps as a base 4-3 defensive end last season in kind of a Red Bryant role. He played the run well, but he struggled mightily as a pass rusher and graded out slightly below average overall. He has experience as a 3-4 defensive end from his time in Kansas City prior to last season. However, he was awful in Kansas City grading out below average every season he was there. The season he had the biggest role was in 2012, when he played 505 snaps, and, not coincidentally, that was the season he struggled the most, grading out 29th out of 34 eligible 3-4 defensive ends. He’s never graded out above average and should struggle again this season as a starter.

Fortunately, the Titans do have players to rotate with him, as I mentioned above. Both Karl Klug and Mike Martin have shown well as reserves throughout their careers.  Klug has graded out above average in 3 seasons in the league at defensive tackle on a combined 1103 snaps, with his best season coming in 2013, when he graded out 14th among defensive tackles despite playing just 330 snaps. He especially excelled as a pass rusher, grading out 10th in that aspect.

Martin, meanwhile, has graded out above average in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012. He only played 237 snaps this past season, but played 435 snaps as a rookie and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked defensive tackle, with no one grading out higher and playing fewer snaps. Neither has much 3-4 experience and neither is an ideal fit for the system, with Martin coming in at 6-1 306 and Klug coming in at 6-3 275, but both should still be solid contributors in rotational roles. There’s a lot of talent on the defensive line, but the scheme change might be trying to fit round pegs into square holes.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Another player the scheme change could easily adversely affect is Derrick Morgan, who has been their best edge rusher over the past 2 seasons. Morgan took until his 3rd year in the league to make an impact because the 2010 1st round pick got hurt as a rookie and then struggled upon his return in his 2nd year in the league, but he’s been Pro Football Focus’ 5th and 11th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and 2013 respectively, showing those first round abilities. He’s especially excelled as a pass rusher, while struggling against the run.

Morgan played at around 6-3 275 last season and has slimmed down to 6-3 260 to play 3-4 outside linebacker this season, a position he has very little, if any experience with. Dropping into coverage and rushing from a two-point stance are both very new for him. Between the position change and the weight loss needed for the position change, the Titans are taking a major chance tinkering with a proven player with Morgan, as they are also doing with Casey.

The scheme change won’t be bad for everyone though. Akeem Ayers has played a kind of tweener outside linebacker/defensive end position over the past 3 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011 and now will get to line up at a more natural position as a rush linebacker. He’s graded out above average as a 4-3 outside linebacker in each of the three seasons he’s been in the league. Last year was his best season as he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker.

He’s been a strong pass rusher over the past two seasons, with a combined 8 sacks, 14 hits, and 34 hurries on a combined 339 pass rush snaps, a very impressive rate of 16.5%. Now he’ll get to rush the passer more often, which is obviously good for him, and drop into coverage less. He’s graded out below average in coverage in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, on a combined 875 coverage snaps. He could have a breakout year this season, perfect timing as he heads into his contract year.

The Titans added Shaun Phillips as a free agent to the 3-4 outside linebacker mix this off-season. He’ll provide depth behind Morgan and Ayers and experience as someone who has spent almost his entire career in a 3-4. The issue is he’s going into his age 33 season, which is why he was available for 4.8 million over 2 seasons this off-season. Shaun Phillips looked done after the 2013 season, going into his age 32 season after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013. He had to settle for a one year deal close to the veteran’s minimum with the Broncos, but he was able to rehab his value, grading out above average as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2013. That being said, he’s still no guarantee to continue being a positive contributor this year given his age.

The Titans will start Zach Brown and Wesley Woodyard inside at middle linebacker in their 3-4. Brown will convert from being a 4-3 outside linebacker. The 2012 2nd round pick graded out slightly above average on 756 snaps as a rookie and then slightly below average on 771 snaps last season. He should continue being an average starter inside in his 3rd year in the league. Woodyard, meanwhile, is a free agent acquisition coming over from Denver. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Moise Fukou, who was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked middle linebacker last season.

Woodyard isn’t great though, even though he got a 4-year, 16 million dollar from the Titans this off-season. He’s coming off of a year in which he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus and got benched for the archaic Paris Lenon. He has experience at both 4-3 outside and 4-3 inside linebacker, but he’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. He’s been a starter for the past 3 seasons and the only season he graded out above average was perhaps not coincidentally the only season he started at outside linebacker. The 6-0 227 pounder just might not be a natural middle linebacker and he could be an even worse fit in a 3-4. The Titans don’t have a lot of muscle inside at linebacker as Zach Brown is only 6-1 242.

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, Alterraun Verner is gone, signing with the Buccaneers. Verner has never been spectacular, maxing out 10th overall in 2011 (he graded out 13th last season). However, he’s made all 64 starts since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 and he’s graded out in the top-25 on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, something only Joe Haden and Jason McCourty can also say at the inconsistent cornerback position. The common opinion is that Verner broke out last season, when he had a career high 5 interceptions, after a combined 6 interceptions in his first 3 seasons in the league, but that’s the danger with just looking at interception numbers.

The Titans have a few opinions in replacing him. Blidi Wreh-Wilson, a 2013 3rd round pick who played 93 snaps as a rookie, could slot into the starting job. Coty Sensabaugh, who was the slot cornerback last season, could play outside in base packages and move inside in sub packages with Wreh-Wilson coming in, though he could be overmatched on the outside. Sensabaugh struggled on 319 snaps as a rookie in 2012, but graded out slightly above average on 509 snaps last season. Meanwhile, Tommie Campbell is a height/weight/speed guy (6-3 203 4.32 40) who is often anointed an off-season star. He could get a bigger role this season, after only playing 91 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league combined. He was a 2011 7th round pick.

Luckily, the Titans still have Jason McCourty. As I mentioned, McCourty has also graded out in the top-25 in each of the past 4 seasons on Pro Football Focus. In fact, McCourty has graded out in the top-11 in each of the last 3 seasons, the only cornerback in the NFL who can say that, and the 2009 6th round pick has graded out in the top-20 in each of the past 4 seasons, joining Joe Haden has the only other cornerback who has done that.

Part of that is that he’s been so good against the run and run stopping ability is easily a cornerback’s least important trait. He was Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked cornerback in 2011 and 2nd ranked cornerback in 2012 in terms of run grade. Still, he was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback in coverage grade in 2013 and 16th ranked cornerback in coverage grade in 2010. He’s graded out above average in coverage in every season in the league. He’s a well-rounded cornerback and their best defensive back, though he isn’t as good as his overall grades would suggest he is.

Things are more stable at safety where Bernard Pollard and Michael Griffin return as starters. Both graded out above average last season, with the former grading out 21st at his position and the latter grading out 14th. Griffin is one of the most inconsistent players in the league and has graded out all over the map. The 2007 1st round pick has had slightly above average years in 2007, 2010, well above average years in 2008 (9th), 2011 (10th), and 2013 (14th), and below average years in 2009 (87th out of 88) and 2012 (87th out of 88). He could have anything from a fantastic season to a horrific season this year, though he probably averages out as an above average safety.

Pollard probably averages out as an above average safety as well, even though he’s been with 4 teams and been cut 3 times in his career. He’s graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons, with his best season coming in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked safety. He’s a solid box safety who is better against the run than in coverage. Overall, the secondary is weakened significantly by the loss of Verner, but there is some talent left.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Titans are weakened on the offensive line and in the secondary as compared to last season and they are trying to fit their two best front 7 players into new roles, which could backfire. They also should suffer more injuries than last season, even if Jake Locker stays healthy, after they had the 6th fewest adjusted games lost last season. And if Locker doesn’t stay healthy, the downgrade from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Charlie Whitehurst/Zach Mettenberger at backup quarterback is significant.

They were an average team last season that was slightly better than their record. However, I don’t see them improving significantly this off-season, if they improve at all. They play in a weak division and should once again have an easy schedule this season (after they ranked 22nd in strength of schedule in terms of DVOA last season). However, I don’t think even that legitimately puts them in the playoff race. I think they’re the 3rd most talented team in the division. I’ll have an official win total when all the team previews are done.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 302014
 

Quarterback

The Texans went from 12-4 in 2012 to 2-14 in 2013. What happened? Well, for one, the Texans weren’t as good as that 12-4 record suggested in 2012. They finished 11th in DVOA in 2012, as they faced a schedule that was 26th in the NFL in terms of DVOA. They went 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had about 10.2 Pythagorean Wins. They also finished 3rd in the NFL recovering 64.10% of fumbles, which led to their +12 turnover margin, which was powered by a +10 fumble margin.

In 2013, all of those unsustainable things that helped them in 2012 went the opposite way. Their schedule was 10th in the NFL in terms of DVOA. They went 2-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less. As bad as their record was last season, they only lost 5 games by more than a touchdown and two of those came late in the season in their final 3 games after Gary Kubiak was fired and the team essentially quit. They had about 4.2 Pythagorean wins. On top of that they allowed 8 touchdowns off of returns, as opposed to 2 touchdowns off of returns for that. If we zeroed that out, they would have scored 262 points and allowed 372 points, which is a Pythagorean Expectation of 4.9 wins.

Speaking of turnovers, their turnover margin went to a league worst -20, as a result of a 44.44% fumble recovery rate, 26th in the NFL. They also picked off an absurd low amount of passes, 7, and they threw 22 interceptions. Turnover margins tend to be really inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis though, as we’re talking about events that happen on such a small percentage of snaps. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0.

Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well.

The Texans’ defense did fine, except for their inability to force turnovers, which should turn around this season. They played well in spite of losing Brian Cushing to a significant injury for the 2nd straight season. They ranked 11th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.40% rate. However, the offense was the issue, as they ranked 25th, moving the chains at a 66.87% rate. They still finished 21st in differential at -2.53%, which goes back to the whole the Texans were better than their record last season thing, but the offense was clearly the issue last season.

Matt Schaub’s performance last season was clearly the biggest difference between 2012 and 2013 for the Texans. Schaub had a QB rating in the 90s in every season from 2008-2012, but struggled mightily in 2013, completing 61.2% of his passes for an average of 6.45 YPA, 10 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 10 games, a QB rating of 73.0. He was Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible. The Texans’ other quarterbacks, TJ Yates and Case Keenum were not much better, as Texan quarterbacks combined to complete 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.61 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions on the season, a QB rating of 74.0.

Because of how bad they were last season, the Texans had the #1 pick in the draft and a golden opportunity to draft a quarterback #1 and potentially add a legitimate franchise quarterback into a strong supporting cast and get the team back to where it once was. Prior to this past draft, a quarterback was the #1 pick in 12 of the previous 16 drafts and only once did a team not draft a quarterback #1 and then draft a quarterback later, meaning only one team (the 2008 Miami Dolphins) felt they needed a quarterback and opted not to take one #1 overall.

The Texans made that two teams this year, taking Jadeveon Clowney #1 and waiting until the 4th round to grab Tom Savage. Clowney won’t help their miserable offense and he won’t elevate this team back into Super Bowl contender realm, but it’s hard to argue against taking a supposedly once in a generation player over a quarterback class that no one really seemed sold on. Clowney will line up at a position of need defensively and, along with the return of Brian Cushing, make their solid defense even better. Their offense could still turn the ball over quite a bit, but their defense should force way more than the 11 takeaways they forced last season, which will even out their turnover margin.

Tom Savage will probably sit most of, if not all of his rookie year behind veteran addition Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick isn’t great. He’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus every season since 2008 (he didn’t play in 2007), including 34th out of 37 eligible in 2008 and 35th out of 38 eligible in 2012. However, he’s actually coming off arguably the best season of his career, as he graded out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus (21st out of 42 eligible). He completed 62.0% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA (both career highs), 14 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions and also rushed for 225 yards and 3 touchdowns on 43 carries (5.23 YPA). He helped lead the Titans to a 71.66% rate of moving the chains (Jake Locker also started some games before he got hurt), which was 17th in the NFL.

Fitzpatrick might not be as good as he was last season and he could really struggle. In fact, he could be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league this season. However, he should be an upgrade over what the Texans had at quarterback last season. He also has a fairly solid offensive supporting cast. The Texans are going to try to sneak into the playoffs on the strength of a strong running game and defense and limit Fitzpatrick’s impact on the game. They also have a new head coach, which should help them.

What should also help them out is their schedule as they play a last place schedule in arguably the worst division in football. They’ll get 4 games against the Titans and Jaguars. They’ll play Oakland and Buffalo. They also get the NFC East and the AFC North, so they’ll face the Browns, Redskins, Giants, and Cowboys. They play just 4 games against 2013 playoff teams (Colts twice, Bengals, and Eagles). That might not be enough for them to sneak into the playoffs, but they’ll be significantly improved in terms of win total from last season. Teams that have big decline in win total usually rebound by about half of that on average the following season. That would put the Texans at 7-9.

Grade: C

Running Backs

As I mentioned, the Texans will be leaning on their running game, something they’ll have the luxury to do because their defense is strong. One thing that could help them is the return of Arian Foster from injury. Foster was off to a strong start to last season, rushing for 542 yards and a touchdown on 121 carries, an average of 4.48 YPC. He finished 23rd among eligible running backs last season despite playing just 334 snaps, before going down with injury.

Foster was breaking down before the injury though, largely as a result of the 1115 touches he had in the previous 3 seasons. His YPC went down from 4.94 YPC in 2010 to 4.40 YPC in 2011 to 4.06 YPC in 2012. Even his yards per catch was low in 2012, as he averaged 5.42 yards per catch, showing a significant lack of burst and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus. Now coming off of a significant back injury and going into his age 28 season, he could continue breaking down. At the same time, he could also continue playing well, like he was last season, now that’s he’s had some time to rest and rebuild. We’ll see.

Ben Tate, Foster’s long-time backup, is now gone, signing as the starter in Cleveland. The Texans made a shrewd move signing Andre Brown from the Giants to be Foster’s backup and a fallback option if Foster gets hurt again. Brown has his share of issues. He’s bounced around the league and has a massive injury history so he’s played 21 games since being drafted in the 4th round in 2009 and has 246 touches going into his age 28 season. He also averaged just 3.54 yards per carry last season and has a career average of 4.09 yards per carry.

That being said, he’s strong on passing downs as both a protector and a pass catcher and he’s a bruising north-south back who always picks up some sort of yardage and who is great around the goal line. He doesn’t have much explosiveness, but he averaged 5.27 yards per carry in 2012. He’ll be solid as Foster’s backup. If both Brown and Foster go down with injury, either Dennis Johnson, a 2013 undrafted free agent who rushed for 183 yards and a touchdown on 49 carries as a rookie (3.73 YPC), or 6th round rookie Alfred Blue will get a significant role.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Texans have a strong offensive line that helps both their running game and their passing game. Blindside protector Duane Brown is one of the better offensive tackles in the game. Last year he was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive tackle in a “down” season. Brown was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked offensive tackle in 2012, 5th ranked offensive tackle in 2011, and 19th ranked offensive tackle in 2010. Even after last year, he’s still one of three offensive tackles (Andrew Whitworth and Joe Thomas) who has graded out in the top-22 in each of the past 4 seasons. The 2008 1st round pick has graded out above average in every season since 2009, after a rough rookie year.

Chris Myers is also one of the top centers in the game. Myers has been a top-11 center on Pro Football Focus in every season since 2007, the only center in the game who can say that. He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 1st ranked center in 2011 and graded out 6th last season. He’s always been a better run blocker than pass protector, but he did struggle as a pass protector last season, grading out 30th out of 35 eligible in that aspect, as opposed to 2nd as a run blocker. He’s going into his age 33 season, but interior offensive linemen can often play well even in their mid-30s. His declining pass protection is a concern, but he should still have a solid season.

While Myers and Brown are established at their respective positions, the Texans also had a player break out last season. That player was right guard Brandon Brooks, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard last season, in his 2nd year in the league after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012. He was only alright as a pass blocker, but he excelled as a run blocker at 6-5 343, grading out 3rd at his position in that aspect. He’s still a one-year wonder, after playing 111 nondescript snaps as a rookie, but he could easily have another strong year this year, in his 3rd year in the league.

While the trio of Brown, Myers, and Brooks are very solid starters, the Texans had serious problems at left guard and right tackle last season. They might have fixed the left guard issue by drafting Xavier Su’a-Filo in the 2nd round of the draft, 33rd overall. He’ll be a day 1 starter and he should be an upgrade, even as a rookie, over Wade Smith, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 58th ranked guard out of 81 eligible last season. He remains unsigned on the open market going into his age 33 season.

The Texans didn’t do anything about the right tackle position, where Derek Newton was Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. He wasn’t much better in 2012, when he was 67th out of 80 eligible. The Texans are hoping that 2013 3rd round pick Brennan Williams can push Newton for the starting job at some point this season, but Williams has had serious issues with his knee since being drafted. He had microfracture surgery that cost him his entire rookie year and the Texans still don’t know if he’ll be ready for the start of Training Camp. Missing Training Camp obviously would severely hurt his chances of winning the starting job. He also missed most of his senior season at North Carolina with a shoulder injury, so he hasn’t played much football over the past 2 seasons and seems extremely injury prone. It’s a solid offensive line overall, but there are some issues.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Texans also had one of the top pass catchers in the NFL last season in Andre Johnson. Despite Houston’s issues at quarterback last season, Johnson still caught 109 passes for 1407 yards and 5 touchdowns and ranked 7th in the NFL in receiving yardage. He did that on 613 routes run and averaged 2.30 yards per route run, 9th in the NFL. He only caught 109 of his league leading 176 targets (61.9%), but that was still a significantly higher percentage than the 58.6% of passes Texan quarterbacks completed in general. Texan quarterbacks also averaged 7.99 YPA when throwing to Johnson, as opposed to 6.61 YPA in general.

The issue is that Johnson is holding out because he wants to be traded elsewhere. He’s apparently displeased that the Texans waited until the 4th round of the draft to take a quarterback. He’s missing valuable time with a new quarterback and head coach and he risks getting out of shape if his holdout goes into Training Camp. He’s also going into his age 33 season, which makes this holdout even more concerning.

Johnson’s 12,661 yards are 17th all-time and he could easily be Hall-of-Fame bound when it’s all said and done. 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. Johnson isn’t quite there right now, but he’s at the point in his career where is age is becoming a concern.

It’s why he’s unlikely to be traded. The Texans aren’t going to get much compensation for him because he’s owed 11 million, 11.5 million, and 12 million in 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively and he’s pretty much year-to-year in terms of when his abilities could fall off a cliff. He could easily be a one-year investment at those non-guaranteed salaries so someone isn’t going to give the Texans much for him. On top of that, there really isn’t a wide receiver needy contender that has the cap space to add Johnson. Unless he holds out into the season, it doesn’t really make much sense for the Texans to trade Johnson for minimal compensation.

Any production Johnson loses this season as a result of his holdout and his age should be the gain of 2nd year wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was the 26th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Hopkins is working as the #1 receiver in Johnson’s absence, becoming better acquainted with the new offensive system and the new quarterback. Hopkins had a decent rookie year, catching 52 passes for 802 yards and 2 touchdowns on 629 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run. He caught 52 of 91 targets, 57.1%.

His yards per route run was below league average, his completion percentage when thrown to was below the team average, and he graded slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, but he was still more productive than the average 1st round pick receiver as a rookie. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 lines respectively as rookies, both inferior to Hopkins’ rookie year. Wide receivers usually take a year or so to get adjusted to the NFL and Hopkins could make a leap in his 2nd year in the league in 2014. Reports on him in OTAs and minicamp have been very promising.

The Texans’ depth at wide receiver is very underwhelming, which is a concern if Johnson’s holdout extends into the season or he gets traded. However, as long as Johnson is out there, their lack of depth at the position isn’t a huge concern. They rarely ran 3-wide receiver sets under Gary Kubiak and they’re unlikely to run many more now under new head coach Bill O’Brien, in favor of using more two-tight end sets.

Keshawn Martin struggled on 385 snaps as the 3rd wide receiver last season and on 268 snaps in that role as a 4th round rookie in 2012. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 99th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade last season and he would have been Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in 2012 if he had been eligible, despite playing just 268 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out lower, both overall and in pure pass catching grade.

DeVier Posey, meanwhile, has struggled on 413 snaps combined over the past 2 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2012. Alan Bonner is a 2013 6th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Mike Thomas is the veteran option. He was out of the league last year, after struggling on 463 snaps in 2012, being traded from Jacksonville to Detroit mid-season. His composite grade would have been 5th worst among eligible wide receivers that season. He’s been better in the past, as the 2009 4th round pick caught 66 passes for 820 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2010, but he hasn’t graded out above average since that season. He’s reportedly impressing in off-season practice and could be the favorite for the #3 wide receiver job, but I don’t expect much from him.

As I mentioned, the Texans will use a lot of two-tight end sets. With the injury prone and aging Owen Daniels gone, Garrett Graham will once again be the #1 tight end. He rose to this role last season after Daniels went down for the season week 5. Graham was re-signed to a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal this off-season, which is weird because he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked tight end out of 64 eligible last season on 786 snaps. He struggled as both a pass and run blocker and caught 49 passes for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns on 421 routes run, an average of 1.29 yards per route run.

He was better on 646 snaps in 2012, grading out above average, though the 2010 4th round pick played a combined 30 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league. He should be a slightly below average starter in the biggest role of his career this season. The 2nd tight end role will come down to either Ryan Griffin or CJ Fiedorowicz, both of whom are better blockers than Graham. Griffin was unimpressive on 368 snaps as a 6th round rookie in 2013 and Fiedorowicz is a 3rd round rookie out of Iowa. The tight end position is unimpressive considering how much they will rely on two-tight end sets, but it’s better than their depth at wide receiver. After Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins, there are issues in the receiving corps and the former is holding out.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Texans’ defense was, by far, their best unit last season. Hands down, the #1 reason for that was JJ Watt. Watt didn’t get the attention he got in 2012 with 21 sacks on a 12 win team, when he won Defensive Player of the Year in his 2nd year in the league, but he arguably had a better season, even though he only had 11 sacks on a 2 win team. He’s the most dominant player in the NFL at any position and that includes Peyton Manning. Manning is obviously more valuable because of the position he plays, but no one dominates their position like Watt does.

Watt didn’t come close to matching the 21 sacks he had in 2012 nor the 15 batted passes, but he had 36 quarterback hits and 38 quarterback hurries (on 556 snaps), as opposed to 25 hits and 30 hurries the year before (on 610 snaps). Those 36 quarterback hits were by far best in the NFL. Only Robert Quinn with 23 even came close. As a result, Watt had a pass rush rate of 15.3% which not only blew out of the water the next best pass rush rate by an interior defensive lineman (Gerald McCoy with 13.5%), but it blew the 12.5% pass rush rate he had in 2012 out of the water as well. Sacking the quarterback is great, but getting to the quarterback consistently, getting in his head and hurrying throws is even better.

Watt didn’t match his absurd 17.1% run stop rate from 2013, but his 13.7% run stop rate was 2nd in the NFL among eligible players (percentage of run snaps in which a player records a tackle within 4 yards of the original line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down). Watt also actually had a higher run grade on Pro Football Focus in 2013 than in 2012 and a higher grade overall. He didn’t post the flashy numbers he did in 2012 or play on a good team like in 2012, but the argument can still be made that he played as well or better.

I argued he should have been Defensive Player of the Year again, even though he had no shot of actually winning. The voters hate voting for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, as the only player to ever win it twice in a row was Lawrence Taylor and he did it in a strike shortened season. It wasn’t going to happen for the first time in a season of regular length with a guy who played on a 2-14 team and didn’t come close to matching his sack total from the year before.

Watt was once again both Pro Football Focus’ highest rated 3-4 defensive end and Pro Football Focus’ highest rated player at any position, doing so for the 2nd straight season. No defensive player in the NFL had a bigger margin between the player who was in 2nd place behind him at his position on Pro Football Focus than Watt in terms of raw numbers and only Quinn had a bigger margin in terms of percentage. Watt alone elevated this defense to one of the better defenses in the NFL and he could easily do so again this season.

The Texans did lose veteran Antonio Smith this off-season, going into his age 33 season. Even though he was aging, he still was a big contributor last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 3-4 defensive end. He struggled against the run, as he usually does, but he ranked 5th at his position in pass rush grade. It’ll be hard for the Texans to replace him, especially since it doesn’t look like they have anyone close to as good as him on their current roster.

Jared Crick is one option. The 2012 4th round pick might have been drafted with this situation in mind, but, after flashing on 220 snaps as a rookie, he struggled on 277 snaps this season. Tim Jamison has been an impressive career backup since going undrafted in 2009, but he’s only played 741 snaps in 5 seasons. Ricardo Matthews is a veteran option coming over as a free agent from Indianapolis, but the 2010 7th round pick has graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons, including last year, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 45 eligible on 437 snaps, with no one grading out worse and playing fewer snaps.

The Texans also lost starting nose tackle Earl Mitchell though that isn’t as big of a deal because it’s only a two-down role and because Mitchell graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. The Texans drafted Louis Nix in the 3rd round. He fell in the draft because of injuries, but he practiced in minicamp. The 6-2 331 pounder should be able to play alright in a two-down nose tackle role in the middle of their defense, even as a rookie.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While the Texans did lose Antonio Smith, Jadeveon Clowney should be able to replace his pass rush production, even if he does play a different position. Clowney was a much needed addition because their outside linebackers sucked last year, particularly in rushing the passer off the edge. Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus played virtually every snap, playing 1038 and 970 respectively out of 1060 possible snaps. They ranked 2nd and 6th respective among 3-4 outside linebackers in snaps played, but they were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst and worst ranked 3-4 outside linebackers respectively. Both played the run alright, but struggled mightily rushing the passer. Clowney will instantly be, by far, their best edge rusher.

Whitney Mercilus will remain in the starting lineup, though he could play fewer snaps, and the Texans will be hoping that the 2012 1st round pick can finally breakout in his 3rd year in the league. He wasn’t much better as a rookie, grading out 28th out of 34 eligible that season. Brooks Reed, meanwhile, could be moving to middle linebacker, at least in base packages. He’s not much of a pass rusher, grading out worst at his position in that aspect last season, but he graded out above average in run grade. This has been a trend throughout his career as he’s graded out below average as a pass rusher and above average as a run stopper in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. He could be a better fit inside.

Another reason why Reed could be moving to middle linebacker is because they have a massive need at the position. Daryl Sharpton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season, which isn’t terrible, but now he’s gone, as is Joe Mays, who was a two-down base package middle linebacker last season. Brian Cushing is back from injury (more on that later), but they still need someone to line up next to him. That’s where Reed would come in. He’d only have to play two-downs because safety DJ Swearinger comes down towards the line of scrimmage and essentially plays a coverage linebacker role in sub packages. That would allow Reed to still provide depth at edge rusher in sub packages if needed.

Cushing, meanwhile, is a dominant middle linebacker when he’s on the field. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as a rookie in 2009, after going in the first round, winning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 2011, he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked middle linebacker. However, he missed 4 games with suspension in 2010, which put him behind the 8-ball and caused him to grade out below average.

That’s the only season in 5 years in the league in which he graded out below average, but he’s missed 20 games over the past 2 seasons combined with leg injuries, which is a serious concern. He should be ready to go for this season, but he’s very injury prone and, even only going into his age 27 season, there are no guarantees that he can be as good as he once was, even if he stays on the field. It’s still an improved linebacking corps though with Cushing back, Clowney coming in, Reed moving over, and Mercilus going into his 3rd year in the league.

Grade: B

Secondary

As I mentioned, DJ Swearinger will play linebacker in sub packages, as the 5-10 217 pounder played 66.3% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage last season, 9th among eligible safeties. He’ll continue in that role, playing safety in base packages and linebacker in sub packages. The 2013 2nd round pick struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 72nd ranked safety out of 86 eligible, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league.

Chris Clemons will play every down at the other safety spot. Clemons was a steal on a 2-year, 2.7 million dollar deal, coming over from Miami. Clemons was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety last season and 25th ranked safety in 2012 in two years as a starter with the Dolphins, his only two years as a starter. The Texans didn’t have anyone like him at safety last season, where Danieal Manning and Ed Reed started the season as starters, before the former got hurt and the latter got cut. Then Swearinger and Shiloh Keo took over as the starters and struggled, with Eddie Pleasant playing 155 snaps as the 3rd safety.

That 3rd safety job is up for grabs. Pleasant, a 2012 undrafted free agent who played 3 snaps as a rookie in 2012, could keep the job after flashing on those 155 snaps in 2013. Shiloh Keo played 793 snaps last season and could keep a significant role, even after struggling last season. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out below average in every season he’s been in the league and only played a combined 76 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league combined.

Most likely, it’ll be veteran free agent addition Kendrick Lewis, who the Texans signed from Kansas City. Lewis has been a starter for 4 years in Kansas City, since going in the 5th round in 2010, grading out above average in 2 of them, though he’s graded out below average in the past 2 seasons and hasn’t been the same recently thanks to injuries. He’s missed 11 games in 4 seasons. However, he should be a better fit as the 3rd safety in Houston, provided he beats out the competition.

Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph will continue to be the starters at cornerback. Jackson, a 2010 1st round pick, seemingly had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback and allowing 46.8% completion, after struggling in the first 2 seasons of his career. However, Jackson regressed in 2013, grading out below average. He’s now graded out below average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league and that 2012 campaign looks like a fluke and makes him look like a one-year wonder. He’s still a talented cornerback though and could have a bounce back year this year. It would obviously benefit him as he’s in his contract year and set to hit free agency next off-season.

Johnathan Joseph is a veteran working on a 5-year, 48.75 million dollar deal, but he hasn’t been worth that kind of money since his first year on the contract in 2011, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback. However, even though he hasn’t been as good as that season or as good as 2009, when he was with the Bengals and ranked 6th among cornerbacks, he’s still graded out above average in every season since 2008. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked cornerback last season. He’s now going into his age 30 season so his best days might be behind him, but he should still be an asset for the Texans.

The 3rd cornerback last season was Brice McCain, but he was awful, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst cornerback on 633 snaps. The Texans cut him this off-season and his absence should be addition by subtraction. The issue is the Texans don’t really have a proven replacement. Brandon Harris will likely be asked to step up, going into the 4th season of his career and the contract year of his rookie deal, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011. He hasn’t really lived up to his draft status, only playing 415 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. We’ll see how he does this season. There are issues in this secondary, but there’s also talent and they should be improved over last season. It’s a solid defense overall.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Texans’ offense won’t be significantly improved this season because they didn’t seriously upgrade the quarterback position, but their defense should still be solid despite the loss of Antonio Smith, thanks to the addition of Jadeveon Clowney and the return of Brian Cushing from injury. They aren’t significantly more talented this season than last season, but they were much better than their record suggested last year. They just got screwed by close losses (2-9 in games decided by a touchdown or less), fumbles (44.44% fumble recovery), turnovers (-20 turnover margin), and return touchdowns (-6 return touchdowns), things that all tend to be very inconsistent.

They finished last season 21st in rate of moving the chains differential and they could easily be a middle of the pack team this season, relying on their running game, a strong offensive line, and a solid defense to win games. They’ll have an easy schedule so there will be opportunities for them to win games and even make noise in the playoff race. I think they need to significantly upgrade the quarterback position before that happens, but they’ll be in the mix. I’ll have an official season prediction for them after I finish every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 292014
 

Quarterback

In 2 seasons in the league, Andrew Luck is 14-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less, 15-2 if you include a one point comeback home win over the Chiefs in last year’s playoffs, before the Colts got demolished in Foxboro the following week. The Colts have won 22 regular season games over the past 2 seasons. 14 of them have come by 7 points or fewer. That’s not sustainable. The Colts once again significantly exceeded their Pythagorean Expectation by winning 11 games last year.

In 2012, their point differential suggested that they should have won about 7.2 games. In 2013, they were better, but their point differential suggested that they should have won about 9.4 games. They were clearly a better team in 2013 as they had a better Pythagorean Expectation despite a harder schedule (32nd ranked schedule in terms of DVOA in 2012, 23rd in 2013) and despite more injuries (31st in adjusted games lost in 2013, 30th in 2012).

The Colts should have fewer injuries this season and they play in arguably the weakest division in the NFL so their schedule might not get any harder. In fact, it could get easier as they swap out the AFC and NFC West for the NFC East and the AFC North. However, they can’t consistently count on eking out close victories. If they want to win 11 or more games this season and if they want to advance deeper into the post-season, they’ll have to be a better team.

Easily the biggest reason that the Colts were an improved team in 2013, as opposed to 2012, was Andrew Luck’s improved play. In 2012, Luck relied on close victories against bad opponents, rather than his own strong play to win games, as he completed 54.1% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. In 2013, he became a much improved quarterback, completing 60.2% of his passes for an average of 6.71 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. He also improved as a runner going from 255 yards and 5 touchdowns on 62 carries in 2012 (4.11 YPA) to 377 yards and 4 touchdowns on 63 carries in 2013 (5.98 YPA).

Luck was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked quarterback, though much of that was because he was their 3rd ranked quarterback in terms of running grade, behind only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. In terms of pure passing grade, he was actually 20th, though that was up from 2012 when he was 24th in that aspect. Luck did this despite losing significant players around him to serious injuries. He had a slightly improved offensive line as compared to 2012, when they were horrible, but most of his improvement can be attributed to Luck himself. He should continue to improve going into his 3rd year in the league.

Luck’s play was a big part of the reason why the Colts finished 14th in rate of moving the chains, moving them 72.21% offensively. They still finished 14th in differential at 0.70%, 2nd worst among playoff teams, but that was more because their defense ranked 17th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 71.52% rate. If they’re going to improve from being the roughly league average team they were last season and become a team that can go on a long playoff run, they’ll need better play on the defensive side of the ball.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

I mentioned the Colts had an improved offensive line in 2013. That’s true, but it’s really only by default. After ranking 31st on Pro Football Focus in terms of team pass blocking grade and 24th in team run blocking grade in 2012, the Colts improved to 25th and 23rd in those two measures. They still had serious issues up front, especially on the interior of their offensive line. One of the problems is they lost Donald Thomas to an injury. Thomas was signed to a 4-year, 14 million dollar deal before last season to shore up a problem position at left guard, but he lasted 72 snaps before going down for the season with injury.

Having a healthy Thomas back should help this offensive line. In Thomas’ absence, the 3rd round rookie Hugh Thornton had to take over as the starter and he ended up grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 69th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. Thomas flashed on those 72 snaps and also has a history of some success. He graded out above average as a starter in Miami in 2009, barely played from 2010-2011 and then found playing time as an injury replacement in New England in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked guard on 614 snaps. No one graded out higher and played fewer snaps. As long as he’s healthy this season, he should be a much needed asset for them on the interior of their offensive line.

Thornton could still be a starter this season, but only because the Colts “lost” Mike McGlynn this off-season. I put “lost” in quotation marks because McGlynn was horrible over the past 2 seasons as a starter in Indianapolis, grading out 73rd out of 81 eligible guards in 2013 and dead last out of 81 eligible guards in 2012. Losing him is a good thing even if it means Thornton has to become a starter. Thornton, as bad as he was last year, was still better than McGlynn and he could be improved going into his 2nd year in the league. The Colts also drafted Zach Mewhort in the 2nd round to compete with Thornton for the right guard job and to provide depth at every position except center if he can’t lock down a starting job.

Another player the Colts “lost” is Jeff Linkenbach, who has served as a utility offensive lineman over the past few seasons, often making starts at both guard and tackle. He’s struggled mightily in that role though, including last year, when he graded out 57th out of 81 eligible guards, despite playing just 368 snaps. On top of that, the Colts “lost” starting center Samson Satele, when they cut the underachieving starter. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked center out of 35 eligible last season. He’ll be replaced in the starting lineup by 2013 4th round pick Khaled Holmes, who played 13 snaps as a rookie. He could still be an upgrade, though there’s obviously no guarantee with an inexperienced former mid-round pick like him. Either way, the interior offensive line should better this year, even if it’s only by default.

While things were bad on the interior of the offensive line last season, things were pretty solid at tackle for the Colts, with Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus essentially playing every snap at left and right tackle respectively (Cherilus played 1092 and Castonzo played 1088 out of 1093 possible). They graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th and 25th ranked offensive tackles respectively, both well above average. Castonzo was a 2011 1st round pick and is now going into his 4th year in the league. The Colts picked up his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. He’s graded out above average in all 3 years he’s been in the league, improved every year, and has missed a combined 5 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined.

Cherilus is also a former 1st round pick, going in the first round in 2008, drafted by the Lions, and then signing a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal with the Colts last off-season. Cherilus earned that deal by grading out above average in every season from 2009 on and having the best season of his career in his contract year in 2012, grading out 8th. It’s always risky giving a ton of money to a guy coming off of the best year of his career and he was just 37th among offensive tackles in 2011. There was also concern about Cherilus’ history of knee problems, even though he rarely missed games. It’s still very possible that 2012 will be easily the best year of Cherilus’ career, as he heads into his age 30 season, but he’s still an asset on the right side for the Colts.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

I mentioned how much the Colts struggled run blocking last season. That’s part of the reason why Trent Richardson struggled so much once the Colts acquired him from the Browns for a first round pick. The 3rd pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Richardson averaged 2.92 yards per carry and scored 3 touchdowns on 157 carries in 14 games with the Colts. However, he averaged 1.90 yards per carry after contact and broke 47 tackles on 185 touches (he also added 28 catches for 265 yards and a touchdown), giving him the 10th highest elusive rating in the NFL. As a result, even though he struggled mightily on the stat sheet, he wasn’t Pro Football Focus’ worst running back last season (he was 10th worst, and 3rd worst in pure run grade, but still).

Donald Brown had a lot of success last season, rushing for 537 yards and 6 touchdowns on 102 carries, an average of 5.26 yards per carry, but he too had to rush for a lot of yards after contact and break a lot of tackles. Brown broke 29 tackles on 129 touches and averaged 3.28 yards per carry after contact, giving him the highest elusive rating in the NFL. Richardson has shown the ability to break tackles and pick up yards after contact dating back to his days in Cleveland, starting in 2012.

Richardson rushed for 3.56 yards per carry in 2012, but he ranked 16th in elusive rating, breaking 59 tackles on 318 touches and averaging 2.09 yards per carry after contact. In 2013 with the Browns, he rushed for 3.39 yards per carry. However, he rushed for 2.42 yards after contact and broke 16 tackles on 38 touches, giving the Cleveland version of him an elusive rating even higher than Donald Brown’s. Much of Richardson’s struggles last season had to do with the Colts’ offensive line and he ran better than his numbers suggested.

However, much of it also had to do with Richardson himself. Richardson showed poor vision and burst, which is part of why there were so few “blocked” yards from him to pick up. He wasn’t hitting the hole hard enough or in the right location, two things he’s had issues with since being drafted. He blamed a lot of it on not knowing the playbook fully, which would explain why he struggled even more upon his arrival in Indianapolis. That issue should be corrected this off-season and the offensive line should be better as well.

The 3rd overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, there’s still time for him to turn it around, going into only his age 23 season and his 3rd year in the league. Richardson drew a lot of comparisons to Marshawn Lynch in the pre-draft process for his size, physicality, and violent running style. Lynch averaged 3.92 yards per carry in his first 4 seasons in the NFL, but he’s averaged 4.50 yards per carry over the previous 3 seasons. Richardson can still breakout as that type of running back.

Richardson will get competition from Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw with Donald Brown gone. Both Ballard and Bradshaw are coming off of season ending injuries. Ballard rushed for 63 yards on 13 carries in one game last season before tearing his ACL. A mediocre runner, Ballard was a 5th round pick in 2012 and rushed for 814 yards and 2 touchdowns on 211 carries as a rookie, an average of 3.86 yards per carry, grading out about average on Pro Football Focus.

Bradshaw, meanwhile, rushed for 186 yards and 2 touchdowns on 41 carries in 3 games last season before going down with a serious neck injury. Bradshaw is now going into his age 28 season, which is like 33 for running backs, with a significant injury history, missing 19 games with various injuries over the past 3 seasons and being limited in many others. However, he’s a tough running back who has averaged 4.59 yards per carry on 962 career carries, so he could be an asset this season if he stays on the field. Overall though, the Colts are going to need Richardson to improve this season if the Colts are going to average 4.26 yards per carry again, as Donald Brown is gone. We’ll see if he can do that.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned that the Colts lost two running backs and an offensive lineman early in the season to injury, as they were one of the most injury riddled teams in the NFL. They also lost a wide receiver and a tight end to season ending injuries fairly early in the season. That wide receiver was Reggie Wayne, who tore his ACL in the Colts’ 7th game of the season, after 38 catches for 503 yards and 2 touchdowns in 7 games and on 255 routes run, an average of 1.97 yards per route run.

Wayne was the Colts’ most reliable player prior to his injury, not missing a game since his rookie season in 2001 and catching 1006 passes for 13,566 yards and 80 touchdowns in his career. Those 13,566 career yards are 11th all-time and he could easily be Hall-of-Fame bound when it’s all said and done, but he’s going into his age 36 season now and coming off of that serious injury. 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. Wayne showed some signs of decline last season and there’s no guarantee that he can be anything close to what the Colts are used to from him this year. He’s owed 4 million in the final season of his contract and this could easily be the final year of his career.

The Colts signed Hakeem Nicks to a one-year deal this off-season. Nicks, a 2009 1st round pick, looked like one of the best young receivers in the NFL from 2009-2011. He averaged 2.30 yards per route run in 2009 on 344 routes run and 2.32 yards per route run in 2010 on 453 routes run. In 2011, he “only” averaged 2.08 yards per route run on 572 routes run, thanks to the development of Victor Cruz opposite him, but he was still a big part of the Giants’ Super Bowl team. His development seems to have stagnated over the past 2 seasons though thanks to a variety of lower body injuries and he’s never played all 16 games in a season, missing 10 games over the past 5 seasons and being limited in many others.

Nicks averaged 1.74 yards per route run on 398 routes run in 2012 and 1.70 yards per route run on 527 routes run in 2013. Last year was especially bad as he didn’t score all season and struggled with his chemistry with Eli Manning. 7 passes thrown to him were picked off and Manning’s quarterback rating when throwing to him was 57.0, 7th worst among eligible wide receivers. All that being said, he still has plenty of talent, which still flashes, and even his down years weren’t awful. He’s only going into his age 26 season, so he could be an asset for the Colts in the passing game. At the very least, he’ll be the Colts’ #3 wide receiver this year, but he could start over Reggie Wayne.

Nicks will also be an upgrade over Darrius Heyward-Bey who struggled mightily on a one-year deal last season. Losing him will be addition by subtraction. He caught 29 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown on 58 targets (50.0%) on 382 routes run (0.81 yards per route run). He also dropped 9 passes and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th worst ranked wide receiver overall, including 2nd worst in pure pass catching grade. Donte Moncrief was the Colts’ 3rd round pick, but the raw height/weight/speed wideout is unlikely to have an impact as a rookie as the 4th receiver. He’ll get his chance at playing time going in 2015, as Nicks and Wayne will both be free agents this off-season.

One positive of Reggie Wayne’s injury last season was that it allowed TY Hilton to have a breakout year as the #1 receiver in his absence. Hilton caught 82 passes for 1083 yards and 5 touchdowns on 533 routes run, an average of 2.03 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked wide receiver. He’s no longer just a deep threat reliant on big plays to make an impact, as he was as a rookie when he caught 50 passes for 861 yards and 7 touchdowns on 479 routes run, an average of 1.80 yards per routes. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, a common breakout year for wide receivers, Hilton could be even better. The 2012 3rd round pick is going into only his age 25 season. He was dominant in the post-season, catching 17 passes for 327 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2 games. He’ll once again be the Colts’ #1 receiver in 2014.

The other Colts’ pass catcher who went down with a season ending injury was Dwayne Allen, who went down with a hip injury 30 snaps into week 1, after just 1 catch for 20 yards. That was a bigger loss than most people realize because of how good Allen was as a rookie in 2012. The 2012 3rd round pick only caught 45 passes for 521 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he did so on 64 targets, meaning he caught 70.3% of targets, and on 368 routes run, meaning he averaged 1.42 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked tight end in pass catching grade, but where he really excelled was as a blocker, both a run and pass blocker, and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked tight end as a result. Essentially a younger version of Heath Miller, Allen could be a big boost to the Colts upon his return this year, going into his 3rd year in the league.

In Allen’s absence, Coby Fleener led Colts’ tight ends in snaps played with 834. Fleener was a 2nd round pick in 2012, going before Allen, but he’s not nearly as good as Allen, grading out only slightly above average in each of his first 2 years in the league. Fleener caught 52 passes for 608 yards and 4 touchdowns on 482 routes run, an average of 1.26 yards per route run. He caught 52 of 84 targets (61.9%) and only dropped one pass all season. He wasn’t much of a blocker though.

He’ll become the #2 tight end this season and work primarily as a move tight end with Allen working as an every down in-line tight end. The Colts rarely ran two-tight end sets last year after Allen went down as, after Fleener, the tight end who played the 2nd most snaps was Jack Doyle, who struggled on 198 snaps. They ran a lot of three wide receiver sets with TY Hilton, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and a combination of Da’Rick Rodgers, LaVon Brazill, and Griff Whalen last season, an underwhelming bunch.

They’ll run a lot more two-tight end sets this season and they won’t be afraid to pass out of them. Adding tight end guru Rob Chudzinski as an offensive assistant will also help. Getting Wayne and Allen back from injury, as well as the addition of Hakeem Nicks, will give Andrew Luck more weapons to work with and make this offense better. The Colts will also get guys back from injury at running back and offensive line that will help them on this side of the ball.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The Colts also need to get better on the defensive side of the ball and they can’t rely on getting guys back from injury to help them improve. They did sign Arthur Jones from Baltimore though, on a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal. A 2010 5th round pick, Arthur Jones developed from a solid reserve in 2011 on 255 snaps to a solid starter on 536 snaps to a breakout player in 2013 on 530 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end.

He was overpaid though, getting 33 million over 5 years with 16 million guaranteed. At his best, he’s worth that kind of money, but he’s still just a one year wonder at this point in his career. There’s no guarantee he’ll continue to be this good. He’s never played more than 536 snaps in a season and he’s never been the key cog on Baltimore’s defensive line, rotating often and playing alongside Haloti Ngata. He’ll be counted on for a bigger role in Indianapolis and he’ll instantly become the top player on their defensive line, which could be too much for them, though he will be reunited with one-time Baltimore defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, who is the head coach in Indianapolis.

The Colts made a big splash in free agency the previous off-season as well, signing Ricky Jean-Francois from San Francisco on a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal. It was a weird deal because Jean-Francois was a 2009 7th round pick who had played just 715 snaps in 4 seasons. He definitely flashed as a reserve in San Francisco, but he didn’t seem to be worth that kind of money. Jean-Francois played just 405 snaps in his first year in Indianapolis, missing 5 games with injury. He played pretty well when on the field, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked 3-4 defensive end, playing well against the run, but unspectacularly as a pass rusher. He’ll have the biggest role of his career this season, assuming he stays healthy. We’ll see if he can handle it.

Jones and Jean-Francois will work in rotation with veteran Cory Redding. Redding had a vintage year last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked 3-4 defensive end, including 7th in run stopping grade, but he’s going into his age 34 season so it’s unclear if he can continue that. It’s also definitely worth mentioning that he graded out 29th out of 34 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2012. Jones, Jean-Francois, and Redding will play the vast majority of snaps at 3-4 defensive end and play inside in sub packages and rush the passer. This is because the Colts lost mediocre reserves Fili Moala and Ricardo Matthews, who played 513 and 437 snaps respectively in 2013, this off-season.

The Colts also lost the mediocre Aubrayo Franklin this off-season. He played 340 snaps as a two-down nose tackle last season. That role is all Josh Chapman’s now. The 2012 5th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie, but he played 242 snaps last season and fared decently. He offered absolutely no pass rush, with 2 hurries on 114 pass rush snaps, but he played the run well and graded out about average. He’ll see probably 400-500 snaps in a base package nose tackle role this season.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The Colts’ top edge rusher last season was Robert Mathis, who tied for the NFL lead with 19 sacks last season. He’s a very talented player, but I’m going to pick him apart a little bit. While he had 19 sacks last year, he only had 5 hits and 39 hurries to go with those 19 sacks on 484 snaps, a rate of 13.0%. That’s impressive, but not nearly as good as someone like Robert Quinn, who also had 19 sacks, but totaled 21 hits and 54 hurries on 514 pass rush snaps, a rate of 18.3% which is much more impressive. It’s for that reason that I didn’t think Mathis deserved Defensive Player of the Year consideration.

Still, Mathis was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season. However, he’s going into his age 33 season so he’s at the point where his age is something to take into consideration. That’s especially true when you consider that Mathis actually graded out below average in 2012. He graded out above average in every season from 2007-2011, so 2012 is the outlier, but it’s a concern that he had a season like that recently when you consider his age. He’s unlikely to play as well in 2014 at his age as he did in 2013, in what was one of the best years of his career. On top of that, Mathis is suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, which will not only cost him 4 games, but could really put him behind the 8-ball this season.

Bjoern Werner and Erik Walden will have to play bigger roles in Mathis’ absence this season and both will play significant rotational roles even upon Mathis’ return. Walden was signed to a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal by the Colts last off-season even though he was awful in Green Bay in 2011 and 2012, grading out as easily Pro Football Focus’ worst 3-4 outside linebacker in both seasons. He wasn’t as bad in 2013, but he didn’t live up to his contract, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible.

Colts fans hoping that 2013 1st round pick Bjoern Werner would step up into a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league and turn Walden into a backup had to be extremely disappointed when they found out about Mathis’ suspension. Werner himself struggled last season, grading out 35th among 42 eligible 3-4 outside linebackers on just 312 snaps. The 24th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Werner could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. He will have a bigger role either way though.

Another big free agent acquisition was D’Qwell Jackson, who the Colts signed to a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal. He’ll play every down inside at middle linebacker. The issue is he’s simply not worth that kind of money. D’Qwell Jackson was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season and 41st out of 53 eligible in 2012. Going into his age 31 season, Jackson is unlikely to get any better this season. Jerrell Freeman will continue to play every down inside and line up next to Jackson. Freeman has been a solid starter over the last 2 seasons since coming over from Canada, grading out 22nd among middle linebackers in 2012 and 17th among middle linebackers in 2013, while not missing a single game. The Colts should expect more of the same from him this season.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The biggest financial investment the Colts made this off-season was easily re-signing top cornerback Vontae Davis to a 4-year, 39 million dollar deal. That might not pan out though, as Davis has an inconsistent past. Vontae Davis had a dominant contract year last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback and 2nd in terms of coverage grade. However, the Colts are overpaying him based on his contract year. That type of move doesn’t usually end well.

Davis was a 1st round pick in 2009 by Miami and he’s never been able to consistently put it all together. He had a solid rookie year on 709 snaps, grading out 26th among cornerbacks, and then looked like one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in 2010, grading out 12th. However, he missed 4 games with injury in 2011, fell down to 37th, and then fell out of favor with the coaching staff when Joe Philbin came in, getting benched in the pre-season before 2012 for being out of shape. The Dolphins were able to trade him to the Colts for a 2nd and 6th round pick and it looked like the Colts got hosed in that trade, as he missed 6 more games in 2012 and graded out 74th. He put it all together for his contract year, but who is to say he won’t coast and get out of shape again now that he has 20 million guaranteed?

Greg Toler is penciled in as the other starting cornerback, but that’s assuming he can stay healthy, something he’s been unable to do his entire career. In 5 years in the league, he’s never played all 16 games, missing 33 games in 5 seasons, including 7 games last season. Toler also struggled last year when he was on the field, grading out below average, though he’s been better in the past, grading out above average in 2009 and 2012 and below average in 2010 (he didn’t play a snap in 2011 thanks to injury). He could be a decent starter if he stays healthy, but that’s a massive if.

Darius Butler is the 3rd cornerback and slot specialist. He’s only supposed to be a part-time player, but he played 704 snaps and made 7 starts last season because of the injury to Toler. Butler flashed on 380 snaps in 2012, which got him a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal, but he also graded out below average in 2 of 3 years from 2009-2011, after getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, maxing out at 497 snaps over that time period. There’s a reason he was available mid-season for the Colts in 2012.

Butler regressed a little bit last season from 2012, grading out slightly below average. He’s settled in as a marginal cornerback who can play the slot and start if needed. Josh Gordy, meanwhile, is the 4th cornerback and will see action if someone gets hurt, as someone probably will (Toler and/or Davis most likely). Butler had been decent over the past 2 seasons on a combined 401 snaps, but he struggled mightily in his one season of significant action in 2011, grading out 97th out of 109 eligible cornerbacks on 631 snaps.

The Colts also have issues at safety, as they lost decent starting safety and long-time veteran Antoine Bethea to free agency this off-season and didn’t really replace him. Right now it’s essentially a 3-way battle for the starting job between Sergio Brown, Delano Howell, and Mike Adams and none of them are really impressive. Howell has been unspectacular on 212 snaps in 2 seasons since going undrafted in 2012. Brown went undrafted in 2010 and has played 63 snaps over the past 2 seasons combined and 506 snaps in 4 seasons combined.

Mike Adams is the proven veteran one of the bunch, but he’s going into his age 33 season. Adams lost his starting job to the unspectacular Duke Ihenacho last pre-season with Denver. He still played 703 snaps as an injury replacement, but graded out slightly below average. He was previously a solid starter, grading out slightly above average in both 2011 and 2012, but it’s very likely those days are behind him now. It took him until June to get signed. He’s probably the best of the trio though. We’ll see if he wins the job.

LaRon Landry is locked in as the other safety. He’s a decent veteran, but he’s missed 21 games in the last 4 seasons combined. He graded out above average in both 2010 and 2011, but he missed 17 games in those 2 seasons combined and that seems to have taken a toll on him as he’s graded out below average in each of the last 2 seasons. The Colts overpaid him on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal last off-season. He’s their best safety, but only by default and he’s going into his age 30 season now so he’s not getting any better.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Colts have won 11 games in each of the last 2 seasons, but if they want to win that many again this season, they’ll have to become a better team as they can’t keep relying on winning close games. They’ve gone 14-2 in games decided by a touchdown or less over the past 2 seasons, but that’s not sustainable. Offensively, they should be better this year. Andrew Luck will only get better as he goes into his 3rd year in the league and the Colts are getting significant players back from injury around him. Trent Richardson is the wild card, but they can become a better offense this season even if Richardson continues to struggle a little bit.

Defensively though, it’s going to be hard for them to be better this season, even after the off-season additions of Arthur Jones and D’Qwell Jackson. Jones is still a one-year wonder, while Jackson is overrated and was overpaid. They aren’t getting any significant players back from injury and they didn’t have an excessive amount of injuries last season. On top of that, their three best defensive players last season were Cory Redding, Robert Mathis, and Vontae Davis. The former two are getting up there in age and could easily decline this year, especially since Mathis will miss 4 games with suspension. The latter, meanwhile, has an inconsistent past.

I don’t think this team has 11 win talent. I think in terms of overall talent, they are actually slightly below average, though a strong season from Andrew Luck can buoy them up and mask some of their issues, as good quarterback performances usually do. On top of that, they play in arguably the easiest division in football where, not only will 9 games probably win the division, but they get 6 games against the likes of Houston, Jacksonville, and Tennessee, which will make it pretty easy to get to that 9 win threshold. I don’t like their chances of advancing deep into the playoffs until they fix that defense though. I’ll have an official win prediction after I do all of the previews.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 282014
 

Quarterback

The Steelers were one of the just three teams to finish in the top-15 in rate of moving the chains differential last season and not make the playoffs, in a rare year where everyone who made the playoffs actually deserved it. The Steelers could have easily made the playoffs, and not just if the refs had made the right call in San Diego/Kansas City week 17. The Steelers went 2-5 in games decided by a touchdown or less and ranked 28th, recovering 43.24% of fumbles.

Of course, they were also lucky in that they had the 3rd easiest strength of schedule according to DVOA, although things aren’t much harder this season as they replace the NFC North and AFC East with the NFC South and the AFC South. They finished last season 15th in DVOA, 4th best out of non-playoff teams. In terms of rate of moving the chains differential, they finished 13th with a +1.00% differential. They moved the chains at a 71.81% rate offensively, 16th in the NFL, and allowed opponents to move the chains at a 70.81% rate, 15th in the NFL defensively. The Steelers went 6-2 in their final 8 games and lost by a combined 8 points in those 2 games and they had a +61 point differential in those 8 games.

So does that mean the Steelers have a good chance to make the playoffs this season? Not necessarily. The Steelers have been pressed up against the cap and aging defensively for several consecutive off-seasons and now enter the 2014 season with an overall slightly weaker team than they had in 2013. They lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery offensively, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley, and Ryan Clark defensively and their replacements for those 5 are not necessarily adequate. They also still have an aging secondary.

One thing that remains the same is Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, as he enters his 11th season as the Steelers’ starting quarterback. Roethlisberger’s 2013 season was right in line with his career averages as he completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.30 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, a QB rating of 92.0. In his career, he completes 63.3% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 219 touchdowns, and 122 interceptions, a QB rating of 92.6. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback last season. He takes fewer shots downfield now under offensive coordinator Todd Haley, which has lowered his YPA, but he completes a higher percentage of his passes and has a better touchdown to interception ratio. Going into his age 32 season, he’s still capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl, but everything has to be right around him, which it isn’t.

One thing Roethlisberger did last season that was unusual is play all 16 games, something he had only done once in his career prior. He’s missed 17 games in 10 seasons and will probably miss a game or two with some sort of injury this season, as his playing style leads him to take a lot of hits. If he does, the Steelers’ options behind him are questionable, after Roethlisberger attempted all but 2 of the Steelers’ passes last season (the other two were trick plays from the punter and the wide receiver). Bruce Gradkowski is a veteran option, going into his age 31 season. He’s completed 52.9% of his passes for an average of 5.72 YPA, 21 touchdowns and 24 interceptions in his career. Meanwhile, Landry Jones was a 2013 4th round pick who didn’t play a snap as a rookie.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

I mentioned that the Steelers lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery at wide receiver this off-season. Those were the Steelers #2 and #3 wide receivers last season, playing 810 and 648 snaps respectively. Those are big roles to fill. Sanders has caught 111 passes for 1366 yards and 7 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons as a significant contributor, including a starting role in 2013. Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively in 2012 and 2013 among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He’s now in Denver.

Cotchery, meanwhile, is now in Carolina. The veteran is going into his age 32 season, but he caught 46 passes for 602 yards and 10 touchdowns on 440 routes run last season, an average of 1.38 yards per route run. He graded out 45th among wide receivers in pass catching grade and excelled as a blocker. Markus Wheaton will probably be the #2 receiver in their absence. The 2013 3rd rounder played on 161 snaps as a rookie and caught 6 passes for 64 yards on 106 routes run, an average of 0.60 yards per route run. He graded out below average in his limited role. How he transitions to a bigger role this season is a mystery.

Lance Moore is a free agent acquisition from New Orleans and he’ll likely work as the 3rd receiver, playing in the slot. Moore is coming off of a down year, in which he caught 37 passes for 457 yards and 2 touchdowns on 334 routes run, an average of 1.37 yards per route run. Now he goes into his age 31 season, so his best days are probably behind him. He’s only a season removed from a 65/1041/6 line in 2012, but he’s only played all 16 games once in the past 5 seasons, missing a combined 15 games and his 2nd best line over that time period is 66/768/8, so his 2012 was pretty out of character. He’ll be a decent slot receiver, but that’s about it. The Steelers also drafted Martavis Bryant in the 4th round. He’ll serve as the 4th receiver as a rookie and probably won’t have much of a role.

Because of their off-season losses at wide receiver, Antonio Brown could have even more targets this year than he did last year, when he was targeted 159 times, 4th most among wide receivers in the NFL. He caught 110 of those targets (69.2%) for 1498 yards and 8 touchdowns and averaged 2.37 yards per route run, 7th in the NFL among eligible wide receivers. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked wide receiver, including #1 in pure pass catching grade. The only player who had more receiving yards than him last season was Josh Gordon, who is currently expected to be suspended for the entire 2014 season.

Now fully out of the shadow of guys like Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, and Mike Wallace, Brown, 2010 6th round pick, is quietly one of the best wide receivers in the game. He’s caught 245 passes for 3394 yards and 15 touchdowns over the past 3 seasons combined and now he’s coming off of the best season of his career. He’s an excellent route runner and a perfect fit for Todd Haley’s system. He’s also a threat in the return game, if they choose to continue using him in that role. The 5-year, 42.5 million dollar extension they gave him 2 off-seasons ago looks like a piece of forward thinking genius. He would have been scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this off-season and he would have commanded 10+ million yearly, at the very least.

Heath Miller, the long-time Steeler tight end, could be 2nd on the team in targets. Miller was limited to 58 catches for 593 yards and a touchdown last season as he missed 2 games and was limited in others after tearing his ACL towards the end of the 2012 season. That should be behind him now and he was better towards the end of last season, as he caught 34 passes for 325 yards in his final 8 games. That extrapolates to 68 catches for 650 yards over 16 games.

From 2009-2012, he averaged 60 catches for 687 yards and 5 touchdowns per season and he could easily have a year similar, if not better, than that this season as the Steelers’ 2nd option. He’s also usually a better blocker than he was last season. He’s going into his age 32 season, but he should have another solid year. The Steelers don’t use very many two-tight end sets, with David Paulson being 2nd on the team in snaps played by a tight end, with 189. 106 of those were played in the two games Miller missed. Paulson struggled mightily on the season and had a combined 3 catches for 49 yards in the two games Miller missed. The 2012 7th round pick is not a good player and their depth at tight end is suspect. After Antonio Brown and Heath Miller, there are a lot of question marks in the receiving corps.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Steelers actually had a decent offensive line last season as they finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked pass blocking team and 20th ranked run blocking team. Things could be even better this season as they are expected to get Maurkice Pouncey back from a torn ACL that knocked him out 8 snaps into last season. The Steelers obviously believe he can return to form quickly, giving him a 5-year, 44 million dollar deal ahead of his contract year this off-season, making the 2010 1st round pick the highest paid center in the game.

He’s not worth that kind of money, even before you consider his injury. Pouncey is perennially overrated because of the public’s inability to evaluate a center (you can’t exactly blame them). He somehow made the Pro-Bowl and the All-Pro in each of his first 3 seasons in the league. Pro Football Focus can evaluate a center as they evaluate players on a snap by snap basis, for every snap of a season. They’ve had Pouncey ranked 21st, 19th, and 12th from 2010-2012 respectively, including below average in 2010 and 2011. He’s improved every year, but there are no guarantees he can continue improving this season, especially since he could be less than 100% in his first year back from injury. He’ll still be an asset for the Steelers, most likely, and an upgrade over Fernando Velasco and Cody Wallace, both of whom struggled in Pouncey’s absence last season, but he is overrated and overpaid.

The rest of the Steelers’ offensive line should look pretty similar to 2013 this season, which is a big change for this unit. They finally seem to have some stability. David DeCastro is probably their best starter. The 2012 1st round pick missed most of his rookie year with injury and struggled on 138 snaps upon his return, but in 2013, fully healthy, he showed why some saw him as the best interior offensive line prospect of the decade, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked guard. He could be even better in 2014, in his 3rd year in the league.

Ramon Foster actually graded out higher than DeCastro among guards last season at the other guard spot, grading out 12th, but the veteran doesn’t have nearly DeCastro’s upside and that’ll probably end up being the best season of his career. The 2009 undrafted free agent struggled in his first two years in the league, but graded above average as a starter in both 2011 and 2012 before last season. We’ll see if he can keep last year’s strong play up. I’m skeptical, but he should still have a solid season overall.

Marcus Gilbert is also a decent starter and he’s locked in at right tackle. He’s graded out right around average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, though he has struggled whenever he’s been asked to play the blindside. He’s a decent starter at right tackle though and I expect more of the same from him going into his 4th year in the league and his contract year.

At the left tackle spot, Kelvin Beachum settled into the role last season. The 2012 7th round pick got playing time early in his career, in 2012 and early in 2013, as a utility offensive lineman, playing every position, but he struggled, strangely until he got to left tackle. Beachum took over as the starting left tackle week 6 last season and ended up grading out about average at the position, despite his struggles at right tackle as a rookie and guard and center early in 2013 and despite not having the stereotypical left tackle frame at 6-3 306. The Steelers are committed to another year of him on the blindside. He’s a better pass protector than run blocker. He’s definitely better than Mike Adams, a 2012 2nd round pick who struggled on 497 snaps at right tackle as a rookie and then struggled even more on 485 snaps in 2013. If Adams is lucky, he’ll be the swing tackle this season. It’s a decent, but unspectacular offensive line overall.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Le’Veon Bell, a 2013 2nd round pick, returns as the starter. He only rushed 860 yards and 8 touchdowns on 244 carries last season, an average of 3.52 YPC, but he broke tackles (46 broken tackles on 289 touches), got yards after contact (2.11 YPC after contact), and moved the chains (48 rushing first downs, 14th in the NFL). He also added 45 catches for 399 yards through the air. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked running back and finished 27th in elusive rating. He missed 3 games and struggled through an injury at times, but now he’s going into his 2nd year in the league and he should be healthier. He rushed for 578 yards and 5 touchdowns on 164 carries (3.52 YPC) and caught 28 passes for 252 yards in his final 8 games. 300 carries for 1200 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns with 60 catches for 500 yards isn’t out of the question in his 2nd year in the league.

No other Steeler running back did much on the ground either last season, as they averaged 3.51 yards per carry as a team and, unlike Bell, their other running backs didn’t make up for that by consistently getting positive yardage, breaking tackles, and running through contact. As a result, they signed LeGarrette Blount from the Patriots this off-season. He’ll be a true backup to Bell. LeGarrette Blount is a big name after what he did to the Colts in the playoffs, rushing for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns. However, people forget he had just 6 yards on 5 carries the following week in a loss in Denver.

Blount averaged 5.19 yards per carry last season, including playoffs, on a combined 182 carries, but he was also available for a late round pick and a minimal salary the off-season prior, after averaging 4.14 yards per carry on 225 carries in 2011 and 2012 combined. His career average of 4.68 yards per carry is pretty solid, but he offers nothing as a pass catcher (23 career catches), pass protector, has minimal special teams experience (17 career returns), fumbles often (9 fumbles on 579 career carries) and has a history of discipline problems.

That being said, the Steelers signed him purely as insurance and a backup to Bell and he’s easily their 2nd best running back. Now they won’t have to rely on bums like Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, and Isaac Redman if Bell gets hurt again. Dri Archer could also be in the mix for carries as Todd Haley wants to develop the 2014 3rd round pick into what Dexter McCluster was for him in Kansas City, meaning he’ll see carries, play in the slot, and return kicks. He could work out in that role, but he could just as easily end up like Chris Rainey, a Steelers’ 5th round pick in 2012 with a similar skill set. The diminutive, but speedy Archer (5-8 173 4.26 40) probably won’t have much of a role on offense as a rookie.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As recently as 2012, the Steelers had 7 defensive starters who were 30+. The Steelers got rid of James Harrison and Casey Hampton last off-season and now Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, and Larry Foote are gone, leaving Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor on an overall younger defense. However, the question is whether they are nearly as talented as they once were. As I mentioned earlier, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 70.81% rate, 15th in the NFL defensively last season. That’s hardly traditional Steeler defensive dominance. This off-season, they lost two starters in Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark, in addition to LaMarr Woodley, who wasn’t living up to his salary on a cap strapped Steeler team.

In order to replace Brett Keisel this off-season, the Steelers signed Cam Thomas. Keisel, going into his age 36 season now, is still available on the open market after grading out about average on Pro Football Focus on 574 snaps last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end as recently as in 2011. Cam Thomas, meanwhile, comes over from San Diego, where he was a decent reserve in 2011 and 2012, grading out above average in both seasons. However, he never played more than 485 snaps in a season. Those 485 snaps were last season, when he graded out below average. He can play both nose tackle and 3-4 defensive end and will see action at both positions in a rotational role this season.

The Steelers also lost Ziggy Hood this off-season, but that’ll be addition by subtraction. The 2009 1st round pick bust was horrific in 5 years with the Steelers, grading out as a bottom-5 3-4 defensive end on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons. He played 646 snaps last season and he’ll be replaced in the rotation by 2nd round rookie Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt might not be great as a rookie, but he’ll be an obvious upgrade over Hood, even if he struggles a little bit.

Steve McClendon will be their primary nose tackle this season. He’s graded out significantly above average in each of the last 3 seasons, though on only a combined 667 snaps. Last season, he played a career high 355 snaps and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked defensive tackle, including 25th against the run. He’s purely a two-down run stopper, but he could have the biggest role of his career this season.

The only true every down defensive linemen the Steelers have is Cameron Heyward, a 2011 1st round pick who played 845 snaps last season and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. Last year was his first year as a starter, but he showed well as a reserve on 198 snaps in 2011 and 267 snaps in 2012, before breaking out last year. The talented 5-technique could easily have another strong season next year. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2015. The quartet of Heyward, Tuitt, Thomas, and McClendon should play the vast majority of the snaps on the Steelers’ 3-man defensive line, but Nick Williams and Daniel McClullers could see action. The former is a 2013 7th round pick 3-4 defensive end who didn’t play a snap as a rookie and the latter is a 6th round rookie who is a pure nose tackle at 6-8 365.

Grade: B

Linebackers

With LaMarr Woodley gone, Jason Worilds becomes the de facto top edge rusher in Pittsburgh. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th 3-4 outside linebacker last season on 792 snaps. He had 8 sacks, 21 hits, and 21 hurries on 378 pass rush snaps, a rate of 13.2%. Woodley, meanwhile, graded out 10th on 582 snaps last season, but was cut because his salary was too big, he was going into his age 30 season, he can’t stay healthy, and he wasn’t quite living up to his contract on the field. Woodley was also cut to make room for Worilds’ new salary as the Steelers will pay Worilds 9.754 million on the transition tag this season, though they’ve been unable to reach a long-term deal with him.

Worilds is still a one year wonder, after the 2010 2nd round pick played a combined 979 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, maxing out at 501 in 2011. However, he graded out above average 2 of those 3 seasons, so it’s definitely possible that the one-time highly rated prospect could continue this strong play into 2014. He’ll have to prove himself on a one-year deal, but he could command a lot of money in free agency this off-season if he repeats what he did last season, which would probably put him out of the cap strapped Steelers’ price range.

Opposite him, Jarvis Jones, the 17th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, will have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league with Woodley gone, after playing 646 snaps as a rookie. Jones struggled as a rookie, particularly as a pass rusher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league. The issue is that the Steelers have no real depth at the position behind Worilds and Jones, so both will have to play a ton of snaps, which could really tire them out.

Chris Carter, a 2011 5th round pick, has struggled on 235 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. Arthur Moats is a free agent acquisition who was a collegiate defensive end, but has largely played middle linebacker and 4-3 outside linebacker as a professional, maxing out at 401 snaps as a rookie. Jordan Zumwalt, meanwhile, is a 6th round rookie who can play inside and outside in a 3-4. The Steelers may consider bringing back James Harrison on a one-year minimum deal, for his age 36 season. He’s not much of a pass rusher anymore, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker against the run last season on 383 snaps. The potential future Hall-of-Fame and long-time Steeler great has always excelled against the run.

The Steelers used a first round pick in this past draft on Ryan Shazier, taking him with the 15th overall pick. He’ll replace Vince Williams, a 2013 6th round pick, who struggled on 405 snaps in a base package role as a rookie. Shazier will play every down inside, which is something Williams didn’t do, as Troy Polamalu would often come down closer to the line of scrimmage and essentially play linebacker in sub packages. Now Polamalu can focus on being a pure safety going into his age 33 season and they won’t have to tap into their safety depth as much.

Shazier will line up opposite Lawrence Timmons inside. Timmons isn’t the same player he was in 2008-2010, when he graded out 5th, 10th, and 1st respectively among middle linebackers in those 3 seasons, which got him a 5-year, 50 million dollar extension. However, since signing that extension, Timmons hasn’t been the same. He was 4th in 2012, but he was also 28th in 2011 and 25th last season. Shazier’s arrival could signal that the cap strapped Steelers are going to cut him and his 7.5 million dollar salary for 2015 next off-season. As for this year, he’s only going into his age 28 season, so he could bounce back, but expecting him to be as good as he once was isn’t realistic.

Grade: B+

Secondary

As I mentioned, Troy Polamalu would often play linebacker in sub packages last season. He lined up within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 79.8% of his snaps last season, the highest percentage by a safety in the NFL. Polamalu will be a true safety this season, which should be a good thing because he’s probably their best coverage defensive back. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked safety last season, including 2nd in coverage grade.

The issue is he’s going into his age 33 season and he’s always been injury prone. He played all 16 games last season, but only 7 the season before and he’s missed 22 games in the last 5 seasons combined. When he’s on the field, he’s great. I mentioned how well he played last season, but he was also Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked safety in 2012, despite being limited to 402 snaps in 7 games. He was Pro Football Focus’ #1 safety in 16 games in 2011 and #5 safety in 14 games in 2010. He’s graded out above average in every season dating back to 2007. However, he’s very injury prone and now, going into his age 33 season, it’s tough to know how much they can count on him.

With Polamalu now playing safety every down, Will Allen, the 3rd safety, won’t play as many snaps as he did last season, when he graded out about average on 376 snaps in 13 games. Ryan Clark is gone, going into his age 35 season. Ryan Clark was still a solid starter last season, grading out middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, but he was a far cry from his 2008-2012 form, a stretch in which he finished in the top-25 among safeties on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons and maxed out at 9th in 2012.

It’s unclear if Michael Mitchell, who the Steelers gave a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal this off-season, can be an upgrade though. Mike Mitchell was a 2nd round pick of the Raiders in 2009 based on his freakish athleticism (4.39 40 at 6-1 216), but he never really put it together in Oakland, playing an average of 394 snaps per season, maxing out at 508 snaps, and grading out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 3 seasons. He only played 334 snaps in 2012, his contract year, as a reserve and was forced to settle for a one year deal in Carolina worth about the veteran’s minimum.

He turned out to be a brilliant signing for Panthers GM Dave Gettleman as he became a 14-game starter (920 total snaps) at safety, a huge position of need for the Panthers, flashing often and showing his athleticism. He wasn’t spectacular, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked safety, slightly above average, and was a key part of a surprisingly good Carolina team, led by a stifling defense. This is the definition of buying high though. 12 months ago no one wanted Mitchell and now after one year he’s worth 5 million yearly? It’s not like he was incredible last year and much of his strong play was as a result of a dominant Carolina front in front of him, which, by the way, won’t be following him to Pittsburgh. Buy high deals like this rarely work out. The only good thing is the Steelers only guaranteed 6 million and one-year of his deal.

Polamalu is one of two remaining starters over 30 for the Steelers. The other is Ike Taylor, who is going into his age 34 season and coming off of an awful year in which his abilities seemingly just fell off a cliff. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 97th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible, and he was 105th in pure coverage grade. He’s been better in the past, but he’s never really been fantastic. He could bounce back a little bit this year, but there’s a good chance that he’s just done. The Steelers slashed his salary to 2.75 million and this is the final year of his contract, so this could just be his final year with the Steelers, if not in the league.

Turner will be on a short leash and could end up being their 3rd cornerback as they have a pair of solid cornerbacks. They don’t really have a 4th cornerback who could take Taylor’s spot as the 3rd cornerback if he continues to really struggle though. Those two solid cornerbacks are William Gay and Cortez Allen. Gay was the best of their cornerback trio last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked cornerback, playing on the slot in sub packages and outside in base packages. However, much of his strong grade was because he played the run so well. In terms of pure coverage grade, he was only 31st at his position. Against the run, he was 3rd at his position.

Gay doesn’t really have a history of dominant cornerback play either. His best year in the league was in 2008, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked cornerback, 16th in pure coverage grade. He’s always been decent in Pittsburgh’s defensive system, grading out around average in 2009, 2010, and 2011, but he was awful in one year away from Pittsburgh in Arizona in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. He could have another solid year in 2014, but I don’t expect him to play quite as well as he did last season.

Cortez Allen, meanwhile, is a 2011 4th round pick going into his 4th year in the league and his contract year. Allen barely played as a rookie, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback on 563 snaps in 2012 and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked cornerback on 718 snaps last season. This year, he could become an every down cornerback for the first time in his career and line up against opponent’s #1 receivers, like Ike Taylor used to. He could easily have a very solid year that would set him up for a good payday next off-season.

Grade: B

Conclusion

There’s talent here, but this is hardly the Steeler teams of old. I thought they were a playoff caliber team last season, but had some bad luck and missed out at 8-8. Now, I think they have less talent than they did last season, which is going to make getting back into the playoffs hard, even if their luck turns around. They’ll be in the mix for a wild card spot in the weaker AFC, but I don’t know if they’re going to make it. I’ll have an official prediction once I finish all teams’ previews.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 262014
 

Quarterback

Last season, the Browns had more All-Pros than wins, going 4-12, but having 5 players make either the All-Pro 1st or 2nd team, tied with the 49ers for most in the NFL. That might sound absurd, but it’s not. Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Josh Gordon, Joe Haden, and TJ Ward were all among the best in the NFL at their respective positions. In 2012, the Chiefs had 6 Pro-Bowlers, despite going 2-14 and, after adding a new starting quarterback and head coach, they went on to win 11 games the following season.

The Browns come into 2014 with a new starting quarterback and a new head coach, but things won’t necessarily work out the same way for the Browns. The Browns replaced a talented coordinator with little experience at head coach in Rob Chudzinski with a talented coordinator with little experience at head coach in Mike Pettine, which isn’t exactly the same thing as replacing the tried and failed Romeo Crennel with the proven Andy Reid.

Meanwhile, adding Johnny Manziel to the mix isn’t as perfect of a fit as adding Alex Smith to the mix was in Kansas City. The Chiefs’ biggest problem in 2012 was a -24 turnover margin, an issue that probably would have corrected itself largely either way, but adding a careful, conservative quarterback like Alex Smith helped the Chiefs go from -24 to +18 in turnover margin, as did a cakewalk schedule. Manziel should improve the Browns’ quarterback play, but they had more issues than just that. The turnover margin wasn’t a huge issue in Cleveland, where they had a -8 turnover margin last season.

Their biggest issue was that, in addition to all the great starters they had last season, they also had numerous players in significant roles that were terrible. Greg Little and Davone Bess played significant roles at wide receiver. Willis McGahee lead the team in carries. Buster Skrine and Craig Robertson were among the league’s worst at cornerback and middle linebacker respectively. Tashaun Gipson struggled mightily at safety and the combination of Shawn Lauvao and Oniel Cousins was horrific at right guard. And, of course, they had issues at quarterback, as they completed 55.7% of his passes for an average of 6.42 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions. Manziel could help that problem as a rookie, but he’s also just a rookie and whether or not they can become a significantly improved team this season will depend on how well they upgraded those other aforementioned spots as well.

I also do have to mention that Manziel is technically competing with Brian Hoyer for the starting job, but I think Manziel is easily the heavy favorite. Hoyer played decent in limited action, completing 59.4% of his passes for an average of 6.41 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, grading out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. However, the 2010 undrafted free agent with 192 career attempts didn’t stay healthy long enough to establish himself as the starter and now he’s coming off a torn ACL. Better, more proven quarterbacks, Tom Brady, Robert Griffin, Carson Palmer, etc, have struggled in their first year back from a torn ACL.

Grade: C+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Another thing that could be an issue for the Browns is that 2 of those 5 All-Pros from last season could easily not play a snap for the Browns this season. TJ Ward signed with the Broncos and Josh Gordon is likely facing a season long ban for marijuana. While the Browns made a solid attempt to replace TJ Ward, they made no such attempt to replace Gordon. Even though they knew of the potential ban long before the draft, they didn’t draft a single wide receiver.

Greg Little and Davone Bess are gone from the roster, which is good because they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst and 4th worst wide receivers respectively last season. However, there’s still not a lot of talent here. The Browns top three wide receivers this season should be a trio of players they brought in as free agents this off-season, Andrew Hawkins, Miles Austin, and Nate Burleson. Hawkins has the most upside as he’s the youngest, only going into his age 28 season.

Hawkins has flashed in 3 seasons with the Bengals since coming to them as an undrafted free agent in 2011, grading out above average in all 3 seasons and averaging 1.66 yards per route run in his career. However, he’s only run 598 routes in his career and caught 86 passes for 995 yards and 4 touchdowns. In the only season he got significant playing time, 2012, he caught 51 passes for 533 yards and 4 touchdowns on 384 routes run, 1.39 yards per route run. The Browns are hoping he’s a budding talent that was just buried on the depth chart in Cincinnati, giving him a 4-year, 13.6 million deal this off-season, but that might be wishful thinking. He could lead Browns wide receivers in receptions, but the 5-7 175 pounder might be purely a slot option.

Sadly, he’s probably their best wide receiver option. Nate Burleson is going into his age 33 season and coming off of a season in which he missed 7 games with a broken arm. He also suffered another broken arm this off-season, though he’s expected to be back for training camp. Still, he’s an aging, injury prone player who has missed 17 games in the last 2 seasons combined. He’s averaged just 1.31 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons combined, despite playing in an explosive pass offense in Detroit with plenty of opportunities against single coverage and plenty of opportunities to receive targets. The 2003 3rd round pick and 11-year veteran could just be done.

Miles Austin is going into his age 30 season, so he’s not quite as old as Burleson, but he’s had a similar recent history of injury problems. Hamstring problems have caused him to miss 11 games over the past 3 seasons, limited him in countless others, and seemed to sap his abilities last year as he caught just 22 passes for 244 yards in 11 games and averaged 0.76 yards per route run in an explosive passing offense in Dallas. He was Pro Football Focus’ 101st ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in terms of pure pass catching grade last season.

When healthy, Austin can be a solid contributor. He played all 16 games in 2012, catching 66 passes for 943 yards and 6 touchdowns and recorded 1000 yard seasons in both 2009 and 2010. He’s still young enough that it’s conceivable he could have a few more good seasons if healthy, but that’s a big if. If he or any of the Browns’ projected top-3 wide receivers struggle, Travis Benjamin could have a significant role. The 2012 4th round pick has averaged 1.26 yards per route run on 320 routes run in 2 seasons in the league and is coming off of a torn ACL. He’ll be most valuable as a return man.

Given their issues at wide receiver, expect Jordan Cameron to lead the team in catches, receiving yards, and touchdowns. Cameron didn’t make either All-Pro team last season, but he was a Pro-Bowler and rightfully so. Cameron broke out in his 3rd year in the league, after being drafted in the 4th round in 2011, catching 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns on 622 routes run, an average of 1.47 yards per route run. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked tight end in pass catching grade, though he struggled mightily as a run blocker, grading out 9th worst at his position in that aspect.

Cameron was drafted as a high upside, boom or bust mid-rounder out of USC. After struggling on a combined 398 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, Cameron broke out last year, largely as a result of tight end genius Rob Chudzinski. Chudzinski is gone and Cameron did get a lot of his production from being a volume receiver, getting the 3rd most targets by a tight end with 109 last season. The Browns should pass significantly fewer than 681 times this season with a running quarterback and a new run first offense coming in, which will hurt Cameron’s production. However, he should still be their best receiver. The Browns are hoping that Manziel and Cameron will function like Michael Vick and Alge Crumpler did early in their careers, though Cameron isn’t the same caliber of blocker. Meanwhile, Gary Barnidge will once again be the blocking tight end. The veteran graded out below average on 543 snaps last season.

Grade: C

Running Backs

As I mentioned, Willis McGahee led the Browns in carries last season, rushing for 377 yards and 2 touchdowns on 138 carries, a pathetic 2.73 yards per carry average. He broke just 12 tackles on 146 touches and averaged just 1.76 yards per carry after contact. His longest run was for 16 yards. The Browns still rushed for 3.97 yards per carry as a team, but that’s not very good and even that was largely the result of trick plays and quarterback runs, things that are hard to rely on.

Fortunately, the Browns should be better in this aspect this season, which they needed to be. For one, Johnny Manziel comes in, which helps their running game in two ways. Manziel will probably be able to accumulate a solid amount of rushing yards as a rookie, even if the mobile quarterback struggles as a passer in his first year in the league. Also, his presence and his ability to take off at any time will force the defense to use a spy more often, which will help the rest of their running game.

On top of that, the Browns added Ben Tate this off-season. Ben Tate was drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 by the Texans to be the starting running back, but broke his ankle in the pre-season, which opened the door for Arian Foster to emerge as one of the best running backs in the NFL. Upon his return from that injury, Tate impressed as his backup, averaging 5.09 YPC on 240 carries in 2011 and 2012 and got his shot to be the starter in 2013 when Arian Foster went down with a season ending back injury.

Unfortunately, the injury bug reared its head for Tate again as he broke several ribs. He only missed 2 games, the final two of the season, but was definitely hampered by the injury as he averaged just 4.26 yards per carry on 181 carries. Tate clearly has the talent and toughness to be a lead back in the NFL, but he’s also missed 24 of 64 possible regular season games in his career thus far and is coming off of an injury plagued season. Staying healthy will be the key to him potentially having a breakout year. The Browns used a 3rd round pick on Terrance West as insurance and he could have a significant role as a rookie in a run heavy offense behind an injury prone starter.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Browns had a serious issue at right guard last season. Oniel Cousins started the first 5 games of the season, but struggled mightily on just 322 snaps played, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 71st ranked guard out of 81 eligible. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower. Shawn Lauvao then took over for the other 11 starts and wasn’t much better, grading out 70th out of 81 eligible on 771 snaps. In an effort to solve the problem, the Browns used a 2nd round pick on Joel Bitonio, who will be a day 1 starter. He might not be great as a rookie, but he should be an upgrade over what they had last season, both of whom are no longer with the team.

Other than right guard, the Browns had one of the best offensive lines in the league last season, particularly in pass protection, as they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked pass blocking team. They ranked 21st in run blocking, but that was largely because of the right guard position and their tight ends’ inability to run block. Joe Thomas and Alex Mack both were All-Pros last season and both are among the top players at their respective positions.

Mack was re-signed this off-season to a 5-year, 42 million dollar deal, which made him the league’s highest paid center in average salary before Maurkice Pouncey of the Steelers got a bigger extension this off-season. It’s a lot of money for a center, but it’s hard to argue that Mack wasn’t worth it, as he’s arguably the top center in the NFL. He’s graded out as a top-10 center in each of his 5 seasons in the NFL since being drafted in the first round by the Browns in 2009, maxing out at 4th overall last season. Only Chris Myers has also been in the top-10 in centers in all 5 of those seasons. Mack is also at the peak of his career, going into his age 29 season, coming off of a career year.

While Mack might be the top center in the NFL, Joe Thomas definitely is the top left tackle in the NFL. Joe Thomas has been a top-8 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in every season since he was drafted 3rd overall in 2007, something no one else can come close to saying. He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 offensive tackle in 2009. He’s also never missed a game over 112 career starts. He especially excels in pass protection, which is more important than run blocking. Last season, he graded out 2nd overall at his position, but 1st in pass protection by a sizeable margin.

The Browns are solid at the other two offensive line spots as well, with Mitchell Schwartz at right tackle and John Greco at the other guard spot. There was talk that Schwartz would be moved to right guard this season, if the Browns drafted a right tackle in the first round, but they opted to take Bitonio to play guard in the 2nd round and keep Schwartz at right tackle. That’s definitely an acceptable option. Schwartz graded out above average last season at right tackle and, while he wasn’t as good as he was as a rookie, when the 2012 2nd round pick was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked offensive tackle, he was still 30th at his position and he could easily have a bounce back year this season. He could also easily have the best season of his career this season, his 3rd in the league and his age 25 season.

At the other guard spot, John Greco is coming off of his first full season as a starter. He’s graded out above average in every season in his career since he was drafted in the 3rd round in 2008, doing so on a combined 658 snaps from 2008-2011 and then making 10 starts and playing 714 snaps in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked guard. He wasn’t quite as good as a 14 game starter in 2013 (missing 2 with injury), but he still graded out above average. The Browns gave him a forward thinking 5-year, 13.2 million dollar deal before last season and have a starting caliber guard locked up at a very reasonable rate through 2017. His natural position is right guard, so the Browns could move him back there and flip Bitonio over to the left side. Overall, it’s a strong offensive line that got stronger this off-season, by drafting a player in the 2nd round to fill its only hole.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Browns didn’t have any All-Pros in the front 7 last season, but their front 7 is still one of the better ones in the NFL, particularly their 3-man defensive line and their edge rushers. Things could be even better now with Mike Pettine coming over from Buffalo. Pettine coordinated one of the better defense’s in the league, with their strength being in the front 7, in Buffalo last season as they ranked 6th in rate of moving the chains allowed, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 67.58% rate. They also ranked 2nd in the league in both sacks and interceptions as their pass rush tormented opposing quarterbacks. The Browns were 18th in the NFL, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 71.71% rate last season, but they should be better than that this season, thanks to the addition of Pettine and some other off-season moves.

The Browns have a lot of talented depth on the defensive line and use a rotation of 5 different guys on their 3-man defensive line. Phil Taylor is the only one who can play the true nose tackle position, but the 6-3 355 pounder moves well for his size and does sometimes stay on the field for sub packages. The 2011 1st round pick struggled as a rookie and then only played 273 snaps in 2012 because of injury, but he had easily the best season of his career in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked defensive tackle on 555 snaps, including 14th as a run stopper. The Browns picked up his 5th year option for 2015 and he should have another solid season, particularly as a run stopper, again in 2014.

Desmond Bryant should lead this defensive line in snaps played this season. He only played 588 snaps last season, but that’s because he missed 4 games with injury. He had a disappointing first season in Cleveland ended by an irregular heartbeat, but that problem seems behind him now. He graded out slightly below average when he was on the field last season, but he could easily bounce back in 2014. The 2009 undrafted free agent graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2012 and graded out above average in 2010 and 2011 as a rotational player at both defensive tackle and defensive end. Last season was the first year he had ever played 3-4 defensive end, but considering his experience at both 4-3 defensive tackle and 4-3 defensive end and his size at 6-5 280, he should be a natural fit. He’s probably their best interior pass rusher when he’s healthy and right.

Ahtyba Rubin led their defensive line in snaps played last season, but I think he should have a reduced role this season. Rubin did grade above average as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked 3-4 defensive end, but, while he graded out 12th at his position in run stopping grade, he graded out 2nd worst at his position in pass rush grade. This is nothing new, as he graded out above average as a run stopper and below average as a pass rusher in 2012 as well. He should only be a pure base defensive end this season and focus on his strength, stopping the run.

That would allow talented reserves John Hughes and Billy Winn to play bigger roles this season. John Hughes graded out best among all of their defensive linemen, even though he only played 402 snaps. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11st ranked 3-4 defensive end, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He excelled as a run stopper, grading out 7th at his position in that aspect. The 2012 3rd round pick is still a one year wonder as he struggled mightily on 530 snaps and there’s no guarantee he can be as efficient next season as he was in 2013 in a larger role, but they need to give him more snaps, going into his 3rd season in the league, even if it’s only in the 500 range. Billy Winn, meanwhile, was a 6th round pick in 2012. He graded out about average on 721 snaps as a rookie and then above average on 313 snaps last season. He’ll play a valuable rotational role again next season on this deep defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Browns also have a trio of 3-4 outside linebackers that rotate with Jabaal Sheard, Paul Kruger, and Barkevious Mingo. Sheard has been with the team since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011. Paul Kruger was signed to a big 5-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. Barkevious Mingo was the 6th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Sheard was the best of the bunch last season in his first season in a 3-4, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He graded out slightly below average as an every down 4-3 defensive end in 2011 and slightly below average in that same role in 2012, before a breakout 3rd year in the league in 2013.

Paul Kruger was the opposite starter last season. He was overpaid on that 5-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. Kruger had a strong 2012 season, especially in the 2nd half of the season and the post-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012, excelling as a pass rusher, grading out 4th in that aspect. He then had a dominant post-season, particularly as a pass rusher, with 5 sacks, 5 hits, and 10 hurries on 148 pass rush snaps, a 13.5% rate.

However, he was just a one-year wonder, which is why he didn’t deserve that deal. He played just 724 snaps combined in 2009-2011, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009, and only graded out above average in one of those seasons. He wasn’t awful in his first season in Cleveland, grading out above average, but he wasn’t what they expected. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, slightly above average. Expect more of the same from him this season.

Meanwhile, the Browns drafted Barkevious Mingo 6th overall in 2013 even though they already had Kruger and Sheard. It was a luxury pick and one that didn’t really work out last season as Mingo graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 38th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible on 668 snaps. He could be better in 2013, in his 2nd year in the league, but don’t expect him to have much of a bigger role. He’ll be a heavy rotational player at best as long as Kruger and Sheard are in the fold.

I mentioned, as much talent as the Browns have in the front 7, they didn’t have an All-Pro last season, but they did sign one this off-season, bringing over Karlos Dansby from Arizona. I mentioned Craig Robertson at middle linebacker as one of the starters they had to upgrade and rightfully so, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked middle linebacker last off-season, especially struggling in coverage, grading out dead last in that aspect and allowing separate 100+ yard receiving games to two different running backs, Reggie Bush and Shane Vereen. The 2011 undrafted free agent also graded out below average in 2012, the only other season in which he played defensive snaps.

However, the Browns found themselves in need of two new starters at middle linebacker when they cut D’Qwell Jackson this off-season. That was a smart move because Jackson wasn’t worth his salary and the Browns saved 5.23 million on the cap by cutting him. Going into his age 31 season, D’Qwell Jackson was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible last season and 41st out of 53 eligible in 2012. The Browns then used that freed up cap space and signed Dansby to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal, which was a very good move.

This was a fairly strong free agent class overall, but the one position where it was weak was at middle linebacker. Middle linebacker in general was a weak position in the NFL last season, as only 16 of 55 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus graded out positively last season. Karlos Dansby was, by far, the best of the free agent middle linebackers and Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked middle linebacker last season. Dansby might never have another year as good as last season again, as he’s going into his age 33 season, and as he had never been a top-10 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus prior to last season, but he graded out 12th in 2010, 11th in 2011, and 13th in 2012.

Dansby should still have a strong season and be an upgrade over Jackson. Meanwhile, the Browns drafted Christian Kirksey in the 3rd round to compete with Robertson for the other starting job. He might not be better than him as a rookie, but he also could easily be better than him, even if only by default. At the very least, the athletic Kirksey will play a situational role as a coverage linebacker, as coverage is his strength and Robertson’s weakness.

Grade: B+

Cornerback

Another spot the Browns desperately needed to upgrade was the other cornerback spot opposite Joe Haden, where Buster Skrine played last season. Skrine somehow managed to lead all cornerbacks in both tackles missed (20) and touchdowns allowed (9) last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 106th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. The 2011 5th round pick has graded out below average in each of the 3 seasons he’s been in the league.

Having a cornerback as poor as him opposite Joe Haden makes having Haden less valuable because opposing quarterbacks can just throw away from the dominant Haden with ease. Skrine will be replaced in the starting lineup by Justin Gilbert, who the Browns drafted 8th overall. Gilbert is a talented cornerback and, while cornerbacks do take a year or so to get adjusted to the NFL, he should be an immediate upgrade over Skrine.

The Browns also drafted Pierre Desir in the 4th round. Buster Skrine may still see some action as the slot cornerback, but he could also be as far down on the depth chart as 5th, which would put him on the roster bubble. Skrine is in a 3-way battle for the slot cornerback job, a spot manned last season by Chris Owens, who did a solid job, grading out slightly above average. Leon McFadden, a 2013 3rd round pick, seems like the favorite for that job and Desir is in the mix as well. McFadden struggled mightily on 247 snaps as a rookie last season, but could be better this season. They could easily see inferior play to Owens’ at that spot though.

As for Joe Haden, he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL and he was a deserving All-Pro last season. The Browns did overpay him on a 5-year, 68 million dollar extension this off-season though. Joe Haden is a terrific cornerback, but I don’t think he’s quite at the level of deserving what Richard Sherman got (4-year, 56 million). I think Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis are the top cornerbacks in the NFL and there’s a big gap between them and the rest of the league. In 3 years in the NFL, Richard Sherman has allowed 115 of 248 (46.4%) for 1621 yards (6.54 YPA), 8 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while deflecting 34 passes and committing 26 penalties. Meanwhile, Darrelle Revis has allowed 43.1% completion, 5.41 YPA, and 12 touchdowns, while picking off 20 passes, since 2008.

In 4 years in the league, Joe Haden has allowed 179 of 331 (54.1%) for 2250 yards (6.80 YPA), 17 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, while deflecting 50 passes and committing 21 penalties. That’s very impressive, but it’s not at the same level as Sherman or Revis. Revis has graded out among Pro Football Focus’ top-3 cornerbacks in 4 of his last 5 healthy seasons. Meanwhile, Richard Sherman has graded out 2nd and 6th in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Joe Haden has never graded out higher than 6th in 4 seasons, doing so in his rookie year in 2010, and he came in 13th, 20th, and 18th in the last 3 seasons respectively. That’s still very impressive, especially considering the volatility of the cornerback position. He’s been one of Pro Football Focus’ top-20 cornerbacks in each of the last 4 seasons, something only the supremely underrated Jason McCourty can also say (Revis missed 2012 with injury and Sherman was still in college in 2010). Haden might be the #3 cornerback in the NFL and he’s definitely top-5, but he was overpaid a little bit.

The Browns lost an All-Pro at safety this off-season, as TJ Ward signed with the Broncos. He might be the top box safety in the NFL. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd and 6th ranked safety in 2012 and 2013 respectively, the only safety in the NFL to finish top-6 both seasons. He was also 13th in 2011, despite missing 8 games with injury. That was really his only injury plagued season as he missed 2 games in his other 3 seasons combined, playing 54 games in 4 seasons, starting each of them and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010.

The Browns replaced him with Donte Whitner this off-season, a downgrade, but still a solid player. He is an inconsistent player who graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus in each season from 2007-2010 in Buffalo and who allowed 12 touchdowns in regular season and post-season combined in 2012 on a 49ers team that allowed just 26 total passing touchdowns in the regular season and post-season combined. However, he graded out 8th among safeties in 2011 and 6th among safeties in 2013. He seemed to fix his coverage problems last season, grading out 5th in that aspect, and we’ll see if that continues. He’s an above average player and an asset, even if he is a downgrade.

The Browns also needed to upgrade the other safety spot, as Tashaun Gipson struggled last season, but they didn’t get around to that. He was Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked safety out of 86 eligible last season in his first season as a starter. The 2012 undrafted free agent played 377 nondescript snaps in 2012 as a rookie. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. That other safety spot should continue to be a position of weakness.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Browns desperately needed to upgrade two wide receiver spots, the running back spot, the quarterback spot, one guard spot, one middle linebacker spot, one safety spot, and one cornerback spot this off-season. They drafted a quarterback and a cornerback in the first round, a guard in the 2nd round, and a middle linebacker in the 3rd round so they have some young talent in the mix. They also drafted a running back in the 3rd round and brought in Ben Tate to be the starter. On top of that, they upgraded D’Qwell Jackson with Karlos Dansby.

However, they didn’t upgrade the wide receiver spots well or the safety spot at all and I don’t know how much they can rely on their rookies. They also downgraded TJ Ward to Donte Whitner and have likely lost Josh Gordon to a season long suspension. They also had very few injuries last season, the 5th fewest adjusted games lost, something they probably won’t be able to rely on this season. Their depth will be tested this year more than it was last season.

Still, I think in terms of non-quarterback talent, they are one of the top-15, maybe even top-10 teams in the NFL. Whether or not they can break into the playoffs will depend on how Johnny Manziel plays at quarterback as a rookie (or, technically how Brian Hoyer plays if he somehow wins the starting job). I’d feel more confident in him if I was confident in his weapons, but Josh Gordon getting suspended likely for the season really hurts. They’ll be an improved team this season, but I don’t have them in the playoffs, even if, overall, they have a playoff caliber supporting cast. I’ll have an official wins prediction for them after I do all the previews.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 262014
 

Quarterback

The Ravens made a post-season run in 2012 and won the Super Bowl, but they were still a flawed team, something that really showed in the regular season, when they went 10-6, tied for the worst record among playoff qualifiers. They finished the regular season 13th in offensive DVOA and 19th defensive DVOA. That was why I wasn’t concerned that they went through such a transformation last off-season. I thought the Ravens would be a better team in 2013 than they were in 2012, at least in the regular season.

Washed up veterans like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis were replaced with 1st and 2nd round picks Matt Elam and Arthur Brown. One year wonders like Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger took more money else and were replaced with cheaper, proven veterans Daryl Smith and Elvis Dumervil. Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb were coming back from injury. Bernard Pollard was gone, but he was replaced with Michael Huff, who seemed comparable. Offensively, the losses of Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk would hurt, but I thought that Joe Flacco would maintain some of his gains from the 2013 off-season because his own development and because he’d have Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and Jim Caldwell at offensive coordinator for the full season, two things to which I attributed some of his 2013 post-season success.

I was half right. The Ravens were an improved defensive team for a number of the reasons I outlined above. In fact, they were one of the best defensive teams in the league, finishing 7th in DVOA and 2nd in rate of moving the chains, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 65.97% rate. However, their offense was terrible, ranking 30th in both DVOA and rate of moving the chains, moving the chains at a 65.38% rate. As a result, they went 8-8, missed the playoffs and finished 17th in rate of moving the chains differential at -0.59%.

Joe Flacco was pretty consistently a slightly above average quarterback in the first 5 seasons of his career from 2008-2012. His QB rating had always fallen between 80.3 and 93.6. His completion percentages had always fallen between 57.6% and 63.1%. His YPAs had always fallen between 6.66 and 7.41. His touchdowns had always fallen between 20 and 25 (with the exception of his rookie year) and his interceptions had always fallen between 10 and 12. He then had a fantastic post-season in 2012, en route to that Super Bowl, completing 57.9% of his passes for an average of 9.05 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions.

He followed that up with the worst season of his career in 2013, completing 59.7% of his passes for an average of 6.37 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, easily a career worst QB rating of 73.1. Part of it was his fault, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible, but he really didn’t have much help. The losses of Anquan Boldin and Matt Birk really hurt him and neither left tackle Bryant McKinnie nor offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell proved reliable over the course of an entire season. The Ravens’ once strong running game also went way downhill, as both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce struggled mightily and they averaged just 3.14 yards per carry, the worst in the league. The Ravens have attempted to fix their offense this season in a variety of ways, in an attempt to get back into the playoffs.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight End

The biggest move the Ravens made to help their offense was signing Steve Smith to a 3-year, 10.5 million dollar deal. Smith is a big name, but he’s towards the end of his career. He’s unlikely to be the adequate Anquan Boldin replacement they are expecting him to be. Steve Smith had 64 catches for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. Excluding the Jimmy Clausen season and his injury plagued 2004 season, those were his worst since his rookie year in 2001.

That’s just what happens to receivers this age. 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. Steve Smith is 19th in all-time receiving yards yardage, but he’s also going into his age 35 season. There’s a reason why the Panthers released him even though he still had guaranteed money left on his deal and even though they were thin at wide receiver. Steve Smith has had a great career, but there’s a chance he just falls off a cliff in terms of his abilities in his age 35 season.

He’ll line up as the starter opposite Torrey Smith. Smith appeared to have a breakout year last season in his 3rd year in the league after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, catching 65 passes for 1128 yards and 4 touchdowns, but he’s a fairly incomplete volume wide receiver who wasn’t as good as his stats suggested last season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked wide receiver last season. He only caught 51.2% of his targets (65 catches on 127 targets) and only caught 39 passes on balls that went 10 or fewer yards through the air, 71st most in the NFL. He’s pretty much just a deep threat who was overstretched last season.

He’d be best off with another talented option opposite him, but the Ravens don’t have that right now. He only caught 49 passes for 855 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2012 with Anquan Boldin opposite him, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked wide receiver. He’ll catch more passes in the Ravens’ new west coast offense under Gary Kubiak, but he’s not an ideal fit for the offense because of his limited route running ability. It’s possible he develops more this season, only going into his age 25 season, in the contract year of his 4-year rookie deal.

Marlon Brown will be the 3rd receiver this year after being the de facto #2 wide receiver last season. He’s not great, so in that sense it’s good that he’s not playing as much, but he still might be better than the declining Smith. He caught 49 passes for 524 yards and 7 touchdowns on 518 routes run, an average of 1.01 yards per route run (84th out of 94 eligible wide receivers) as an undrafted free agent rookie last year. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. Jacoby Jones is a veteran depth option. He’s been given chances, but he’s never caught more than 51 passes for 562 yards in a season, including 37 catches for 455 yards and 2 touchdowns last season. He’s a pretty marginal receiver at best. He provides the most value on special teams as a return man.

The biggest “addition” for the Ravens offensively should be a healthy Dennis Pitta. Pitta missed 12 games with a hip problem last off-season and was limited upon his return. Still, he caught 20 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown in 4 seasons, which extrapolates to 80 catches for 716 yards and 4 touchdowns over 16 games. He did that on 128 routes run, an average of 1.32 yards per route run. He caught a lot of passes in those 4 games, but showed little explosiveness.

Now he should be completely healthy, only going into his age 29 season, and going into a system under Gary Kubiak that benefits tight ends. The Ravens obviously believe in him, giving him a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal ahead of free agency this off-season. He’s never had more than 61 catches for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns in a season, which he did in 2012, when he averaged 1.69 yards per route run and graded out as Pro Football Focus 24th ranked tight end, 8th in pass catching grade. He could easily lead this team in catches this season. He’ll be an obvious upgrade over Dallas Clark, who played his role last season and who has since retired. The only issue is Pitta isn’t much of a blocker at 6-4 245.

The Ravens will use a bunch of two-tight end sets this season under new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. In order to do that, Gary Kubiak brought Owen Daniels over with him from Houston, where Kubiak was the head coach for 8 seasons. Daniels’ best years are behind him, as he goes into his age 32 season, and he can’t seem to stay healthy, which is why the Texans cut him, rather than paying him 4.5 million in his contract year.

Daniels hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2008, missed 11 games last season, and has missed 26 games over the past 5 seasons combined. He averaged just 1.21 yards per route run last season and he’s not much of a blocker, but he averaged 1.63 yards per route run in 2012 and 1.64 yards per route run in 2011. He’ll be an upgrade over Ed Dickson, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ dead last ranked tight end last season, leading the team in snaps played by a tight end with 658. The Ravens also used a 3rd round pick on Crockett Gillmore, a tight end out of Colorado State, though he doesn’t figure to have much of a role as a rookie. Overall, there’s more talent in the receiving corps than last year with Pitta healthy and Dickson gone, but the Steve Smith signing probably won’t work out and there are still a lot of issues.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Ravens brought in Gary Kubiak to be their offensive coordinator this off-season, after losing Caldwell to the Lions, where he will be the new head coach. Caldwell might help the Lions, but his absence is unlikely to hurt the Ravens, considering how bad they were last season on that side of the ball. It was a strange hire by the Lions. Kubiak, meanwhile, could easily help the Ravens in two areas they need it badly, on the offensive line and with their running game. A strong offensive line and running game were always the staple of the Kubiak’s Houston teams, even last season when the team struggled.

The Ravens really struggled last season upfront, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked offensive line in pass protection and their 27th ranked offensive line in run blocking. They lost Michael Oher to free agency at right tackle, which could be addition by subtraction considering how much he struggled last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. However, they really don’t have a suitable replacement as 2013 5th round pick Ricky Wagner is currently penciled in as the starter. He played 131 nondescript snaps last season as a rookie.

One option could be to move Kelechi Osemele back to right tackle from left guard and play either Jah Reid or Will Rackley at left guard, in attempt to find some sort of fix upfront. Reid and Rackley were both 3rd round picks in 2011, Reid by the Ravens and Rackley by the Jaguars, and both have struggled thus far in their career. Reid has struggled on 644 snaps in 3 seasons, while Rackley graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst guard in 2011 as a starter and 3rd worst guard in 2013 as a starter, with an entire season spent on injured reserve in between. If either of them has to see significant action, it’s a problem.

If Kelechi Osemele comes back healthy this season, it’ll be a big boost for them. Osemele, a 2012 2nd round pick, graded out above average at right tackle in the regular season as a rookie and above average at left guard in the post-season as a rookie. He struggled at left guard last season before going on injured reserve with a nagging back problem that probably slowed him down and caused his struggled, which forced AQ Shipley on to the field, where he graded out 66th out of 81 eligible guards last season.  Osemele is a versatile and talented young offensive lineman, but you always have to be worried with back problems.

Another thing that should be a big boost to them is the addition of Jeremy Zuttah at center, who they acquired from Tampa Bay for a 5th round pick and then gave a restructured 5-year, 18 million dollar deal with 6.5 million guaranteed. You can question how much they gave up for him in terms of draft pick compensation and financial compensation, but you can’t question that he’ll be better than Gino Gradkowski was last season, as the 2012 4th round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst center in his first full season as a starter, taking over for the retired Matt Birk.

He and AQ Shipley/Kelechi Osemele with a bad back made a terrible duo on the left side of the interior offensive line, particularly in opening up holes on the ground, which is a big part of the reason why they were so ineffective running the football. A healthy Osemele and Zuttah, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked center out of 35 eligible last season and who has graded out about average in each of the last 4 seasons at both guard and center, will help things on the ground, especially if Gary Kubiak’s tutelage is able to bring the best out of them.

The Ravens best offensive lineman will continue to be Eugene Monroe, who the Ravens acquired from the Jaguars mid-season last year and to whom they gave a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal this off-season. Monroe’s presence couldn’t save the offensive line last season, but it did make things better. Monroe has been a top-16 offensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out as #6 in 2011. He graded out 16th overall this season, but playing even better once he was traded to Baltimore. The Baltimore “version” of Monroe was the #12 offensive tackle this season. Even if we use his composite grade for the 2013 season, Monroe is still one of just 4 offensive tackles to grade out in the top-16 on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons (Joe Thomas, Michael Roos, Andrew Whitworth). He’s one of the better blindside protectors in the game and the Ravens got him on a great deal.

The Ravens also have a talented starter locked in at right guard in Marshal Yanda. Yanda had a down season last season, which was unfortunate because the Ravens really could have used his best, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked guard. Yanda has played right tackle and right guard in his career. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked guard in 2012 and their 3rd ranked guard in 2011. At right tackle, he ranked 6th in 2010 and 5th in 2007 as a 3rd round rookie.

In 2008, he played right guard and only played in 5 games because of injury, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked guard despite playing just 350 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher. In 2009, he was limited to 405 snaps and 7 starts at right guard because of some limited time at right tackle, where he played well, and some more injuries, but he still graded out 17th at his position, with no one grading out higher than him and playing fewer snaps.

Maybe moving him to right tackle wouldn’t be a bad idea considering it is a more valuable position, but the Ravens don’t seem to be considering that because of how good Yanda has been at right guard over the past 3 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Yanda has a very good chance of bouncing back from his “down” season. It’s an improved offensive line for the Ravens, with Osemele coming back, Zuttah coming in, and Kubiak taking over, but there are still some issues, particularly at right tackle. The terrible trio of Oher, Shipley, and Gradkowski shouldn’t be much of any issue this season though.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

An improved offensive line should help their running game, but they’ll also have to run better. It’ll be hard for them to run worse than they did last season, when they averaged 3.14 yards per carry, so they’ll be better by default, but they obviously will want to be a lot better. In 2012, they averaged 4.28 yards per carry. A return to that kind of form would obviously be helpful. A return to that kind of form would require a return to form from one-time star running back Ray Rice.

From 2009-2012, Rice averaged 277 carries for 1267 yards and 8 touchdowns and 70 catches for 610 yards and 2 touchdowns per season, an average of 4.57 yards per carry. The well-rounded feature back graded out as a top-10 running back in 3 of those 4 seasons, with the exclusion of 2010. However, in 2013, he rushed for 660 yards and 4 touchdowns on 214 carries (3.08 YPC) and caught 58 passes for 321 yards, showing a lack of explosiveness all around and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst running back. He broke 13 tackles on 272 touches and averaged 1.52 yards per carry after contact, giving him easily the league’s worst elusive rating.

Rice isn’t over the hill, only going into his age 27 season and his struggles last year are being attributed to overwork over the previous 4 seasons (1387 touches), a nagging hip injury, and him being overweight. He says the hip injury is behind him and he’s slimmed down this off-season and he’s been looking better in practice so a bounce back year isn’t out of the question, especially with a better offensive line and a new offensive system in place. However, he’s expected to face some sort of suspension for his alleged involvement in the assault of his now wife this off-season. That could hurt his chances at a bounce back year.

The player who can take the most advantage of Rice’s potential suspension is Bernard Pierce. Pierce, a 2012 3rd round pick, proved to be very valuable as a rookie en route to a Super Bowl victory, totaling 734 yards and a touchdown on 140 carries across the regular season and post-season, an average of 5.24 yards per carry. However, thanks to the blocking, an injury of his own, and his own struggles, Pierce averaged just 2.87 yards per carry last season and was unable to take advantage of a struggling Rice. He had a better elusive rating and graded out higher on Pro Football Focus than Rice though so more of his struggles can be attributed to the blocking.

Healthier, in a new system in his 3rd year in the league, Pierce could have a bounce back year. If he impresses as the feature back in Rice’s absence, he could remain in that role. Lorenzo Taliaferro was drafted in the 4th round to be insurance for both of them. There are still obviously questions about whether or not they can get back to 2012 form on the ground, but the arrow is pointing up, even if only by default, so they should be better on the ground.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Ravens’ defense was by far their better unit last season and one of the best defenses in the NFL. In spite of that, the Ravens still used their first three draft picks on defensive players. Timmy Jernigan was drafted in the 2nd round to replace to Arthur Jones, who signed as a free agent in Indianapolis this off-season. A 2010 5th round pick, Arthur Jones developed from a solid reserve in 2011 on 255 snaps to a solid starter on 536 snaps to a breakout player in 2013 on 530 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end.

He was overpaid though, getting 33 million over 5 years with 16 million guaranteed. At his best, he’s worth that kind of money, but he’s still just a one year wonder at this point in his career. There’s no guarantee he’ll continue to be this good. He’s never played more than 536 snaps in a season and he’s never been the key cog on Baltimore’s defensive line, rotating often and playing alongside Haloti Ngata. The Ravens had solid defensive line depth even after losing Jones and adding Jernigan to the mix makes things even better. Jernigan should play a fairly significant role as a rookie, playing 3-4 defensive end in base packages and 4-3 defensive tackle in sub packages.

The aforementioned Ngata should lead this defensive line in snaps played for the 5th straight season this year, playing at 3-4 nose tackle, 3-4 defensive end, and 4-3 defensive tackle. He played 714 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked defensive tackle. He’s graded in the top-18 among either defensive tackles or 3-4 defensive ends in each of the last 7 seasons, dating back to 2007. He maxed out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked defensive tackle in 2010 and 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2007. He’s primarily a run stopper at 6-4 340, but moves well for his size and generates some pass rush.

Brandon Williams, a 2013 3rd round pick, will have a bigger role this season after impressing on 93 snaps as a rookie. He’ll work primarily as a two-down player and can play both nose tackle and 3-4 defensive end in base packages. The 6-1 335 pounder is primarily a run stopper, but moves well for his size and got some Dontari Poe-lite comparisons in the pre-draft process. Chris Canty will also play a significant role again this season, after playing 579 snaps last season.

Going into his age 32 season, Canty’s best days are behind him, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. The versatile 6-7 295 pounder is capable of playing 4-3 defensive tackle and 3-4 defensive end and is equally good as a run stopper and a pass rusher. He’s graded out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including each of the last 4 seasons. He’s only played 879 snaps in the last 2 seasons combined and he’s getting up there in age, but he still should be an asset and an above average contributor in a rotational role, as a versatile defensive lineman capable of playing in any situation. The quartet of Ngata, Canty, Jernigan, and Williams will play most of the snaps on the 3-man defensive line this season and on the interior defensive line in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Ravens play a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense with a lot of 4-3 looks in sub packages, so edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil will play a fair amount of defensive end in pass rush situations. Dumervil had a fantastic year last year. He only was a part-time player, playing 574 snaps, 332 pass rush snaps, 176 run snaps, and 66 coverage snaps, but he was an incredibly efficient pass rusher. He had 10 sacks, 11 hits, and 40 hurries on 332 pass rush snaps, a pass rush rate of 18.4%. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season, with no one grading out higher and playing fewer snaps. He was also #1 at the position in pure pass rush grade.

Signing him to a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal last off-season was a very shrewd move by the Ravens. He was only a league average 4-3 defensive end in 2011 and 2012 with the Broncos, but, the last time he was in a system in which he didn’t have to play pure defensive end, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th best 3-4 outside linebacker in terms of pure pass rush grade, back in 2009. He’s never been a good run player no matter what system he’s played in, but he can get after the quarterback in the Ravens’ system and he serves an incredibly valuable part-time role for them as a result.

Courtney Upshaw plays the base outside linebacker role, actually playing more snaps last season than Dumervil did, playing 650. He didn’t fare well, grading out below average as both a pass rusher and a run stopper and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible overall. He was better as a rookie in 2012, when the 2nd round pick graded out slightly above average. He sucked as a pass rusher, grading out 2nd worst at his position in that aspect, but he exceled as a run stopper, grading out 2nd best at his position in that aspect. He’s had weight issues in his career, with his weight sometimes ballooning into the 290s, but, as long as he’s in despite shape, he should be alright as a part-time run stopping linebacker in a role that’s far less important than Dumervil’s.

Terrell Suggs will continue to play every down on the other side in that hybrid rush linebacker/defensive end role. Suggs restructured his contract this off-season, coming off of a down year, but it was still a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal with 16 million guaranteed. He still had a good year last year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, grading out average as a pass rusher and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 3-4 outside linebacker, but he wasn’t as good he was previously was, when he was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2011 and #7 ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2010. He’s now going into his age 32 season, so his best days are probably behind him, and he could have ruined his body playing through two serious injuries in 2012, when graded out below average. He should still be an asset though.

I mentioned earlier that the Ravens used their first 3 draft picks on defensive players, despite their defensive dominance last year. Their first round pick was on middle linebacker CJ Mosley out of Alabama, drafted 17th overall. It was a bit of a weird pick because the Ravens had just re-signed Daryl Smith to a 4-year deal worth up to 16.1 million and they also had Arthur Brown, a 2013 2nd round pick, waiting in the wings ready for a bigger role and Josh Bynes, who flashed in a part-time role in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker on 465 snaps played.

Still, Mosley will immediately play every down at middle linebacker next to Smith, with Brown and Bynes working as backups. Smith is deserving of his new contract. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked middle linebacker last season, after the Ravens signed him to a cheap one-year deal late last off-season. The reason he was available so late in the off-season was because he missed 14 games and only played 117 snaps the previous season because of injury. However, this type of strong play is nothing new from him, as he graded out above average in every season but one in Jacksonville from 2007-2011, playing both middle and outside linebacker. In his last healthy season before this year, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011. He’s now going into his age 32 season, but he should still be an above average starter, especially excelling in coverage.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Terrell Suggs wasn’t the only player that the Ravens had returning from injury last season. While Suggs was returning from an injury plagued season which he still played through, Lardarius Webb was coming back from a torn ACL that ended his 2012 season. He wasn’t quite his top self in 2013, as is often the case after an injury like that, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked cornerback. At his best, he’s one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, grading out 4th in 2011 before that 2012 injury. The 2009 3rd round pick was very impressive as a part-time player in 2009 and 2010 as well and played well before going down with injury in 2012. He’s only played 2 full seasons in the NFL as a starter, but he’s only going into his age 29 season and could easily bounce back to top form this season.

Webb will continue to start opposite Jimmy Smith, a 2011 1st round pick who broke out last season after failing to establish himself as a solid starter in his first 2 seasons in the NFL. He flashed as a rookie on 256 snaps and then struggled mightily in 2012 on 474 snaps. Last season, he graded out above average, which convinced the Ravens to pick up with 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. The Ravens did lose Corey Graham this off-season though. He was a solid 3rd cornerback who grade out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, on 588 snaps and 703 snaps respectively, as a slot specialist. He’ll be replaced internally by Chykie Brown, who has failed to impress on 283 career snaps in 3 seasons since going in the 5th round in 2011. It’s an obvious downgrade.

At safety, the Ravens lost both Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard before last season and they replaced them by getting younger at one spot, drafting Matt Elam in the first round, and by bringing in a seemingly comparable veteran at the other spot, signing Michael Huff to replace Bernard Pollard. Elam graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in coverage, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league. The Ravens are on record saying that they want him to play closer to the line of scrimmage this season, which would highlight his abilities against the run more. He graded out above average against the run last season, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in coverage.

Huff didn’t work out at all though, as the veteran struggled on 97 snaps before getting benched and cut, even though the Ravens had already shelled out about 2.5 million dollars to him. He eventually ended up in Denver, where he played 42 snaps, and now remains unsigned on the open market, going into his age 31 season. Fortunately for the Ravens, veteran journeyman James Ihedigbo stepped up as the starter in place of Huff last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked safety. Unfortunately for the Ravens, Ihedigbo signed with the Lions this off-season.

In order to replace him, the Ravens signed veteran Darian Stewart. Stewart, a 2010 undrafted free agent, struggled in 4 seasons in St. Louis and doesn’t seem like a viable starting option. He played just 196 snaps as a rookie, struggled mightily as a starter in 2011, grading out 83rd out of 87 eligible safeties, and then played just 82 snaps in 2012 as a result. In 2013, he was forced to play 583 snaps because of an injury to TJ McDonald and graded out slightly below average, though better than 2011. The Ravens used a 3rd round pick on Terrence Brooks as competition. Whoever starts, they’ll play the deeper safety position with Elam playing closer to the line of scrimmage, but it should be a position of weakness on an otherwise very strong defense.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The offense was clearly the problem for the Ravens last season, but they still used their first 3 draft picks on defense. Why? Well, they brought in Timmy Jernigan to replace the departed Arthur Jones and Terrence Brooks to replace the departed James Ihedigbo. Both should be downgrades as a rookie. They also brought in CJ Mosley at middle linebacker even though it wasn’t a position of need, which was a strange pick. They also were unable to replace the departed Corey Graham. Their defense is unlikely to be as good as it was last season, especially since they suffered almost no injuries defensively last season.

Offensively, they did suffer injuries last season and they’ll get Kelechi Osemele and Dennis Pitta back from serious injuries, which will help their offense, but, at the same time, they didn’t have an unreasonable amount of injuries offensively last season and they had the 9th fewest adjusted games lost in the NFL overall. Adding Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator and Owen Daniels and Jeremy Zuttah at tight end and center should also help a little bit, and their running game should be better by default, but the addition of Steve Smith is unlikely to pan out. The Ravens don’t seem much more talented than they were last season and, while they’re a decent team, it’s likely they’ll be on the outside looking in at the playoffs once again this season. I’ll have an official wins prediction at the end of all my previews.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 242014
 

The Chiefs cut Brandon Flowers earlier this month in order to save 7.5 million in cash, after he had a rough 2013 season in which he graded out 87th out of 110 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He was especially bad in coverage, grading out 96th in pure coverage grade, allowing 64 completions on 96 attempts (66.7%) for 846 yards (8.81 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and an interception, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 7 penalties. He was a really poor fit for new defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s coverage scheme.

Still, he generated a lot of attention over the past couple of weeks on the open market and rightfully so. Flowers was once one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He was a top-7 cornerback in the NFL on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out at #2 in 2010. No other cornerback was also in the top-7 in each of those 4 seasons. For some reason, he never made the Pro-Bowl until last season, when he was terrible. Only going into his age 28 season, Flowers could easily recapture his old form in a new system.

The Chargers landed him with this deal, which is worth up to 5 million over 1 season with 3 million guaranteed. That’s a lot of money for someone this late in the off-season, but he deserves it and this deal will allow him to test the market next off-season, still only going into his age 29 season. If he has a bounce back year, he could land a very lucrative multi-year deal. For the Chargers, this is a fantastic move for arguably the most cornerback needy team in the NFL.

The Chargers had probably the league’s worst cornerbacks last season, a huge part of the reason why their defense was so awful last season, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 75.36% rate, 28th in the NFL. Shareece Wright, Richard Marshall, Derek Cox, and Johnny Patrick were their top-4 cornerbacks last season. They ranked 102th, 101st, 104th, and 94th respectively out of 110 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Now the Chargers have added Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft and Brandon Flowers through free agency. If Flowers has a vintage year, the Chargers could have a halfway decent defense and could push to make the playoffs again, even if their offense isn’t as dominant again, despite a tougher schedule.

Grade: A

Jun 242014
 

Quarterback

I thought the Bengals were one of the best teams in the NFL going into the playoffs last season and were a good sleeper candidate to make a Super Bowl run (though their season long inability to win on the road was concerning). They finished the regular season 3rd in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential at 7.81%, behind only Denver and New Orleans, thanks to a league best defense that only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 65.68% rate and an above average offense that moved the chains at a 73.49% rate, 12th in the NFL.

They won 11 games and, unlike most other teams that won a large amount of games, they weren’t overly reliant on winning the turnover battle to do it, as they were only +1 in turnover margin. Turnover margins are really unpredictable and inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0.

Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38. The fact that the Bengals were having success without being completely reliant on winning the turnover battle seemed to be a good thing for them going into the post-season.

However, turnovers, the great equalizer, got the best of them in the post-season as the Chargers forced 4 turnovers and didn’t commit one of their own en route to a 27-10 victory in Cincinnati, where the Bengals hadn’t lost all season. You can say this is proof that the Bengals were a flawed team going into the playoffs because of their inability to consistently win the turnover battle, but, again, this is something that is very unpredictable. In fact, the Chargers, who forced 4 turnovers in that game, had forced just 17 in the entire regular season.

A lot of the blame was put on quarterback Andy Dalton and rightfully so. After all, Dalton committed 3 of those 4 turnovers (2 interceptions and a lost fumble). He completed 29 of 51 for 334 yards, a touchdown, and those 2 picks. Dalton is now 70 of 123 for 718 yards, 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions in 3 career playoff games, as Dalton’s first 3 years in the NFL have all ended the same way, with a loss in the first round of the playoffs.

What’s not rightfully so is judging Dalton’s entire career on those 3 games and ignoring the 48 regular season games he’s played. It’s way too small of a sample size to go on and I don’t really buy the notion that some guys randomly become worse quarterbacks in the playoffs. If he does, we definitely don’t have enough evidence yet to definitively prove that. Besides, Dalton and the Bengals were only favored and at home in one of those three games.

Dalton has completed 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.97 YPA, 80 touchdowns, and 49 interceptions in 3 regular seasons in the league, making all 48 starts. One of his issues is his inconsistency. He had 5 games in which he graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus last season and 7 games in which he graded out well below average, finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback. Dalton completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 8.16 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in the Bengals’ 11 wins last season, a QB rating of 101.8. Meanwhile, in 5 losses, he completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 5.96 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, a QB rating of 67.7. And then, of course, there was his terrible game in the post-season.

It might not seem like Dalton is the type of quarterback that can catch fire and go on a run to a Super Bowl victory with a strong supporting cast right now, but that’s just because he hasn’t done it yet. I think he’s capable of getting hot for a stretch and leading this team to a Super Bowl victory. It didn’t look like Eli Manning or Joe Flacco could do that before they did it, but they still did. Dalton’s regular season track record is comparable to those two and, again, unless you believe that he randomly becomes a worse quarterback in the playoffs, there’s no reason to believe he couldn’t win a Super Bowl.

Eli Manning hadn’t won a playoff game through 3 seasons in the league, but he went all the way to win the Super Bowl in his 4th year in the league. In fact, Manning has never won a playoff game in a season he didn’t win the Super Bowl. In his first 3 years in the league, Manning completed 54.1% of his passes for an average of 6.31 YPA, 54 touchdowns, and 44 interceptions. It was a slightly different passing league back then and you can argue he didn’t have as good of weapons as Dalton has, but they’re clearly inferior numbers. Even his 4th season in the league didn’t appear to be the start of anything great, as he completed 56.1% of his passes for an average of 6.31 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions before a strong post-season, which ended in a Super Bowl victory.

Things won’t necessarily work out like this for Dalton, but I think the notions that you need a so called “elite” quarterback to win a Super Bowl and that you some quarterbacks randomly become worse in the playoffs are both false. Andy Dalton isn’t a top-10 quarterback, but he’s in the 15 or so range and the Bengals have a very strong supporting cast. The calls for Dalton to be benched or replaced this off-season were absurd and he’ll have every opportunity to prove himself as the quarterback of the future for this team in his contract year this year. The Bengals are on my short list of teams that could win the Super Bowl. The fact that they are 32-1 to win the Super Bowl right now seems like a cheap bet that much more likely than 32-1 will end up paying dividends.

Grade: B

Running Backs

One thing that could derail the Bengals in the quest for that Super Bowl is that they lost both their offensive and defensive coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, to head coaching jobs this off-season. Gruden is less likely to be missed. He was a good coordinator, but he’ll be replaced by former running backs coach Hue Jackson, who has some experience as a both an offensive coordinator and a head coach in the NFL.

One major change that he’ll make is that the Bengals are going to become more run heavy. Under Gruden, they were a pass heavy offense that used a lot of quick, short throws to act as a running game. Jackson is going to make them a run heavy offense and use the run to set up the deep pass. Andy Dalton has 47 touchdowns to 29 interceptions on passes 10+ yards downfield in his career, so this is something he can handle. The Bengals attempted 587 passes last season to 481 runs and Dalton has attempted at least 516 passes in every season he’s been in the league. There could be closer to a 50/50 split this season, especially if the defense continues to play as well as it has over the past couple of seasons.

This is great news for Giovani Bernard, a 2013 2nd round rookie who was very impressive as a rookie. Bernard only had 170 carries as a rookie, rushing for 695 yards and 5 touchdowns, an average of 4.09 yards per carry, but he also caught 56 passes for 514 yards and another 3 touchdowns. One of the more explosive players in space in the NFL, Bernard graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked running back overall and their 3rd ranked running back in pass catching grade.

Bernard might not have quite as many catches this season, but there will be more opportunity for him to carry the ball in his 2nd year in the league. He’s the lead back and could have 300+ touches. Darren McFadden, a running back with a similar style skill set, but less career success, was great under Hue Jackson, rushing for 1771 yards on 336 carries, an average of 5.27 YPA, catching 66 passes for 661 yards and scoring 15 times total in 20 games from 2010-2011 under offensive coordinator and eventual head coach Hue Jackson.

Bernard profiled similar to Ray Rice coming out of college and Rice had a similar rookie year, rushing for 454 yards on 107 carries and catching 33 passes for 273 yards. Rice didn’t break out until his 2nd year in the league, when he rushed for 1339 yards and 7 touchdowns on 254 carries and caught 78 passes for 702 yards and another touchdown, after he had a full year in an NFL training system to add weight. Bernard could have a similar year in his 2nd year in the league.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis actually led the team in carries last season, but now he’s not even a lock for the roster. He rushed for just 756 yards and 7 touchdowns on 220 carries last season, an average of 3.44 YPC, and he was Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked running back out of 55 eligible. He’s now averaged fewer than 4 yards per carry in each of his last 3 seasons in the league. His career average is 3.88 yards per carry on 1008 carries and he has just 52 catches in 6 seasons in the league. He has one carry for longer than 33 yards in his career. He rarely fumbles and he can pick up yards that are blocked, but that’s about it.

His biggest asset to the team last season was his abilities as a goal line back at 5-11 220, making him, in that sense, a good complement to the 5-10 200 pound Bernard, but the Bengals drafted Jeremy Hill in the 2nd round to be that big back. Going into his age 29 season, BJGE simply isn’t worth his non-guaranteed 2.5 million dollar salary. Hill is a talented 6-1 235 pounder and will serve as an upgraded complement to Bernard, because he’s more than just a goal line back, though he won’t have the same amount of carries as BJGE had last season. This is Bernard’s backfield now.

Grade: B+

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

One other change that Hue Jackson is going to make to the offense is that he’s going to make Marvin Jones an every down player and stop messing around with lesser talents like Mohamed Sanu. Jones had a breakout game week 8 against the Jets, catching all 8 of his targets for 122 yards and 4 touchdowns on just 13 pass routes run. However, even that didn’t turn him into an every down player as he played fewer than 60% of the team’s offensive snaps in 5 of the Bengals’ 8 final regular season games.

Jones finished the season with 51 catches for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns on 377 routes run, an impressive 1.89 yards per route run. Meanwhile, Mohamed Sanu caught 47 passes for 455 yards and 2 touchdowns on 463 routes run, an average of 0.98 yards per route run. Jones also caught 8 passes for 130 yards on 11 targets (72.7%) and 51 routes run (2.55 yards per route run). He played 77.8% of the Bengals snaps played in that game, a preview of the types of things he can do in the future as an every down wide receiver.

Gruden probably liked Sanu because he was there when the Bengals drafted him higher (3rd round vs. 5th round for Jones in 2012), but Jones is clearly the better player and Jackson won’t be afraid to make him an every down starter opposite AJ Green and relegate Sanu to a much smaller role as a slot receiver in a run heavy offense. There’s also talk that the Bengals could be using Sanu in a sort of hybrid h-back/fullback role, like Hue Jackson did with Marcel Reece in Oakland. The 6-1 211 pound Sanu is a willing blocker who has some experience carrying the football (115 collegiate carries and 9 as a pro).

Jones might not be quite as efficient this season in a larger role because he’ll see more attention from the defense and be more tired out, but he’ll have plenty of one-on-one opportunities opposite AJ Green. He could easily have a 3rd year breakout year and push for 1000+ yards. Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver last season on 555 total snaps and their 9th ranked in terms of pass pure catching grade. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. Come season’s end, Green and Jones could be talked about as one of the better wide receiver duos in the NFL.

Jones actually graded out slightly better than Green did last season, as Green graded out 17th and 14th in pure pass catching grade. Green is probably the better overall player and he has the better track record, but it just shows what kind of player Jones can become. Green has been Pro Football Focus’ 22nd, 8th, and 14th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade in his first 3 seasons in the league respectively. Green has averaged 2.25 yards per route run in his career. He’s only caught 59.0% of his career targets and had 26 drops, 19 penalties, and 22 interceptions when thrown to throughout his career, so he has some issues that don’t show up on a traditional stat sheet, but he’s still one of the better wide receivers in the game. The Bengals already picked up his 5th year option for 2015, which was a no brainer. Expect a lucrative extension soon.

One reason a run heavier offense might make sense to the Bengals is it would allow them to run their two former first round pick tight ends on the field at the same time more often, something they already did a fair amount of last season. Jermaine Gresham was drafted in the first round in 2010 and they added Tyler Eifert in the first round in 2013. Gresham has largely been a bust. His receiving numbers aren’t terrible, as he’s caught 218 passes for 2262 yards and 19 touchdowns in 59 games in 4 seasons, but he’s a terrible run blocker who has committed 19 penalties in the last 2 seasons combined, easily most in the NFL among tight ends over that stretch. His 1.37 yards per route run in his career is pretty mediocre as well. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end last season and he was their worst ranked tight end in 2012. He’s graded out below average in 3 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league.

Now going into his contract year, it seems pretty unlikely that the Bengals will bring him back for 2015 and beyond, with Eifert waiting in the wings as a potential long-term every down starting tight end. Eifert wasn’t flashy as a rookie, catching 39 passes for 445 yards and 2 touchdowns on 303 routes run, an average 1.47 yards per route run, struggling as a run blocker, and overall grading out slightly below average on 681 snaps. He could be better and have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league in 2014.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Bengals’ offensive line is their best offensive unit, even after losing Anthony Collins to free agency this off-season. Collins signed a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal with 15 million guaranteed with the Buccaneers. He’s graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in every season since 2009. In 2013, he was given his biggest chance yet, with Andrew Whitworth moving to left guard in place of the injured Clint Boling and Anthony Collins taking over at left tackle. Collins played a career high 592 snaps and didn’t allow a sack or quarterback hit all season, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked offensive tackle despite the limited action.

Still, he was essentially their 6th offensive lineman last season, only on the field because of injury to Clint Boling, so it’s not going to be that big of a loss. That should tell you how talented this unit is upfront. Boling is a solid starter in his own right, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons since the 2011 4th round pick took over as a starter at the start of the 2012 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked guard last season and their 22nd ranked guard in 2012. He also didn’t allow a sack or a quarterback hit last season, playing 788 snaps.

Andrew Whitworth is their most talented offensive lineman and coming off arguably the best season of his career. Playing 587 snaps at left tackle and 350 snaps at guard, he was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked offensive tackle and 7th ranked guard, with no one at either position playing fewer snaps than him and graded out better. His composite grade would have been 2nd at both tackle and guard last season.

While this was the first extended time he had played at guard since 2008, this kind of dominance is nothing new for him. Since taking over at left tackle in 2009, Whitworth didn’t miss a start from 2009-2012 and graded out as a top-12 offensive tackle in every season from 2009-2012, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked offensive tackle in 2010. He was outside of the top-12 last season, but only because he spent time at guard. He was still just as dominant, if not more so, last season, as compared to that 2009-2012 stretch. Even still, Joe Thomas is the only other offensive tackle to grade out in the top-15 in each of the last 5 seasons. Whitworth is going into his age 33 season, which is a concern, but, considering how well he played last season, I’m not too concerned yet.

At right tackle, there was concern going into last season that Andre Smith would coast once he received the 3-year, 18 million dollar deal he got from the Bengals to re-sign in the previous off-season. In fact, that concern is part of the reason why he didn’t get a bigger contract than that. Smith had weight and motivation concerns coming out of college and struggled mightily in his first 2 seasons in the league. The Bengals exercised an option in his contract after his 2nd season in the league to cut it from a 6-year to a 4-year deal. That seemed to wake him up, as he graded out 28th among offensive tackles in 2011 and 4th in 2012. There was concern that he’d go back to coasting once he got paid, but he graded out 20th in 2013, so he definitely quelled some of those concerns. Now with 3 straight solid seasons on his resume, the naturally talented right tackle seems poised for another strong year.

They Bengals are also strong at right guard with Kevin Zeitler, a 2012 1st round pick who is going into his 3rd year in the league. He wasn’t as good in 2013 as he was in 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked guard. He graded out 26th in 2013 and missed 4 games. Now going into his 3rd year in the league, he could easily have a bounce back year. Either way, there’s nothing to suggest that he won’t have another solid year at the very least.

The only position of weakness the Bengals have on the offensive line is at center. The Bengals cut Kyle Cook, a mediocre starting center, this off-season, simply because he wasn’t living up to his salary and he’s yet to be signed on the open market. Mike Pollak is penciled in as the starter right now. The veteran journeyman was impressive in limited action last season, 374 snaps, but there’s no guarantee he can be good again. He’s pretty marginal throughout his career and he didn’t play a snap in 2012. If he struggles, Russell Bodine, a 4th round rookie, he could get some snaps. Trevor Robinson, a 2012 undrafted free agent who has struggled through 535 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, is also in the mix.

The loss of Collins hurts their depth, but the Bengals still have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. Andy Dalton was pressured on just 25.2% of his drop backs last season, 2nd fewest in the NFL behind only Peyton Manning. Part of this had to do with the fact that Dalton had the quickest release in the NFL at an average of 2.24 seconds from snap to throw. Still, the Bengals were #1 on Pro Football Focus in team pass blocking grade (and 12th in run blocking grade), which is good because Dalton struggles under pressure, completing 38.5% of his passes under pressure last season, 3rd worst in the NFL. He was at 39.4% in 2012 and 38.6% as a rookie. Their pass protection will be even more important this season as they move to more of a downfield throw offense. They’ll have to block for longer as a result, but they should be up to the task.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Bengals also lost their defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer. He’ll be replaced internally with Paul Guenther, who has been with the team as an assistant since 2005, last year serving as the linebackers coach. I like that they promoted internally, but they definitely will miss Mike Zimmer, who is one of the most accomplished defensive coordinators in the NFL and fully deserved his new job as the head coach in Minnesota.

The Bengals will also miss Michael Johnson defensively, as the defensive end signed with the Buccaneers this off-season. Johnson is an incredibly athletic edge rusher who went in the 3rd round out of Georgia Tech in 2009 because a lot of his tape didn’t match his athleticism. He eventually put everything together in 2012 in the contract year of his rookie deal, as he recorded 13 sacks and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 4-3 defensive end. The Bengals franchise tagged him instead of giving him a long-term deal because they wanted him to prove it again in 2013.

At first glance, he doesn’t appear to have proven it, recording just 5 sacks, but he also added 16 quarterback hits and 40 quarterback hurries, to go with 7 batted passes. He had a 10.6% pass rush rate on 575 pass rush snaps in 2013 and in 2012 he had 13 sacks, 8 hits, and 34 hurries on 533 pass rush snaps, a rate of 10.3%, which was actually lower than 2013. Add in the fact that he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run and you have a guy who was much better than his raw sack totals. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 defensive end. That’s obviously going to be hard to replace.

The man who they are going to try to replace him with is 2013 2nd round pick Margus Hunt. If his rookie year was any indication, that’s not going to go well. Hunt would have been Pro Football Focus’ 11th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end if he had been eligible last season, despite only playing 164 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower. He was an old rookie, so he’s already going into his age 27 season, but he was also incredibly raw coming out of SMU. The Estonian former junior world record holder in discus has only been playing football for 5 seasons. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league and he has a ton of natural talent, but there are obviously no guarantees. He’s the definition of boom or bust.

He probably won’t come close to playing the 922 snaps that Johnson played last season either way though. He’ll start, but the Bengals have some other players who will play snaps. Wallace Gilberry played 520 snaps in a rotational role last season and graded out below average. He’s been a mediocre reserve thus far in his career and I don’t see that really changing. Will Clarke, meanwhile, is a 3rd round rookie who could see some snaps as a rookie.

Robert Geathers is a veteran option going into his age 31 season coming off of a season ending injury who shouldn’t even be on the roster, especially not at his scheduled 2.5 million dollar salary. He’s graded out well below average in every season dating back in 2008. He was a bottom-5 4-3 defensive end in 2009, 2010, and 2012 and a bottom-10 defensive end in 2011. He only played 22 snaps last season because of injury. He might not make the final roster because of his salary, but, if he does, I could see them giving him a role again for some reason.

Carlos Dunlap will remain an every down defensive end on the other side. Dunlap has graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 and he’s played an increasing number of snaps in every season, going from 287 snaps to 423 snaps to 601 snaps to 949 snaps last season. His best season was 2011, when he graded out 4th at his position despite only playing 423 snaps. No one graded out higher and played fewer snaps. He was 8th in 2012 and 9th in 2013 and should have another strong season this year, provided he doesn’t miss Mike Zimmer too much.

One “addition” for the Bengals could be defensive tackle Geno Atkins. I say “could” because Atkins might not be 100% in his first season back from a torn ACL that ended his season in the Bengals’ 9th game of the season. When at his best, Atkins is one of the best defensive players in the game and probably the best defensive tackle in the game. As a 4th round rookie in 2010, Atkins graded out 11th on Pro Football Focus 356 snaps and he ranked 2nd in 2011 and 1st in 2012, after taking over an every down player. Atkins was by far the top defensive tackle in 2012 and only JJ Watt had a better grade at any position, helping cement Atkins as one of the top few players in the NFL regardless of position.

He looked like he was on his way to another dominant season in 2013 before the injury and he still graded out 11th, despite playing just 458 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher than him. He still has age on his side, going into only his age 26 season, but an ACL tear sometimes takes a year to come back from fully and it doesn’t help that he lost his defensive coordinator. Still, having him on the field for the whole season, barring any re-injury, should help this defensive line.

The bigger issue is next to Geno Atkins at defensive tackle. Domata Peko will probably get the lion’s share of the snaps at the position because, even though he struggled mightily last season and even though he’s going into his age 30 season, the Bengals still gave him a 2-year, 9 million dollar extension this off-season, rather than cutting him and saving 4.125 million in cash and cap space. Peko was Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked defensive tackle last season and he hasn’t graded out above average in a season since 2007. Brandon Thompson, a 2012 3rd round pick, will also be in the mix. He graded out below average on 389 snaps last season after Atkins got hurt. He played 23 snaps as a rookie. Devon Still was also drafted in 2012, going in the 2nd round, but he’s only played 289 snaps in 2 seasons combined, struggling to get on the field even when there has been opportunity.

The opposite defensive tackle could be just a two-down role though because, like last season, one of their defensive ends could move inside to defensive tackle on passing downs. That would allow them to get Carlos Dunlap, Margus Hunt, and Wallace Gilberry on the field at the same time if they wanted to, rather than having the other defensive tackle play every down. It’s a trade-off and there might not be a right answer as the Bengals feel the loss of Johnson. Dunlap and Atkins are great, but the latter is coming off of a serious injury, their depth is questionable, and the loss of Mike Zimmer as defensive coordinator could really hurt.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Another heavily talented defender that the Bengals have is Vontaze Burfict. Burfict is an every down outside linebacker who broke out last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season, in his 2nd year in the league. The Arizona State product was heavily recruited out of high school and profiled as a potential 1st round pick going into his junior season in 2011, but he had a down year, a poor combine, and did not get good recommendations from his coaches, causing him to go undrafted.

However, he’s shown his natural talent in Cincinnati, becoming a starter in week 3 of his rookie season, grading out about average as a rookie and then dominating last season. He’s still a one year wonder, which is especially a concern given his history. We don’t know how he’ll handle his success, even though he hasn’t gotten paid yet. There’s also concern that he lost his defensive coordinator. However, only going into his age 24 season, he could easily have another dominant season as an every down linebacker. He’s played outside as a professional, but his natural position is middle linebacker and there’s some talk he could move back there and play every down there this season.

The reason for that is that middle linebacker Rey Maualuga has been struggling mightily over the past 3 seasons, grading out 37th out of 51 eligible middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2011, dead last in 2012, and 38th out of 55 eligible last season. For some reason, the Bengals gave him a 2-year, 6.5 million dollar deal last off-season, after an awful season, but, even though he’s owed 2.25 million this season, he could still be demoted to two-down work and/or moved to the outside.

The 3rd linebacker job is also up for grabs. James Harrison played it last season, thriving in a two-down role, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker against the run, despite only playing 383 snaps. Harrison is now going into his age 36 season and still available on the open market. The Bengals could bring him back on a one-year minimum deal, but there are no guarantees that he can still be successful at his age. He may just opt to retire anyway.

Assuming Harrison isn’t back, it’s looks like it’s a three-way battle for the 3rd linebacker job. Vincent Rey is probably the best of the bunch. The 2010 undrafted free agent played 113 nondescript snaps in 3 seasons from 2010-2012, but he excelled last season on 348 snaps, playing some backup snaps and playing every snap but 5 at middle linebacker in the 3 games that Rey Maualuga missed. Despite only playing 324 snaps at middle linebacker, Rey graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker last season, with no one playing fewer snaps and graded out higher. He can also play outside linebacker, but that’s not where he had his success last season.

The Bengals gave Rey a 2-year, 4.2 million dollar deal this off-season and they could have him play every down at middle linebacker and have Maualuga play only in sub packages outside. The other options are Jayson DiManche and Emmanuel Lamur. DiManche played 47 nondescript snaps last season as an undrafted free agent rookie, while Lamur flashed on 104 snaps as an undrafted free agent rookie, but missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. Rey is the best option of the 3.

Grade: B

Secondary

Another “addition” that could help the Bengals is Leon Hall, who only played 276 snaps last season, before tearing his Achilles. He was dominant before getting hurt though as he would have graded out 17th among cornerbacks had he been eligible, despite his limited snap count. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. He allowed 18 completions on 36 attempts (50.0%) for 153 yards (4.25 YPA), a touchdown, and an interception, deflecting 3 passes and not committing a single penalty. He’s a very good cornerback when healthy, grading out 3rd in 2009 among cornerbacks and 21st in 2010.

His return might not help them much though because he’s dealing with his 2nd torn Achilles in 3 seasons and going into his age 30 season. He tore his Achilles midway through the 2011 season as well and wasn’t quite the same in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked cornerback, and missing some time with related leg problems. He was better in 2013, but then got reinjured and, especially considering his age, now it’s unclear what kind of explosiveness he’ll have upon returning. He might bounce back, but it could take him a little bit.

The Bengals’ other top 2 cornerbacks are also going into their age 30+ seasons, Adam Jones and Terence Newman. The former is going into his age 31 season. He was the 6th overall pick in 2005 by the Titans, but he had his career derailed by an off-the-field incident that got him suspended for the entire 2007 season. He then ended up in Dallas in 2008 and then out of the league in 2009. However, he’s had a revival over the past 4 seasons in Cincinnati, grading out above average in each of the last 4 seasons. He did it first playing a combined 616 snaps from 2011-2012, but he’s been a key contributor over the past 2 seasons, grading out 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2012 on 608 snaps and 29th in 2013 on 994 snaps. He’s a naturally talented cornerback, but the concern is that his revival was possibly due to Mike Zimmer’s presence, which is especially a concern when you consider he’s on the wrong side of 30.

Terence Newman is a bigger concern, as he’s going into his age 36 season. Newman has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons with Cincinnati, grading out 19th in 2012 and 33rd in 2013. The issue is he looked close to done when the Bengals signed him, grading out below average in each of his final 2 years in Dallas, including 95th out of 109 eligible in 2011. Being reunited with his former Dallas defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati definitely helped him, but now with Zimmer gone and his age 36 season up next, Newman could really see his abilities fall off this season.

Because of the age of their top-3 cornerbacks, the Bengals used their first round pick on Darqueze Dennard out of Michigan State. He probably won’t play much as a rookie, which is good because cornerback usually take a year or two to get adjusted, but he’s valuable to have waiting in the wings. Also waiting in the wings is 2012 1st round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, who has yet to be able to establish himself in 2 years in his career thus far. He’s played 352 disappointing snaps thus far. He was Pro Football Focus’ 98th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible last season, despite only playing 309 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out lower. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league and push Newman for a significant role, but there are no guarantees he can be an asset for them on the field.

Things are more set at safety, where George Iloka and Reggie Nelson started last season and where they will begin the season as starters again this season. Iloka was in his first year as a starter last year, after not playing a defensive snap as a 5th round rookie in 2012. Iloka graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked safety. We’ll see if he can repeat that in his 2nd year as a starter. Nelson also graded out above average, grading out 18th among safeties. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 4 seasons since the one-time 1st round pick bust came to Cincinnati from Jacksonville before the 2010 season. His best season was 2012, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Last season, even though they fell short in one game in the playoffs, in which they lost the turnover battle by 4, the Bengals were still one of the better teams in the NFL when you look at their whole body of work. They’ve had some losses this off-season, losing offensive tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson, both on big deals to the Buccaneers and losing both offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to head coaching jobs. They will get Geno Atkins and Leon Hall back from injuries, but it’s unclear if they’ll be 100%. They also had the fourth fewest adjusted games lost last season so, while they did lose top players to injury, they didn’t have unreasonably bad injury luck.

However, this is still one of the more talented teams in the NFL. Losing their coordinators is the wild card, as it’s tough to know exactly how much that will negatively affect them, but new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson has experience and new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is an internal promotion and a Zimmer disciple. They are still on a short list of about 6, 7, 8 teams that I think can win the Super Bowl. Obviously Andy Dalton will have to play better in the post-season than he has in the past for them to do so, but I think he’s capable. They probably won’t end up being my Super Bowl pick, but getting them at 32-1 on a cheap bet might not be a bad idea. I’ll have official predictions after I’m done with every team’s preview.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 212014
 

Quarterback

The Jets obviously needed to make some changes going into 2013, after an embarrassing 6-10 season in which the focus revolved around the mismanaged quarterback situation with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Tebow was let go in the off-season and the Jets used a 2nd round pick on Geno Smith to compete with Mark Sanchez for the starting job. Sanchez ended up injuring his shoulder in the pre-season and missing the whole season, giving Geno Smith the opportunity to start all 16 games and give the Jets, at the very least, a much needed new face for the franchise.

The Jets also fired GM Mike Tannenbaum, who grossly mismanaged their salary cap, and brought in John Idzik. Purely looking at record, it appears that the changes were helpful, as the Jets improved to 8-8 last season. However, that record is misleading. They went 5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less and had a points differential of -97 (7th worst in the NFL) and 5.4 Pythagorean wins. They finished the season 25th in rate of moving the chains differential and 24th in DVOA. They were essentially a 5-11 team that managed to win 8 games.

The biggest reason for this was their offensive ineptitude, as they ranked 29th in the NFL, moving the chains at a 65.59% rate. That helped waste a strong performance by their defense, as they ranked 12th, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 69.64% rate. They ranked 25th overall with a differential of -4.05%. The quarterback position was their biggest problem as Geno Smith was arguably the worst quarterback in the NFL last season, certainly the worst quarterback in the NFL who started all 16 games.

Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked quarterback and their worst ranked quarterback in pure passing grade. He completed 55.8% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions, a QB rating of 66.5. For comparison, Mark Sanchez completed 54.3% of his passes for an average of 6.36 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions in 2012, a QB rating of 66.9, better than Smith’s. The only redeeming quality Smith showed last season was his rushing ability, as he rushed for 366 yards and 6 touchdowns on 72 carries, an average of 5.08 yards per attempt. He graded out above average in this aspect on Pro Football Focus.

Smith, a 2013 2nd round pick, could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. After all, the history of quarterbacks drafted outside of the first round over the past decade or two is not promising. Recent successes of Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, and Russell Wilson as quarterbacks drafted outside of the first round are the exception to the rule. Of the 26 quarterbacks drafted in the 2nd-3rd round from 2000-2010, only two of them have ever made a Pro-Bowl.

After Drew Brees and Matt Schaub, the next best quarterbacks in terms of career QB rating include the likes of Tarvaris Jackson, Josh McCown, Kevin Kolb, and Chad Henne. For every Wilson, Dalton, or Kaepernick, there are at least three Andrew Walters, David Greenes, Jimmy Clausens, and Drew Stantons. Quarterbacks are so valuable in the NFL that if you have the baseline abilities to be a starter, you almost never fall out of the 1st round. If you fall out of the first round, there’s usually a good reason for it.

The Jets clearly aren’t 100% sold on Geno Smith, so they signed Michael Vick to a 1-year deal, worth 5 million dollars to compete with Smith for the starting job. Michael Vick has been on the decline in every season since 2010, which makes sense considering how reliant he is on his legs and how many injuries he’s suffered in the past. He put up decent numbers in 7 games last season, completing 54.6% of his passes for an average of 8.62 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 306 yards and 2 touchdowns on 36 carries. However, a closer examination shows that much of that was Chip Kelly’s system making him look better than he was, much like it did with Nick Foles. Pro Football Focus graded him out 26th among 42 eligible quarterbacks in pass grade, despite limited playing time, 335 snaps.

In 2012, he completed 58.1% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 332 yards and a touchdown on 62 carries. That’s probably more accurate and now he’s two years older, going into his age 34 season. He’s played all 16 games once in 10 seasons in the NFL and has missed 22 games over the past 4 seasons. Early reports about Vick in off-season practices have not been promising and it sounds like Smith has the upper hand on the starting job.

Grade: C-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

If the Jets play like they did last season, they probably win about 5 games this season, but there are reasons to believe they’ll be a better team this season. For one, they had a very poor turnover margin last season, as their turnover margin of -14 was 3rd worst in the NFL, only ahead of the Giants (-15) and the Texans (-20).  Turnover margins are really unpredictable and inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis.

Teams with a turnover margin of +4 in a week on average have the same turnover margin the next week as a team that had a turnover margin of -4 the previous week, a turnover margin of about +0.0. Meanwhile, teams that have a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season see their turnover margins drop by an average of about 15.8 the following season, resulting in 2.32 fewer wins. Teams with a turnover margin of -15 or worse in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +2.04. Meanwhile, teams with a turnover margin of +15 or better in a season have an average turnover margin the following season of +3.42, a difference of about 1.38.

If you’re using a team’s turnover margin from the previous season as a reason why they’re going to continue to struggle (or have success) the next season, it’s usually not going to work out well. Even if Geno Smith doesn’t improve upon his horrible 4.7% interception rate (which he probably will, just by default), the Jets should have a better turnover margin next season simply because they should recover more fumbles. The Jets recovered a league worst 30.30% of fumbles last season, a number that should be closer to 50% this season.

Another reason why the Jets should be a better team this season is because they’ve added more talent, without really losing any key contributors this off-season. Their biggest addition was Eric Decker, who comes over from the Broncos on a 5-year, 36.25 million dollar deal. Eric Decker is going to get a massive downgrade at the quarterback position going from Peyton Manning to Geno Smith/Michael Vick.

The last time he played with a quarterback other than Peyton Manning, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 82nd ranked wide receiver out of 115 eligible and averaged just 1.28 yards per route run, 65th out of 95 eligible. That was in 2011 with the combination of Tim Tebow and Kyle Orton, which is comparable to what Decker will be dealing with in New York. Decker will also see more of the defense’s attention and, even though he’ll be the #1 receiver, he might not necessarily get more targets, simply because the Jets don’t pass as much as the Broncos do. Decker has had 120 and 135 targets over the past 2 seasons respectively, an average of 127.5 targets per season. That would have been 26.6% of the Jets’ 480 pass attempts last season.

That being said, it’s unfair to suggest that he’ll just go back to his 2011 level of production, when he caught 44 passes for 612 yards and 8 touchdowns. While much of his increased production since then is due to the arrival of Peyton Manning, he’s still an improved player over when he was in his 2nd year in the league in 2011, after being drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. He’s averaged 1.80 and 2.03 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons, grading out 36th and 11th in those two seasons respectively among wide receivers, peaking in his contract year.

He’s not a true coverage changing #1 receiver, he’s not overly explosive, and he drops too many passes (29 drops compared to 216 catches over the past 3 seasons). However, he is going to be easily the Jets’ best wide receiver this season, he’s the difference maker the Jets needed downfield, and he’s incredibly reliable around the goal line (32 touchdowns in the last 3 seasons, including 8 even in 2011). After averaging 86 catches for 1176 yards and 11 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons, Decker will probably have between 60-70 catches for 800-900 yards and 6-8 touchdowns next season, which is a significant upgrade over anything the Jets had from the wide receiver position last year.

Opposite him, the Jets still have issues though. After all, their leading receiver last season had 43 catches for 523 yards and 3 touchdowns. That receiver was Jeremy Kerley, who is probably their 2nd best wide receiver, but the 5-9 188 pounder is pretty much purely a slot receiver. He ran 77.2% of his routes from the slot last season and 71.2% of his routes from the slot in 2012. Kerley had that production in 12 games and in 2012 he led the team with 56 catches for 827 yards and 2 touchdowns in 16 games. Kerley has averaged 1.77 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons, despite poor quarterback play. Last season, he caught 43 of 63 targets and Jet quarterbacks had a 96.2 QB rating when throwing to him, as opposed to a 66.6 QB rating in general. He also dropped just 1 pass all season and graded out 38th among wide receivers in pure pass catching grade.

The Jets really don’t have anyone to be the other outside receiver opposite Decker though. Stephen Hill was a 2nd round pick in 2012, but he’s struggled mightily in two years in the league. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 105 eligible in 2012 and 103rd ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in 2013. He’s caught 45 of 97 targets (46.4%) for 593 yards and 4 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions over the past 2 seasons combined and dropped 9 passes. Over that time period, he’s averaged 0.99 yards per route run. He could be better going into his 3rd season in the league, but more likely he’ll just end up being a bust.

David Nelson is a veteran option that could beat out Hill for that job. He caught 36 passes for 423 yards and 2 touchdowns last season on 298 routes run (1.42 yards per route run), a season after suffering a devastating injury. The Jets also drafted 3 wide receivers, taking Jalen Saunders and Shaquelle Evans in the 4th round and Quincy Enunwa in the 6th round. One of them could push for playing time as a rookie. The other outside receiver position should be a weakness either way though.

The Jets also drafted a tight end, taking Jace Amaro in the 2nd round. He could be an immediate upgrade over Jeff Cumberland, who has averaged 1.43 yards per route run in his 4 year career since going undrafted in 2010. Cumberland is a better pass catcher than he’s given credit for, but Amaro has more upside than him and could be a bigger contributor in the passing game. At the very least, Amaro should be able to replace Kellen Winslow, who flashed as a pass catcher last season, but remains unsigned as of this writing going into his age 31 season because of his age, his injury history, and his off-the-field problems.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Jets also made an off-season addition at running back this off-season, in an attempt to fix their issues at that position, signing Chris Johnson. However, he’s unlikely to provide much, if any, help. Chris Johnson hasn’t been the same player since 2009, his 2000 yard season, though few people are able to repeat that kind of season.

He was still an above average starting running back for a few seasons after that and an incredibly durable one at that, not missing a game since his rookie year in 2008 and totaling over 250 carries in all 6 of his professional seasons. However, last year he significantly declined in efficiency, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, including just 1.8 yards per carry after contact and ranked 3rd worst in the NFL in elusive rating. He was Pro Football Focus’ 42nd ranked running back out of 55 eligible. That’s why the Titans cut him, instead of paying him a large salary.

He should become more efficient this season as he’ll see a smaller workload, splitting carries with power back Chris Ivory (probably in the neighborhood of 180-220 carries). He could also be healthier after dealing with significant knee problems all last season. However, he’s also going into his age 29 season with 2014 career touches so he’s not getting any better any time soon. Injury problems could become commonplace for him and there’s already some concern about a potentially arthritic knee.

He’s on the decline and the Jets’ run blocking is significantly worse than the Titans. They were Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked run blocking team last season (more on the offensive line’s issues in a little bit), while the Titans were 5th. My prediction for Johnson is that he has one highlight reel touchdown run of 40+ yards that keeps him relevant in the national spotlight, but ultimately averages less than 4 yards per carry and gets cut going into his age 30 season in 2015, rather than being paid a 4 million dollar salary.

Johnson will take over Bilal Powell’s old role. Powell is a marginal talent at best, who rushed for 697 yards and a touchdown on 176 carries last season, an average of 3.96 YPC. He’s averaged just 3.86 yards per carry for his career in 3 seasons since being drafted in the 4th round by the Jets in 2011. Powell won’t have much of a role this season, but it’s unclear how much of an upgrade Johnson can even be over him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked running back last season, while Johnson was 42nd.

Ivory will continue to be the power back, even if he doesn’t quite have the 182 carries he had last season again. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season, but that’s because he’s useless on passing downs, with 5 catches in his career, including just 2 last season on 72 routes run. Despite his limited playing time on passing downs, he was still Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked running back out of 55 eligible in terms of pass catching grade. However, he’s probably their best pure runner, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked running back in run grade last season. He rushed for 833 yards and 3 touchdowns on 182 carries, an average of 4.58 yards per carry. He’s averaged 4.89 yards per carry for his career. He’s had issues staying healthy through.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

I mentioned earlier the Jets’ offensive line has issues. They graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked run blocking team and 21st ranked pass blocking team last season. They have talent, but there are definitely issues here. One of their issues is that 3 of their starters upfront are going into their age 30+ season. D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold were once among the best players in the NFL at their respective positions, but they are on the decline.

Mangold was once inarguably the top center in the NFL, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 or #2 center in every season from 2007-2011, something no one else could come close to saying. However, he “fell” to 6th in 2012 and then all the way to 19th in 2013, below average. He could bounce back this season, but his best years are probably behind him as he goes into his age 30 season. Ferguson, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked offensive tackle in 2008, 7th ranked in 2009, 4th ranked in 2010, 20th ranked in 2011, and 7th ranked in 2012. However, he fell all the way to 40th in 2013. Now he’s going into his age 31 season, so, while he could bounce back, his best days are also likely behind him.

At left guard, Willie Colon is going into his age 31 season as well. There was a time when Willie Colon was one of the best right tackles in the game, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked offensive tackle in 2008 and 3rd ranked offensive tackle in 2009, but he missed every game but one in 2010 and 2011 combined. He returned as a guard in 2012 and played solid in 11 games and then signed a one-year deal with the Jets for the 2013 season. Last season, he played all 16 games for the first time since 2009 and he was a decent starter at right guard. He’s definitely not the player he once was and he’s going into his age 31 season, with an extensive injury history, missing 36 games from 2010-2012, but he’s still probably a starting caliber player.

Left guard is their biggest issue. Brian Winters is currently penciled in as the starter for the 2nd straight season, but he was awful last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 771 snaps over 12 starts. The 2013 3rd round pick could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there’s no guarantee. The Jets don’t have many other alternatives. Oday Aboushi and William Campbell were 5th and 6th round picks respectively in 2013, but neither played a snap as a rookie. The latter was a collegiate defensive lineman.

They have issues at right tackle as well. Austin Howard left as a free agent and he was a solid right tackle, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st and 47th ranked offensive tackle in the last 2 seasons respectively. The Jets replaced him with Breno Giacomini on a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal this off-season, which was an overpay. Giacomini, a 2008 5th round pick, has never graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. He had the best season of his career last season, grading out 41st, but he also missed 7 games with injury and struggled mightily during the Seahawks’ post-season run. In 2012, the only season he started all 16 games, he graded out 69th among 80 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Jets’ defensive line is easily their best unit and arguably the best 3-man defensive line in the NFL. They are a big part of the reason why the Jets had a solid defense last year and why the Jets had easily the best run defense in the league last season. The Jets allowed 3.35 yards per carry last season. No one else allowed fewer than 3.65 yards per carry. There was a bigger difference between 2nd and 11th than there was between 2nd and 1st in terms of yards per carry allowed. That’s how good their run defense was last season. I argued that all three of their starting defensive linemen should have gone to the Pro-Bowl as a result of that.

Sheldon Richardson is the best of the trio. The 13th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Richardson won Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, excelling against the run. Richardson’s 52 solo tackles were 2nd most at the 5-technique defensive end position behind all-everything JJ Watt and he also had 16 assisted tackles, which led the position, and missed just 4 tackles. As good as JJ Watt was, he missed 7 tackles.

Richardson also had 41 “stops” which also came in 2nd at his position, again behind Watt. Stops refer to a tackle within 4 yards of the original line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance and 3rd and 4th down. 32 of those stops came on run plays, on 325 run snaps, a rate of 9.8% that was 7th among eligible 5-technique defensive ends. He also did a great job of tying up multiple blockers when asked. For his work against the run, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end against the run and 5th overall.

He wasn’t nearly as impressive as a pass rusher, with those aforementioned 4 sacks. He also had 5 hits and 24 hurries on 509 pass rush snaps, a rate of 6.5%. That isn’t that bad and he only graded out slightly below average in this aspect on Pro Football Focus. He’s still technically a one-year wonder, but technically all rookies are. I don’t have much doubt that he can continue to be an elite player in 2014, possibly even better than he was as a rookie.

Muhammad Wilkerson is the biggest name on the unit. Many saw Wilkerson as having a breakout season last year, as evidenced by his 11 sacks, but he was actually better in 2012, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end. In 2013, he was “only” 8th at his position. In 2013, he had 11 sacks, 9 hits, and 32 hurries on 636 pass rush snaps, a rate of 8.2%. In 2012, he had 5 sacks, 10 hits, and 22 hurries on 472 pass rush snaps, a rate of 7.8%, which is comparable, and he was also much better against the run. Still, he’s one of the best young defensive linemen in the NFL and has been for two seasons. The 2011 1st round pick has really panned out and already has had his option picked up for 2015. The Jets are also reportedly in talks with him about an extension. He’s their best interior pass rusher.

Damon Harrison, their nose tackle, is probably their best run stopper. The man affectionately known as Snacks, Harrison is a massive 6-4 350. The 2012 undrafted free agent cut down on the snacks a little bit last season and moved to feasting on offensive linemen and running backs. He was easily Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked defensive tackle in terms of run stopping grade and only JJ Watt had a higher run stopping grade at any position.

He doesn’t offer much as a pass rusher, with 1 sack and 9 hurries on 226 pass rush snaps, a 4.4% rate, grading out below average, but it didn’t matter that much. He was still Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle last season on 510 snaps and no one played fewer snaps and graded out higher. There might not be a better two-down player in the NFL. He’s still a one year wonder, playing just 22 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2012, and his history of weight problems is concerning, but he could easily have another strong year against the run.

The Jets also have two very talented reserves on the defensive line. Kenrick Ellis, a 2011 3rd round pick, was dominant on 210 snaps last season. He would have graded out 17th among defensive tackles overall, despite his playing time, if he had been eligible. He also would have been 5th among defensive tackles in pure run grade. In 3 years in the league, he’s graded out above average in 2 seasons, though he never did anything like he did last season before. Meanwhile, Leger Douzable graded out above average, specializing in the run, on 242 snaps last season. He’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons in which he’s played.

Grade: A

Linebackers

As good as the Jets’ defensive line was last season, they weren’t great at getting to the quarterback. Because of that, they needed strong edge rush from their rush linebackers, but they didn’t really get that. As a result, they were Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked team in terms of pass rush grade. Calvin Pace had a career high 11 sacks last season. Some people mistake that for having the best year of his career, which isn’t true as you can’t just look at sack numbers. He graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, thanks to just 3 quarterback hits and 21 quarterback hurries.

That being said, it was clearly a better year than 2012. Calvin Pace looked pretty done after the 2012 season, after recording 8 sacks in 2011 and 2012 combined and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2012. The Jets cut Pace going into his age 33 season last off-season, but brought him back on a cheap one year deal. That paid off obviously, but now he’s going into his age 34 season. It’s unlikely that he’ll be able to have even a decent season again this season and he could really struggle. At the most, he’s only a stopgap starter, after being brought back on a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season. The Jets needed to find a long-term solution behind him this off-season, but they weren’t able to.

Quinton Coples is the starter opposite him. He was drafted in the 1st round in 2011 to be that long-term edge rusher, but he’s disappointed so far. He was alright on 516 snaps as a rookie, but struggled on 834 snaps last season, particularly as a pass rusher. He was Pro Football Focus’ 32nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 42 eligible and 39th ranked in pure pass rush grade. The 6-6 285 pounder played the run pretty well, but he’s not a natural fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He also rarely drops into coverage, dropping on just 26 snaps last season, as opposed to 238 snaps for Calvin Pace. That makes it hard for the Jets to disguise what they’re doing pre-snap. Coples could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but there are no guarantees. Another issue at the position is the lack of depth. Garret McIntyre is their top reserve, but he’s graded out below average in 2012 and 2013 on 412 snaps and 271 snaps respectively.

The Jets have issues in the middle of their linebacking corps as well. Demario Davis was the inferior of their two starters at middle linebacker, struggling mightily in his first season as a starter. Davis played 315 uninspiring snaps as a rookie and then graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 49th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible on 1077 snaps as an every-down linebacker last season. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but at the same time, he was just a 3rd round pick so it wouldn’t be a shock if he never developed into a solid starter.

Opposite him, David Harris is a veteran middle linebacker, going into his age 30 season. He was re-signed to a big 4-year, 36 million dollar deal in the 2011 off-season, one of many ill-advised contracts given out by ex-GM Mike Tannenbaum. Harris has graded out below average in all 3 seasons since signing that deal, with 2012 being his worst season, as he graded out 48th out of 53 eligible middle linebackers that season.

He wasn’t terrible last season, grading out 20th at his position, but he’s unlikely to get any better going into his 30s. On top of that, he was never that great even before the extension, as he graded out below average in 2007 and 2008 and graded out only slightly above average in 2009 and 2010. The only reason he’s still around at a 4.9 million dollar salary in his contract year is the veteran leadership he provides. Like with outside linebacker, the Jets don’t really have that much depth at the position should either of the starters struggle or get hurt.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Jets had a lot of money to play with this off-season and were seemingly in on every single top free agent cornerback in this strong free agent cornerback class, after cutting Antonio Cromartie, and struck out on all of them, as new GM John Idzik refused to get into bidding wars. This upset a lot of Jets fans, but, with the exception of Darrelle Revis, an ex-Jet who probably wouldn’t have returned anyway, they probably would have ended up overpaying if they had signed any free agent cornerback. They all had their warts, so there’s no shame in the Jets accurately setting prices and refusing to go above them. The inability to do that is what ended up costing Tannenbaum his job.

A lot of Jets fans were also upset that they let Antonio  Cromartie go, saving them 9.5 million in cash and cap space ahead of his contract year in 2014, and then didn’t re-sign him to a cheaper deal, letting him sign with the Cardinals for 3.25 million over 1 year. However, they won’t really miss him. They might miss what he could be this season if he’s healthy and able to bounce back this season, but they won’t miss the 2013 version of him.

He was awful last season, playing through a hip injury, which led to his release. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th worst cornerback, 2nd worst in terms of coverage grade. He was torched with regularity, allowing 19.1 yards per completion, 2nd highest in the NFL. He could be better this season in Arizona, but there are no guarantees, especially with him going into his age 30 season, and, again, the Jets won’t miss the 2013 version of him. They aren’t worse at cornerback than they were in 2013 as a result of releasing him.

That doesn’t mean they don’t have issues at the position though, as there’s a reason they were so actively pursuing cornerbacks in free agency. After missing out on Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Aqib Talib, and Alterraun Verner, as well as some other mid-level free agent cornerbacks, the Jets had to settle for signing Dimitri Patterson from the Dolphins. Patterson is good when he’s healthy, but he’s missed 17 games over the past 2 seasons combined and he’s played just 1 full season since he came in the league as an undrafted free agent in 2005.

He won’t suddenly become more durable (or better, for that matter) now that he’s going into his age 31 season. However, he’s graded out above average in each of his last 3 seasons (though he didn’t play more than 558 snaps in any of those 3 seasons). Last season, he played just 241 snaps, but no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher, as a result of his 4 interceptions. He would have been Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback in terms of coverage grade if he had been eligible. If he can stay on the field, he could be an asset for them.

Patterson could be one of the starters and Dee Milliner would line up opposite him. Milliner has the potential to be their best cornerback. After all, he was the 9th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, though it was one of the weaker drafts at the top in recent history. Still, he definitely has the ability to bounce back from a down rookie season. Cornerbacks tend to take a year or so to transition to the NFL. Milliner graded out 86th among 110 eligible cornerbacks in coverage grade last season, as he allowed 7 touchdowns, though he was solid against the run and didn’t commit a penalty on 747 snaps. We’ll see how he does in his 2nd year in the league, but the upside is still there.

It’s a 3-way battle for the 3rd cornerback job. Kyle Wilson is the veteran of the bunch, but the 2010 1st round pick has largely been a bust thus far in his career. He’s graded out below average in each of the last 3 seasons and only played 480 snaps last season. He’s reportedly not having a good off-season and reportedly could be phased out of the defense entirely. Darrin Walls is also in the mix. He played 292 snaps last season, but graded out below average and he has only played 393 snaps in 3 seasons since going undrafted in 2011. Meanwhile, Dexter McDougle was a 3rd round pick in this past draft.

The Jets also used a high draft pick on a safety, taking Calvin Pryor out of Louisville with the 18th overall pick and making him the top safety off the board. Pryor instantly becomes their best safety, even as a rookie, which shows how big of an issue they have at the position. They had to sign the archaic Ed Reed midway through last season, after he was cut by the Texans halfway into the first season of a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal with 6 million guaranteed. That’s how bad things were.

Opposite Pryor, it should be either Antonio Allen or Dawan Landry. Landry is the veteran option and an incumbent starter, but he graded out below average last season, as he has in each of his last 3 seasons, and he now is going into his age 32 season. Allen, meanwhile, was a 7th round pick in 2012. He’s graded out below average in both seasons he’s been in the league, doing so on 72 snaps in 2012 and 550 snaps in 2013. The Jets have a lot of issues in the secondary, as well as in the back 7 in general, but they have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, which allowed them to have a solid defense last season.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Jets won 8 games last season, but that required a lot of luck, specifically a 5-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less. Their point differential (-97) suggested they were a 5 win team and they actually had a worse point differential than 2012, when they had a -94 point differential and went 6-10. However, they also had some bad luck with fumbles and they should be overall a more talented team this season. All that being said, looking at this team and the level of talent they have, they are clearly the least talented team in the AFC East and one of the least talented teams in the NFL. They’re definitely going to have fewer wins than last season. The question is how many fewer. I’ll have an official prediction for them at the end of all my previews.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 202014
 

Quarterback

The Dolphins had high expectations going into last season, with Ryan Tannehill, the 8th overall pick in 2012, going into the 2nd season of his career, and after a big off-season, in which they were anointed the off-season winners because they spent the most money. However, the Dolphins just improved by 1 game, going from 7-9 to 8-8, and collapsing down the stretch, losing their final 2 games by a combined score of 39-7 to the Bills and Jets, divisional rivals against whom they were favored. Winning just one of those games would have sent them to the playoffs.

However, even if they had made the playoffs, they wouldn’t have deserved it as they were a team that was worse than their record all season. Their offense really struggled to move the chains, moving them at a 66.81% rate, 26th in the NFL. While their defense was solid, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 70.75% rate, 14th in the NFL, it wasn’t nearly enough. They finished the season with a -3.94% rate of moving the chains differential, 24th in the NFL. They weren’t as good as their 8-8 record.

So what happened? Why did they fail to improve? Well, a big part of it was their free agent class was largely a bust. They spent a lot of money, but that doesn’t always equal results, as Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe, and Philip Wheeler all disappointed on big contracts, not so surprisingly. Meanwhile, Reshad Jones, who they gave a big extension after a big 2013 season, struggled mightily. They gave one year deals to Tyson Clabo, Dustin Keller, and Brent Grimes and only one of them panned out. They traded up to #3 to draft Dion Jordan and he didn’t do much as a rookie. They also had significant and related issues at quarterback and on the offensive line that I’ll get into.

Ryan Tannehill showed improvement from his rookie year, when he completed 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.81 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions, a QB rating of 76.1. In 2013, he completed 60.4% of his passes for an average of 6.66 YPA, 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, a QB rating of 81.7. He also improved on the ground as the mobile Tannehill rushed for 238 yards and a touchdown on 40 carries, an average of 5.95 YPA, after rushing for 211 yards and 2 touchdowns on 49 carries as a rookie, an average of 4.31 YPA.

Tannehill’s biggest issue last season might have been his pocket presence. He was sacked 58 times, 10 times more than anyone in the NFL, and, while the offensive line had problems, it wasn’t all on them. Tannehill, despite his mobility and athleticism, took a sack on 26.1% of pressured drop backs, 3rd worst in the NFL among eligible quarterbacks. That’s even worse than when he was a rookie and took one on 21.5% of pressured dropbacks, 9th worst in the league. His offensive line needs to do a better job, but he’s not showing good pocket presence. All those sacks are a big part of the reason why the Dolphins’ offense sputtered so often last season. That could improve in his 3rd year in the league, but it’s obviously a concern.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

I mentioned that the Dolphins also had serious issues on the offensive line as well. If they can have improved offensive line play, it’ll help Tannehill develop. They weren’t horrible last season, or at least not as bad as those aforementioned 58 sacks would suggest, ranking 19th in pass block efficiency and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked run blocking offensive line, but they certainly had issues. They also certainly had issues off-the-field as well, as a bullying scandal got left guard Richie Incognito suspended and caused offensive tackle Jonathan Martin to leave the team for emotional reasons.

Last season, the Dolphins started week 1 with Jonathan Martin at left tackle, Richie Incognito at left guard, Mike Pouncey at center, John Jerry at right guard, and Tyson Clabo at right tackle. Martin and Clabo struggled to start the season, getting Martin moved to right tackle, Clabo moved to the bench and forcing the team to trade for Bryant McKinnie, an aging veteran benched by the Ravens, to start at left tackle. Martin then left the team and Clabo took back over at right tackle. Then Incognito, their best run blocker, got suspended, forcing the underwhelming combination of Sam Brenner and Nate Garner to split time at left guard.

Incognito and Martin are now gone and McKinnie and Clabo remain on the open market as aging veterans coming off of down seasons. The only 2013 week 1 starter who could start for them week 1 of 2014 is Pouncey, who could actually face a short suspension for his role in the bullying scandal. The Dolphins obviously knew they had to fix things on the offensive line and spent their off-season focusing on the unit, adding two new starters through free agency on multi-year deals and using a 1st and 3rd round picks on offensive linemen.

Unfortunately, they overspent on their two offensive linemen and reached in the first round for a player widely regarded as a 2nd round prospect. They’ll be better on the offensive line, but the unit is far from fixed. Branden Albert was their big money signing. The Dolphins obviously needed a blindside protector, possibly more than any team in the league, but this was a buyer’s market in terms of left tackles, which is a rarity considering top level blindside protectors rarely are allowed to hit the open market. This off-season Albert, Jared Veldheer, Eugene Monroe, and Anthony Collins all were available as high level left tackles, while Rodger Saffold has the ability to be a strong left tackle when healthy. Branden Albert got 5 years, 46 million, with 25 million of that guaranteed, which makes him, by far, the highest paid of the bunch and I don’t think he’s the best of the bunch.

Eugene Monroe got 5 years, 37.5 million with 19 million guaranteed from the Ravens. Eugene Monroe has been a top-16 offensive tackle on ProFootballFocus in each of the last 3 seasons, maxing out as #6 in 2011. He graded out 16th overall this season, but playing even better once he was traded to Baltimore. The Baltimore “version” of Monroe was the #12 offensive tackle this season. Jared Veldheer got 35 million over 5 years from Arizona and he was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive tackle in 2011 and 12th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, before an injury plagued contract year hurt his value a little bit.

Still, I think both of those players are better than Albert, who is 3 years older, going into his age 30 season, has a history of back problems, and really didn’t get a lot of interest from his original team, the Chiefs, in keeping him around. Albert has never graded out higher than 18th on Pro Football Focus, ranking 18th in 2011, 25th in 2012, and 28th in 2013. Veldheer and Monroe have graded out higher than 18th a combined 5 times over the last 3 years, with the exclusion of a fluky injury plagued year for Veldheer in 2013. Albert also appears to be in slight decline yearly as he heads into his 30s. Albert will help the Dolphins, but he’s not the elite blindside protector the Dolphins are paying him like, so they really overpaid, to the tune of about 10 million dollars over 5 years.

Shelley Smith was their other big free agent signing and he’ll start at right guard. His signing wasn’t as big of a move as Albert’s, as he got 2-year, 5.5 million, but the Dolphins are still overpaying him because he’s never been a full-time starter in the NFL, maxing out at 371 snaps last season and playing 731 snaps total in his 4-year career. Smith flashed last season on those 371 snaps, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked guard despite the limited playing time, so he has upside. However, in 2012, he graded out 55th out of 81 eligible on just 360 snaps and he was just a 6th round pick in 2010. He didn’t play a single offensive snap in the first 2 years of his career.

Ja’Waun James was the 19th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he was widely considered a 2nd round prospect before the draft, something several league sources have confirmed. The Dolphins apparently panicked when Ryan Shazier got drafted 4 spots ahead of them and drafted someone that, while they had a 1st round grade on him, they could have gotten in a trade down. He has a big body, but he’s flat footed and could be overwhelmed as a rookie starter at right tackle. They don’t really have any competition for him.

At left guard, the Dolphins will start another inexperienced player, either 3rd round rookie Billy Turner or 2013 3rd round pick Dallas Thomas. Turner would probably struggle as a rookie because he’s a 3rd rounder coming from small school North Dakota State, but Thomas might not necessarily be an upgrade. Despite all the issues the Dolphins had on the offensive line last season, Thomas still managed to play just 2 snaps, which has to be concerning.

Mike Pouncey at center, as I mentioned, is the only holdover on the offensive line and he’s also probably their best offensive lineman. The 15th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft had a lackluster rookie year, but he has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center in 2012 and 13th ranked center in 2013 and could be even better now in his 4th year in the league, only his age 25 season. His twin brother Maurkice is the bigger name, playing center for the Steelers and somehow making 3 Pro-Bowls and 3 All-Pros in 3 healthy seasons, but Mike is the better football player.

Despite his off-the-field problems, the Dolphins still picked up his 5th year option for 2015 this off-season. Obviously, if he were to have any sort of suspension, it would be a big loss for the Dolphins. Their next option on the depth chart is Sam Brenner, a 2013 undrafted free agent who struggled mightily on 292 snaps as a rookie last season. He played 231 snaps at guard and no guard played fewer snaps and graded out worse than him. He was better in 1 game at center and he could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but no one drafted him so there’s obviously no guarantee that he can even develop into a passable spot starter.

Grade: B-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

Mike Wallace was the Dolphins’ biggest off-season signing of the previous off-season, as they gave him a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal last off-season with 30 million guaranteed. Like the rest of their big signings last off-season, Wallace didn’t really pan out. Wallace caught a career high 73 passes, but only for 930 yards. His 5 touchdowns were the smallest total of his 5-year career, as was his 12.7 yards per catch. He was brought in to be a deep threat, but he hauled in just 6 of 36 targets 20+ yards downfield. He caught 73 passes on 137 targets in general (53.3%) and quarterbacks threw 9 interceptions when targeting him, giving them a 59.4 QB rating when they threw to Wallace. Wallace also dropped 11 passes and averaged a mediocre 1.44 yards per route run. He was decently productive, but he graded out just about average on Pro Football Focus, certainly not worth his insane salary.

This kind of disappointment shouldn’t be surprising from him. It’s always concerned me when a guy is obviously just chasing money. Wallace held out long into training camp going in 2012, rather than playing out the final year of his rookie deal and, as a result, he had a poor year by his standards in 2012, with 64 catches for 836 yards and 8 touchdowns despite a career high in targets. He was 34th in the NFL in receiving yards and graded out noticeably below average on ProFootballFocus, finishing 91st out of 105 eligible. It was obvious when he went into that holdout that a down year like that was a possibility, but he didn’t seem to care. He was part of the reason why the Steelers missed the playoffs.

And then he chased the money and went to Miami, a team with a young quarterback that had made the playoffs just once in the previous 11 seasons. It was very possible he’d just coast once he had the money and it seems like he did. He’s a one trick pony anyway. He’s got great speed, but he’s still not a good route runner and the NFL has caught on to him over the past few seasons. It’s very possible the 1257 yards he had in his breakout 2010 season will be his career best when his career is all said and done. Some are saying that a new offensive coordinator, with Bill Lazor taking over from Mike Sherman, will help Wallace, but I’m skeptical.

With Wallace disappointing last year, Brian Hartline led the Dolphins in receiving yards for the 2nd straight season. He’s put up pretty identical 74/1083/1 and 76/1016/4 seasons over the past 2 seasons, since the 2009 4th round pick broke out in 2012. He’s not an explosive athlete, a touchdown threat, or a deep threat, but he knows how to get open and Tannehill is obviously comfortable throwing to him. There’s a good chance he leads them in receiving for the 3rd straight season. He’s averaged 1.84 yards per route run over the past 2 seasons.

The Dolphins have a three-way competition for the 3rd receiver job. Brandon Gibson had a strong start to last season in the slot, after the Dolphins gave him a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal last off-season even though he hadn’t shown himself to be anything more than a marginal receiver in his career, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in his career prior and averaging 1.34 yards per route run, and even though he had played just 175 slot snaps in his career prior. Gibson flashed in 6 games, catching 30 passes for 326 yards and 3 touchdowns on 196 routes run, an average of 1.66 YPA, but then tore his patellar tendon. Gibson has youth on his side, but a torn patellar tendon is arguably the most serious lower body injury a player can sustain. If healthy, he could have another solid season, as he’s graded out above average in each of last 2 seasons, but he’s unproven and coming off of a very serious injury.

Rishard Matthews stepped up as the slot receiver in his absence and flashed, grading out above average, though he did average just 1.23 yards per route run, catching 41 passes for 448 yards and 2 touchdowns on 363 routes run. However, he’s still pretty unproven, as the 2012 7th round pick played just 236 snaps as a rookie, grading out below average, and he’s reportedly showing up late to practices and meetings this off-season, which kind of has him in the coaches’ doghouse. That could cost him the slot receiver job. Meanwhile, Jarvis Landry was their 2nd round pick and he’ll be in the mix as well. If he or Matthews wins the job, the Dolphins could cut Gibson and save 1.7 million on the cap and 2.7 million in cash, rather than keeping him as an expensive depth receiver.

The Dolphins brought in Dustin Keller to be their starting tight end last off-season, on what seemed like a smart, one year, buy low, prove it deal given to a former 1st round pick who caught 65 passes for 815 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011 from Mark Sanchez, before missing 8 games and being limited in several others in 2012. However, Keller suffered a devastating knee injury in the pre-season and didn’t play a snap. The injury was so bad that it is threatening his career, as he remains unsigned as of this writing.

The Dolphins really needed someone to step up in Keller’s absence and they found that someone with Charles Clay, a 2011 6th round pick who broke out last season in his 3rd year in the league. Clay caught 69 passes for 759 yards and 6 touchdowns on 458 routes run, an average of 1.62 yards per route run, which ranked 11th among eligible tight ends. He was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked tight end in terms of pass catching grade, though the 6-3 245 pounder didn’t offer much as a blocker, grading out 14th worst at his position in that aspect. Clay is still a one year wonder, after playing a combined 744 snaps in his first 2 years in the league and catching a combined 34 passes, but he could have another solid season as a pass catcher this season, which would set him up for a solid payday going into free agency next off-season.

Dion Sims is the favorite to be the #2 tight end and blocking specialist tight end again, but the 4th round rookie struggled mightily as a run blocker last season, grading out 11th worst at his position in run blocking grade and 6th worst overall. He played 280 snaps and only ran 81 routes, catching 6 passes for 32 yards and a touchdown. Arthur Lynch, a 5th round rookie, could push him for snaps if he continues to struggle. Michael Egnew, a 2012 3rd round pick who has played just 255 snaps in 2 seasons, could also be in the mix, but he’s also squarely on the roster bubble.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

The Dolphins were a poor running team last season, averaging 4.12 yards per carry and only attempting 349 runs to 594 passes. Even that was buoyed by Tannehill averaging 5.95 yards per carry on 40 carries. Part of it was the team’s inability to run block, as they graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked run blocking team. They should be better in that aspect this season with their revamped offensive line. However, part of it was the team’s lack of talent at the position.

In order to attempt to remedy this, the Dolphins brought in Knowshon Moreno this off-season. Knowshon Moreno had over 1500 yards from scrimmage last season (1038 rushing and 548 receiving), but was still available about 3 weeks into free agency. There were reasons for that. The running back position has been strongly devalued in the NFL. We’re in an off-season where no running back has gotten more than 4 million dollars yearly and going into a draft where no running back went in the first round of the draft for the second straight year.

Also, as much production as Moreno had last year, much of it was the product of Peyton Manning. Moreno rarely faced stacked boxes and, much more often than not, was running against boxes of 6 or fewer defenders. In spite of that, he actually just rushed for 4.31 yards per carry, which isn’t a spectacular average. He was just Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked running back in terms of running grade. He’s a talented pass catcher and pass protector, but he’s an average runner at best.

He also missed 20 games from 2010-2012 and had just 426 touches over those 3 seasons. There’s a reason why the Broncos showed no interest in bringing in back with Montee Ball behind him on the depth chart. On top of all this, Moreno reportedly showed up for off-season practices out of shape and is dealing with a potentially very serious knee injury that could keep him from having much of an impact at all this season.

Lamar Miller is currently the front runner to be the starter for the 2nd straight season. Miller, a 2012 4th round pick, rushed for 709 yards and 2 touchdowns on 177 carries last season, an average of 4.01 yards per carry. In 2 seasons in the league, Miller has averaged 4.21 yards per carry, showing why he fell to the 4th round in the first place. I don’t expect him to be much better this season. Assuming Moreno can’t do much this season, Daniel Thomas should be the 2nd running back again this season. Thomas struggled last season like he has in his whole career, as the 2011 2nd round pick averaged 3.72 yards per carry last season and has averaged 3.59 yards per carry for his career. Mike Gillislee, a 2013 5th round pick who played 9 snaps as a rookie, could also be in the mix for carries. It’s not a particularly talented group.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Dolphins had a solid defense last season that allowed them to remain competitive despite issues on offense. The strongest part of that defense was their defensive line, where they have a ton of talent and a ton of depth. The Dolphins had a trio of talented defensive tackles in Randy Starks, Jared Odrick, and Paul Soliai, who graded out 7th, 13th, and 20th respectively on Pro Football Focus among defensive tackles on 742 snaps, 878 snaps, and 526 snaps respectively last season.

That depth was threatened this off-season as Starks and Soliai hit free agency. However, they were able to re-sign Starks, which was a huge move, especially on a very reasonable, 2-year, 12 million dollar deal. Starks is an underrated, under-mentioned player who has graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons from 2008-2013 since becoming a starter, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2009 and 7th ranked defensive tackle in 2013.

He has scheme versatility at 6-3 312 and can play both 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4 and defensive tackle in a 4-3. He’s also equally good as a pass rusher and run stopper. Marcell Dareus was the only other defensive tackle to grade out in the top-10 in both run stopping grade and pass rushing grade last season. Even though he’s going into his age 31 season, he’s coming off one of the best seasons of his career. His contract was perfect for the stage of his career he is in.

The Dolphins lost Soliai to the Falcons, but the big run stopper was the least important of the Dolphins’ 3 defensive tackles last season. They brought in Earl Mitchell from Houston to replace him as that 3rd defensive tackle behind Starks and Odrick. I’m intrigued to see Mitchell in a 4-3, the scheme in which he played in college at Arizona. He was a 3rd round pick in 2010, but the 6-2 292 pounder was miscast as a 3-4 nose tackle in Houston over the last 3 seasons. Even still, he wasn’t terrible, grading out around average in all 3 seasons in a part-time role, so there’s a chance he can become a solid contributor in a 4-3. The Dolphins probably overpaid, giving him 16 million over 4 years with 9 million of that guaranteed, but he’s definitely not bad as a 3rd defensive tackle, even if he may be a step down from Soliai.

Of course, Odrick remains as well. Odrick had a fantastic season last year, grading out 13th among defensive tackles and excelling as a pass rusher. He remains a one year wonder, but he was a 1st round pick in 2010 and last year was the first season he was allowed to play his natural role as a 4-3 penetrating defensive tackle. It’s no surprise that he had by far his best season in that role.

Odrick missed all but one game in his rookie season with injury and was just about average on 597 snaps in 2011 as a 3-4 defensive end. The Dolphins switched to a 4-3 going into the 2012 season, which should have helped him, but they decided to play him primarily at 4-3 defensive end, which was a bad fit for the 6-5 304 pounder. He struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked 4-3 defensive end. He was solid against the run, but couldn’t generate any pass rush, ranking 3rd worst in that aspect. He could easily have another strong year as a 4-3 defensive tackle in 2014, which would set him up for a big payday going into free agency in 2015.

At defensive end, the Dolphins have so much talent that they couldn’t even get the 3rd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Dion Jordan, onto the field much last season and reportedly considered trading him this off-season. Jordan played 339 lackluster snaps as a rookie, but obviously still has an enormous upside. He should, at least, leap Derrick Shelby on the depth chart for the #3 defensive end job this season. Shelby is a solid reserve, grading out about average on 667 snaps in 2 seasons since going undrafted in 2012, but he doesn’t nearly have Jordan’s upside.

Jordan should also eat into the snaps of Oliver Vernon somewhat. Vernon, for some reason, led this talented defensive line in snaps played last season with 929, even though he graded out worst among the unit. He wasn’t awful, but he was below average, playing the run decently, but grading out below average as a pass rusher. He did have 11 sacks, but only 5 hits and 32 hurries on 531 pass rush snaps, a mediocre rate of 9.0%. The 2012 3rd round pick showed more of the same on 445 snaps as a rookie, as he had 3 sacks, 7 hits, and 11 hurries on 289 pass rush snaps, a 7.3% rate. Having him cede some pass rush snaps to Jordan would obviously be a good idea that would help this team.

On the other side, Cameron Wake starts and is one of the better edge rushers in the game. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end last season, arguably the worst season of his career. He was #1 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, #1 among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2011, and #3 among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2010. Even in 2009, his first year in the league coming over from Canada, he would have been Pro Football Focus’ #3 ranked 4-3 defensive end if he had been eligible, despite playing just 167 snaps. No one played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher and he had an absurd 7 sacks 6 hits, and 20 hurries on 134 pass rush snaps, a rate of 24.6%, meaning he disrupted the quarterback on about a quarter of his snaps.

He’s a dominant pass rusher who holds up against the run at 6-2 241 as well. Last season, he graded out 2nd at his position in pure pass rush grade, with 10 sacks, 20 hits, and 41 hurries on 416 pass rush snaps, a very impressive rate of 17.1%. The fact that he showed slight decline in general last season, hampered by a knee injury, now going into his age 32 season, is a minor concern, but I fully expect him to be one of the top few edge rushers in the NFL again this season. The Dolphins have so much depth that they were able to keep his snaps at 694 for the season, which should help his longevity. If, for whatever reason, he starts showing more decline, Dion Jordan could be his long-term replacement in the next few seasons.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Dolphins’ linebacking corps featured two big contract free agents struggling mightily in their first year with the team, a big part of the reason why the Dolphins disappointed after being named off-season winners because of their spending spree. The Dolphins revamped the unit last off-season, releasing aging veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett and replacing them with highly-paid, one-year wonder players who were younger. It backfired big time, as Dansby was one of the better middle linebackers in the league last season, Burnett played solid as an every down linebacker, and Ellerbe and Wheeler showed proved to be nothing more than one year wonders.

Wheeler was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012, which got him a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal from the Dolphins last off-season, even though, prior to 2012, he had graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 3rd round in 2008. Also prior to 2012, he never had played more than 537 snaps in a season, so he was the definition of a one year wonder. Wheeler struggled mightily last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ worst 4-3 outside linebacker, especially struggling against the run. There are also reports that Wheeler got complacent once he got paid, which is why he struggled so much last season. Now going into his age 30 season, Wheeler is still on the team only because his 5 million dollar salary was guaranteed for this season.

Ellerbe has a similar story. 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 following that up with a strong post-season, en route to a Super Bowl victory by the Ravens. The one year wonder got a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal from the Dolphins and then proved to be a one year wonder last season, when he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Like Wheeler’s 2014 salary, Ellerbe’s 6 million dollar salary for 2014 is fully guaranteed, which is why he’s still on the roster. Both will have to play much better to have any hope of staying on the roster for 2015, after the guaranteed money runs out.

In order to make the most of this situation, the Dolphins will be shuffling things around in their linebacking corps, moving Ellerbe to outside linebacker and demoting him out of sub-packages, making him a two-down linebacker. Koa Misi will then play every down in the middle. They could be improved in the linebacking corps, but only because they can’t possibly be as bad as last season, not because this reshuffling is likely to make things better.

Misi was their two-down linebacker last season. He was their best linebacker and in that sense it makes sense letting him get more playing time, but, while he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in terms of run grade, he struggled in coverage. The collegiate defensive end has never been good in coverage in his career. The 2010 2nd round pick has also never been anything more than a two-down player in his career, maxing out at 619 snaps thus far in the 4 seasons he’s been in the league.

Having Ellerbe only play part-time should be good for them and he’s better as a run stopper than he is in coverage, but he could still struggle. Wheeler could be better, but only by default and ideally you don’t want him to be playing every down. If Ellerbe and Wheeler continue to struggle, the Dolphins don’t have a ton of internal options. Jelani Jenkins was a 2013 4th round pick, but he struggled on 127 snaps as a rookie. Jordan Tripp, meanwhile, is a 5th round rookie. It’s unlikely things will be fixed with this unit until they can release Wheeler and Ellerbe next off-season.

Grade: C

Secondary

The one signing from the Dolphins’ last off-season that worked out was the one-year, prove it deal, worth 5.5 million that they gave to Brent Grimes, who coming off of a torn Achilles. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked cornerback last season and the Dolphins rewarded him with a 4-year, 32 million dollar deal this off-season. That’s a lot of money for a player going into his age 31 season that has Grimes’ injury history, missing 19 games from 2011-2012.

It was a good deal though. When healthy, Grimes is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback in 2010, 3rd ranked in 2011, and 2nd ranked in 2013. He joined Antoine Winfield, Brandon Flowers, and Jason McCourty as the only 4 cornerbacks to grade out in the top-10 in 3 of the last 4 seasons. The cornerback position is one of the most inconsistent in the NFL on a year-to-year basis. Just two cornerbacks graded in the top-15 on Pro Football Focus in both 2012 and 2013. One was Richard Sherman (#2 and #6) and the other was Jason McCourty (#6 and #10).

The issue is opposite Grimes. The Dolphins signed Cortland Finnegan to a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal this off-season, a move that was subtraction by addition. He’s expected to be the starter opposite Grimes. Finnegan was a train wreck last season with the Rams. He only played 367 snaps in 7 games for a variety of reasons, including injuries and poor performance, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback. He allowed 26 of 34 completion for 353 yards, 4 touchdowns, and an interception, a QB rating against of 136.0 that was 3rd worst among eligible cornerbacks. He also committed 6 penalties. There’s a reason why the Rams cut him 2 years into an absurd 5-year, 50 million dollar deal.

That was the worst season of his career, but he’s going into his age 30 season so he’s probably not getting any better any time soon. He was great in his contract year with the Titans in 2011, which is why he got such a big deal, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback. However, that’s the only year in the last 4 years that he’s been even remotely good. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked cornerback in 2010 and ranked 86th out of 113 eligible cornerbacks in 2012. He’s a serious downgrade from Nolan Carroll, an average starting cornerback who is now in Pittsburgh.

The Dolphins have a trio of young, unproven cornerbacks who could push Finnegan for his job. Jamar Taylor and Will Davis were the Dolphins’ 2nd and 3rd round picks respectively in 2013 and played 45 and 65 snaps respectively last season. Walt Aikens, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie. Jimmy Wilson, a cornerback/safety tweener, will probably continue to play as the slot cornerback. He struggled in that role in 2012, but the 2011 7th round pick was better in 2013.

Wilson won’t be able to play much, if any, safety this year, where Reshad Jones and Louis Delmas are clearly set as the starters. Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety in 2012, but he fell all the way down to 68th (out of 86 eligible) in 2013. He also struggled in 2011 in his first year as a starter and only played 152 snaps as a rookie in 2010. The 2010 5th round pick is the definition of a one-year wonder. He should be better this season, but it’s very possible that he’ll never be as good as he was in 2012 again. The Dolphins owe him a guaranteed 6.76 million in 2015, meaning he’ll be around for at least 2 more seasons, so they better hope he bounces back. He got a 4-year, 30 million dollar extension going into his contract year last off-season, after his big 2012 season.

Delmas, meanwhile, was a free agent signing this off-season, after he was cut by the Lions. Delmas has a history of injury, missing 13 games in 2011-2012 combined. Those injuries hampered him when he was on the field as well, as he graded out below average in both seasons. However, he played all 16 games last season and he played pretty well, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked safety. His injury issues seem to be behind him for now. When healthy, he is a solid player, showing it last year and in 2009 and 2010, when he ranked 21st and 31st respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus. The Lions cut him because it saved 6 million on the cap and in cash, but the Dolphins are only giving him 3.5 million over 1 season, which is much more reasonable.

The issue is he’s a downgrade from Chris Clemons, who is now in Houston. Clemons was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety last season and 25th ranked safety in 2012 in two years as a starter with the Dolphins, his only two years as a starter. Clemons only got 2.7 million over 2 seasons from the Texans so re-signing him, instead of signing Delmas, would have been the better move. At the end of the day though, Delmas should be a solid starter as long as he’s healthy and on the field.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Dolphins were essentially a roughly 6-10 team that managed to go 8-8 in 2013. They should be better this season as they overhauled the offensive line, but they overpaid for two starters in free agency, they reached for a starter in the first round of the draft, and they still have issues upfront. They also lost three players defensively, Paul Soliai, Chris Clemons, and Nolan Carroll and their replacements are all downgrades.

If Ryan Tannehill can break out in his 3rd year in the league behind a revamped offensive line, they could make a playoff push. They also have a trio of players defensively who, while they are one year wonders, could have bounce back years in 2014, after rough 2013s and strong 2012s. However, I have the Dolphins as the 3rd most talented team in the AFC East and out of the playoffs right now. I’ll have official wins predictions for each team at the end of all my previews.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 162014
 

Quarterback

The Bills drafted EJ Manuel in the first round in 2013, the only team in the league that decided that a quarterback was worth going in the first round in that weak draft class. It was a surprise pick as Geno Smith seemed like the most likely quarterback to be first off the board and it looked like there might not even be a quarterback drafted in the first round, but the Bills fell in love with Manuel’s upside and drafted him at 16 after a trade down.

The Bills’ desperation for a franchise quarterback makes sense. They haven’t made the playoffs since 1999, the longest playoff drought in the NFL, and they are 88-136 since that season. They haven’t had a true franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly left in 1996, last whiffing on JP Losman in the first round in 2004. It’s not that they’ve been particularly awful over that stretch, only twice going 4-12 or worse, but they have been consistently mediocre, winning 6 to 9 games in 11 of the last 14 seasons, including 7 seasons of 6 or 7 wins.

Manuel looked like a reach as a rookie though. Ignore the injuries (several lower body injuries limited him to 706 snaps in 10 games), Manuel really struggled on the field, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked quarterback. He completed 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions and even struggled, efficiency wise, as a runner, even though that’s supposed to be an added bonus he offers teams. He rushed for just 186 yards and 2 touchdowns on 35 carries, a pathetic 3.51 YPC.

He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but so far his career is not off to a great start. If Manuel continues to struggle, backup Thad Lewis, who flashed in Manuel’s absence last season, could become the starter and get more opportunities later this season. The 2010 undrafted free agent out of Duke got his first significant action last season and completed 59.2% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, and rushed for 52 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries (2.17 YPC). He was Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked quarterback out of 42 eligible on 361 snaps. It’s obviously a small sample size for a former undrafted free agent and he wasn’t incredibly impressive, but if Manuel continues to struggle, he might get a shot.

It’s a shame that the Bills couldn’t get strong quarterback play last season because their defense was so good, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 67.58% rate, 6th best in the NFL. However, their offense moved the chains at a 66.27% rate, 28th best in the NFL. They still were 19th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential at -1.31%, which was still slightly better than their record. This is a talented team that could sneak into the playoffs if they get good quarterback play, but I’m not confident about that.

Grade: C

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Bills obviously made upgrading their supporting cast around EJ Manuel a priority this off-season, drafting Sammy Watkins 4th overall. Clearly they fell in love with the Clemson speedster during the draft process as the Bills traded their 9th overall pick, a 2015 1st round pick, and a 2015 4th round pick to move up to get him. They better hope he becomes the type of player they think he can become and fast, otherwise the Bills could be giving up two top-10 picks for one. For comparison’s sake, the Falcons traded two first round picks in the 20s, a 2nd round pick, and two 4th round picks for Julio Jones. Watkins is going to need to become at least that good for the Bills for this move to make sense in hindsight.

I’m skeptical he can become good enough fast enough, not because of his lack of talent, but because wide receivers usually take a year or so to get adjusted to the NFL. Since 2005, 31 receivers have gone in the 1st round. They’ve averaged 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson were top-3 picks and they had 58/780/8 and 48/756/4 respectively as rookies. If Watkins can do that as a rookie, considering the poor quarterback play that the Bills could easily have, it should be considered a success, but even if he does that, I’m skeptical it’ll be enough right away to boost their offense enough for them to make the playoffs.

Watkins could still become their #1 receiver right away. He’ll be replacing Steve Johnson in that role, as Johnson was traded to San Francisco for a 4th round pick for financial reasons. Johnson had 3 good years from 2010-2012, playing all 48 games and posting almost identical 82/1073/10, 76/1004/7, 79/1046/6 lines in those 3 seasons respectively. However, Johnson struggled in his first season in the Bills’ new offensive scheme under Doug Marrone, missing 4 games and catching 52 passes for 597 yards and 3 touchdowns in a run heavy, poorly quarterbacked offense. He averaged about 1.56 yards per route run on 383 routes run, down from 1.95 to 1.83 to 1.90 in 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively and he caught just 54.7% of his targets. He graded out about average on Pro Football Focus in pass catching grade. He was Pro Football Focus’ 54th ranked wide receiver last season, after grading out 40th, 19th, and 22nd in 2010, 2011, and 2012 respectively.

The Bills also traded for Mike Williams this off-season, trading a 6th round pick to Tampa Bay. They’ll be paying him a 1.8 million dollar salary this season. Considering Williams has shown he can be a very solid receiver when he has a fire lit under him, it’s a worthwhile gamble with little downside and potentially high upside. Williams had strong years in 2010 (65/964/11) and 2012 (63/996/9), grading out well above average on Pro Football Focus in each season. However, in 2011, he had just 65 catches for 771 yards and 3 touchdowns, grading out well below average, and reportedly displaying a very poor work ethic. In 2013, he had 22 catches for 216 yards and 2 touchdowns in just 6 games before going down with injury.

After his injury, he reportedly incurred 200K in fines for a variety of activity detrimental to the team, including missing meetings. He has a history of this type of behavior, not just in 2011 and 2013, but dating back to his collegiate days at the Syracuse University, when he was kicked off the team, ironically by head coach Doug Marrone, who is now head coach of the Bills. Williams also has a myriad of minor off the field incidents over the past calendar year, which are concerning when you put everything together. All of that makes up why he was traded to the Bills for a 6th round pick, but this could serve as the wake-up call he needs to continue alternating bad years with strong years. His quarterback play could hold him back though.

Williams and Watkins will work in 3-wide receiver sets with Robert Woods and they could all play a similar amount of snaps. Watkins and Woods can both play in the slot and they’re all similar caliber players at this point in their respective careers. Woods was a 2nd round pick in 2013 and caught 40 passes for 587 yards and 3 touchdowns. He averaged 1.21 yards per route run on 484 routes run and caught 40 of 81 targets, 49.4%. He graded out slightly below average on Pro Football Focus, grading out 79th, but he could be better in his 2nd year in the league.

The Bills also have a pair of recent 3rd round picks in TJ Graham and Marquise Goodwin at wide receiver. Graham, a 2012 3rd round pick, could be on the roster bubble though after struggling in his first 2 years in the league. He was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked wide receiver in 2012 and 6th worst ranked wide receiver in 2013. He played 835 snaps last season so simply having him not play a significant role this season will be helpful. Goodwin, meanwhile, was a 2013 3rd round pick who impressed on 319 snaps as a rookie. He’ll probably slot in as the 4th receiver and could see significant playing time if injuries strike.

The one area the Bills didn’t upgrade on offense this off-season that they should have was tight end. Scott Chandler was retained on a cheap salary. He was actually the Bills’ leading receiver last season, catching 53 passes for 655 yards and 2 touchdowns, catching 53 passes on 79 targets, 67.1%, but he only averaged 1.33 yards per route run on 492 routes run. He was a mediocre blocker as well and graded out below average on Pro Football Focus. Bringing him back on a 2-year, 4.75 million dollar deal wasn’t an issue, but they should have brought in another tight end.

Lee Smith was their #2 tight end last season and he was a solid blocker, playing 437 snaps, but he only ran 88 routes, so when he was on the field, it was pretty obvious that it would be a run. Adding a pass catching tight end would have allowed them to be more successful passing the ball out of two-tight end sets, which would have allowed them to run more two-tight end sets. That would be a valuable addition for a run heavy team and give them added versatility that they didn’t have last season. Smith caught 5 passes for 78 yards last season and has 13 catches for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns in his career. There’s some talent for Manuel to work with in the receiving corps, especially if they get both a strong rookie year from Watkins and a bounce back year from Mike Williams, but expecting both of those things to happen isn’t wise.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Bills also added this off-season at right tackle, drafting Cyrus Kouandjio in the 2nd round. He could easily start at right tackle as a rookie at some point, if not week 1. Erik Pears is the incumbent. He’s heading into an age 32 contract year and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible, holding up in pass protection, but struggling mightily as a run blocker. The veteran also struggled in 2012. Opposite him at right tackle, Cordy Glenn, a 2012 2nd round pick, has developed into one of the better blindside protectors in the game. After a solid rookie year in 2012, when he graded out 33rd at his position, he ranked 13th in 2013. He could be even better, going into his 3rd year in the league, in 2014.

The Bills also made an off-season addition at left guard, which was needed because their play at that position was awful last season, after they lost Andy Levitre to free agency the off-season before. Colin Brown started the first 5 games of last season and was horrendous, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked guard despite playing just 400 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. Doug Legursky took over the starting job and was better, but only by default. He was Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible on 780 snaps.

The issue is that the player they brought in to start at that position isn’t much better. In fact, he could be worse. For some reason, the Bills decided to give a 4-year, 13.5 million dollar deal to Chris Williams this off-season, even though he was Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. This isn’t anything new for him. The 14th overall pick by the Bears in 2008 has been a massive bust, struggling at pretty much every position on the offensive line in his career. With the exception of his rookie year, when he played 16 snaps, he’s never graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t a starter in 2012, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked guard out of 82 eligible in 2010 and 60th ranked guard out of 78 eligible in 2011. The Bills drafted Cyril Richardson in the 5th round and, if Williams continues to struggle, he could see playing time, though he might not be much of an upgrade as a rookie.

Right guard is better, as Kraig Urbik starts there. The 2009 4th round pick has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons with the Bills as a starter, grading out as the 18th, 25th, and 21st ranked guard in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. Eric Wood remains at center, but the 2009 1st round pick has graded out below average in 4 of 5 seasons, including last season when he was Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked center out of 35 eligible. There’s some talent on this offensive line, but there are also a lot of problems. They’ll need a rookie to step up if they’re going to be even an average offensive line and that seems unlikely at the moment.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

CJ Spiller, the 9th overall pick in 2010, was supposed to have a huge breakout year last year as the feature back in Buffalo’s run heavy offense. He was very impressive in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back, averaging 6.01 yards per carry on 207 carries, rushing for 1244 yards and 6 touchdowns. He also added 43 catches for 459 yards and 2 touchdowns. However, Spiller only played 394 snaps last season for two reasons.

The first reason was injury. He only missed 1 game with injury, but he was limited in others. He had single digit carries in 3 games and showed serious inconsistency, with 5 games in which he had 23 rushing yards or fewer. He averaged 4.62 yards per carry, rushing for 933 yards and 2 touchdowns on 202 carries, but inconsistency was a serious problem. He also only had 33 catches for 185 yards, doing so 145 routes run, a mediocre average of 1.28 yards per route run.

That leads into the second reason why he played so few snaps, which was his struggles on passing downs. He wasn’t awful as a pass catcher, but he was as a pass protector, allowing 1 sack, 3 hits, and 3 hurries on just 21 pass block snaps. As a result, Fred Jackson played the majority of the pass snaps (411 to 171) and the majority of the snaps in general (676 to 394). Jackson isn’t quite as good of a runner, but he still rushed for 890 yards and 9 touchdowns on 206 carries (4.32 YPC) and caught 47 passes for 387 yards and a touchdown.

Spiller could have better health in 2014, which will help him as a rusher and help him play more snaps. He could also bounce back as a pass catcher. The pass protection is the bigger issue though. 300+ touches are his for the taking in this run heavy offense and he could be incredibly efficient, but there’s no guarantee he takes them. There’s obviously incentive for him having a big year, as he heads into his contract year.

The Bills also might need him to do that as Jackson heads into his age 33 season. Jackson has defied father time before, doing so just last year obviously, and it helps that he got a late start to his career, with just 1394 touches in his career. However, he’s still very old for a running back and a year removed from a 2-year stretch in which he missed 10 games and a 2012 season in which he rushed for 3.80 YPC on 115 carries.

The Bills traded a 4th round pick for Bryce Brown to add another running back to the mix. The 2012 7th round pick of the Eagles has flashed in 2 seasons, rushing for 878 yards and 6 touchdowns on 190 carries, an average of 4.62 YPC, while adding 21 catches for 140 yards. He didn’t play a lot of college football for a variety of reasons, which is why he fell to the 7th round, but he was a top high school recruit and clearly has talent. He had an issue with fumbles as a rookie, with 4 fumbles on 128 touches, but he didn’t fumble once on 83 touches last season so those could be behind him. He’s a solid 3rd running back. There’s definitely talent at the running back position, but there are also question marks.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

I mentioned how well the Bills played last season defensively. Their front 7 play had a lot to do that, but they might not have quite the same level of success this season as they lost defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who did a fantastic job last season in his first year on the job, coming over from the Jets. He ended up getting a head coaching job in Cleveland this off-season. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has had a fair amount of success in his career, but he could still be a downgrade and he’s moving them back to a 4-3, which might not be the best scheme for them, given how well they played in a 3-4 last season.

The switch probably won’t hurt them at defensive tackle, where they have arguably the best defensive tackle duo in the NFL in Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. Williams has been a dominant defensive lineman over the past 6 seasons, playing 4-3 defensive tackle, 3-4 nose tackle, and 3-4 defensive end. He missed most of the 2011 season with injury, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked defensive tackle in 2008, 13th ranked defensive tackle in 2009, 1st ranked defensive tackle in 2010, 3rd ranked defensive tackle in 2012, and 3rd ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013. The scheme switch shouldn’t affect him, though the fact that he’s going into his age 31 season is a very minor concern.

Marcell Dareus, meanwhile, was the 3rd overall pick in the loaded 2011 draft and is now going into his 4th season in the league, only his age 25 season. The Bills already picked up his 5th year option and for good reason. He’s played both 4-3 defensive tackle and 3-4 nose tackle in his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle in both 2011 and 2012 and their 6th ranked defensive tackle in 2013. The scheme switch shouldn’t affect him either and he could be even better in his 4th year in the league.

Someone the scheme switch could affect negatively though is Jerry Hughes. Hughes is a former 1st round pick of the Colts, going 31st overall in 2010, and looked like a bust in the first 2 years of his career with the Colts, struggling on just 240 snaps combined at 4-3 defensive end. He was a little better on 610 snaps in his 3rd year in the league as a 3-4 rush linebacker in 2012 on 610 snaps and broke out in Buffalo last season as a rush linebacker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 3-4 rush linebacker, including 3rd in pure pass rush grade, on 621 snaps. He actually led all players in pass rush efficiency with 11 sacks, 9 hits, and 31 hurries on 318 pass rush snaps, an average of 16.0%, essentially a pressure every 6 snaps.

There’s obviously concern though with him switching back to 4-3 defensive end and with Mike Pettine being gone. He obviously has natural talent, which is why he went in the first round, but he’s still a one year wonder and losing both the defensive coordinator and the scheme in which he broke out last season has to be concerning. In order to deal with this concern, the Bills are planning on having Manny Lawson play the majority of the snaps in base packages, so Hughes can focus on just rushing the passer out of sub packages, something the athletic, but undersized Hughes (6-2 255, ex-collegiate running back) could still excel at in Jim Schwartz’ wide nine defense.

Manny Lawson is another former first round pick, going in the first round in 2006. He’s never lived up to that, but he’s had some moderate success as a part-time run stopper over the past few seasons. However, he’s been doing that as both a 3-4 and 4-3 outside linebacker and has never played 4-3 defensive end in his career, though that was his collegiate position. He’s stopped the run well as a linebacker, but he’s only 6-5 240 and he could have trouble stopping the run as a down defensive lineman. He’s probably the smallest base defensive end in the NFL.

It would make more sense for him to continue playing outside linebacker and play the two-down outside linebacker role. In that situation, they could use Alan Branch at defensive end and have him play essentially the Red Bryant role, as they use in Jacksonville, Seattle. Branch is a talented defensive lineman, but doesn’t really have a role right now with the switch to a 4-3. He was two-down run stopping defensive end last season who didn’t really play in sub packages. He struggled mightily as a pass rusher, grading 4th worst among 3-4 defensive ends as a pass rusher, but he was 7th best as a run stopper and 20th best overall on 576 snaps. He also was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive tackle in 2011, including 3rd as a run stopper. He could play a depth role at defensive tackle, but it might be a better use of him to have him play as a base defensive end. Either way, it looks like he’s another player who the scheme switch will negatively affect.

Mario Williams will be an every down defensive end on the other side. He’s another player who probably won’t be affected by the scheme change. He’s been a solid, but unspectacular player in pretty much every season since he was drafted first overall in 2006 by the Texans, grading out well above average in each of the past 7 seasons, maxing out at 11th in 2009. Last season, he was 17th among 3-4 rush linebackers. He’s played both 4-3 end and 3-4 outside linebacker and has been equally good in both schemes. He’s very durable and has played all 16 games and 900+ snaps in 6 of 8 professional seasons. He might not necessarily be worth the 6-year, 96 million dollar deal the Bills gave him before the 2012 season, but he’s an obvious asset for them and should continue to be one this season. He’s part of a dominant defensive line, but the scheme change could hurt the unit a little bit.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Kiko Alonso is another one of their talented front 7 players. The 2013 2nd round pick was a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker. He excelled in coverage, with only Derrick Johnson grading out better in coverage than he did last season, as he allowed just 237 yards on 44 attempts and picked off 4 passes. He allowed just 0.43 yards per coverage snap, best at his position, and displayed excellent closing speed. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, now moving to 4-3 outside linebacker, where he’ll play every down. This assumes he won’t miss Mike Pettine’s tutelage and scheme though.

The rest of the Bills’ linebacking corps is really up for grabs though. Brandon Spikes was a big free agent acquisition, as the Bills paid him 3.5 million on a one-year deal for him to come over from the Patriots. Spikes is pretty much just a two-down part-time player though. Brandon Spikes was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked middle linebacker last season, but that’s a little misleading. That was fueled solely by his run play as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ first ranked middle linebacker in terms of run grade by a mile, but he ranked 38th out of 55 middle linebackers in terms of coverage grade. He also played only 694 snaps as a part-time two-down player. He’s a pure base package player in a league that’s devaluing pure base package players, though he’s an excellent one at that.

This isn’t a new thing for him. In 2012, he graded out 9th among middle linebackers, including 1st as a run stopper, playing just 742 snaps. In 2011, he graded out 18th among middle linebackers, 19th in run grade, and played 364 snaps. In 2010, he graded out 9th among middle linebackers, 4th in run grade, and played 356 snaps. He also has a history of injury and issues with the coaching staff. All this being said, he is phenomenal at what he does.

The 2nd linebacker role in sub packages is very much up for grabs though. Da’Norris Searcy, a hybrid safety/linebacker at 5-11 223, would often play down around the line of scrimmage as that 2nd linebacker in sub packages last season, meaning the Bills would essentially use three safeties, but the Bills lost Jairus Byrd this off-season so Searcy might have to focus more on being a pure safety. Preston Brown was their 3rd round pick and he could have a big role right away, but it’s hard to count on him.

Brown is in the mix at the other outside linebacker position as well, which is also up for grabs. I mentioned that Manny Lawson will be moving to 4-3 defensive end, but that might not last long. Nigel Bradham is also an option. The 2012 4th round pick has flashed on 690 snaps over the last two seasons, excelling against the run and holding up in coverage, and could be ready for a bigger role. Ty Powell, a 2013 7th round pick who played 15 snaps as a rookie, is reportedly also in the mix. There’s talent in the linebacking corps, but things are still in flux.

Grade: B+

Secondary

I mentioned earlier the Bills’ loss of Jairus Byrd this off-season. Along with losing Mike Pettine, his absence is part of the reason why the Bills might not be quite as good defensively as they were last season. Byrd got a well-deserved 6-year, 54 million dollar deal with the Saints. He’s one of the top safeties in the game. Last year, he was “only” Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked safety and that was because he missed 5 games and only played 646 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out higher than him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety in 2011 and 2nd ranked safety in 2012. Only Eric Weddle has also graded out in the top-8 in each of the last 3 seasons. He’ll be very tough to replace.

Da’Norris Searcy is one option to replace him, as he did last year when Byrd was hurt, but the 2011 4th round pick graded out below average on 756 snaps last season and he could also play some linebacker in sub packages. Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks are the other options. They were 4th and 5th round picks in the 2013 draft respectively, but they played 36 snaps and 0 snaps respectively last season. There was some talk that free agent acquisition Corey Graham could convert from cornerback and play safety, but for now he’s at cornerback. It might be something they revisit later in the off-season. It’s an obvious downgrade from Byrd either way.

The Bills did lock up one safety long-term as they gave a 4-year, 26 million dollar to Aaron Williams. He is locked into the other safety spot. Williams struggled in his first two years in the league on 1007 snaps as a cornerback, after being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011, but found success last season at safety, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked safety and leading the secondary in snaps played with 955. The Bills probably jumped the gun on that extension, making him the 12th highest paid safety in the NFL in terms of average salary, when he was still a one-year wonder and when he still had one year left on his deal. The Bills better hope he doesn’t regress without Pettine. He should still be an asset though.

Leodis McKelvin is probably the Bills’ top cornerback. McKelvin was a bust as the 11th overall pick in 2008, but he broke out last season, at least at cornerback (he was a very solid return man prior to last season). He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback and allowed 46.1% completion. The Bills will have to hope he doesn’t prove to be a one-year wonder without Pettine. He graded out above average in every season from 2010-2012, but he’s never graded out this high before and he never played as many snaps over that time period as the 947 snaps he played last season. He played just 868 snaps combined in 2011 and 2012.

Stephon Gilmore will be the other starting cornerback. I thought the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft would have a breakout year in his 2nd year in the league in 2013. In his first 5 NFL games in 2012, he struggled, allowing 19 completions on 31 attempts for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns. This was completely understandable as, even for a talented prospect such as Gilmore, the transition to the NFL can be a tough one, especially for a cornerback and especially for a cornerback frequently asked to cover opponent’s #1 receivers from day one.

However, in week 6 of 2012, Gilmore seemed to hit his stride and played very well from there on out. He allowed 30 completions on 56 attempts for 409 yards. He didn’t allow a touchdown the rest of the way and intercepted his only pass of the season week 13. He did commit 11 penalties in those 11 games, but I expected that to improve as he matured. He didn’t have that breakout year in 2013 though as he broke his hand and missed the first 5 weeks of the season, which seemed to put him behind the 8-ball. He graded out below average for the second straight season. He could have that breakout year in 2014, the naturally talented cornerback’s 3rd year in the league. After all, he doesn’t even turn 24 until September, but there’s no guarantee there.

Corey Graham will, at the very least, line up as the slot cornerback in sub packages, but he could also play outside in base packages and, as I mentioned earlier, he’s an option to play safety if they need him to. Graham comes over from Baltimore on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal. He’s developed into a pretty solid cornerback over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, on 588 snaps and 703 snaps respectively. He did this despite playing a combined 321 snaps from 2009-2011. The slot specialist is a 2007 5th round pick out of New Hampshire.

Part of the rationale behind moving Graham to safety is that the Bills had a perfectly good slot cornerback last season, Nickell Robey, who now doesn’t really have a role. The 2013 undrafted free agent had a fantastic rookie season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked cornerback. He allowed 32 completions on 61 attempts (52.5%) for 339 yards (5.56 YPA), 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while deflecting 5 passes and committing 6 penalties. He ranked 6th in yards allowed per slot coverage snap and 5th in receptions allowed per slot coverage snap.

There’s no guarantee he’d be as good in 2014. After all, he was undrafted and he still remains a one year wonder. However, he was undrafted primarily because of his size at 5-8 165 and he seemed to have carved out a niche on the slot last season, though he did lose his defensive coordinator. It’ll be a shame if he can’t get playing time this season, but he’s a hell of a player to have as your 4th cornerback and primary depth cornerback. There’s definitely still talent in the Bills’ secondary, but they’ll miss Byrd.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Bills were a little bit better than their record suggested last season. They probably won’t be as good defensively this season with Mike Pettine and Jairus Byrd gone, but Jim Schwartz is still a solid defensive mind and they have a lot of defensive talent still, with guys like Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kiko Alonso, Brandon Spikes, and Jerry Hughes. They’ll still have a strong defense and their offense should be better.

I don’t have huge expectations for EJ Manuel, but he should be, by default, healthier and better this season. Their receiving corps will be better simply because they won’t have a rookie Robert Woods and a terrible TJ Graham leading them in snaps played at wide receiver. The additions of Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams should help. They also could finally get that feature back breakout year from CJ Spiller at running back. There’s a good amount of talent here. They have about 6 guys that should be in my top-200 list, coming up in August (those 5 defensive players, plus Cordy Glenn). If they can get decent quarterback play, they’ll be in the playoff mix, but, again, I have my doubts about that. I’ll have an official wins prediction for all teams at the end of all my previews.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 122014
 

I mentioned that Kevin Williams and the Seahawks could be a match in my post last month, “Remaining NFL Free Agents Who Could Have An Impact.” Williams came in 2nd on that list. Believe it or not, the Seahawks still needed depth on their defensive line, after losing Clinton McDonald to the Buccaneers this off-season. Before signing Williams, they would have been counting on Jordan Hill, a 2013 3rd round pick who played 65 snaps as a rookie last season, to play a significant role on what was arguably the best defensive line in football last season.

The Seahawks are a young team that is going to get expensive fast over the next few off-seasons, but they’re also built to win now and signing a veteran like Williams cheap (about 2 million dollars) on a short-term deal was a good move for them. Likewise, Williams getting significant money at this point in the off-season and landing with a contender was a good move on his part. He showed decline last season and now is going into his age 34 season, but part of the reason he showed decline was he was so good to begin with. The future Hall-of-Famer was a top-3 defensive tackle in 2008-2010 and didn’t finish below 9th until last year. Even last year, he was 27th. He presumably still has another year or two left in the tank and can be valuable in a 500-600 snap role. This was a good move.

Grade: A

Jun 122014
 

Quarterback

Tom Brady arguably had the worst statistical season of his career last season, completing 60.5% of his passes (lowest since 2003), for an average of 6.92 YPA (lowest since 2003), 25 touchdowns (lowest in a full season since 2006), and 11 interceptions, a QB rating of 87.3. That QB rating was the 4th worst of his career and the lowest since 2003, when the NFL’s rules didn’t favor the quarterback nearly as much as they do now. Those numbers were all significant declines from 2010-2012, when he completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 8.02 YPA, 109 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions, a QB rating of 104.6.

Part of the issue was Brady’s lack of supporting cast offensively. Rob Gronkowski played just 7 games and 390 snaps because of injury. Aaron Hernandez obviously is gone. Wes Welker is in Denver and free agent replacement Danny Amendola struggled through injuries, leaving Julian Edelman to step up as Brady’s primary option in his absence. Only Matt Stafford had more passes dropped than Brady (53), and those 53 passes were for 487 yards in the air, also 2nd to Matt Stafford.

The Patriots also had issues upfront on the offensive line as Brady was pressured on 32.1% of his drop backs, the highest percentage of drop backs he’s been pressured on since at least before 2007. That still ranked in the bottom half of NFL quarterbacks, but that was more of a testament to Brady’s quick release than anything (2.39 seconds from snap to throw on average last season, 5th fastest in the NFL). Brady’s one weakness has always been pressure. Over the past 5 seasons, he only has completed 471 of 980 passes (48.1%) for 6281 yards (6.41 YPA), 43 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions under pressure, as opposed to 2050 for 2930 (70.0%) for 23969 yards (8.18 YPA), 187 touchdowns, and 42 interceptions while not under pressure.

However, part of the issue was also Brady himself. Brady was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked quarterback, which is very good, but he was 3rd in both 2011 and 2012. He’s also seen his QB rating drop from 111.0 to 105.6 to 98.7 to 87.3 over the past 4 seasons from 2010-2013. The decline he’s showing is a concern considering as he’s heading into his age 37 season. He’s getting to the point in his career where he could hit a wall in terms of his abilities at any time. He’s still a top level quarterback (for example, his actual passing grade was 5th among quarterbacks last season on Pro Football Focus), but I’d still rank Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and maybe Philip Rivers ahead of him. He could prove me wrong and have a vintage year this year, but that’s where I’d put him right now.

A lot of people like to mention the Patriots winning 12 games and going to the AFC Championship despite a weakened supporting cast as a reason why Brady is a top, top level quarterback and maybe even was the true MVP last season (he did get one MVP vote). I think that’s an overly simplistic view. The Patriots weren’t as good as their record suggested last season.

They had about 10.5 Pythagorean wins, 8th in the NFL, despite an unsustainable 62.50% fumble recovery rate. They finished 7-4 in games decided by a touchdown or less, including 6-1 in games decided by a field goal or less. They finished 8th in rate of moving the chains differential. If they had played last season the same way 100 times, they probably would have finished about 10-6 on average. They did win a playoff game, but that was on the back of an insane performance from LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 166 yards and 4 touchdowns on 24 carries. Brady was only 13 of 25 for 198 yards in that game. That’s especially concerning when coupled with Tom Brady’s age.

The good news is the Patriots’ supporting cast around Brady should be significantly improved compared to last season. Part of that has to do with the fact that they should have fewer injuries last season, when they had the 4th most adjusted games lost, including serious injuries to Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, and Jerod Mayo. They also added more talent this off-season, specifically upgrading the injury prone Aqib Talib with dominant man cornerback Darrelle Revis.

Grade: A-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The Patriots signed Danny Amendola to a 5-year, 28.5 million dollar deal last off-season to replace Wes Welker. Their logic was that Amendola was 4 years younger and had shown the potential to be for the next 5 years what Welker was for the last 5 years at a reasonable rate. That didn’t work out, at least in the first year of Amendola’s deal, so Julian Edelman had to step up as the Patriots’ #1 receiver. It took him a little bit, but he was very good in the 2nd half of the season.

In the first 8 games of the season, Edelman caught 48 passes for 462 yards and 2 touchdowns, which is good, but he was better in the second half of the season, catching 57 passes for 592 yards and 4 touchdowns. He also caught a higher percentage of his targets in the second half of the season, catching 57 of 78 (73.1%), as opposed to 48 catches on 68 targets in the first half of the season (70.6%) He also had two games in which he graded out well above average on Pro Football Focus in the first half of the season and two games in which he graded out well below average, while in the second half of the season he had four games in which he graded out well above average and none in which he graded out well below average. On top of that, had two more games in the post-season in which he graded out well above average, catching 16 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown on 22 targets in two post-season games.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Tom Brady played much better in the 2nd half of the season, once he started to have the same kind of familiarity with Edelman that he once had with Wes Welker. Over his first 8 games, Brady completed 55.7% of his passes for an average of 5.94 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. In the other 8 regular season games, he completed 65.1% of his passes for an average of 7.85 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. Brady graded out well above average in 2 of his first 8 games and well below average in 3 of his first 8 games. In the other 8 games, he graded out well above average in 5 games and well below average in 1 game. The Patriots averaged 33.1 points per game over their final 8 games, as opposed to 22.4 points per game over their first 8 games. The issue was their defense went from allowing 18.0 points per game to 24.3 points per game as injuries struck.

Overall, Edelman had a very strong season. Even excluding his strong post-season, he finished the regular season with 105 catches for 1056 yards and 6 touchdowns. He averaged 1.76 yards per route run. For comparison’s sake, Wes Welker averaged 1.64 yards per route run in 2013. Edelman did get more targets as he was a bigger part of New England’s offense, but he also caught a significantly higher percentage of his targets (71.9% to 67.0%) even though he commanded more of the defense’s attention.

As a result, Edelman was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked wide receiver in pass catching grade, while Welker came in at 37th. The Patriots offense wasn’t as good last season without Welker, but that was largely a result of the absence of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They probably shouldn’t have paid Danny Amendola all that money, but they made the right decision letting Welker go. Welker is a declining player going into his age 33 season who missed 3 games with injury last season. Amendola deal aside, the Patriots are getting a better deal long-term with Edelman than Welker (who will make 6 million in a contract year in 2014). The Patriots gave Edelman a deserved 4-year, 17 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, as he goes into his age 28 season.

Still, the Patriots do need to become less reliant on Edelman and have other receivers step up for Brady to throw to. Edelman is still a former undrafted one-year wonder who had 69 catches in the previous 4 seasons, while missing a combined 16 games over those 4 seasons. Rob Gronkowski would be the best candidate to step up, considering how good he is when he’s healthy. Gronkowski has been a top-3 tight end in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including last year when he graded out 2nd despite playing just 390 snaps in 7 games.

Gronkowski has caught 184 passes for 2709 yards and 32 touchdowns over his last 34 games, which is 87 catches for 1275 yards and 15 touchdowns over 16 games. He’s averaged 2.38 yards per route run over his career, including 2.47 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons and 2.75 yards per route run last season. That’s insane for a tight end. For comparison, Jimmy Graham has averaged 2.19 yards per route run over the past 3 seasons and he’s widely considered the best receiving tight end in the NFL. Gronkowski, when healthy, is a better pass catcher and he’s also easily a better run blocker. He struggled a little bit as a run blocker last season, after coming back from a broken arm, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked tight end in 2010 in run blocking grade, 1st ranked in 2011, and 4th ranked in 2012. When healthy, he’s easily the best, most complete tight end in the NFL.

Over the past 3 seasons, Tom Brady completes 65.3% of his passes for an average of 8.07 YPA, 81 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions when Gronkowski plays (36 games, including playoffs) and the Patriots score 32.8 points per game. When Gronkowski isn’t on the field, Brady completes 58.3% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and the Patriots score 28.0 points per game (19 games, including playoffs). Gronkowski played 6 of the Patriots’ final 8 games last season, which is a big part of the reason why Brady and the Patriots’ offense played so much better in the 2nd half of the season. He didn’t play in the post-season, when their passing game fell short.

The issue with Gronkowski is obviously injuries. He’s missed 14 games of the past 2 seasons combined and has missed the Patriots’ last 4 playoff games, not playing in a playoff game since the 2011 Super Bowl. He had back problems in college. He struggled in the Super Bowl through an ankle problem. He broke his arm in 2012 and re-broke it in the playoffs. He had 5 surgeries on that arm, including 3 surgeries to treat an infection. He also had another back procedure. And then last December, he tore his ACL.

He’s currently more likely than not to be back for week 1, about 9 months removed from his torn ACL, although who knows with the Patriots and how tight-lipped they are with injuries. The good news is he did seem to have put all of his past injuries behind him last season, when he was dominant in 7 games. This is his first major leg injury and he’s only going into his age 25 season. The bad news is that ACL injuries usually take a while to return to full strength from and he could be less than 100% all season even once he returns. Leg injuries also can lead to other leg injuries. He also doesn’t inspire confidence that he won’t suffer another injury. His durability is a serious problem. All that being said, it’s likely that the Patriots will have him for more games, more snaps, and more production this season than last year and possibly even than 2012 (55 catches for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games on 743 snaps). More importantly, they’ll probably have him for the playoffs.

Another guy who should have better health this season is Danny Amendola. Amendola caught just 54 passes for 633 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, which obviously was a disappointment for the Patriots. He only missed 4 games, but he was limited all season with a groin injury. When healthy, he can be a great wide receiver. He averaged 2.04 yards per route run with the Rams in 2012 despite having Sam Bradford at quarterback. The issue is he’s never been able to stay healthy. He’s missed a combined 24 games over the past 3 seasons, not excluding the other games he’s been limited with injury. However, if I had to bet on it, I’d bet on him being more productive this season than last. He’s once again having a strong off-season (like he did last off-season) and he seems to be over that groin issue.

Aaron Dobson is another guy who should be more productive this season than last season. The 2013 2nd round pick caught 37 passes for 519 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The average first round pick rookie wide receiver averages 41 catches for 558 yards and 3 touchdowns per season. Dobson was able to post comparable numbers despite missing 4 games and despite being a 2nd round pick. It’s a testament to Dobson’s athleticism and upside and Tom Brady’s ability to get the most out of his receivers. He averaged 1.65 yards per route run. He had a serious issue with drops, dropping 9 passes to those 37 catches and only caught 37 of 71 targets (52.1%), but he definitely flashed. He should be better in his 2nd year in the league and could be a lot better.

Dobson was only one of three rookie wide receivers the Patriots had last season. Josh Boyce caught 9 passes for 121 yards as a 4th round rookie and now is on the roster bubble. Kenbrell Thompkins played a bigger role as rookie, catching 32 passes for 466 yards and 4 touchdowns on 355 routes run, but that’s just an average of 1.31 yards per route run and he only caught 32 of 69 targets (46.4%). The 2013 undrafted rookie is also on the roster bubble. Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, and free agent acquisition Brandon LaFell are locked into roster spots.

LaFell and Dobson will compete to be the #3 wide receiver. LaFell, a 2010 3rd round pick, comes over from Carolina. He caught 167 passes for 2385 yards and 13 touchdowns in 4 seasons, proving to be a marginal receiver at best, averaging 1.36 yards per route run, including just 1.18 yards per route run last season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 94th ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade in 2013. He’s a solid blocker and a big body at 6-2 211, but he lacks explosiveness. There’s some talk they could line him up at tight end kind of, the way they did with Aaron Hernandez, but there’s no evidence that they will.

The reason people are wondering whether or not they’ll do that is because they really lack a #2 tight end. DJ Williams is currently their “move” tight end in the old Aaron Hernandez role, but the 2011 5th round pick has 9 career catches and isn’t much of a blocker. Michael Hoomanawanui is a decent blocker, but offers nothing as a pass catcher with 37 catches in 4 seasons since being drafted in the 5th round in 2010. The 6-4 260 pounder can’t really play that “move” tight end role. This is a bigger issue if Gronkowski misses time, but not having a good #2 tight end will still hurt them either way. The Patriots will run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets this season.

The Patriots were planning on having running back Shane Vereen replace a lot of Aaron Hernandez’s production last season in a Darren Sproles type role, lining up all over the formation in passing situations. That didn’t work out because Vereen too was bitten by the injury bug, missing 8 games with a broken wrist. He’s someone else who should be more productive this year than last year as that injury is now long behind him. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked running back in terms of pass catching grade last season, despite only running 200 routes. He caught 47 passes for 427 yards and 3 touchdowns on 66 targets on 200 routes run, an average of 2.14 yards per route run that was 2nd only to Darren Sproles among running backs. He did that all in 8 games and could have a big season this year. Overall, barring major injuries and young players not developing, the Patriots’ receiving corps should be better than it was last season.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Patriots also have a key contributor coming back from injury on the offensive line and it should make them a better unit as a result. That player is right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, who only played 516 snaps in 8 games before breaking his leg last season. He was dominant before the injury, on his way to probably the best season of his career in his 5th year in the league. He still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked offensive tackle despite the limited playing time. No offensive tackle played fewer snaps than him and graded out higher.

Vollmer has been a very solid player since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2009. He’s been a top-23 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 5 seasons, doing so in 2011 and 2013 despite playing 6 and 8 games respectively. The issue is he’s never played a full 16 game season and he’s missed 25 games in 5 seasons. Having him back healthy will be a boost to this offensive line as Marcus Cannon, a 2011 5th round pick better off as a 6th offensive lineman, struggled a little bit last season when forced into the starting lineup.

Nate Solder will continue to start at left tackle. The 2011 1st round was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked offensive tackle in his first year as a starter in 2012 and then took it to the next level in 2013, grading out 9th. He was abused by Von Miller, but there’s no shame in that and he was very good the rest of the season. The Patriots have already picked up his option for 2015 and he’s one of the best young blindside protectors in the game.

Logan Mankins will continue to man the left guard position, as he’s been doing since the Patriots drafted him in the first round in 2005. Mankins is already going into his age 32 season, which is a concern, especially since he hasn’t been as good over the past few seasons, struggling through various injuries and starting to show his age. A top-10 guard in every season from 2007-2010, including #1 in 2008, Mankins has graded out 27th, 18th, and 19th in the last 3 seasons respectively. Last year he run blocked well, but actually graded out significantly below average as a pass protector, allowing 9 sacks. He should have another solid season left in him at the very least, but he’s not the same player anymore.

The bigger issues are at center and right guard. Ryan Wendell, a 2008 undrafted free agent, broke out in his first year as a starter in 2012, after flashing as a reserve earlier in his career, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked center. He really struggled in pass protection, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked center in pass protection that season, which is an offensive linemen’s most important job, but he was #1 by far as a run blocker, so he made up for it.

However, in 2013, he still struggled in pass protection and wasn’t nearly as good as a run blocker. He was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked center overall. Instead of replacing him, the Patriots gave him a 2-year, 3.25 million dollar contract this off-season, though they did draft Bryan Stork in the 4th round. Stork could push him at some point as a rookie if he continues to struggle. Another option is playing Marcus Cannon at right guard and moving Dan Connolly to center. Either way, they’re unlikely to get good play from the center position.

Connolly is currently at right guard. Like Mankins, he too is going into his age 32 season. Unlike Mankins, he’s never been that good. A marginal starter for a few seasons, last year was probably the worst year of his career, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked guard out of 81 eligible. His days as a starting caliber player are probably over. Marcus Cannon could push him for the starting job.  It’s a solid offensive line, a better offensive line than last year, but there are more issues than you’d like for a team with a quarterback whose play declines as much under pressure as Brady does.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Stevan Ridley had a breakout year in 2012 as the 2011 3rd round pick rushed for 1263 yards and 12 touchdowns on 290 carries (4.36 YPC). He was off to an equally good start in the 2013 season, rushing for 562 yards and 7 touchdowns on 131 carries (4.29 YPC) through 9 games. However, he lost a fumble in 3 straight weeks (4 total on the season) and got benched against Denver. The rest of the way, he had just 66 carries for 280 yards and 2 touchdowns (4.24 YPC) in 7 games, including playoffs.

LeGarrette Blount took over as the primary back and combined to rush for 944 yards on 182 carries in the regular and post-season, an average of 5.19 yards per carry. He also rushed for 11 touchdowns. He’s gone, signing in Pittsburgh, so it looks like the Patriots will trust Ridley as their feature back again. Aside from his fumbling issues (9 fumbles in 3 years on 574 touches), Ridley’s biggest issue is that he’s not a receiving threat, with 19 catches in 3 years. He had just 17 in his collegiate career as well. Shane Vereen makes up for that as a receiver out of the backfield in passing situations.

If Ridley’s fumbling problems come back, the Patriots options to replace him as the lead back aren’t great. They could give Vereen more of a role as a runner, even though the small 5-10 205 pounder has just 121 carries in 3 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2011 (4.26 YPA). Brandon Bolden is their 2nd best big back. He’s flashed, rushing for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns on 111 carries (4.91 YPA) in his career as a 2012 undrafted free agent, but he’s had problems with injuries, which was a big issue for him in college as well. That’s a big part of the reason why he wasn’t drafted. James White is another option. They drafted him in the 4th round in this past draft.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

Vince Wilfork is the big re-addition on the defensive line as he returns from a torn Achilles suffered in week 4 of last season. His absence was evident last season as their run defense up the middle was, at times, pathetic. Some of that had to do with Wilfork’s dominance against the run. Some of that had to do with how poor their replacements were. With Wilfork and fellow veteran Tommy Kelly out for the season, the Patriots had to turn to a pair of rookies, Chris Jones, a 6th round pick cut by the Texans in final cuts, and Joe Vellano, an undrafted free agent rookie. They played 792 snaps and 672 snaps respectively, which was a big issue.

Jones was the biggest issue. People can point to his 7 sacks as a reason why he had a good season, but that’s the opposite of reality. Those sacks were coupled with just 1 quarterback hit and 13 hurries on 440 pass rush snaps, a 4.8% pass rush rate. He probably won’t have close to 7 sacks on his next 440 pass rush snaps if he doesn’t improve his pass rush abilities. Rushing the passer wasn’t even his biggest issue as he got destroyed against the run, being pushed off the line with ease.

He ranked as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked defensive tackle against the run by far and their worst ranked defensive tackle overall. Vellano was better and actually pretty impressive for an undrafted rookie, but he still ranked 56th out of 69 eligible defensive tackles. Sealver Siliga got playing time down the stretch and impressed, but there’s no guarantee he could have continued that into 2014. The good news is that none of Jones, Vellano, and Siliga will start the season higher than 4th on the depth chart at defensive tackle.

Wilfork’s return will obviously help things. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2012, 23rd ranked defensive tackle in 2011, and would have been their composite 16th ranked defensive tackle in 2010 had he not played a fair amount of 3-4 defensive end that season. However, I’m skeptical that he’ll be the same Vince Wilfork, going into his age 33 season, coming off of a torn Achilles.

Tommy Kelly, meanwhile, is coming off of a torn ACL going into his age 34 season. He played alright on 223 snaps last season before going down, but he was awful in 2012, grading out 74th among 85 eligible defensive tackle. I’m very skeptical he can continue to be a starting caliber player at his age, coming off that injury. He’ll be pushed for the starting job in training camp by 1st round rookie Dominique Easley. Easley is coming off of his own injury, tearing his ACL in his final season at Florida, after tearing the other one back in 2011. He’s a serious injury concern already at such a young age and was a surprise pick 29th overall, but he has top-10/top-15 talent when healthy.

At defensive end, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich will remain the starters. A lot of teams believe in rotating their defensive ends. The Patriots apparently don’t as Jones and Ninkovich were 1 and 2 in the NFL in terms of snaps played among defensive linemen as they played 1142 and 1114 snaps respectively. They only missed 24 and 52 snaps respectively all season and played 71.4 and 69.6 snaps per game respectively. It’s very impressive, but they definitely had a good amount of bad snaps as a result of overuse.

Rob Ninkovich is the more impressive of the two, grading out Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 defensive end, including #1 against the run, while Jones graded out 23rd. He had a good amount of pass rush production, but much of that was just because he played so many pass rush snaps. He had 9 sacks, 14 hits, and 46 hurries on 552 pass rush snaps, a 12.5% pass rush rate that is solid, but unspectacular. He also graded out below average as a pass rusher on Pro Football Focus. Jones also played much better against the run than as a pass rusher. He graded out 13th as a run stopper, but 12th worst as a pass rusher, with 13 sacks, 14 hits, and 39 hurries on 637 pass rush snaps, a rate of 10.4%.

Both of them could be better this season if they played fewer snaps and got more breathers, which would be good as the Patriots ranked 2nd worst as a team in terms of team pass rush grade on Pro Football Focus last season. This is especially true of Chandler Jones, an incredibly athletic 2012 1st round pick going into his 3rd year in the league. I don’t know if Ninkovich can improve on the best season of his career as he goes into his age 30 season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012, 15th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2011, and 16th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2010. The versatile front 7 defender has found a home for himself in New England, after being drafted in the 5th round in 2006 and bouncing around from the Saints to the Dolphins back to the Saints from 2006-2008.

The issue is the Patriots don’t have very much depth at the position. Michael Buchanan struggled mightily on 122 snaps as a 7th round rookie last season. Jake Bequette was a 3rd round pick in 2012, but he’s played just 43 snaps uninspiring snaps in 2 seasons. Zach Moore was a 6th round pick in this past draft. Will Smith was a free agent acquisition, but he’s going into his age 33 season after missing all of the 2013 season with injury and grading out 2nd worst among 4-3 defensive ends in 2012. He might not even make the roster. Their best option might be to have linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower rush the passer some in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Collins and Hightower are two young linebackers who could break out in new roles. Brandon Spikes is gone, which hurts because he was a very solid player, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked middle linebacker in 2013, 9th in 2012, 18th in 2011, and 9th in 2010. However, he’s only a two-down player who has played 694 snaps, 742 snaps, 364 snaps, and 356 snaps in those 4 seasons respectively, while grading out 1st, 1st, 19th, and 4th in run grade respectively, in those 4 seasons since the Patriots drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010.

With him gone, their linebackers fit together better and might even be a better unit. Dont’a Hightower will move into his collegiate position of middle linebacker and have to play less often in coverage, which is good for him. That could allow him to rush the passer in sub packages more often, something he did in college and something he’s had moderate success doing in 147 career pass rush snaps. At the very least, the move will put him in a more natural spot and keep him out of coverage less. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ 12th and 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in run grade over the past 2 seasons respectively and he played fantastic football down the stretch last season. He could be ready to break out.

Jamie Collins, meanwhile, could be ready to break out as well as he moves full-time into a starting role. The 2013 2nd round pick is a converted collegiate defensive lineman who flashed on 302 regular season snaps last season and then was dominant in the playoff win over Indianapolis, playing every snap, recording a sack, 2 hits, and a hurry on 9 pass rush snaps, recording 4 stops (tackling within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage on 1st down, 6 yards on 2nd down, and the full distance on 3rd or 4th down), allowing 2 catches for 12 yards on 5 targets and recording an interception. He was also solid in the playoff loss to Denver. He could play some defensive end in sub packages, but if he continues to show himself as an all-around player, they might just make him a true three-down outside linebacker.

Another positive is that the Patriots get Jerod Mayo back from injury. Mayo missed 10 games with a torn pectoral last season. The concern for his health going into 2014 should be limited as the 2008 1st round pick had missed 5 games in 5 seasons prior to this injury. It was also an upper body injury instead of a lower body injury and he’s already a full participant at OTAs. When healthy, Mayo is one of the better 4-3 outside linebackers in the game. He was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2012 and 7th ranked in 2011, after converting from being a 3-4 middle linebacker, where he wasn’t quite as good.

The one interesting and underrated free agent acquisition the Patriots made this off-season was the addition of linebacker James Anderson on a veteran’s minimum contract late in the off-season. Anderson isn’t a very good linebacker and he’s going into his age 31 season, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked 4-3 outside linebacker last season and worst ranked against the run.

However, he was 6th at his position in coverage grade and could be an asset for the Patriots in sub packages if they decide they don’t want either of Collins or Hightower to be the primary 2nd linebacker in sub packages. That could happen because coverage isn’t the primary strength of either of them and both can rush the passer. Anderson could be a valuable, sub package coverage specialist in a limited role (200-300 snaps would be my guess). Despite losing Spikes, it’s a talented linebacking corps that fits together very nicely.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Easily the biggest acquisition of the off-season for the Patriots was Darrelle Revis. It’s a popular narrative that Revis Island is “done” after Revis tore his ACL in 2012 and then got cut by the Buccaneers after 1 year with the team. However, he was cut because he wasn’t worth his 16 million dollar salary to a Tampa Bay team that is transitioning to more zone coverage, not because he played poorly. He’s well worth the 12 million the Patriots are paying him this season to play in their man coverage based coverage scheme.

After the Patriots signed Darrelle Revis, I tweeted that the NFL’s top cornerbacks were #1 Richard Sherman, #2 Darrelle Revis, and #10 everyone else. There’s a huge gap between the top-2 cornerbacks in the NFL and the rest of the NFL’s cornerbacks. All of the top cornerbacks on the market this off-season had warts, even if it was a very strong cornerback market.

Brent Grimes was going into his age 31 season with an injury history. Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Sam Shields and Aqib Talib all had inconsistent histories. Alterraun Verner was the most consistent of the available free agent cornerbacks, making 64 starts in 4 years and grading out in the top-24 on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, but he’s never finished in the top-10. All those guys are in the “#10 everyone else” range. Once Darrelle Revis hit the open market, he was miles better than everyone else who was available this off-season.

Showing the volatility of the cornerback position, just two cornerbacks finished in the top-15 on Pro Football Focus in both 2012 and 2013. One was Richard Sherman (#2 and #6) and the other was Jason McCourty (#6 and #10). Darrelle Revis probably would have been the other one if he hadn’t torn his ACL in 2012, which looks like a fluke injury when you look at the rest of his history, as he’s missed just 3 games in his other 6 seasons combined.

In 4 of his last 5 healthy seasons, he’s graded out in the top-3 on Pro Football Focus among cornerbacks (he was #8 in the other season), incredible considering the volatility of the position and how difficult it’s become to be a dominant man coverage cornerback in today’s NFL. That includes a 2013 season in which he graded out #1 among cornerbacks, fueled by a first place finish in yards allowed per coverage snap, despite a poor pass rush in front of him. People still don’t throw on Revis. Another year removed from his injury, Revis should only be better in 2014. Since 2008, Revis has allowed 43.1% completion, 5.41 YPA, and 12 touchdowns, while picking off 20 passes, a QB rating allowed of 50.5. He essentially turns every quarterback who dares to throw on him into a drunken Mark Sanchez. You can’t say that about anyone else.

Richard Sherman is probably a better cornerback because of his superior ball hawking abilities. He also doesn’t have a torn ACL on his record and he’s three years younger, with Sherman going into his age 26 season and Revis going into his age 29 season. However, Revis is right there as the #2 cornerback and miles ahead of everyone else. Short of acquiring Richard Sherman (which would obviously not have been possible), there’s nothing more than that the Patriots could have done this off-season to upgrade the cornerback position and replace Aqib Talib than signing Revis. The Patriots now have the legitimate ability to take away one side of the field on defense, something they haven’t been able to do since Ty Law. He’ll also help the pass rush get a few more coverage sacks.

Talib, by the way, has never graded out higher than 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, nor he has ever played all 16 games in a season. Talib was 58th among cornerbacks in 2013 and 69th in composite grade among cornerbacks (between Tampa Bay and New England) in 2012. He was dominant for the first 6 games of the 2013 season, before suffering an injury, allowing 13 of 33 completion and picking off 4 passes in the process, but he’s never been able to sustain that. Revis can sustain high level play and give them the shutdown cornerback Talib was for those 6 games, when the Patriots allowed 16.2 points per game (back when Wilfork and Mayo were healthy as well).

Brandon Browner was the Patriots’ other free agent addition at cornerback. Browner will be suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, but he should help them upon his return. Browner had graded out above average in all 3 seasons as a starter since coming over from Canada before the 2011 season. He’s graded out 37th, 22nd, and 42nd in 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. The concern is he’s missed 12 games over the past 2 seasons with a combination of injury and suspension and now he’s facing another 4 game suspension.

The good news is the Patriots have an absurd amount of depth at the cornerback position as a result of the Revis and Browner acquisitions. Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan will compete to start opposite Revis in Browner’s absence, with Dennard being the early favorite. Dennard fell to the 7th round of the 2012 draft because of off-the-field problems and has had issues in the past 2 seasons as well, including spending time in jail. He had 2nd round talent though and was solid as a rookie, grading 30th among cornerbacks in 10 games. Last season, fell to 70th in 2013 in 13 games, which is a big part of the reason why the brought Browner in. Still, Dennard is an adequate short-term fill-in for Browner.

Logan Ryan, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and impressed in limited action as a rookie, grading out 30th at his position despite playing just 608 snaps. The Browner acquisition will also allow Kyle Arrington to focus on the slot, which is the 5-10 196 pounder’s specialty. He’s been Pro Football Focus’ 30th, 44th, and 19th ranked cornerback in the last 3 seasons respectively.

The fact that either Ryan or Dennard could be their 5th cornerback when Browner is back shows how much depth they have at the position. There’s been some talk that they could move Ryan to safety as a result of that. It’s unclear how the 5-11 191 pounder would fit at the position, but getting him more opportunities to be on the field is a worthwhile endeavor. Ryan would compete with another 2013 3rd round pick out of Rutgers, a natural safety Duron Harmon.

Unlike Ryan, Harmon wasn’t supposed to be a 3rd round pick. In fact, he probably wasn’t supposed to be drafted. The Patriots’ scouts told Belichick not to take him that early and that they could get him later and no major draft outlets were spending much time on him, certainly not as a day 2 pick, but the Patriots took him anyway. He impressed as a rookie on 431 snaps and is the front runner for a starting job now that Steve Gregory is gone. Tavon Wilson is also in the mix at safety. He was impressive on 476 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2012, but only played 17 snaps last season, despite all the injuries the Patriots had in the secondary and Wilson’s ability to play both cornerback and safety. It seems like Wilson, another player drafted earlier than everyone expected, was a mistake of a draft pick, at least at this point.

Whoever starts there will start opposite Devin McCourty. Revis isn’t the only top level defensive back the Patriots have on the roster as McCourty has quietly developed into one of the best safeties in the game over the past 2 seasons. McCourty was a rookie All-Pro in 2010 and a deserving one, as the 1st round pick graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked cornerback that season. McCourty struggled in 2011, grading out below average, and then was moved to safety about halfway through the 2012 season.

In 2012, he was as good as he was in 2010, if not better, grading out 8th among cornerbacks on 534 snaps (no cornerback played fewer snaps and graded out higher) and 14th among safeties on 564 snaps (only Troy Polamalu played fewer snaps and graded out higher). His composite grade would have been 5th among cornerbacks and 4th among safeties. 2013 was his best season yet as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked safety. Primarily a deep safety (9.1% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, fewest in the NFL last season among safeties), he’s New England’s version of Earl Thomas or Jairus Byrd. The Patriots don’t have a perfect secondary, but they have two big-time impact players and a lot of depth. It’s one of the better secondaries in the NFL.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Patriots were lucky and unlucky in different ways last season. They had an unsustainably high fumble recovery rate (62.50%) and went an absurd 6-1 in games decided by 3 points or fewer. However, they also had the 4th most adjusted games lost in the league and had significant players miss time and/or be limited with injuries (Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen, Sebastian Vollmer, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo).

They’ve done a good job adding talent this off-season and are a significantly better team than they were for most of last season. They weren’t as good as their 12-4 record suggested they were last season, but now they probably are. I’ll do official record predictions at the end of all my previews, but the Patriots have a very good chance at another high win total as they are one of the most talented teams in the NFL and coached by arguably the best head coach in the NFL. In the last 13 seasons, the Patriots have had 12 seasons of 10+ wins, 11 division titles, 10 seasons of 11+ wins, 8 seasons of 12+ wins, 8 AFC Championships appearance, 5 Super Bowl appearances, and 3 Super Bowl victories. They should be right in that range once again, barring Tom Brady hitting the wall in terms of his abilities.

Prediction: TBA

Jun 122014
 

I really don’t get this move. When the Browns gave Alex Mack 5 years, 43 million earlier this off-season, I didn’t love it because it’s a lot of money for a center, but I understood it because Mack is probably the best center in the NFL. Giving Maurkice Pouncey 44 million over 5 years (with a 13 million dollar signing bonus), however, doesn’t make any sense. Pouncey is perennially overrated because of the public’s inability to evaluate a center (you can’t exactly blame them).

Pro Football Focus can evaluate a center as they evaluate players on a snap by snap basis, for every snap of a season. They’ve had Pouncey ranked 21st, 19th, and 12th from 2010-2012 respectively, including below average in 2010 and 2011. Meanwhile, Alex Mack has been in the top-10 in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league and John Sullivan of the Vikings has been top-3 in each of the last 3 seasons.

Not only that, but Pouncey missed essentially all of last season with injury, going down with a torn ACL week 1. I don’t understand the rush to give him this record deal right now. Let him come back for a season and prove the dominance he’s never shown before paying him this. I can’t imagine the Steelers would have had to pay him more than this as a free agent next off-season and if they would have had to, at that point it’s better to let him leave. This is a serious overpayment for a team with serious cap problems.

Grade: D