Steven Lourie

Jul 052015
 

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Linebackers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C

Conclusion

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

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC North

Jul 052015
 

Quarterback

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C

Running Backs

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

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

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

Grade: B

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A-

Linebackers

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

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

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

Grade: B-

Secondary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C

Conclusion

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

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Jun 302015
 

Quarterback

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

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

Grade: B+

Running Backs

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

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

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

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

Grade: C-

Offensive Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

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

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

If Bryant misses time, Terrance Williams would be the #1 guy, which is a problem because, while he’s a serviceable starter, he’s an unspectacular player. The 2013 3rd round pick graded out below average on 700 snaps as a rookie and then on 830 snaps last season. Meanwhile, Cole Beasley remains locked in as the #3 receiver and a pure slot specialist pretty much no matter what. He’s an ascending slot receiver who has seen his snaps go up in every season since he went undrafted in 2012, playing 128 snaps in 2012, 247 snaps in 2013, and 443 snaps in 2014, grading out above average in each of the last 2 seasons. Devin Street is the #4 receiver and would see significant playing time if anyone missed time, a problem because the 2014 5th round pick played poorly on 150 snaps as a rookie.

At tight end, Jason Witten is Mr. Consistency. The 12-year veteran hasn’t missed a game since his rookie year in 2003. He’s caught between 64 and 110 passes, between 1 and 9 touchdowns, and totaled between 703 and 1145 yards in each of the last 11 seasons. He’s graded out above average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, finishing 3rd, 4th, 1st, 1st, 9th, 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd from 2007-2014 respectively. The only issue is he’s going into his age 33 season so he’s going to start to decline at some point, but he hasn’t showed it yet, especially not with his 2nd place rank among tight ends last season. The likely future Hall of Famer is both a fantastic pass catcher and a tough run blocker.

James Hanna was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 335 snaps, after the 2012 7th round pick graded out below average on 109 snaps as a rookie in 2012 and then on 315 snaps in 2013. He’s a serviceable #2 tight end in a smaller role, but the Cowboys would probably like 2013 2nd round pick Gavin Escobar to surpass him at some point. Escobar has been decent on 207 and 263 snaps in 2013 and 2014 respectively thus far in his career and could be deserving of a bigger role in 2015, as he goes into his 3rd year in the league and only his age 24 season. It’s still a strong offense, but the loss of DeMarco Murray hurts, they’ll have more injuries, and Tony Romo is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in his age 35 season.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

If the Cowboys are going to go to the playoffs again, they’ll probably need their defense to be better. Like their offense, their defense exceeded expectations last season, but, unlike their offense, they only did so by managing to not be one of the worst defenses in league history, as it looked like they could be on paper before the season. They still finished just 26th in opponent’s rate of moving the chains, leading to an 8th place finish in rate of moving the chains differential.

How did the Cowboys exceed expectations in 2015? Well it was a combination of great coaching by defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli (underratedly one of the best in the business) and guys having breakout years. The latter was largely a product of the former. The biggest breakout year was by Tyrone Crawford, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked defensive tackle after starting the first 3 games of the season at defensive end.

The 6-4 285 pounder “tweener” is a great fit as a one gap penetrator inside in Rod Marinelli’s defense. He’s a one year wonder, after struggling on 303 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2012 and then missing all of 2013 with injury, but he could easily have another strong year inside for the Cowboys, which would set him up for a big payday as a free agent next off-season. He’s not very good against the run, but he’s a nightmare for opponents’ interior offensive linemen as a pass rusher.

The problem at defensive tackle is everyone except Crawford. Henry Melton, Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked defensive tackle last season, is gone as a free agent. Nick Hayden remains, but he’s proven time and time again that he’s completely overmatched as a starter, grading out worst among defensive tackles in 2014 and 2nd worst in 2013. This should be no surprise, considering he was out of the league entirely in 2012, played just 33 snaps in 2011, and graded out 68th out of 76 eligible defensive tackles in 2010. I have no idea what the Cowboys see in him, but he seems to be locked into a starting role for the 3rd straight season.

With Melton gone, either Terrell McClain or Ken Bishop will be the 3rd defensive tackle. The latter is a 2014 7th round pick who played 66 snaps as a rookie, grading out below average. The former is a 2011 3rd round pick who played so badly as a rookie (83rd out of 88 eligible in 2011) that he saw just 203 snaps in 2012 and 2013 combined, grading out below average both times. The Cowboys actually got decent play out of him on 329 snaps last season, but he’s really hard to trust in a larger role. Also, neither he nor Bishop nor anyone else on the roster who could win the #3 job is anywhere near the pass rusher Melton was.

The Cowboys will probably use defensive end Jeremy Mincey inside in sub packages in obvious passing situations next to Crawford. He doesn’t have much experience inside and he’ll be undersized at 6-3 263, even in sub packages and even in a Rod Marinelli scheme that highlights the strengths of smaller defensive linemen, but he could get solid pass rush inside in certain situations next to Crawford. Mincey graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked 4-3 defensive end in a bounce back season, but he’s going into his age 32 season and has a history of inconsistency.

From 2007-2009, Mincey played just 166 snaps, but he became a starter in 2010 and 2011, grading out above average in both seasons, including 13th in 2011. He turned that into a 4-year, 27.2 million dollar deal, but fell flat on his face in the first year of the deal in 2012, grading out 47th among 62 eligible 4-3 defensive ends. Mincey continued not to live up to expectations in 2013 and also had injury problems and got himself cut mid-season, finishing out the year in Denver, before signing in Dallas as a free agent last off-season. He can be a solid player, but he’s tough to rely on and he’s aging. He’ll start outside in base packages this season, moving inside in sub packages.

In an effort to improve their defense, the Cowboys signed Greg Hardy from the Panthers as a free agent. If all things are right, he’ll start opposite Mincey, but the Cowboys signed Hardy knowing about his history of legal troubles. He was found guilty of domestic violence last off-season by a judge, though he remained in legal limbo because he was appealing the decision to a jury. After starting the opener last season, Hardy served a 15 game suspension imposed by the Panthers last off-season, in response to public outcry. Hardy got the charges dropped on a technicality this off-season, but was still subject to league discipline. The Cowboys were expecting 4-6 games, but the league instead handed down 10, which Hardy is appealing. There’s talk it could be shortened to 4-6 upon appeal.

Not to defend someone who did what he did, but I think 10 games is excessive given that he already missed 15 games last season. I realize that was team imposed and that he still got paid, but something like an additional 4 game league suspension and a 10 game league fine would be more appropriate, giving him some sort of credit for time already missed. A total 25 game suspension would be unprecedented for this kind of thing, especially a first offense.

The Cowboys would obviously be much happier with 4-6 games than 10 because they signed him with the intention of having him be the starting defensive end for most of the season. When on the field in recent years, he’s been fantastic, grading out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013 and 6th in 2012. The Cowboys took a risk by signing him, beyond the obvious PR risk, because Hardy hasn’t played in basically a year and will miss even more time, but he’s only going into his age 27 season so he could easily still dominate when on the field. Whether he misses 4-6 games or 10 is going to matter a lot to this defense.

In his absence, the Cowboys will be counting on a pair of recent 2nd round picks, DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. The former was a 2014 2nd round pick and was limited to 223 snaps as a rookie, in part because of injuries, while the latter is a 2nd round rookie. Lawrence did flash as a rookie though and Gregory was seen as a top-10 pick before he failed a combine drug test, weighed in under 240, and before concerns about his personal life and his mental health came up. Despite being seen as the best natural pass rusher in the draft class by many in the league before the draft, Gregory fell to the 60th pick, which makes him the definition of a boom or bust pick. With Hardy suspended and Mincey expected to play inside in sub packages, both youngsters should see significant action in 2015, particularly in pass rush situations. It’s tough to grade this unit without clarity on Hardy’s situation, but it’s a unit that has some talent, but a lot of problems.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The other breakout star the Cowboys had last season was Rolando McClain. Like Crawford, he’s part of the reason why this defense was at least passable at times. Out of the league entirely in 2013 because of off-the-field problems, McClain graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked middle linebacker last season. That’s no fluke, as the 2010 8th overall pick has been impressive whenever he’s been on the field in his career, grading out above average in all 3 seasons from 2010-2012, including 14th in 2010 and 11th in 2012.

The fact that he’s been arrested 3 times is concerning, as is the fact that he got kicked off the Raiders in the middle of a productive season in 2012. He suffered multiple concussions down the stretch in 2014 and was given a 4 game fine for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He received a very cold free agent market this off-season, settling for 3 million over 1 year with the Cowboys, but he’s so good whenever he’s on the field that he should be a bargain for the Cowboys, provided he can stay on the field.

Speaking of staying on the field, Sean Lee will return from a torn ACL that cost him all of 2014 and caused the Cowboys to bring in McClain out of retirement in the first place. With McClain locked in at middle linebacker, Lee will play outside for the Cowboys this season, provided he can stay healthy. Lee has injury issues that date back to his collegiate days at Penn State, has never played all 16 games in a season in 5 years in the league, has missed 31 games with injuries over the past 3 seasons, and missed all of last season with a torn ACL. However, he’s never graded out below average in his career and was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked middle linebacker in 2011, 2nd ranked before injury in 2012 (6 games), and 1st ranked before injury in 2013 (9 games). Only going into his age 29 season, Lee should still be able to play at a high level in 2015, provided he can stay on the field. He’s never played outside linebacker in his career, but the 6-2 236 pounder has a good skill set to play every down out there. He should be an upgrade over Bruce Carter, who graded out 35th among 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers last season.

The Cowboys better hope he can stay healthy because, with Carter and Justin Durant gone as free agents, that would leave Anthony Hitchens, expected to only see two-down work opposite Lee, to play an every down role outside in Lee’s absence. Hitchens is a much better fit in a two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. The 2014 4th round pick graded out 34th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus last year, but also graded out above average as a run stopper. Kyle Wilbur will back up all 3 spots and see action if anyone can’t stay on the field, but the 2012 4th round pick and one-time defensive end has never graded out above average in his career. It’s a strong group if everyone can stay on the field, but also an unreliable group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The secondary was a serious problem going into the draft so they drafted cornerback Byron Jones in the first round. Jones won’t fix all their issues overnight though, as rookies, even talented ones, can be very tough to rely on. Sterling Moore (Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback in 2014) is gone, but Brandon Carr remains, which is a problem. The Cowboys signed him to a 5-year, 50.1 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago, after he had graded out above average in 3 straight seasons from 2009-2011. However, he’s never graded out better than 52nd among cornerbacks in 3 seasons in Dallas and finished last season 90th out of 108 eligible. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s some bounce back potential here, but I’m pretty surprised that he’s still on the team at his currently scheduled non-guaranteed 8 million dollar salary, especially after the addition of Jones.

Orlando Scandrick will work as the other starter opposite Carr, with Jones playing the #3 cornerback role. Scandrick has graded out above average in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 3 straight and 10th overall among cornerbacks in 2015. Scandrick turned that strong 2014 season into a 1-year, 9.5 million dollar extension this off-season, but is still signed for just 20 million over the next 5 seasons. He might not repeat the best season of his career again in 2015, but he’s only going into his age 28 season and should once again be an asset for the Cowboys in the secondary and their top defensive back.

Things were not good at safety last year. There’s some talk that Jones could start his career at safety, but that would require a healthy Morris Claiborne at cornerback. The Cowboys are hoping that Claiborne, who missed 12 games with a torn patellar tendon last season, can contribute this season, but the Cowboys are used to being disappointed by Claiborne. After the Cowboys traded a 1st and 2nd round pick to move up to get Claiborne 6th overall in 2012, he’s played in just 29 games in 3 seasons, missing 19 games with injury.

Claiborne has also never graded out above average in his career. His future certainly didn’t get brighter when he tore his patellar tendon, arguably the most significant lower body injury a player can suffer. The list of guys who have returned to form after such an injury is basically non-existent and Claiborne’s recovery reportedly isn’t going well, as he’s lost 15-20 pounds and is now down to 172 pounds. The Cowboys declined his 5th year option for 2016 this off-season, even though it was guaranteed for injury only, and Claiborne will now head into his contract year with major questions around his future

That means Jones will likely stick at cornerback as a rookie, leaving JJ Wilcox and Barry Church to once again start at safety. Church wasn’t bad last season, but Wilcox graded out 76th out of 87 eligible safeties last season in the first extended starting experience of his career (he made 5 starts during a 2013 season in which he played 530 snaps). The 2012 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career and doesn’t profile as a starter long-term.

Church was better than Wilcox last year, but still graded out below average, something the 2010 undrafted free agent has done in 4 of 5 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3. However, he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and has never really been that bad, grading out only slightly below average both times. He’s not a great player or anything, but he’s a serviceable starter and, unlike Wilcox, doesn’t need to be upgraded. It’s a weak secondary outside of Scandrick and possibly the rookie Jones though.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

This is still a talented team, but I have a hard time seeing them winning 12 games again this season. For one, winning 12+ games in 2 straight seasons is very tough to do and rarely happens. Two, the Cowboys were slightly worse than their record suggested last season, finishing just 8th in rate of moving the chains differential. Three, their offense probably won’t be quite as good as it was last season due to the loss of DeMarco Murray, likely regression in Tony Romo’s play, and likely more injuries. The defense gets Sean Lee back, but who knows for how long and the Cowboys didn’t have enough injuries defensively last season where they can point to that as a reason why they’ll be better this season.

Greg Hardy’s addition is important, but it’s unclear how much he’ll actually get to play this season, while the losses of guys like Henry Melton and Sterling Moore will hurt more than people realize. Outside of Crawford, Scandrick, McClain and maybe Lee, Hardy, and Mincey, it’s a pretty thin defense. They’ll be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they certainly won’t be guaranteed one. Obviously, much depends on Hardy’s availability. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Jun 282015
 

Quarterback

In 2013, Nick Foles seemed to set the world on fire, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, after the 2012 3rd round pick took over for an injured Michael Vick early in Chip Kelly’s first season in Philadelphia. He had a QB rating of 119.2, actually the 3rd best QB rating all-time. However, that was largely the result of the system and the surrounding offensive talent, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked quarterback.

Chip Kelly always seemed to understand that and didn’t overvalue Foles. Because of that and the fact that Foles, who was drafted by Kelly’s predecessor Andy Reid, never was an ideal fit for what Chip Kelly wants from a quarterback in terms of having strong mobility and pocket presence, Foles was heavily shopped this off-season, after a down 2014 season. Last season, he completed 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, missed 8 games with a broken collarbone, and graded out 25th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks. It was very similar to his rookie year, when he completed 60.8% of his passes for an average of 6.41 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and graded out 31st among 38 eligible, so his above average 2013 season looks like a fluke now.

I have no problem with Kelly trusting his system and not seeing Foles as a long-term solution, especially with Foles going into the contract year of his rookie deal, with average or better quarterbacks getting boatloads over the past few years. However, I don’t think they got a fair return in the trade that sent Foles to St. Louis for Sam Bradford. Not only did the two teams swap quarterbacks, but the Eagles sent a 4th rounder and a 2016 2nd rounder to St. Louis for a 5th rounder, which suggests they see Bradford as an upgrade on Foles.

As lukewarm as I am on Foles, I disagree with the Eagles’ assessment. In 5 seasons in the NFL, Bradford missed 31 games (including 25 straight over the past 2 seasons with a twice town ACL), completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions. He’s been better than his stats have suggested, as he always had horrible supporting casts in St. Louis, and he actually graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013 before his extended absence, but he’s still very tough to trust, especially coming off the injury. Early reports of him at practice haven’t been great.

The Eagles are also in the same situation contract wise with Bradford as they were with Foles as both are in the final year of their rookie deals, but the difference is Bradford’s rookie deal was the #1 overall’s under the old CBA, while Foles is a former 3rd round pick whose deal was signed after the new CBA passed. That means that Bradford is owed just under 13 million this season, while Foles is under a million.

For that reason, many thought the Rams would outright cut him this off-season. Certainly I don’t think anyone would have thought they could have gotten a 2nd round pick and a cheap functional quarterback for him. Many also thought the Eagles just acquired Bradford to flip to the Browns for a first rounder to move up for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who Kelly coached in college, but Bradford wasn’t even in their final offer for Mariota, so it’s clear they legitimately like Bradford. Bradford is a decent fit for Kelly’s offense and Kelly should be able to get the most out of him, but it’s unclear how much that actually is.

With Bradford’s health looming large, his backup is relevant. That backup is still Mark Sanchez, who backed up Foles last season and made 8 starts in his absence. Everyone was quick to say that Mark Sanchez had turned it around in Philadelphia last year working with Chip Kelly instead of Rex Ryan, but Sanchez was still a backup caliber quarterback. Overall though, he really didn’t turn it around. He completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 7.83 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Out of the league in 2013 because of injury, Sanchez has ranked 27th (2014), 37th (2012), 36th (2011), 27th (2010), and 39th (2009) on Pro Football Focus since being drafted in the first round by the Jets in 2009. He’s somehow made 76 starts over that period of time. If he has to make starts, the Eagles will be in trouble, as his previous employers have been when he’s had to start.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, part of Foles’ success in Philadelphia was his supporting cast. The Eagles don’t have quite the same supporting cast as they used to though, which hurts Bradford’s chances. It’s still better than what he was used to in St. Louis, but that’s not saying much. Last off-season, it was DeSean Jackson getting cut after a career best 82/1332/9 year in 2013 because the Eagles thought he was overpaid. That wasn’t as big of a deal as it could have been because the Eagles had Jeremy Maclin coming back from injury and he had a career best 85/1318/10 year in 2014, grading out 14th among eligible receivers, but now he’s gone too. I don’t blame them for not matching Kansas City’s 5-year, 55 million dollar deal as that’s a lot for a guy with one career 1000+ year, but there’s no doubt he’ll be missed.

In order to replace him, the Eagles drafted Nelson Agholor in the first round and are expected to give a bigger role to 2014 2nd round pick Jordan Matthews. As a rookie, Matthews caught 67 passes on 98 targets (68.4%) for 876 yards and 8 touchdowns on 484 routes run, an average of 1.81 yards per route run, grading out above average as a pass catcher on 779 total snaps as the #3 receiver, primarily focused on the slot. He’ll see more action this season and could be their leading receiver. Rookie wide receivers usually don’t produce like he did as a rookie, as even first round pick wideouts have averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns as rookies since 2005, even when you include last year’s insane wide receiver class, which is not the norm. That’s good news for Matthews, who could push for 1000+ yards, but also a reminder that Agholor could take a year or two to be what they think he’ll be.

Riley Cooper and Josh Huff will compete for the #3 job, largely playing outside with Agholor and Matthews both seeing significant snaps in the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. Huff, a dynamic kick returner, graded out below average on 210 snaps as a 3rd round rookie last year, but has a good chance to win the #3 job because of how horrible Riley Cooper was last season. The veteran caught 55 passes on 91 targets (60.4%) for 573 yards and 3 touchdowns on 561 routes run, an average of 1.02 yards per route run. He was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked wide receiver as a result.

The big 6-3 222 pounder showed an incredible inability to get separation or gain yards after the catch and was infrequently targeted as a result, only redeeming himself slightly as a run blocker on the outside. The only reason he’s still on the roster is because the Eagles foolishly signed him to a 5-year, 22.5 million dollar deal last off-season and his 4 million dollar salary for 2015 is guaranteed whether he’s on the roster or not. It doesn’t guarantee him a role though, as the Eagles will roll with the youngster if they feel they have to. The Eagles are hoping that Cooper flashes the form that got him that deal, when he graded out slightly above average in 2013, but that’s unlikely. The 2010 5th round pick has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league, that 2013 season, and is the definition of a one-year wonder.

With Maclin leaving, the Eagles are likely to use more two-tight end sets at the expense of three-wide receiver sets. That looked like the case to many people last season as well, with DeSean Jackson leaving, and it never really panned out, but that was because of Jeremy Maclin’s return from injury. They don’t have anyone like that walking through those doors this year with Agholor likely at least a year or two away, so a greater focus on tight ends makes a lot of sense, especially since Bradford has always liked to focus on the short to intermediate parts of the field, thanks to limited deep ball arm strength.

Brent Celek has been the Eagles’ starting tight end for many years, but the added focus on tight ends should benefit “#2” tight end Zach Ertz more than anyone. Ertz has graded out above average in both seasons he’s been in the league since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2013, grading out 9th among tight ends in 2013 on 459 snaps and 5th in 2014 on 603 snaps. Celek has graded out above average in each of the last 6 seasons, but the 6-4 261 pounder is a better run blocker than pass catcher and has graded out below average as a pass catcher in 2 of the last 3 seasons, including last season.

Celek already had fewer routes run last season (297 to 397 for Ertz), even though he played more snaps, and he should play even more of a complementary role this season in his age 30 season, setting Ertz up for a breakout 3rd year in the league. Having averaged 1.83 yards per route run thus far in his career, he could have a 900+ yard year on 500 or so routes run this season, especially with Maclin gone and Bradford’s tendency to target intermediate options. He has the potential to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL. If the Eagles want to get their best players on the field regardless of position in the receiving corps, frequently going two-tight ends with Agholor, Matthews, Ertz, and Celek makes a lot of sense.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The Eagles also suffered a major loss on the offensive line as they released Evan Mathis, who graded out #1 among guards in 2011, #1 in 2012, #1 in 2013, and then #2 in 2014, despite missing 7 games with injury last season. The Eagles seemed to want him on the team for 2015, keeping him into June, but eventually granted him his release after he demanded his contract be dealt with, rightfully so, as Mathis was owed just 5.5 million in the final year of his contract. He wanted either long-term security or a short-term pay raise and the Eagles were unwilling to give him either. Even though he’s going into his age 34 season and coming off of an injury plagued season, he’s still been one of the best offensive linemen in the game when healthy over the past few years and he missed just 1 game from 2011-2013. He’s still unsigned as of this writing, but he’s expected to get both more money annually and more years on the open market. He’s going to be missed in Philadelphia.

Allen Barbre is expected to start in his absence. He graded out above average last season, but went down for the season with a season ending ankle injury week 1, starting at right tackle in place of the suspended Lane Johnson. Prior to last season, the 2007 4th round pick had never graded out above average, so, going into his age 31 season, he’s about as big of a downgrade as you can get from Mathis. He was originally supposed to be the starter at right guard, where Todd Herremans was also let go this off-season. Herremans struggled mightily last season (57th out of 78 eligible) and missed 8 games with injury so he won’t be missed immediately, but he played well as recently as 2013 so the Eagles have gone from really strong to really weak at the guard position really quickly.

With Barbre switching sides, it’s unclear who will start at right guard. Matt Tobin is reportedly the favorite, but he’ll face competition from Andrew Gardner and maybe even Dennis Kelly. None of them are good options. Tobin made 7 starts last season when Mathis was hurt and finished 52nd out of 78 eligible guards, after not playing an offensive snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Gardner also graded out below average last season on 683 snaps, struggling mightily in 2 starts at offensive tackle early in the season, but playing decently in 6 starts at guard down the stretch.

The big 6-7 304 pound converted tackle is probably a better option than Tobin, but the 2009 7th round pick has never graded out above average in a season in his career and he had never played more than 35 snaps in a season prior to 2014, so he’s a very uninspiring option in his age 29 season. The longshot Kelly has also never graded out above average in his career, since the Eagles drafted him in the 5th round in 2012. He struggled on 202 snaps last season, didn’t play a snap in 2013, and was horrible in 2012, grading out 70th out of 80 eligible offensive tackles as a rookie.

Fortunately, the rest of the offensive line is still strong. Jason Peters is also getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season, but he’s never graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history and he’s arguably played the best football of his career over the past few seasons. With the exception of a 2012 season lost to a torn Achilles, Peters has graded out in the top-4 among offensive tackles in each of the last 4 seasons, including #1 in 2011 and #1 last season. His age is a concern, but he should have at least two more good seasons left in the tank.

On the other side, the Eagles have a much younger player, as right tackle Lane Johnson will be only in his age 25 season in his 3rd year in the league in 2015. An athletic freak who ran 4.72 at 6-6 303 at the Combine, Johnson was drafted 4th overall in 2013. He graded out slightly below average as a rookie, especially struggling in pass protection, but he was dominant as a run blocker, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in run blocking grade. In 2014, he put it all together, doing well in both aspects and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked offensive tackle, after missing the first 4 games of the season with suspension. In his 3rd year in the league in 2015, he should once again have a strong season and could even be better.

The Eagles also have another young stud at center. Jason Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked center last season despite missing 4 games with injury. A 2011 6th round pick, Kelce was forced into action too quickly as a rookie and graded out 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, but he flashed in 2 starts in 2012 before going down for the season and then graded out 1st in 2013, before backing it up again last season. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s in the prime of his career and one of the best centers in the game. There’s still talent upfront on this line, but they aren’t what they used to be.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Trading Foles for Bradford, releasing Mathis and Herremans, letting Maclin sign with the Chiefs, and drafting Nelson Agholor in the first round were not the only things the Eagles did to shake up their offense this off-season. They also made another trade earlier in the off-season, sending LeSean McCoy to the Bills for Kiko Alonso. The Eagles were seen as the clear losers of that trade, but I think that’s because people either didn’t take McCoy’s contract into account or overestimated how good McCoy was (or underestimated how good Alonso is, but that’s a point for another time).

It’s hard to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2013 production, when he rushed for 1607 yards and 9 touchdowns on 314 carries (5.12 YPC) and added 52 catches for 539 yards and another two touchdowns through the air. It’s not that tough to find someone to replicate McCoy’s 2014 production, when he rushed for 1319 yards and 5 touchdowns on 312 carries (4.23 YPC) and added just 28 catches for 155 yards through the air. McCoy fell from being Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back in 2013 to their 3rd worst in 2014.

Because of the 7.8 million in difference between McCoy’s and Alonso’s salary, the Eagles were able to sign DeMarco Murray, who rushed for 1845 yards and 13 touchdowns on 392 carries (4.71 YPC) last season and was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back. The Eagles didn’t downgrade the running back position this off-season and basically got a free above average middle linebacker. That doesn’t mean the Eagles didn’t overpay Murray, but the McCoy trade allowed their overpay of Murray to not be so bad. I wrote in my Cowboys off-season preview that Murray was one of the top candidates to be overpaid this off-season and that he should come with a buyer beware label on his forehead, for a variety of reasons.

For one, since 1988, only 4 of 26 running backs who led the league in carries surpassed their rushing yards total the following season. Those 26 backs averaged 365 carries per season, rushed for 1612 yards, and scored 14 touchdowns in the season they led the league in carries. The following season, they averaged 262 carries per season, rushed for 1053 yards, and scored 8 touchdowns. Murray already saw his YPC drop from 5.14 in the first 8 games of the season to 4.23 in the final 8. There’s a reason backs are rarely given more than 350 carries, as teams don’t want to ruin that player for the following season. The Cowboys knew Murray wasn’t coming back in 2015 though so they didn’t care. They reportedly didn’t come close to making a competitive offer for him this off-season.

Murray has an injury history dating back to his collegiate days too. He made it through all 16 games in 2014 (not without a broken hand), but he missed 11 games in first 3 seasons and fell to the 3rd round of the 2011 NFL Draft because of injury concerns. Even if Murray stays healthy in 2015, he’s highly unlikely to even come within 50 carries of his 2014 total, a problem as his 4.71 YPC in 2014 was good, but not outstanding or anything. He got to 1800+ yards on volume largely. He also was helped out drastically by the Cowboys offensive line, as the Cowboys were Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked team in run blocking grade. The Eagles had a strong run blocking offensive line last season, but the loss of Mathis deals a big blow to that.

The Eagles strangely also signed Ryan Mathews this off-season. What reportedly happened is they had a handshake deal with Matthews before they ended up signing Murray and didn’t want to go back on their promise so they kept Matthews as a backup. Going into last season, I thought of Matthews and Murray very similarly. Obviously, they both had very different 2014s, as Matthews missed 10 games with injury, but I think he’s still a good value on a 3-year, 11.25 million dollar deal as a bounce back candidate.

Mathews obviously has an injury history, playing all 16 games just once in 5 seasons, missing 20 games combined, including 10 last season. However, when he’s healthy, he has feature back potential. In 2011, he rushed for 1091 yards and 6 touchdowns on 222 attempts (4.91 YPC), with 50 catches for 455 yards. In 2013, he rushed for 1255 yards and 6 touchdowns on 285 attempts (4.40 YPC), with 26 catches for 189 yards and another touchdown. He’s a strong replacement if Murray gets hurt and will provide valuable, frequent breathers for Murray. The Eagles clearly plan to run the ball a lot in 2015 and I could see them getting like a 70/30 split with Murray seeing around 280-300 carries and Matthews seeing around 120-130.

Darren Sproles remains and, even with Murray and Matthews both in the fold, his role is so unique that it’ll likely remain unchanged. The only potential issue with Sproles is he’s going into his age 32 season, an advanced age for running backs usually, especially ones so reliant on speed. However, Sproles doesn’t see a ton of action, so he’s avoided a lot of hits in his career, and he’s also coming off of a fantastic season. Last season, he rushed for 329 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (5.77 YPC) and added another 40 catches for 387 yards through the air, grading out above average overall. Over the past 5 seasons, Sproles has graded out above average all 5 times and has been between 50 and 87 carries and 40 and 86 catches in all 5 seasons, while missing just 5 games with injury. I expect more of the same from him this season.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

The Eagles also had a bunch of personnel changes on defense this off-season, though everything on the defensive line remains the same. Fletcher Cox, Cedric Thornton, and Bennie Logan will continue to be the starters in base packages on Philadelphia’s 3-man defensive line. All 3 graded out significantly above average against the run, but only Fletcher Cox also graded out above average as a pass rusher. Cox, a 2012 1st round pick, has blossomed into one of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the league, grading out 19th among defensive tackles as a rookie, 13th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, and then 5th among 3-4 defensive ends in 2014. His career trajectory is very impressive and, only going into his age 25 season, Cox could continue to get better.

Thornton is the other starter and, while he’s graded out 3rd and 8th among 3-4 defensive ends against the run in 2 years as a starter, he’s also graded out below average as a pass rusher both seasons. The 6-3 309 pounder is a great two-down base player, but that’s it. Nose tackle Bennie Logan is in a similar boat, though that’s naturally supposed to be a two-down position. After grading out below average in both aspects as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Logan improved his run play in 2014, but struggled so much as a pass rusher that he still graded out below average overall.

In sub packages, Logan comes off the field, as does Thornton, and pass rush specialist Vinny Curry and Fletcher Cox are the primary interior pass rushers. The 6-3 266 pound Curry is basically the polar opposite of the bigger Thornton. He struggles against the run, but is a very tough interior pass rusher. The 2012 2nd round pick has been in his current role for 2 seasons and has graded out 8th and 9th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends in pass rush grade in 2013 and 2014 respectively, doing so on 322 snaps in 2013 and 397 snaps in 2014. He should play a similar role in 2015. The pieces on this defensive line fit together really well. The only difference between 2014 and 2015 could be that the Eagles had very few injuries on defense in general, 2nd in defensive adjusted games lost. They’re unlikely to have such good luck again in 2015.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham will be the primary 3-4 outside linebackers and will also rush the passer off the edge in sub packages with Cox and Curry inside. The Eagles released Trent Cole this off-season, after 10 productive seasons with the team. The moved saved the Eagles 10.025 million in cash and 8.425 million in cap space and Cole was going into his age 33 season, but Cole did still play well last season, grading out 19th among 3-4 outside linebackers on the season. The Eagles are hoping that they can make up for that loss by giving Brandon Graham an every down role for the first time in his career. They opted to keep the younger Graham on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season, rather than retaining Cole.

That should prove to be the right move long-term as Graham could easily break out as one of the top edge rushers in the game in an every down role, which would make him an obvious bargain at 6.5 million annually. Graham is seen as not being able to play in a 3-4, but, while he’s probably better in a 4-3, he’s shown over the past two seasons that he can play in both schemes. After struggling with injuries in the first two seasons of his career, Graham, a 2010 1st round pick, had somewhat of a breakout year in 2012. He didn’t get a ton of playing time (435 snaps), which is why it’s hard to call it a true breakout year, but he still graded out 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends that season, despite the limited playing time.

Moving to a 3-4 in 2013, he only saw 331 snaps, but he still graded out 15th at his position, making it two straight years where no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position. In 2014, he was still the 3rd outside linebacker, but he set a career high in snaps played with 524 snaps and graded out 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers. For the third straight year, no one graded out better at his position on fewer snaps. As a 700-800 snap guy, Graham has the potential to break out as one of the best edge rushers in the game. It’s somewhat risky considering he’s never played a significant amount of snaps, but he’s handled everything he’s been given in his career very well and the Eagles aren’t risking a ton of money here. His only weakness is coverage, but he won’t be asked to drop in coverage all that much. This opportunity to be an every down player has been a long time coming and it’s long overdue.

Connor Barwin remains the every down player on the other side. He had 16 sacks last season, which is impressive, but when you take into account that he only added 11 quarterback hits and 29 quarterback hurries on 349 pass rush snaps, he only ranked 6th at his position among eligible players in pass rush productivity, not quite as good as the sack numbers suggest. He also graded out below average both against the run and in coverage, leading to him grade out only 24th at his position, despite the big sack numbers.

That’s also not the norm for him as the 2009 2nd round pick has only graded out above average in one other season in his career, not including a 2010 season where he missed 15 games with injury. He’s never graded out better than 16th at his position. Going into his age 29 season, Barwin is still an asset and a solid starter, but he’s not as good as you’d think just from looking at pure sack numbers. The Eagles also have Marcus Smith in the mix. A surprise first round pick in 2014, Smith struggled in practice as a rookie and only made it onto the field for 74 underwhelming snaps. He should have a slightly bigger role in 2015, but he remains a clear backup.

Inside at middle linebacker, Kiko Alonso is the big addition. Not only did the McCoy trade free up the cap space to sign DeMarco Murray, but Alonso was also Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker as a rookie in 2013, before missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL. At the end of the day, the final score of that trade was LeSean McCoy for DeMarco Murray and Kiko Alonso and, if you think about it that way, it looks like a much better trade for the Eagles. Alonso’s knees are a concern, as he tore his other ACL in college as well, and he’s technically only a one year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season, he’s going to be 15 months removed from the ACL tear by week 1, and he should be good for the Eagles inside at middle linebacker this year.

The McCoy trade looked like it would free up more than just McCoy’s salary, as Alonso’s arrival seemed like the end for DeMeco Ryans with the Eagles. Cutting him would have saved the Eagles 6.9 million in cash and cap space and seemed like a no brainer with Alonso and Mychal Kendricks seemingly locked in as the starters. However, the Eagles made the peculiar move to keep Ryans on a restructured 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal, with 4 million guaranteed in the first year.

They should have just outright cut him instead. Even forgetting the fact that Ryans isn’t necessary anymore with the Kiko Alonso trade, Ryans just isn’t that good. He’s coming off a torn Achilles that limited him to 8 games last season and he’s going into his age 31 season. He wasn’t horrible in those 8 games in 2014, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 53rd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible in 2013, his last healthy season. He also hasn’t graded out above average since 2011. The Eagles keeping him, but not Mathis baffles me.

Kendricks should be the other starter next to Alonso, though the Eagles did shop him this off-season, ahead of his contract year. His name was featured in some prominent trade rumors for Marcus Mariota and they also reportedly independent shopped him, but couldn’t find anyone willing to give up a 2nd round pick for a guy in a contract year. He could still get moved, but I think it’s likely he stays in Philadelphia for at least one more year.

A 2012 2nd round pick, Kendricks graded out below average in both 2012 and 2013 on 955 and 1022 snaps respectively, but had a breakout 2014, grading out 6th among middle linebackers. He and Alonso should form a strong middle linebacker duo as long as both are healthy, but it’s unclear what Ryans role will be behind them. At the very least, he should provide better depth than the likes of Casey Matthews and Emmanuel Acho, who struggled in Ryan’s absence last year, but the Eagles need to avoid giving Ryans too much playing time at the absence of Alonso or Kendricks, who are clearly superior players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The secondary is the unit where the Eagles arguably underwent the biggest changes this off-season, as they return just 1 of 4 starting defensive backs from last season. Cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher are both gone, the former as a cap casualty and the latter as a free agent. They won’t really be missed as both graded out below average last season and finished 49th and 92nd respectively among 108 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

To replace Williams, the Eagles signed Byron Maxwell from Seattle. Maxwell was at the top of my list of guys I expected to get overpaid this off-season and sure enough he was overpaid, as his deal is worth 63 million over 6 seasons, with 25 million over the first 2 years guaranteed. Maxwell was a 6th round pick in 2011, played 152 snaps in his first 2 seasons combined, and then broke into the starting lineup in 2013. He flashed top cornerback ability in limited action in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked cornerback on 494 snaps with 5 starts. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better among cornerbacks in 2013.

However, Maxwell has never shown that kind of ability over a full season, grading out about average overall in 2014 as a 13-game starter (he missed 3 games with injury) opposite Richard Sherman. He was Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014 and allowed 63.4% completion. Things aren’t going to get easier for him now that he’s away from Seattle’s scheme, coaching, and supporting cast. He should be better than Williams was, but, considering Kareem Jackson got 8.5 million annually and Brandon Flowers got 9 million annually this off-season, it’s absurd that Maxwell got 10.5 million annually.

To replace Fletcher, the Eagles drafted Eric Rowe in the 2nd round and he’ll compete with veteran Nolan Carroll. The veteran would seem to have the upper hand right now. As the #4 cornerback last year, Carroll graded out above average on 388 snaps, including a week 17 start, and he also has prior starting experience back in his days in Miami. Carroll, a 2010 5th round pick, made 26 starts from 2011-2013, including 23 in 2011 and 2012 and 13 in 2013. He graded out slightly below average in both 2011 and 2012, but graded out slightly above average in 2013. He’s only a marginal starting caliber player, but he’ll function as a stopgap as Rowe develops. Rowe should slot in as the #4 cornerback as a rookie.

Brandon Boykin remains as the slot #3 cornerback. He’s been so good on the slot over the past 3 years since the Eagles grabbed him as a steal in the 4th round in 2012 that he now wants to be an every down starting cornerback and see more time outside. The Eagles reportedly aren’t budging on that because they don’t think the 5-9 182 pounder has the size to regularly play outside and Boykin reportedly isn’t happy about this. Going into a contract year, this could easily be his final season in Philadelphia. In 3 years in the league, Boykin has graded out 48th, 12th, and 21st respectively from 2012-2014 on 526, 635, and 524 snaps respectively. He should have another strong season on 500-600 snaps as a slot specialist 3rd cornerback.

Safety Nate Allen also left as a free agent. He had an up and down tenure in 5 years in Philadelphia, but he graded out 28th among safeties last season and signed a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal in Oakland this off-season, so he will be missed. Replacing him will either be Earl Wolff or free agent acquisition Walter Thurmond. Wolff graded out below average on 538 snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013 and then graded out below average on 79 snaps last season. Thurmond is reportedly seen as the favorite, but talent has never been the problem for the converted cornerback.

In 5 seasons in the league, since being drafted in the 4th round in 2010 by the Seahawks, Thurmond has missed 44 games with injury and played in just 36 thanks to injury issues that date back to his collegiate days. Last year, in his only season with the Giants, he missed 14 games with a torn pectoral. If he can stay healthy, he could be solid at his new position. He’s graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2013 season where he was Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked cornerback. Of course, he’s never played more than 480 snaps in a season and he might be undersized at safety at 5-11 183 and he’ll probably just get hurt again, but the upside is certainly there. Wolff would see starts if Thurmond got hurt and Eric Rowe could even see some time at safety as a rookie, assuming he doesn’t win a starting job at cornerback. The 6-1 205 pounder is a big corner and could fit in at safety in the short-term.

The only remaining starter from last season in Philadelphia’s secondary is Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins had a great first season in Philadelphia, after the 2009 1st round pick spent the first 5 seasons of his career in New Orleans, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked safety, but it’s important to remember his inconsistent history. In 5 years in New Orleans, he only twice graded out above average and never finished higher than 33rd among safeties. He graded out 103rd among 107 eligible cornerbacks in 2009, 88th among 88 eligible safeties in 2012, and 65th among 86 eligible safeties in 2013. He’s unlikely to be as good in 2015 as he was in 2014, given his history. This secondary is the weakness on an otherwise strong defense.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Eagles were the only 10 win team to miss the playoffs last season and they finished 16th in rate of moving the chains, 12th in opponent rate of moving the chains, and 12th in differential, which suggests they were a borderline playoff team. The Eagles made a ton of moves this off-season designed to get them over the hump and into the playoffs. I don’t expect their passing game to be better, losing Jeremy Maclin and going from Nick Foles/Mark Sanchez to a hobbled Sam Bradford and likely Mark Sanchez again at some point. The running game could be better because DeMarco Murray is coming in as a replacement for LeSean McCoy and McCoy really didn’t play well last year, but losing Evan Mathis, their top run blocker, really hurts.

Defensively, they should be solid again. They have same defensive line again and, while they lost Trent Cole, they add Kiko Alonso inside and Brandon Graham could have a breakout year in the biggest role of his career. The secondary still has problems, but, once again, the front 7 should prop up a mediocre back 4. Whether or not they break into the playoffs is going to be largely dependent on Sam Bradford’s health and his effectiveness. Injuries will likely strike more than they did last year, but their supporting cast on both sides of the ball is one of the best in the NFL overall. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cowboys after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Jun 252015
 

Quarterback

At this time last year, there was a good deal of concern about Eli Manning. He was coming off of a season in which he had a 69.4 QB rating, worst since his rookie, as he completed 57.5% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 27 interceptions. He graded out below average on Pro Football Focus for the first time since their origin in 2007, grading out 30th out of 42 eligible quarterbacks. Seemingly making matters even worse, Manning had a new offensive coordinator coming in for the first time since 2007 and he was reportedly having a lot of issues with Ben McAdoo’s new system during the off-season.

Instead, the results were strong. Manning finished the season completing 63.1% of his passes for an average of 7.34 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He graded out 18th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and finished 15th in QB rating among eligible quarterbacks. Going into his age 34 season, the days of him grading out 8th among quarterbacks in he did in 2012 or 6th like he did in 2011 are probably done, but he could easily still be in the top half of starting quarterbacks this season and grade out above average once again. In his career, he’s completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 7.09 YPA, 259 touchdowns and 185 interceptions, while making a league best 167 consecutive regular season starts, 178 if you include the playoffs.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

Manning was able to have his bounce back year despite having a bunch of injuries around him on offense. Injuries weren’t exclusive to the offense last season, as they finished with the most adjusted games lost in the NFL, a good sign that the Giants should be better this season, after finishing 18th in rate of moving the chains differential last season (17th on offense, 21st on defense) and finishing with a 6-10 record. A big part of Manning’s success last season was rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham, despite the fact that he missed 4 games to start the season and most of the off-season with hamstring problems.

Beckham finished the season with 91 catches for 1302 yards and 12 touchdowns despite missing valuable off-season time and doing so in just 12 games. That’s incredible and virtually unheard of for a rookie. Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Only 11 rookie wideouts have had a 1000+ yard season in the last 20 years. 1302 yards in 12 games is absurd.

Beckham’s 108.8 yards per game led the NFL. And it wasn’t like Eli was just forcing him the ball as he was targeted just 129 times (14th most in the NFL), catching 70.5% of them for 91 catches, that as opposed to just 2 drops. Beckham also caught 12 touchdowns and only 2 balls intended for him were intercepted. Eli had a 127.6 QB rating throwing to Beckham this season, 4th best among eligible wide receivers, meaning Eli’s quarterback rating was 35.5 points better when throwing to Beckham than it was overall, the best margin by an eligible wide receiver this season. Beckham’s 2.74 yards per route run were also 4th in the NFL. For his efforts, he was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver as a rookie, including 2nd in pure pass catching grade, meaning he basically played at an All-Pro level, despite missing 4 games with injury. If you take out the first 4 weeks of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver both overall and in pass catching grade.

Beckham was even better down the stretch as he started to get a feel for the offense. Beckham had 85 catches for 1233 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final 10 games of the season and 60 catches for 842 yards and 9 touchdowns in the final 6 games of the season. The latter translates to 160 catches for 2245 yards and 24 touchdowns over a 16 game season, which would break all sorts of records. Even Beckham isn’t good enough to put up those kinds of numbers, but it’s just another reminder that Beckham could easily be more productive in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. It’s usually hyperbolic to say that someone with 12 career games played is one of the best players in the NFL regardless of position, but, in this case, it’s true.

Beckham’s breakout year was especially valuable for the Giants because Victor Cruz missed the final 10 games of the season with injury. Remember how good Beckham’s numbers were in the final 10 games. Cruz had just 23 catches for 337 yards and a touchdown in 6 games, grading out below average on 382 snaps before going down, but he was also the Giants’ leading receiver in every season from 2011-2013 and a team leader in the locker room, so his injury really did hurt them. He totaled 241 catches for 3626 yards and 23 touchdowns from 2011-2013 and graded out 26th, 42nd, and 40th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus during that stretch, all above average.

Cruz is somewhat miraculously expected to be ready for the start of training camp, after tearing his patellar tendon last October, which would be a 9 month recovery.  A torn patellar tendon is about as bad as it gets because the patellar tendon is far larger than any knee ligament. When you tear it, your kneecap gets dislodged and shoots up into your thigh because the patellar tendon is what holds the kneecap in. It’s also what surgeons use to make new knee ligaments when you tear one. The history of guys who tore their patellar tendon and then returned to form is basically none existent.

I believe the optimistic reports, but the Giants should consider 12 games as the #3 receiver on the slot for Cruz in 2015 a win and hope for 2016 and beyond. Still, he should be more productive for the Giants than he was last season and he should be better than Preston Parker, a journeyman who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 87th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible on 605 snaps last season. We never truly got to see Beckham and Cruz on the same field last season as Beckham was still working his way back in the 2 games he played with Cruz last season. We might not truly see that this season either, but the possibility certainly exists.

Rueben Randle should be the #2 receiver opposite Beckham again this season. Randle quietly had a mini-breakout year last year in his 3rd season in the league, after the Giants drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012. He caught a career high 71 passes for a career high 938 yards and 3 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked wide receiver on 987 snaps, most by a Giants wideout. His career progression has been promising, as he flashed on 250 snaps as a rookie, graded out slightly below average in 2013, but played 589 snaps, and then had the best season of his career in 2014. Only going into his age 24 season, Randle should once again have a solid season in 2015 and could push for the first 1000+ yard season of his career.

Tight end Larry Donnell also had a decent season as a receiver, catching 63 passes for 623 yards and 6 touchdowns, grading out only slightly below average as a pass catcher, a pleasant surprise from a 2012 undrafted free agent who had played 109 nondescript snaps in his career prior to 2014. Donnell probably won’t be as productive of a pass catcher this season, especially if Cruz returns and allows the Giants to regularly use 3-wide sets.

His numbers took the biggest hit from Beckham’s return to the lineup as he had 25 catches for 236 yards and 4 touchdowns in the first 4 games of the season and then just 38 catches for 387 yards and 2 touchdowns in the final 12 games. He also graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible in blocking grade last season, causing him to grade out 54th out of 67 eligible overall. The 6-6 269 pounder has the frame to be a good blocker, but hasn’t shown it yet. He’s a marginal tight end, but you can do a lot worse as a 4th receiving option.

Daniel Fells was the #2 tight end last season, grading out above average on 434 snaps, primarily due to his blocking abilities. He’ll have to hold off Adrien Robinson, a 2012 4th round pick who has just 80 career snaps in 3 seasons, but flashed as a blocker on 77 snaps last season. With Fells going into his age 32 season, Robinson could easily beat him out. Whoever wins the job probably won’t see a lot of action though, as the Giants figure to use more 3-wide sets at the expense of 2-tight end sets. It’s a healthier and subsequently improved receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Giants also had a significant injury on the offensive line as right guard Geoff Schwartz was limited to 93 snaps in 2 games by injuries, in the first year of a 4-year, 16.8 million dollar contract. Schwartz played exclusively at right tackle last season because Justin Pugh was hurt during those 2 games. He has the versatility to play right tackle, having played there earlier in his career, and he played well in limited action there last season, but the Giants ultimately see him at right guard. Even after last year’s lost season, he still has the potential to be a steal on that 4-year deal.

Schwartz has always been good when on the field, grading out above average in every season of his career in which he’s played a snap, dating back to his rookie year in 2008. In 2013, he graded out 9th among guards and, in 2010, he graded out 18th among guards. The problem with him has always been injuries. He’s played all 16 games just once in his career and, between last season and 2011 (when he missed the whole season with a hip problem), he’s essentially had two lost seasons because of injuries. If he can stay on the field, Schwartz’s return should be a big boost to this offensive line.

As I mentioned earlier, the Giants had the most games lost due to injury last season. That type of thing does tend to even out in the long run, but it’s hard to explain that to Giants fans as they have somehow managed to have the most games lost to injuries in the NFL in 2 straight seasons. If the Giants can be healthier this season, they could be a lot better, but the odds of that don’t look good right now as Will Beatty tore his pectoral this off-season and is expected to miss at least the first 6 weeks of the season. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Giants will have a lot of other injuries again this season, but Beatty will be missed. He’s made 57 starts over the past 4 seasons, including 47 starts over the past 3 seasons, and he’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. While he struggled in 2013, grading out 64th among 76 eligible, he was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in 2012 and then ranked 14th last season.

In his absence, rookie Ereck Flowers, the 9th overall pick in the draft, will start at left tackle. He could do alright there, but he’ll still be a downgrade from Beatty. Besides, he was drafted to be the starting right tackle, at least immediately, moving Justin Pugh inside. Now with Beatty hurt, it’s unclear if he’ll still be moving inside. Pugh hasn’t been bad at right tackle in 2 seasons since the Giants drafted him in the first round in 2013, grading out slightly above average as a rookie and then slightly below average last season, but the Giants like him better inside. If he’s staying outside, that makes left guard a big problem.

John Jerry started 16 games at right guard last season and would be the likely starting option at left guard if Pugh moves back outside, but he was terrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked guard out of 78 eligible. The 2010 3rd round pick has never graded out above average in his career. 2014 2nd round pick Weston Richburg was the starting left guard last season, but he’s not a real candidate to play there this season as he’s permanently moved back to his natural position of center. The Giants don’t have another starting option at center and Richburg struggled out of position last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked guard out of 78 eligible. The Giants are hoping he can bounce back from that in his 2nd year in the league back at his natural position. The Giants’ offensive line will get a boost with Schwartz returning and rookie Ereck Flowers coming in, but the Beatty injury really hurts.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In addition to serious injuries suffered by Geoff Schwartz, Odell Beckham, and Victor Cruz last season, the Giants were also without lead back Rashad Jennings for 5 games, in the first season of a 4 year, 10 million dollar deal he signed last off-season. In his absence, 4th round rookie Andre Williams really struggled, rushing for 721 yards and 7 touchdowns on 217 carries on the season, a 3.32 YPC, and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 49th ranked running back out of 57 eligible. Jennings wasn’t exactly better though, also grading out below average and rushing for 639 yards and 4 touchdowns on 167 carries, an average of 3.83 YPC. As a result, the Giants finished 30th in team YPC, averaging 3.57 yards per carry on the season. Part of the problem was an offensive line that ranked 26th on Pro Football Focus in team run blocking grade, an area they should be better this season, but there’s no denying that Giant running backs did not play well.

Jennings is unlikely to bounce back this season. The 167 carries he had last season still were a career high, as the 2009 7th round pick has just 554 carries, largely working as a backup at best for most of his career. He’s averaged an underwhelming 4.18 YPC for his career on those 554 carries. On top of that, he’s going into his age 30 season and has graded out above average just once in 6 seasons in the NFL. His only redeeming quality is that he’s caught 66 passes in 26 games over the past 2 seasons, showing good hands for a 6-1 231 pounder.

The Giants added Shane Vereen as a free agent this off-season, signing him to a 3 year, 12.35 million dollar deal. The 2011 2nd round pick was primarily a passing down back in New England for the first 4 years of his career, but the Giants apparently see him as much more than that. With serious issues at the position, it’s worth giving him a shot. The speedy 5-10 203 pounder has graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league and he had 99 catches in 24 games over the past 2 seasons in the Kevin Faulk/Danny Woodhead role in New England. His career 4.18 YPC average on 217 carries is underwhelming, but, like I said, it’s worth a shot to give him more carries.

At the very least, Vereen gives them a strong passing down back and an open field weapon out of the backfield, unlike anything they had last season. Williams, meanwhile, will be a pure backup to both Jennings and Vereen on early downs and should have a drastically reduced role this season after leading the team in carries and snaps played at the running back position last season. That’s for the best, as, in addition to struggling as a runner, he’s completely useless as a pass catcher with 18 catches as a rookie (on 28 targets) and 10 catches in his entire career at Boston College. Their running game should once again struggle to be an adequate complement to a strong passing game.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As you can imagine, the Giants’ injuries were not limited to the offense last season. On the defensive line, their biggest one was Robert Ayers, who went down for the season with a torn pectoral. Ayers only missed 4 games, but he was great when on the field and the Giants were finally just getting around to giving him the playing time he deserved when he went down, as his final game of the season was also his first start of the season. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end, despite playing just 386 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position. 2014 was definitely the best season of the 2009 1st round pick’s career, but him having success is definitely not unprecedented. Ayers had graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in his career, including 3 straight and a 2013 season in which he finished 14th among 4-3 defensive ends. With Mathias Kiwanuka (57th among 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season on 558 snaps) gone, Ayers should be the starter and could have a very strong season on 600-700 snaps.

Jason Pierre-Paul will be the other starter. JPP was able to bounce back from a down 2013 season in which he dealt with serious back problems all season, grading out 7th among eligible 4-3 defensive ends last season. He’s graded out above average in all 5 seasons of his career and, with the exception of that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s been very dominant recently, finishing #6 among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, #3 in 2012, and then last year’s #7 finish. Only going into his age 26 season with his back problems behind him, JPP should have another strong season in 2015, playing on the 14.813 million dollar franchise tag, setting him up for a huge payday in free agency next off-season.

The Giants’ top two reserves at the position are George Selvie and Damontre Moore. Selvie was signed to a cheap 1 year, 1.4 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, coming over from Dallas. The 2010 6th round pick played just 424 snaps in the first 2 seasons of his career, but flashed on 238 snaps in 2012 and then saw his snap count rise to 762 in 2013 and 515 in 2014, grading out only slightly below average in both seasons, playing well against the run, but struggling to get consistent pass rush.

Moore, meanwhile, has graded out slightly below average in each of his first two seasons in the league since being drafted in 2013, doing so on 136 snaps as a rookie and then 326 in 2014, though he did grade out above average as a pass rusher last season. The Giants’ signing of Selvie suggests they don’t see him as ready for a bigger role, outside of being a situational passer. The 6-5 250 pounder might just not be big enough to ever be anything more. His skill set does complement Selvie’s well though, as they compete for snaps behind JPP and Ayers.

Inside at defensive tackle, the Giants have another very talented defensive lineman, Johnathan Hankins. After flashing on 195 snaps in 2013 as a 2nd round rookie, Hankins got a chance to be the starter in 2014 and dominated, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle on 700 snaps. Though he’s 6-2 320, Hankins isn’t just a big run stuffer as he graded out well above average as both a run stopper and a pass rusher last season. Hankins should remain an every down player.

Cullen Jenkins was the other starter last season. He graded out above average, as he has 7 times in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history, but he was limited to 366 snaps in 12 games. A significantly better pass rusher than run stopper, Jenkins should be limited to situational work as he goes into his age 34 season. The problem last season was their depth at defensive tackle was abysmal. Mike Patterson, who made starts last season when Jenkins was hurt, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 73rd ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible on 429 snaps, while Markus Kuhn finished 78th out of 81st eligible despite playing just 254 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position.

Patterson is gone and remains unsigned as a free agent going into his age 32 season, while Kuhn is not expected to have a big role this season. The Giants signed Kenrick Ellis as a free agent this off-season for depth purposes. A 2011 3rd round pick, Ellis was buried on the depth chart with the Jets for the first 4 years of his career, never playing more than 239 snaps in a season, but he definitely flashed, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons, excelling as a run stopper. At 6-5 330, he’s purely a base package player, but he should have a career high in snaps this season and his skill set complements Cullen Jenkins’ well. The Giants are also hoping that 2014 3rd round pick Jay Bromley, who graded out below average on 113 snaps as a rookie, is ready for a bigger role this season. This defensive line should be better this season simply because Ayers is healthy and Kiwanuka, Patterson, and Kuhn won’t play big roles. Led by Ayers, JPP, and Hankins, this is quietly one of the best defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The big injury at linebacker last season was to Jon Beason, their starting middle linebacker who was limited to 162 snaps in 4 games by recurring toe problems, in the first season of a 3-year, 16.8 million dollar deal that the Giants re-signed him to last off-season.  This shouldn’t have been a surprise though as Beason missed 28 games with injury from 2011-2013. His healthiest season, by far, came in 2013, when he played 15 games, which is why the Giants re-signed him long-term. However, even that season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 48th ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible. Beason used to be a good player, but injuries have sapped his abilities and he hasn’t graded out above average since 2010. Even if he can stay on the field this season, his age 30 season, he’s unlikely to be an asset, particularly not in coverage. The Giants brought him back this off-season only because he agreed to a pay cut and because they didn’t have a better option.

Jameel McClain was Beason’s replacement inside last season, but he struggled mightily, grading out 51st out of 60 eligible middle linebackers. He’s expected to move to outside linebacker and compete with incumbent Devon Kennard for the two-down outside linebacker role. Kennard is a limited coverage athlete at 6-3 251, but he graded out above average on 338 snaps as a 5th round rookie last season in that two-down role, primarily focusing on stopping the run. He should be the heavy favorite to keep that job, moving McClain into a reserve role. McClain hasn’t graded out above average since 2011 and is unlikely to get any better in his age 30 season in 2015.

At the other outside linebacker spot, JT Thomas is seen as the favorite after signing a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal this off-season, coming over from Jacksonville. Thomas, a 2011 5th round pick, played 202 snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league before playing 729 snaps last season. Thomas struggled mightily in 434 snaps at middle linebacker, grading out 55th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers, so, while he actually graded out above average on 295 snaps as an outside linebacker last season, his history doesn’t really instill a lot of confidence that he’ll be a good 3-down outside linebacker. He’s never graded out above average in his career. The Giants simply don’t have another choice, especially after overpaying him in free agency, because both Kennard and reserve Mark Herzlich are not good in coverage and McClain is best suited for a reserve role. It’s a weak linebacking corps overall.

Grade: C-

Secondary

If you’re sensing a theme here, yes there was a significant injury in the secondary as well, as cornerback Prince Amukamara went down with a torn biceps mid-season and missed the final 8 games of the season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback when he went down last season and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked cornerback on 464 snaps. The 2011 1st round pick has graded out above average in 3 straight seasons since his rookie season.

He’ll play his age 26 season in 2015 on a 6.898 million dollar salary after the Giants picked up his 5th year option last off-season. If he can stay healthy, he should be in line for a fairly sizable contract next off-season, though it’s worth noting that he’s played 8 or fewer games in 2 of 4 seasons in the league, thanks to last year’s injury and a serious foot injury he suffered as a rookie that limited him to 7 games that season. He’s missed 20 games in 4 seasons in the league, so there’s reason to at least be somewhat concerned about his long-term durability.

When he’s on the field, Prince Amukamara will serve as the 1A cornerback to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie’s 1B, or vice versa depending on how you want to look at it. They’re comparably good corners. DRC was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked cornerback last season, in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. That’s not as good as he was in 2013 with Denver, when he graded out 6th, but the Giants will definitely take that from him every year. He could be better this season in his age 29 season because he dealt with a variety of nagging injuries all last season. He didn’t miss any games, but, often playing on a snap count, he was limited to 767 snaps on the season and even came off the bench once.

The Giants also have to be pretty happy that DRC seems to have put his early career inconsistencies behind him. From his rookie year in 2008, when he was a 1st round pick by the Cardinals, through 2012, he graded out 63rd, 4th, 100th, 84th, and 91st respectively, before playing very well over the past 2 seasons. The 6-2 193 pounder has always had talent, but there have been some questions about his effort in terms of staying in shape, playing physical, and providing run support, all of which he’s been better about recently. Those were the reasons he had to “settle” for a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal last off-season while cornerbacks like Vontae Davis, Brent Grimes, and Aqib Talib all received more lucrative contracts. The Giants took a risk signing him, but they have to be happy about how this deal has played out so far, considering he’s the 19th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average salary.

The slot cornerback job is completely up for grabs though. Walter Thurmond started the season there last year, but ended up playing just 2 games before going down with injury and then signed in Philadelphia as a free agent this off-season. The Giants had a bunch of different cornerbacks see significant snaps at the position because of injuries, including Zackary Bowman (458), Chykie Brown (375), Mike Harris (224), and Trumaine McBride (215).

McBride was the #3 cornerback last season after Thurmond went down, though he too suffered a season ending injury, going down week 6. He was also the #3 cornerback in 2013, playing 621 snaps, and is reportedly seen as the favorite for the #3 job this season. The 2007 7th round pick is a late bloomer, as he’d never graded out above average in his career until 2013 and he was out of the league entirely in 2009, 2011, and 2012. However, he’s graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons, including 24th in 2013, though he’s going into his age 30 season. The other three cornerbacks are still in the mix for the job, but they’ll likely end up providing depth, if they even make the roster. Mike Harris was the only one of the other 3 to grade out above average last season.

The Giants are hoping that solid cornerback talent can mask a huge problem at safety. Antrel Rolle, Quintin Demps, Stevie Brown were their top 3 safeties last season and they all left as free agents this off-season. The Giants used a 2nd round pick on Landon Collins to fill one of the starting spots, though he could struggle as a rookie. Meanwhile, the other spot is a major hole, where 2013 5th round pick Cooper Taylor (5 career snaps), Nat Berhe (32 career snaps), and 5th round rookie Mykele Thompson will compete for the starting job. They’re all highly unlikely to turn into a solid starter. It’s a weak position in a back 7 that is weak outside of the cornerback position. The Giants will have to hope their strong front 4 can prop the up the back 7.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

As I’ve strongly hinted at, the Giants’ success is going to be highly dependent on whether or not they can stay healthy, something they haven’t come close to doing in recent seasons, finishing worst in adjusted games lost in each of the last 2 seasons. This type of thing tends to even out in the long run, but the Giants do have more than their fair sure of injury prone players. They should be at least somewhat healthier this season and if they can have average to above average health, they have a good chance to make the playoffs for the first time since their Super Bowl winning season in 2011. The NFC East is wide open with the Eagles completely retooling this off-season, the Cowboys vulnerable, and the Redskins a ways away. The Giants definitely have major weaknesses, but they also have significant strengths at quarterback, wide receiver, cornerback, and on the defensive line. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Giants after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC East

Jun 192015
 

Quarterback

The Seahawks have quickly ascended to the top of the NFL. They didn’t win the ultimate prize last season, but they literally came within inches of winning the Super Bowl, before a goal line interception cemented a 28-24 Super Bowl loss. It’s unfair to suggest that they should have won that game because it was a fluky interception, because it took a fluky, crazy catch to even get them down to the goal line and because the Patriots did slightly outplay them statistically, but, looking at the whole body of work, it’s hard to say that the Seahawks weren’t one of the best teams in the NFL last season, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential. When you add in their Super Bowl victory in 2013, the Seahawks look like the most accomplished team in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, winning the NFC’s #1 seed and the NFC Championship game in both years.

The Seahawks are so deep and talented on both sides of the field that it’s unfair to attribute their recent success to one person, but this team has certainly been a lot better over the past 3 seasons since they drafted Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012 and solidified the quarterback position. In 2011, they had a strong defense that included many of the same players that headline the defense now, but they missed the playoffs because of a stagnant offense led by quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.

In 3 years in the league, Wilson has made 48 of 48 starts, winning 36 of them. It’s unfair to give him all the credit for those wins considering the defense he has supporting him, but he’s been a big part of it, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 7.95 YPA, 72 touchdowns, and 26 interceptions, while grading out 6th, 4th, and 13th among quarterbacks in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He’s also added 1877 yards and 11 touchdowns on 308 carries (6.09 YPC). His numbers are even more impressive when you consider the fact that he’s had little offensive support from his receiving corps or offensive line in his career. Going into his contract year, Wilson wants to be paid like a top-5 quarterback. He might not be quite that good, but he’s close, he’s young (going into his age 27 season), and the Seahawks don’t have another choice but to pay him. Quarterbacks like him are far too indispensable.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

While Wilson doesn’t get much help from his receivers or his offensive line, he does get a lot of help from feature back Marshawn Lynch. Lynch is well known for his hilarious interview answers, but he’s also a hell of a football player as well. As a result of Lynch’s dominance, Wilson has only had to throw 1252 passes in 3 seasons in the league, an average of 417.3 per season, which has made life easier for him. Part of that is because Wilson himself is a gifted runner in the open field and someone who has averaged 102.7 carries per year in his career, but Lynch is the main reason for the Seahawks’ run first offense. He’s averaged 298.7 carries per season over the past 3 years and hasn’t missed a single game with injury.

Over the past 3 seasons, Lynch has rushed for 4153 yards and 36 touchdowns on 896 carries, an average of 4.64 YPC and he’s been even better than his numbers suggest as, like Wilson, he has to deal with a poor offensive line and a receiving corps that rarely draws double teams. The fact that the Seahawks finished 9th in rate of moving the chains last season on offense despite just 4 players who played more than 300 snaps and graded out above average on Pro Football Focus (Lynch, Wilson, Doug Baldwin, and Max Unger) is a testament to how good both Wilson and Lynch are.

Lynch has graded out 5th, 4th, and 2nd on Pro Football Focus in those last 3 seasons respectively and his 221 broken tackles on carries lead the NFL over that time period. He’s also the only running back in the NFL to grade out in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons. There’s a case to be made that he’s been the best running back in football over the past 3 seasons, despite what guys like Adrian Peterson, LeSean McCoy, DeMarco Murray, and LeVeon Bell have done over single seasons over the past 3 years.

One issue is that he’s going into his age 29 season with 2033 career carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 career carries. That suggests that Lynch has about 2, maybe 3 good years left in the tank and that possibly his best days are behind him. The only other issue is that Lynch isn’t a great pass catcher, as he has just 96 catches over the past 3 seasons and hasn’t graded out above average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus since his rookie year in 2007. That’s nitpicking though and he should still have a strong year in 2015.

The Seahawks also have good depth behind him with backups Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. Turbin, a 2012 4th round pick, has rushed for 928 yards and 0 touchdowns on 231 attempts in 3 years in the league, an average of 4.02 YPC. He’s also added 43 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. Michael, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in 2013. He has the bigger upside and has been more productive than Turbin in limited action, rushing for 254 yards and 0 touchdowns on 52 attempts (4.88 YPC), while adding 1 catch for 12 yards. With Turbin missing time this off-season with a hip problem, Michael could end up as Lynch’s primary backup. Ultimately it won’t matter much though because Lynch is a workhorse who rarely cedes carries. If Lynch were to get hurt, it would likely be a committee replacing him, with Michael as the primary runner and Turbin as a passing down back. They’re good depth behind a great starter.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

As I mentioned, the Seahawks had problems in the receiving corps last season. In order to remedy that, they made a shocking trade with the cap strapped Saints for Jimmy Graham, who the Saints brought back on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal last off-season. There’s no doubt that Graham will instantly be their best receiver and, owed just 27 million over the next 3 years, the Seahawks are getting a good value. However, the price was steep as the Seahawks swapped their first round pick to the Saints for a fourth rounder and also had to give up center Max Unger, who was their best offensive lineman last season and very reasonable paid, making just 9 million combined over the next 2 seasons. On top of that, while Graham’s contract is a good value, it’s another big contract for a team that has a lot of highly paid talent and soon-to-be highly paid talented to figure out how to keep under the cap long-term.

In the short term, there’s no doubt Graham makes them a better team though. Graham has caught 386 passes for 4752 yards and 51 touchdowns on 576 targets (67.0%) and 2281 routes run (2.08 yards per route run) in his career, the 2nd most yards per route run by a tight end only behind Rob Gronkowski over the past 5 years. He’s also graded out 7th, 15th, 4th, and 11th among tight ends in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He might not post the same composite numbers this year that he’s had over the past 4 years in New Orleans, when he’s averaged 89 catches for 1099 yards and 12 touchdowns, because the Seahawks are not nearly as pass heavy as the Saints and have a slightly worse passing quarterback, but he could still be Seattle’s first 900+ yard receiver since TJ Houshmanzadeh in 2009 and he’ll definitely make this offense better. Graham isn’t seen as an ideal fit in Seattle because he’s not seen as a great run blocker, but the big 6-6 259 pounder has graded out above average as a run blocker in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, so I’m not worried about that.

Graham is certainly an upgrade on the likes of Luke Willson, Tony Moeaki, Cooper Helfet, and Zach Miller, all of whom saw snaps for the Seahawks at tight end last season. Willson led the way with 579 snaps played and should be the #2 tight end this season behind Graham. A slightly better run blocker than pass catcher with 42 catches for 634 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2 seasons in the league since the Seahawks drafted him in the 5th round in 2013, Willson has graded out about average in both seasons he’s been in the league, on 415 snaps as a rookie and then 579 last season. He’ll fit in well as the 2nd tight end.

Doug Baldwin remains as the #1 wide receiver. Like Golden Tate before him, he doesn’t get a ton of respect because he plays in a run heavy offense and doesn’t put up big numbers, but he’s graded out 17th, 27th, 20th, and 20th respectively in 4 seasons in the league since the Seahawks signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2011. In his career, he’s caught 196 passes for 2761 yards and 15 touchdowns on 294 attempts (66.7%) and 1502 routes run, a strong average of 1.84 yards per route run. Unlike Tate, the Seahawks wisely locked Baldwin up long-term last season on a 3-year, 13 million dollar deal that looks like a steal.

The problem is the Seahawks don’t have many options after Graham and Baldwin. Jermaine Kearse was the other starter last year and will probably be the other starter again this year, a problem because he isn’t very good. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible last season. He’s been better in the past, grading above average on 486 snaps in 2013, after struggling on 78 snaps as a rookie, but the former undrafted free agent is probably better off as a #3 receiver.

The Seahawks drafted Paul Richardson in the 2nd round in 2014 with this situation in mind and he was decent on 516 snaps as the #3 receiver as a rookie, but he tore his ACL during the playoffs in January and his 2015 season very much is in doubt. Even when he’s on the field, he’ll be the #3 wide receiver at best, assuming he holds off the likes of Ricardo Lockette and Tyler Lockett for the job. The former is a 2011 undrafted free agent who has played 284 nondescript snaps in 4 seasons in the league, while the latter is a 3rd round rookie drafted primarily for his special teams ability. It’s an improved receiving corps thanks to Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin is very underrated, but there are still a lot of problems here.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

While the receiving corps should be better this season thanks to Jimmy Graham’s arrival, their offensive line should be worse now without Max Unger. Unger was the 4th ranked center on Pro Football Focus and the only Seahawk offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average. Even more impressive, he ranked 4th despite only playing 385 snaps and missing 10 games with injury. No center played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position last season. The Seahawks desperately missed him when he was out of the lineup. In games he started in the regular season, the Seahawks moved the chains at a 78.89% rate, as opposed to 72.51% in games he missed. You can’t necessarily attribute all of that to Unger, but it’s worth noting. Unger’s replacement, Lemuel Jeanpierre, was horrible in 4 starts down the stretch last season. The 2010 undrafted free agent has graded out above average just once in 5 seasons in the league and is a steep downgrade.

The Seahawks also won’t be able to hide him because the rest of the offensive line sucks too. Also leaving this off-season was James Carpenter, who signed a 4-year, 19.1 million dollar with the Jets, after starting 13 starts at left guard for the Seahawks in 2014. He wasn’t nearly as big of a loss as Unger, primarily because Carpenter struggled last season. He’s someone who was overpaid by the Jets and someone who can be upgraded. It’s just unclear if the Seahawks have anyone who can be an upgrade.

Alvin Bailey is penciled in as the starter at left guard right now. He flashed on 84 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013 and made his first career starts in 2014, but struggled in the first significant action of his career, making 2 starts at left tackle and 3 starts at left guard, grading out below average at both positions. Bailey probably isn’t a downgrade from Carpenter, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade either. He could be pushed for snaps by 4th round rookie Terry Poole later in the season.

At the right guard spot, the Seahawks have JR Sweezy, a 2012 7th round pick defensive tackle turned offensive lineman. The good news is he’s started 34 games in 3 seasons in the league and is coming off the best season of his career, but, even in the best season of his career, he was a mediocre starter, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 51st ranked guard out of 78 eligible in 2014. He’s never graded out above average in his career and is unlikely to become an average starter this season.

The only recent big investment the Seahawks put into their offensive line was when they used a 2nd round pick in 2014 on Justin Britt. He made all 16 starts at right tackle last season, but graded out 74th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles. The Seahawks are hoping he can be better in his 2nd year in the league, but there are definitely no guarantees. The only potential saving grace on this offensive line is left tackle Russell Okung and I should emphasize potential.

Russell Okung was the 6th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle in 2012, but that type of dominance has been rare from him and he generally hasn’t lived up to his billing. He’s graded out below average in his other 4 seasons in the NFL, never played all 16 games in a season, and missed 21 games in 5 seasons with injury. It’s strange to think that the Seahawks’ offensive line could be one of the league’s worst, but they were one of the worst last season without Unger and that really hurt their ability to move the chains. Now, Unger is gone permanently. The Jimmy Graham trade doesn’t just make them definitely better.

Grade: D

Defensive Line

While the Seahawks’ offense was good last season, their defense was still better, finishing 2nd in rate of moving the chains allowed. Guys in the secondary like Earl Thomas, Richard Sherman, and Kam Chancellor get a lot of the credit in Seattle, but defensive lineman Michael Bennett is arguably as valuable as or more valuable than any of those three. He’s been a top-7 4-3 defensive end in each of the last 4 seasons, including a career best #2 last season, dominating as both a run stopper and a pass rusher at 6-3 274.

Bennett has been in the news this off-season because he’s not happy with his current contract and at times there have been rumors he wants to be traded. While I expect Bennett to be in Seattle this season, Bennett does seem serious about his demands. It’s a weird situation. Bennett gave the Seahawks a big hometown discount last off-season, signing a 4-year, 28.5 million dollar deal to remain in Seattle. However, after making 10 million in the first year of the contract (thanks to a big signing bonus), owed just 18.5 million remaining over 3 years, Bennett seems to have changed his mind. It’s not that Bennett wasn’t worth 10 million last season or that he doesn’t deserve a raise, but the Seahawks, given all of their expensive players, can’t really afford to be giving raises to guys who have 3 years left on their deal. Either way, Bennett should be on the field and dominating for the Seahawks this season.

Cliff Avril will start opposite Bennett once again. After seeing just 574 snaps in a largely situational role in the first year of a 2-year, 13 million dollar contract in 2013, Avril saw 736 snaps in 2014. Avril has graded out 12th and 13th  in 2013 and 2014 respectively since arriving in Seattle, but he is still probably better off in a situational pass rush role playing 500-600 snaps instead of 700-800. A 2008 3rd round pick, Avril has graded out above average as a pass rusher in 6 of 7 seasons in his career, but has also never graded out above average against the run. The 6-3 252 pounder is very much a finesse player. The Seahawks drafted defensive end Frank Clark out of Michigan in the 2nd round and he’s expected to eat into his snaps as a rookie. The 6-1 270 pounder should be a better run defender.

Bennett sees a lot of snaps inside in sub packages and, when he moves inside, much more often than not, the Seahawks drop down outside linebacker Bruce Irvin to be the other edge rusher, playing in that Von Miller/Khalil Mack-esque hybrid role. Irvin actually graded out below average as a pass rusher, but graded out 11th among 4-3 outside linebackers thanks to his run abilities and coverage abilities. Irvin, who graded out 10th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013 as well, graded out above average as a pass rusher in both 2012 and 2013, after the Seahawks made him a surprise 1st round pick in 2012. There was controversy after the Seahawks decided not to pick up his 5th year option and Irvin was talking about being traded to his hometown Atlanta Falcons. It seems weird that the Seahawks would decline the option when it’s only guaranteed for injury, but the Seahawks might just know they can’t give him a big salary because of their long-term cap issues and see him as expendable. He’s likely to be in Seattle next season though.

At defensive tackle, the Seahawks had 4 different players see significant snaps. The player that saw the fewest of the quartet was Brandon Mebane, who played just 289 snaps thanks to a hamstring injury that cost him the final 7 games of the season. He was much better in 2013 on the Super Bowl team, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked defensive tackle, but that’s not the norm for him, as he’s graded out below average in 3 of the last 4 seasons. Going into an age 30 season, Mebane is primarily just a base package run stopper at this point in his career. He’ll be good to have back though.

Tony McDaniel should be the other base down player inside. He really struggled last season, grading out 72nd out of 81 eligible defensive tackles. He was much better in 2013, grading out as 15th among defensive tackles, including 4th in pure run grade. However, like with Mebane, that’s not the norm for him. Like Mebane, 2013 is the only season he’s graded out above average in the last 4 seasons and he’s graded out above average just twice in Pro Football Focus’ 8 year history. Going into his age 30 season, already his 10th season in the NFL, he’s a weak spot upfront.

In sub packages, McDaniel will cede snaps to Jordan Hill, a 2013 3rd round pick who graded out below average on 366 snaps last season, but excelled as a pass rusher. The Seahawks lost their 4th defensive tackle Kevin Williams in free agency this off-season, but they did add Ahtyba Rubin from the Browns. Rubin was one of the worst defensive tackles in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 74th ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible. He’s not generally this bad, but the last time he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus was 2009, so he’s not great either. He’s mere insurance and depth as the 4th defensive tackle right now. It’s once again a strong front, but there are some problems.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

I mentioned that Bruce Irvin plays linebacker in base packages, lining up outside as the 3rd outside linebacker in a primarily run stopping role, which, as I mentioned, he does quite well. In sub packages, it’s just Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, who are one of the best linebacker duos in the NFL. Wright, a 2011 4th round pick, has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, ranking 17th, 14th, 13th, and 6th in 2011-2014 respectively.

Wagner, meanwhile, is a 2012 2nd round pick who has graded out 2nd, 12th, and 5th in 3 seasons in the NFL. Especially impressive about his 2014 season was that he did that despite missing 5 games with injury. If you take out the 5 week stretch where he didn’t play, he ranks 2nd at his position.  In the 5 games he missed, the Seahawks allowed opponents to move the chains at a 72.38% rate, as opposed to 66.45% in the 11 games he played in the regular season. His presence was so noticeable that Tony Dungy actually cast his MVP vote for him because, as he explained, it’s most “valuable.” That’s absurd. Yes, the Seahawks did really miss him when he was hurt, but basic interference suggests that the Packers would have missed Aaron Rodgers far more if he were hurt or the Texans with JJ Watt.

However, Wagner did have a fantastic season. Going into his age 25 contract year, the Seahawks are trying to lock him up now so they’ll have the franchise tag free next off-season for Russell Wilson. Wagner is rumored to be in line to be the highest paid middle linebacker in the NFL. His only real issue is he’s missed 7 games with injury over the past 2 seasons. He, Wright, and Irvin make a very strong linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

Everyone knows about the Seahawks’ secondary, the legion of boom. There’s debate about who is the best member of it. Earl Thomas is a great coverage safety, but he missed too many tackles for me to consider him the best of this bunch. Instead, I think that title should go to Richard Sherman, who has made 48 of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons and 58 in 4 seasons in the league, since the Seahawks grabbed him as a steal in the 5th round in 2011. In 4 seasons in the league, he’s graded out 16th, 2nd, 5th, and 3rd from 2011-2014 respectively. He’s the only cornerback in the league to grade out in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons and is firmly in that top tier of cornerbacks with Darrelle Revis and Chris Harris.

At safety, the Seahawks have Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who are among the best safeties in the league and complement each other very well. Both were drafted in 2010, but they’ve both taken different paths to the starting lineup. A first round pick, Thomas was a starter from the word go and has made 80 of 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league. Thomas has graded out above average in every season he’s been in the league, grading out 30th, 8th, 36th, 10th, and 5th in 2010-2014 respectively.

Chancellor, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick in 2010 and took a year to break into the starting lineup, flashing on 138 snaps as a rookie and then making 61 of 64 in the 4 seasons since. He’s graded out 5th, 20th, 12th, and 20th respectively from 2011-2014. Because the Seahawks have so much talent in the secondary, particularly Thomas and Sherman, Chancellor often plays near the line of scrimmage, playing 81.3% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage in 2014, 2nd most often in the NFL among eligible safeties, a great role for the 6-3 232 pounder. Meanwhile, the 5-10 208 pound Thomas played within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on just 8.1% of snaps, 3rd least often in the NFL among eligible safeties. Thomas has missed 66 tackles in 5 seasons in the league, but, other than that, he’s great and he’s coming off the best season of his career in 2014.

The Seahawks lost Byron Maxwell at the other cornerback spot to a monster 6-year, 63 million dollar deal that he signed with the Eagles. However, Maxwell was massively overpaid as he was just Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked cornerback in 2014. The Seahawks replaced him with Cary Williams, who he ironically replaced in Philadelphia, on a much more reasonable 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Williams might not have Maxwell’s upside and he is going into his age 31 season, but he graded out 49th among cornerbacks last season, very similar to Maxwell. Williams has made 64 starts in the last 4 seasons, grading out 57th, 69th, 80th, and 49th respectively, slightly below average overall. He’s not very good, but he should be able to hold his own opposite Richard Sherman this year.

The slot cornerback spot should remain the only weak part in this secondary and there are 4 players who could conceivably play there. Jeremy Lane is the least likely to win the battle, even though the 2012 6th round has flashed on 524 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. That’s because he tore his ACL and broke his arm on the same play in the Super Bowl. He won’t be ready for the start of the season and he could easily miss the entire year. Tharold Simon is an option, after the 2013 5th round pick graded out slightly below average in the first experience of his career last season, playing 305 snaps, but he struggled mightily in the playoffs.

Realistically, the battle is between Marcus Burley and Will Blackmon. Burley began the season in the #3 role last season and ended up grading out above average on 328 snaps, after not playing a snap as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Blackmon, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent Jacksonville, where he played under former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who is the Head Coach in Jacksonville. Blackmon had the best year of his career in 2013 in Jacksonville in Bradley’s system, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked cornerback on 682 snaps and he has the requisite size to play cornerback for Pete Carroll at 6-0 198, but 2013 is the outlier in his career. He’s graded out above average just 2 times in 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history and has only played 66 games in 9 years in the league since being drafted in the 4th round in 2006. With Blackmon going into his age 31 season, the Seahawks would be better off with the youngster Burley. Despite uncertainty on the slot, it’s still arguably the best secondary in the NFL.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Seahawks should once again be one of the best teams in the league this season. The NFC West is getting worse with Arizona unlikely to have as good of luck with turnovers and close games this season, the Rams still a little bit away, and San Francisco self-destructing, so Seattle has a fairly easy journey to the top of the NFC West for the 3rd straight year. Their offensive line is a big problem, but they’re strong pretty much everywhere else, particularly on defense. The only concern is that the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl last year and it’s been 40 years since a Super Bowl loser won the following year and 20 years since a Super Bowl loser even went back to the Super Bowl. That’s more than a fluke I think because teams that go that far and lose can be dejected and tired the following season. That’s certainly a possibility for a Seahawks team that has played 38 games in the last 2 seasons and 56 games in the last 3 seasons, but they should be one of the best teams in the NFL again. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Seahawks after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Jun 172015
 

Quarterback

The Cardinals made the playoffs last season at 11-5, but they finished the season 17th in rate of moving the chains differential, behind non-playoff teams like Kansas City, New Orleans, Miami, San Diego, and Philadelphia and worst among playoff teams. Arizona’s 11-5 record was buoyed by a 4-1 record in games decided by a touchdown or less and their +11 point differential was 2nd worst among qualifying playoff teams. The Cardinals also benefitted from tough to sustain things like a 62.07% rate of recovering fumbles (best in the NFL), a +8 turnover margin, and a +4 return touchdown margin. They were especially bad down the stretch, losing 5 of their last 7 games, including a loss in Carolina in the playoffs to a 7-8-1 Panthers team (who still finished the season ahead of them in rate of moving the chains differential). Even though the scoreboard only read 27-16 in their playoff loss, they had just 8 first downs to Carolina’s 25.

However, there is some hope that the Cardinals might not regress in the win column. Part of the reason the Cardinals struggled last season, particularly down the stretch, was that they were essentially down to their 4th string quarterback by the end of last season. 1st and 2nd string quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton both missed significant time with injury, while 3rd string quarterback Logan Thomas struggled mightily in limited action as a 4th round rookie and did not impress in practice either. That forced the Cardinals to bring in Ryan Lindley over from San Diego’s practice squad to start down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Lindley completed just 48.4% of his passes for an average of 6.04 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions and then completed 16 of 28 for 82 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions in the playoff loss. Arguably the worst quarterback in NFL history to ever start a playoff game, Lindley has completed 50.8% of his passes for an average of 4.98 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in his career and might never throw another NFL pass. Not only are the Cardinals highly unlikely to have to resort to signing someone from another team’s practice squad in November to make starts this season, if they do have to do that, chances are that quarterback will be better than Lindley. Even for a 4th string quarterback, he’s horrible. His 50.3 career QB rating is the worst in the NFL over the past 10 years among quarterbacks who have thrown at least 200 passes.

The Cardinals moved the chains at a 73.58% rate in games started by Carson Palmer (6 games) last season and a 67.03% rate in games started by other quarterbacks. Carson Palmer is expected to be back for week 1, after a torn ACL ended a 2014 season in which he completed 62.9% of his passes for an average of 7.26 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. He might not be quite that good again this season. For one thing, ACL tears can be tough to bounce back from, especially when it’s a knee you’ve injured before (he tore that same ACL in 2005). On top of that, he’s going into his age 36 season. That won’t make his recovery easier and he probably would have declined this season anyway. Being in your age 36 season is tough and coming off of a twice torn ACL is tough, but doing them together could be especially tough.

It doesn’t help that Palmer’s ACL tear was in November, relatively late in the season, which gives him less recovery time. Early reports out of camp are good, but you can’t always trust those. Also, Palmer is unlikely to throw an interception on just 1.3% of his passes again next season, as his career average is 3.2%. He could struggle this season by his standards, after grading out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2009-2014.

If he gets hurt again, next in line is Drew Stanton, who made 8 starts last season, before going down for the season with an injured knee. Even if Palmer isn’t himself anymore, Stanton would still be a noticeable downgrade from Palmer, like he was last season. Last season, he completed 55.0% of his passes for an average of 7.13 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. Head Coach Bruce Arians is a great offensive mind and has incredibly won 2 of the last 3 Coach of the Year Awards, but there’s only so much you can do if the talent’s not there.

A 2007 2nd round pick, Stanton has completed 55.3% of his passes for an average of 6.72 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, never grading out above average in Pro Football Focus’ history and not throwing a pass from 2011-2013. He’s a low-end backup quarterback at best and he won’t get any better in his age 31 season. They might not have great quarterback play this season, but they should exceed last year’s production, when they completed 56.3% of their passes for an average of 7.02 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.

Only their 2.1% QB rating seems hard to repeat, as they threw a fluky low amount of interceptions last season. Turnovers are already kind of fluky because they only happen on such a low percentage of snaps, but it’s especially fluky that the Cardinals had such few interceptions last season when their quarterback play was as bad as it was and when they threw down field as much as they did last season. They won’t necessarily dominate the turnover/return touchdown battle again this season, but improved quarterback play should offset that, at least somewhat.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Outside of the quarterback position, the Cardinals didn’t really have many games lost on offense, as they finished 8th in offensive adjusted games lost, so they can’t exactly count on reinforcements returning from injury outside of the quarterback spot. The only other big injury they had on offense was Andre Ellington. Ellington only missed 4 games with injury, but was limited by injuries all season, most notably a toe injury he suffered in the pre-season. As a result, he rushed for 660 yards and 3 touchdowns on 201 carries, an average of 3.28 YPC. Ellington’s ineffectiveness on such a large volume, as well as the Cardinals’ lack of running back talent behind him on the depth chart, led to the Cardinals averaging a league worst 3.30 yards per carry. Ellington’s injuries aren’t really reflected in their low amount of offensive adjusted games lost because there was usually little doubt he’d play, but the Cardinals’ inability to run the ball last season contributed to their offense being stagnant.

Ellington was much better as a 6th round rookie in 2013, underutilized on 118 carries, rushing for 652 yards and 3 touchdowns, an average of 5.52 YPC. However, that’s no guarantee that he won’t continue to struggle in 2015. Ellington might just not be cut out to be a lead back and handle that type of workload, at 5-9 199, with a history of injury problems that date back to his collegiate days at Clemson. He should be more effective this season and he’s got strong pass catching abilities with 85 catches in 27 career games, but it’s highly possible he never becomes an above average starting running back.

The Cardinals used a 3rd round pick on David Johnson in this past draft, but despite his 6-1 224 frame, he might not be the power complement to Andre Ellington that they need. He plays faster and smaller than his listed size and is a solid receiver out of the backfield. In fact, Bruce Arians has compared Johnson to Ellington, suggesting that they see him as a clear backup and someone who can play a similar style if Ellington gets hurt. That’s something they didn’t have last season and Ellington should be more productive, but this isn’t exactly a perfect tandem.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The one area the Cardinals had no injuries was the offensive line, a big part of the reason why they had such few adjusted games lost. The Cardinals had 5 guys make 78 out of 80 starts and 3 of those guys played every snap. Only right guard Paul Fanaika missed time with injury, missing weeks 14 and 15 and being replaced by Jonathan Cooper. However, just because the Cardinals were healthy on the offensive line, doesn’t mean they played well, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked run blocking offensive line and 23rd ranked pass blocking offensive line. Only one player played a snap upfront for the Cardinals and graded out above average. That didn’t help them move the chains.

That above average player was left tackle Jared Veldheer, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in the first year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal. Veldheer was one of several recent big investments by the Cardinals since new GM Steve Keim came in 3 off-seasons ago, in order to turn around a perennially poor offensive front and he looks like a steal thus far. He should be able to repeat that season in 2015, only going into his age 28 season. A 2010 3rd round pick, Veldheer graded out 16th, 15th, and 9th among offensive tackles in 2011, 2012, and 2014 respectively, with a 2013 season mostly lost to injury in between. Basically, whenever he’s been healthy, he’s been good and, aside from 2013, he’s never missed a game.

Another recent investment by the Cardinals upfront is Mike Iupati, who was signed to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal by the Cardinals this off-season. He’ll be a clear upgrade at left guard over Ted Larsen, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 68th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season. The 17th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft by the 49ers, Iupati has graded out in the top-14 at his position on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons he’s been in the league, with the exception coming in an injury plagued 2013, when he still graded out above average. Despite that injury plagued 2013 season, he’s missed just 4 games in 5 seasons, all coming in 2013. One concern is that, while he’s annually one of the top run blocking guards in the NFL, he has graded out below average as a pass protector in 3 of 5 seasons so, as talented as he is, he’s not that well-rounded and he does have a glaring weakness. He’ll be a big asset though.

In addition to bringing in Iupati, the Cardinals also used their first round pick on DJ Humphries, an offensive tackle out of Florida. Bruce Arians is talking up incumbent Bobby Massie and saying that Humphries won’t have anything handed to him and referring to Massie as a starter, but it’s early and he’s likely just giving Massie his due respect as a veteran and challenging the newcomer. Even though Humphries is raw, only going into his age 22 season as a rookie, it’s unlikely that the Cardinals used a 1st round pick on him just to have him ride the pine. Massie graded out below average last season, something he’s done in all 3 seasons in the league in 32 starts, since the Cardinals drafted him in the 4th round in 2012.

If the Cardinals want to get their best 5 offensive linemen out there regardless of position, they might have either Humphries or Massie start at right guard this season, before Massie hits free agency next off-season. Massie was a below average starter at right tackle, but could be a better fit inside or Humphries could find life easier for him inside early in his career. Currently penciled in as the starting right guard is Jonathan Cooper, the 7th overall pick in 2013 and someone who has been a massive bust thus far. Injuries and ineffective play in practice have limited him to 189 snaps in 2 seasons in the league and he hasn’t shown much more on the field, despite being called the best interior line prospect in a decade when he came out. He’s entering a make or break year could easily end up not starting if the Cardinals decide to move Massie or Humphries inside. 2013 4th round pick Earl Watford is reportedly also in the mix to start, but he has played 9 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league and isn’t a likely starting option, especially if Massie or Humphries moves inside.

Cooper could see time at center if he’s unable to nail down the right guard spot. Currently competing for the starting center job is Ted Larsen and AQ Shipley. Larsen, as I mentioned earlier, struggled mightily at left guard last season. He’s also graded out below average in all 5 seasons he’s been in the league, splitting time between center and guard. Shipley, meanwhile, struggled mightily at guard in 2013, grading out 66th out of 81 eligible, but has graded out above average as a center in both 2012 and 2014. He was weirdly benched after 4 weeks in Indianapolis last year, despite being Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center at the time. The Cardinals seem to actually believe in him and he’s likely the favorite over Ted Larsen. He’s definitely flashed. Either one of them should be an improvement over Lyle Sendlein, who was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked center last season. He was cut by the Cardinals and remains unsigned as a free agent this off-season. It’s definitely an improved offensive line, but also one that still has holes.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The big decision the Cardinals had to make heading into this off-season involved Larry Fitzgerald, the face of the franchise and a player who has been with the Cardinals since they drafted him 3rd overall in 2004. Fitzgerald signed a 7-year, 113 million dollar extension 4 off-seasons ago, but hasn’t had a 1000+ yard season since 2011, the first year after the extension. There was no way he’d be back next in 2015 at his 16 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It was only a question of whether or not they’d bring him back at a cheaper rate or outright cut him.

The Cardinals opted to do the former and I think it was a huge mistake. Yes, it lessens Fitzgerald’s cap hit for 2015, which was scheduled to be 23.6 million, but if that was the most of a pay cut that Fitzgerald was willing to take, they should have just outright cut them, a move that would have saved them about 9 million on the cap immediately and gotten him off their cap completely for 2016. This deal pays Fitzgerald 22 million dollars over the next 2 seasons, all of which will show up on their cap at some point because it’s all fully guaranteed.

That 11 million dollar annual average is 5th highest in the NFL behind Calvin Johnson, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe, and Vincent Jackson. Fitzgerald is not the 5th best wide receiver in the NFL at all, not any more. From 2005-2011, Fitzgerald averaged 94 catches for 1309 yards and 10 touchdowns per 16 games, even though he never really had great quarterback play, except for those couple Warner years. He was fantastic then. That’s why he got that deal in the first place.

However, 2011 was his last 1000+ yard season. His 71/798/4 line in 2012 was understandable because he had supremely terrible quarterback play, but even with better quarterback play in 2013 and 2014, he only averaged 73 catches for 839 yards and 6 touchdowns in 15 games. He was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked wide receiver in passing grade in 2013 and their 28th ranked in that category in 2014. He’s still a solid receiver, but he’s not the same player he was when he was in his prime. It’s promising that he had 32 catches for 483 yards and 2 touchdowns in Palmer’s 6 starts last season, 85 catches for 1288 yards and 5 touchdowns over 16 games, but he’s still unlikely to have another 1000+ yard season again ever.

Part of the reason why is because the Cardinals like to spread it around to three different wide receivers, Fitzgerald, 2012 1st round pick Michael Floyd, and 2014 3rd round pick John Brown. Fitzgerald had 100 targets on 506 routes run, Floyd 93 targets on 585 routes run, and Brown 94 targets on 459 routes run last season. Floyd caught just 47 of those targets, but he did turn them into 841 yards and 6 touchdowns. Still, he wasn’t nearly as good as he was in his 2nd season in the league in 2013, when he graded out 22nd among wide receivers and caught 65 passes for 1041 yards and 5 touchdowns. He’s hoping to have a bounce back year in his 4th year in the league in 2015, as he angles for a long-term deal, and improved quarterback play should help.

Brown, meanwhile, caught 48 of those passes for 696 yards and 5 touchdowns. The 3rd rounder was a one-dimensional deep threat as a rookie and the only one of the trio to grade out below average last season. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league in 2015 and Bruce Arians has had success with similar receivers like TY Hilton and Mike Wallace in previous stops, but he was only a 3rd round pick so, while Hilton and Wallace were only 3rd rounders as well, there isn’t any guarantee he ever becomes a complete receiver. He’ll technically be the #3 receiver behind #2 Floyd and #1 Fitzgerald, but they’ll spread the ball around and use a bunch of 3-wide sets once again this season. All three of them should be more productive simply because the quarterback play should be better and they are a trio of solid targets.

As Bruce Arians’ offense loves throwing downfield to 3 different wide receivers, the tight end position is not as important as it is in other offenses. Starter John Carlson was horrible last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 65th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. He fortunately retired this off-season, while Rob Housler, who graded out below average last season as well, signed with Cleveland as a free agent. 2014 2nd round pick Troy Niklas was drafted to be a big part of their offense and will get a chance this season, as he’s penciled into the starting role right now, but he’ll have to stay healthy.

That’s not something he was able to do as a rookie, when he struggled mightily on 90 snaps. This off-season, he’s still having ankle problems. The Cardinals didn’t draft a tight end until the 7th round so Darren Fells, who flashed last season on 229 snaps, the first snaps of his career, will be their only insurance. That leaves them dangerously thin at the position, which knocks this receiving corps down a little bit. They should be better offensively this season thanks to better health at quarterback and running back and increased talent on the offensive line.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

While the Cardinals were poor offensively last season, they were strong defensively, allowing opponents to move the chains at the 3rd lowest rate in the NFL. They might not be as good this season, as a result of offensive losses. Dan Williams signed with the Raiders on a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal this off-season, while Tommy Kelly remains unsigned going into his age 35 season and is likely considering retirement. Those were two of their 3 starters on their 3-man defensive line last season. Williams graded out 14th among defensive tackles, while Kelly ranked 17th among 3-4 defensive ends. They’ll be tough to replace.

In order to try to replace them, the Cardinals signed Corey Peters and Cory Redding. Cory Redding was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and their 11th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013. The problem is he’s going into his age 35 season, so it’s hard to trust him going forward. He ranked 27th out of 34 eligible in 2012 and could regress to that level in 2015 given his age. He’s graded out above average in 3 of the last 4 seasons and the Cardinals risked very little with a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, but he can’t necessarily be counted on to be an asset.

Peters, meanwhile, will be a two-down player inside nose tackle, a position he’s never played and somewhere where he might be undersized at 6-3 305. Peters tore his Achilles in 2013 at the worst possible time, in a meaningless week 16 game, just before he was set to hit free agency. Peters was forced to settle for a cheap one year deal back in Atlanta in an attempt to rehab his value and he did a decent job. He played 15 games (except week 1 when he was kept out for precautionary reasons) and graded out about average on 535 snaps.

Other than that Achilles tear, he doesn’t have a significant injury history, as he’s missed just 9 games in 5 seasons combined since the Falcons drafted him in the 3rd round in 2010. Peters struggled in the first 3 seasons of his career, grading out below average in all 3 seasons, including a 2010 season in which he graded out 62nd out of 76 eligible and a 2012 season in which he graded out 83rd out of 85 eligible, but he’s graded out right about average in each of the last 2 seasons and he’s going into his age 27 season. We’ll see how he does at a new position.

Frostee Rucker remains and will once again play in a rotational reserve position at 3-4 defensive end, as he did last season, when he played 487 snaps. He should be in the 400-500 range once again this season. He graded out above average for the first time in his career last season, but the 9-year veteran is unlikely to repeat the best season of his career again in an age 32 season in 2015. He’ll rotate snaps with Redding and is best in a reserve role.

Also still around is Calais Campbell, which is obviously good because he’s their most indispensable player on either side of the field (only behind maybe the quarterback Carson Palmer). He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season and has graded out in the top-4 in each of the last 4 seasons at the position, something no one else can say. Only going into his age 29 season with just 7 games missed in 7 seasons in his career, I see no reason that can’t continue next season. Aside from JJ Watt, he’s arguably the best 3-4 defensive end in the game.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

John Abraham led the 2013 Cardinals with 12 sacks, but was limited to 37 snaps by the Cardinals in 2014 thanks to concussion problems and he’s expected to retire this off-season, ahead of his age 37 season. In his absence, Alex Okafor led the way with 8 sacks, but he didn’t play that well overall, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 45th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker out of 46 eligible, particularly struggling against the run. Last season was the first significant action of his career, after playing just 5 snaps as a 4th round rookie in 2013. He’ll be back as a starter in 2015 and could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Cardinals better hope he improves because they don’t really have another option.

On the other side, Sam Acho was 2nd among Cardinal outside linebackers in snaps played last season, grading out above average on 483 snaps, but he’s now in Chicago, leaving as a free agent. The Cardinals used a 2nd round pick on Markus Golden as a replacement and, while he definitely fills a need and could be a solid player for them long-term, but he’s very raw and not someone the Cardinals are going to be able to depend on as a rookie, even in obvious passing situations.

Acho split time with Matt Shaughnessy last season and Golden will do that this season as well, working as a situational pass rusher with Shaughnessy playing early downs as primarily a run stopper. That’s a good role for him as, while he’s graded out below average as a pass rusher in 4 straight seasons, the big 6-5 270 pounder has also graded out above average as a run stopper in 5 straight seasons, playing both 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker since the Raiders drafted him in the 3rd round in 2009. He only played 341 snaps last season because he missed 8 games with injuries, but he should have a much bigger role in 2015.

Inside, Paris Lenon was one of the worst middle linebackers in the NFL last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 56th ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible. He made the smart decision to retire ahead of his age 35 season this off-season and is now a member of the Cardinals’ coaching staff. The Cardinals are hoping Daryl Washington can replace him, but he has yet to be reinstated. He was suspended all of last season because of substance abuse and domestic violence and his status for 2015 is very much up in the air. Most expect him to be reinstated and then serve an additional 4-6 game suspension, but that’s unknown at this time. Washington, a 2010 2nd round pick, graded out above average in every season from 2010-2013, including 11th among middle linebackers in 2010, 9th in 2011, and 3rd in 2012. It’s tough to know what to expect from him after missing an entire season, but he should be an asset for them when on the field.

The Cardinals signed Sean Weatherspoon as a free agent as insurance, but the problem is they don’t have an insurance policy for him and, if his history is any indication, they might need one. It’s been a steep drop off for Weatherspoon since he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in his 2nd year in the league in 2011 after being drafted in the 1st round in 2010. He’s played in just 20 of 48 games combined over the past 3 seasons, grading out below average in 2012 and 2013 and missing all of 2014 with a torn Achilles. 2011 remains the only season in his career that he’s played all 16 games and the only season in his career in which he’s graded out above average, as he missed 5 games as a rookie and graded out below average when on the field. He’s missed 33 games in 5 seasons.

If and when Washington is on the field this season, Weatherspoon will compete for snaps at the other middle linebacker spot with the incumbent Kevin Minter. I’m not so sure that Weatherspoon wins that battle. Minter, 2013 2nd round pick, is a limited player, particularly in coverage, but he’s a good run stopper and graded out above average overall last season. That middle linebacker job was just a two-down role last season because the Cardinals would drop a safety down to the box in sub packages, rather than using a 2nd linebacker. They love doing that type of thing and they have the safety depth to continue doing so, which means that the other middle linebacker position could easily remain a two-down role, which is perfect for Minter. Another option the Cardinals have is to line Daryl Washington up on the edge in some obvious passing downs, as he’s been a strong pass rusher thus far in his career, primarily as a blitzer. It’s a weak linebacking corps overall, but one that is better because of Lenon’s retirement.

Grade: C

Secondary

I mentioned how deep the Cardinals’ are at the safety position. Last season, they had 4 different safeties play at least 438 snaps and 3 different safeties play at least 697 snaps. Ironically, the safety who played the fewest might be the best, as Tyrann Mathieu was limited last season by injuries, including recovery from a late 2013 ACL tear. He graded out above average last season in limited action and, only going into his age 23 season, close to 2 years removed from the injury, Mathieu has a very good chance to bounce back to what he was as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, when he was an every down player and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked cornerback, splitting snaps between safety in base packages and cornerback in sub package. With Antonio Cromartie leaving as a free agent unreplaced at cornerback (more on that later), Mathieu should continue in that hybrid role in 2015.

At the other safety spot in base packages, Rashad Johnson was the starter last season and played every snap of the season except 8 as a traditional safety. The problem is Johnson was horrible, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 77th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. He’s been better in the past, but he’s always been a part-time player, maxing out at 643 snaps played in 2013, before last year’s career high. He should move into a situational role again this season, with 2014 1st round pick Deone Bucannon moving into the every down starting role.

Bucannon struggled as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked safety out of 87 eligible. However, that’s because he wasn’t really used properly, seeing 98.2% of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, easily most among eligible safeties, effectively spending the vast maority of his time as a linebacker. As a result, he struggled mightily against the run and as a pass rusher, as he weirdly had 109 pass rush snaps and predictably had trouble getting into the backfield. In coverage, he was just about average. In his 2nd year, in the league in a role that’s still hybrid, but that plays the 6-1 208 pounder as a traditional safety more often, Bucannon should have a better season.

In this scenario with Bucannon starting next to Mathieu, Johnson and Tony Jefferson would come in during sub packages when Bucannon and Mathieu move to linebacker and cornerback respectively. Jefferson was an undrafted free agent in 2013, but has been a pleasant surprise through two seasons in the league. After flashing on 202 snaps as a rookie, he graded out just slightly below average in a bigger role on 697 snaps in 2014. He should continue being a solid-part time player.

As I mentioned, the Cardinals lost Antonio Cromartie as a free agent this off-season and didn’t really replace him, suggesting they want Mathieu to play more cornerback this season. That pushes Jerraud Powers back into a starting role. That’s not a problem. For one thing, while Cromartie started last season well, he struggled down the stretch with an ankle problem and ended up grading out slightly below average on the season. On top of that, Powers is plenty experienced and a solid player. The 2009 3rd round pick made 58 starts from 2009-2013 and graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons. Even last season, as the “#3” cornerback, he played 761 snaps and graded out about average. Only going into his age 28 season, he’s a solid starter.

Patrick Peterson will be the other starter and he’s made 64 of 64 starts since the Cardinals drafted him 5th overall in 2011. Peterson is believed by many to be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, up there with Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, but he certainly didn’t play that well last season, grading out below average and finishing 3rd in touchdowns allowed (8) and 4th in penalties committed (13) among cornerbacks. Peterson says last year’s struggles were the result of undiagnosed diabetes, which makes a lot of sense. He says he has it under control right now, something he’ll have to prove on the field. Only going into his age 25 season, having graded out 16th and 14th among cornerbacks in 2012 and 2013 respectively, Peterson’s bounce back chances are good. He headlines a secondary that is still strong and deep despite the loss of Cromartie.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

As I mentioned, the Cardinals should have a better offense this season, thanks to a healthier Carson Palmer, a healthier Andre Ellington, and an improved offensive line. Defensively, they lost Antonio Cromartie, Sam Acho, Tommy Kelly, and Dan Williams, as well as their incredible defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, but they get Tyrann Mathieu back healthy for a whole season, hopefully will get something from Daryl Washington, should get a bounce back year from Patrick Peterson and add guys like Sean Weatherspoon, Corey Peters, and Cory Redding.

They won’t be as good defensively this season, but they could be a more talented overall team than last season, especially down the stretch when they had so many injuries. The problem is they won’t be as lucky as they were last season in other aspects, including turnovers, return touchdowns, close games, and converting on big chunk plays. They’ll probably be better than the 17th they finished in rate of moving the chains last season, but I don’t see it translating to more wins on the field, or even another playoff spot. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Cardinals after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Jun 142015
 

Quarterback

The Rams have been a mediocre team over the past decade or so, not winning more than 8 games in 11 straight seasons, but winning between 6 and 8 games in 7 of those 11 seasons. They’ve never been very good, but they haven’t been bad either, seemingly always a piece away. After a 2-14 2009 season, the Rams used the 1st overall pick in 2010 on Sam Bradford, but the results have of the Sam Bradford era never really showed up in the win column, as the Rams won 6 or 7 games in 4 of 5 seasons, but never any more than that.

The Rams, at least in my opinion, have their most hope in years going into this season though. The Rams were mediocre in 2014 again, going 6-10 and finishing 22nd in rate of moving the chains differential. However, their problems were primarily on the offensive side of the ball, where they ranked 25th in rate of moving the chains. Their defense, on the other hand, ranked 5th in opponent rate of moving the chains differential. The defense should continue to be good in 2015 and the offense has a real chance to take a leap forward this season.

The biggest reason for that is they should have noticeably better quarterback play this season. The Rams’ 2014 season took a big hit before it even started as Sam Bradford tore his ACL, leaving the veteran Shaun Hill (who hadn’t played regularly since 2010) and Austin Davis, n 2012 undrafted free agent, to split starts for the Rams last season. They combined to complete 63.5% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions and graded out 26th and 29th respectively among 39 eligible quarterbacks.

Sam Bradford won’t be back in St. Louis this season, as the Rams traded him to Philadelphia for quarterback Nick Foles, improving their draft position in the process, moving up from the 5th round to the 4th round in 2015 and adding a 2nd round pick in 2016. It was a smart move by the Rams as they not only improved their draft position, but also upgraded the quarterback position, sending off a quarterback who has missed 31 games in 5 seasons, including the last 25 straight with a twice torn ACL, and who has only completed 58.6% of his passes for an average of 6.29 YPA, 59 touchdowns, and 38 interceptions in his career.

Foles will be the new quarterback and he’s completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.56 YPA, 46 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions since the Eagles drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012. Foles is a one year wonder who had by far the best season of his career in 2013, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 9.12 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. As good as his numbers looked that season, he only ranked 17th among quarterbacks, suggesting much of his production was a result of the system and offensive supporting talent. In his other 2 seasons, he’s graded out below average, 31st out of 38 eligible in 2012 and 25th out of 39 eligible in 2014. In Philadelphia, he always had a strong supporting cast offensively and a good offensive system, especially over the past 2 seasons with Chip Kelly. Life won’t be as easy for him in St. Louis.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

The Rams used the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft on some offensive supporting cast help for Foles, as many expected them to. However, it wasn’t the position many expected. Instead of using the pick on a wide receiver like Devante Parker or an offensive lineman like Andrus Peat, the Rams opted for running back Todd Gurley. It was a weird move because the offensive line and wide receiver positions were both big needs, while Tre Mason did a solid job at running back as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and seemed worthy as being the lead back in 2015. Gurley is also likely to miss the first month of the season after tearing his ACL last fall at the University of Georgia. The Rams are banking on Gurley, who some called the next Adrian Peterson, living up to his potential.

As a rookie, he’s unlikely to make much of an impact. Even once he’s able to return from his ACL tear, it would be unfair to expect him to be anything close to his potential, especially since he’ll be a rookie. He’s unlikely to have his breakout year until 2016 or beyond. Mason will be the lead back in Gurley’s absence and the primary backup upon his return. As a rookie, he rushed for 765 yards and 4 touchdowns on 179 carries (4.27 YPC) and added 16 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown. Benny Cunningham will be the #3 back, the #2 back in Gurley’s absence. He’s a 2012 undrafted free agent who has rushed for 507 yards and 4 touchdowns on 113 carries, a solid 4.49 YPC. The Rams were pretty set at running back going into the draft so they have to hope that Gurley can become a transcendent player.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

As I mentioned, the Rams have problems on the offensive line and in the receiving corps. Those two units certainly are not what Foles was used to in Philadelphia. The Rams’ offensive line finished 27th in team pass blocking grade and 23rd in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season. The Rams lost 4 players who combined for 52 starts on the offensive line in 2014 this off-season, Jake Long (7 starts), Scott Wells (16 starts), Davin Joseph (13 starts), and Joe Barksdale (16 starts). That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Wells was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked center last season and Joseph finished 75th out of 78 eligible guards. However, Barksdale was decent last season, as was Long, before an ACL tear that put his career in jeopardy. Besides, the players the Rams brought in to replace those players aren’t necessarily upgrades.

Greg Robinson remains from last season and he’ll move over to Long’s old spot at left tackle, which was the ultimate plan when the Rams drafted him 2nd overall in 2014. Robinson had a brutal rookie year though, grading out below average in 3 early season starts at guard and then really struggling in the final 9 games of the season at left tackle, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 78th ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible on just 559 snaps. From week 9 on at left tackle, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked offensive tackle. Only going into his age 23 season, the Rams are hoping that Robinson turns it around in a hurry on the blindside.

Rodger Saffold returns at left guard, where he made 12 starts last season (3 at right guard and 1 at left tackle). He graded out just below average on the first year of a 5-year, 31.347 million dollar deal. Saffold is versatile, making starts at left tackle (37 starts), right tackle (2 starts), left guard (12 starts), and right guard (9 starts) in 5 years in the league, since getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2010. However, he’s graded out below average in 2 of 5 seasons and has missed 17 games in 5 seasons with injury. Saffold made all 16 starts in 2014 for the first time since his rookie year and, with the amount of money they gave committed to him long-term, the Rams are hoping that becomes a trend. Even if it does, he’s unlikely to quite live up to his contract.

Saffold is the only experienced projected starter on the St. Louis offensive line this season, other than maybe Robinson, depending on how you define experienced. At center, right guard, and right tackle, the Rams will have 3 new starters and none of their options are proven. 2nd round rookie Rob Havenstein is expected to start at right tackle. Another rookie could be starting at right guard, either 3rd round pick Jaron Brown or 4th round rookie Andrew Donnal.

Also in the mix at right guard are Brandon Washington, a 2012 6th round pick who has played 17 career snaps, and Barrett Jones, a 2013 4th round pick who has played 23 career snaps. Jones will also compete at center with Tim Barnes, a 2011 undrafted free agent with 282 career snaps. The most likely lineup will have Jones at center, Brown at right guard, and Havenstein at right tackle, but whatever the lineup is, it won’t be what Foles was used to in Philadelphia. It also won’t help their running game much in Gurley’s rookie year. It’s one of the worst offensive lines in football.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

Things are better in the receiving corps, but there are still problems. Kenny Britt led the team with 748 receiving yards, which sadly were the most by a Rams receiver since 2008. Kenny Britt has definitely had an interesting career trajectory, for better or worse. The 2009 1st round pick looked on his way to a promising career in 2010 and 2011. After averaging 1.86 yards per route run as a rookie in 2009, Britt averaged an absurd 3.07 yards per route run in 2010 and 2011, catching a combined 59 passes for 1064 yards and 12 touchdowns on a combined 347 routes run. However, a good as he was in 2010 and 2011, he only played a combined 15 games thanks to multiple injuries, including a torn ACL that derailed his career big in a big way.

Upon his return from that torn ACL in 2012, he averaged just 1.49 yards per route run in 14 games, after starting the season with a 1 game suspension as a result of a checkered off-the-field history that includes 9 arrests. He was noticeably slowed by surgeries to both of his knees. In 2013, his final year in Tennessee, he was a train wreck. Britt was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked wide receiver, despite playing just 305 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse. He only caught a third of his 33 targets, with 11 catches for 96 yards and he dropped 7 passes. He averaged just 0.48 yards per route run on 201 routes run. He was the definition of awful and also got into it with his coaches.

That’s why he had to settle for a minimum deal in free agency last season, rejoining ex-head coach Jeff Fisher in St. Louis, where he was able to bounce back. He caught 48 of 81 targets (59.3%) for 748 yards and 3 touchdowns on 468 routes run, an average of 1.60 yards per route run. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked wide receiver, above average. It’s hard to trust Britt, but he should be able to remain a solid receiver this season. He’ll never be the receiver he looked on to his way becoming early in his career, but, as long as he stays out of trouble, he should be an asset in a weak receiving corps. The Rams re-signed him to a 2-year, 9.15 million dollar deal worth up to 14 million in incentives this off-season.

Brian Quick was on his way to a solid season as well, catching 24 passes for 365 yards and 3 touchdowns during the first 6 games of the season, before going down for the year week 8, needing shoulder surgery. The 2012 2nd round pick should be a starter again in 2015 in a make or break 4th year in the league and also a contract year. With Foles coming in, Quick could put up solid numbers if he stays healthy, as could Kenny Britt, but, like Britt, he’s not a #1 caliber receiver, something they could have found at #10 overall.

The Rams drafted Tavon Austin 8th overall in 2013 to be the #1 receiver, but he’s really disappointed thus far in 2 years in the league. As a rookie in 2013, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 81st ranked wide receiver out of 111 eligible in pass catching grade on 434 snaps and then 100th out of 110 eligible in pass catching grade on 552 snaps in 2014. He’s caught just 71 passes for 660 yards and 4 touchdowns in 28 career games. He does add value on the ground, grading out above average in that aspect in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, rushing for 375 yards and 3 touchdowns on 45 career attempts. He also adds value on special teams. But he hasn’t nearly been worth the 8th overall pick and, while it’s too early to declare him a bust, his career seems to be heads in that direction unless he can establish himself as a receiver. His best shot of doing that would be on the slot.

Even on the slot, I’m not so sure that Austin can hold off Stedman Bailey for the #3 job this off-season. Bailey, a 2013 3rd round pick, has graded out above average in each of the two seasons he’s been in the league, including on 420 snaps last season. He caught 30 passes for 435 yards and a touchdown in 14 games, the majority of which came after Quick got hurt. Austin’s teammate at West Virginia, Bailey doesn’t have Austin’s blazing speed and he’s not big either at 5-10 193, but he’s at least shown the requisite strength to play on offense in the NFL, something that’s eluded the 5-8 174 pound Austin thus far in his career. Realistically, I think they give Austin one more shot and Bailey starts the season backing up all 3 receiver spots.

The Rams will also use a fair amount of two-tight end sets again this season, after Jared Cook played 706 and Lance Kendricks played 613 last season. Kendricks is the #2 tight end, but he got paid pretty well this off-season, re-signing on a 4-year, 18.5 million dollar deal. Considering he played 588 snaps in 2013 (33rd among tight ends) and 613 snaps in 2014 (27th among tight ends) as the “#2” tight end, the money makes some sense, but the problem is he’s a marginal talent, grading out below average in 3 of 4 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the 2nd round in 2011.

Jared Cook will return as the starting tight end, going into the 3rd year of a 5-year, 35.11 million dollar deal. Cook was Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked tight end last season, a career best, but he’s never been bad either, always grading out above average, average, or slightly below average throughout his 6-year NFL career. After posting 51/657/5 and 52/634/3 slash lines throughout his first 2 seasons in St. Louis, despite shoddy quarterback play, Cook stands to see a boost in production with Foles coming in, which should be the case throughout the offense. The problem is the offensive supporting cast is still really lacking around Foles. While Cook is a solid player, if he’s arguably your best offensive player, it’s not a good offense. If the Rams are going to make the playoffs this season, their defense is going to have to come up big once again.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Rams went from 23rd in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 to 5th in 2014, a big part of the reason why there’s a ton of hope for them in 2015. It’s not fair to suggest any one player or change was responsible for the Rams’ improved defense, but one player who had a huge impact was rookie Aaron Donald, the 14th overall pick and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year. I thought Khalil Mack should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year, but I love Mack and Donald is only slightly behind him in my book. Like Mack, he ranked #1 at his position on Pro Football Focus, doing so at defensive tackle. Reminiscent of a pre-injury Geno Atkins, Donald dropped to the 14th overall pick only because of his height at 6-1 288. That hasn’t been an issue. He’s got a great future.

The Rams were without highly paid defensive end Chris Long for much of last season as he missed 10 games with injury. Long not only missed significant time with injury, but he wasn’t himself even when on the field for most of the season, as the injury happened 31 snaps into Long’s season. In the final 5 games of the season, after Long’s return, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 4-3 defensive end from week 13 through week 17. Only going into his age 30 season, Long should bounce back to form, especially since he had never missed a game with injury in 6 seasons prior to last season.

However, it’s important to note that the form he should bounce back to is not quite the form that the 43 sacks he had from 2010-2013 would suggest. While Long is a feared pass rusher, grading out 7th, 4th, 7th, and 7th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010-2013 respectively, he’s never graded out above average against the run, including a 3-year stretch from 2010-2012 where he was in the bottom-3 among 4-3 defensive ends against the run in every season. Long actually graded out below average in his last healthy season in 2013. He should be a situational player at this point in his career and could easily be going into his final season in St. Louis, owed an 11.75 million non-guaranteed in 2016.

In his absence, William Hayes was actually an upgrade because he’s more of a complete player, grading out above average as a pass rusher and a run stopper and finishing the season as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end. Hayes isn’t a one year wonder either, grading out above average in 5 of 7 pro seasons, including three straight. Prior to last season, Hayes was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive and 8th ranked 4-3 defensive end on 378 and 354 snaps respectively and in 2012 and 2013 respectively. He should continue to see more snaps in 2015, especially in obvious running situations and base packages, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 4-3 defensive end against the run last season.

Robert Quinn will be the other starter on the outside of the Rams’ 4-man defensive line. Quinn, a 2011 1st round pick, lived up to his massive potential in 2013. After grading out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the NFL, the 2011 14th overall pick had the best defensive season in the NFL in 2013, aside from maybe JJ Watt. Quinn graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end by a wide margin, thanks in large part to his 19 sacks and 21 hits.

He couldn’t repeat it in 2014, but few can and, after grading out 10th at his position last season, it’s now clear that Quinn is not a one-year wonder. Only going into his age 25 season, Quinn is one of the best defensive players in the NFL and him alongside Aaron Donald is even deadlier. The other good news about Long returning is that Eugene Sims won’t play a prominent role again this season, after grading well out below average in each of his first 5 seasons in the NFL, since the Rams took him in the 6th round in 2010. He’ll be the 4th defensive end at best this season. The Rams go legitimately 3-deep at defensive end, more so than any other team in the league.

The same can basically be said about the Rams’ defensive tackles. I already mentioned Donald’s dominant rookie year. He’ll play alongside a duo of Michael Brockers and free agent signing Nick Fairley. Brockers was a 1st round pick in 2012 and made 16 starts for the Rams last season. He hasn’t developed as a pass rusher the way the Rams would have liked, but the 6-5 322 pounder has graded out above average against the run in 2 of his first 3 seasons in the league. That includes a 2014 season where he graded out above average for the first time in his career.

Brockers will continue to start for the Rams in base packages this season, but will cede more snaps to backup Nick Fairley than he did to ex-backup Kendall Langford, who played 494 snaps last season, before signing in Indianapolis this off-season. Fairley will technically replace Langford, but he also represents a large upgrade and someone capable of playing a much bigger role, especially on passing downs.

Fairley has been a frustrating player during his 4 year career. He went 13th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, but it’s still not clear how good of a player he is. It’s clear how good he can be, but he’s been so inconsistent. Fairley only played 236 snaps as a rookie, largely because of injuries, but he still played well and, in 2012, he was even better, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked defensive tackle on just 511 snaps. Fairley looked primed for a breakout year in 2013, but weight problems caused him to only grade out slightly above average on 693 snaps. As a result, the Lions didn’t pick up his option for 2015, making 2014 his contract year, and briefly benched him for CJ Mosley last off-season.

That seemed to wake him up as he played very well to start the season, but he missed 8 games with injuries. He still graded out 18th among defensive tackles on just 297 snaps and he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked defensive tackle through 7 weeks before the injury. He’s shown top defensive tackle talent and he’s only going into his age 27 season, but he’s inconsistent, he’s had discipline problems dating back to his collegiate days, and he’s missed 18 games with injuries in 4 years in the league. However, the one-year prove it deal (worth 5 million) the Rams signed him to this off-season has the best chance to get his elite upside out of him because it’ll keep him motivated. He’ll work in rotation with Brockers and can be a dominant player on 500-600 snaps this season. It’s an absolutely loaded defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Rams also have an outside linebacker who can rush the passer off the edge if needed. It probably won’t be needed behind Quinn, Long, and Hayes, but it’s nice to have Akeem Ayers’ versatility. Besides, Ayers, who signed for just 6 million over 2 years this off-season, is a fantastic run stopper in base packages. He’s graded out above average as a run stopper in all 4 seasons of his career, at both 4-3 and 3-4 outside linebacker, including 5th among 4-3 outside linebackers against the run in 2013. In addition to being able to rush the passer decently in sub packages, he can also cover decently in sub packages, but Ayers probably won’t be doing much of that this season either.

James Laurinaitis and Alec Ogletree will be the two every down linebackers, with Ayers playing situationally, serving as a significant upgrade on JoLonn Dunbar, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 37th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker out of 40 eligible last season on just 432 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out worse at the position. Unfortunately, Laurinaitis and Ogletree weren’t much better as they also graded out below average last season. This is nothing new for them as Ogletree has graded out below average in each of his 2 seasons in the league, since the Rams drafted him in the 1st round in 2013. Laurinaitis, meanwhile, has graded out below average in 3 straight seasons since signing a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension. The Rams’ linebackers are not nearly as good as their defensive linemen.

Grade: C+

Secondary

Another big reason why the Rams had an improved defense last season is because they had an improved secondary, thanks to some breakout years from young players. That includes both of their safeties, TJ McDonald and Rodney McLeod, who both graded out above average last season and started all 16 games each. McDonald and McLeod also complement each other well. The 6-2 219 pound McDonald graded out above against the run, but below average in coverage and played with 8 yards of the line of scrimmage on 65.8% of snaps, 7th most in the NFL among safeties. Meanwhile, the 5-11 183 McLeod graded out above average in coverage, but below average against the run, and played just 6.3% of snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage, the lowest percentage in the NFL among safeties.

It’s important to remember that both are still one year wonders. McDonald was Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked safety out of 86 eligible in 2013 as a 3rd round rookie, while missing 6 games with injury. McLeod also struggled in 2013, making all 16 starts, but grading out 75th out of 86 eligible safeties in the first significant action of the 2012 undrafted free agent’s career (he played 3 snaps as a rookie). Both players seem to have bright futures, but this is important to remember.

At cornerback, the breakout star was 6th round rookie EJ Gaines, who, despite his draft status, was able to take advantage of some injuries and lead Ram cornerbacks with 964 snaps played, making all 15 starts before missing week 17 with injury. The rookie was Pro Football Focus’ 29th ranked cornerback and showed the ability to play both outside and inside on the slot. Like McDonald and McLeod, he’s a one-year wonder. That trio might not all match their 2014 season in 2015, but they’re all young so it’s possible one of them is even better next season.

The Rams’ other two cornerbacks, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson, are also young, as both come from the 2012 class (2nd and 3rd round respectively), which means both are heading into their contract years right now. Jenkins has made 43 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but has graded out below average in all 3 seasons. However, he’s been better since a rough rookie year and has only graded out slightly below average over the past 2 seasons. Johnson, meanwhile, flashed as a rookie, grading out above average on 366 snaps, but has also graded out slightly below average over the past 2 seasons as he’s started taking on a bigger role. He also missed 7 games with injury to start last season, which is how Gaines was able to get his chance. Both are decent young cornerbacks, but not much else. It’s a solid, but unspectacular secondary.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Rams have been frustrating close to breaking through over the past few years. This could be their breakout year, but it also could be another disappointing year. Nick Foles represents an upgrade on Shaun Hill and Austin Davis, but he doesn’t really have much of any offensive supporting cast. They should be better this season offensively and their defense has a good chance to be strong again, but them being a top-5 unit again largely relies on a bunch of young, unproven players to match or improve upon career best year’s, including Aaron Donald, who played otherworldly last season. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Rams after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Jun 142015
 

Quarterback

Colin Kaepernick burst onto the scene in 2012. A 2011 2nd round pick, Kaepernick played well enough in a spot start in relief of an injured Alex Smith that he got Smith, who was leading the NFL in completion percentage at that point, benched and proceeded to start the rest of the season, easily head coach Jim Harbaugh’s most controversial decision in San Francisco, but also his most signature decision. Kaepernick started the final 7 games of the regular season plus three playoff games en route to a Super Bowl loss in which they were a few yards away from winning. Kaepernick finished the 2012 season with a combined 62.1% completion, 8.77 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions between the playoffs and regular season, while rushing for 679 yards and 8 touchdowns on 88 carries (7.72 YPC). Smith was traded to Kansas City for a pair of 2nd rounders and Kaepernick was the undisputed starter going into 2013.

The 2013 season was more of the same. The 49ers didn’t return to the Super Bowl, but made the NFC Championship for the 3rd year in a row, losing a close one in Seattle. Kaepernick completed 58.4% of his passes for an average of 7.69 YPA, 21 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions, while rushing for 524 yards and 4 touchdowns on 92 carries (5.70 YPC). Of course, all good things must come to an end and the hype train about Colin Kaepernick being the next big thing came to a crashing halt over the past year or so.

Kaepernick became much more expensive, signing a 6-year, 126 million dollar extension ahead of a 2014 contract year, which inevitably came with more responsibility and greater expectations. The 49ers would not be able to keep all of their talent under the cap long-term with Kaepernick’s contract eating up so much of the cap and, after 3 straight fantastic seasons that failed to yield a Super Bowl ring, the 49ers’ championship window seemed to be getting tighter in a hurry.

A year later, that window seems to be shut. The 49ers went 8-8 in Kaepernick’s first season on the extension. Kaepernick gets a lot of the blame, rightfully so coming off of down season performance wise, but the reality is that Kaepernick was just what he always was, an average to above average quarterback that can win the Super Bowl, but needs help, the kind of guy you have to pay top quarterback money to keep, even though he’s not necessarily a top quarterback. Kaepernick completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 7.05 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while rushing for 639 yards and 1 touchdown on 104 carries (6.14 YPC). Those were similar to his career numbers, as he’s completed 60.1% of his passes for an average of 7.53 YPA, 53 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, while rushing for 1576 yards and 10 touchdowns on 261 carries (6.04 YPC) in his career. He’s graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 15th, 18th, and 28th ranked quarterback in 3 seasons as a starter.

The fact that he hasn’t really progressed as a pocket passer, particularly in terms of his accuracy, is concerning and the flaws that dropped him to the 2nd round are still present and probably permanent at this point, as he heads into his 5th year in the league, his age 28 season. But the biggest issue with San Francisco isn’t Kaepernick; it’s that they don’t have the dominant supporting cast around him anymore. And how that supporting cast deteriorated so fast is the particularly fascinating part of this team.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Last season, the problem for the 49ers was injuries as they finished with the 5th most adjusted games lost in the NFL. And even that doesn’t tell the whole story as that doesn’t take into account that Aldon Smith missed 9 games with suspension and that the players they lost to injuries weren’t all just average starters. Smith is their best pass rusher and Patrick Willis (10 games missed) and NaVorro Bowman (16 games missed) were among the best middle linebackers in the NFL.

The 49ers should have fewer injuries this year, but, that being said, that won’t necessarily translate into the win column. The 49ers finished last season 21st in rate of moving the chains differential, even worse than their 8-8 record would have suggested, and it’s hard to argue that the 2015 49ers, when healthy, are more talented than the 2014 49ers were last year, even with all the injuries. The 49ers had an off-season full of losses on both sides of the field and at head coach, as Jim Harbaugh left for the University of Michigan, leaving first time head coach (minus one interim start in 2010) Jim Tomsula in charge.

Say what you want about Jim Harbaugh’s big personality clashing with management and sometimes players, but there’s no denying he’s an amazing offensive mind who injected life into this franchise and that he’ll be sorely missed, especially on the offensive end. Jim Tomsula, while well liked, is strictly a defensive minded coach and the top offensive mind on the staff is Geep Chryst, who has very limited experience as a playcaller. It won’t help Kaepernick’s development that he’ll be learning a new offense for the first time in his career, coming off of the worst season of his career.

Meanwhile, some of those players who suffered injuries last season will not return this year because they’ve retired. Right tackle Anthony Davis is one of them. One of four 49er starters from 2014 to retire this off-season, Davis’ retirement might be the most interesting of them. Davis was limited to 7 games by injury in 2014 and graded out below average, but he graded out 9th in 2012 and 29th in 2013, so he was still a player that could have helped them this season. Even more interesting is Davis, a former 1st round pick, was only going into his age 26 season and was scheduled to make 3.65 million.

Davis says he’s just giving himself a year for his mind and body to recover and he did suffer a serious concussion in 2014. That suggests he could be back in 2016 ready to pick up where he left off under the same contract. I’m inclined to believe that story, but that doesn’t help them in 2015. Davis was smart waiting until after the draft to announce this so the 49ers couldn’t draft his replacement and his job would still be there in 2016, but that really leaves the 49ers in a pickle. That’s what makes Davis’ retirement so interesting.

Jonathan Martin started at right tackle in Davis’ absence last season, but he was awful, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 61st ranked offensive tackle out of 84 eligible, which got him waived this off-season, so he isn’t even there anymore. In his absence, it’ll likely be veteran Erik Pears, with 7th round rookie Trent Brown as the backup. That’s not good news because Pears is not a starting caliber player in the NFL anymore. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 76th ranked guard out of 78 eligible last season and is going into his age 33 season. Borderline unworthy of a 53-man roster, Pears represents a steep downgrade on Davis. He’s one of the worst starters in the NFL.

The 49ers could and should look for alternatives on the open market, as the rookie probably isn’t ready, but Davis coincidentally also waited until after Joseph Barksdale left the open market, leaving the right tackle market very thin. The 49ers could also move either right guard Alex Boone to right tackle or left guard Brandon Thomas to right tackle. However, Boone is a solid right guard so they might not want to mess with something that works, while Thomas has still never played a snap in the NFL. Besides, either of those two moving outside would force either Joe Looney or Marcus Martin to start at guard and both of those two players were horrible last season.

The most likely scenario is that Pears or a free agent starts at right tackle, with Thomas and Boone starting at left guard and right guard respectively. Thomas hasn’t played an NFL snap, going in the 3rd round in 2014 and missing his whole rookie year with a torn ACL, but, if not for the ACL tear, he would have likely been a first round pick. He’ll replace Mike Iupati, who was Pro Football Focus’14th ranked guard in 2014 and who signed a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Cardinals this off-season. Thomas is unproven, but there is upside here with a first round talent. A collegiate offensive tackle, he’s a better fit inside at guard in the NFL.

Boone, meanwhile, is much more experienced. He hasn’t been as good as he was in his first year as a starter, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked guard in 2012, but he’s been solid, grading out 39th in 2013 and 18th in 2014. On top of that, he’s made 46 out of 48 starts over the past 3 seasons combined (one of which was at left tackle), after the 2009 undrafted free agent was able to get over early career alcohol problems that dated back to his time at Ohio State. Another collegiate offensive tackle who is a better fit at guard in the NFL, Boone is the 49ers 2nd best offensive lineman.

At center, it’ll be a battle between Daniel Kilgore and Marcus Martin. Kilgore should win the job, but Martin, a 2014 3rd round pick, was drafted to be the starter at this point. Kilgore won the starting job over Martin when he was a rookie last year, but he proved to be better than just a stopgap, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked center, despite being limited to 463 snaps in 7 games by injuries. Through week 7, prior to his injury, Kilgore was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked center. Martin took over and finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked center out of 41 eligible. From week 8 on, he ranked 33rd out of 35 eligible centers, a steep drop-off from Kilgore. Kilgore, assuming he’s healthy, should be the week 1 starter again. Inexperienced with 7 career starts since going into the 5th round in 2011, Kilgore has graded out above average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL. His return will help this line.

The only offensive lineman who is locked into a position right now is left tackle Joe Staley, who fortunately remains as one of the best offensive linemen in football. A remainder of their previously dominant seasons, Staley is just one of 4 players on either side of the ball that are starters now that were also starters in 2011 (Vernon Davis, Ahmad Brooks, and NaVorro Bowman are the other 3). A 2007 1st round pick, Staley has started 114 games over the past 8 seasons, grading out above average in every season except 2010. Since 2012, Staley has graded out 1st, 5th, and 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, the only offensive tackle in the league to finish in the top-5 in 3 straight seasons. Even going into his age 31 season, he’s one of the best offensive tackles in the game. He’s the saving grace of a crumbling offensive line.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Not only do the 2015 49ers have just 4 starters in common with the 2011 team, but they actually have 2 starters at wide receiver in common with the 2012 Ravens team that beat them in the Super Bowl, Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. I guess if you can’t beat them, sign them. Smith was their big free agent acquisition this off-season and he’ll actually be an upgrade over the departed Michael Crabtree (who graded out 95th out of 110 eligible wide receivers last off-season), but the 49ers did overpay him on a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal. The 49ers would have been better off keeping Crabtree on a cheap 1-year deal (he signed with the Raiders for 3 million) and using that money to re-sign Mike Iupati or add at another position.

Torrey Smith has played all 64 games since he’s been in the NFL, starting the last 62 of them, and he’s been decently productive with 213 catches for 3591 yards and 30 touchdowns. Only going into his age 26 season, Smith is a fantastic deep threat, but he’s not particularly good at anything else. He’s still an inconsistent route runner and has caught just 117 passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage in 4 seasons. He’s also never graded out higher than 37th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in any of his 4 seasons in the league. The 49ers are playing too much money for someone of Smith’s skill set as he’s more of a complementary receiver than a #1 guy.

He’ll be the #1A receiver to Anquan Boldin’s #1B (or vice versa), much like was the case in Baltimore. The problem is that Boldin is now several years older than he was when he played in Baltimore, going into his age 35 season. The 49ers are putting a lot of faith in an aging receiver. He’s been very productive in two seasons in San Francisco, topping 1000+ yards in both seasons and totaling a combined 168 catches for 2241 yards and 12 touchdowns, all at the price of a 6th round pick and 12 million dollars over 2 years (he’ll take home another 6 million this season, in the final year of his current contract). Boldin has had a fantastic career and could be eventually bound for the Hall of Fame, with 12,406 receiving yards currently, 19th all-time.

However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. Boldin may have had his last 1000+ yard season ever in 2014 and could easily see his abilities fall off a cliff in his contract year in 2015. That’s not good news, especially with how thin the 49ers are at wide receiver, after losing #3 receiver Steve Johnson this off-season. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver on just 305 snaps last season, averaging 2.14 yards per route run, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the wide receiver position.

With Johnson and fellow veteran Brandon Lloyd gone, it’ll be a 3-way battle for the #3 job between Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington, and DeAndre Smelter. Patton is a 2013 4th round pick who has played 151 underwhelming career snaps, while Ellington is a 2014 4th round pick, grading out slightly above average on 96 snaps as a rookie. Smelter, a 4th round rookie, is a long-shot at this point. Whoever wins that battle, it’ll be tough to count on them to be as productive as Johnson was last season. Also, if Boldin’s abilities fall off a cliff or either Boldin or Smith suffer an injury, whoever wins that battle will be tough to trust in a larger role.

Without much depth at wide receiver, the 49ers could opt to use a bunch of two-tight end sets this season. However, despite the fact that they’ve put a lot of resources into the tight end position, the 49ers aren’t very good there. The 49ers kept Vernon Davis this off-season, even though he was scheduled to make a non-guaranteed 4.9 million and even though he was coming off of a career worst season, out of desperation at the position.

Not only was Davis’ 2014 26/245/2 slash line his worst production since his rookie year in 2006, but he also struggled as a run blocker, an area he’s generally been very good in. Davis had that minimal production despite 47 targets (55.3% catch rate) and 417 routes run (0.59 yards per route run) and was Pro Football Focus’ 62nd ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. The 49ers are banking on a bounce back year (he graded out above average in every season from 2010-2014), but, in his age 31 season, Davis might not be able to deliver.

Vance McDonald, a 2013 2nd round pick, is going to be the #2 tight end again. McDonald hasn’t shown anything as a pass catcher in two years in the league, catching 10 passes in 23 games and grading out below average in both seasons as a pass catcher, but the 6-4 267 pounder is a phenomenal run blocker, grading out above average in that aspect in both seasons in the NFL. He only played 218 snaps in 2014, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked run blocking tight end if he were eligible. He should have a bigger role in 2015 in a make or break 3rd season for the youngster. The 49ers would obviously really like him to come around as a pass catcher, but there are no guarantees he ever develops into anything more than a 6th offensive lineman.

The 49ers also use a fullback a fair amount as fullback Bruce Miller played 473 snaps last season, most in the NFL by a fullback. He graded out 3rd at his position, adding 18 catches for 189 yards and 2 touchdowns, and has graded out 10th, 7th, 5th, and 3rd in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively, since being drafted in the 5th round in 2011. The problem is he could be facing a suspension after domestic violence, though his spousal abuse charges did get dropped to misdemeanor vandalism. The 49ers also used a 4th round pick on Blake Bell, a collegiate quarterback turned tight end, but he probably won’t have a big role until 2016 at the earliest. It’s a weak and thin receiving corps beyond Smith and Boldin.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Another starter the 49ers lost this off-season was Frank Gore, who signed with the Colts on a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. Frank Gore had a fantastic 10-year run with the 49ers, rushing for 11,073 yards and 64 touchdowns on 2442 carries, playing all but 12 games at one of the most physical positions in the NFL. He added 342 catches for 2883 yards and another 11 scores through the air, while being one of the best pass protecting running backs and one of the best teammates in the NFL. He was everything the 49ers could have asked out of the 2005 3rd round pick, talented, complete, durable, and a great teammate. His rushing yards rank 20th all-time and he could be bound for Canton. He’s definitely bound for the 49ers’ Ring of Honor.

However, all good things must come to an end. Gore is going into his age 32 season with 2442 carries. Of the top-25 all-time leading rushers who have played in the last decade and a half, the average one has his last 1000 yard season in his age 30 season at 2602 carrier carries. He might not have looked it last year, but he’s close to the end. The 49ers were wise to move into the future at the position, rather than signing him to a multi-year deal with 7.5 million guaranteed like the Colts.

In his absence, the 49ers will use a committee at running back, with 2014 2nd round pick Carlos Hyde as the clear lead back. Hyde rushed for 333 yards and a touchdown on 83 carries (4.01 YPC) as a rookie as Gore’s primary backup, grading out above average as a runner, but below average in the passing game, an issue he’s had dating back to his collegiate days at Ohio State (34 career catches in 3 seasons). He’s definitely unproven as an NFL player, but he was drafted with this situation in mind.

To help mask Hyde’s deficiencies as a pass down player, the 49ers signed the veteran Reggie Bush to be the primary passing down back. Bush came cheaper than Gore, 2.5 million over 1 year, but he’s not nearly as good. Bush became a solid starter from 2011-2013 with the Dolphins and Lions, averaging 222 carries for 1026 yards and 5 touchdowns and 44 catches for 365 yards and 2 touchdowns over that time period. Those days appear behind him now though, as he heads into his age 30 season, coming off of a season where he was more of a complementary back behind Joique Bell. Bush rushed for 297 yards and 2 touchdowns on 76 carries (3.91 YPC) in 11 games and caught 40 passes for 253 yards.

Aging and injury prone throughout his career, Bush could be pushed for his role by 4th round rookie Mike Davis or Kendall Hunter, who will also compete to be Hyde’s primary backup. Hunter, a 2011 4th round pick, has rushed for 1202 yards and 7 touchdowns on 262 career carries (4.59 YPC), adding 27 catches for 268 yards. He missed all of last season with a torn ACL though and isn’t built to be a feature back at 5-7 199. Davis is obviously less proven, but built better at 5-9 217 and caught 66 passes in his final 2 seasons at South Carolina combined.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the 49ers had 4 players retire this off-season, 3 of whom were defensive starters last season. On the defensive line, the 49ers lost Justin Smith to retirement, though that should not have been seen as a surprise as he was going into his age 36 season. Still, it’s a big loss because Smith proved last season that he could still play, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 16 starts. Also gone is Ray McDonald, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 14 starts last season, before being released late in the season, following rape allegations.

In their absence, the trio of Tank Carradine, Arik Armstead, and Darnell Dockett will rotate at the position. Carradine and Armstead are both very athletic and have huge upsides, but neither one of them is proven. Carradine was a 2013 2nd round pick and would have been a lock 1st rounder if he hadn’t torn his ACL late in his final collegiate season. Carradine sat out his whole rookie season with that ACL tear and then played just 146 snaps as a deep reserve last season. He’s completely unproven and entering a make or break 3rd season in the league. Armstead, meanwhile, was their first round pick in this past draft and the rookie is incredibly raw. He has athleticism and upside, but his production and tape at the University of Oregon do not suggest someone that should have been a 1st round pick.

Armstead might spend his rookie year behind the veteran Dockett, especially since Armstead is missing valuable off-season practice because of a late graduation. That isn’t good news because Dockett was massively overpaid on a 2-year, 7.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Anything more than a minimum deal with incentives for Dockett would have been too much. Dockett is going into his age 34 season after missing all of 2014 with a torn ACL, but that’s not the only problem. He wasn’t that good before the injury either as he was perennially one of the NFL’s most overrated players, particularly struggling mightily against the run. From 2007-2013, he graded out below average in 6 of 7 seasons, including 26th out of 28 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2008, 31st out of 39 eligible in 2009, 34th of out 42 eligible in 2010, and dead last among eligible in 2012.

Glenn Dorsey returns from injury, after missing all of 2014 with a torn biceps. Where he plays remains a mystery. Dorsey played at nose tackle in 2013 with the 49ers, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked defensive tackle, including 9th against the run. However, in his absence last season, Ian Williams played very well. He only played 219 snaps in 9 games before going down for the season with an injury, but he would have graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle last season if he had been eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. It’s a concern that Williams has been limited to 11 games over the last 2 seasons with ankle problems but, Quinton Dial, who was the nose tackle down the stretch in Williams’ absence, also graded out above average last season.

With the 49ers seemingly set at nose tackle without Dorsey and issues at 3-4 defensive end, Dorsey could see the majority of his on the outside, after spending the first 5 seasons of his career as a 3-4 defensive end in Kansas City. However, Dorsey graded out below average as a 3-4 defensive end in every season in Kansas City, except 2012, when he played just 4 games. He’s also missed 28 games with major injuries over the past 3 seasons combined. Without McDonald and Smith, this defensive line doesn’t look nearly as good.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The 49ers also had retirements in their linebacking corps as two players retired at middle linebacker and both of them were surprises. Patrick Willis was the first one to retire, cutting his Hall-of-Fame career short ahead of his age 30 season, after recurring foot problems caused him to miss 10 games the previous season. Willis was a top-3 player on Pro Football Focus in every season from his rookie season in 2007 to 2013 before the injury plagued 2014 season. Even during that injury plagued final season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker through 5 weeks.

That being said, the 49ers were shockingly fine without Willis last season thanks to the emergence of 3rd round rookie Chris Borland. Borland started for Willis down the stretch and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked middle linebacker on just 487 snaps, with no one playing more snaps and grading out higher at the position. From week 6 on, Borland was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked middle linebacker, only behind New England’s Jamie Collins. However, Borland shocked the football world by announcing his retirement this off-season as well, after just one season in the league, citing long-term health concerns.

As shocking as guys like Jake Locker, Patrick Willis, and even Anthony Davis retiring early was, all of those guys had noticeable injury woes and Davis even said he’d be back when he was healthy. Borland didn’t seem to, which would make him comparable to only Jason Worilds, another player who shockingly retired this off-season. The difference is Worilds has already made a lot of money. Borland comparatively didn’t make much and much of what he did make was his rookie signing bonus, a large portion of which he had to pay back when he retired. Borland just wanted to do something else.

As strange as this might sound, the 49ers are still in solid position at linebacker without Willis and Borland, as nice as it would have been to have both of them. NaVorro Bowman returns at middle linebacker, after missing all of last season with multiple ligament tears in his knee. There’s concern about whether or not he’ll return to form, but he’s only going into his age 27 season and he’ll be about 19 months removed from the devastating injury by week 1. Even if he’s less than 100% in his first year back, he’ll still be a huge asset to them. A 2010 3rd round pick, Bowman ranked 1st, 6th, and 1st among middle linebackers in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Michael Wilhoite, who started 16 games in Bowman’s absence last season, returns as the starter next to him. He graded out below average, ranking 37th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers, but you could do a lot worse than him and he has the ability to play every down.

At outside linebacker, Aldon Smith has stayed out of trouble and seems poised to play his first 16 game season since 2012, which will also be a big boost to this San Francisco defense. Smith missed 5 games in 2013 while attending rehab and then missed 9 games in 2014 with suspension, but the 49ers have stood by him and believed in him, largely because of his immense talent. Now it looks like they’re going to be rewarded. Smith ranked 2nd and 3rd in 2011 and 2012 respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers, after going 7th overall in 2011. In 2013, he ranked 5th despite missing 5 games and #1 during the time he actually played. In 2014, he ranked 11th from week 11 on, after his return, and 20th overall on the season, despite missing 9 games with suspension. Smith has the potential for a huge 2015 season and he has every incentive to make good on that potential, going into a contract year with a potential 10+ million dollar annual salary on the line. The 49ers used a 3rd round pick on Eli Harold in case anything goes wrong with Smith.

Opposite Smith, it’ll be a battle between Aaron Lynch and Ahmad Brooks. Lynch seems like the heavy favorite in that battle and many expected he’d be an every down player this season, with Dan Skuta leaving as a free agent and Brooks likely getting cut. Skuta is gone, but Brooks still remains, despite a non-guaranteed 7.3 million dollar salary and a declining game. Still, I expect Lynch to once again outplay Brooks and get him cut going into 2016. Lynch, a 2014 5th round pick, flashed on 521 snaps last season in the absence of Aldon Smith, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked 3-4 outside linebacker despite the limited playing time. Meanwhile, Brooks was Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker as recently as 2012, but he graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014. Now he’s going into his age 31 season. Simply put, Brooks is a descending player, while Lynch is an ascending player on the outside. Lynch’s potential, along with the full-time returns of both Smith and Bowman keep this a strong position group.

Grade: A-

Secondary

At cornerback, the 49ers lost both starters this off-season, as Chris Culliver (14 starts) signed with the Redskins and Perrish Cox (15 starts) signed with the Titans. They both graded out above average and ranked 15th and 35th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, so it’s hardly a small loss. The good news is that Tramaine Brock, a starter in 2013, returns after missing 13 games with various injuries last season. Brock was Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked cornerback on 678 snaps in 16 games (7 starts) in 2013, causing the 49ers to lock him up long-term on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal, which had the potential to be a long-term steal if Brock could stay healthy. Now he returns and, while he’s still a one year wonder, as the 2010 undrafted free agent had played 145 career snaps from 2010-2012 prior to his 2013 breakout year, his return should still help them deal with the loss of Cox and Culliver.

He’s really the only one who will help them deal with the loss of Cox and Culliver. Shareece Wright, who they signed from San Diego to be the other starter, has been atrocious as a starter over the past 2 seasons. Wright was a 3rd round pick in 2011 and barely played in his first 2 seasons in the NFL, playing a combined 124 snaps in 2011-2012, but he’s been a starter over the last 2 seasons. In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. Going into 2014, the Chargers brought in Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft and Brandon Flowers through free agency to send Wright to a #3 cornerback role, but an injury to Verrett forced Wright to play 853 snaps and make 14 starts. He once again struggled, grading out 105th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks. I’m shocked he’s getting a 3rd chance to be a starter.

Jimmie Ward will once again play in as the 3rd cornerback, primarily on the slot. He started there week 1 last year, but the 2014 1st round pick had a rough rookie year overall, being limited to 270 snaps in 8 games by injuries, going down for the season week 10, and struggling mightily on the occasions where he did play. His foot problems are reportedly lingering into the off-season. The 49ers don’t seem worried about him missing any time to start the season, but he’s missing valuable practice time. If Ward or Brock misses any time again or Wright needs to be benched, Dontae Johnson is the 4th cornerback and the backup at all 3 spots. He was forced into action as a 4th round rookie in 2014, grading out only slightly below average on 512 snaps. He could be an upgrade over Wright, but Wright’s 3 million dollar salary suggests the 49ers want him to be the guy.

Things are fortunately better at safety. Eric Reid, their 2013 1st round pick, will start at one spot. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked safety in 2013 as a rookie and, though he took a step back as a sophomore, grading out slightly below average, he’s still a solid starter with upside going into his 3rd year in the league. He’ll once again play opposite Antoine Bethea, who was a bright spot for the 49ers in 2014.

The veteran looked like he was on the decline last off-season, grading out below average in both 2012 and 2013, after grading out above average from 2007-2011. Bethea proved he still had something left in the tank though last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety. His age is a concern as he goes into his age 31 season, but he should be dependable again and he hasn’t missed a start in 7 years, since 2007. The 49ers weirdly used a 2nd round pick on Jaquiski Tartt to be Bethea’s long-term successor when they had other pressing needs. Dumb moves like that are part of the reason why this team has quickly gone from one of the league’s best to one of the league’s worst.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The 49ers’ season in 2014 was ruined by injuries, as they had the 5th most injuries in the league, including 22 games lost by the best inside linebacker duo in the country, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, not including 9 games lost to suspension by one of the best edge rushers in the game, Aldon Smith. They should have better health in 2014, but they won’t be a better team. Bowman is back, but Willis retired, along with Justin Smith, Anthony Davis and Chris Borland, who was in line to be Willis’ long-term replacement.

On top of that, the 49ers lost Frank Gore, Mike Iupati, Michael Crabtree, Ray McDonald, Perrish Cox, and Chris Culliver this off-season. Their efforts to replace all of their lost players in free agency did not go well as the 49ers were only able to overpay Shareece Wright, Torrey Smith, Reggie Bush, and Darnell Dockett. Their draft didn’t go much better as the 49ers used their 1st round pick on a player who isn’t ready and their 2nd round pick on a clear backup that won’t be able to get onto the field as a rookie. The 49ers are unlikely to get much impact out of their rookie class as a result.

One of their biggest losses was head coach Jim Harbaugh, who dragged this team out of irrelevance over his first 3 seasons with the team from 2011-2013 before injuries hit in 2014 and who only was allowed to leave to go to the University of Michigan because he was clashing with management. Also gone are talented coordinators Greg Roman and Vic Fangio, leaving ex-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula as the head man. Tomsula is reportedly loved by his players, but his head coaching experience consists of one interim start in 2010 and his top offensive mind is Geep Chryst, who hasn’t called plays since 2000. That won’t help Colin Kaepernick, who is coming off of a down year and doesn’t have anywhere near the supporting cast he once had. This team was even worse than their 8-8 record last season and should be even worse this year. In a tough NFC West, the 49ers could easily come in last. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the 49ers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Jun 122015
 

Quarterbacks

The Browns have infamously had 22 different starting quarterbacks since they returned to the league in 1999, most in the NFL over that time period. Over that time period, Brown quarterbacks have combined to complete just 57.2% of their passes for an average of 6.35 YPA, 275 touchdowns, and 301 interceptions. As you can imagine, that hasn’t translated to a lot of winning as the Browns have gone 84-172 over that stretch, making the playoffs just once and losing in the first round.

The Browns have tried to find a franchise changer at quarterback many times, using a 1st round pick on a quarterback four times in that 15 year stretch. However, those 4 picks have yielded them Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Brandon Weeden, and, most recently Johnny Manziel, a 2014 1st round pick who is unlikely to be the week 1 starter in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. That week 1 starter is likely to be Josh McCown, who would be the 23rd quarterback in new Browns franchise history.

McCown will make a guaranteed 5.25 million this season, after signing a 3-year, 14 million dollar deal with the Browns this off-season. That’s a ridiculous amount considering that McCown is going into his age 36 season and coming off of a horrendous season in Tampa Bay, completing just 56.3% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible and went 1-10 in his 11 starts.

The previous off-season, he got a 4.75 million dollar first year salary as a free agent, signing in Tampa Bay on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal. That was when he was a year younger and coming off of a 2013 season in which he randomly played brilliant in the absence of an injured Jay Cutler, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 8.17 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 1 interception, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. However, last season proved that 2013 season was a flash in the pan. 2013 is his only season of a 70+ QB rating since 2006. Going into his age 36 season, he might be the worst week 1 starting quarterback in the NFL.

The Browns would definitely like Johnny Manziel, the 22nd overall pick in 2014, to be able to beat McCown out, but that doesn’t seem likely after he had about as bad of a rookie year as you can have. Manziel had to wait until week 15 to make his first NFL start, despite the fact that Brian Hoyer was struggling, finishing with 55.3% completion, 7.59 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and grading as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 eligible. There were reports that Manziel wasn’t learning the playbook quickly, wasn’t displaying maturity on or off the field, and generally didn’t seem ready for the NFL.

Once Manziel got onto the field, he was a disaster, completing 51.4% of his passes for an average of 5.00 YPA, no touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. After the season ended, even more reports came out detailing just how bad it was behind the scenes with Manziel last season. Manziel also spent a 3 month period of time in rehab for drug and alcohol related issues. The Browns were linked to both Marcus Mariota and Sam Bradford on draft day, armed with two 1st round picks. Manziel is back at practice now and the Browns didn’t draft a single quarterback, but the Browns have reportedly borderline moved on from him and see McCown as the clear starter ahead of him, especially since Manziel’s play in off-season practices hasn’t been good either.

Even before you take McCown’s advanced age into account, he’s a downgrade from Brian Hoyer, the Browns’ quarterback last year and now a competitor for the starting job in Houston. McCown played even worse last season than Hoyer did. McCown ranked slightly farther from the bottom on Pro Football Focus’ quarterback rankings than Hoyer, as McCown ranked 34th out of 39 eligible and Hoyer ranked 35th, but McCown also did that on about 300 fewer snaps. McCown was also worse in pure passing grade, 36th to Hoyer’s 32nd. McCown QB rating was significantly lower (76.7 vs. 70.5) and Tampa Bay’s offense moved the chains at a 63.46% rate when McCown started, while the Browns’ moved at a 69.36% rate when Hoyer started. This might be the worst quarterback situation in the NFL.

Grade: F

Receiving Corps

Hoyer was more productive with the Browns’ offensive supporting cast last season than McCown was with the Buccaneers’ offensive supporting cast. That was despite the fact that McCown was throwing to Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, who persevered through terrible quarterback play to be one of four wide receiver duos to each go over 1000+ receiving yards. The Browns don’t have anything like that. They added a few veterans to the receiving corps this off-season, but no one game changing. They also didn’t add a pass catcher in the draft until the 4th round, even though it was arguably their biggest need, and they saw tight end Jordan Cameron sign with the Dolphins.

The Browns go into 2015 with Dwayne Bowe as their #1 receiver, which might have been fine in 2012, but not so much now, especially as he goes into his age 31 season. From 2007-2012, Dwayne Bowe caught 415 passes for 5728 yards and 39 touchdowns in 88 games in his career, despite playing with the likes of Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton, and Brady Quinn at quarterback. That earned him a 5-year, 56 million dollar deal, but it’s been all downhill for Bowe over the past 2 seasons since signing that deal. Despite playing with Alex Smith over the past two seasons, who has been easily the best quarterback he’s had in his career, but Bowe has put up 57/673/5 and 60/754/0 slash lines in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

The Browns are really banking on his reduced production over the past two seasons being the result of Alex Smith’s love of throwing over the middle and fear of throwing to outside receivers, but it’s also very possible that Smith’s inability to complete passes outside the numbers over the past 2 seasons had to do with his lack of talent in that area, notably Bowe. Besides, it’s not like McCown is a better outside thrower. He might throw there with more volume, but he’s certainly a downgrade. Bowe has graded out below average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons and his best days are behind him. The Browns are in trouble with him as their #1 receiver and drastically overpaid him on a 2-year, 12.5 million dollar deal with 9 million guaranteed.

Opposite him, the Browns brought in a younger player to be the likely other starter, but he has a similar skill set to Bowe. That player is Brian Hartline. Hartline was one of the worst wide receivers in the NFL in 2014, which led to his release from the Dolphins, a move that saved Miami 5.95 million in cash and 3.15 million on the cap. Hartline played all 16 games in 2014, but caught just 39 passes for 474 yards and 2 touchdowns on 62 attempts (62.9%) and 490 routes run, an average of 0.99 yards per route run. He was also Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. However, he graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, putting up 1000+ yard seasons in both of those years. Only going into his age 29 season, Hartline has a good chance to bounce back in 2015. He’s not that athletic, but he’s big, sure handed, and a good route runner.

Andrew Hawkins will likely be the slot receiver. Even though he’s 5-7 175, I think he’s more than just a slot receiver and he should push the underwhelming duo of Bowe and Hartline for outside snaps. He ran 42.4% of his routes not on the slot last season. On 234 snaps on the slot, he had 394 yards, an average of 1.68 yards per route run. Meanwhile, on snaps where he was not on the slot, he had 431 yards on 172 routes run, an average of 2.51 yards per route run. Those figures are both very solid considering the quarterback play. Buried on the depth chart in Cincinnati to start his career, Hawkins finally got a shot in 2014 and led Cleveland wide receivers in snaps played, 667 snaps overall, and receiving yardage last season, 825 yards, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked wide receiver in the process. More versatile than he’s given credit for, it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Browns if he led them in routes run again in 2015.

Taylor Gabriel will then slot into the #4 receiver job, where he’ll provide very strong depth. Gabriel, a 2014 undrafted free agent, flashed in limited action as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked wide receiver on 629 snaps (2nd among Brown wide receivers), catching 38 passes on 71 targets (53.5%) for 633 yards and a touchdown on 334 routes run, an average of 1.90 yards per route run, mostly in the absence of Josh Gordon to start the season. Capable of playing both inside and outside, Gabriel will backup all 3 spots and could push for snaps on the outside at the absence of either Bowe or Hartline. The Browns have a quartet of decent wide receivers, but no one to really fear. Rookie 4th round pick Vince Mayle is unlikely to have much of an impact as a rookie.

Former Browns tight end Jordan Cameron was 2nd on the team in receiving yards in 2013, behind Josh Gordon’s league leading 1646 yards. Cameron caught 80 passes for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns, but saw those numbers go down to 24 catches for 424 yards and 2 touchdowns as the Browns passed less, he missed 6 games with injury, and his receiving abilities generally slipped. Still, his loss hurts the team because Jim Dray, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 44th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible in 2014 on 612 snaps as Jordan Cameron’s replacement while he was injured, will now compete with free agent acquisition Rob Housler for the starting tight end job.

Rob Housler came into the NFL with a lot of promise, drafted in the 3rd round in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Cardinals after running a 4.55 40 at 6-5 248. However, he never lived up to that potential, grading out below average in all 4 seasons he’s been in the NFL and averaging 418 snaps played per season, including just 327 snaps in his contract year in 2014. He never developed as a blocker and caught just 105 passes in 55 career games. He’s expected to be the starting tight end in Cleveland with Cameron’s departure, with Dray focusing on being a blocker. It’s a position of weakness in an overall underwhelming receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

With a weak passing game once again, expect the Browns to try to be as run heavy as possible, which was the case last season as well. They finished last season with 477 carries, 6th in the NFL, as opposed to 502 pass attempts, 26th in the NFL. With a strong defense supporting them again, the Browns should be able to achieve a similar mix in 2015. The Browns signed Ben Tate to a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal to be their lead back last off-season, after he spent a successful 4-year tenure in Houston as Arian Foster’s backup. However, Tate ended up getting hurt, averaging 3.14 yards per carry on 106 carries, and getting cut midway through the season, not even finishing his first season in Cleveland.

Instead, it was a pair of rookies, Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, who carried the load for the Browns. West was the higher draft pick, going in the 3rd round, but the undrafted Crowell had the better rookie year statistically. Crowell had a tumultuous collegiate career that saw him get kicked off the Georgia team and end up at Alabama State, but he was, at one point, a 5-star recruit and he rushed for 607 yards and 8 touchdowns on 148 carries as a rookie, an average of 4.10 yards per carry. West, meanwhile, rushed for 673 yards and 4 touchdowns on 171 carries, an average of 3.94 yards per carry. As long as he stays out of trouble, Crowell should be the lead back in Cleveland, with West working as the backup.

The Browns also used a 3rd round pick on Duke Johnson, a smaller scatback at 5-9 207 who can provide a change of pace from Crowell (5-11 225) and Terrance West (5-10 225). He’s also a much better pass catcher than either of them as Crowell and West caught just 9 and 11 passes respectively as rookies, while Johnson caught 38 passes in his final season at the University of Miami. There’s going to be opportunity for all three running backs, though I should point out that both West and Crowell graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season and both looked better than they were as a result of a strong offensive line that finished 11th in team run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus last season. Even still, the Browns averaged just 3.62 yards per carry last season, 28th in the NFL. They run better than they pass, but neither is a very good option for this team in terms of trying to move the chains.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

As a mentioned, the Browns have a strong offensive line. Not only did they finish 11th in run blocking grade, but they also finished 2nd in pass blocking grade. The Browns have an extreme lack of offensive skill position players, but they do have an offensive line that makes things close to as easy as can be for them. Given that, it was perplexing why the Browns used the 19th overall pick on offensive lineman Cameron Erving. Erving is a talented player, but the pick doesn’t make any sense.

Erving played all over the line at Florida State, but didn’t really see his draft stock move into the 1st round until he moved to center as a senior. In Cleveland, the center position is taken by Alex Mack, who, despite the fact that he broke his leg last season, is still one of the top centers in the NFL. Mack has the ability to opt out of his contract after this season, which he very well could do, so Erving makes sense long-term there if the Browns have already resigned themselves to the fact that they’re going to lose him, but he’s not a short-term option there.

Right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is probably the weak point on this offensive line, but the 2012 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been at the league, making 41 starts at right tackle. He ranked 33rd among offensive tackles last season. A better player inside than outside, Erving would not be an immediate upgrade at right tackle, though he could be a long-term option there if the Browns don’t have interest in re-signing Schwartz to an extension, ahead of a 2015 contract year.

It looks a lot like the Browns drafted Erving for the future, which isn’t the worst idea, but it also means the Browns, as much cap space as they have, don’t think they’re going to be able to keep this offensive line together long-term. It would have made more sense to take someone who could make an immediate impact at wide receiver and then dealt with the offensive line in next year’s draft or in a later round just in case one of Mack or Schwartz leaves. In the short-term, Erving is expected to battle John Greco for the starting right guard spot.

Unless the Browns are desperately to get the rookie onto the field, Erving is unlikely to beat out Greco and I think the Browns would be making a mistake forcing Erving onto the field over Greco, as Greco graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked guard last season. A reserve early in his career, Greco has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in each of his 7 seasons in the NFL, including each of the last 3 seasons as a starter. Making 40 starts over the past 3 seasons, 20 at left guard, 15 at right guard, and 1 at center, Greco has graded out 19th, 30th, and then 11th respectively in each of the last 3 seasons respectively. He and Schwartz form a solid right side of the offensive line and the Browns shouldn’t mess with that.

At center, Mack returns after missing 11 games last season. The 2009 1st round pick had made 85 straight starts at center to begin his career before going down with that broken leg last season, so he should be able to bounce back. Mack graded out in the top-11 among centers in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, one of two centers to grade out that well in every season from that time period (2009-2013), with the other being Houston’s Chris Myers. Through the first 5 weeks of the season last year, Mack was 4th among centers before the injury. He should be able to pick up right where he left off in 2015.

It’s worth noting that the Browns moved the chains at a 76.83% rate in games that Mack started, as opposed to 62.34% in their other games. It’s unfair to give Mack all that credit and suggest that Mack was the missing piece to a strong offense. The Browns also didn’t have terrible offensive injury luck in general last season (ranking 16th in offensive adjusted games lost) so I don’t think it’s quite accurate to suggest that the Browns are going to have significantly better offensive health in 2015 and that alone will get their offense out of the cellar, but Mack’s return is definitely welcome.

Part of that is just how bad their center play was in his absence. Paul McQuistan and Ryan Seymour were horrific in limited action, while Nick McDonald, who made 7 starts at center, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked center out of 41 eligible despite playing just 481 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position. In that sense, the addition of Erving could be valuable. As long as they don’t force him into the starting lineup over an established starter, Erving can provide value as a utility 6th offensive line capable of playing anywhere if injuries strike. He doesn’t provide as much value in that role as someone like wide receiver Breshad Perriman would have as an upgrade outside over Brian Hartline, but still.

Things are very good on the left side as well with Joel Bitinio at left guard and Joe Thomas at left tackle. Bitinio had a fantastic rookie year as a 2014 2nd round pick, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked guard. He’s obviously still a one year wonder as he’s only played one year in the league and the 2nd rounder doesn’t have a great, high ceiling or anything, but he should once again have a strong year at left guard.

Meanwhile, at left tackle, Joe Thomas is one of the best players in the league.  Since being drafted 3rd overall in 2007, Thomas has made 128 of 128 starts and graded out as a top-10 offensive tackle in all 8 seasons, including 4th overall in 2014. With 5 All-Pros and 8 Pro-Bowls, Thomas’ career is on a Hall of Fame track. It’s just too bad he’s had to spend that career in an offense habitually without talented skill position players. Only going into his age 31 season, another dominant year should be on its way. It’s one of the best offensive lines in football on one of the worst offenses in football. One final thing that should be noted is that the Browns lost offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who always has done good work with running games and offensive lines like his father, and replaced him with first time play caller John DeFilippo, which doesn’t help this offense.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

As bad as the Browns’ offense was last season, they still did manage to finish with 7 wins, which isn’t horrible. That was as a result of a defense that ranked 11th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Their defense was able to prevent opponents from consistently moving the chains on them, which allowed them to run the more conservative offense they wanted to, despite the fact that their run defense was pretty bad. They allowed 4.53 yards per carry, 28th in the NFL.

A big part of the problem was Athyba Rubin, a veteran who struggled mightily at nose tackle, grading out 74th among 81 eligible defensive tackles. He left as a free agent and was replaced by Danny Shelton, the 12th overall pick in the draft. Shelton has drawn comparisons to Dontari Poe, a player who was drafted in relatively the same spot in 2012 who has become an every down player in a traditional nose tackle’s body. However, while Shelton could become an every down player long-term, he’ll see the majority of his snaps as a rookie in base packages and a two-down run clogger.

The Browns are also getting defensive linemen John Hughes and Phil Taylor back from injury, after they each missed 11 games last season. Hughes was given a 4-year, 14.4 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year, which suggests the Browns still see him as a big part of their future defensive line. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2013 on just 402 snaps and was poised for a bigger role in 2014, before being limited to 212 snaps in 5 games thanks to injuries. He still played well in 2014 when on the field and, without much of a serious injury history, Hughes should have a fairly significantly role this season, particularly as a run stopper in base packages.

Taylor’s role is less clear. A 2011 1st round pick, Taylor has largely been a bust thus far in his career and there’s talk that, even though they don’t need the cap space, the Browns could cut him to save 5.477 million in cash and cap space. After playing just 133 snaps in 5 games last season, he has now missed 20 games in 4 seasons in the NFL since getting drafted in the first round in 2011 and only graded out above average once, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked defensive tackle in 2013. He can play both defensive end and defensive tackle, but if he’s unable to carve out a role on a deep defensive line, very much a possibility, he could be shown the door in final cuts, if not sooner.

Speaking of this deep defensive line, Desmond Bryant will return as a starter at one spot and could lead the defensive line in snaps played for the 2nd straight year. Bryant signed a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked defensive tackle in 2012, but he hasn’t lived up to it, grading out below average in both seasons in Cleveland. He graded out 31st out of 45 eligible in 2013 and 37th out of 47 eligible in 2014. He’s a well-rounded player with a solid history of success earlier in his career in Oakland, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd year with the Browns. He could be cut next off-season if he doesn’t turn it around. Even if he does lead the Browns in snaps played on the defensive line again, he probably won’t see 749 snaps again because of the depth the Browns added this off-season and the guys the Browns have returning from injury.

Another player who should see a smaller role in 2015 is Billy Winn, who finished 2nd on the Browns’ defensive line in snaps played with 511 last season, largely playing in the absence of Hughes. With Hughes healthy now, Winn will be a pure reserve, which is a good thing because he’s graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons in the league, including 39th out of 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends last season.

While Shelton was an addition through the draft (replacing Rubin) and Hughes and Taylor are additions in terms of returning from injury (assuming Taylor makes the final roster), the veteran Randy Starks was an addition through free agency, signing with the Browns on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal after the Dolphins cut him to save 5 million in cash and cap space. He graded out below average on 544 snaps last season, the first time he had graded out below average in Pro Football Focus’ history, since 2007. Starks could bounce back in 2015, but, going into his age 32 season, it’s more likely that his best days are behind him. He’s solid depth though.

The Browns also added Xavier Cooper in the 3rd round of the draft, but he’ll probably have to wait for 2016 to get any sort of real playing time. With Danny Shelton, Phil Taylor, John Hughes, Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn, Randy Starks, and Cooper, the Browns have plenty of depth, but no real game changers on the defensive line. Still, it should be a better group than last year’s, which relied heavily on Desmond Bryant, Billy Winn, and Ahtyba Rubin, all of whom struggled mightily.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The linebacking corps and the secondary was where the real strength of the Browns’ defense was last season. Paul Kruger led the way with 12 sacks last season and returns to an every down role. Kruger has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, including the last 3 as starters, ranking 6th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012, 20th in 2013, and 14th in 2014. The Browns signed him to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, a risky deal because he had only been a starter for one year, but the Browns’ risk has paid off.

Jabaal Sheard was the starter opposite Kruger last season, but he left as a free agent, signing with the Patriots on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal. He might have taken a significant discount to play for a contender in New England, but I’m still surprised that the Browns, armed with a bunch of cap space, weren’t able to keep a valuable contributor. Barkevious Mingo, who played 681 snaps as the 3rd 3-4 outside linebacker last season, will be the starter in his absence. The 2013 6th overall pick struggled on 668 snaps as a rookie, grading out 38th out of 42 eligible, but graded out 15th among 3-4 outside linebackers last season and could have a breakout 3rd year in the league in his first season as an every down player in 2015. 2nd round rookie Nate Orchard, meanwhile, will be the primary reserve.

At middle linebacker, Karlos Dansby will once again be an every down player, after grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked middle linebacker last season, after being signed to a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal as a free agent last off-season. He’s graded out above average in 6 straight seasons, in the top-12 among middle linebackers in 5 straight seasons, and above average in 7 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history. The issue is he’s going into his age 34 season and he won’t be able to play like this forever. His abilities could fall off the cliff at any point, including this season.

At the other middle linebacker spot, it’ll be a competition between Chris Kirksey and Craig Robertson for playing time. Robertson, a 2011 undrafted free agent, struggled mightily in 2012 and 2013, after not playing a snap as a rookie. In 2013, he was Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked middle linebacker out of 55 eligible, prompting the Browns to draft Kirksey in the 3rd round in 2014. Robertson turned it around in 2014 though, grading out above average for the first time in his career, ranking 18th among middle linebackers on 674 snaps. Kirksey, meanwhile, graded out below average on 693 snaps. Kirksey might have to wait until Robertson, a free agent next off-season, leaves Cleveland before he can become an every down player. In 2015, I expect the Browns to once again use Robertson in base packages and Kirksey in sub packages.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Browns lost Buster Skrine in free agency and he was a 16-game starter at cornerback for them last season. However, he won’t really be missed as the Jets massively overpaid him on a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal this off-season. Skrine was just a 5th round pick of the Browns’ in 2011, but he made 37 starts in 4 seasons with the Browns and started 31 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons. The problem is he’s not very good, grading out below average in all 4 seasons, with his worst year coming in 2013, when he graded out 105th out of 110 eligible, leading the position in both missed tackles and touchdowns allowed. Last season, he graded out 82nd out of 110 eligible thanks, in large part, to a whopping 17 penalties. The Browns drafted Justin Gilbert in the first round in 2014 to be an upgrade over him and Skrine only remained a starter last year because Gilbert was a slow learner as a rookie.

The Browns replaced Buster Skrine by signing Tramon Williams to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal, a better deal than the one the Jets gave to Skrine. Williams is going into his age 32 season, but he should still be a solid starter next season. He’s not the player he was in 2009, when he graded out 9th, or 2010, when he graded out 8th, but he’s graded out above average in 6 straight seasons and made 95 of 96 starts over that time period.

Of course, the signing of Williams signals the Browns still are not confident in Justin Gilbert, the 8th overall pick in 2014. Gilbert will now compete with 2014 undrafted free agent K’Wuan Williams for the #3 cornerback job and Gilbert might not win it. Even though Gilbert went 8th overall and Williams didn’t get drafted, Williams had easily the better rookie year. While Gilbert graded out below average on just 373 snaps before getting suspended for the final game of the season for a violation of team rules, Williams graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback on 351 snaps. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better, as Williams allowed just 4.91 yards per attempt into his coverage last season. Gilbert still has more long-term upside than Williams, but Williams played so well on the slot last year that they might just keep him there. That would put Gilbert in as the 4th cornerback, waiting for an injury.

Joe Haden remains the #1 cornerback and will start opposite Williams. The Browns signed him to a 5-year, 68 million dollar deal last off-season, making him the highest paid player on the team. Haden didn’t quite live up to that last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked cornerback, but he’s still a very valuable member of this secondary. Since being drafted 7th overall in 2010, Haden has graded out 6th, 10th, 20th, 17th, and 28th in all 5 seasons of his career respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Things are strong at safety as well. Tashaun Gipson is coming off of a breakout year, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked safety. He’s still a one year wonder though as the 2012 undrafted free agent graded out below average in each of his first 2 seasons in the league, including 69th out of 86 eligible in 2013 in his first year as a starter. He’ll need to prove it again. He’s going into a contract year, but the Browns don’t seem too eager to give him a long-term deal. They’ll have the franchise tag available next off-season and they don’t want to commit too much guaranteed money to a one-year wonder, especially one who missed the final 5 games of the season with a knee injury, which the Browns apparently still have concerns about.

Opposite him, the Browns have a veteran who is also coming off of a strong season, as Donte Whitner graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety. Whitner, a 2006 1st round pick, was just an average player in 5 years in Buffalo to start his career, but was a much more dominant player on his 2nd contract in San Francisco from 2011-2013 and then continued that into his 3rd contract in 2014 with the Browns, after signing on a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal last off-season. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked safety in 2011, 7th ranked in 2013, and then 11th in 2014 (with a below average season in 2012 in between). He’s going into his age 30 season, but he should have another strong year.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Browns are frustrating. As you can see, they do have a good deal of talent, especially in the secondary and on the offensive line. However, their lack of offensive skill position talent, particularly at the quarterback position, will keep them out of the playoffs and in the cellar of the AFC North. With even an average quarterback, they have a good shot to make the playoffs as their supporting cast is better than San Diego’s, Pittsburgh’s, Kansas City’s, among others, but Josh McCown is a veteran journeyman at the end of his run and Johnny Manziel doesn’t seem like he’s going to beat him out any time soon. The Browns won 7 games last year with a similar team. This year, they might be more talented, but they might not win as many games. Their schedule gets much tougher, after they had the 8th easiest schedule in the league in 2014, and they weren’t quite as good as their record suggested last season, finishing 26th in rate of moving the chains differential. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Browns after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

Jun 102015
 

Quarterback

Andy Dalton gets a lot of heat for his career playoff performance. It does make some sense. Dalton has lost in the first round in every season of his 4 year career, tying YA Tittle’s record worst 0-4 career playoff record. Dalton hasn’t played well in those 4 games either, completing 55.7% of his passes for an average of 5.53 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 6 interceptions. While he definitely has struggled in playoff games, I think he gets judged too much on that.

Even going into last year’s playoff loss, many pundits were wondering if Dalton could ever possibly win a playoff game. Of course he can, he’s there every year. I don’t think it’s fair to judge him just on 4 playoff games and ignore the 64 regular season games. Those aren’t meaningless. You have to get to the playoffs to win in the playoffs. Once you’re there, there’s a decent amount of flukiness, randomness, and bad luck that is involved in single elimination playoff games. I’m not saying that Dalton was just unlucky in those playoff games. He did play badly. But I think it was more bad luck that those bad games came on a huge stage than it is a fundamental flaw in Dalton. Even YA Tittle was a Hall of Famer, despite never winning a playoff game.

I’m also not saying that Dalton should be free of all criticism either and he’s certainly not on the Hall of Fame track like Tittle. His regular season play has been decent, but he’s also had a lot of help getting him to the playoffs, on both sides of the ball. He’s the definition of an average quarterback. In his career, he’s completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 6.99 YPA, 99 touchdowns, and 66 interceptions, while grading out 27th, 25th, 16th, and 21st on Pro Football Focus in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively.

This puts the Bengals in a tough position because he’s been good enough to lead this team to the playoffs and put them out of position to find an upgrade in the draft, but he’s not good enough to win a Super Bowl without a ton of help. He’s also not exactly a young quarterback any more, going into his age 28 season. Described as a pro ready, but limited quarterback coming out of Texas Christian in 2011, Dalton has exceeded a lot of expectations, but probably isn’t going to get much better. He’s shown a disappointingly small amount of progress on the field since his rookie year.

The Bengals’ approach to the Dalton problem was to accept that he’s the best they’re going to get and give him a 6-year, 96 million dollar extension last off-season and continue the current course. It’s not a terrible idea, especially since very little of the deal is actually guaranteed, so if Dalton ever completely bombs a season and/or they ever get a chance to bring in a long-term upgrade, the Bengals can get out of the rest of the deal fairly painlessly. That being said, you do have to wonder if the Bengals are kicking themselves for not drafting Teddy Bridgewater 24th overall in last year’s draft, after he inexplicably fell to the bottom of the first round.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

In terms of record, there wasn’t a ton of difference between the 2013 Bengals and the 2014 Bengals, as they went 11-5 in 2013 and 10-5-1 in 2014. However, win/loss totals are a small data set and, as a result, often don’t tell the whole story of a season. In 2013, the Bengals finished 3rd in rate of moving the chains differential and in 2014 they finished 16th. What happened? Well, on the offensive side of the ball (where they went from 12th in rate of moving the chains to 18th), injuries were a big part of the problem, as they had the 5th most offensive injuries in terms of adjusted games lost. Those injuries, for the most part, were in the receiving corps, which made life very difficult for Dalton.

Tyler Eifert, their first round pick in 2013 and someone who was a potential breakout player in his 2nd year in the league in 2014, missed the entire season (except 8 snaps) with elbow problems. As a result, Jermaine Gresham had to play 900 snaps at tight end, 7th most in the NFL, and he once again graded out below average. The Bengals also didn’t have another tight end play more than 157 snaps and rarely used two-tight end sets. Fullback Ryan Hewitt helped mitigate some of that and did a solid job on 472 snaps, but that was still a major problem for a team that wants to run the ball a lot.

The Bengals are banking on this being Eifert’s breakout year. They have let the veteran Gresham go and don’t seem too interested in bringing him back, as he remains a free agent. That’s for the best as Gresham has really struggled in recent years. The Bengals used a 3rd round pick on Tyler Kroft, but the rookie won’t provide much more than depth and blocking. This is Eifert’s show at tight end now. He has plenty of talent, but is pretty unproven. He played 681 snaps and graded out above average as the #2 tight end as a rookie and then missed all of last season.

Eifert wasn’t the only key member of their receiving corps that missed the entire season with injury as Marvin Jones sat out the entire season with a foot problem. Like Eifert, he too seemed like a young receiver on the cusp of a breakout year. The 2012 5th round pick was highly efficient in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked wide receiver on just 555 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better at the position. He caught 51 of 77 targets (66.2%) for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns on 377 routes run (1.89 yards per route run), playing as the 3rd receiver for the most of the year behind AJ Green and Mohamed Sanu. He would have been an every down starter in 2014 if not for the injury and he’ll start the season in that role again in 2015 so he could have that breakout year this year, but a lost season does kill some momentum and put a damper on his breakout potential.

AJ Green is their best wide receiver and, while he didn’t miss the whole season like Eifert and Jones, he too missed time with injury. While he technically only missed 3 regular season games, he missed the majority of two other games with injury and he was severely missed in the playoff loss to Indianapolis. In that loss, the only players to catch a pass were running backs Giovani Bernard (8/46) and Rex Burkhead (3/34), fullback Ryan Hewitt (3/37), reserve tight end Kevin Brock (1/7), and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu (3/31).

When on the field, Green was once again a force. He was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked wide receiver on 666 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. He caught 69 of 109 targets (63.3%) for 1041 yards and 6 touchdowns on 352 routes run (a league leading average of 2.96 yards per route run). This is nothing new for him as Green graded out 8th among wide receivers in 2012 and 17th in 2013. In 4 seasons on the league, the 2011 4th overall pick has caught 329 passes for 4874 yards and 35 touchdowns in 60 games. Having him healthy for a full season, along with Eifert and Jones, would do wonders for a receiving corps that was running on fumes by playoff time last season.

With all the injuries, Mohamed Sanu (the only wideout to catch a pass in the playoff loss) was their leader in snaps played at wide receiver with 1014, making him one of 7 wide receivers to play more than 1000 snaps last season. Simply put, that’s not good, as Sanu was very overstretched as a #1 receiver. His slash line doesn’t look terrible (56/780/5) and he had some big games, but he was very inefficient, catching just 57.7% of his targets and averaging just 1.50 yards per route. He also had a league leading 14 drops. As a result, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 88th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. This is nothing new for him as he graded out 93rd out of 111 eligible in 2013, in the first season of significant action in his career. The 2012 3rd round pick fits much better as a 3rd receiver behind AJ Green and Marvin Jones on a run heavy team.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

As I’ve alluded to, the Bengals were a run heavy team last season, with 492 carries, 5th most in the NFL, as compared to 503 pass attempts, 25th in the NFL. That was the biggest change in their offense as they went from Jay Gruden (now head coach of the Redskins) to Hue Jackson at offensive coordinator last season. Hue Jackson is known for his power run heavy offenses and he really wanted to rely on that and reduce the amount of the offensive burden that fell on Andy Dalton and the passing offense.

It seemed like that would lead to a big year from Giovani Bernard, a 2013 2nd round pick who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in 2013 on 226 touches. However, Bernard proved to be a bad fit for the power running offense. The 5-9 208 pounder is a great passing down back who has caught 99 passes in 29 career games and he provides a nice change of pace as a runner, but he’s only averaged 4.07 yards per carry in his career. Even in 2013, his strong rookie year, he only averaged 4.09 yards per carry and graded out 28th among running backs in run grade, only excelling in pass protection and as a receiver.

The running back who had a big year carrying the ball was Jeremy Hill, a 2014 2nd round pick who averaged 5.06 yards per carry as a rookie, rushing for 1124 yards and 9 touchdowns on 222 carries. The Bengals quickly figured out that Hill was the better lead back and gave him an average of 19.1 carries per game over the final 9 games of the season, as opposed to 7.1 carries per game over the first 7 games of the season. Bernard, meanwhile, saw 15.6 carries per game over the first 7 games of the season, but just 9.8 over the final 9 games of the season (he did miss 3 games with injury).

As a result, Hill rushed for 929 yards and 6 touchdowns on 172 carries (5.40 yards per carry) over the final 9 games of the season, which extrapolates to 1652 yards and 11 touchdowns on 306 carries over a 16 game season. Hill is unlikely to maintain that average over a full season, but he could easily get 250-300 carries this season and turn them into 1200+ yards. He’s not a great passing down back, but he and Bernard complement each other very well because Hill is a powerful between the tackles runner on early downs and Bernard is a good speed complement with great passing down abilities. It’s a strong backfield.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Part of the Bengals’ strong running game was their strong offensive line, which ranked 7th on Pro Football Focus’ in run blocking grade. The Bengals did have an injury on the offensive line as right tackle Andre Smith missed 7 games with injuries, including a torn triceps that ended his season week 12 and will likely have him sidelined until training camp. Smith was struggled before going down with the injury as well, grading out below average for the first time since 2010, his 2nd year in the league. Smith will need to have a bounce back year this year because he’s going into a contract year. Purely a right tackle, Smith graded out 28th among offensive tackles in 2011, 4th in 2012, and 19th in 2013 before last year’s poor season.

The Bengals certainly put the heat on Smith during the draft by adding offensive tackles in the first two rounds of the draft, Cedric Ogbuehi in the first and Jake Fisher in the second. Smith is unlikely to lose his starting job to either one of them this season (especially since Ogbuehi is expected to miss the start of the season with a torn ACL he suffered in Texas A&M’s bowl game), unless he gets hurt again, but it’s not a good sign for his future in the team in 2016 and beyond. It really doesn’t seem like they want to keep him after he hits free agency next off-season.

Smith isn’t the only starting offensive tackle going into a contract year, as Andrew Whitworth is as well. Whitworth, who is going into his age 34 season, also has reason to worry about his future with the team. The Bengals have reportedly already told him that they’re not bringing him back next off-season. It’s a shame because, despite his age, Whitworth is still playing at a very high level, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked offensive tackle last season. He could see his abilities fall off a cliff in the next couple of seasons because of his age and getting Fisher, a borderline 1st round talent, in the late 2nd round was a great value, but I didn’t see the need to take Ogbuehi 21st overall, especially when he’s rehabbing a torn ACL.

If I had to guess, the Bengals won’t bring back either Whitworth or Smith next off-season and Ogbuehi and Fisher will be the starters in 2016, even though they’ll both be unproven. It’s a weird move to give up on both Smith and Whitworth’s long-term future with the team this early, especially since the Bengals could have just drafted an offensive tackle early in next year’s draft if they needed to. The Bengals had more pressing needs at other positions (namely defensive tackle) and are built to contend now. Using your first two picks on players who you don’t expect to play as rookies doesn’t make a ton of sense.

As I mentioned, Whitworth played outstanding last season, but that’s nothing new for him. Whitworth has made 94 of 96 starts since 2009 and has graded 12th, 1st, 9th, 9th, 15th, and 2nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2009-2014 respectively. The only season he graded out worse than 12th at his position was 2013, when he made just 9 starts at offensive tackle, as he missed 2 games with injury, and also made 5 starts at guard, where he graded out 7th, despite the limited action there. No one graded out better than him on fewer snaps at either positon and his composite grade would have been 1st among offensive tackles and 3rd among guards. It’s a highly impressive mix of versatility and dominance by a player who is quietly one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL. His age is definitely a concern, but he could easily have another dominant year this year. He’s reportedly not happy the Bengals used their first two draft picks on offensive tackles. The Bengals better hope that Whitworth doesn’t holdout in pursuit of a pay raise for 2015 (as he recently hinted at on Twitter).

Still, while there were definitely better uses of their first round pick, the Bengals do have a strong offensive line overall, assuming Smith is healthy and bounces back and Whitworth doesn’t hold out and doesn’t see his abilities fall off of a cliff. Things are also very good at guard. On the left side, Clint Boling was re-signed to a 5-year, 26 million dollar deal, a great value considering Orlando Franklin and Mike Iupati, comparably talented guards, got 36.5 and 40 million respectively over 5 years. Boling, a 2011 4th round pick, barely played as a rookie (175 snaps), but he’s been a starter over the past 3 seasons, making 44 of 48 starts (2 of which were at right tackle) and grading out above average in all 3 seasons. He was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked guard in 2012, 18th ranked in 2013, and 19th ranked in 2014.

On the other side is Kevin Zeitler, a 2012 1st round pick. Zeitler was a starter from day 1 and has graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th, 27th, and 9th ranked guard in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. If there’s one issue with Zeitler, it’s that he’s missed some time with injury, missing 8 games over the past 2 seasons with a variety of minor lower body injuries. Still, it was a no brainer decision by the Bengals to pick up his 5th year option for 2016, which is guaranteed for injury only. The Bengals should look to extend him long-term at some point soon.

The only real hole the Bengals have on the offensive line is at center, a position they didn’t address in the draft at all. They clearly like Russell Bodine, a 2014 4th round pick who made all 16 starts for the Bengals as a rookie. However, his rookie year left a lot to be desired, as he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked center out of 41 eligible, especially struggling in pass protection. It’s possible he improves in his 2nd year in the league, but he also wasn’t a highly rated prospect by the league coming out of college, as evidenced by the fact that he fell to the 4th round, so there definitely aren’t any guarantees. It’s still a strong offensive line though on an offense that should be a lot better this season in Hue Jackson’s 2nd season as offensive coordinator, with better health, and with a full season of Jeremy Hill as the lead back.

Grade: A

Defensive Tackle

The defense was also noticeably worse in 2014 than it was in 2013 for the Bengals. In 2013, they actually finished the season 1st in rate of moving the chains differential, but that fell to 14th in 2014. However, unlike on offense, injuries weren’t the issue. In fact, the Bengals had above average injury luck last season, in terms of adjusted games lost. They did have some injuries and the ones they did have were impactful (more on that later), but the biggest issue was just a complete lack of depth and players playing big roles that should not have been playing those roles. In 2014, there were just 5 Bengals who played more than 100 snaps that graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. In 2013, that number was 13.

One of those players who played a significant role in 2014 that should not have was starting defensive tackle Domata Peko, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 80th ranked defensive tackle out of 81 eligible last season. Of course, Peko also struggled in 2013 as the weak link on that strong Cincinnati defense, grading out 66th out of 69 eligible, but that’s even more reason why the Bengals should have used the 21st overall pick on a defensive tackle like Malcolm Brown, who fell to New England at 32. Peko is now going into his age 31 season so he’s not going to get better and the only defensive tackle the Bengals drafted was Marcus Hardison, a 4th rounder who won’t be an upgrade over Peko as a rookie. Reserves Brandon Thompson and Devon Still also struggled mightily in limited action last season.

Peko will once again slot in next to Geno Atkins. Atkins didn’t miss any time with injuries, playing all 16 games, but he tore his ACL in 2013 and he really wasn’t the same player upon his return, grading out 20th among defensive tackles in 2014. That’s pretty good, but the Bengals need Atkins to become the dominant player he was before the injury. A 2010 4th round pick, Atkins graded out 7th among defensive tackles as a rotational player as a rookie and then graded out #1 in both 2011 and 2012 as a starter. There was a time when he looked like arguably the most dominant defensive player in the game other than JJ Watt. In 2013, before the injury, he looked on his way to a similarly dominant year, grading out 4th at his position through week 8 before tearing his ACL week 9. He’ll be about 22 months removed from the injury by week 1 and, only going into his age 27 season, there’s a good chance he regains his prior form, or at least has a better year than 2013. That’ll be a big boost for this defense.

Atkins wasn’t to blame for their poor defensive line play last season though. Atkins (and Carlos Dunlap) graded out above average, but there were also completely overmatched players playing significant roles, which led to just 20 sacks by the Bengals, worst in the NFL. I already mentioned Domata Peko at defensive tackle (and to a lesser extent Thompson and Still), but at defensive end it was Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers who struggled mightily. The Bengals have drafted Margus Hunt (2nd round in 2013) and Will Clarke (3rd round in 2014) in recent years, but neither of them could get on the field last season, which is telling. Hunt has struggled through 352 snaps in 2 seasons and is already going into his age 28 season, while Clarke played just 64 nondescript snaps as a rookie. The Bengals really missed Michael Johnson, who signed with the Buccaneers last off-season on a 5-year, 43 million dollar deal.

The good news is that Johnson is now back. Johnson struggled mightily in his one season in Tampa Bay, prompting the Buccaneers to cut him even though he still had guaranteed money on his contract for 2015 and eat the 16 million they guaranteed him. Johnson struggled mightily, grading out 53rd out of 59 eligible 4-3 defensive ends, but he’s generally been a good player in his career and his poor play last season could be as a result of an ankle injury he suffered early in the season. He’s a candidate for a bounce back year in 2015 and the Buccaneers likely gave him up on too early. Their loss should be Cincinnati’s gain and he’ll likely be extra motivated by getting cut.

The 4-year, 24 million dollar deal the Bengals signed Johnson to is a much better value than the 5-year, 43 million dollar deal he signed last off-season in Tampa Bay and they could easily be getting a steal. Prior to last season’s down year, Johnson was one of the better edge rushers in the NFL, hence why he got the big contract. A highly athletic 2009 3rd round pick who struggled to put it all together in the first 3 years of his career, grading out below average in every season from 2009-2011, Johnson graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2012 and then proved it again on the franchise tag in 2013, grading out 4th at his position. There’s solid bounce back potential here.

Meanwhile, Geathers, who graded out dead last among eligible defensive ends in 2014, was cut this off-season, while Gilberry will slot into the 3rd defensive end spot with Johnson coming in. Gilberry struggled last year in a starting role, grading out 46th out of 59 eligible defensive ends. He’s had some success in the past, but he’s only graded out above average in 2 of 7 seasons in his career since going undrafted in 2008 and he’s largely been a reserve journeyman, going from Kansas City, to Tampa Bay, and now Cincinnati. Already going into his age 31 season, he’s a better fit as a 3rd defensive end, but the Bengals are probably hoping that either Clarke or Hunt can push him for that role.

Carlos Dunlap will line up across from Johnson once again. Dunlap, a 2010 2nd round pick, has been a consistently solid player throughout his career, grading out above average in all 5 seasons of his career. As a rookie in 2010, he graded out 21st on 287 snaps as a rotational player and then he graded out 4th, 9th, 8th, and 15th in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. With Johnson returning and Atkins another year removed from the injury, this should be an improved defensive line this season. I wish they would have upgraded Peko either through free agency or the draft and their depth is still suspect, but it’s now a solid group.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The one major injury the Bengals had on defense was a significant one, as it was to linebacker Vontaze Burfict. Prior to 2014, Burfict was on a good career trajectory, making 14 starts and grading out above average as an undrafted rookie in 2012 and then grading out 4th among eligible 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013. However, Burfict was limited to 223 snaps in 5 games last season thanks to knee problems, which greatly hampered him when on the field and caused him to grade out below average. Burfict had microfracture surgery in January, which is a very serious procedure, and now it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for the start of the season. It’s going to be tough to count on more from him in 2015.

Beyond Burfict, the rest of the Bengals’ linebacking corps is also very much in flux. Vincent Rey actually led Bengal linebackers in snaps played last season with 952 snaps last season. He flashed on 324 snaps in 2013 in his first significant career action, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked middle linebacker. However, Rey struggled mightily at middle linebacker in 2014, grading out 49th out of 60 eligible on 304 snaps. He redeemed himself at outside linebacker, grading out above average, 22nd among 4-3 outside linebackers, but he still graded out below average on the season. He’s only graded out above average in 1 of 5 seasons in his career, so, while he’s flashed, the 2010 undrafted free agent is probably best as a versatile reserve. He may have to start if Burfict misses time with injury though.

Emmanuel Lamur was 2nd on the team in snaps played last season, playing 905 snaps and making 13 starts at outside linebacker. He really struggled through, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst 4-3 outside linebacker. The 2012 undrafted free agent flashed as a reserve on 104 snaps as a rookie, but then missed all of 2013 with injury before last year’s disastrous season. He’s unlikely to be much better this season. The Bengals used a 3rd round pick on Paul Dawson and he could push Lamur for snaps outside as a rookie.

Inside at middle linebacker, a pair of veterans, Rey Maualuga and AJ Hawk will compete. Maualuga started his career at outside linebacker and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th and 11th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker in 2009 and 2010 respectively, after the Bengals took him in the 2nd round in 2009. However, the Bengals moved him to middle linebacker for 2011 and it’s been a steady decline. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 36th ranked middle linebacker out of 51 eligible in 2011 and worst ranked in 2012.

He was re-signed to a 2-year deal after that disastrous 2012 season, but he started seeing progressively fewer passing down snaps, playing 610 snaps in 2013 and 452 snaps in 2014. He graded out below average in both 2013 and 2014 once again and he missed 7 games with injuries combined in those 2 seasons. He’s decent against the run, but horrible in coverage. He’d be best off as a two-down 4-3 outside linebacker, but the Bengals seem intent on keeping him inside, after re-signing him to a 3-year deal worth an inexplicable 15 million. Ideally, he doesn’t play a lot of passing downs, but the Bengals might not have that option.

AJ Hawk was signed for 3.25 million over 2 years this off-season so he’s likely just insurance behind Maualuga and maybe Burfict. Hawk made 139 starts for the Packers after they drafted him 5th overall in 2006, but he’s only graded out above average once on Pro Football Focus in the site’s 8-year history. He had his salary cut and his contract renegotiated several times and eventually ran out of chances this off-season, going into his age 31 season. He came off the bench 3 times last season, the first time he played in a game in which he wasn’t a starter in his career, and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 52nd ranked middle linebacker out of 60 eligible. The Packers saved 3.5 million in cash and cap space by letting him go this off-season and he rightfully didn’t draw a lot of interest on the open market. It’s an overall weak linebacking corps with a lot of question. The group looks a lot better if Burfict is healthy, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Grade: C+

Secondary

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t expect the Bengals to get much use out of 1st round pick Cedric Ogbuehi as a rookie. This is nothing new for the Bengals, as they used first round picks on cornerbacks in 2012 (Dre Kirkpatrick) and 2014 (Darqueze Dennard) and had them play 43 and 61 snaps as rookies respectively. Kirkpatrick is finally going to be getting a chance at a starting cornerback in his 4th year in the league this year, with the veteran Terence Newman, who graded out slightly below average last season, gone as a free agent to Minnesota this off-season. Despite being in his 4th year in the league, Kirkpatrick is really inexperienced, grading out below average on 309 snaps in 2013 and then on 248 snaps in 2014. Thus far he’s looked like a bust, but he’s finally getting a chance at serious action this season.

Dennard is unlikely to get serious action this season though, unless someone gets hurt or struggles and needs to get benched, as he’s currently penciled in as the 4th cornerback. Veterans Adam Jones and Leon Hall remain, going into their age 32 and age 31 seasons respectively. Dennard likely won’t get a significant role until next season, after Jones and Hall hit free agency this off-season. Hall made 15 starts for the Bengals in 2014, but graded out below average last season for the first time in his 8-year career. That shouldn’t be a surprise considering he tore his Achilles twice and had a 3 year stretch from 2011-2013 where he played 28 games. Now going into his age 31 season, Hall’s best days are likely behind him. Why the Bengals didn’t cut him to save 7.8 million on the cap, put Dennard into a starting role, and use that money to find a better defensive tackle is beyond me.

Jones played better than Hall last season, working primarily as a 3rd corner and slot corner, where he’ll continue to play this season. Off-the-field problems limited Jones, once the 6th overall pick in 2005, to 22 games from 2007-2011, but he’s gotten his act together and played in all 48 games over the past 3 seasons, making 21 starts and grading out above average in all 3 seasons. He’s getting up there in age, but could have another solid season as the 3rd cornerback. He might be their best cornerback. He was one of the 5 Bengal defenders to grade out above average on Pro Football Focus last season.

Joining Jones in that group of 5, along with Dunlap and Atkins, are the Bengals’ two starting safeties, George Iloka and Reggie Nelson. Iloka was a 2012 5th round pick and has been a breakout player for the Bengals over the past 2 seasons. After not playing a defensive snap as a rookie in 2012, Iloka graded out 20th among safeties in 2013 and then 12th among safeties in 2014. It’s the kind of progress you love to see out of a young player, especially one who is only going into his age 25 season. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 38.7% of their passes throwing at him last season, with no touchdowns to 3 interceptions. He’s a prime extension candidate as we get later into the off-season.

Nelson, meanwhile, is going into his age 32 season, but he’s still playing at a high level, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 21st safety last season. An inconsistent player early in his career in Jacksonville, the former 1st round pick has graded out above average in all 5 seasons he’s been in Cincinnati, maxing out at 7th in 2012. While they have issues at cornerback with a mix of aging players and inexperienced youngsters, they’re very solid at safety.

Overall, it’s a solid defense that could be improved over last year’s squad (unless they have more injuries), but they have a lot of holes and weaknesses still (defensive tackle, linebacker, and cornerback come to mind) and it’s a far cry from the top level squad they were in 2013. One fact of good news, their defense did get a lot better as last season went on, which could be attributed to young, first year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther improving on the job and becoming more comfortable in that new role. Over the final 8 games of the season, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 68.94% rate, as opposed to 74.38% over the first 8 games of the season. Guenther probably won’t ever be as good as Mike Zimmer (now head coach of the Vikings) was for their defense, but that’s good to see.

Grade: B-

Overall

The Bengals finished the 2013 season as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked team in rate of moving the chains differential, but saw that fall to 16th in 2014. That didn’t show up in the win/loss record, as they went from 11-5 to 10-5-1, but they were vastly different teams. This season, they should be right about in between. They’ll be healthier on offense and have Jeremy Hill as the lead back all season and their defense should be better too. Going into the 2nd year with their coordinators, after having two 1st time coordinators last season, should also help. However, they still have holes. I think they’re behind Baltimore in the AFC North, just like Pittsburgh. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Bengals after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

Jun 102015
 

Quarterback

The Steelers made the playoffs last year for the first time since 2011, way back when Tim Tebow knocked them out of the playoffs. In 2012 and 2013, they went 8-8 both times, before winning 11 games and the AFC North in 2014. Oddly enough, the Steelers did not do it in traditional Steeler fashion, which is leading the way with their defense. Their defense ended this season ranked 25th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Instead, it was their high-powered offense, which finished 3rd in rate of moving the chains, that led the team to rank 7th in rate of moving the chains differential, en route to the playoffs.

Ben Roethlisberger led the way at quarterback, completing 67.1% of his passes (a career high) for an average of 8.15 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions. That led to a quarterback rating of 103.3, 3rd in the NFL and the 2nd best of Roethlisberger’s career. Since 2007, the first year in Pro Football Focus’ history, he’s made 118 starts and ranked 4th, 26th, 6th, 6th, 7th, 7th, 11th, and 3rd in those 8 seasons respectively, leading up to last season’s career best. He joins Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rodgers as the only quarterbacks to rank in the top-11 in each of the past 6 seasons.

In 159 career games, he’s completed 63.7% of his passes for an average of 7.88 YPA, 251 touchdowns, and 131 interceptions. A 2004 1st round pick, Roethlisberger is already going into his age 34 season, but plenty of good quarterbacks have continued that success into their mid-30s. The Steelers are betting on that, locking up their franchise quarterback for another 5 years and 99 million this off-season, ahead of his contract year.

Roethlisberger had a lot of help on offense and much of their improved offensive performance and even Roethlisberger’s improved numbers themselves weren’t solely the result of Roethlisberger’s improved play. Part of why he had such improved play around him is because literally no one got hurt. The Steelers finished the season 4th in adjusted games lost, including 1st in adjusted games lost on offense. Only 9 offenses since 2003 had as good of injury luck as the Steelers had last season. That’s unlikely to continue.

Roethlisberger himself could even get hurt. He’s played all 32 games on the last 2 seasons, but prior to that he had played all 16 games once in 9 career seasons. Part of the reason for his recent improved health is a much improved offensive line (more on that later). Part of it is the switch to Todd Haley’s quicker throw offense which, after some minor early kinks and major public criticism, has led to Roethlisberger having the best 3-year QB rating out of any stretch of his career. However, part of why he hasn’t been getting hurt lately is something that could regress to the mean. Even if Roethlisberger stays healthy for all 16 games, the same is not likely to be true about his supporting cast.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Steelers have not had any major injuries just yet, but they are already expected to be without one player for the start of the season. That player is Le’Veon Bell. That’s bad news because, when Bell got hurt in Pittsburgh’s week 17 game last season, knocking him out for the playoffs, it made the Steelers a noticeably different offense, leading to a home loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the first round. Bell is currently suspended for the first 3 weeks of the season for a marijuana and DUI arrest. He’s appealing to get the suspension reduced and it’s reportedly possible he only misses the opener against New England, but it’s another reminder that they likely won’t be bulletproof offensively again next season.

Bell’s importance to the Steelers wasn’t just proven in the Baltimore loss. It should have been evident all year, as the 2013 2nd round pick broke out as arguably the best running back in the NFL during the regular season, a big part of the reason for Pittsburgh’s offensive dominance. He’s still just a one year wonder, after averaging just 3.52 yards per carry as a rookie, but I think he was the best running back in the NFL last season, apologies to DeMarco Murray.

Murray obviously was the NFL’s leading rusher with 1845 yards, 484 more than Bell who was in 2nd with 1361. However, that’s largely because Murray had more carries, 392 to 290. Bell’s 4.69 YPC was very comparable to Murray’s 4.71, even though Murray ran behind a Dallas offensive line that ranked 2nd in run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus, while Pittsburgh’s ranked 9th. Murray was also much more useful on passing downs, grading out better in pass protection and pass receiving.

Bell’s 83 catches for 853 yards (basically wide receiver numbers) help make up for the difference in yardage totals between Bell and Murray, as Murray caught just 57 passes for 416 yards. Murray only finished with 55 more yards on 69 more touches. While Murray had the higher pure running grade on Pro Football Focus last season (still behind Marshawn Lynch though) Bell was Pro Football Focus’ #1 overall ranked running back. Even as a rookie when he averaged a low YPC, he still graded out above average overall, ranking 31st among running backs, largely because of 45 catches for 399 yards.

It’ll be tough to replace Bell when he’s out, as it was last season. That’s not just because Bell is so good. It’s also because his backups are so bad. Last season when Bell went down, the Steelers had to sign Ben Tate, on his 4th team in a 12-month period. Tate started in the playoff game, despite being signed just a few days prior. Tate had 5 carries in that game. Josh Harris had 9 and Dri Archer had 1. Harris and Archer were both rookies last season. Harris, an undrafted free agent, had 18 carries as a rookie (including playoffs), averaging 2.27 yards per carry. Archer, meanwhile, was a 3rd round pick with just 11 carries (including playoffs) as a rookie, averaging 3.54 yards per carry. The 5-8 173 pounder’s potential is, at best, Todd Haley’s new Dexter McCluster. Harris, meanwhile, has shown no signs that he’s remotely a starting caliber running back.

In need of a veteran presence, the Steelers signed DeAngelo Williams as a free agent this off-season. Bell to Williams is about as steep of a downgrade as you can get at running back. He was released by the Panthers this off-season, even though doing so only saved them 2 million immediately and he’ll be on their cap still for 2016, because of the fact that he is going into his age 32 season and coming off of a season in which he missed 10 games with injury and averaged just 3.53 yards per carry. The Steelers better hope that Bell is only suspended for one game. And even if he is only suspended for one game, the Steelers will have injuries offensively this season, something they just didn’t have to deal with last season until the worst possible time.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The Steelers’ offense was led by their version of the triplets last season, Ben Roethlisberger, LeVeon Bell, and top wide receiver Antonio Brown. With Calvin Johnson nursing injuries last season, Brown took over the mantle of the best receiver in the NFL and, with Johnson getting older, it’s possible Brown keeps that title this season. Brown doesn’t win with height/weight/speed like Johnson at 5-10 186, but he has dependable hands, is the best route runner in the NFL, and is tough to take down in the open field.

Brown led the league in catches and receiving yards last season, catching 129 passes (2nd most in a single season in NFL history) on 178 targets (72.5%) for 1698 yards and 13 touchdowns on 638 routes run, an average of 2.66 yards per route run, 7th in the NFL among eligible receivers. His 5 drops give him a remarkably low drop rate and his 17 broken tackles were the 4th most in the NFL by a wide receiver. He’s not a one year wonder either, grading out 3rd at his position in 2013 (1st in pass catching grade), catching 110 passes on 159 attempts (69.2%) for 1499 yards and 8 touchdowns on 609 routes run, an average of 2.37 yards per route run, 7th among eligible receivers. He also ranked 7th among wide receivers overall in 2011, one of three 1000+ yard seasons in 5 years in the league.

Perhaps most impressively, Brown has caught at least 5 passes in 33 straight games (including playoffs), which demolished the previous NFL record of 19. Remarkably consistent, Brown has morphed into the top receiver in the NFL since Mike Wallace left Pittsburgh two off-seasons ago, proving the Steelers made the right choice by re-signing Brown to a 5-year, 43 million dollar extension 3 off-seasons ago and letting Wallace leave on a 5-year, 60 million dollar contract the following off-season. It was a risky move by the Steelers because Brown had only played 2 seasons in the NFL before he got the extension, but it paid off in a big way as that contract might be the best value in the NFL, not including rookie contracts. Only going into his age 27 season, Brown is under contract for 3 more years.

The Steelers have solid depth at the position too so Roethlisberger has plenty of options. Markus Wheaton was 2nd among wide receivers in receiving yards last season (4th on the team behind Brown, Le’Veon Bell, and tight end Heath Miller) with 53 catches for 644 yards and 2 touchdowns. After barely playing as a 3rd round rookie in 2013, Wheaton played 760 snaps in 2014 and graded out about average. He’s a decent complementary piece, but could see his role reduced in 2015 because the Steelers have a pair of freak athletes waiting in the wings.

One of those freak athletes is Martavis Bryant, who ran a 4.42 40 at 6-4 211 at the combine, but fell to the 4th round of the 2014 draft after widely being considered a top-2 round prospect by the media because of how raw he was. The Steelers snatched him up there and it seems to have paid off thus far. Bryant only played 306 snaps total as a rookie, but he definitely flashed big play ability, grading out above average and catching 26 passes for 549 yards and 8 touchdowns on 48 targets (54.2%). He did that despite only running 200 routes, an average of 2.75 yards per route run that ranked 3rd among eligible receivers, even better than Brown.

He’s still pretty unproven and he has a lot of things he needs to get better at, but his big play ability is real. Bryant should be better in 2015 and should be considered the favorite to start opposite Brown, with Wheaton moving into the 3rd receiver role. Bryant is still raw and likely won’t reach his potential until his 3rd year in the league, but he’s on a good track and the combination of his height/weight/speed opposite Brown could give the Steelers a deadly receiving duo in the future.

The Steelers other freak athlete at wide receiver is Sammie Coates, who ran a 4.43 40 at 6-1 212, before the Steelers made him a 2015 3rd round pick. He’s extremely raw and is no guarantee to even contribute in the way that Bryant did as a rookie, but he has great long-term upside and could eventually be the #3 receiver. For now, he’ll provide good depth as the 4th receiver, necessary because Justin Brown, the 4th receiver last year, struggled mightily when called on.

Mr. Dependable Heath Miller is still around, catching 66 passes for 761 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, 3rd on the Steelers behind Brown and Bell. The problem is he’s going into his age 33 season and the Steelers simply cannot count on him to play the position leading 1103 snaps he played last season. Somewhere in the 700-800 snap range is more appropriate for him at this stage of his career, but the Steelers’ only other capable tight end last season was Matt Spaeth, a pure blocker who played just 348 snaps last season. He’s also going into his age 31 season.

The Steelers used a 5th round pick on Jesse James as a result, but he’s far from being ready so, if Heath Miller gets hurt or declines significantly, the Steelers don’t have many options. Miller is also not the player he used to be, grading out slightly below average in each of the last 2 seasons, after grading out 2nd among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 2011 and 15th in 2012. The Steelers’ lack of tight end depth is a problem, but it’s one that’s offset by good wide receiver depth.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The triplets were obviously a big part of the Steelers’ offensive success last season, but, as is often the case, they also had a strong offensive line to make life easier, grading out 5th among teams in pass block grade on Pro Football Focus and 9th in run block grade. The best player upfront for them last season was left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who had a breakout 3rd year in the league. The 2012 7th round pick made 17 starts in 2012 and 2013, 11 at left tackle, 5 at right tackle, and 1 at center, but graded out below average in both seasons. However, in 2014, Beachum graded out 5th among offensive tackles, excelling in pass protection. He’s still a one year wonder, which is important to remember, but he’s a talented player. Going into the contract year of his rookie deal, he’s an extension candidate this off-season.

Right tackle Marcus Gilbert has the distinction of being the Steelers’ only real regular season injury on offense last season, missing 4 games. He was very much missed while he was hurt because his replacement, swing tackle Mike Adams, was once again horrendous. The Steelers are lucky they found Beachum in the 7th round in 2012 because Adams, their 2nd round pick that year, has graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league, including 59th out of 76 eligible on 485 snaps in 2013 and 65th out of 84 eligible on 372 snaps in 2014. Gilbert, meanwhile, is a 2011 2nd round pick and he’s worked out better. He’s made 46 starts in 4 seasons in the league and, while last year was the best year of his career, when he graded out 23rd among offensive tackles, he’s graded out above average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. The Steelers extended him last off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, giving him a 5-year, 30 million dollar extension.

Gilbert and Adams are not the only offensive linemen the Steelers have used high draft picks on in recent years. The Steelers took Maurkice Pouncey in the first round in 2010 and David DeCastro in the first round in 2012. Only Adams hasn’t really worked out and Beachum made up for that. This has given the Steelers not only a talented offensive line, but a young offensive line. DeCastro’s career didn’t get off to a great start as he was limited to 138 snaps as a rookie in 2012 because of knee problems, but he’s made 31 starts in the past 2 seasons combined, grading out 14th in 2013 and 19th in 2014. The Steelers picked up his 5th year option for 2016 and they’re expected to try to sign him to a long-term extension over the next year or so.

Pouncey also suffered a major knee injury, tearing his ACL in week 1 of 2013 and missing the rest of the season, but, like DeCastro, he’s been able to persevere. The Steelers signed him to a then record 5 year, 44 million dollar extension last off-season, even though he hadn’t played since the ACL year, which shows how much they like this guy. He hasn’t been the top tier center that kind of money suggests and it was an overpay, especially off of the ACL tear, but he’s still a valuable member of this offensive line.

He’s made 62 starts in 5 seasons in the league, even though he lost basically all of 2013 to the ACL tear, and he’s graded out above average in every healthy season since he’s been in the league, maxing out at 6th overall among centers on Pro Football Focus in 2014, very good to see after an injury like he suffered in 2013. Only going into his age 26 season, Pouncey should have another strong season in 2015 and could even get better.

The only weak point on the offensive line was left guard Ramon Foster, who graded out slightly below average last season. He’s been better in the past though, grading out above average in 2011, 2012, and 2013, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked guard in 2013. He’s made 60 of 64 starts over the past 4 seasons. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s bounce back potential for Foster. He’s a starting caliber guard either way though and if he’s your worst offensive lineman you’re doing pretty well. It’s a strong offensive line on a strong offense, but they won’t be bulletproof again this year and, when injuries strike, their untested depth will become tested, which could easily show up in the win/loss column.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the defense really didn’t play well last season, finishing 25th in rate of moving the chains allowed. While the offense should have more injuries this season, the defense won’t necessarily have more injuries, as they finished 17th in adjusted games lost, but you also can’t call injuries the reason why they played poorly last season. In fact, overall as the team, they finished 4th in adjusted games lost, something that should regress to the mean this season.

The reason why their defense was so bad last season is because their once dominant defense of a few years ago got old all at the same time and they didn’t do a good job of replacing players. Part of that is draft and free agent mistakes, but part of that is simply that the Steelers focused more of their resources on the offense over the past few years and it shows. Last season, they Steelers had 4 starters who were 30+ years old on defense. They only have one right now because three of them either retired or remain unsigned as free agents, but they also didn’t replace any of those guys so it should once again be a thin unit. Also gone is legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. LeBeau, going into his age 78 season, and the Steelers agreed to a mutual split (if you believe reports) and now he has an assistant job with Tennessee’s defensive staff.

Brett Keisel was one of those over 30 players. He graded out right about average last season on 451 snaps as a 3-4 defensive end, but was released anyway by the Steelers this off-season, ahead of his age 37 season. He hasn’t officially retired and isn’t ruling out playing again next season, but he’s drawn no known interest on the open market and I ultimately expect him to announce the end of his 13-year NFL career, all with the Steelers. Stephon Tuitt, a 2014 2nd round pick, was drafted with this situation in mind and he’ll take over as an every down player at 3-4 defensive end, after playing just 405 snaps as a rookie. The problem is he was horrible as a rookie, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 40th ranked 3-4 defensive end out of 47 eligible, despite the limited playing time. He’ll have to get a lot better in his 2nd year in the league.

Cameron Heyward will be an every down player opposite him. The 2011 1st round pick is one of the few bright spots of this defense. Heyward has graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, including the last 2 as a starter, making 32 of 32 starts. He graded out 19th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2013 and then had the best year of his career in 2014, grading out 6th at his position. He’ll make a very reasonable 6.969 million dollars on his 5th year option in 2015 and the Steelers are expected to try to sign him to an extension this off-season, ahead of his contract year. He’s one they can’t afford to lose.

At nose tackle between Tuitt and Heyward, Cam Thomas and Steve McLendon will compete for the starting job. McLendon should win that job, after making 11 starts there last season and grading out above average. It’s very much a part-time role in Pittsburgh’s system and McLendon doesn’t get any pass rush, but he still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked defensive tackle last season on just 305 snaps. This is nothing new for McLendon. That’s been the book on him for the past few years, as the 2009 undrafted free agent has done a nice job carving out a niche in the NFL. He’s graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, but has never played more than 355 snaps in a season and has graded out below average as a pass rusher in each of the last 2 seasons.

That would put Thomas into a top reserve role at 3-4 defensive end, the role he played last season. It’s a better spot for him, but, after he played as poorly as he did last season, the Steelers should not be confident in him in any role he plays. Thomas graded out as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked 3-4 defensive end last season. He’s only a rotational player, but he actually doesn’t play that many fewer snaps than McLendon. In fact, last season, he played more than McLendon, playing 443 snaps to his 305.

That’s partially because McLendon missed 4 games with injury and Thomas didn’t miss any, but it’s still a reminder that Thomas still plays a significant role for them on defense, as terribly as he played last season. The Steelers better hope he bounces back. While in San Diego in 2011 and 2012, he graded out above average on 395 snaps in 2011 and 404 snaps in 2012, playing both nose tackle and 3-4 defensive end at 6-4 330. However, he graded out as the 51st ranked defensive tackle out of 69 eligible in 2013 and then things got even worse in his first year in Pittsburgh. Thus far, it looks like he was a free agent bust on a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal, but the Steelers kept him at a 2 million dollar non-guaranteed salary.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Jason Worilds used to be a talented young player for the Steelers defensively, like Cameron Heyward is now. A 2010 2nd round pick, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 and then 11th last season. However, foregoing a deal that would have been worth upwards of 40 million over 5 years, Worilds retired unexpectedly this off-season, ahead of his age 27 season. The Steelers likely weren’t going to be able to re-sign him as a free agent this off-season anyway for cap reasons, but it still a shocking move. It’s especially weird that he retired while James Harrison, who is going into his age 37 season, returned for his 13th (12 with the Steelers) NFL season in 2015. He’s the final remaining of the 30+ year olds on Pittsburgh’s defense, but he still played at a high level last season.

Harrison was out of the league to start last season, but he rejoined the Steelers for week 4 after they needed help at the rush linebacker position and he proved to be a huge pickup, grading out 10th at his position on just 439 snaps. No one played fewer snaps at his position and graded out better. He’s going into his age 37 season so the end of the road is right around the corner, but he proved last season that he still has something left in the tank. He has graded out above average in every season in Pro Football Focus’ history (since 2007), including last season and a 2013 season with the Bengals where he was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker on just 383 snaps as a base run stopping outside linebacker. No one played fewer snaps and graded out better at the position that season, making it two straight seasons that could be said about him and at two different positions.

Harrison will rotate with three other players, including a pair of recent 1st round picks. One of those players is Jarvis Jones, a 2013 1st round pick who has all the looks of a bust through 2 seasons in the league. Jones fell to the Steelers at 17th overall because of injury concerns and he has played in just 23 of 32 games in 2 seasons in the NFL, playing just 646 snaps in 2013 and 237 snaps in 2014. He also hasn’t been very good when on the field, grading out below average in both seasons, which is why he was essentially benched for James Harrison down the stretch last season after returning from injury, playing just 11 snaps in week 16 and week 17 combined. It’s a little too early to write him off as a bust, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd season in the league.

The other recent 1st round pick at the 3-4 outside linebacker spot is Bud Dupree, a rookie who has great athleticism, but also a fair amount of bad tape against quality opponents. It could be a tough transition for the ex-Kentucky Wildcat. Arthur Moats will be the 4th outside linebacker. He did well on 344 snaps last season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker despite the limited playing time, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. Prior to last season, Moats, a 2010 6th round pick, spent the first 4 years of his career as a situational player in Buffalo, maxing out at 409 snaps, but grading out above average in each of the final 3 seasons, playing middle linebacker, outside linebacker, and defensive end. The 6-0 246 pounder isn’t that athletic, but he’s a decent pass rusher that’s strong against the run and a solid part-time player. He’ll see the majority of his snaps in base packages.

At middle linebacker, Lawrence Timmons is locked into one spot, as he has been since the Steelers drafted him in the 1st round in 2007. He’s played in 126 of 128 games since then and has generally been a very solid player, grading out above average in 6 of the last 7 seasons, including four top-10 finishes among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and three top-5 finishes. Last season, he graded out 11th and, only going into his age 29 season, he should have another solid season in 2015. Behind Heyward, he’s their best defensive player and arguably one of just two above average starters on this unit.

Opposite him at the other middle linebacker spot, the Steelers have a few options. Sean Spence made 8 starts in that spot last season, but he struggled on 510 snaps, grading out 41st among 60 eligible middle linebackers. The series of brutal knee injuries that cost Spence his first 2 seasons in the NFL entirely seem to have sapped the abilities of the 2012 3rd round pick. Vince Williams is another option. The 2013 6th round pick played just 253 snaps last season, but made 11 starts in 2013, though he was just a two-down run stopper and graded out below average on 405 snaps. Safety Troy Polamalu even played some linebacker last season, but he’s since retired (more on that later). Most likely, it’ll be Ryan Shazier in that spot. Shazier is a 2014 1st round pick who was limited to 260 snaps in 8 games last season thanks to injuries, grading out below average in the process. He got the week 1 start last year before the injuries though and it’s his job to lose right now.

Grade: C+

Secondary

As weak as the Steelers’ defense was last season, the secondary was arguably their weakest unit. William Gay played decently, grading out above average and ranking 31st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’ll once again be their top cornerback in 2015. He’s definitely not a bad player, but he’s the type of guy where, if he’s your best cornerback, you’re probably in trouble. Gay, a 2007 5th round pick, started his career in Pittsburgh, grading out above average in 3 of 4 seasons from 2008-2011, but then he went to Arizona in 2012 and struggled mightily, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible. That led to his release after one year and then he rejoined the Steelers, grading out above average again in 2013 and 2014. He’s not a great cornerback, but he’s a solid player and a valuable part of an overall weak Pittsburgh secondary.

Ike Taylor was a long-term Steeler cornerback, but he retired this off-season ahead of what would have been his age 35 season, after 12 years in the league, all with Pittsburgh. Taylor was a shell of his former self in his final few years so he won’t really be missed on the field. The Steelers used a 2nd round pick on Senquez Golston to replace him long-term, but the 5-9 176 pounder is undersized and best suited for the slot long-term. He could open the season as the #2 cornerback and move inside in sub packages with a 3rd cornerback coming in and playing outside, but, more likely, the #2 cornerback job will come down to BW Webb vs. Cortez Allen, with Golston slotting in as a 3rd cornerback, focused on the slot, as a rookie.

Between Webb and Allen, Allen should be the favorite, but that’s far from a guarantee. Allen was a 3rd round pick in 2010 and, after not playing much as a rookie, he graded out above average in 2012 and 2013 on 563 and 718 snaps respectively. That earned him a 5-year, 26 million dollar extension, but he bombed in the first year of that extension, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 103rd ranked cornerback out of 108 eligible on 463 snaps before getting benched week 8 and playing solely special teams the rest of the way.

The Steelers couldn’t really cut him this off-season so they brought him back and are expected to give him another shot as a starter, but that’s only because Webb doesn’t present much of a better alternative. Webb, a 2013 4th round pick, graded out below average as a rookie in 2013 with Dallas, playing 185 snaps, before getting cut by the Cowboys and signing with the Steelers. With Pittsburgh, he played just 4 snaps last season. He’s expected to be the 4th cornerback, which isn’t good news for a team whose #2 cornerback is coming off of an awful year and whose #3 cornerback is an undersized rookie.

At safety, the Steelers had another 30+ year old leave (along with Keisel and Ike Taylor) and that was long-time Steeler great and future Hall-of-Fame safety Troy Polamalu. Polamalu had a great 12-year career with the Steelers, grading out 5th overall among safeties as recently as 2013, but he retired ahead of his age 34 season this off-season, after a career that did have its fair share of injuries. To replace him, there will be a battle between the veteran Will Allen and the youngster Shamarko Thomas.

Thomas was a 4th round pick in 2013 with this situation in mind, but he hasn’t really been able to get onto the field over his first 2 seasons in the league, despite injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. After grading out below average as a rookie on 193 snaps, Thomas played just 2 snaps last season. Allen, meanwhile, played 310 snaps last season and made 4 starts when injuries struck, playing as the #3 safety ahead of Thomas on the depth chart. That would seem to make Allen the favorite, but the journeyman is going into his age 33 season, hasn’t played more than 548 snaps in a season in 8 years, and has only graded out above average once during that stretch. The Steelers might just prefer to see what the youngster has.

In the other safety spot, Michael Mitchell is locked into a starting role, going into the 2nd year of a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal that he signed with the Steelers last off-season. Mitchell started his career in Oakland as a 2009 2nd round pick, but graded out below average in 3 of 4 seasons there, maxing out at 508 snaps, which forced him to sign a very cheap one-year deal with Carolina for the 2013 season. It turned out to be a steal for the Panthers as Mitchell graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 33rd ranked safety on 14 games. The Steelers took a chance that he wasn’t just a one-year wonder, signing him to that aforementioned long-term deal after that 2013 season, their only real big-time free agent signing in the last few off-seasons. He made all 16 starts, but graded out below average, coming in at 62nd out of 87 eligible. He’s still a one-year wonder as an above average starter, but he’s still a decent starter and arguably the Steelers’ 2nd best defensive back in a weak secondary.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Steelers won with good offense and lost with poor defense last season, something that should be the case again this season. Unfortunately, they could win a little bit less because their offense is going to have more injuries. The defense might be even thinner this season after the loss of Jason Worilds and Troy Polamalu so they can’t really afford even sort of slip up offensively. That might be inevitable though. Their roster isn’t as talented as Baltimore, who finished better in rate of moving the chains differential last season, and their schedule won’t be as easy as it was last season, when the AFC North got the sub-.500 NFC South. I think they’re more competing with Cincinnati for the 2nd spot in a tough division. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Steelers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

Jun 102015
 

Quarterback

The Ravens went from one of the worst offensive teams in the league in 2013 to one of the better offensive teams in the league in 2014. In 2013, they ranked 30th in rate of moving the chains. In 2014, they moved all the way up to 7th, the biggest offensive leap in the NFL (Miami going from 26th to 8th was the 2nd biggest). As a result, the Ravens went from 8-8 to 10-6 and won a road playoff game in Pittsburgh, before eventually coming up just short in a loss in New England in the next round. How did the Ravens improve that much? Well, it was a variety of factors, but, as you could guess, a big part of it was improved quarterback play.

Joe Flacco rebounded from the worst season of his career in 2013, when he completed 59.0% of his passes for an average of 6.37 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions, posting a career worst 73.1 QB rating and ranking 37th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, also a career worst. In 2014, however, he completed 62.1% of his passes for an average of 7.20 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, posting a 91.0 QB rating (2nd best of his career) and ranking 14th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, also 2nd best in his career.

This season, Flacco should end up somewhere in the middle, more in lines with his career averages. For his career, he’s completed 60.5% of his passes for an average of 6.98 YPA, 148 touchdowns, and 90 interceptions. He’s graded as Pro Football Focus’ 20th, 8th, 14th, 29th, 20th, 37th, and 14th ranked quarterbacks in 2008-2014 respectively, since the Ravens drafted him in the first round in 2008. He’s also never missed a start in 112 career games.

Part of his strong season last year was offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who has since taken the Denver Broncos head coach job, but he was replaced with Marc Trestman, who is a solid offensive coordinator in his own right. Flacco won the Super Bowl in 2012, playing outstanding football in that post-season, but that is an outlier and a fluke when you look at the rest of his career. In terms of recent Super Bowl winning quarterbacks, Flacco is a lot closer to Eli Manning than Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers.

However, he’s still one of the top-15 or so quarterbacks in the NFL. The Ravens had to break the bank to keep him as a free agent after the Super Bowl winning year, re-signing him for 120.6 million over 6 years. It’s a lot of money, but the Ravens didn’t really have much of a choice. As a result of that extension, the Ravens have been cap strapped for the past two off-seasons and will remain cap strapped in the future. Fortunately, the Ravens have one of the best general managers in the NFL in Ozzie Newsome, who has made a number of smart, cheap signings over the past 2 off-seasons to ensure that Flacco had both the offensive supporting cast and the defense to continue being in contention and that Flacco wouldn’t have to do it all by himself.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Arguably the smartest, cheap signing that Ozzie Newsome has made over the past 2 off-seasons was when he signed Justin Forsett for a minimum deal off the scrap heap last off-season. The Ravens didn’t just have improved quarterback play last season, as compared to 2013. They were also vastly better on the ground. The Ravens’ running back situation looked to be about as bad as it gets heading into last season. The previous season, the Ravens averaged a league worst 3.14 yards per carry on the ground, thanks to a combination of poor offensive line play and vastly subpar seasons from both lead back Ray Rice and backup Bernard Pierce.

To make matters worse, Ray Rice, easily their most proven running back, was suspended for the first two games of the season for domestic violence, hurting his chances of a bounce back year. Then, after the NFL decided they didn’t like the public backlash saw the elevator tape of Ray Rice for the first time ever, Rice was promptly suspended indefinitely and released by the Ravens. As it turns out, the Rice suspension was a blessing in disguise for the Ravens, at least on the football field.

Forsett took advantage of the situation and was one of the best running backs in the NFL last season, rushing for 1266 yards and 8 touchdowns on 235 carries (5.39 YPC) and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back. The Ravens went from dead last in the NFL in yards per carry in 2013 to 7th in 2014, averaging 4.51 yards per carry. That made life much easier for Flacco and was a huge part of the reason why the Ravens’ offense was so improved last year.

Forsett’s 5.08 career YPC average suggests that he’s capable of having a similarly strong year in 2015, but he’s already going into his age 30 season and he’s a one-year wonder. Going into 2014, he was a 2008 7th round pick who had never played more than 118 carries in a season in 6 seasons in the league and had 6 carries the prior season in Jacksonville. He’ll also feel the absence of Gary Kubiak, who has a way of getting 1000+ yard seasons out of afterthought running backs. The fact that Forsett couldn’t get anything better than the 3-year, 9 million dollar deal the Ravens re-signed him to this off-season is telling, but I definitely wouldn’t rule out another strong season from him. If he does have another strong year, it’ll be yet another smart off-season signing by Ozzie Newsome as 9 million over 3 years for an above average starting running back, even in today’s NFL, is a steal.

If Forsett declines and the Ravens reduce his carries, it’ll be at the benefit of either Justin Taliaferro and/or Javorius Allen. Taliaferro, a 4th round rookie last year, looks like the favorite right now to be Forsett’s backup and the Ravens primary big back at 6-0 226, but he had an underwhelming rookie year, rushing for 292 yards and 4 touchdowns on 68 carries (4.29 YPC) and wasn’t a highly regarded prospect coming out of Coastal Carolina. Allen, who the Ravens drafted in the 4th round this year, has good size as well at 6-0 221, great hands, and could easily beat out Taliaferro for the #2 job.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Ravens’ offensive line was also significantly better in 2014 than in 2013, a big part of the reason why the Ravens’ passing game and running game was so much better and why their offense was so much better in general. The Ravens had 3 starters in 2013 that were among the worst in the league at their respective positions, Gino Gradkowski at center, AQ Shipley at left guard, and Michael Oher at right tackle, and the Ravens essentially replaced all 3 of those players with significantly better players in 2015.

The biggest upgrade was at right tackle, where 2nd year pro Ricky Wagner broke out in his first season as a starter. After 131 nondescript snaps as a 5th round rookie in 2013, Wagner graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 16th ranked offensive tackle in 2014. On top of that, he was the 3rd highest ranked right tackle. He’s a one year wonder and he wasn’t highly drafted, but he could definitely have another strong season. He seems like a young building block for the Ravens and yet another draft day steal by Ozzie Newsome.

At center, the Ravens got a boost from a veteran presence last season, bringing in Jeremy Zuttah via trade from Tampa Bay to replace Gino Gradkowski. Zuttah was solid, as he usually is, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked center and making all 16 starts. That’s pretty par for the course for him. A versatile interior offensive lineman who has experience at center (47 career starts), left guard (40 career starts), and right guard (5 career starts), Zuttah has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons, but has never really been too much better than average. Only going into his age 29 season, I expect more of the same from him this season.

At left guard, the Ravens’ “new” starter in 2014 wasn’t really a new starter, but they did get Kelechi Osemele back from back surgery after he missed most of 2013 with injury and he was a massive upgrade on AQ Shipley and a massive boost for this offensive line. Osemele, a 2012 2nd round pick, made 16 starts at right tackle as a rookie, grading out about average, but really flourished once moved to left guard during the Ravens’ Super Bowl run. The Ravens left him at left guard for 2013, a smart move, but back problems kept him from meeting his potential. He struggled through 443 snaps in 7 games before getting surgery and being put on IR.

Osemele returned in 2014 though and had the breakout year many were expecting from him in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked guard. He’s still a one year wonder in terms of being a top level offensive lineman, but, like Wagner, I would not at all be shocked if he continued that high level of play into 2015 and beyond. Like Wagner, he’s a young building block and someone they really want to be a part of their future. They’re reportedly currently working on a long-term extension with him, ahead of his contract year.

The Ravens’ other guard, Marshal Yanda, is also going into a contract year, which is why the Ravens used a 5th round pick on Robert Myers in this past draft. The fact that the Ravens are trying to keep the younger Osemele over Yanda (ideally they’d be able to keep both) is telling because Yanda, while older, has been one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL over the past few years. Last year, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked guard, after uncharacteristically grading out 15th in 2013, and that arguably made a bigger difference on the offensive line than any of their offensive line upgrades. Prior to 2013, he graded out in the top-5 at his position in three straight seasons, 2011 and 2012 at right guard and 2010 at right tackle. Even going into his age 31 season, he’s one of the most dominant players in the NFL.

The only starter on the offensive line that struggled for the Ravens last season, weirdly enough, was left tackle Eugene Monroe, who was one of their only good offensive linemen in 2013. He graded out 63rd out of 84 eligible offensive tackles last year, but he has a good chance of bouncing back. A former first round pick in 2009, Monroe struggled early in his career, but graded out 6th in 2011, 19th in 2012, and 16th in 2013 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Overall, it’s one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and one that will continue to really help out their passing game and running game.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Another one of Ozzie Newsome’s recent smart pickups was wide receiver Steve Smith, signed to a 3-year, 10.5 million last off-season. His addition was another big part of why this offense improved last season, as he was an upgrade over Marlon Brown, a 2013 undrafted free agent who played 821 snaps as a rookie and graded out 82nd out of 111 eligible wide receivers. The Smith signing seemed like a weird deal at the time because of Smith was just cut by the Panthers, despite having guaranteed money on his contract for 2014, because he was at an advanced age in football years and coming off of the 3rd worst season of his career in yards per game.

Smith proved the doubters wrong though, catching 79 passes for 1065 yards and 6 touchdowns, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 47th ranked wide receiver. That’s the good news. The bad news is he’s unlikely to be able to repeat that kind of year in 2015, his age 36 season. While Smith started out last season well, catching 41 passes for 675 yards and 4 touchdowns in his first 8 games, he caught just 38 passes for 390 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 8 games. Over the first 8 games of the season, he was Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked wide receiver, but he ranked 72nd out of 105 eligible during the final 8 games. Down the stretch, he resembled the receiver who got cut by Carolina the season before, bad news for his 2015, considering his age.

Smith has had a fantastic career and could be eventually bound for the Hall of Fame, with 13,262 receiving yards currently, 14th all-time. However, even the average top-20 receiver (in terms of yardage all-time) has his last 1000 yard season at age 34-35, averages 48 catches for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns for 2 more seasons after age 34-35, and is done playing by age 36-37. It’s very likely last season was Smith’s last 1000+ yard season and he could see his abilities fall off a cliff significantly this season.

That’s especially bad news for the Ravens because they lost Torrey Smith to free agency this off-season, as the cap strapped Ravens were simply unable to match the 5-year, 40 million dollar deal the 49ers gave him. Smith was overpaid by San Francisco, but he was still a solid contributor for them in the passing game, grading out slightly above average last season and catching 49 passes for 767 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’ll be replaced by rookie 1st round pick Breshad Perriman, who has plenty of upside, but who also is very raw and has issues with drops. He’ll be counted on for a big role as a rookie and could end up leading this receiving corps in targets if Smith struggles. He might not be ready for that kind of a role.

The Ravens’ depth at wide receiver isn’t good either. Marlon Brown is currently penciled in as the 3rd receiver, but he struggled as a rookie, as I mentioned, and then played just 379 snaps last season, grading out below average again. Michael Campanero, a 2014 7th round pick who flashed on 66 snaps as a rookie, is his primary competition. Kamar Aiken is also likely going to be in the mix. The 2011 undrafted free agent played 16 career snaps from 2011-2013 and then graded out below average on 279 last season.

Without much depth at wide receiver, the Ravens are probably going to use a lot of two tight end sets. The Ravens are banking on Dennis Pitta being healthy, but he’s missed 24 of 32 games over the past two seasons due to two separate hip dislocations. He caught 61 passes for 669 yards and 7 touchdowns and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked tight end in terms of pass catching grade in 2012, but he’s a major injury question going forward into his age 30 season. He’s currently unsure, but optimistic about his status for 2015, but the Ravens are reportedly expecting him to spend the first 6 weeks of the season on the Physical Unable to Perform list and are considering anything they get from him this year a bonus. If he didn’t have guaranteed money on his contract for 2015, he would have been an off-season cap casualty. Pitta is a poor blocker anyway, so he’ll be used in only a pass catching capacity even if healthy.

Owen Daniels was their starting tight end last season and did a decent job, but he left as a free agent. With Daniels gone and Pitta hurt, the Ravens are expecting a pair of young tight ends to be their top-2 tight ends this season and see a lot of action. Crockett Gilmore, a 2014 3rd round pick, flashed on 378 snaps as a rookie, grading out above average. He’s not much of a pass catcher, but he’s a strong blocker in-line with some pass catching abilities.

Maxx Williams, meanwhile, will be the “move” tight end and will handle most of the pass catching duties from the tight end position. He’s only a 2nd round rookie, but was widely considered the top tight end in the draft class and a steal at the end of the 2nd round. Overall though, it’s a bad mix of really young and really old in the receiving corps for the Ravens. With Gary Kubiak gone, Joe Flacco and Justin Forsett likely regressing in terms of their production, and a thin receiving corps, the Ravens’ offense probably won’t be as good in 2015 as it was in 2014, but they should still be a lot better than they were in 2013.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

It wasn’t just the Ravens’ offense that was good in 2014. They also ranked 8th in rate of moving the chains differential allowed, which is why they ranked 3rd in rate of moving the chains differential, better than their record. That showed in the playoffs, as they went into Pittsburgh and won and almost beat New England in Foxboro. However, as is the case on offense, the Ravens suffered losses defensively this off-season, as result of their cap situation.

The biggest defensive loss, at least in terms of size, was defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, who the Ravens traded to the Lions for a 4th and 5th round pick, in order to free up 8.5 million in cap space. Considering his cap number and his contract situation (going into an age 31 contract year), it was a good return for the Ravens, but he’ll definitely be missed. A versatile player who could play anywhere on the Ravens’ 3-man defensive line, Ngata graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked 3-4 defensive end in 2014 and he’s graded out as a top-18 player at his position in every season since Pro Football Focus’ inception in 2007.

The Ravens will be counting on a pair of talented youngsters to play bigger roles this season to make up for the loss of Ngata and move this perennially dominant Ravens’ defense into the next generation. Those two players are Brandon Williams and Timmy Jernigan. Williams actually played more snaps than Ngata last season (569 vs. 546). The big nose tackle probably won’t be able to play much more than 600 snaps maximum and he isn’t much of a pass rusher, but he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked defensive tackle last season, including 4th as a run stopper. The 2013 3rd round pick also flashed on 93 snaps as a rookie and has some young Haloti Ngata like abilities at 6-1 335, though he’s not quite as versatile.

Jernigan, meanwhile, graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked 3-4 defensive end last season, as a 2nd round rookie. That’s especially impressive because he did that on only 312 snaps, with no one grading out better than him and playing fewer snaps. The 6-2 300 pounder has the most to gain from Ngata leaving in terms of extra snaps because he and Ngata play similar positions. In his 2nd year in the league in 2015, Jernigan could easily have a breakout year on 600 or so snaps and end the season as one of the top few 3-4 defensive ends. That’s obviously not a guarantee though, as he’s still unproven, especially at a higher snap volume.

Chris Canty remains as the 3rd starter, but he was actually cut this off-season by the Ravens, before returning on a cheaper deal (4.65 million over 2 years). He’s not completely washed up and drew some interest on the open market, but there’s still a reason why they originally cut him. Canty is going into his age 33 season and played just 360 snaps last season because he missed 5 games with injury. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s missed 13 games. He graded out above average as recently as 2013, but he graded out below average last season and his days of being even an average starter are probably gone. He’ll primarily play in base packages this season, as he really struggled as a pass rusher last year.

He’ll be pushed for snaps immediately by 3rd round rookie Carl Davis, a 6-5 320 pounder who will play a significant rotational role either way. DeAngelo Tyson also remains as a reserve. The 2012 7th round pick has played a combined 722 snaps in 3 seasons with the Ravens in that role, but he’s graded out below average in all 3 seasons. Brent Urban, a 2014 4th round pick who missed his entire rookie year with injury, could push Tyson for that reserve role.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Haloti Ngata wasn’t their only defensive loss this off-season, as they also lost Pernell McPhee, who signed a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Bears this off-season. McPhee was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker last season, despite being a part-time player, playing 540 snaps. On 331 pass rush snaps, he had 8 sacks, 21 hits (2nd in the NFL behind JJ Watt), and 35 hurries. He could flourish as an every down player in Chicago this season and he’ll definitely be missed in Baltimore.

However, the Ravens still have a ton of depth at the position. McPhee, as efficient as he was on a per snap basis, was still 4th on the team in snaps played among players who play at outside linebackers in base packages. The depth and versatility he provided, especially on passing downs, will definitely be missed, as he could rush the passer at a high level from the outside linebacker, defensive end, and defensive tackle positions at 6-3 278, but the Ravens still have a lot at the position.

Courtney Upshaw will be the starter in base packages on one side. The 2012 2nd round pick has been in that role for 3 straight years. He’s not much of a pass rusher, grading out below average in that aspect in all 3 years, but he’s graded out above average as a run stopper in 2 of the 3 years and made strides in coverage last season, grading out above average in that aspect. He essentially plays the old Jarret Johnson role in Baltimore’s defense and has the same responsibilities as a two-down 4-3 outside linebacker, so his inability to rush the passer is minimized.

Elvis Dumervil handles all of the pass rush duties when Upshaw comes off the field and he’s fantastic in that role. Dumervil spent the early part of his career in Denver, but he wasn’t really used properly there, as he was an every down player. Dumervil had some great years rushing the passer, grading out 4th in pass rush grade among 4-3 defensive ends in 2007 and 4th in pass rush grade among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2009. However, he graded out below average against the run in every season in Denver, which caused him to grade out below average overall in 2008, 2011, and 2012 (he missed all of 2010 with injury) and led to the Broncos making him a cap casualty after the 2012 season.

In Baltimore, he’s only been a part-time player, playing primarily in obvious passing situations, which has maximized his talents. While the 5-11 250 pounder is really weak against the run, he’s a force off the edge in obvious passing situations. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2013 (1st in pass rush grade) and 6th in 2014 (2nd in pass rush grade). He’s getting up there, going into his age 31 season, but he should have enough strong year.

Terrell Suggs will continue to play every down on the other side, but he too is getting up there in age, going into his age 33 season. However, Suggs is also coming off of a dominant year and has a good chance to have another strong year. Suggs was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014, which is pretty par for the course for him. He ranked 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013, 3rd among 4-3 defensive ends in 2011, and 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2010, with an injury plagued 2012 season in between. Behind Suggs, Dumervil, and Courtney Upshaw is 4th round rookie Za’Darius Smith, who will see limited snaps. The position is weakened with Dumervil and Suggs aging and McPhee gone, but they still have plenty of talent off the edge.

The Ravens also have a pair of talented linebackers inside as well. Daryl Smith is another one of the cheap, smart free agent signings that Ozzie Newsome has made over the past few off-seasons. Smith came cheap two off-seasons ago because he was limited to 2 games by injury in 2012 and because he was going into his 30s. However, Smith was a dominant player before the injury, grading out 1st, 8th, and 2nd among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2009, 2010, and 2011. Smith has basically picked up where he left off before the injury since joining the Ravens and moving inside in their 3-4. Ray Lewis’ replacement, Smith looked like a steal on a cheap one-year deal in 2013, grading out 14th among middle linebackers and earning a 4-year, 16.1 million deal last off-season.

Smith continued to be a value for the Ravens in 2014, grading out 7th at his position in 2014. Like Suggs, he’s going into his age 33 season so it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep this up, but he should have another solid year in him. Conversely, fellow starting inside linebacker CJ Mosley is coming off of only his rookie year, but he too is coming off of a strong year. Mosley graded out 10th at his position as a rookie and the 2014 1st round pick has a bright future and looks like a big part of the next generation of this perennially dominant defense. He rounds out what is still one of the better front 7s in the NFL.

Grade: A

Secondary

Last year, the Ravens had arguably the best front 7 in football, which carried their defense to a strong season, despite major issues in the secondary. Their front 7 isn’t quite as good this season thanks to the loss of McPhee, Ngata, and a couple guys getting older, though they have some young studs who can continue improving, so they will need the secondary to be better this season. That’s at the very least a strong possibility.

Things were so bad at cornerback for the Ravens last season that Rashaan Melvin, a 2013 undrafted free agent who was signed mid-season and made his NFL debut week 15, drew the start for them in the playoffs. They failed to replace Corey Graham, a valuable 3rd cornerback, who signed with the Bills in free agency, going into the season with Asa Jackson, a 2012 5th round pick who had never played a snap in the NFL going into 2014, as their 3rd cornerback. He predictably struggled, grading out 99th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks on 335 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out worse at the position, in 7 games in an injury plagued season.

When Jimmy Smith went down with injury, that’s when things really got bad at cornerback for the Ravens, with the likes of Rashaan Melvin, Dominique Franks, Anthony Levine, Danny Gorrer, Matt Elam, and Chykie Brown all having to play roles down the stretch for this team at cornerback. Smith graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked cornerback despite missing the final 8 games of the season on injured reserve with a foot injury. Through the first 7 games of the season before getting hurt, he was Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked cornerback, including 4th in pure coverage grade, allowing 51.3% completion and 4.18 yards per attempt on 39 attempts.

It remains to be seen whether or not he can be that dominant of a cornerback for a whole season, but the Ravens clearly believe he can, giving him a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension this off-season. It’s a risky deal that doesn’t appear to have much upside. It makes him one of the highest paid cornerbacks in the NFL and he is unlikely to exceed that contract value, even if he does continue playing well. The bad news is that his play during that stretch is inconsistent with his past history, as he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked cornerback in 2012 and their 35th ranked cornerback in 2013. The good news is that he’s a former 1st round pick (2011), who has improved in every season as a starter and could easily have a strong, full season in his age 27 season in 2015. Either way, there’s no question his return will improve this secondary, as long as he doesn’t get hurt again (he’s missed 17 games in 4 seasons in the league).

The Ravens also added depth at cornerback this off-season, signing Kyle Arrington to a 3-year, 7.5 million dollar deal. The Patriots cut Kyle Arrington, voiding the 6.5 million in non-guaranteed money over 2 years remaining on his contract. It was a weird move, as Arrington was a valuable slot cornerback for them, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 21st in 2013, and the Patriots had already lost their starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this off-season. Perhaps they thought they could re-sign him a little cheaper, but the Ravens didn’t let that happen. The Patriots’ loss is the Ravens’ gain as Kyle Arrington filled arguably their biggest remaining need and at a reasonable price. With little cap space to work with, the Ravens were right to focus their energy on the cornerback position this off-season.

The Ravens had an option to release cornerback Lardarius Webb to save cap space. Cutting him would have only saved them 2 million in cap space immediately because of the way his contract was structured, but he would have been off their cap completely for 2016. The other option would have been to designate him as a post-June 1st cut, freeing up more cap space this season, allowing them a little bit more freedom in free agency, knowing that they’d have cap space opening up on June 1st that they could use to sign their rookie class, but he still would have been on their cap for 2016.

The Ravens ultimately decided to keep him, after he agreed to a 2.5 million dollar pay cut, which might have been their best option. They save 2.5 million in cap space immediately this season. He’s still on their cap for 2016, even if they cut him next off-season, but they also have him on the roster for 2015 and he’s a candidate for a bounce back year. Webb was given a 6-year, 52.742 million dollar deal three off-seasons ago after he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked cornerback in 2011. However, Webb tore his ACL in 2012, seemed to bounce back in 2013, grading out 19th, but regressed mightily in 2014, grading out 78th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks, thanks largely to a bad back. Last year was the first season that the 2009 3rd round pick had graded out below average in his career, so it could be seen as a fluke, but he’s also going into his age 30 season with a significant injury history so a bounce back is hardly a guarantee.

At safety, the Ravens lost Darian Stewart as a free agent this off-season, after he made 14 starts and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 30th ranked safety last season. However, they replaced him with a comparable player at a reasonable price, signing Kendrick Lewis to a 3-year, 5.4 million dollar deal. Lewis was a mere 5th round pick in 2010 by the Chiefs, but he’s made 67 starts in 5 seasons in the league, grading out above average 3 times. Last season, he made all 16 starts for the Texans and was Pro Football Focus’ 39th ranked safety.

At the other spot, it’ll likely be Will Hill, who was signed by the Ravens last off-season, which, like the Lewis signing, was another, smart, cheap signing by the Ravens. Hill has a very interesting career story. A 5-star recruit who was a top-10 recruit according to Rivals, Scout, and ESPN, Hill went undrafted out of Florida in 2012 because of a variety of off-the-field problems, including substance abuse issues. Hill was snatched up by the Giants as an undrafted free agent, but the Giants grew tired of him after 2 seasons and 3 substance abuse related suspensions and cut him last off-season.

The Ravens snatched him up and, after his suspension, he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked safety on just 584 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. He started the final 8 games of the regular season, helping to stabilize their back end despite major issues at cornerback, and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked safety from week 9 on. Whenever he’s been on the field in his career, he’s been fantastic.  In 2013, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety on 787 snaps and was #1 at his position from week 5 on, after serving a four game suspension. He also graded out above average on 218 snaps as a reserve as a rookie in 2012.

The issue has just been staying on the field. He says he’s cleaned up his act and looks poised for a suspension free season and could breakout as one of the best safeties in the game, though, given his history, that’s obviously no guarantee. If he can stay out of trouble, between him, Kyle Arrington coming in as a free agent, and Jimmy Smith returning from injury, the Ravens should have a significantly improved secondary in 2015.

The Ravens also have Matt Elam, a 2013 1st round pick, at safety. He’s technically a candidate to start, but, like much of the first round of that terrible draft class, he’s been a bust thus far in his career and would not be able to win a fair competition against either Lewis or Hill. Elam made 16 starts as a rookie in 2013, but graded out 58th among 86 eligible safeties. He actually made the first 8 starts of the season in 2014 before rightfully losing his starting job to Hill and moving to cornerback for the remainder of the season.

At safety, Elam graded out 78th out of 87 eligible safeties in 2014 despite playing just 439 snaps. No one graded out worse at the position and played fewer snaps and he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked safety through the first 8 weeks of the season. Right now, he only provides value because of his versatility to step in at either safety or slot cornerback in case of an injury. Between Elam and their 2nd round pick in 2013 Arthur Brown, who is stuck behind both Daryl Smith and CJ Mosley at middle linebacker, the Ravens don’t figure to get much of anything from their top-2 picks in 2013 this season. However, that was a terrible draft for a lot of teams, especially early, and getting Brandon Williams and Ricky Wagner in the 3rd and 5th rounds of that draft respectively makes up for their early round mistakes.

Grade: B

Overall

The Ravens lost a lot this off-season (Torrey Smith, Haloti Ngata, Pernell McPhee to name a few), as a result of their cap situation. However, they’ve also drafted well recently, adding Ricky Wagner, Kelechi Osemele, CJ Mosley, Timmy Jernigan, Brandon Williams through the draft from 2012-2014. Between those 5 and Will Hill, who is still on a rookie deal, the Ravens have 6 impact players still on rookie deals. Add in a rookie class of Breshad Perriman, Maxx Williams, and Carl Davis in the first 3 rounds this year, widely regarded as a strong haul, and they have enough cheap, young talent to make up for some of the bigger contracts they have on their cap. They might not be quite as good as they were last season, but they were also better than their record last season. This is still a very talented team that will be in contention again this year. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Ravens after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC North

Jun 102015
 

Quarterback

Since losing the Super Bowl in 2002, the Raiders have been the worst team in the NFL, record wise. Over the past 12 seasons, the Raiders are 56-136 with no winning seasons and just two seasons of more than 5 wins. It’s easy to point to the quarterback position as the reason why. They’ve certainly had other problems, but it’s very hard to win games when your quarterbacks play as badly as the Raiders’ have over the past dozen years. They’ve completed just 56.3% of their passes for an average of 6.47 YPA, 191 touchdowns, and 203 interceptions over that time period. Their best quarterbacked season in terms of quarterback rating over that time period (among quarterbacks who threw at least 100 passes in a season), was by Carson Palmer, who completed 61.1% of his passes for an average of 7.11 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 2012.

So it’s safe to say the Raiders and their fans are the NFL equivalent of a really drunk guy in the bar at 3 am who will go home with anything, as far as the quarterback position is concerned. And he sees her, a 3.5, and he’s overjoyed. That’s Derek Carr. There are a lot of reasons to like Carr. He was their first quarterback to start all 16 games in 12 years last season, as a 2nd round rookie. He’s young, only going into his 2nd season in the league, an age 24 season. The organization seems to like him as he’s gone through 2 coaching changes in his short career thus far (Dennis Allen to Tony Sparano to Jack Del Rio) and there hasn’t been any doubt about him keeping his job since he first got it, even after he started last season 0-10. His 21 touchdowns last season were the 2nd most in a season by a Raider quarterback since 2003 (behind 2012 Palmer).

However, he really didn’t play well. He graded out 38th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks last season on Pro Football Focus and led an offense that ranked dead last in rate of moving the chains differential, both regular and schedule adjusted. His 21 touchdowns were nice, but the offense itself only scored 26 touchdowns so Carr was more of a touchdown hog than someone who was consistently quarterbacking long touchdown drives. He kept interceptions down to 12, which is nice, but his completion percentage and YPA average, which tell more about what happens on every pass, were really bad. His 58.1 completion percentage was 6th worst among eligible quarterbacks, and his 5.46 YPA average was dead last in the NFL. No other eligible quarterback was even under 6 YPA.

Over the past 10 years, quarterbacks who average less than 6 YPA have a combined 112-323-1 record. Among quarterbacks who have averaged 5.5 YPA or fewer in a season over the past decade, Carr is the only one who managed to do that and still start all 16 games and one of 6 quarterbacks to start 10+ games. The other 5 combined to make 26 starts the following season. A quarterback struggling as much as Carr did last season and not getting any competition for his job is virtually unprecedented in the modern era of passing offenses and a testament to Oakland’s utter desperation at the quarterback position over the past 12 seasons.

Carr is still young, so he could be better in his 2nd season in the league in 2015. However, he’d have to improve significantly to get above that 6 YPA mark. That’s a difference of 324 yards over 599 pass attempts. On top of that, there’s no guarantee Carr really ever turns it around, given the history of quarterbacks drafted outside of the 1st round of the draft. 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 29 quarterbacks drafted in the 2nd-3rd round from 2000-2011, only three of them have ever made a Pro-Bowl. After Drew Brees, Andy Dalton, and Matt Schaub, the next best quarterbacks in terms of career QB rating include the likes of Colin Kaepernick, 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.

If Carr continues to struggle, the Raiders don’t really have another option they could turn to even if they wanted to (which they likely won’t, even if Carr doesn’t improve). Christian Ponder was signed this off-season to be and, unlike Matt Schaub last season, who was paid well and who was at least at one point seen as a starting option for the Raiders, Ponder is a true backup. Ponder will make just 2.25 million this season and has played in just 11 games in 2 seasons since a disastrous 2012 season in which he was Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked quarterback out of 38 eligible (the fact that the 2012 Vikings made the playoffs with Ponder at quarterback is insane and a testament to Adrian Peterson’s incredible year). The 2011 1st round pick has completed 59.8% of his passes for an average of 6.30 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in his career.

Grade: D

Receiving Corps

If the Raiders’ offense improves significantly this season, it’ll be because the Raiders upgraded Carr’s supporting cast. Armed with a fair amount of cap space and the 4th overall pick in the draft, the Raiders’ biggest signing and their top pick were both on the offensive side of the ball. Amari Cooper, one of the top wide receiver prospects of the past few years, was the selection 4th overall, after the Raiders struck out on both Randall Cobb and Jeremy Maclin in free agency. Cooper instantly becomes the top receiver in a receiving corps that had just one wide receiver or tight end grade out above average on Pro Football Focus last season.

However, anyone expecting him to have a huge statistical year based on what guys like Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, Sammy Watkins, and Kelvin Benjamin did last year is short sighted. Sure, it’s easier to pass the football than it’s ever been in the NFL, but last year’s rookie receiver class was arguably the best ever and historically it’s not realistic to expect a receiver to come into the NFL and put up 1000+ yards as a rookie. Only 11 rookie wideouts have done so in the last 20 years and three of those were last season.

Even in the golden era of passing offenses in the past 10 years, the average first round rookie wideout has averaged just 48 catches for 703 yards and 4 touchdowns. Transitioning from being a collegiate receiver to an NFL receiver is really tough, even for the most talented of players. Now, Cooper isn’t the average first round rookie wideout, but he’s far from a lock for 1000+ yards as a rookie or even 800+ yards, as he’ll also be limited by poor quarterback play. He’ll definitely help this offense right away, but the Raiders won’t suddenly become a significantly more effective offense just because Cooper is in town.

After Cooper on the depth chart, things are unclear and talent is limited. Michael Crabtree was signed in free agency. Given his 3 million dollar salary and his history of being a starter in San Francisco (since he entered the league in 2009), he seems like the most likely one to start opposite Cooper. The problem is he isn’t as good as he used to be, thanks to a May 2013 torn Achilles that seems to have derailed his career. There’s a reason he drew such limited interest on the open market, settling for a 1-year deal after expecting multi-year deals in the range of what Torrey Smith, who replaced him in San Francisco, ended up getting (5 years, 40 million).

Crabtree was great in 2012, finally living up to expectations as the 10th overall pick in 2009. He caught 85 passes for 1105 yards and 9 touchdowns on 118 targets (72.0%) and 433 routes run (an average of 2.55 yards per route run) that season, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver. He was even better down the stretch that season, catching 61 passes for 880 yards and 8 touchdowns in his final 10 games, including playoffs. That’s 98 catches for 1408 yards and 13 touchdowns over 16 games.

Then came that torn Achilles. He caught just 19 passes for 284 yards and a touchdown in 5 games in 2013 (34 catches for 487 yards and a touchdown in 8 games if you count playoffs) and then was even worse on a per game basis in 2014. He played all 16 games, but caught just 68 passes for 698 yards and 4 touchdowns on 102 targets (66.7%) and 474 routes run (1.47 yards per route run). His per game yardage numbers in 2014 were the worst of his career and he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 95th ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. 2012 remains his only 1000+ yard season and he’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 6 seasons, including each of the last 2 seasons. There’s some bounce back potential, but he looks like a marginal starter right now, especially after largely drawing crickets in free agency, as teams generally felt his explosiveness was permanently gone.

The Raiders do have solid depth at the position as Brice Butler, Andre Holmes, and Rod Streater will compete for the #3 job. None of those players are great, but you could do a lot worse than those as your #3, #4, and #5 guys (in some order). Holmes was actually leading their leading receiver last year with 47 catches for 693 yards and 4 touchdowns and he seems like the obvious favorite for the #3 role for that reason. Holmes, a 2011 undrafted free agent, flashed in his first career action in 2013, grading out above average on 393 snaps and catching 22 passes for 366 yards and 1 touchdown in his final 5 games. However, he couldn’t translate that to a full season in 2014, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 91st ranked wide receiver out of 110 eligible. Just a situational deep threat, Holmes caught 51.6% of targets in 2014.

Streater is a little bit more proven. Also a former undrafted free agent (2012), Streater caught 60 passes for 888 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2013, grading out above average, after grading out below average as a rookie. Unfortunately, he broke his foot in 2014 and was limited to just 9 catches in 3 games. If he’s healthy, he should be able to push Holmes for that #3 job. It’s also possible that the Raiders trade one of them for a late round pick, as both are heading into contract years. Brice Butler is also in the mix. The 2013 7th round pick graded out below average as a rookie, but flashed last season and actually was the only Raider wide receiver or tight end to grade out above average last season, albeit on just 278 snaps. He’ll probably get a bigger role in 2016 and beyond with Holmes, Streater, and Crabtree all scheduled for free agency next off-season.

Things aren’t good at tight end either. Mychal Rivera, a 2013 6th round pick, was completely overmatched as the starting tight end last season, both as a run blocker and a pass catcher, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 66th ranked tight end out of 67 eligible. He was better as a rookie, but in more limited action and he was only a 6th round pick so it’s very possible that he’ll never develop into anything more than a depth player. He could easily be pushed for the starting job by 3rd round rookie Clive Walford, which should say a lot about how much Rivera struggled last season.

Lee Smith will be in the mix for snaps as well, after he was brought in during free agency. The 6-6 269 pounder is a powerful run blocker, but has just 20 catches for 144 yards and 3 touchdowns in 4 seasons in the league since getting drafted in the 5th round in 2011. The Raiders gave him a 3-year, 9.1 million dollar deal this off-season, which suggests they really value his skill set, but he’s not the type of guy who will be in the mix for a significant role or a starting job because of how limited of a player he is. It’s an improved receiving corps overall from last season, but they won’t provide Carr a ton of help.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

While the Raiders struck out on Jeremy Maclin and Randall Cobb this off-season, they were able to land a big-time free agent on their offensive line, signing Rodney Hudson to a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal that was at the time the richest deal ever for a center in NFL history. He doesn’t quite deserve it, but he’s a very good player and the Raiders had both the cap space and the need to overpay him. He’ll replace Stefen Wisniewski, an average starting center who signed a 1-year, 2.5 million dollar deal in Jacksonville this off-season. Wisniewski was Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked center out of 41st eligible last season as he dealt with a bad shoulder.

Hudson will be a significant upgrade on him. A 2011 2nd round pick, he flashed on 136 snaps in various positions as a 2nd round rookie in 2011, before moving to center full-time in 2012. However, Hudson played just 3 games that year before going down for the season, though he showed well when healthy. Since then, he’s made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, grading out 17th among centers in 2013 and 3rd in 2014. He’s a solid player and one of the better centers in the game, though still someone I would rank behind the likes of Nick Mangold, Jason Kelce, Alex Mack, and possibly Ryan Kalil and Max Unger.

Austin Howard was the Raiders’ big off-season signing on the offensive line last off-season, as they brought him over from the Jets on a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal. Howard was a solid starter in New York in 2012 and 2013, making all 32 starts and grading out 32nd and 47th respectively among offensive tackles in 2013 and 2014. However, the Raiders made the asinine decision to move him inside to guard even though he’s not a natural fit for the interior at 6-7 333 and it really didn’t pay off, as he graded out 59th out of 78 eligible guards.

He’s expected to move back to right tackle this season, in an effort to get his career turned back around. Right tackle is another spot where the Raiders had a lot of issues last season. Splitting time, Khalif Barnes and Menelik Watson graded out 58th and 71st respectively out of 84 eligible offensive tackles last season. Howard should be an upgrade. The issue is the Raiders didn’t really find an upgrade at the right guard spot, so the veteran Barnes is currently penciled in as the starter there. Barnes has graded out below average in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history, including 62nd out of 81 eligible guards in 2013. Going into his age 33 season, Barnes is not a starting caliber player, but the Raiders don’t really have much of another option. 4th round rookie Jon Feliciano is more of an option in 2016 and beyond.

Things are better on the left side of the line than the right. While the Raiders are hoping they struck gold in the middle rounds with Feliciano on the right side, they actually did strike gold in the middle rounds last year on the left side with Gabe Jackson, a 2014 3rd round pick who made 12 starts and graded out above average as a rookie. A better pass protector than run blocker, Jackson is one of the few young building blocks the Raiders have right now. He’s obviously only a one year wonder, but he should continue being a solid starter in 2015 and beyond.

The Raiders also got strong play at left tackle as veteran Donald Penn had a vintage year, grading out 7th among offensive tackles. Penn has graded out above average in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus, but appeared to be on the decline in 2013, which is why the Buccaneers cut him and replaced him with the younger Anthony Collins, who flopped mightily in his first and only season in Tampa Bay and got cut this off-season. The Buccaneers’ loss was the Raiders’ gain. Penn is going into his age 32 season and has a history of weight problems so I don’t expect him to play quite as well as he did last season, which was arguably the best season of his career, but he should once again be a strong blindside protector. With Penn, Jackson, and Hudson, the Raiders have a solid offensive line, but their issues on the right side can’t be ignored.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

One player the Raiders are really hoping can give their offense a boost this season is running back Latavius Murray. It’s easy to see why. The Raiders averaged 3.68 yards per carry last season, 27th in the NFL, but Murray averaged 5.17 yards per carry on his 84 carries. The 2013 6th round pick had incredible measurables, running a 4.38 at his Pro Day (he wasn’t invited to the combine) at 6-2 223. However, upon further examination, Murray was not as good as that average suggested.

Murray’s signature moment last season was a 90 yard carry against Kansas City, but that’s just what happened on one snap. Excluding that run, Murray averaged just 4.12 yards per carry. I’m not trying to discount that impressive run, but it is an outlier. You can’t expect him to have one carry of 90+ yards every 84 carries. Murray had that carry in his first NFL start against Kansas City, but ended up leaving that game with a concussion and missing the next game, so he finished that game with 112 yards on 4 carries, which is obviously impressive.

However, when he regained his starting job upon his return, Murray struggled as an every down back. He rushed for just 258 yards on 68 carries (an average of 3.79 YPC) and added 11 catches for 108 yards, while grading out below average on the season. The Raiders also didn’t exactly see a boost in offensive performance in the final 4 games of the season. While they went 2-2 in those 4 games, their offense only moved the chains at a 61.21% rate, which is actually worse than their overall rate on the season.

There are a number of factors at play obviously and he certainly shouldn’t be blamed for their offense being slightly worse in the final 4 games, but it’s important to note. I still expect him to be better than the likes of Darren McFadden (3.45 YPC) and Maurice Jones-Drew (2.23 YPC) were last season, especially since the Raiders figure to be a better run blocking team this season, but it’s really important to temper expectations with this kid and remember that he’s a former 6th round pick with an injury history (he missed all of 2013 with injury) who is unproven beyond one carry and struggled as the feature back down the stretch last season. Anyone expecting him to carry this offense out of the cellar isn’t looking at the bigger picture.

The Raiders didn’t do a whole lot this off-season in the way of adding competition for him. While they were loosely linked to the likes of DeMarco Murray and Adrian Peterson this off-season, they ended up settling for guys like Roy Helu and Trent Richardson. The Helu signing I liked, as I thought he was a great value at 4 million over 2 years. Roy Helu only has 255 carries in 4 seasons since the Redskins drafted him in the 4th round in 2011, but he’s averaged 4.44 yards per carry and where he really provides value is as a 3rd down back. In 48 career games, Helu has 129 catches for 1152 yards and 3 touchdowns and he’s been a top-5 pass blocking running back in 2 of the 4 seasons he’s been in the league, extremely valuable in today’s NFL. He’ll complement the young Murray well as a passing down back and I hope that, if Murray struggles as the feature back to start the season, Helu is given more early down chances.

The Trent Richardson signing I’m less excited about, but the Raiders only guaranteed him a 600K signing bonus, so it wasn’t a bad signing, as the Raiders are taking a chance on a guy who was the 3rd overall pick in 2012. However, Richardson has been a disaster thus far in his career. He had what seemed like a promising rookie year in Cleveland in 2012, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus, catching 51 passes and scoring 11 touchdowns on a bad Browns team. He averaged just 3.56 yards per carry and 7.20 yards per catch, but he had 59 broken tackles on 318 touches and averaged 2.09 yards per carry after contact, giving him the #7 elusive rating among eligible running backs, so it was easy to blame his offensive line for his lack of efficiency.

Unfortunately, things never got better for Richardson. He was traded for a 1st round pick to the Colts early in 2013. Many thought the Browns were selling low and getting rid of a #3 overall pick too soon, but it turns out they were selling high on a guy whose stock was about to plummet. Trent Richardson’s tenure with the Colts went about as bad as it could have. After they acquired him mid-season in 2013 for what turned out to be the 26th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Richardson rushed for 977 yards and 6 touchdowns on 316 carries (3.09 YPC) in his 2 years with the Colts.

He also has had issues with the coaching staff, which got him suspended by the team for their playoff game against New England and the first week of next season (he’ll be eligible to play week 1 for the Raiders though because it was a team suspension not a league suspension). Even though his salary was guaranteed for 2015, the Colts still cut him, as they didn’t see him as being worth their 53 man roster. Richardson has still great strength and toughness and breaks a ton of tackles (162 on 727 touches), but he has a career 3.31 YPC average as a result of his absolute lack of burst and his embarrassingly poor ability to find holes. He can break tackles and run through contact, but his playing style is way too inviting to contact behind the line of scrimmage. Between that and his issues with coaches in Indianapolis, I don’t have a lot of hope for the Trent Richardson era in Oakland. I expect the Raiders to struggle to run the football and overall move the football once again this season.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

While the Raiders’ offense was terrible last season, their defense wasn’t bad, as they ranked 16th in rate of moving the chains allowed. Their offense was so bad that it was hard to tell they had a solid defense, as their defense was 6th in time on the field. Their offense was also the reason they went 3-13 and ranked dead last in rate of moving the chains differential, despite a solid defense. It was really one player on defense who elevated their level of play. Of 13 Oakland defenders to play more than 400 snaps this season, only two of them graded out positively, veteran Justin Tuck, who was Pro Football Focus’ 17th ranked 4-3 defensive end, and Khalil Mack, the 5th overall pick in 2014 and someone I argued should have been Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Mack was technically a 4-3 outside linebacker last season, ranking #1 at his position, but he did his most important work rushing the passer off the edge of the defensive line in sub packages, playing the Von Miller role. Interestingly enough, Miller ranked #1 among 4-3 outside linebackers, one spot ahead of Von Miller, who had his 3-year reign as the top 4-3 outside linebacker snapped by the rookie Mack last season, a reign that had dated back to Miller’s rookie year in 2011. If Mack keeps this up, the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end role in a 4-3 might have to be renamed the Khalil Mack role, rather than the Von Miller role, especially with Miller switching to 3-4 outside linebacker in Denver’s new defense. Along with fellow rookie, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Mack was the first rookie to grade out #1 at his position on either side of the ball since Miller did so in 2011.

Mack only had 4 sacks on the season, but his pass rush numbers were better than his sack totals as he also managed 10 hits and 40 hurries. That still means his pass rush productivity was significantly worse than Miller’s, as Miller had 15 sacks, 11 hits, and 47 hurries, giving him a pass rush productivity of 11.8, while Mack was at 9.1. However, Miller had the luxury of playing with a lot of leads on a Peyton Manning quarterbacked team, giving him more easy pass rush situations. Mack also was significantly better than Miller as a run stopper.

Besides, any time you’re the best player on a competent defense despite your only good teammate being Justin Tuck, you’re doing something right. Mack should once again have a strong season in his 2nd season in the league, especially now that Jack Del Rio, Miller’s defensive coordinator in Denver from 2011-2013, is the head coach. He might not be quite as good, but it’s clear he’s one of the top few defensive players in the game. It’ll be up to the rest of the defense to improve around him.

In base situations, when Mack plays outside linebacker, veteran Justin Tuck and rookie Mario Edwards will be the starters at defensive end. Tuck and Edwards have similar frames (6-5 268 and 6-3 279 respectively), similar games (Tuck is obviously more proven), and will play similar roles this season. Both player are base 4-3 defensive ends who can rush the passer from the inside, which opens up room for Mack to rush the passer off the edge in sub packages. Tuck, as I mentioned, was the 2nd best player on this defense last season, grading out 17th among 4-3 defensive ends. He’s graded out above average in 6 of 8 seasons in Pro Football Focus’ history, but he’s going into his age 32 season so he’s hard to trust going forward. He should have one more solid year in the tank, good news for the Raiders as he’s going into his contract year, but there are no guarantees.

Both Tuck and Edwards will some sub packages outside, but the likes of Sio Moore and Ben Mayowa will also see a fair amount of sub package edge rush snaps. Mayowa, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has played 394 snaps in 2 seasons in the NFL, 370 of which were last season in a similar role. He had 235 pass rush snaps, but struggled overall, especially struggling as a pass rusher. Moore, meanwhile, played a similar role to Khalil Mack and Von Miller as a rookie in 2013, playing outside linebacker in base packages and defensive end in sub packages. He graded out 7th among 4-3 outside linebackers as a rookies, though he struggled as a pass rusher. In 2014, he graded out below average overall and only saw 73 pass rush snaps, but he should see more (in the 100 range) this season.

It’s a good thing that Tuck and Edwards can play defensive tackle in sub packages because the Raiders don’t have a lot of depth at that position. Antonio Smith and Pat Sims were 1st and 3rd among defensive tackles in snaps played last season, playing 791 and 429 respectively. Both graded out below average last season and now are gone. Justin Ellis, who played 635 snaps last season, remains. The 2014 4th round pick graded out below average on Pro Football Focus last season, but the Raiders really like him long-term and there’s a chance he improves going forward.

Dan Williams was brought in to replace Sims. Dan Williams was a first round pick by the Cardinals in 2010 as a 6-2 327 pounder with rare movement and pass rush abilities for his size. Williams never quite lived up to his billing, maxing out at 428 snaps and primarily just playing in base packages, but he graded out above average in 4 of 5 seasons, including each of the last 3 seasons and he had his best season in his contract year in 2014. He played all 16 games for the first time in his career and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked defensive tackle on just 427 snaps. On top of that, he actually graded out above average as a pass rusher, something he’s done in each of the last 2 seasons after grading out below average in that aspect in each of his first 3 seasons. It’s possible his best football is still ahead of him, going into his age 28 season.

They didn’t really bring in a replacement for Antonio Smith, so Stacy McGee will be the 3rd defensive tackle this season. McGee struggled mightily as a 6th round rookie in 2013, grading out 59th out of 69 eligible defensive tackles on just 354 snaps. He played just 120 snaps in 2014, but he still struggled mightily. He’s still young, but he’s only a former 6th round pick so there’s a good chance he never improves. He’s not someone who you want playing a significant role on your defensive line. However, the Raiders do have a strong defensive front overall, especially when Mack is rushing off the edge.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, in base packages Sio Moore and Khalil Mack will be the starters at outside linebacker. In sub packages, Mack will move to the defensive line. Moore might also play on the defensive end in sub packages, as he did as a rookie. That’s because the Raiders brought in Malcolm Smith as a free agent and he can play outside linebacker in sub packages. Malcolm Smith, the ex-Seahawk, follows his former linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr. to Oakland, where he is now the defensive coordinator.

Malcolm Smith was Super Bowl MVP in Super Bowl 48, one of the more anonymous Super Bowl MVP’s in NFL history. Smith played a good game, but there were more deserving candidates, as Smith didn’t even play half the snaps in that game (34 of 71). He just happened to make a few splash plays that we remember. Smith also wasn’t even a starter that season, playing just 490 snaps. He was still Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker that season, despite the limited action, with no one playing more snaps and grading out better. However, he’s still graded out above average in just 2 of 4 seasons and he’s only once played more than 286 snaps in a season. Last season, he graded out 36th out of 40 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on just 286 snaps, with no one else playing fewer snaps and grading worse. A coverage athlete at 6-0 226, Smith will probably play outside in sub packages.

The only player who is expected to play all three downs at linebacker is Curtis Lofton, which isn’t good because he’s really struggled over the past few years. Lofton was Pro Football Focus’ 15th ranked middle linebacker in 2011 in the final year of his rookie deal with the Falcons, which landed him a 5-year, 27.5 million dollar deal from the Saints the following off-season. However, he graded out below average in all 3 seasons with the Saints, with his worst year coming last year, as he graded out 57th out of 60 eligible.

That led to his release, a move that saved the Saints 7.25 million in cash. The Raiders massively overpaid him, giving him a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. Curtis Lofton finished 4th in the NFL in tackles with 145 last season. Given the size of his new deal, I assume the Raiders didn’t actually watch Lofton play last season and just looked at the tackle stats. His 22 missed tackles led the NFL regardless of position and a lot of his tackles were him cleaning up broken plays after big gains on a New Orleans defense that was arguably the NFL’s worst in 2014. He should be better than Miles Burris, who graded out dead last among middle linebackers last season, but he’s a weak spot on an overall solid front 7.

Grade: B+

Secondary

While the Raiders finished 3-13 last season, they did have a strong draft last year, which is going to be helpful for the future. Even though Carr is overrated, the Raiders did find an absolute stud on defense in the first round in Khalil Mack, a starting left guard in the 3rd round in Gabe Jackson, and a decent contributor upfront on the defensive line in Justin Ellis. On top of that, they also found a promising young cornerback named TJ Carrie in the 7th round.

Carrie made 4 starts as a rookie, played 568 snaps, and graded out about average, which is most much than you can expect from a 7th round rookie. It’s possible that was a flash in the pan and it’s still important to remember that we’re a year removed from the whole league letting him drop to the 7th round, but he has promise, especially with Ken Norton Jr. coming over from Seattle, where they’ve had a ton of success with big cornerbacks. Carrie has ideal size at 6-0 204.

The Raiders tried more of a veteran approach last season, bringing in the likes of Donald Penn, Justin Tuck, James Jones, Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, LaMarr Woodley, and Antonio Smith last off-season. Woodley, Smith, and Jones all got cut this off-season, while Brown and Rogers left as free agents. Tuck and Penn worked out, but the cost of the other 5 veterans who didn’t work out was they weren’t able to get young talent valuable playing time last season, which hurts this rebuilding project.

The Raiders are going with more of a youth based approach this season, particularly at cornerback. Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers played 1000 and 477 snaps respectively last season, grading out below average. Carrie will move into a starting role with those two gone and another young player, DJ Hayden, will be the other starter. Hayden, in contrast to Carrie, was a 1st round pick, but he’s struggled mightily in 2 seasons in the league since being drafted in 2013. He’s graded out below average in both seasons and he’s also missed 14 games in the two seasons combined. It’s too early to write him off as a bust and he’s a talented player who could turn it around in his 3rd year in the league, but step number 1 for him will be staying healthy, which is hardly a given. In two years in the league, he’s played just 956 snaps (10 starts) and maxed out at 10 games in a season.

The Raiders will need him to stay healthy because their depth is really suspect. Keith McGill and James Dockery will compete for the #3 job. McGill is a 2014 4th round pick who played 147 nondescript snaps as a rookie, while James Dockery is a 2011 undrafted free agent who has played 283 snaps in 4 seasons in the league. After those two on the depth chart, it’s a mix of special teamer Taiwan Jones, 7th round rookie Dexter McDonald, and a bunch of undrafted free agents. The Raiders are hoping that McGill can make a big 2nd year leap this off-season, but if he doesn’t, they might need to bring in a veteran. Brown and Rogers are both still available, but there’s a reason for that as both are 30+ and coming off of mediocre seasons. Getting even replacement level performance from either of those two should be considered a win.

Things are more established at safety. The Raiders gave veteran Nate Allen a 4-year, 23 million dollar deal. It’s an overpay, but Allen has progressed from being the laughing stock he once was in Philadelphia earlier in his career.  It’s certainly a risky move by the Raiders, but if Allen plays like he did last season, when he was Pro Football Focus’ 28th ranked safety, he’ll be worth it (or like he did in 2011 when he was 18th at his position). His history can’t be ignored though.

Nate Allen has been a starter with the Eagles for 5 seasons since they drafted him in the 2nd round in 2010. Over that period of time, he’s played 74 of a possible 80 games, including 70 starts, but he has been up and down, grading out below average in 3 of 5 seasons and never having back-to-back above average seasons. His worst year came in 2012, when he graded out 84th out of 88 eligible safeties. That being said, his terrible 2012 is more than 2 years ago, he’s coming off a solid season, and he’s an experienced starter, so, all things considered, he should help this team this season.

The other starter is as veteran as it gets as 39-year-old Charles Woodson is entering his 18th season out of Michigan. Woodson is a veteran Hall-of-Famer who started his career in Oakland, went to Green Bay, and now is back in Oakland as a safety, after spending most of his career at cornerback. He’s shockingly made 32 of 32 starts for the Raiders over the past 2 seasons, the only player at any position who can say that, and the fact that he is still in the league is a testament to the kind of football player he is. However, it’s really tough to count on someone his age. Last season, he graded out 68th out of 87 eligible safeties and could see his abilities fall off a cliff this season.

If he struggles, the only one the Raiders have to turn to is Brandian Ross, who graded out 85th out of 87 eligible safeties in 2013 and 55th out of 87 eligible in 2014. He’s experienced, but he’s also the reason the Raiders brought in Nate Allen this off-season. It’s a weak secondary again for the Raiders overall, but the defense will be once again propped up by a solid front 7. The Raiders will need their offense to step it up though, if they’re going to climb out of the AFC West cellar.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Raiders are getting better, but there’s still not a ton of talent here. The defense should be decent again, but I don’t see the offense stepping it up significantly, even though Derek Carr, Latavius Murray, and Amari Cooper all have some hype around them. Carr struggled mightily as a rookie, Murray is unproven and wasn’t as good as his numbers suggested last year, while Cooper could take a year to breakout as a top level receiver. This team should once again be in the NFL’s cellar. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Raiders after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

Jun 102015
 

Quarterback

Although the Chiefs missed the playoffs last season, they finished the regular season 9th in rate of moving the chains differential, including 14th in rate of moving the chains by their offense. The Chiefs’ offense was able to have a solid offensive season despite infamously not getting a single receiving touchdown from a wide receiver and also having poor play on the offensive line, with just one offensive lineman playing a snap and grading out above average on Pro Football Focus.

How did the Chiefs have success with minimal receiving or offensive line talent? Well, they executed a ball control offense to perfection led by quarterback Alex Smith, feature back Jamaal Charles, and leading receiver, tight end Travis Kelce and orchestrated by head coach Andy Reid and his team of offensive assistants. Smith is the perfect quarterback for this offense and the offense is the perfect system for Smith.

Smith completed 65.3% of his passes for an average of 7.04 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions last season, grading out 16th among eligible quarterbacks, slightly above average. Since Jim Harbaugh turned him career around in 2011, Smith has completed 63.4% of his attempts for an average of 7.01 YPA, 71 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions. He also graded out 8th in 2011 on Pro Football Focus, 19th in 2012, 20th in 2013, and then 16th last season.

Smith is limited in his abilities and this offense would be limited even if they had a great offensive line and explosive receivers because of Smith’s below average ability to sit in the bottom and pick apart a defense downfield, but the Chiefs run the ball well and get the ball out of Smith’s hands in 2.44 seconds on average (11th among eligible quarterbacks), limiting sack chances. The Chiefs did still allow 49 sacks, but that was largely because of the offensive line, as Smith was still pressured on 35.6% of dropbacks, 16th among eligible quarterbacks, despite the quick release. Smith was also rarely forced to throw downfield as result of their ability to run the football, as 77.2% of Smith’s attempts were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, the highest percent in the NFL. That minimalized the Chiefs’ need for talented receivers, minimalized Smith’s lack of deep ball ability, and minimalized their offensive line’s struggles. Simply put, the Chiefs were able to get the most of their talent offensively last season, as a result of scheme.

Grade: B

Running Backs

As alluded to in the intro, the Chiefs’ strong running game was a huge part of why they were able to have offensive success last season. The Chiefs averaged 4.57 yards per carry last season on 420 carries, 5th in the NFL, despite an offensive line that ranked 19th on Pro Football Focus in run blocking grade. That was largely as a result of Jamaal Charles, who averaged 5.01 yards per carry and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back in rushing grade.

Charles did that despite dealing with a variety of nagging injuries. Those injuries only caused him to miss 1 game, but that not only limited his effectiveness running the football, but also limited him to just 206 carries, fewest in a non-injury shortened season since 2009. Backup running back Knile Davis, a 2013 3rd round pick, saw 134 carries and averaged just 3.46 yards per carry, grading out worst at his position on Pro Football Focus. Charles being healthier and being back in that 250+ carry range for the Chiefs will be very helpful this season.

Charles’ career 5.49 yard per carry average is best all time by a running back and he also has 262 catches in 95 career games as well. Excluding an injury shortened 2011 season, Charles has graded out 4th, 1st, 16th, 2nd, and 13th on Pro Football Focus among running backs in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. Charles is going into his age 29 season with 1511 career touches, but should have at least one more dominant season left in him, which is obviously great news for Chiefs fans.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

I mentioned earlier that just one Chief offensive lineman graded out above average last season. That was center Rodney Hudson, who graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked center last season and then promptly signed a then record 5-year, 45 million dollar deal with the division rival Raiders. To replace him, the Chiefs drafted Mitch Morse in the 2nd round. A collegiate tackle, Morse was a good run blocker, but had issues in pass protection, especially against tougher SEC competition. The Chiefs think they can convert him into a center and maximize his abilities there. It could work out, but any time you’re drafting a collegiate tackle who can’t play professional tackle in the 2nd round based on the fact that he might be able to play center, it’s a weird pick. At the very least, he looks like a clear downgrade from Hudson.

The Chiefs did add a veteran offensive lineman this off-season to help offset some of the loss of Hudson, trading from Ben Grubbs, previously of the Saints. While Grubbs did grade below average last season and while he is going into his age 31 season, he graded out as a top-16 guard from 2009-2013, so there is some bounce back potential. He’ll slot in at left guard and be an immediate upgrade over the departed Mike McGlynn, who was Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked guard last season in 13 starts at left guard.

Right guard Zach Fulton wasn’t much better, grading out 64th out of 78 eligible guards in 16 starts at right guard last season. He’s still on the roster, unlike McGlynn, but he’s unlikely to be starting again in 2015. A 2014 6th round pick forced into action as a rookie, Fulton profiles as a long-term backup at best, as is the case with most 6th round picks. Jeff Allen is returning from an elbow injury that ended his season 40 snaps into week 1 last year, while Paul Fanaika comes over as a veteran starter from Arizona.

Fanaika looks like the favorite to be the starting right guard, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade from Fulton. Fanaika is a big, physical guard at 6-5 327, but he’s really struggled as a starter over the last 2 seasons in Arizona. After the 2009 7th round pick played no snaps in the first 4 seasons of his career, Fanaika started 30 games over the past 2 seasons, but he wasn’t good, grading out 76th out of 81 eligible guards in 2013 and 71st out of 78 eligible guards in 2014.

Allen wouldn’t be much of an upgrade on Fulton either. A 2012 2nd round pick, Allen was Pro Football Focus’ 79th ranked guard out of 81 eligible in 2012 and 60th out of 81 eligible in 2013, before missing most of last season with injury. Given that the Chiefs gave Fanaika starting money (3 years, 8.1 million), Allen’s best shot at the starting lineup is at right tackle, where he started week 1 of last season and where he’d compete with Donald Stephenson for the starting job. Whoever starts at right tackle, Allen or Stephenson, it figures to be a position of weakness. Stephenson, a 2012 3rd round pick, graded out 54th out of 80 eligible offensive tackles on 377 snaps in 2012, 61st out of 76 eligible on 543 snaps in 2013, and then played just 31 snaps last season as a backup.

The only player who figures to play in the same spot this season as last season is left tackle Eric Fisher. After a 2-14 2012 season, the Chiefs used the #1 overall pick on offensive tackle Eric Fisher. They’ve since had winning seasons in each of the last 2 seasons, but that had way more to do with stabilized quarterback play and stabilized coaching. Fisher himself has actually really struggled, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 70th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible in 2013 at right tackle and then 72nd out of 84 eligible in 2014 at left tackle. It’s too early to call him a bust, but he’s entering a make or break 3rd season, as the Chiefs would likely look to add another left tackle of the future and move Fisher elsewhere if he struggled on the blindside again. One of the worst offensive lines in football last season has gotten even worse this off-season.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

I mentioned three players as being the keys to the Chiefs’ offense last season: Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles, and tight end Travis Kelce. While Chief wide receivers struggled, Kelce led the team in receiving, with 67 catches for 862 yards and 5 touchdowns. That’s even more impressive when you consider that he played most of last season on a snap count as he was returning from a brutal knee injury that required micro-fracture surgery. Kelce caught 67 of his 81 targets (82.7%) and his 2.13 yards per route run was 2nd in the NFL among tight ends behind Rob Gronkowski.

Also a strong blocker (1st among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in that aspect), Kelce was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked tight end overall last season. That was despite playing just 688 snaps, barely more than teammate Anthony Fasano (678 snaps), who graded out 61st out of 67 eligible tight ends, but kept seeing the field because of Kelce’s knee. Fasano is gone now, leaving just Demetrius Harris behind Kelce on the depth chart. Harris, a 2013 undrafted free agent, has played 70 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, leaving Kelce to be an every down tight end. He could easily top 1000 receiving yards, while providing strong run blocking to help out a poor offensive line. If he can stay healthy, he’ll draw some Gronk-lite comparisons.

The situation at wide receiver isn’t as good. Everyone knows by now that no Chiefs wide receiver caught a touchdown last season, but it wasn’t just that they were being kept out of the end zone. Chief wide receivers combined for just 129 catches for 1588 yards. For comparison, Antonio Brown had 129 catches for 1698 yards by himself and also scored 13 times. Part of their wide receiver issues have to do with Alex Smith’s playing style and his hesitance to throw downfield outside the numbers, but there’s no denying this wide receiver group had a lot of issues last season. Dwayne Bowe had nearly half of their production from the wideout spot in 2014 (60/754/0). He didn’t grade out above average in pass catching grade on Pro Football Focus (only one Chief receiver did), but he was the only Chief receiver to play more than 260 snaps (25.2%).

The Chiefs cut him to save 11 million and put that money to better use, signing Jeremy Maclin to a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal. That’s not to say that they didn’t overpay Maclin, but he’s definitely a better football player than Bowe is at this point in his career. Maclin had a great 2014 season, as he had career highs across the board in Chip Kelly’s offense, despite quarterback problems, catching 85 passes for 1318 yards and 10 touchdowns, while grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked wide receiver.

However, he’s a one-year wonder. From 2009-2013, he missed 21 games with injury, including all of 2013 with a torn ACL. 2014 was also the first season in his career in which he graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. He was terrible in 2012, grading out 101st out of 105 eligible. The fact that the Eagles, who had issues at wide receiver at well, were only willing to offer 9 million annually to Maclin is concerning, as is the fact that Maclin never did well before being in Chip Kelly’s scheme last season and now he returns to Andy Reid’s scheme, which he didn’t do that well in from 2009-2012 to start his career.

Couple that with his injury history and his overall past struggles and that wasn’t a very good deal, but he will help their team. His numbers should see a huge hit in the Chiefs’ ball control offense, but he’ll give the Chiefs’ offense more versatility in play calling and style of play. The Chiefs should have more plays of 20+ yards next season as a result, after just 49 last season, among the fewest in the NFL. They had just 41 pass plays of 20+ yards, 30th in the NFL. That type of thing can be tough to predict year to year anyway.

The rest of the Chiefs’ receiving corps is up in the air, much like it was last season behind Dwayne Bowe. The Chiefs used a 3rd round pick on Chris Conley, but that was their only off-season addition at wide receiver other than Maclin. Conley was a weird pick anyway as his skill set doesn’t suit this offense and he was a workout warrior who got overdrafted because of his measurables. DeAnthony Thomas was their only wide receiver to grade out above average last season, as he caught 14 passes on 21 targets (66.7%) for 113 yards on 70 routes run (1.61 yards per route run) and 156 rushing yards on 23 carries. The 5-9 174 2014 4th round pick is only a slot receiver/scat back whose best case scenario is Dexter McCluster, but he could easily carve out a meaningful role in the slot this season.

Albert Wilson is someone the team likes and he could carve out a role both in the slot and outside. However, he too is very unproven as the 2014 undrafted free agent played just 223 snaps as a rookie, grading out slightly below average. Kelce and Maclin give Alex Smith two solid targets, but after those two it’s uncertainty and inexperience on the depth chart. The likes of Demetrius Harris, Albert Wilson, DeAnthony Thomas, and Charles Conley could all see significant roles on this Chiefs’ offense this season. It’ll once again be a Chiefs offense that is good at what they do and nothing else. They should once again be middle of the pack in rate of moving the chains.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

Once again, it’ll be the Chiefs defense that will win them games more so than their offense. The Chiefs had 2nd fewest adjusted games lost on defense in 2013, part of the reason why many, including myself, expected them to decline defensively in 2014. Injuries struck quickly as Achilles tears knocked out both Mike DeVito and Derrick Johnson for the season in week 1 and the Chiefs finished 27th in adjusted games lost on the season. However, the Chiefs’ defense was able to compensate and still finish 7th in rate of moving the chains allowed.

DeVito will be back this season in his typical role as a two-down base defensive end in the Chiefs’ 3-4. He might be just a base player, but he’s as good as any pure base player in the NFL, if not better. From 2010-2013, Mike DeVito was one of just two 3-4 defensive ends to grade out in the top-10 at that position on Pro Football Focus in every season and he did it despite playing about half the snaps in all 4 of those seasons. He doesn’t get much pass rush, but he graded out 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 4th in run stopping grade in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s going into age 31 season off of a torn Achilles so he might not be as good, but his return will help this defense. He’s an upgrade over Jaye Howard, who graded out about average on 449 snaps in a similar role last season. Howard will be a pure rotational reserve this season.

Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey will be the every down defensive linemen again. Poe is widely regarded as one of the best defensive linemen in football, ever since the Chiefs drafted the big nose tackle 11th overall out of Marshall in 2012. However, his play has been inconsistent. While his ability to play every down and consistently lead the defensive line in snaps played (757 in 2012, 1004 in 2013, and 966 in 2014, all most by a Chief defensive lineman) is very impressive, he hasn’t always been great. His 2013 season when he graded out 11th among defensive tackles was obviously good, but he graded out 76th out of 85 eligible in 2012 and then 39th in 2014. Still, the Chiefs made the no brainer move to pick up his option for 2016, which is guaranteed for injury only.

Bailey, meanwhile, got a 4-year, 25 million dollar extension last season. Bailey graded out above average in 2 of 3 seasons as a reserve from 2011-2013, after going in the 3rd round in 2011, but he graded out below average in his first starting experience in 2014, grading out 33rd out of 47 eligible 3-4 defensive ends. He’s not bad, but he’s a marginal starting caliber player that the Chiefs overpaid like an above average starter.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The biggest reason the Chiefs’ defense was good last season despite increased injuries is because their most important defensive player Justin Houston played all 16 games in 2014, after missing 5 games with an elbow problem in 2013. Houston finished 2013 as the #1 3-4 outside linebacker on Pro Football Focus despite missing so much time and picked up right where he left off in 2014, finishing #1 again by nearly a double margin, putting up a near record breaking 22 sacks.

Aside from JJ Watt, he’s the arguably best defensive player in the NFL. A 2011 3rd round pick, Houston has graded out 13th, 4th, 1st, and 1st among 3-4 outside linebackers in his career. The Chiefs didn’t let him hit free agency this off-season, giving him the franchise tag. The two sides are reportedly far from an agreement, but, barring an unlikely long holdout that could cause him to get out of shape, Houston will be a feared presence for the Chiefs off the edge again.

Tamba Hali remains opposite him, despite speculation that the Chiefs would cut him and promote 2014 1st round pick Dee Ford, as was likely the plan when they drafted Ford. Hali is going into his age 32 season, but proved last season that he can still play at a high level, so the Chiefs kept him after he agreed to a reduced salary of 6 million dollars instead of his scheduled non-guaranteed 9 million. Hali has graded out above average in every season since 2009, since switching to 3-4 outside linebacker.

Hali was Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in 2014, which is the 2nd worst he’s ranked out over the past 6 seasons, concerning considering his age, but still very solid. Ford will remain a backup and play a situational role again. He won’t play that many snaps, but he’s a good bet to see more than the 122 snaps he played last season, 4th fewest by a first round rookie last year, ahead of Johnny Manziel, Marcus Smith, and Darqueze Dennard. In very limited action as a rookie, Ford flashed as a pass rusher, but struggled to stop the run, which was basically the book on him coming out of Auburn.

Derrick Johnson is the other Chief starter who is returning from a torn Achilles. Johnson is going into his age 33 season coming off of a torn Achilles, which is concerning, but he was so good before the injury that he should still be an asset for them inside. Johnson was a top-5 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2010-2013. Even in 2009, the last season he was outside of the top-5, he graded out 8th and did it on 344 snaps. Todd Haley did a lot of things wrong in Kansas City, but his biggest success was his ability to bring the most out of Johnson, a 2005 1st round pick, with discipline and toughness. Haley benched Johnson during 2009 for a variety of reasons and that served as a much needed wakeup call.

Josh Mauga led Chief middle linebackers in snaps played last season in Johnson’s absence. Mauga was a 2009 undrafted free agent who played 235 snaps from 2009-2013 and was out of the league entirely in 2013, but he ended up making the Chiefs’ 53 man roster and starting 15 games in place of an injured Derrick Johnson. Mauga predictably struggled through, grading out 54th out of 60 eligible. The Chiefs brought him back as a free agent for 8 million over 3 years which suggests he’s likely to start inside next to Johnson. The Chiefs don’t really have a better option as James-Michael Johnson graded out 50th among middle linebackers last season on just 446 snaps and Ramik Wilson and DJ Alexander are just 4th and 5th round rookies.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Fortunately, that other inside linebacker spot should once again be just a two-down spot as the Chiefs love using a 3rd safety around the line of scrimmage instead of a 2nd linebacker in sub packages. Eric Berry is typically that guy, but he was diagnosed with cancer last season. He’s fortunately doing well it sounds like, but the Chiefs did have to plan their off-season around him not being around in an on-the-field sense in 2015.

After Berry went down last season, Husain Abdullah became that hybrid safety/linebacker and will likely reprise that role this season as the Chiefs have enough safety depth that they can play 3 safeties in sub packages, even without Berry. Abdullah was a promising young safety in Minnesota early in his career, grading out above average in each of his first 4 seasons in the league as a starter since going undrafted in 2008, including the 2010 and 2011 seasons, when he was a starter. Set to make a decent amount of money in free agency, Abdullah abruptly retired because of concussions and sat out the 2012 season. Abdullah returned to NFL in a reserve role with the Chiefs in 2013, played well in limited action, and then became a starter in 2014, grading out above average again. Abdullah has very quietly been a solid safety throughout his career.

Opposite Abdullah, Ron Parker will be the other starting safety. Parker, an undrafted free agent in 2011, played 122 snaps in the first 3 seasons of his career from 2011-2013. He saw a ton of action last season though, playing 1037 snaps between cornerback and safety, but he struggled at both spots, grading out below average at cornerback and safety, including 73rd out of 87 eligible safeties on 745 snaps. He got a shocking 5-year, 25 million dollar contract this off-season to return to Kansas City, while Jimmy Wilson, a comparable player, got 4.6 million over 2 years from the division rival Chargers. He’s fine in coverage, but missed a league leading 22 tackles last season.

The other contract they gave out to a safety this off-season was better, as the Chiefs signed Tyvon Branch to a 1-year, 2.1 million dollar deal, coming over from Oakland. Branch has missed all but 4 games over the past 2 season with injuries, but he was once a solid safety, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2011 and their 30th ranked safety in 2012. He’s only going into his age 29 season. After all the injuries, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever be the same player again, but it was a nice, low risk signing. He’ll be the 3rd safety in sub packages. If Berry can get healthy and get on the field this season, the Chiefs could easily use 4 safeties in sub packages, with Parker playing slot cornerback, something he did a fair amount of last season.

The Chiefs saw cornerback as a problem position this off-season and added Marcus Peters with the 18th overall pick. He’ll immediately slot in as a starter. Peters has the talent to be worth a high pick, but he was kicked off of Washington’s football team last year for discipline problems and has a history of failed drug tests. He has a high upside, but, as is the case with most rookies, it’s important to have tempered expectations for him.

Sean Smith will remain the other starter and he’s coming off likely the best season of his career, grading out 5th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Smith has a concerning history of inconsistency though, so he’s far from a lock to repeat that kind of season. Smith graded out 10th at his position in 2010, but graded out average or worse in 2011, 2012, and 2013, including 105th out of 109 eligible in 2012. All in all, the 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in 4 of 6 seasons in the NFL, but he’s had as many bad seasons and as many average seasons as he’s had dominant seasons.

As I mentioned earlier, if Berry can get back, Ron Parker will be the slot cornerback more often than not in sub packages, but that’s unlikely. Until that happens, it’ll be Phillip Gaines’ job to lose, with 3rd round rookie Steven Nelson being the only real other challenger for the job. The 2014 3rd round pick Gaines played 376 snaps non-descript snaps as a rookie in 2014. At best, he’s completely unproven, but he’ll be relied upon in a significant way in his 2nd season in the league. It’s a question mark on an overall solid defense, led, of course, by Justin Houston.

Grade: B-

Overall

The Chiefs will once again move the chains at a decent rate thanks to Alex Smith, Jamaal Charles, and Travis Kelce, but they will remain a limited offense. The offensive line should be even worse this season, even after the addition of Ben Grubbs, thanks to the loss of Rodney Hudson upfront and, while Jeremy Maclin makes them a more versatile offense, they’re still really thin behind him in the receiving corps. Defensively, they once again should be solid, especially with veterans Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito returning from injury. One of the best teams in the NFL to not make the playoffs last season, the Chiefs will be in the playoff mix again in 2015. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Chiefs after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

Jun 092015
 

Quarterback

The Chargers considered making a franchise altering move this off-season. Philip Rivers has been with the team since they drafted him 4th overall in 2004 and has started all 144 games for them over the past 9 seasons, since becoming the starter in 2006. However, with Rivers going into an age 34 contract year, refusing to sign a contract extension as long as the team was considering moving to Los Angeles, the Chargers at least considered the possibility of moving Philip Rivers to Tennessee in part of a package for Marcus Mariota.

Keeping Rivers long-term was always their best case scenario if possible, but, feeling like it might not be possible, the Chargers brought in Mariota for a workout and at least appeared to strongly consider going that direction. Rivers could have raised his family (which is expecting their 8th child) in Tennessee, close to his home in Alabama, rather than Los Angeles, and been reunited with Ken Whisenhunt, the Titans’ head coach and Rivers’ offensive coordinator during a 2013 season in which he tied a career high for quarterback rating. The Titans could have gotten a veteran starting quarterback and another pick. And the Chargers could have gotten a potential franchise quarterback for the future.

Ultimately, Rivers softened his stance and the Chargers dropped out of the race. The Titans, who ended up drafting Mariota, might not have taken a San Diego offer anyway, turning down a lucrative package of picks and players from Philadelphia for Mariota. Rivers will be back with the Chargers for at least his 10th straight season as the starter (even if only for lack of a better option) and the Chargers would appear to have at least a decent chance of re-signing for the remainder of his career. If an extension can’t be worked out before next year’s free agency, the Chargers will have the ability to franchise tag Rivers next off-season.

As for the immediate future, Rivers should be able to put up another strong season. He’s going into his age 34 season, but plenty of good quarterbacks have had success into the mid-30s. Rivers career looked like it was on the decline in 2012, when he completed 64.1% of his passes for a career worst average of 6.84 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions. Rivers graded out 27th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus that season, after grading out in the top-6 in every season from 2008-2011.

However, Rivers has turned it around over the past 2 seasons, grading out 3rd in 2013 and 7th in 2014, as new Head Coach Mike McCoy has worked wonders with Rivers, following the dismissal of long-time head coach Norv Turner. He’s graded out below average on Pro Football Focus once in their 8-year history and he’s completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.84 YPA, 252 touchdowns, and 122 interceptions in his career. He’s still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and keeping him was definitely the right short-term move.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Chargers didn’t add a quarterback in the first round, or at all in the draft for that matter, but they did add a running back, sending a 4th round pick and a 2016 5th round pick to San Francisco to move up 2 spots from 17 to 15 to ensure that they could draft Melvin Gordon from Wisconsin. Whether or not they needed to leap Houston to do that is debatable, but Gordon will definitely help their running game, which was a big need this off-season.

The Chargers fell from 2nd in rate of moving the chains differential in 2013 to 13th in 2014, a big part of why they missed the playoffs. Part of that was decreased production from the quarterback position, as Rivers went from a career best season where he completed 69.5% of his passes for an average of 8.23 YPA, 32 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, to a career average season where he completed 66.5% of his passes for an average of 7.52 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 18 interceptions. However, a much bigger part of it was the running game, which ranked 31st in the NFL, averaging 3.43 yards per carry.

In 2013, Ryan Mathews finally stayed healthy and showed his first round talent for the first time in his career. He played all 16 games and rushed for 1255 yards and 6 touchdowns on 285 carries, an average of 4.40 yards per carry. In 2014, it was more of the same frustration that the Chargers were used to from the one-time 12th overall pick as Mathews missed 10 games with injury and was limited to 74 carries. The Chargers were also without passing down back Danny Woodhead for 13 games with a broken leg. He had 1034 yards and 8 touchdowns on 182 touches in 2013 in the old Darren Sproles role and graded out 7th among running backs on Pro Football Focus.

In their absence, the Chargers’ running game was left to Branden Oliver and Donald Brown. Oliver was an undrafted rookie. Brown was brought in as veteran insurance last off-season through free agency, but he couldn’t even see playing time ahead of Oliver, as he averaged a pathetic 2.62 yards per carry on 85 carries. Oliver, meanwhile, flashed at times, but predictably struggled overall, rushing for 582 yards and 3 touchdowns on 160 carries, an average of just 3.64 YPC.

Gordon, who doesn’t have an injury history, will slot in as the primary running back on running downs, with Woodhead returning from injury to serve in his old passing down role. Gordon is just a rookie and Woodhead is 30 years old coming off of a broken leg so it’s important to temper expectations, but the Chargers seem in a lot better shape at the running back position now than they were last season. Branden Oliver would need an injury to see serious playing time, while Brown and his non-guaranteed 3 million dollar salary could be handed his walking papers.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Lack of running back talent was part of the reason why the Chargers struggled to run the ball last season, but it was also the fault of the offensive line largely. The Chargers’ offensive line has been a problem for years and last season they graded out 31st in run blocking grade, in addition to 24th in pass blocking grade. King Dunlap was the only offensive lineman to play a snap and grade out above average all season. The Chargers did well to re-sign Dunlap to a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal this off-season and also poach guard Orlando Franklin from the division rival Broncos with a 5-year, 36.5 million dollar deal, a solid value. On top of that, they signed Joseph Barksdale, a decent starter in St. Louis over the past 2 seasons, to a cheap one-year deal.

King Dunlap, a 2008 7th round pick and a late bloomer, started 6 games in his first 4 seasons combined, but he’s started 39 games (38 at left tackle and 1 at right tackle) over the past 3 seasons, 2012 with the Eagles and 2013 and 2014 with the Chargers. He graded out 37th in 2012, 6th in 2013, and 23rd in 2014. The big 6-9 310 pounder took a while to put it all together, but he’s developed into an above average offensive tackle and he’s only going into his age 30 season so he has at least a couple years left at that level most likely.

Franklin, meanwhile, has started 63 games since the Broncos drafted him in the 2nd round in 2011, 47 at right tackle from 2011-2013 and 16 at left guard last season. He’s graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons, 12th among offensive tackles in 2012, 17th among offensive tackles in 2013, and 13th among guards in 2014. He’s an obvious upgrade over Chad Rinehart, who made all 16 starts at left guard last season, graded out 73rd out of 78 eligible, and was promptly released this off-season.

Barksdale isn’t as good as Dunlap or Franklin, but signing him might have upgraded three spots at once for the Chargers on the offensive line. Barksdale will slot in at right tackle, where he made 29 starts over the past 2 seasons in St. Louis. A 3rd round pick of the Raiders in 2011, Barksdale barely played in his first 2 seasons in the league, playing 282 snaps in 2011-2012 combined. He became a starter in 2013 with the Rams, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle in 13 starts. He couldn’t quite match that in 2014, grading out slightly below average in 16 starts, but he’s still a starting caliber player. He’ll be an upgrade over DJ Fluker, who is moving inside to right guard.

The Chargers used the 11th overall pick on Fluker in 2013, but he’s graded out below average in both seasons he’s been in the league, playing primarily right tackle, especially struggling in pass protection. With Barksdale coming in, Fluker will be moving to right guard in an attempt to turn his career around. His deficiencies in pass protection will be masked better inside, but it’s still a position he doesn’t have much familiarity with. He should still be an upgrade over Chris Watt and Fluker moving to right guard will allow Watt to move inside to center.

Chris Watt is another recent draft pick, a 2014 3rd round pick who graded out slightly below average on 496 snaps split between right guard and center as a rookie. He’ll start at center, where the Chargers had 4 different starters last season, including Watt. Prior to this move, Trevor Robinson was expected to be the starting center. Watt is an upgrade on him. Robinson, a 2012 undrafted free agent, has played 707 snaps in 3 seasons in the league thus far and has graded out below average in all of them. An offensive line of Dunlap, Franklin, Watt, Fluker, and Barksdale is better at 3 spots than an offensive line of Dunlap, Franklin, Robinson, Watt, Fluker and the offensive line in general is significantly better now than it was at the start of the off-season, with Franklin and Barksdale coming in.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The Chargers added both Melvin Gordon and Orlando Franklin this off-season, as I already mentioned. The only player they lost from the offense that played a key role for them last season was slot receiver Eddie Royal. Royal caught 47 passes for 631 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2013 and 62 catches for 778 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2014, grading out above average in both seasons. However, the Chargers did adequately replace him, adding Steve Johnson, formerly of the Bills and 49ers.

Johnson had three straight thousand yard seasons from 2010-2012, despite questionable quarterback play in Buffalo. However, in the past 2 seasons he’s barely combined for 1000 yards, catching a combined 77 passes for 1032 yards and 6 touchdowns. That might lead you to think that he’s struggled in back-to-back seasons. That’s not entirely true. While he did struggle in 2013, he was simply underutilized last season in San Francisco.

Johnson was incredibly efficient in limited action last season for the 49ers. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 22nd ranked wide receiver on just 305 snaps, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out higher. He caught 35 passes for 435 yards on 49 attempts (71.4%) and 204 routes run (2.13 yards per route run). He’s also graded out above average in 4 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Johnson should be better utilized in San Diego and has a chance to put up some solid overall numbers again.

He’ll replace Eddie Royal in the slot role and should be able to at least come close to matching his production.  On top of that, while he has plenty of experience in the slot, he’s not a pure slot receiver like Royal was so he can play outside if needed. That probably won’t be needed unless injury strikes as Keenan Allen and Malcom Floyd are locked into the outside spots for the time being, but Floyd is going into his age 34 season having missed 38 games over the past 8 seasons combined so injury might strike.

Floyd borderline miraculously played all 16 games last season, for the 2nd time in his career dating back to 2004. This was despite the fact that in 2013 his injury plagued career seemed over last season, when he missed 14 games with a serious neck injury. He also led the team in receiving yards with 856, to go with 6 touchdowns on 52 catches, tying a career high in yardage. He was Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked wide receiver as a result. It’s tough to predict him to stay healthy and repeat a career year going into his age 34 season though. It’s good that they have Johnson for insurance. If Floyd misses time, Dontrelle Inman would get a chance as the #3 guy. Inman is a promising former CFL player that the Chargers like. He flashed on 123 snaps in his first NFL action last season, grading out slightly above average, and he has upside, but, until I see otherwise, he’s best off as the Chargers’ 4th receiver.

Keenan Allen is once again locked in as the #1 guy. While he didn’t lead the team in receiving yards last season, he led them in catches and targets, despite missing a couple games with injury. Allen fell to the 3rd round in 2013 as a result of a bad ankle and a slow 40 time, but he shocked everyone as a rookie, catching 71 passes for 1046 yards and 8 touchdowns, despite struggling to get playing time early in the season. He finished his rookie year 10th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and finished 2nd for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award behind Eddie Lacy.

Allen was just one of 11 wide receivers to have 1000+ yards as a rookie over the past 20 seasons and just one of 3 who weren’t first round picks. Allen wasn’t quite as good in 2014, catching 77 passes for 783 yards and 4 touchdowns, but he still graded out above average and is a solid bet to bounce back in 2015. However, I don’t think he has the upside of some of the other guys who had 1000+ yard seasons as a rookie (including the likes of Odell Beckham, Randy Moss, AJ Green, and Joey Galloway). There’s still a reason he fell to the 3rd round, as he lacks top end speed and athleticism. When I think of a career trajectory for him, I think he’ll have a career more in line with Anquan Boldin or Marques Colston, the other two non-first round picks to have 1000+ yards as a rookie. He’s a big asset in the passing game, but he’s quite not one of the top receivers in the NFL.

Malcom Floyd isn’t the only aging pass catcher the Chargers have, as Antonio Gates is going into his age 35 season. Gates and Rivers have connected for 74 touchdowns in 9 seasons together, 5th most by a quarterback/receiver duo in NFL history, and within striking distance of Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne in 4th with 76. However, between Gates, Rivers, and Floyd, the Chargers do have 3 important offensive skill position players who are into their mid-30s, which is moderately concerning. Gates is going into a contract year, like Rivers, and there’s been talking about reducing Gates’ role this season, so it’s unclear how many more touchdowns Rivers and Gates will connect for, but Gates should continue being an asset for this team this season.

Gates, like most of this offense, looked done in 2012 in the final year of Norv Turner, catching just 49 passes for 538 yards and 7 touchdowns, but he too has bounced back over the past 2 seasons, catching 69 passes for 821 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2013 and 77 passes for 872 yards and 4 touchdowns in 2014. He’s graded out 14th and 7th respectively over the past 2 seasons in pure pass catching grade among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. His run blocking abilities have deteriorated as he’s grown older, but he’s graded out above average as a pass catcher in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history. He probably won’t see the 996 snaps he saw in 2013 or even the 787 snaps he saw last season, but he’ll still be a weapon for them in the passing game in a reduced role, unless his abilities fall off a cliff or he gets hurt, very possible, considering his age.

Any reduction in snaps played by Gates this season, either because by injury or coach’s decision, would be the benefit of #2 tight end Ladarius Green. Green, a 2012 4th round pick, has played well as the #2 tight end over the past 2 seasons, grading out above average in both seasons, but he’s stuck behind Gates on the depth chart once again. He may set a new career high in snaps played, but his current career high is only 370 so I’m not expecting a huge role for him this season. An annual popular breakout player behind an aging Gates, Green is already heading into the contract year of his rookie deal so, if he ever turns into a solid starter in his career, there’s a good chance it’s not in San Diego. For now, he’ll provide valuable depth, both as a pass catcher and a run blocker. He’s part of a deep and talented receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

I mentioned earlier that the Chargers’ offense was significantly better in 2013 than it was in 2014. Despite that, they still almost made the playoffs thanks to a defense that improved from 28th in rate of moving the chains differential allowed to 17th in 2014. The Chargers have done a good job of re-making their defense over the past 2 seasons, particularly in the secondary. However, the Chargers do still have problems on the defensive line.

The biggest problem is Kendall Reyes, a 2012 2nd round pick who has been horrible over the past 2 seasons. After grading out slightly below average on 541 snaps as a rookie, Reyes has graded out 44th out of 45 eligible in 2013 and 46th out of 47 eligible in 2014. The Chargers didn’t add any competition for him this off-season, so he’ll be the starter once again in his contract year in 2015, but the Chargers shouldn’t spend much effort bringing him back long-term and should find an upgrade next off-season.

Things are better on the other side with Corey Liuget, but only by default, as the 2011 1st round pick has been up and down throughout his career thus far. Liuget graded out above average in 2014, as he did in 2012, but he also graded out 37th out of 45 eligible 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 29th out of 32 eligible in 2011. The Chargers picked up his 5th year option for 2015 last off-season so he’ll play this season on it, but he’s entering a make or break 5th season in the league that will impact what kind of long-term deal he gets in the next year.

Behind Reyes and Liuget, all the Chargers really have is Ricardo Matthews, a 2010 7th round pick and mediocre career journeyman who graded out above average on 303 snaps last season. Between them, at nose tackle, they have Sean Lissemore, who graded out slightly below average on 338 snaps last season. Lissemore is a pure two-down player and a borderline starting caliber nose tackle at 6-3 298. He’s graded out above average in 3 of 5 seasons in the league since going in the 7th round in 2010, but the 338 snaps he played last season were a career high.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The first pick the Chargers used on defense this year was in the 2nd round, when they drafted Denzel Perryman out of Miami. It was seen as a weird pick because, while the Chargers had big needs defensively at outside linebacker and defensive end, middle linebacker was seen as being a pretty secure spot, with 2013 2nd round pick Manti Te’o starting inside next to Donald Butler, whose contract is structured such that he couldn’t be cut this off-season without a massive cap hit.

Butler is overpaid and overrated (more on that later), but the Chargers are kind of stuck with him right now so the Perryman pick is likely more of an indictment on Te’o than anything. It’s weird for a team to give up on a 2nd round pick this early, especially one that hasn’t been that bad thus far in his career, but he hasn’t been great either and could be upgraded. Te’o has missed 9 games with injury thus far in his career and has never played more than 538 snaps in a season. He graded out below average as a rookie and then slightly above average in 2014. He and Perryman will compete for the starting job and, at the very least, Perryman will be improved depth in case Te’o gets hurt again.

Butler seems locked into a starting job, unfortunately. Butler, a 2010 3rd round pick, graded out 16th among middle linebackers in 2011 and 17th in 2012, but saw that slip to 45th out of 55 eligible in 2013. He also missed 23 games combined in those 4 seasons. However, the Chargers gave him a 7-year, 51 million dollar contract last off-season anyway and it went about as bad as it could have in 2014. Butler missed another 2 games with injury and graded out 58th out of 60 eligible middle linebackers. The Chargers couldn’t cut him this off-season without incurring a massive cap hit so they’re essentially stuck hoping he bounces back after two straight bad seasons.

On the outside in the Chargers’ 3-4, they surprisingly didn’t add in the draft until Kyle Emmanuel in the 5th round and he won’t be much of a factor as a rookie. The Chargers lost veterans Dwight Freeney and Jarret Johnson both this off-season, going into their age 35 and 34 seasons respectively, leaving youngsters Melvin Ingram and Jerry Attachou to large roles in 2015. Even if they’re comfortable with those 2 starting, their lack of depth behind them should still be concerning.

Attachou, a 2014 2nd round pick, graded out slightly below average on 182 snaps as a rookie and is a complete projection to an every down role. Melvin Ingram, meanwhile, is a 2012 1st round pick who has yet to live up to expectations. The Chargers picked up his 5th year option for 2015, but that option is guaranteed for injury only so he’s no guarantee to be on this roster beyond this season if he doesn’t improve. Ingram’s biggest issue has been injuries. Not only have they caused him to miss 19 games over the past 2 seasons combined, but they’ve limited him on the field as well, as he’s graded out slightly below average in each of the last 2 seasons after grading out slightly above average as a rookie. First it was a torn ACL in 2013 and then it was a bad hip problem in 2014. Ingram figures to break his career high of 511 snaps this season and then some if he stays healthy this season, but he’s hard to trust.

Between Ingram’s unreliability and Attachou’s inexperience, I was expecting the Chargers to add some depth at the position this off-season. They could still bring back Dwight Freeney, who is going into his age 35 season, but did grade out above average last season, something the future Hall of Famer has done in all 8 seasons of Pro Football Focus’ history. As it currently stands, their top reserves at the position are Tourek Williams, a 2013 6th round pick who has struggled on 353 career snaps in his career, and Cordarro Law, a 2012 undrafted free agent who flashed on 76 snaps last season in the first action of his career. As it currently stands, both Attachou and Ingram will be counted on for 700+ snaps each.

Grade: C

Secondary

The Chargers have a lot of problems in their front 7 that they really didn’t address this off-season, but their secondary is definitely a redeeming part of this defense. The Chargers have done a fantastic job rebuilding their secondary over the past couple of years. In 2013, the Chargers had 4 cornerbacks all rank 95th or worse among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, a big part of the reason why their defense in general struggled so much. As a result, they went out and added veteran Brandon Flowers through free agency and Jason Verrett in the first round of the draft last year.

Shareece Wright still saw 14 starts in the secondary because Verrett missed 10 games with injury and he once again struggled, grading out 105th out of 108 eligible, after grading out 103rd out of 110 eligible in 2013. However, Wright is now gone as a free agent, addition by subtraction, and Verrett is expected to be healthy after dealing with a shoulder problem for most of his rookie year, dating back to the pre-draft process. Wright was playing very well despite the injury before going down.

Despite playing just 230 snaps, Verrett would have finished 16th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus had he been eligible, with no one playing fewer snaps and grading out better. Through week 6, the rookie was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback, allowing 44.0% completion, which gives me a lot of hope for the youngster’s future. His injury is a big part of the reason why the Chargers allowed opponents to move the chains at a 69.12% rate in their first 5 games, as opposed to 73.81% in their final 11 games. Verrett’s return will be big for this secondary.

Brandon Flowers’ return will also be big for this secondary as the Chargers kept him on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal, which, like the deals they gave to King Dunlap and Orlando Franklin, was a very appropriate value. The Chargers signed him to a one-year, prove it deal last off-season, after Flowers was cut by the Chiefs, following a 2013 season where he was Pro Football Focus’ 85th ranked cornerback out of 110 eligible. That risk paid off big time, as Flowers finished the season 15th among cornerbacks, giving them a much needed #1 cornerback, even after Verrett went down.

Aside from 2013, Flowers has been one of the best cornerbacks in football over the last 6 years. From 2009-2012, Flowers graded out in the top-9 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, the only cornerback in the NFL who could say that. The 5-10 189 pounder doesn’t fit every scheme and he was a horrible fit for Bob Sutton’s man press scheme in Kansas City in 2013, but San Diego clearly knows how to use him and he’s one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL when used properly. He’s only going into his age 29 season, so he should remain a big asset for the Chargers in the secondary this season.

With Shareece Wright gone, the Chargers signed Patrick Robinson to be the 3rd cornerback behind Flowers and Verrett and also used a 3rd round pick on Craig Mager for the future. Patrick Robinson has essentially been a bust as a 2010 1st round pick, but it hasn’t been for lack of talent. He’s just missed 22 games in 5 seasons and has had serious trouble consistently staying healthy and on the field. His best season came in 2011, when he played 15 games (7 starts) and graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked cornerback, but that’s not the norm for him. In 2014, he played 624 snaps in 14 games, starting 6 of them, and grading out about average. That’s more par for the course. He’s a solid fit as the 3rd cornerback for the Chargers.

In addition to a solid group of cornerbacks, the Chargers also have arguably the best safety in the game in Eric Weddle, a holdover from the previous regime and someone who has been there since the Chargers drafted him in the 2nd round in 2007. Weedle has graded out in the top-6 among safeties in every season from 2010-2014 on Pro Football Focus, the only safety in the NFL that can say that. Earl Thomas and Devin McCourty might be better deep safeties, but I don’t know if there is a better all-around safety than Weedle. He grades out well both against the run and against the pass and has played about half of his snaps within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage and half outside of 8 yards in the last 2 seasons.

The issue is that Weddle is not happy with his lack of an extension as he enters a contract year. Weddle definitely has a legitimate gripe as he’s been one of the top safeties in the NFL and has plenty of evidence for why he should get both a pay increase and some additional long-term security. Weddle will make 7.5 million in an age 30 contract year in 2015. He’s likely looking at megadeals signed by Earl Thomas (4 years, 40 million), Devin McCourty (5 years, 47.5 million), and Jairus Byrd (6 years, 54 million) over the last year or so and looking to get one last big deal into his career.

However, the Chargers do have to be careful that they’re not paying for past performance as Weddle enters his 30s. A deal that gives him more money in 2015 and guaranteed money in 2016, but that stops short of guaranteeing money in 2017, would be fine. A 4-year, 34 million dollar deal that guarantees him 18 million in the first 2 seasons would make sense. A 5-year deal worth 10+ million annually with guaranteed money into 2017 could be more damaging long-term. As for the short-term, barring a significant holdout that gets him out of shape for the season, Weddle is a fixture in this talented secondary and one of the best defensive backs in football.

The Chargers lost their other starting safety, Marcus Gilchrist this off-season, but he was overpaid on a 4-year, 22 million dollar deal from the Jets. Gilchrist has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons and played well in 2013, but struggled in 2014. The Chargers will try to replace him with Jahleel Addae and/or Jimmy Wilson. The former played 437 nondescript snaps last season and 374 nondescript snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013, coming in during sub packages as a 3rd safety, with Gilchrist moving to the slot. With Patrick Robinson and Eric Mager in town, the Chargers will likely very rarely have to use three safeties this season, but Addae and Wilson could both see snaps this season.

The latter is a free agent acquisition from Miami, a similar player to Gilchrist who got a lot less in free agency (2 years, 4.25 million), another strong move from the Chargers’ front office. He played both cornerback and safety in Miami, but I like him more as a 3rd cornerback or safety. He should be more of a 500-600 snap player than a 1000+ snap player like Gilchrist has been the last 2 seasons. He played a career high 791 snaps in 2014, as he was the Dolphins’ primary nickel cornerback and made several starts at safety as well, with Louis Delmas getting hurt to end the season and Reshad Jones getting suspended for the start of the season. He graded out below average in 2014 though, making it twice in three seasons that the 2011 7th round pick had done that. Overall, it’s a strong secondary, especially if everyone is healthy, which lifts up the rest of this defense.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Chargers’ went from 2nd in rate of moving the chains in 2013 to 13th in 2014. This season, they should be somewhere in between. The Chargers had the most offensive injuries in the NFL last season in terms of adjusted games lost. One key player returning from injury is Danny Woodhead, who will pair with new starting running back Melvin Gordon, running behind an improved offensive line thanks to the additions of Joseph Barksdale and Orlando Franklin. That should help their offense, after they had one of the worst running games in the NFL last season. They still have major issues on defense, aside from the secondary, so that will hold them back, but they should be in the hunt for a playoff spot again, as they have been in the last 2 seasons.  As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Chargers after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

Jun 092015
 

Quarterback

The Broncos finished last regular season #1 in the NFL in rate of moving the chains differential, as they had done the year before, when they ended up losing in the Super Bowl to Seattle. Like the previous season, the Broncos were unable to capitalize when they got to the playoffs, but, unlike the previous season, the Broncos didn’t even make the Super Bowl, or even win a game. The Broncos, after a first round bye, lost at home to the Colts 24-13.

What happened? Well, while they did rank #1 over the whole season, they played their worst football at the worst time. Of the 12 playoff teams, the Broncos ranked 9th in schedule adjusted rate of moving the chains differential in the final 4 weeks of the season. An injury to talented linebacker Brandon Marshall was part of it, but, undeniably, the biggest problem over the final 4 weeks of the season and into the playoff loss was quarterback Peyton Manning.

After completing 68.1% of his passes for an average of 8.05 YPA, 34 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions in the first 11 games of the season, Peyton Manning completed just 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.54 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the final 5 games of the season. Manning followed that up by completing 56.5% of his passes for an average of 4.59 YPA and a touchdown in the playoff loss. And that was despite having some fantastic supporting talent around him on offense.

His late season struggles caused him to finish the season only 10th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, after never grading out worse than 5th since Pro Football Focus’ origin in 2007. His performance in the playoff loss ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 20th best quarterbacked game out of 22 eligible post-season games. A late season thigh injury seems like the obvious culprit to many people and he’s just 2 years removed from a record setting 2013 season where he completed 68.3% of his passes for 8.31 YPA, 55 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. He also had similar numbers to those last season through the first 11 games. At first glance, he might look like a good bounce back candidate, but the thing that needs to be remembered is that he’s going into his age 39 season with a history of neck problems and considered retirement this off-season. He’s at the point where it’s impossible to trust him going forward, especially since he did show a steep decline in his abilities late last season.

Over the past 20 years, quarterbacks in their age 39 season complete 60.4% of his passes for an average of 6.60 YPA, 90 touchdowns, and 80 interceptions. That’s as opposed to 61.2% completion, a 6.92 YPA, 235 touchdowns, and 177 interceptions in age 38 seasons. Now, not all of the players in those statistical pools are as good as Peyton Manning, but you also need to be pretty good to be playing until you’re 38 or 39. Looking at the end of Brett Favre’s career shows the range of what we could see from Manning this season. In his age 39 season, he completed 65.7% of his passes for an average of 6.65 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions. In his age 40 season, he completed 68.4% of his passes for an average of 7.91 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. In his age 41 season, he completed 60.6% of his passes for an average of 7.01 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions. Any of those options is in play for Manning this season. It’s simply impossible to know which one or to trust him right now.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The uncertainty around Peyton Manning’s abilities in 2015 is one reason why I have some doubts about the Broncos becoming the team they were to start last season, before Manning’s quad injury. A 2nd reason is that they lost a great deal this off-season in terms of talent through free agency. The Broncos went all in on free agency last off-season, signing DeMarcus Ware, TJ Ward, and Aqib Talib to solidify their defense, after having their toughness challenged as the old adage goes in their Super Bowl loss to Seattle the previous season. Their defensive upgrades worked as the Broncos improved from 20th in rate of moving the chains allowed in 2013 to 4th in 2014.

However, that didn’t translate to better post-season success, as I mentioned above, which should pour some water on the aforementioned adage about toughness. As a result of all the spending they did last off-season, they had very little room to re-sign their own pending free agents this off-season, bad news because they had arguably the best pending free agency class in the league going into this off-season. Going all in last off-season made sense because of Peyton Manning’s age, but this off-season the bill was due and they still don’t have their ring.

Arguably their biggest free agent loss was offensive lineman Orlando Franklin. It’s not just because he was an above average starter for the Broncos on the line for the last 3 seasons, 12th among offensive tackles in 2012, 17th among offensive tackles in 2013, and 13th among guards in 2014, but also because the offensive line was already the biggest weakness on this strong Bronco roster. Because of their financial situation, the Broncos didn’t really do much in the way of adding a veteran replacement this off-season, opting instead to draft Ty Sambrailo in the 2nd round and Max Garcia in the 4th.

The biggest addition the Broncos made to the offensive line this off-season wasn’t an offensive lineman at all; it was new head coach Gary Kubiak, who replaces John Fox, as Fox was shockingly fired after the Broncos’ late season collapse. Many remember Gary Kubiak for his final season in Houston, when he was fired after a 2-11 start, but he generally got the most out of his players in his 8 seasons in Houston, going 61-64 with 2 playoff wins. Furthermore, he’s done a fantastic job in his career as offensive coordinator, specializing on improving offensive line play and running back production.

The two veterans that the Broncos did add on the offensive line this off-season are players with whom Gary Kubiak is familiar. However, his familiarity with them is almost solely from practice. Shelley Smith was drafted by Kubiak and the Texans in the 6th round in 2010, but he didn’t play a snap in either 2010 in 2011 with the Texans and was a final cut before the 2012 season. He then went to St. Louis, grading out 55th out of 81 eligible on 360 snaps in 2012. Smith was better in 2013, grading out 23rd among guards on 371 snaps, earning him a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal from the Dolphins last off-season. However, he was cut, after grading out 54th out of 78 eligible guards on just 367 snaps. The Broncos signed him to a 2-year, 5.65 million dollar deal this off-season, but he’s only a backup caliber player.

Gino Gradkowski is the other veteran coming in. Gradkowski played 10 snaps for the Ravens in 2014, where Kubiak was the offensive coordinator, so, while he does have game experience under Kubiak, it’s very, very limited. Gradkowski, a 2012 4th round pick, struggled mightily in his only starting experience in the NFL in 2013, grading out dead last among centers that season. Like Smith, he’s a backup caliber player, but one of those two players has a good chance of starting on this thin offensive line.

Gradkowski will compete with 4th round rookie Max Garcia at center. Shelley Smith could see some snaps at center this off-season, especially if both Gradkowski and Garcia fail to impress, but he’s needed more at guard. His only competition there as the depth chart currently stands is Jon Halapio, a 2014 6th round pick who has yet to play a snap in his career.  Rookie 2nd round pick Ty Sambrailo could move inside to guard and could be a candidate to start at guard if needed, but I think he’s needed more at offensive tackle, also a more natural position for him.

The reason he’s so badly needed at offensive tackle is not just because the Broncos had issues at right tackle last season, but also because left tackle Ryan Clady is out for the season with a torn ACL. That’s the other reason I’m tentative about the Broncos this season. In addition to Manning’s age and their off-season losses, they also suffered relatively no injuries last season, ranking best in the NFL in adjusted games lost. Clady isn’t the player he used to be, grading out below average on Pro Football Focus for the 2nd time in his 7-year career last season, but the injury still really hurts because of their lack of offensive line talent. It’s also a reminder that they can expect to lose more players to injuries this season. Sambrailo will likely start at left tackle, but news because College Football Focus rated him as a reach in the 2nd round.

At right tackle, it’ll be a competition between Ryan Harris, Chris Clark, and Michael Schofield. Harris, a veteran free agent acquisition signed directly after the Clady injury, is the heavy favorite. Harris is a veteran journeyman who has bounced from Denver to Houston to Kansas City, but, from 2008-2014, he graded out above average 4 times, below average twice, and didn’t play a snap in 2011. He graded out below average in 2014, his first full season as a starter since 2009, but only barely. He’s going into his age 30 season, but he’s not completely over the hill yet. He’s a marginal starter.

Meanwhile, Schofield is a 2014 3rd round pick, didn’t play a snap as a rookie, is a poor fit for Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme, and is generally not considered a strong candidate to start this season. Chris Clark was the starter at right tackle to begin last season, but made just 7 starts on the season, played just 480 snaps, and graded out 52nd out of 84 eligible on the season. Clark was better in 2013, when he graded out 22nd among offensive tackles, playing primarily on the blindside in place of an injured Ryan Clady, but the 2008 undrafted free agent had played just 182 snaps in his career leading up to 2013, so he’s a one year wonder, and he’s now heading into his age 31 season.

The only Bronco offensive lineman locked into his 2015 spot is Louis Vasquez at right guard. Vasquez only made 8 starts at right guard last season, but that was because the Broncos decided to move him to right tackle late in the season as they were shuffling their offensive front around. This season, I expect Vasquez to stay at right guard, as he struggled at right tackle. At right guard, he graded out 29th at his position on Pro Football Focus in 8 starts and that’s actually a down year for him. The 2009 3rd round pick graded out 26th among guards in 2009, 29th in 2010, 30th in 2011, 13th in 2012, and 3rd in 2013. Only going into his age 28 season, him bouncing back in his natural position is the surest thing the Broncos have on the offensive line.

Grade: C-

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

The one key free agent that the Broncos didn’t lose this off-season is Demaryius Thomas, as they knew they couldn’t afford to lose him and franchise tagged him. A long-term deal hasn’t been struck and there haven’t been any substantial rumors about a long-term deal being close, but, barring an unlikely extended holdout that gets him out of shape, Thomas will be in Denver this season, once again dominating opposing defensive backs.

Thomas has put up absurd numbers over the past 3 seasons, playing all 48 games, catching 297 passes for 4483 yards and 35 touchdowns. Playing with Peyton Manning at quarterback and being a target monster has definitely helped him, so his numbers could see a little bit of a dip this season if Manning has a down year, but he’s graded out 2nd, 5th, and 5th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in his own right in 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. No other wide receiver has graded out in the top-5 in all 3 of those seasons. The 2010 1st round pick was also productive with Tim Tebow in 2011, as he had 35 catches for 745 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 7 games, including playoffs. That’s 80 catches for 1703 yards and 9 touchdowns extrapolated over 16 games. Along with Antonio Brown and Calvin Johnson, you can make a case for him as the best wide receiver in football.

Thomas wasn’t the only Denver wide receiver that graded out in the top-8 among wide receivers last season, as Emmanuel Sanders graded out 8th overall, including 3rd in pure pass catching grade, in a big-time breakout season in 2014. A mid-sized free agent signing that has paid big dividends, Sanders was sized to a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal last off-season after 4 nondescript seasons in Pittsburgh, after getting drafted in the 3rd round in 2010. In 2 years as a key contributor for the Steelers in 2012 and 2013, including a starting role in 2013, Sanders graded out very middle of the pack on Pro Football Focus, grading out 57th and 60th respectively among wide receivers, while averaging 1.48 and 1.34 yards per route run. He’s still a one year wonder, but he and Thomas are arguably the best wide receiver duo in football.

The Broncos did lose Wes Welker to free agency, but that won’t be a huge loss. There’s a reason he’s still unsigned as of this writing, going into his age 34 season. Once again, the Patriots cut ties with a player at the perfect time. Letting Welker go looked like a mistake in 2013, when the Broncos were breaking records and beat the Patriots easily in the AFC Championship, but that was largely because of Peyton Manning’s huge season, Julius Thomas’ breakout year, and the loss of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez by the Patriots. Obviously, that script flipped in 2014.

Overall, over the course of his 2-year, 12 million dollar deal, Welker caught 122 passes for 1242 yards and 12 touchdowns, missing 5 games with injury. His replacement in New England, Julian Edelman, had 197 catches for 2028 yards and 10 touchdowns over that time period. Statistically, Welker had the worst season of his career since 2005 last season, catching 49 passes for 464 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cody Latimer, a 2014 2nd round pick, will slide in as the 3rd receiver, moving Sanders to the slot in 3-wide receiver sets. Latimer played just 37 snaps as a rookie, behind not just Welker, but veteran Andre Caldwell, so he’s unproven, but he could easily be ready for a bigger role. Unlike last season, when he missed valuable off-season time with a foot injury, Latimer is healthy as the team implements their new offense.

The Broncos were unable to bring back both Thomases, as they lost Julius Thomas to the Jaguars this off-season, but they did keep the significantly more important one. Julius’ loss will be bigger than Welker’s loss, but that doesn’t mean the Jaguars didn’t overpay, giving him a 5-year, 45 million dollar deal. Julius Thomas played 50 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the league, catching 1 pass, after the incredibly athletic former basketball player was drafted in the 4th round in 2011. He broke out in 2013, catching 65 passes for 788 yards and 12 touchdowns, but he was limited by injuries in 2014, catching 43 passes for 489 yards and 12 touchdowns in 13 games. Thomas is a poor run blocker, has never played all 16 games in a season, and a lot of his passing game production was the result of getting to play with Peyton Manning.

Virgil Green was re-signed this off-season. Green has only caught 23 passes in 4 seasons since getting drafted in the 7th round in 2011, but the 6-3 249 pounder is a strong run blocker, grading out above average as a run blocker in all 4 seasons he’s been in the league, including 4th in 2014. Green might see a few more targets this season, but he was re-signed primarily for his blocking ability. He’ll work in tandem with pass catching tight end Owen Daniels, who follows Gary Kubiak once again. Daniels has played his whole career for Gary Kubiak, first in Houston where he was head coach and then Baltimore where he was offensive coordinator. He’s not the same player he once was though.

Owen Daniels hasn’t played all 16 games in a season since 2008 and has missed 27 games over the past 6 seasons combined. He’s also going into his age 33 season. He did have a decent season in 2014, catching 48 passes for 527 yards and 4 touchdowns on 72 attempts (66.7%) and 410 routes run (1.29 yards per route run) in 15 games. He’s graded out above average as a pass catcher in each of the last 4 seasons and he’s a decent run blocker too. However, he’s just a borderline starter.

Gary Kubiak also brought James Casey in, another player he once had in Houston. Casey was signed by the Eagles following the 2012 season, where he was expected to be a jack of all traits matchup nightmare, but struggled to make it onto the field, playing a combined 330 snaps in 2 seasons in Philadelphia, before being an easy cap casualty this off-season. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he’s had success with Kubiak before.

He’ll likely reprise his old role from Houston, where he played 609 snaps in 2012, despite the fact that the Texans had Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham. Kubiak frequently uses two tight ends and a fullback. He’ll do that less this season in Denver because of Peyton Manning, but Casey will see a lot of playing time at fullback. He’s was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked fullback in 2011 and 10th ranked fullback in 2012. Jeff Heuerman is a tight end that the Broncos drafted in the 3rd round this past year, but that pick was likely more of a developmental pick for the future with Daniels aging and he’ll miss his entire rookie year with a torn ACL anyway. It’s still an overall very strong receiving corps thanks to Thomas and Sanders.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The offensive line is one specialty of Gary Kubiak. The other is getting production out of running backs. That’s largely thanks to the strong offensive line play that Kubiak teams usually show, but it also speaks to his ability to coach running backs and diagram run play. In 20 seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Kubiak has had 8 different running backs put up a combined 15 seasons of 1000 or more yards. Of those 8 running backs, only 1 (Clinton Portis) was drafted higher than the 2nd round and 4 of them, including Justin Forsett last season in Baltimore, were drafted in the 6th round or later.

That’s great news for CJ Anderson, an ideal fit for Kubiak’s one cut system, an undrafted player in his own right back in 2013, and a player who was dominant down the stretch for the Broncos last season. A bright spot down the stretch for the Broncos, Anderson rushed for 849 yards and 8 touchdowns on 179 carries (4.74 YPC). Anderson has very little breakaway speed, but he’s been able to produce despite a career long run of 27, he has 63 first downs on 220 career touches, and he caught 34 passes and pass protected well last season, showing three down ability as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back in the first extended experience of his career last season. He’s still unproven, but I like his breakout potential as a 300+ carry runner in Gary Kubiak’s offense.

Ronnie Hillman and Montee Ball were drafted to be a strong running back duo, Hillman in the 3rd round in 2012 and Ball in the 2nd round in 2013, but both were leaped by Anderson on the depth chart last season and both will be backups this year. Hillman, a smaller scatback, is a better change of pace complement for Anderson. Hillman has missed 16 games in 3 seasons in the league and has averaged 3.99 yards per carry in his career, including a career high 4.09 YPC on a career high 106 carries last season, grading out 50 out of 57 eligible running backs in the process. Ball, meanwhile, has averaged 4.18 yards per carry in 2 seasons in the league, including 3.13 last season in a season where he played just 5 games, thanks to groin problems. His skill set is redundant and inferior to CJ Anderson’s so he’ll likely be a 3rd running back that would need an injury to Anderson to see significant playing time. He’s a solid insurance policy though.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Broncos didn’t just lose talented starters on offense. They also lost two talented starters on the defensive side of the ball. However, they did a nice job of cheaply adding veteran talent on defense this off-season so they still have a very talented bunch, after allowing opponents to move the chains at a 70.08% rate last season, 4th best in the NFL. As is the case with their offense, the Broncos’ biggest addition on defense this off-season might not have been a player at all.

That valuable non-player addition is defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is one of the best in the business. The Broncos lost a strong defensive coordinator in Jack Del Rio when he took the head coaching job with the divisional rival Raiders, but they found the best replacement out there. Phillips, who was in semi-retirement last season, was with Kubiak for 3 years in Houston from 2011-2013 and the Kubiak connection was likely a very important part of the reason why Phillips is now in Denver. Phillips will be moving the Broncos to a 3-4, which I think their personnel fits really well and, despite off-season losses, they still have plenty of talent.

One of those two defensive starters they lost this off-season is defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, who broke out as Pro Football Focus 9th and 12th ranked defensive tackle over the past 2 seasons. With him gone, the opportunity opens up for Sylvester Williams to be the starting nose tackle. Williams, a 2013 1st round pick, has played just 735 snaps in 2 seasons in the NFL combined, stuck behind talented players like Knighton and Malik Jackson.

Williams has struggled in limited action thus far in his career so, going into his first chance at the starting job, Williams is entering a make or break 3rd year. However, even though he’ll be a starter, he’s unlikely to exceed 500 snaps as primarily a base package player. The 6-3 320 pounder doesn’t quite have ideal nose tackle size, but he’s plenty big and Phillips has had previous success with nose tackles who aren’t quite as big as nose tackles traditionally are (Jay Ratliff and Earl Mitchell are the recent examples).

In an effort to make up for the loss of Knighton, the Broncos added two veteran players to their 3-4 defensive line, Antonio Smith and Vance Walker. Smith is another player familiar with Kubiak from his time in Houston, joining Shelley Smith, Owen Daniels, and James Casey as one of four ex-Texans added by the Broncos this off-season. More important is his familiarity with Wade Phillips, who was his defensive coordinator in Houston for 3 seasons from 2011-2013.

Smith has a very specific, unique skill set at 6-3 272 and Wade Phillips has always gotten more out of him than anyone else. It’s no coincidence that Smith graded out below average last season in Oakland for the first time since 2010, his last season without Phillips. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Smith graded out 6th, 5th, and 18th among 3-4 defensive ends, including 2nd, 2nd, and 5th in pure pass rush grade. Last season in Oakland, Smith ranked 58th out of defensive tackles. He still got great pass rush, grading out 3rd in that aspect, but ranked dead last against the run, which led to his release by the Raiders this off-season.

A return to Phillips’ 3-4 should help him, but it’s also worth noting that he’s going into his age 34 season. If his struggles in Oakland last season were age related, he could easily struggle again this season. If they were scheme related, he has a very good chance to bounce back. Realistically, it’s a combination of both and he should have one more decent season left in the tank. It’ll help him that he won’t be counted on in an every down fashion. He’ll work in rotation and see primarily sub package snaps. Smith has always struggled against the run, but he’s a tremendous interior pass rusher in sub packages and should provide value to the Broncos in that role this season.

The other off-season addition by the Broncos on the defensive line is Vance Walker, who will also serve a rotational role at 3-4 defensive end. Walker graded out above average in both 2012 and 2013, including 17th in 2012, earning him a 3-year, 10 million dollar deal with the Chiefs last off-season. However, Walker ended up playing just 238 snaps with the Chiefs in 16 games and got released this off-season. Even though Walker didn’t earn the trust of the coaching staff in Kansas City, leading to that limited playing time for him, he actually played pretty well on the field. In fact, no one played fewer snaps than him and graded out better at his position in 2014. He’ll provide solid rotational depth.

Malik Jackson and Derek Wolfe will slot in as the starters with Smith and Walker as the reserves. Jackson, a 2012 5th round pick, has broken out over the past 2 seasons as a defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid at 6-5 284 and would seem to be a natural fit as a 3-4 defensive end. He was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked defensive tackle in 2013 and their 3rd ranked 4-3 defensive end in 2014. Only going into his age 25 season, Jackson should have an every down role as a 3-4 defensive end this season and could easily have the best season of his career in that role, set a career high in snaps (currently at 601), and break out as one of the best 5-technique defensive ends in the league, just in time for him to hit unrestricted free agency next off-season. The Broncos would be wise to try to lock him up now if they can.

Wolfe is another player who has played a defensive end/defensive tackle hybrid role in his career. Wolfe has graded out below average both overall and as a pass rusher in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league, but he’s graded out above average against the run in 2 of those 3 seasons, including 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends last season (one spot better than Jackson). A tweener who should be a better fit for a 3-4 than a 4-3, Wolfe should also benefit from the scheme change. If he doesn’t, the Broncos have the depth to deal with it. Despite the loss of Knighton, it’s still a strong defensive line.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Broncos made a weird first round pick. It wasn’t necessarily weird bad or weird good, but it was both surprising and out of custom with what we’ve seen from the Broncos recently. The Broncos have been in win now move ever since they added Peyton Manning, which makes sense, as Manning is aging with a troubling history of neck problems. However, rather than staying put at 28 and drafting an offensive lineman who could start day 1 like Jake Fisher or moving up into the teens to select Cameron Erving, an offensive lineman they loved, the Broncos moved up to 23, trading #28, a 5th rounder, and a future 5th rounder to Detroit to draft Shane Ray, who doesn’t fill an immediate need behind Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. They then waited until the 2nd round to take their offensive lineman. The Broncos had a top-10 grade on Ray, despite a recent marijuana arrest that caused his stock to fall from the top-10 to the mid-20s.

Talent wise, Ray is one of the top edge rushers in this draft class, but, in addition to that arrest, which immediately puts him into the NFL’s substance abuse program, he also has a bad foot that could cause him to miss valuable off-seasons workouts. The Broncos didn’t draft him really for 2015 though and see him more as a rotational player as a rookie and a long-term successor to DeMarcus Ware, who is going into his age 33 season. He could also be seen as insurance in case they are unable to re-sign Von Miller long-term. Miller is a free agent next off-season.

However, for now, Ware and Miller will continue to form arguably the best pass rush duo in the NFL with Ray behind them on the depth chart. Miller is the younger and better player. The 2nd overall pick in 2011, Miller won Defensive Rookie of the Year and then followed it up by finishing 2nd to JJ Watt in defensive player of the year voting in 2012. Miller missed 7 games with suspension and a torn ACL in 2013, but still graded out as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, despite the limited playing, making it 3 straight seasons as the #1 player at his position to start his career. Miller “slipped” to 2nd last year in his return from the ACL injury, but he remains one of the best defensive players in the entire league. After playing a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position in Denver’s old 4-3 and playing in a 3-4 at Texas A&M in college, Miller is a natural fit for Denver’s change scheme. I’m excited to see the combination of him and new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

DeMarcus Ware is also a natural fit for the 3-4 as well, playing in one for many Pro-Bowl caliber years in Dallas prior to joining the Broncos last year. Phillips was his head coach from 2007-2010. A future Hall-of-Famer, Ware has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons of its existence. However, after grading out in the top-3 among 3-4 outside linebackers in 5 straight seasons from 2007-2011, Ware has seen his play slip a little bit over the past 3 seasons, grading out 9th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2012, 10th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2013, and 20th among 4-3 defensive ends in 204. Going into his age 33 season, Ware is past his prime and could cede snaps to the rookie Ray, but, however you look at it, the Broncos have a talented and deep edge rush group.

The Broncos also have a lot of talent at inside linebacker in Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan, but both are also coming off of significant injuries. Trevathan, a 2012 6th round pick, broke out as a starter in 2013, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker, after struggling on 243 snaps as a rookie. However, he was limited to 100 snaps in 3 games last season thanks to a broken kneecap. He’s taking it easy in the off-season as of this writing, but he’s expected to be ready for training camp and the start of the season. A big bounce back year from him would be great, though he’s still a one-year wonder.

In Trevathan’s absence last season, Brandon Marshall stepped up big-time, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. Like Trevathan, he’s a one-year wonder as the 2012 5th rounder played a combined 15 snaps in his first 2 seasons in the NFL and like Trevathan he’s also coming off of a significant injury, as his breakout season was ended prematurely by a Lisfranc injury, a big part of the reason why the Broncos’ season fell apart.

He’s also expected to be fine for training camp and the start of the season, but his immediate future is seen as a little murkier than Trevathan’s. Best case scenario, the Broncos have a talented pair of 3-4 inside linebackers if both are healthy and continue playing their best football, but there’s some doubt there. The Broncos seem confident in both of them, as they didn’t spend a single draft pick on depth, but they are very thin behind them if something happens to one of them. Reggie Walker, a mediocre journeyman, is their only experienced backup.

Grade: A

Secondary

The other talented starter the Broncos lost defensively this off-season is Rahim Moore. He wasn’t as important to them last season as Terrance Knighton was, but he was still an average or better starter for them in the secondary in each of the last 3 seasons. To replace him, the Broncos signed Darian Stewart. Stewart, a 2010 undrafted free agent, was forced into a starting role too early in 2011, grading out 82nd out of 87 eligible safeties that season, and played just 82 snaps the following season consequently. Stewart has rehabbed his value in the last two seasons though. In 2013, he graded out only slightly below average on 583 snaps and then in 2014 he graded out above average for the first time since his rookie season on 782 snaps (14 starts). He’s not as good as Moore, but he came cheaper (4.5 million over 2 years compared to 12 million over 3 years) and he’s at least a borderline starting player at this point in his career.

The Broncos were never expected to re-sign Rahim Moore as they already have three big money defensive backs in Aqib Talib (6 years, 57 million), TJ Ward (4 years, 23 million), and Chris Harris (5 years, 42.5 million). The Broncos are hoping those three defensive backs can kind of mask the deficiencies of Stewart. While they are all making a large amount of money, all three of them are worth it. They’ll help keep this a strong secondary.

Aqib Talib is the higher paid and bigger name of the two cornerbacks, but Harris is actually the better player. A 2011 undrafted free agent, Harris has improved basically every year he’s been in the NFL, to the point where he’s one of the top cornerbacks in the entire NFL right now. Harris graded out 22nd as a rookie (on 465 snaps), 5th in 2012, 8th in 2013, and 1st in 2014. He joins Richard Sherman as the only player in the NFL to grade out in the top-8 in each of the last 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus. Harris shook off a January 2014 torn ACL like it was nothing, en route to his career best 2014 campaign, during which he received that well-deserved extension in December ahead of free agency.

Talib, meanwhile, received his large contract last off-season, leaving the New England Patriots. At the time, I said it was an overpay by the Broncos. Going into last off-season, he had never played all 16 games in a season and missed 23 games in 6 seasons combined in the league, thanks to a variety of injuries and off-the-field problems. He had also never graded out higher than 16th among cornerbacks going into last season. However, last season, he graded out 15th among cornerbacks in 15 starts, arguably the best season of his career.

TJ Ward, meanwhile, will be the safety opposite Stewart. Ward actually had a down season in 2014, grading out just 34th at his position and especially struggling in coverage, grading out 81st out of 87 eligible in that aspect. However, he’s been much better in the past, grading out 32nd, 14th, 6th, and 4th in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013 respectively. He’s a much better player against the run than against the pass, but he graded out positively in coverage in 2011, 2012, and 2013. He should be able to have a bounce back year in 2015.

The 5th member of this secondary, to go with the four aforementioned veterans, is 2014 1st round pick Bradley Roby, who will continue slotting in as the 3rd cornerback. Roby graded out slightly below average on 818 snaps as a rookie and has a good chance to improve upon that in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. He’s a very solid 3rd cornerback, important considering all the sub packages the Broncos use. Chris Harris moves to the slot in sub packages, with Roby and Talib manning the outside. Despite the loss of Moore, it’s still a very solid secondary on a very solid in general defense.

Grade: A-

Overall

The Broncos are less talented than they were last season, when they finished #1 in rate of moving the chains differential and scheduled adjusted rate of moving the chains differential. They’ll also likely have more injuries, starting with an off-season ACL tear by left tackle Ryan Clady. However, they still have plenty of talent. Despite that, they have a wide range as a team because of the complete uncertainty of the quarterback Peyton Manning. If Manning is able to have a strong year, this might be the Super Bowl favorite. If he goes late career Favre on us, the Broncos might struggle to make the playoffs. As with all teams, I’ll have official win/loss records for the Broncos after I’ve done all team’s previews.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC West

May 302015
 

Prior to this move, the Falcons had a massive need at left guard where Sam Baker, who has missed 28 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons combined after tearing both patellar tendons, was penciled in as the starter. Chester wasn’t the top guard available on the open market, as I think Rob Sims and Justin Blalock are better players, but Chester is a better fit for the Falcons’ zone blocking scheme than either of those two, especially not Blalock, who the Falcons cut earlier this off-season because he was a poor scheme fit, which is what created the hole in the first place.

Chester has experience in zone blocking schemes like the one new Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will be implementing, as he played in Washington from 2011-2013 when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator and Kyle’s father Mike Shanahan was the head coach. Chester made 48 starts in those 3 seasons and, though he only graded out above average once in three seasons, he graded out 15th in 2012. Even last year, in Jay Gruden’s new power blocking scheme, Chester graded out above average. The issue is that he’s going into his age 32 season, which is part of why the Redskins cut him, saving 4 million on the cap and in cash in the process. However, he’s still a stopgap starting caliber player and a solid value on a 1-year, 2.8 million dollar deal for a team that needed someone like him. He also hasn’t missed a start since 2010.

Grade: B

May 212015
 

I guess it’s back to slavery for Brandon Spikes. Spikes famously referred to his time in New England, to start his career from 2010-2013, as “4 years a slave” on Twitter after signing with division rival Buffalo last off-season, showing something in between a lame joke and a lack of self-awareness in the process. Spikes has reportedly rubbed coaches the wrong way throughout his career, a big part of the reason why he remained unsigned this late into free agency, so it looks like the joke is on him.

Spikes is only a two down middle linebacker, but he’s very good at what he does. He’s graded out 4th, 22nd, 1st, 1st, and 9th among middle linebackers against the run in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively. He’s never played more than 742 snaps in a season because of his issues in coverage and he’s never ranked higher than 20th at his position in coverage, but he still should have seen a bigger market than this.

Ironically, the only place that would take him is the Patriots, who welcome him back on a 1.15 million dollar deal. Spikes won’t even start in New England this time around, as Jamie Collins broke out in his absence in a Super Bowl winning season, but he’ll provide valuable depth for a team whose two-down linebacker, Jerod Mayo, has missed 20 games with injury over the past 2 seasons and who is coming off of a torn patellar tendon, arguably the worst injury in football. It’s funny that Spikes had to settle for this deal and the Patriots are getting a steal, even if he doesn’t fill a need.

Grade: A-

May 202015
 

Barksdale was shockingly still available this late in free agency. Barksdale was a 3rd round pick of the Raiders in 2011, but he barely played in his first 2 seasons in the league, playing 282 snaps in 2011-2012 combined. He became a starter in 2013 with the Rams, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle in 13 starts. He couldn’t quite match that in 2014, grading out slightly below average in 16 starts, but I still expected him to get signed to a multi-year deal for starter’s money early in free agency. However, Barksdale drew little attention early in free agency and then the Rams drafted Rob Havenstein in the 2nd round to replace him.

As a result, he ends up in San Diego, where I never expected he’d end up, especially this late in free agency. Right tackle wasn’t a huge need for the Chargers as they like 2013 11th overall pick DJ Fluker, but Barksdale still helps their team at a cheap price, 1.35 million over a year. Barksdale slots in at right tackle and moves Fluker inside to right guard, where his issues with pass protection will be masked better, and moves Justin Britt from right guard to center, getting Trevor Robinson out of the starting lineup. The Chargers are actually upgrading 3 spots on the offensive line a little for 1.35 million. This was a savvy move by savvy GM Tom Telesco.

Grade: A

May 202015
 

In total, this is a 6-year, 96 million dollar deal, but Tannehill was already scheduled to make about 18 million over the next 2 years, between the final year of his rookie deal and the 5th year option the Dolphins exercised earlier this off-season. The extension itself is about 78 million over 4 years, so the average is bigger than the 16 million dollar average it seems like at first. However, only about 45 million of the contract is guaranteed, and even that amount is not fully guaranteed. Tannehill will make 25 million over the first 2 seasons of the deal, but, if he flops in those 2 years, the Dolphins can get out of the rest of the deal entirely, as long as they cut him before the start of the league year in 2017. Basically, they’re giving him an extra 7 million over the next 2 years, guaranteeing it fully (before this extension his 2015 salary was just guaranteed for injury), in exchange for having the option of having him under contract for a combined 71 million over 4 years from 2017-2020, with the ability to get out of it at any point during that time period.

Given that what the Dolphins are actually giving Tannehill is not nearly as onerous as the raw numbers suggest, this is a very good deal. Tannehill, the 8th overall pick in 2012, has gotten better in every year of his career, going from a quarterback rating of 76.1 as a rookie to 81.7 in 2013 and then 92.8. Last season, he finished the year completing 66.4% of his passes for an average of 6.86 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions.  On the season, he graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked quarterback. He finished 5th in completion percentage, had a strong TD:INT ratio, with his only subpar area being his YPA average. In his career, he’s been below 7 YPA in every season, including last year.

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

Second, I find completion percentage to be a more important stat as high completion percentage often correlates with your offense regularly being on schedule. I realize that Tannehill’s completion percentage is inflated by the types of passes he was attempting and that he owes a lot of that high number to his running game making things easier for him, but the Dolphins finished 8th in the NFL in rate of moving the chains last season, moving them at a 75.33% rate. Tannehill doesn’t deserve all the credit for that, but he deserves some, especially as he was dealing with poor offensive line play and an average at best receiving corps. Tannehill also contributed to that strong running game, rushing for 311 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 attempts (5.55 YPC). Besides, while the Dolphins ran well on a per play average, they didn’t run that often overall. Including pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback carries, Tannehill was involved on 66.5% of the Dolphins offensive plays last season, one of the highest usage rates in the NFL.

Right now, I’d say Tannehill is one of the top 10-15 quarterbacks in the NFL with the potential to get even better, going into his 4th year in the league, his age 27 season. It’s a fairly low risk deal if Tannehill flops and, if he doesn’t, this is the kind of money you have to pay to keep a quarterback in today’s NFL. Right now, there are 16 quarterbacks, including Tannehill, whose contracts have an average salary of 15+ million dollars in the NFL. Excluding guys on rookie deals, only one other veteran makes more than 5.25 million annually on his contract. There isn’t a middle ground with quarterbacks in today’s NFL. With the salary cap expanding at a rapid pace, almost all of the extra money is going to the most important position on the field, which makes sense.

Grade: A-

May 172015
 

The Patriots cut Kyle Arrington earlier this week, voiding the 6.5 million in non-guaranteed money over 2 years remaining on his contract. It was a weird move, as Arrington was a valuable slot cornerback for them, grading out above average in 4 straight seasons, including 21st in 2013, and the Patriots had already lost their starting cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner this off-season. Perhaps they thought they could re-sign him a little cheaper, but the Ravens didn’t let that happen.

The Patriots’ loss is the Ravens’ gain as Kyle Arrington fills arguably their biggest remaining need. Things were so bad at cornerback for the Ravens that Rashaan Melvin, a 2013 undrafted free agent who was signed mid-season and made his NFL debut week 15, drew the start for them in the playoffs. Jimmy Smith’s injury was a big part of the problem, as he missed 8 games, but the problem has been there since last off-season, when they failed to find a replacement for Corey Graham, their talented #3 cornerback who signed with Buffalo. Their depth was shaky coming into the season (#3 cornerback Asa Jackson had never played a defensive snap in the NFL coming into this season) and this kind of situation was foreseeable.

Smith will be back healthy next year, after signing a 4-year, 41 million dollar extension, and Lardarius Webb, who graded out above average in every season from 2009-2013 (including 4th in 2011) could have a bounce back year, but the Ravens were left without a solid 3rd cornerback, only adding Tray Walker in the 4th round through the draft. Getting Arrington on a 3-year, 7.5 million dollar deal with 2.8 million guaranteed and taking him away from another one of the top teams in the AFC is a gift for the Ravens.

Grade: A

May 172015
 

Trade for Jets: Stacy was the feature back in St. Louis in 2013, but wasn’t that good, rushing for 973 yards and 7 touchdowns on 250 carries, an average of 3.89 yards per carry. The Rams brought in Tre Mason in the 3rd round last year to replace him and then in this year’s drafted they added Todd Gurley 10th overall, feeling they couldn’t pass on someone they felt was the next Adrian Peterson. That pushed Stacy to 3rd or even 4th on the depth chart (behind Benny Cunningham), which made him unhappy. He requested a trade and got one, going to the Jets for a 7th round pick.

The Jets aren’t giving up much here for the 2013 5th round pick, giving up a 7th round pick, and he’s still on a rookie deal so he’ll come very cheap for them. His career 3.88 YPC is partially the product of St. Louis’ poor run blocking. However, Stacy is pretty much a poor man’s version of Chris Ivory and Stevan Ridley who they already have. Like Ivory and Ridley, Stacy is a powerful between the tackles runner, who lacks agility, outside running ability, and pass catching ability (44 catches for 293 yards and a touchdown in 27 games). The Jets still don’t have a good outside the tackles complementary runner and their passing down back Bilal Powell leaves a lot to be desired. Stacy will have a tough time making this roster and carving out a role. I’m surprised they didn’t add a running back through the draft.

Grade: B

Trade for Rams: You can question whether or not the Rams made the right move at 10 overall, taking a player who doesn’t address a major need, but once they made that deal, they kind of had to do something with Zac Stacy. He wanted out and Benny Cunningham offers more in terms of versatility as a 3rd running back. This isn’t a great deal or anything, but credit them for at least getting something for him. Given that Stacy likely won’t make the Jets’ roster, they’re slight winners here.

Grade: B+

May 172015
 

Stevie Brown, a 2010 7th round pick, played just 151 snaps combined in 2010 and 2011, but had a breakout year in 2012, grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 27th ranked safety. Unfortunately for him, he tore his ACL and missed his entire contract year in 2013 and was forced to settle for a one year deal back with the Giants to rehab his value. His 2014 season was a mixed bag. He graded out about average and played all 16 games, but he made just 8 starts and played just 559 snaps as he was benched for a stretch in the middle of the season.

As a result, he was forced to settle for this deal that’s near the NFL minimum (825K) for one-year and the Texans are getting a good deal on a guy that should at least be a replacement level starter. He’ll be an upgrade over DJ Swearinger, a 2013 2nd round pick who graded out 78th out of 87 eligible safeties last season. Swearinger wasn’t drafted by the current coaching staff, who isn’t thrilled with him and his unwillingness to play special teams, so they’re expected to trade or cut him, despite his youth. It wasn’t a good safety class in free agency, but the Texans got two of the top safeties on the market (Rahim Moore) without spending much money at all.

Grade: A

May 172015
 

Casey was signed by the Eagles following the 2012 season to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal. He was expected to be a jack of all traits matchup nightmare in Chip Kelly’s offense, but struggled to make it onto the field, playing a combined 330 snaps in 2 seasons in Philadelphia behind both Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, before being an easy cap casualty this off-season. He’s going into his age 31 season in 2015, but he’s had success with Denver Head Coach Kubiak before and they’re only paying him 1.25 million over 1 year, a fraction of what he was making in Philadelphia.

He’ll likely reprise his old role from Houston, where he played 609 snaps in 2012 under Kubiak, despite the fact that the Texans had Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham. Kubiak frequently uses two tight ends and a fullback. He’ll do that less this season in Denver because of Peyton Manning, but Casey will see a lot of playing time at fullback. He’s was Pro Football Focus’ 12th ranked fullback in 2011 and 10th ranked fullback in 2012. This is a solid cheap pickup by the Broncos, getting a decent player who has scheme familiarity and fill a need.

Grade: B+