Carolina Panthers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Cam Newton won the MVP in 2015, completing 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, while adding 636 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground on 132 carries. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked quarterback and led the Panthers to a 15-1 record and a Super Bowl appearance. However, Newton had never had a season nearly that good in the past and has struggled to live up to that season in the two seasons since. Newton has never finished higher than 15th among quarterbacks on PFF in another season and has arguably played some of the worst football of his career over the past 2 seasons.

In 2016, he finished 25th out of 36 eligible quarterbacks and completed just 52.9% of his passes for an average of 6.88 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions. After posting a career best 99.4 quarterback rating in 2015 (10 points higher than any other season), Newton had a career worst 75.8 quarterback rating in 2016. He also posted some career worsts on the ground, averaging just 3.99 yards per carry on 90 carries and totaling 359 yards and 5 touchdowns, all career worsts.

Going into 2017, it was expected that diminished rushing production from him would be the new norm. Newton had never missed time with a significant injury, but he was coming off of off-season shoulder surgery and the Panthers wanted him to take fewer hits in order to preserve him long-term. Through the first 5 weeks of last season, he continued to post disappointing rushing numbers, as he had just 90 yards and 2 touchdowns on 29 carries (3.10 YPC), but once he felt confident in his surgically repaired shoulder, he started taking off frequently again and actually ended the season with a career high in yards (754) and carries (139). The Panthers may have called fewer designed runs for him, but that did not stop him from taking off when he felt there was room to run.

While Newton’s rushing stats improved from 2016 to 2017, his passing stats really didn’t. His QB rating was higher than 2016, but not by much, as his 80.7 QB rating was the 2nd worst of his career. His completion percentage improved significantly from 2016 to 2017, but he still only completed 59.1% of his passes and his completion percentage only went up because he was attempting more shorter, high percentage passes. His YPA average was the worst of his career at 6.71 and his touchdown to interception ratio of 22 to 16 was not impressive either. He once again earned a negative overall grade from PFF.

Going into his age 29 season, Newton is still young, but it’s becoming clear that his 2015 performance will look like the outlier when his career is all said and done. On top of that, Newton may not age as well as other quarterbacks because of the amount of hits he takes and because of how reliant he is on his athleticism. In 2018, he should still have the type of season we’re used to from him, but he’ll need better play around him if this team is going to have a shot at making another deep post-season run in the loaded NFC.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Despite a standard at best season from Cam Newton, the Panthers still had a big leap in wins from 2016 to 2017, going 11-5 after a 6-10 season. They improved noticeably in first down rate differential, going from -1.72% to +1.85%, though that’s not as drastic of a leap as their record suggested. The big difference is they improved dramatically in close games. After going 2-6 in games decided by a field goal or less in 2016, they finished 8-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer in 2017, a big part of the reason why they had such an improved record.

The Panthers made the post-season at 11-5, but were one of the worst qualifying playoff teams. Their 11 wins came by a combined 98 points, while their 5 losses came by 62 points, giving them a point differential of +36 that ranked just 12th in the NFL, behind non-playoff teams like the Ravens and Chargers. Once in the post-season, they lost in their first game in New Orleans. They were definitely not a bad team in 2017, but they were not as good as their record suggested. They could easily have a couple fewer wins in 2018 without playing any worse.

On top of that, they had arguably the biggest free agent loss of any team this off-season, with left guard Andrew Norwell signing with the Jaguars for 66.5 million over 5 years. That contract makes Norwell the highest paid guard in the NFL, but it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it. A hidden gem of a 2014 undrafted free agent, Norwell became a starter midway through his rookie season and never looked back, making 54 starts in 4 seasons with the Panthers and finishing in the top-12 among guards each of the past 3 seasons, including a career best #5 rank in 2017.

The Panthers effectively made the decision to let Norwell go last off-season, when they gave big contracts to free agent acquisition left tackle Matt Kalil and right guard Trai Turner, who was also heading into the final year of his rookie deal in 2017 along with Norwell. With center Ryan Kalil also on a contract that pays him well (7.125 million owed in 2018), it was hard to justify another large contract on the offensive line, especially with right tackle Daryl Williams going into the final year of his rookie deal in 2018. Norwell was talented enough to at least get the franchise tag from the Panthers, but the Panthers just didn’t want to commit any more money to the offensive line, so they just let him walk.

The Panthers seem to have made a mistake giving Turner and Kalil big contracts instead of Norwell. Turner is a talented guard as well, but he hasn’t been as good as Norwell. Turner went in the 3rd round in 2014 and has earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, with his best coming in 2015 (4th), but he ranked just 24th in 2017 and 34th in 2016, so he’s not quite the consistent elite player that Norwell was. The Panthers re-signed him to a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season. It’s not a bad contract, but the Panthers would have been better off keeping Norwell over him.

Kalil, on the other hand, looks like a complete waste of money just one year after being signed to a 5-year, 55.5 million dollar deal that pays him 25.6 million in the first two years of the deal. The 4th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kalil looked like a future franchise left tackle when he finished 28th among offensive tackles in 16 starts at left tackle for the Vikings in 2012, but he’s finished below average on PFF in every season since his rookie year and 2017 was arguably his worst season, as he finished 74th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles, after missing all but two games in 2016 with injury. Why the Panthers decided to pay him like a franchise left tackle is beyond me. It’s possible he’ll be cut next off-season if he does not bounce back in 2018.

Right tackle Daryl Williams is probably their best offensive lineman, which is a big difference from this point last year, when Williams was just a 2016 4th round pick with 12 underwhelming career starts. In fact, the Panthers used a 2nd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft as competition for him, taking Western Michigan’s Taylor Moton, but Williams won the job and ran with it, finishing 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 16 starts. Williams is obviously a one-year wonder, but he could easily have another strong season again in 2018. He’ll probably be expensive to keep long-term, but, after losing Norwell this off-season, they can’t afford to lose Williams too.

With Williams locked in at right tackle, Moton will compete to replace Norwell at left guard. Moton profiled as a future starter coming out of college and, though guard is a new position for him, he could easily develop into a capable starter, after playing just 63 nondescript snaps as a rookie. His main competition will be Jeremiah Sirles, a veteran journeyman who has 15 career starts in 4 seasons with the Chargers and Vikings. Sirles has never received a positive grade from PFF since entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2014 and would be best as a reserve. He’ll likely only start if Moton struggles with the position switch this off-season.

Ryan Kalil, older brother of Matt Kalil, rounds out the offensive line at center. Ryan has had a much better career than Matt, making 5 Pro Bowls and 2 All-Pro teams in 11 seasons in the league. He also finished in the top-9 among centers on PFF in 6 seasons, with his most recent season in the top-9 coming in 2015, when he finished 3rd among centers. However, he’s been limited to just 14 underwhelming starts in the past two seasons and is unlikely to have a bounce back year in 2018 in his age 33 season. With only one more year left on his contract, Kalil has already announced he will be retiring after the season. He could have one more solid season left in him, but that’s far from a guarantee given his age and recent injury history. Backup Tyler Larsen was not bad in his absence last season, so there’s no guarantee he’ll even be an upgrade over him. His return won’t be enough to offset the loss of Norwell.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

In addition to losing Andrew Norwell, the Panthers also lost wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, though that was a voluntary “loss,” as they sent him to the Bills at the trade deadline during the 2017 season for a 3rd round pick. At the time, it was a huge surprise. The Panthers were 5-3 at the time and very much in the playoff mix. Benjamin was their #1 receiver who totaled a 73/1008/9 slash line as a first round rookie in 2014, a 63/941/7 slash line in 2016 (after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL), and was on pace for a 64/950/4 slash line through 8 games in 2017.

Even if the Panthers were not planning on extending Benjamin beyond the final year of his contract in 2018, giving him up for a mere 3rd round pick with a year and a half left on his deal and with the team in playoff contention did not make a ton of sense. The Panthers claimed the move was made because they wanted to open up opportunities for other receivers, but Benjamin’s deep threat ability helped pull coverage away from other receivers, so that explanation never made any sense. There were likely issues going on behind the scenes that the general public was not aware of.

The Panthers do look like the early winners of the deal, but that’s primarily because Benjamin struggled with the Bills after joining mid-season, managing just 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown in 6 games. He dealt with nagging injury problems and never got on the same page with new quarterback Tyrod Taylor. In Benjamin’s absence, 3rd year player Devin Funchess did breakout a little bit to help compensate. He actually received fewer targets (53) in 8 games without Benjamin than he did in 8 games opposite him (58) and he caught fewer balls as a result (30 vs. 33), but his yards per reception average jumped from 10.8 to 16.1 and his yardage and touchdowns jumped from 357 yards and 3 touchdowns to 483 yards and 5 touchdowns.

Funchess enters the 2018 season as the #1 option. He could easily continue his strong play from the second half of last season, though it’s worth mentioning that he’s basically a one-year wonder and struggled earlier in his career. In 2016, he managed just a 23/371/4 slash line on 59 targets and finished 106th out of 119 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a talented former 2nd round pick and only going into his age 24 season, so he has obvious upside, but he’s been inconsistent thus far in his career and it’s premature to consider him a true #1 receiver.

The Panthers also used a first round pick on a wide receiver in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Maryland’s DJ Moore with the 24th overall pick. Moore was the first wide receiver off the board in a weak wide receiver class, but he wasn’t a bad value at 24. Rookie receivers often take a year or two to develop, but Moore has the opportunity to start immediately with a good off-season. His main competition for playing time are 2017 2nd round pick Curtis Samuel and veteran journeyman Torrey Smith.

Samuel was a high pick, but is more of a hybrid running back/receiver than a true wideout. He played just 225 underwhelming snaps as a rookie, catching 15 passes for 115 yards and rushing for 64 yards on 4 carries. His best game came week 10 when he caught 5 passes for 45 yards on 40 snaps against the Dolphins, but he also broke his ankle in that game, which ended his season. Complications from that injury threaten to keep him out at least until training camp, which does not help his chances of earning a big role in 2018. With uncertain health and a non-traditional skill set, it’s unclear what his role will be this season.

Torrey Smith is the veteran of the bunch, although he hasn’t been good in years. Smith topped 750 yards in all 4 seasons with the Ravens, after they took him in the 2nd round in 2011, but he hasn’t been nearly as good since leaving, averaging a 30/453/3 slash line over the past 3 seasons, first with the 49ers in 2015 and 2016 and then with the Eagles last season. He’s been especially bad over the past two seasons, finishing in the bottom-5 of wide receivers on PFF in both seasons.

The Panthers strangely decided to trade for him and his 5 million dollar salary, even surrendering a promising young defensive back (Daryl Worley) in the deal. They’re thin enough at wide receiver that he’s very much in the mix for a role and he’s still only going into his age 29 season, so there’s some theoretical bounce back potential here, but he hasn’t shown it in years. His skill set reminds of Ted Ginn, who has had success with Cam Newton in the past, so he’s a good fit, but the Panthers could have probably signed him for half of what he’s making if they had just waited for the Eagles to release him.

Given how thin they are at wide receiver, the Panthers will need a bounce back year from tight end Greg Olsen, who had just 17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown in 2017 after three straight 1000+ yard seasons. Olsen broke his foot week 2 and was never the same. He was limited to 358 underwhelming snaps in 7 games. Going into his age 33 season in 2018, there’s some concern if he’ll ever return to his old form, but, even if he’s not quite his old form, he’s still a useful weapon. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but he finished in the top-2 in pass catching grade among tight ends in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

While Olsen was hurt last season, he briefly did some broadcasting work, hinting at a post-NFL career, and then he auditioned for Monday Night Football this off-season, though that might have mostly been a negotiating ploy, as he was trying to get an extension from the Panthers. He eventually did get that extension, worth 17.1 million over 2 years, which keeps him in Carolina through 2020, and now he says he’s committed to playing.

Even so, the Panthers needed to address the tight end position in the draft and did so by taking Ian Thomas with the 101th overall pick (4th round). Not only did they need a long-term successor for Olsen, but they needed someone to be their #2 tight end immediately. Ed Dickson led the team in tight end snaps last season with 870 in Olsen’s absence, but he’s no longer with the team. He finished last season 51st out of 72 eligible tight ends, so it’s not a huge loss, but Thomas is very raw, especially as a blocker, so he might not be an upgrade as a rookie. Blocking specialist Chris Manhertz will likely also be in the mix too, though he’s a pure blocker who blocked on 238 of 288 snaps last season and has just 3 catches in 3 seasons in the league. It’s an overall underwhelming receiving corps.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Given how thin they are in the receiving corps, running back Christian McCaffrey will once again have to play a big role in the passing game. The 8th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, McCaffrey led the Panthers with 80 catches last season and finished second on the team with 651 receiving yards and 5 receiving touchdown. McCaffrey is more of a hybrid than a traditional running back, playing 139 snaps on the slot and 59 snaps out wide and only carrying the ball 117 times.

McCaffrey actually only averaged 3.72 yards per carry on those 117 carries, though he got much better as his rookie year went on, averaging 4.68 yards per carry on 68 carries in the final 8 weeks of the season. Even though he was a high pick, McCaffrey is unlikely to ever be a 300+ carry back, as the Panthers want to get him the ball 60-80 times in the passing game and he’s not built for 350 touches per year at 5-10 205. He’s an explosive playmaker who can line up all over the field, but the Panthers don’t want to wear him out.

It looked like McCaffrey would be in for a significantly larger role as a ball carrier when the Panthers let veteran running back Jonathan Stewart go and did not add a replacement for his 198 carries early in free agency or in the draft, but they signed ex-Bronco CJ Anderson a couple weeks after the draft. Anderson will likely take over most of Stewart’s vacated carries and he should be an upgrade.

Stewart was a plodding veteran that averaged just 3.43 yards per carry and finished 53rd among 60 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus last season. Anderson, on the other hand, is coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 9th among running backs on PFF and totaling 1007 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 241 carries (4.18 YPC), despite playing on one of the worst offenses in the league in Denver. Anderson was only let go by the Broncos for salary reasons and is a great value on a 1-year, 1.75 million dollar deal in Carolina.

Anderson doesn’t do much on passing downs, but neither did Stewart. He’s an excellent complement for McCaffrey. McCaffrey and Anderson are both talented runners, but they cap each other’s rushing production as long as both are healthy, as does the presence of Cam Newton, who is a sure bet to take off and run with the ball at least 100-120 times himself. The Panthers figure to once again be a run heavy team (490 carries to 501 pass attempts last season) and should get better production out of their backs with Anderson replacing Stewart and McCaffrey continuing to develop.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

The reason the Panthers are able to be a run heavy team is because they have an above average defense that allows them run a more conservative offense. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly gets most of the attention, but defensive tackle Kawann Short is arguably just as important to this defense. A 2nd round pick in 2013, Short has finished well above average on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league, with his best play coming in the past 3 seasons. He’s finished in the top-4 among defensive tackles in all 3 seasons, while totaling 24.5 sacks and 30 quarterback hits and playing excellent run defense at 6-3 315. Outside of Aaron Donald, he’s arguably the best interior defensive lineman in football. Carolina wisely locked him up on a 5-year, 80.5 million dollar extension last off-season after franchise tagging him.

The Panthers also added defensive tackle Star Lotulelei in the 2013 draft, taking him 14th overall in the first round, though he never came close to developing into the player Short did. Lotulelei signed with the Bills this off-season, but he won’t be missed, considering he finished 72nd out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on PFF last season and considering the Panthers signed upgrade Dontari Poe to replace him. Poe comes in on a 3-year, 28 million dollar deal, which is actually less annually and in total money than Lotulelei got from the Bills (50 million over 5 years).

A 2012 first round pick, back problems forced Poe to settle for a one-year deal worth 8 million from the Falcons last off-season, as he couldn’t find the money on a long-term deal that he wanted. Poe finished as PFF’s 26th ranked defensive tackle on 784 snaps last season and didn’t miss a game with injury, so free agency went better for him the 2nd time around. Poe has been up and down in 6 seasons in the league and he’s dealt with several injuries, but he’s also only missed 2 games in his career, while averaging 850 snaps per season. At 6-3 346, Poe is built like a pure 3-4 nose tackle, but he has the versatility and the athleticism to play in both a 4-3 and a 3-4. He’s a good fit in Carolina next to Short and should be an upgrade on Lotulelei.

The Panthers also have 2016 1st round pick Vernon Butler in the mix at defensive tackle. Butler was a strange selection, given that the Panthers already had Short and Lotulelei ahead of him on the depth chart, and the decision doesn’t look any better now, with Poe coming in on a long-term deal and Short locked up on a long-term deal. Butler has played just 520 nondescript snaps in 2 seasons in the league and doesn’t have an easy path to playing time in 2018. The Panthers’ decision to sign Poe suggests that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with Butler as a starter yet, which is a bad sign for his development as he heads into his 3rd season in the league. He has some potential, but won’t play a huge role as a reserve. Veteran journeyman Kyle Love (377 snaps in 2017) is also in the mix and may even continue playing ahead of Butler, even though Love is an underwhelming talent.

The Panthers are not quite as well off at defensive end as they are at defensive tackle, but they did have a pair of double digit sack guys in 2017, with Mario Addison and Julius Peppers both tallying 11 sacks. Addison was the better of the two overall, as he also had 3 hits and 43 hurries and finished 24th among 4-3 defensive ends last season in overall grade on PFF. Addison was underwhelming earlier in his career, but he proved to be a late bloomer. In addition to his strong 2017, he also finished 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2016. His age is a bit of a concern, going into his age 31 season, and he’s not good against the run at 6-3 255, but he should have another solid season rushing the passer.

Peppers, on the other hand, is far from a guarantee. His sack total was impressive last season, especially since he only played 499 snaps, but he was not as good as his sack total suggested, as he had just 5 additional quarterback hits and 13 quarterback hurries. He finished with an average grade from PFF. Even more of a concern is the fact that he’s going into his age 38 season. Peppers is a future Hall of Famer and still showed himself to have something left in the tank last season, but he’s hard to trust given his age. He’s one of the oldest defensive players in the league.

Charles Johnson was their top reserve last season, but he struggled mightily on 389 snaps and was released this off-season. Wes Horton (359 snaps in 2017) is still in the mix, but he’s never been anything more than a rotational player and has never earned a positive season grade from PFF in 5 seasons since going undrafted in 2013. Instead, second year defensive end Daeshon Hall may be their top reserve. Hall was selected 77th overall by the Panthers in 2017 and has the tools to develop into a starter, though he’s kind of an unknown commodity after missing all but 9 snaps with injury as a rookie.

The Panthers also added another defensive end in the 2018 NFL Draft, taking Mississippi’s Marquis Haynes in the 4th round. With Julius Peppers possibly entering his final season and Mario Addison also on the wrong side of 30, the Panthers are stocking up on developmental defensive ends. Unlike Hall, Haynes is undersized at 6-3 235 and will likely never be an every down defensive end, but he could develop into a useful situational pass rusher. The Panthers may also give him a look at linebacker because of his athleticism. It’s unclear what his rookie year role will be, but he has upside as a Bruce Irvin type hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. He adds depth to a talented defensive line.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Along with Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly is an All-Pro caliber talent in this front seven. The 9th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Kuechly has been one of the best linebackers in the league basically from week 1 of his rookie year. He’s finished in the top-8 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, including 4 straight seasons in the top-2, and he has both a Defensive Rookie of the Year award and a Defensive Player of the Year award. Injuries have been a bit of an issue for him in recent years, as he’s missed 10 games in the past 3 seasons and hasn’t played in all 16 games since 2014, but, when healthy, he’s one of the most impactful defensive players in the league. He’s a true three down linebacker with no weaknesses in his game.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis used to be a similar caliber linebacker and, at one point, he and Kuechly were arguably the best 4-3 linebacker duo in the NFL, but Davis is now going into his age 35 season and on the decline. Davis was PFF’s 3rd ranked 4-3 outside linebacker as recently as 2014 and finished 8th at his position in 2015, but he’s been about a league average starter in both 2016 and 2017. He’s already announced he plans to retire after the season.

The Panthers used the 25th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft with this scenario in mind, taking Shaq Thompson out of the University of Washington. Thompson has shown that first round talent, earning well above average grades in all 3 seasons in the league, but his 640 snaps in 2017 were a career high. He’s been mostly limited to a base package linebacker role behind Kuechly and Davis, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, but the Panthers frequently kept him on the field against 3-wide sets as a slot cornerback in 2017, as he was simply too talented to take off the field. Davis has said he expects to play fewer snaps in his final season, suggesting Thompson may be close to an every down player at linebacker in 2018. More playing time at his natural position should be a good thing for him, as the 6-0 230 pounder struggled on the slot.

Thompson will be an every down player for the first 4 weeks of the season at least, as Thomas Davis will miss time with suspension after failing a drug test. When Davis returns, it will likely be to a reduced role, though he could easily still prove to be a useful player. David Mayo is expected to be the 3rd linebacker behind Kuechly and Thompson in Davis’ absence. A 5th round pick in 2015, Mayo saw 133 snaps last season when Kuechly was hurt and wasn’t bad. He may face competition from Marquis Haynes if they decide they want to try him as a linebacker, but Mayo should be able to hold down the fort in a base package role for the first month of the season. Even with Davis’ suspension, the Panthers have a strong linebacking corps, led by All-Pro Luke Kuechly and breakout candidate Shaq Thompson.

Grade: A

Secondary

While the Panthers still have a strong front 7, they’ve struggled in the secondary since losing cornerback Josh Norman after their Super Bowl season in 2015. To try to replace Norman, the Panthers used a pair of draft picks on cornerbacks in the 2016 NFL Draft, taking James Bradberry in the 2nd round and Daryl Worley in the 3rd round. The results have been underwhelming. Both earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus as rookies in 2016, in 13 and 11 starts respectively, but then both took a step both in their second season in the league in 2017. Worley was then shipped to the Eagles this off-season in the Panthers’ bizarre trade for Torrey Smith.

Bradberry remains and enters his third season in the league as the Panthers’ de facto #1 cornerback. He has the tools to develop into a top level cornerback, but has yet to show it consistently. The Panthers will be hoping he takes a leap forward in 2018, but that’s far from a guarantee. Between Bradberry’s inconsistent play, Worley’s departure, and veteran slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn’s struggles in 2017, cornerback was an obvious position of need for the Panthers this off-season and they address it by adding another two cornerbacks in the draft and by signing veteran Ross Cockrell in free agency.

Bradberry is likely locked into a starting role outside, but the other starting outside spot and the top slot cornerback spot are up for grabs. Cockrell was a smart signing on a 2-year, 6.6 million dollar deal and is likely the favorite for the other starting job. He’s made 32 starts in the past 3 seasons, including all 16 with the Steelers in 2016, and he’s earned a positive grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. He should be an upgrade on Worley if he wins the starting job.

Captain Munnerlyn was their primary slot cornerback last season, but he struggled, finishing 111th out of 120 eligible cornerbacks on PFF and was limited to just 388 snaps on the season, with linebacker Shaq Thompson eating into his playing time on the slot as the season went on. Munnerlyn has been better in the past, earning a positive grade in 5 straight seasons from 2012-2016, but he’s undersized at 5-9 195 and might not age well, going into his age 30 season. He’ll face plenty of competition for his natural slot role and doesn’t have the size to play outside consistently.

Second round rookie Donte Jackson will likely be Munnerlyn’s toughest competition, though last year’s 5th round pick Corn Elder could also be in the mix, as he’s a natural slot cornerback. Elder also missed all of last season with injury, so he’s not a lock for the final roster. The Panthers also used a 3rd round pick in this past draft on Rashaan Gaulden, but his lack of speed (4.63 40) may make him a better fit as a safety long-term, which is also a position of need for the Panthers.

Veterans Kurt Coleman and Mike Adams were the starters in 2017, making 12 starts and 16 starts respectively, but Coleman finished 82nd out of 89 eligible safeties and was subsequently let go this off-season, while Adams is going into his age 37 season and won’t be able to keep doing this for much longer. Adams is likely locked into one of the starting roles and played pretty well last season, but he’s been inconsistent in the past and is really up there in age, so he could easily struggle in 2018.

Veteran free agent acquisition Da’Norris Searcy is likely the favorite for the other starting spot, with Gaulden and possibly career special teamer Colin Jones providing competition. Searcy had 56 career starts in 7 seasons in the league, but played just 365 underwhelming snaps for the Titans last season and is going into his age 30 season. He’s a solid box safety, but little else, so he’s not really an upgrade on Coleman. If he starts, it’s because the Panthers lack a better option. This secondary still has problems.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Panthers went 11-5 in 2017, but needed to win a lot of close games to get there and they may not have the same success in close games in 2018. On top of that, they lost top offensive lineman Andrew Norwell in free agency. They upgraded running back and defensive tackle this off-season and could have a better linebacking corps with Shaq Thompson taking on an every down role, but they still have major issues in the receiving corps and in the secondary.

They do get tight end Greg Olsen back from injury, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll be the same upon his return given his age and the Panthers will also likely have to deal with other injuries, just because of the nature of the game. They had an average amount of adjusted games lost last season, so they can’t expect significantly better health in 2018. Olsen is also not their only starter who is well over 30 either, as they have 5 projected starters who are going into their age 33 season or older (Ryan Kalil, Greg Olsen, Julius Peppers, Thomas Davis, Mike Adams). 

The Panthers will still be in the mix for a playoff spot, but they also play in the much tougher NFC and in arguably the toughest division in football, so it’s going to be tough for them to make it back. If they lose a lot of close games against a tough schedule, they could easily fall back under .500. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Atlanta Falcons 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Falcons only declined by 1 win from 2016 to 2017, but they were not nearly as good last season as they were the season before. In 2016, the Falcons were an elite 11-5 team that finished 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.77% and then came up just short in their Super Bowl loss to the Patriots. In 2017, the Falcons were a slightly above average 10-6 team that finished 11th in first down rate differential at +1.28% and lost in the second round to the Eagles.

The big difference was on offense. In 2016, the Falcons were one of the best offenses in recent memory, picking up first downs at a ridiculous 43.92% rate. For comparison, the Saints ranked 2nd in that metric that season at 40.72%. There was a bigger difference between the #1 and #2 ranked offense than there was between the #2 and #9 ranked offense. In 2017, they were still good, finishing 5th in first down rate, but “only” picked up first downs at a 36.89% rate. A year after totaling 379 first downs and 58 offensive touchdowns, the Falcons managed 330 first downs and just 33 offensive touchdowns.

Quarterback Matt Ryan had the biggest drop off. In 2016, he completed 69.9% of his passes for an average of 9.26 YPA, 38 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions, putting up the 5th best single-season quarterback rating in NFL history and winning MVP. In 2017, he completed just 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.74 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions. It’s a huge difference, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Ryan’s 2016 QB rating was 18 points higher than any other season in his career and will likely look like the outlier in Ryan’s career when all is said and done.

That’s not to say Ryan isn’t a good quarterback, as he’s a top-10 player at his position and has been a consistent starter for a while. The 3rd overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, Ryan has completed 64.9% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 260 touchdowns, and 126 interceptions in his career. He’s finished in the top-11 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 8 seasons and has made all 128 starts over that time period.

He’s going into his age 33 season, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down and should be able to play at a high level into his mid 30s and possibly later. With one year left on his contract, the Falcons made the only choice they really could make and signed him to an extension that made him the highest paid quarterback in NFL history. The extension has a total value of 150 million over 5 years with 94.5 million paid out in the first 3 years and 100 million total guaranteed. It all but ensures Ryan will be the Falcons quarterback through the next 5 seasons.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

Matt Ryan and the rest of this offense also had to deal with a change in coordinator as well, as talented offensive mind Kyle Shanahan took the head coaching job with the San Francisco 49ers following the Super Bowl loss and was replaced by long-time college coach Steve Sarkisian. Sarkisian got a lot of blame for an offensive decline that likely would have happened even without him, but his playcalling was unoriginal and he struggled to get the most out of a talented offense, especially around the goal line. As talented as this offense is, they didn’t even score a touchdown on 50% of red zone visits (49.18%, 23rd in the NFL).

No stat exemplifies their red zone issues more Julio Jones’ 5 receptions on 19 red zone targets. Jones is physically dominant at 6-3 223 and is one of the best wide receivers in the league, catching 88 passes for 1444 yards and finishing #1 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but the Falcons simply could not get the ball into his hands in the red zone. As a result, he managed just 3 touchdowns all season and just 1 of them came from within the red zone. The Falcons surprisingly decided to keep Sarkisian this off-season, so they’ll obviously be hoping that another year in the system will help work out some of the kinks and get more out of their offensive talent.

Jones is their biggest offensive talent around Matt Ryan. He’s topped 1400 receiving yards in each of the last 4 seasons and has finished in the top-7 on PFF at his position in all 4 of those seasons, including 3 straight finishes in the top-2. Over that 4-year stretch, he’s totaled 411 catches for 6,317 yards, both 2nd in the NFL over that time period behind Antonio Brown, but he also only has 23 touchdowns, so even before last season he’s never been a huge threat near the goal line. Shockingly he has just 43 career receiving touchdowns in 97 games. There may not be a better receiver outside of the 20 though and it’s hard to imagine him not scoring more than 3 touchdowns in 2018.

In addition to his red zone issues, the other concern with Jones is his durability. He’s only missed 3 games in the past 4 seasons and played in all 16 games in 2017, but he’s been limited by several nagging injuries and rotated in and out of the lineup far more frequently than other top receivers last season, playing just 74.7% of the snaps in the regular season. His 765 regular season snaps ranked just 34th among wide receivers. He’s still relatively young, going into his age 29 season, and he was still one of the most productive receivers in the league last season thanks to a league leading 3.08 yards per route run, but it’s a bit concerning that he seems to basically be on a snap count.

Jones’ durability issues are likely part of the reason why the Falcons drafted Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th overall pick. The Falcons got good play from their depth receivers in 2016, with Taylor Gabriel, Aldrick Robinson, and Justin Hardy all making positive contributions, but that didn’t happen in 2017, as Jones and fellow starter Mohamed Sanu were the only Atlanta receivers to earn a positive grade from PFF. Ridley was expected to go higher in the draft early in the off-season, but he had an underwhelming combine and fell to the Falcons at 26, even in a weak wide receiver class. He’s NFL ready and should rotate with Jones and Sanu in two-wide receiver sets immediately. The Falcons also figure to run a lot of three-wide sets to get all three of them on the field at the same time.

Sanu is a capable #2 receiver, but should still be pushed for playing time by Ridley. The Falcons signed Sanu to a 5-year, 32.5 million dollar deal two off-seasons, a surprise considering he struggled when counted upon for a larger role with the Bengals, but Sanu proved to be better with his 2nd team, earning above average marks in both seasons from PFF. He has posted 59/653/4 and 67/703/5 slash lines in those two seasons, while also providing value as a blocker in the run game. He may see his production drop a little bit with Ridley in the mix, but he should still play a valuable role for this offense.

The Falcons will also be hoping for more out of 3rd year tight end Austin Hooper, a 2016 3rd rounder. Hooper was actually on the field more than both Jones and Sanu last season, playing 788 snaps, but had an underwhelming 49/526/3 slash line on 391 routes run (1.31 yards per route run) and dropped 6 passes. He was a solid blocker, but finished 60th out of 71 eligible tight ends in pass catching grade on PFF. He could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.

The Falcons released #2 tight end Levine Toilolo (421 snaps) this off-season and did not do anything to replace him other than sign veteran blocking specialist Logan Paulsen, who didn’t catch a pass on 144 snaps for the 49ers last season. Toilolo wasn’t a good player and won’t be hard to replace, but the fact that they did not add a true replacement seems like a sign of confidence in 2017 5th round pick Eric Saubert, who played just 30 snaps as a rookie. Saubert is a height/weight/speed athlete that dominated the FCS level at Drake University, but was considered very raw coming out. If he has developed, he could turn out to be a nice pass catching complement to Hooper. Even with an underwhelming tight end situation, this is still a solid receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are also involved in the passing game, though both saw their receiving production drop off from 2016 to 2017. Freeman and Coleman put up slash lines of 54/462/2 and 31/421/3 respectively in 2016, but only managed 36/317/1 and 27/299/3 respectively in 2017. Freeman also saw his rushing production drop as well, as he had just 895 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns, both his fewest since he was a 4th round rookie in 2014. Freeman has seen his carries drop from 264 in 2015 to 227 in 2016 to 196 last season, while Coleman has seen his carries increase from 87 to 118 to 156 over that same time period.

Despite that, I still like Freeman a lot more than Coleman in 2017. For one, Freeman is still the better runner. He has averaged 4.40 yards per carry over the past 3 seasons, as opposed to 4.27 for Coleman, and had a carry success rate of 51% last season (9th in the NFL), as opposed to 40% for Coleman (39th in the NFL). On Pro Football Focus, Freeman finished 18th, 15th, and 10th in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively, while Coleman has earned middling grades in all 3 seasons of his career. Freeman also should be healthier this season, as he basically missed 3 games with injury last season. He averaged 17.7 touches per game in 13 healthy games, actually higher than 2017, when he averaged 17.5 touches per game.

The Falcons also basically already picked Freeman over Coleman when they gave him a 5-year, 41.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie deal last off-season that included a 15 million dollar signing bonus. A 3rd round pick in 2015, Coleman is going into the final year of his rookie deal, but an extension seems unlikely with Freeman already locked up on such a big contract. Coleman is unlikely to get the kind of money he could get on the open market from the Falcons, so this will likely be his final season in Atlanta. The Falcons prepared for his departure by using a 4th round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft on Southern Mississippi’s Ito Smith. Smith is unlikely to have much of a role in 2018, but he gives them good insurance behind a talented duo.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

Despite the big drop off in performance, the Falcons offense was almost exactly the same personnel wise from 2016 to 2017, as they brought back 10 of 11 starters and all key reserves. The drop off was not as a result of personnel losses. They just fell victim to regression to the mean after their quarterback had a career best season in 2016. The only starter they lost was retired right guard Chris Chester. Chester made 16 starts in 2016, but struggled mightily, so he wasn’t exactly a huge loss.

His replacement wasn’t any better though, as first year starter Wes Schweitzer finished as Pro Football Focus’ 60th ranked guard out of 80 eligible, while making all 16 starts. Only a 6th round pick in 2016, Schweitzer is best as a reserve, so the Falcons signed veteran Brandon Fusco to replace him as the starting right guard. Fusco has made 80 starts in the past 6 seasons, with his best season coming with the Vikings in 2013, when he was PFF’s 9th ranked guard.

Fusco missed most of 2014 with injury and struggled in both 2015 and 2016, leading to his release from the Vikings, but he had a bit of a bounce back year in 16 starts with the 49ers in 2017. He’s still only going into his age 29 season and, at the very least, gives them an experienced starter who should be an upgrade over Schweitzer. If he plays like he did last season, he’ll be an obvious upgrade.

The Falcons could also get better play at the left guard position this season, as Andy Levitre is returning from injury. He was having a solid season, earning a positive grade from PFF for the 8th straight season, but injuries limited him to 15 snaps after week 12. Backup Ben Garland struggled in his absence, allowing 8 hits on Matt Ryan, 2nd most on the team, despite only playing 341 snaps. Levitre is going into his age 32 season, but is still a solid football player. He finished last season as PFF’s 17th ranked guard and was 13th in 2016 when he was healthy for the full season.

Right tackle Ryan Schraeder also missed time with injury, missing 2 games early in the season with a concussion. In his absence, backup Ty Sambrailo struggled mightily. When Schraeder returned, he struggled a little bit more than he’s used to, though he still finished 18th among offensive tackles on PFF. That’s a slight drop off when 2015 and 2016, when he finished 5th and 6th respectively. A 2013 undrafted free agent out of Valdosta State, Schraeder was a bit of a late bloomer, but he’s made 60 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has developed into one of the best right tackles in the league. Since he was an older rookie, he’s already going into his age 30 season, but he should remain a solid starter for at least a couple more seasons.

Left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack were the only two Falcon offensive lineman who lived up to their 2016 season, as both remained among the best players in the league at their position. Mack is the more dominant of the two, ranking 3rd on PFF among centers in 2017 and 1st in 2016. A first round pick by the Browns in 2009, Mack has been one of the best centers in the league over the past decade. He’s finished in the top-9 among centers in 7 of 9 seasons, making 133 starts over that time period. Going into his age 33 season, Mack may begin to decline soon, but he could easily still have another strong season at center. They have 2017 4th round pick Sean Harlow waiting in the wings behind him, but he’ll remain a reserve barring injury.

Matthews, on the other hand, is only going into his age 26 season, though the Falcons do need to re-sign him long-term, as he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal. The 6th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Matthews has improved in every season in the league and finished last season as PFF’s 12th ranked offensive tackle. Matthews’ cap hit for 2018 is currently 12.496 million on his 5th year option, so the Falcons may try to extend him before the season starts to lower his cap number. Now that Matt Ryan has gotten his extension, Matthews is expected to be the next priority. He may become the highest paid offensive lineman in the league (upwards of 15.5 million annually). This is a strong and experienced offensive line that could easily be one of the best in the NFL in 2018.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

While the Falcons’ offense was significantly worse in 2017 than it was in 2016, the Falcons were actually slightly improved on the defensive side of the ball, though largely by default, as the Falcons struggled mightily on defense in 2016. They allowed opponents to move the chains at a 38.15% rate, 27th in the NFL. They were able to get away with it because of how efficient their offense was, but, in 2017, their offense was not as efficient and their slightly improved defense was not enough. They finished 25th with a 35.61% first down rate allowed.

The Falcons did finish with the 8th fewest points allowed last season, but that was largely because of their #2 ranked red zone defense. If that regresses to the mean in 2018 (or worse, if they finish 32nd in red zone defense like in 2016), the Falcons are going to allow a lot more points. Much like the Falcons should be more efficient on offense in the red zone this season, the Falcons are unlikely to be as efficient in the red zone on defense this season.

On top of that, the Falcons are missing two of their best defensive linemen from last season, with Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn signing with the Panthers and Patriots respectively, and they’re unlikely to have as few injuries on defense as they did in 2017, when they only had about 5 adjusted games lost to injury. Fortunately for the Falcons, their top defensive lineman Grady Jarrett remains with the team, though they will need to give the 2015 5th round pick an extension at some point, as he heads into the final year of his rookie deal.

Jarrett may be looking to get paid among the highest paid defensive tackles in the game ($15 – $17 million annually) and it’s hard to argue he doesn’t deserve it. After flashing in limited action as a rookie in 2015, Jarrett developed into an above average starter in 2016 and then had his best year yet in 2017, finishing 9th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Built like a thicker Aaron Donald at 6-0 305, Jarrett fell in the draft because he was undersized, but he gets great leverage against the run and is sneaky quick as a pass rusher. Only going into his age 25 season, he could easily continue to get better.

Poe had a strong season in 2017 too though and he’s no longer with the team, after finishing 21st among defensive tackles on PFF. The Falcons didn’t really do much to replace him, signing veteran journeyman Terrell McClain and using a 3rd round draft pick on South Florida’s Deadrin Senat. McClain was PFF’s worst ranked 3-4 defensive end on 328 snaps with the Redskins last season and has been an underwhelming player in 7 seasons in the league. Senat has some upside and is built like Jarrett at 6-0 314, but he’s not nearly as athletic or refined as a pass rusher.

Both Senat and McClain are only base package options, so interior pass rushers Jack Crawford and Derrick Shelby will be counted on for pass rush snaps in sub packages. Crawford, a 6-5 288 pound converted defensive end, played about 30 snaps per game in that role in the first 3 weeks of the season last year before going down for the year with a torn biceps in week 4. He rushed the passer on 72.3% of his snaps. He hasn’t gotten a positive grade for a season from PFF since 2012 though and, in his last healthy season in 2016, he finished 49th among 53 eligible 4-3 defensive ends with the Cowboys. Now going into his age 30 season coming off of a major injury, he’s unlikely to be much better.

Shelby played all 16 games last season, but was limited to 397 snaps in primarily a base package defensive end role in his first season back from a torn achilles that ended his 2016 prematurely. He played well in that role though and he has some pass rush ability as well, with his best season coming in 2015 with the Dolphins when he finished as PFF’s 12th ranked 4-3 defensive end. He played 862 snaps that season, earning positive grades against the run and as a pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 31 hurries.

Going into his age 29 season, Shelby has some bounce back potential and could fill a much needed role for this team as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. He has good size at 6-2 280 and lined up on the interior on 105 of his 183 pass rush snaps in 2017. He had just 1 sack on the season, but he did hurry the quarterback 15 times and he could easily be better another year removed from that injury. With Poe out of the picture, the Falcons are going to need him to be.

Shelby could also see some snaps at his natural defensive end position. Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, and Brooks Reed are locked in as the top-3 defensive ends, but depth is needed. The 8th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Beasley led the league with 16 sacks in 2016, which led to him being prematurely anointed as a top level defensive player. The sack number was impressive, but he struggled mightily against the run and had just 4 hits, 36 hurries, and 1 batted pass, so he wasn’t actually as efficient of a pass rusher as his sack total suggested. He finished just above average overall on PFF.

In 2017, his sack total dropped all the way to 6 and his peripheral stats were not any better, as he had just 22 hurries and 2 batted passes, while not getting a single additional quarterback hit all season. As a result, he earned a below average grade from PFF for the season. He won’t play linebacker anymore in 2018, but considering 67.1% of his snaps over the past 2 seasons have come off the edge as a pass rusher, him playing some linebacker in base packages wasn’t really the problem last season. He only dropped into coverage 32 times last season.

Beasley also lacks the size to hold up against the run as a defensive end at 6-3 246 and may just be a sub package edge rusher. That’s not to say that he couldn’t have a strong season in that role. Beasley went 8th overall for a reason and has obvious pass rush upside, still only going into his age 26 season. An early season hamstring injury may have limited him throughout 2017. He only missed 2 games, but was not the same player upon his return and only played 482 snaps on the season, part of the reason why his pass rush stats dropped.

Now healthy, Beasley could easily have a bounce back year getting after the quarterback, even if he’s never been as good as the 16 sacks he had in 2016 would suggest. With Adrian Clayborn (10 sacks, 8 hits, 37 hurries, 9th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF) no longer on the team, they’ll need him to do that. The Falcons clearly still believe in him, picking up his 5th year option for 2019, which will be worth an estimated 12.81 million.

Takkarist McKinley is also a first round pick defensive end, going 26th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. McKinley is very much a Vic Beasley type player at 6-2 250 and played just 112 run snaps out of 401 total snaps as a rookie. He impressed as a pass rusher and will have a bigger pass rush role in his 2nd season in the league with Clayborn gone and he also held up against the run pretty well, so he may play more of an every down role. A breakout year for him would be a big boost for this defensive line, but that’s far from a guarantee.

One of Beasley or McKinley will have to play more base package snaps because Brooks Reed is their only true base defensive end, aside from Derrick Shelby. Reed isn’t big at 6-3 254, but has a good motor and a knack for setting the edge. Of his 413 snaps last season, 212 of them came on run snaps, but he also impressed with 4 sacks, 3 hits, and 15 hurries on 198 pass rush snaps. On the season, he actually finished 13th among 4-3 defensive ends on PFF. The 7-year veteran has never been that good before and is going into his age 30 season, but he’s a useful role player who should have another solid season. Even so, this is not the same defensive line as it was last season, as they lost a pair of key contributors and did not really replace them.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

With Vic Beasley moving to defensive end full-time, 2nd year linebacker Duke Riley is locked in as the 3rd linebacker with Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Riley only played 224 snaps as a rookie, but wasn’t bad in the limited role and the 3rd round pick has good upside. The 3rd linebacker role is only a base package role anyway, coming off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages, so Riley should be able to do a good job in it. Riley is undersized at 6-1 218, but has good sideline to sideline speed.

That’s true of all three of the Falcons’ starting linebackers, as Jones and Campbell are 6-1 222 and 6-4 232 respectively. Both are also young, going into only their 3rd year in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2016, Jones was a capable starter from the word go (29 starts in 2 seasons) and had a breakout 2017, finishing 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, including 2nd in coverage grade. Still only going into his age 23 season, Jones has a sky high upside.

Campbell also was a starter as a rookie and has 26 starts in 2 seasons, but the 4th round pick took his rookie year lumps, finishing 28th among 31st eligible 4-3 outside linebackers. He was better in 2017, grading about league average. He’s not as naturally talented as Jones is, but he’s a capable all-around linebacker that could easily have another solid season in 2018. This is a solid young linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Falcons return all of their key players in the secondary as well, led by #1 cornerback Desmond Trufant. Trufant was injured during the Falcons’ playoff run in 2016, tearing his pectoral muscle 9 games into the season and getting placed on injured reserve, but rebounded to finish as Pro Football Focus’ 13th ranked cornerback in 2017. A first round pick in 2013, Trufant has made 72 starts in 5 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-20 at his position in all 5 seasons. The Falcons locked him up long-term last off-season with a 5-year, 68.75 million dollar extension.

Safety Keanu Neal is another former first round pick that has developed into a great starter in the secondary. The 17th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Neal flashed in 14 starts as a rookie and then broke out as PFF’s 5th ranked safety in 16 starts in 2017. Like so many of the Falcons’ defensive starters, Neal is still very young and has a high upside. He could continue to improve in 2018 and beyond.

Fellow starting safety Ricardo Allen is a relative veteran, as he was drafted in the 5th round back in 2014. Allen didn’t play a snap as a rookie and remains under contract inexpensively with the Falcons for one more year as a restricted free agent, but he’s earned a bigger contract, making 45 starts in the past 3 seasons and earning a positive grade from PFF in both 2016 and 2017. With the Falcons now committed to Matt Ryan at 30 million annually for the foreseeable future and other young players’ contracts coming up soon, Allen may not get the money he wants in Atlanta and could depart as a restricted free agent next off-season. 2017 5th round pick Damontae Kazee waits in the wings and flashed on 164 snaps as a rookie.

Robert Alford is locked in as the #2 cornerback opposite Trufant. A 2nd round pick in the same draft as Trufant (2013), Alford has not had the same career Trufant has, but he’s developed into a starting caliber player. He’s made 61 starts in 5 seasons in the league, including 47 of 48 starts in the past 3 seasons. Over the past 3 seasons, he’s earned positive grades from PFF twice. An older rookie, Alford is already going into his age 30 season and also has a pretty expensive contract, as he’s owed 8.5 million non-guaranteed in both 2019 and 2020. The Falcons used a 2nd round pick on Colorado’s Isaiah Oliver in this past draft, so maybe they will cut ties with Alford for cap reasons in next off-season or two.

In the meantime, Oliver will compete with slot cornerback Brian Poole for the only unsettled role in the secondary. Poole went undrafted in 2016 and was mediocre on 630 snaps last season, but he’s a more natural fit on the slot than Oliver at 5-10 211 and he was better as a rookie in 2016, earning a positive grade from PFF on 833 snaps. He’s likely the favorite for the slot job, leaving Oliver as valuable depth. It’s an above average secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Falcons will likely never be as good offensively as they were in 2016 again, but they still have one of the most talented offenses in the league and they should be more efficient in the red zone. Defensively, they’re unlikely to be as efficient in the red zone and they lost a pair of key defensive linemen without really replacing them, but their young defense could easily continue developing and end the season as a serviceable unit.

On paper this is one of the more talented teams in the league and they should compete for the NFC South title. Unfortunately, they play in the loaded NFC in arguably the toughest division in football, so they’re far from a guarantee to win the NFC South or even grab one of the two wild card spots, as talented as they are. The key for them will be remaining healthy, as they’ve had among the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the past 2 seasons. They may not be as fortunate in 2018. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Going into 2017, many expected the Buccaneers would have a breakout season and make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2007. The Buccaneers went 9-7 the year prior and added much needed weapons for young quarterback Jameis Winston, who was a popular breakout candidate going into his 3rd year in the league. Instead, the Buccaneers finished 5-11 and in dead last in the NFC South.

A lot of factors went into their disappointing record, but a big reason is simply that Jameis Winston was not healthy for a big chunk of the season. Winston got off to a strong start, completing 61.0% of his passes for an average of 7.80 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the first 4 games of the season. After 4 games, the Buccaneers sat at 2-2 and could have easily been 3-1 if they didn’t miss 3 field goals in their week 4 loss to the Patriots.

Winston then went down with a shoulder injury in their week 5 loss in Arizona and, though he returned the following week in Buffalo, he did not look like the same quarterback. Winston played through the injury for 3 starts, all losses, and completed 63.2% of his passes for just 6.96 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, before being shut down and missing the next 3 games.

After nearly a month off, Winston seemed back to his early season form in the final 5 games of the season, completing 67.2% of his passes for an average of 8.66 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. The Buccaneers went just 1-4 in those 5 games, but four of those games, including their win, came against teams that finished .500 or better and their 4 losses came by a combined 12 points. In Winston’s 9 healthy starts, the Buccaneers picked up first downs at a 39.73% rate, which would have been the second best rate in the league over the course of the season, only behind New England. Given how he played at the beginning and the end of last season, Winston could have easily had a breakout year in 2017 had he stayed healthy.

Going into 2018, Winston is still only going into his age 24 season and the former #1 overall pick still has a huge upside. In addition to staying healthy, he’ll also need to a better job of taking care of the ball and avoiding penalties. His 8 pre-snap penalties were 2nd most in the league in 2017 and his 59 turnovers are the most in the league since he entered in 2015. Fumbles in particular have been a concern, as he has 15 lost fumbles in his career, including 13 over the past 2 seasons.  If he can stay healthy and clean up his game a little bit, Winston could have a Pro-Bowl caliber season this season.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

How Winston played down the stretch last season after returning from injury is even more impressive when you consider that his return coincided with the Buccaneers losing their top-two offensive linemen for the season. Center Ali Marpet and right tackle Demar Dotson were both placed on injured reserve the same week Winston returned. They finished the season ranked 6th among centers and 8th among offensive tackles respectively on Pro Football Focus, so both were big losses, especially since they were the Buccaneers’ only offensive linemen to earn positive grades from PFF.

In an effort to improve their blocking upfront, the Buccaneers signed center Ryan Jensen from the Ravens in free agency and also drafted Humboldt State offensive tackle Alex Cappa with the 94th pick in the draft (3rd round). Jensen’s 4-year, 42 million dollar deal makes him the highest paid center in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, so he’s obviously locked in as the starter at center, which will move Marpet back to guard, where the 2015 2nd round pick made 29 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league. Marpet was PFF’s 10th ranked guard in 16 starts in 2016, so it shouldn’t be a hard switch for him. With Marpet going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Buccaneers will probably look to extend him before the start of the season.

The problem is Marpet will likely look to top Jensen’s deal and could have his eyes on being the highest paid guard in the NFL, after Kevin Zeitler and Andrew Norwell have cashed-in in the past two off-seasons with deals worth 60 million and 66.5 million respectively over 5 years. Jensen was solid in 2017, finishing as PFF’s 13th ranked center, but it was a shock that he got as big of a deal as he did, given that the converted guard only had 9 career starts in his first 4 seasons in the league prior to last season. He’ll likely struggle to live up to his salary, but should still be a nice addition to this line.

With Marpet moving back to guard, veterans JR Sweezy and Evan Smith will compete for the other starting guard spot. Sweezy is probably the favorite, but he struggled in 2017, finishing 64th out of 80 eligible guards on PFF. He hasn’t been much better in the past either, earning negative guards in all 5 seasons he’s played in his career and missing all of 2016 with a back injury. The 4-year, 21.75 million dollar deal he signed two off-seasons ago looked like a mistake when it was agreed to and hasn’t looked better with time. Sweezy has 60 starts in his past 4 healthy seasons, but should not be considered a lock to start in 2018. If he’s unable to lock down a starting job, he’ll likely be cut before the season starts, as his non-guaranteed 4.5 million dollar salary is hard to justify for a backup.

Smith is their other option and he’s probably the better choice. He has just 13 starts in the past 3 seasons, but he was a full-time starting center in both 2013 and 2014 and has the versatility to play all 3 interior offensive line spots. He’s going into his age 33 season, so his best years are probably behind him, but he was about average on 678 snaps last season, spending time both at center after Marpet got hurt and also at left guard, where struggling Kevin Pamphile finished last season 67th out of 80 eligible guards on 740 snaps. Even if Smith he doesn’t win the starting job outright, he’ll probably at least make a few spot starts somewhere in 2018.

Alex Cappa could also be an option at the other guard spot, but it’s more likely that he doesn’t make an impact until 2019, coming over from Division-II Humboldt State. It’s unclear where he ends up long-term, but he has the size to stay outside at tackle and the Buccaneers could have a big need at the position soon. Left tackle Donovan Smith has made all 48 starts over the past 3 seasons, since going in the 2nd round in 2015, but he’s struggled in all 3 seasons and finished last season 73rd out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on PFF, so the Buccaneers might be hesitant to bring him back long-term as a free agent next off-season. He’s allowed the most quarterback hits of any offensive tackle in the league in the past 3 seasons (34) and ranks 2nd in penalties (34).

On the other side, right tackle Demar Dotson was still playing at a high level before getting injured last season and has earned positive marks from PFF in 6 straight seasons (74 starts), but he hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2014 and is going into his age 33 season. With Dotson having just two years left on his deal, the Buccaneers may see Cappa as the right tackle of the future. With Jensen coming in and Dotson and Marpet likely returning healthy, this looks like an improved offensive line, but they still have obvious weaknesses.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

In addition to their struggles upfront, the Buccaneers also had issues on the ground, averaging just 3.73 yards per carry, 27th in the NFL. Part of that was because of their offensive line, but their backs also deserve a lot of the blame. Jacquizz Rodgers started early on in the season, but finished with just 244 yards on 64 carries (3.82 YPC). Doug Martin then took over as the starter after missing the first 3 games of the season with suspension, but was even worse, managing just 406 yards on 138 carries (2.94 YPC).

Down the stretch, 2016 undrafted free agent Peyton Barber was their lead back and he was definitely their best back. He rushed for 423 yards on 108 carries, an average of 3.92 YPC. That’s not that impressive, but, considering the state of the Buccaneers’ offensive line down the stretch, it’s pretty solid. He was Tampa Bay’s only running back that finished with a positive grade from Pro Football Focus, though he did struggle mightily in pass protection, allowing 2 sacks and 2 hurries on just 32 pass block snaps.

Barber should have a role into 2018, but the Buccaneers used a 2nd round pick on a running back, taking USC’s Ronald Jones with the 38th pick. With Barber as his only real competition, Jones should have a big role as a rookie and he has the passing down skills to complement Barber well. We’ve seen rookie running backs have a big immediate impact in recent years and Jones has the talent to continue in those footsteps. The Buccaneers also brought back Charles Sims as a passing down option, but he’s an underwhelming option who only received the ball on 56 of his team leading 380 running back snaps. The Buccaneers should be better at running back this season, but things are definitely still unsettled at the position.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

While Winston didn’t get much help from his offensive line or the running game, he did have a deep and talented receiving corps to throw to. Mike Evans remained his #1 option, putting up his 4th straight 1000+ yard season to start his career, though he did have the least productive season of his career, with “only” a 71/1001/5 slash line. Part of that was because of other options around him taking targets, part of that was because of his inconsistent quarterback play, but Evans himself also did take a step back performance wise, after finishing the 2016 season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked wide receiver. He still finished 14th at his position though, his 3rd season in the top-14 at his position in 4 years in the league, so he’s still an elite receiver.

Only going into his age 25 season, Evans’ best play might still be ahead of him. The Buccaneers gave him a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar extension this off-season ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, which makes him the 2nd highest paid wide receiver in the NFL in average annual salary, only behind Antonio Brown. It’s a lot of money, but if Evans continues to develop and contracts continue to get bigger year-by-year, this contract will look like a solid value in 2-3 years time.

The Buccaneers signed DeSean Jackson to a 3-year, 33.5 million dollar deal last off-season as a complement to Evans, but he had a disappointing first season with the Buccaneers, posting a 50/668/3 slash line on 610 snaps in 14 games. Jackson still earned positive grades from PFF, the 6th season in a row that he’s done so, and he could have a better year in 2018, with better health, more consistent quarterback play, and another year in the system, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and is very reliant on speed, so his best days could easily be behind him.

Even with Jackson not living up to expectations, the Buccaneers were still good in the receiving corps because of their depth. In fact, when Jackson was dealing with injuries late in the season, 3rd round rookie Chris Godwin arguably played better than Jackson had all season, totalling 16 catches for 295 yards and a touchdown in the Buccaneers’ final 4 games. On the year, Godwin had a 34/525/1 slash line on just 56 targets (9.38 yards per target) and 258 routes run (2.03 yards per route run, 13th in the NFL) and finished as PFF’s 16th ranked wide receiver on just 446 snaps.

Godwin was considered to be a good value in the 3rd round and proved it as a rookie. He’s a great athlete for his size at 6-1 209 and does a good job making contested catches and breaking tackles in the open field (8 broken tackles on 34 catches). He enters the season as the favorite to be the #3 receiver and could have a big breakout year if either Evans or Jackson suffers a major injury.

Godwin’s competition for the #3 receiver job is veteran slot specialist Adam Humphries. Humphries played 681 snaps last season and had a decent 61/631/1 slash line, but earned negative grades from PFF, his 3rd straight season with negative grades to start his career. The 2015 undrafted free agent is a capable slot option, which should earn him some playing time, but Godwin figures to see more snaps in the slot this season too, in addition to rotating with Jackson and Evans outside.

The Buccaneers are deep at tight end too. OJ Howard was the 19th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and made 14 starts as a rookie, but “backup” tight end Cameron Brate was just given a 6-year, 41 million dollar contract this off-season as a restricted free agent. Brate played nearly as many snaps as Howard did (608 vs. 582) and outproduced him, catching 48 passes for 591 yards and 6 touchdowns. Brate was originally undrafted out of Harvard back in 2014, but he put up a 57/660/8 slash line in a mini-breakout year in 2016 and then proved himself again in 2017, even with the Bucs adding Howard in the first round.

Howard had a solid receiving year too. His slash line of 26/432/6 looks underwhelming, but he also saw significantly fewer targets than Brate (77 vs. 39) and was significantly more efficient on a per target basis. Howard was primarily used as a blocker (243 routes run and 365 blocking snaps), while Brate was used close to exclusively as a receiver (421 routes run and 161 blocking snaps). Brate actually held up alright in limited action as a blocker, while Howard was the one who had major struggles, finishing 68th out of 72 eligible tight ends in run block grade. Howard has the frame to be a good blocker at 6-6 250 and could easily get better as he goes into his 2nd year in the league. It’s hardly rare to see a tight end get significantly better as a run blocker once he has a year or two under his belt.

Conventional wisdom suggested the Buccaneers were going to let Brate walk as a free agent next off-season or even trade him as a restricted free agent this off-season, rather than re-signing him long-term, but instead they gave him a market value contract and now have both Brate and Howard under team control long-term. They both likely cap each other’s upside in terms of passing production, especially Howard, who is not the primary pass catching tight end, but they are both useful weapons to have around. This is one of the deepest receiving corps in the league.

Grade: A

Defensive Line

Even with Jameis Winston hurt for half of the season, the Buccaneers still finished 2nd in first downs with 352 and 3rd in first down rate at 37.33%. Why then did they go 5-11? Well they lost at least one easily winnable game because of their kicking game. In all, they lost just 4 games by more than a touchdown last season, with just 1 of those games (week 3 in Minnesota) coming when Winston was healthy.

They also struggled to make big plays on offense, with just 6 plays of 40+ yards all season. Fortunately, both record in close games and big plays tend to be inconsistent from year-to-year and it’s not hard to see how the Buccaneers could get more big plays in 2018, given all of the weapons they have on offense. A few more big plays could turn some of those close losses into wins.

Better play from this defense would also turn some of those close losses into wins and it wouldn’t be hard for them to be improved on that side of the ball. They finished last season 28th in first down rate allowed at 36.20% and their defensive struggles were by far the biggest thing keeping this team from winning games. With few offensive needs and a lot of cap space to work with, the Buccaneers made improving their defense a priority this off-season.

The biggest contract they added this off-season wasn’t added through free agency, but rather trade, as the Buccaneers sent a 3rd round pick to the Giants for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The Giants re-signed Pierre-Paul to a 4-year, 62 million dollar deal last off-season that made him the 10th highest paid defensive lineman in the league, but the Giants already paid him 22.5 million in the first year, so it’s a bit strange that they’d be willing to part with him for a mere 3rd round pick.

Clearly they didn’t think he’d be a good fit for their new 3-4 defense, after he spent his first 8 seasons in a 4-3, but they made that assessment without ever seeing him play in the new system. With the Giants eschewing a quarterback of the future atop the draft and instead taking Saquon Barkley to compete right away, giving up on JPP so quickly could prove to be a big mistake.

The Bucs now have JPP under contract for 39.5 million over the next 3 seasons, a very reasonable rate for his skill set, and have the ability to cut him at any point if he declines. He also gets to stay in his natural 4-3 scheme with the Buccaneers. The 15th overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, JPP has made two Pro-Bowls and has 58 career sacks, while holding up well against the run.

He’s earned positive grades from Pro Football Focus in all 8 seasons, including a 2016 season in which he finished 5th among 4-3 defensive ends. He’s had some injury problems, but he’s also played in all 16 games in 5 of 8 seasons, including last season. Still only going into his age 29 season, JPP should play at a high level for another couple seasons at least and was a big addition for a team with a league low 22 sacks in 2017.

The Buccaneers also added defensive end Vinny Curry this off-season, signing him to a 3-year, 23 million dollar deal after the Eagles cut him for salary cap purposes. Curry played well for the Eagles, but they had to cut someone to get under the cap and Curry’s 9 million dollar non-guaranteed salary became excessive after the Eagles acquired Michael Bennett from the Seahawks.

Curry only managed 22 sacks in the last 5 seasons with the Eagles, but that was largely because he was buried on the depth chart for much of his tenure. The 575 snaps he played in 2017 were a career high and prior to last season he had never played more than 436 snaps in a season. He only had 3 sacks last season, but his 17 quarterback hits were 2nd most at his position and he was PFF’s 10th ranked 4-3 defensive end overall. He earned positive grades in 4 of his last 5 seasons with the Eagles and, still only going into his age 30 season, he should give the Buccaneers another much needed pass rusher.

Curry and JPP are also bigger defensive ends at 6-3 279 and 6-5 275 respectively and have the size to line up as an interior pass rusher in sub packages. Robert Ayers and Ryan Russell, their top-2 defensive ends in terms of snaps played last season, are no longer with the team, but they still have William Gholston and Noah Spence in the mix. Gholston is a pure base package run stuffer at 6-6 281 that has never graded out above average as a pass rusher in 5 seasons in the league.

Gholston has just 10 sacks in those 5 seasons, so it’s a bit strange that the Buccaneers re-signed him to a 5-year, 27.5 million deal last off-season, but at least they did not guarantee any money beyond the first year. With Curry and JPP coming in, Gholston will likely have an even smaller role than last season when he played just 447 snaps in 14 games. It’s possible they are unable to justify keeping him on the roster with a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and cut ties with him before the season starts.

Spence, on the other hand, should have a role, especially as a sub package edge rusher. A 2016 2nd round pick, Spence was considered arguably the best pass rusher in his class, but fell to the 2nd round because of concerns about his size (6-2 251) and off-the-field issues. He was solid as a pass rusher on 569 snaps as a rookie, totalling 6 sacks and 6 quarterback hits, and was seen as a popular breakout candidate going into the season, but managed just 1 sack on 246 snaps in 6 games before going down for the season with injury. Spence is expected to be healthy for his 3rd season in the league in 2018 and could have an impact in sub packages, though he’s squarely behind both JPP and Curry for snaps and should remain a liability on run snaps. If Spence proves himself early on, the Buccaneers may try to get all three defensive ends on the field often in pass rush situations.

The Buccaneers really only have one good interior pass rushing defensive tackle, Pro-Bowl caliber Gerald McCoy, so their depth at defensive end helps. The Buccaneers did add Vita Vea in the first round of the draft and veteran Beau Allen in free agency, but neither of those two are much of a pass rusher. Allen played a rotational role in Philadelphia, maxing out at 422 snaps in 2017, and will likely remain in that role with the Buccaneers, given his limited skill set. Vea has much more upside as a pass rusher, but was drafted primarily for his run stuffing ability at 6-4 344.

Vea is athletic enough to develop as a pass rusher, but he’s unrefined at this stage of his career. He had some success rushing the passer in college, but most of that success came from his bull rush. He’ll find it harder to win on pure strength as a pass rusher in the NFL and will have to develop some finesse moves to stay on the field for all 3 downs. The Buccaneers clearly believe he can develop into that every down player, otherwise they would not have used the 12th overall pick on him, especially with top safety prospect Derwin James still on the board.

Gerald McCoy is also a former first round pick, going 3rd overall in 2010, and he’s more than lived up to it. He’s been a top-7 defensive tackle in 5 of the past 6 seasons, with his only down season coming when he played through injury in 2015. Injuries have been a concern for him throughout his career, as he’s only twice played all 16 games, but, when healthy, he’s one of the best defensive tackles in the league. He’s going into his age 30 season, so he may start declining soon, but, with more talent around him on this defensive line, he could still have a big statistical season.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

While the Buccaneers spent major resources revamping their defensive line and secondary this off-season, they didn’t need to do anything significant at linebacker. Injuries limited every down linebackers Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander to 13 and 12 games respectively last season, but, when they are healthy, those two are more than capable in every down roles and neither has a significant injury history.

David is the better of the two, finishing last season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker. That’s nothing new for him, as he’s finished in the top-5 at his position in 4 of 6 seasons in the league, though his performance in both 2015 and 2016 left something to be desired. Still, he’s only going into his age 28 season and should have another strong season in 2018. The Buccaneers are a different defense when he’s out there, so simply having him healthy for 16 games could give easily this defense a boost.

Alexander, on the other hand, has never played as well as David has, but he’s still earned a positive grade for his coverage ability in each of the past 2 seasons. Undersized at 6-1 227, Alexander has some issues against the run, but he fits what the modern NFL is looking for out of a linebacker because of his ability to cover one-on-one and play all 3 downs. A 2015 4th round pick, Alexander took his rookie lumps in 12 starts in 2015, but has been better over the past 2 seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, it’s possible his best play is still ahead of him. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, he’s a candidate to get an extension before the start of the season.

Kendell Beckwith is the Buccaneers’ 3rd linebacker, but he actually played more snaps than both David and Alexander in 2017, totalling 846 in 16 games. When both David and Alexander are healthy, he’s only a base package run stuffer who comes off the field in sub packages for a 5th defensive back, but with David and Alexander both missing starts, Beckwith had to play some every down linebacker early in the season and they also lined him up as an edge rusher in sub packages down the stretch when they were dealing with injuries at defensive end.

A 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Beckwith seemed overwhelmed with his rookie year role, finishing dead last out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF, but that was primarily because of his awful pass rush grade, as he managed just 1 sack and 7 hurries on 177 pass rush snaps. He was decent as a run stuffer and could easily be better in his 2nd season in the league, especially if he’s allowed to just focus on that role. Barring injuries, this is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B

Secondary

Much like on the defensive line, the Buccaneers had major issues in the secondary last year. Given that, it’s not a surprise that the Buccaneers used a pair of 2nd round picks on the position, after picking up an extra pair of 2nd rounders in their trade down with the Bills from 7 to 12. North Carolina’s MJ Stewart and Auburn’s Carlton Davis were drafted 53rd and 63th overall respectively and will compete for rookie year roles.

The Buccaneers also re-signed top cornerback Brent Grimes to a one-year, 7 million dollar deal. Grimes is going into his age 35 season in 2018, but still played pretty well last season, earning a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. Grimes has been a productive starter for a long-time, with his best seasons coming in 2010 (10th among cornerbacks on PFF), 2011 (3rd), 2013 (4th), and 2016 (1st), but he’s year-to-year at this point in his career. He could easily have a major drop-off in his play in 2018 and, even if he doesn’t, he could easily retire next off-season.

Given Grimes’ age, the Buccaneers also obviously hoping that fellow starter Vernon Hargreaves can develop into the #1 cornerback they expected he’d become when they drafted him 11th overall in 2016. So far, he’s been a major disappointment. As a rookie, he was thrown on more than any cornerback in the league (113 times) and allowed 70% completion and a league high 80 completions. He finished the season 111th out of 120 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in terms of coverage grade.

His 2nd year in the league was not better, as he struggled in 7 starts to begin the season and then got demoted to the 3rd cornerback role, before missing the final 7 games of the season with a hamstring injury. With two rookies coming in and replacement starter Ryan Smith still in the mix, Hargreaves will likely have to compete to earn his starting job back this off-season. The Buccaneers have openly discussed playing him on the slot more this season, in hopes of finding a more natural home for him at the NFL level.

Smith wasn’t great in Hargreaves absence either, as the 2016 4th round pick finished 108th out of 121 eligible cornerbacks on PFF in terms of coverage grade. Because of that, either Davis or Stewart could have an immediate role. Davis is a natural outside cornerback who could play opposite Grimes in 3 cornerback sets with Hargreaves lined up on the slot. Stewart, on the other hand, is a better fit on the slot.

Stewart could also see time at safety, which was another problem position for the Buccaneers last season. Veteran Chris Conte and 2nd round rookie Justin Evans led the position in snaps played with 773 and 715 respectively and both were underwhelming at best. Conte has made 90 starts in 7 seasons in the league, but has never gotten a positive grade for a season from PFF. Evans, on the other hand, has some upside and could still develop into a capable starter. The Buccaneers also had run stuffer TJ Ward in the mix as a rotational safety last season, but he’s no longer with the team. It’s an improved secondary, but one that still has major problems.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Buccaneers went 5-11 last season, but were a lot better than their record suggested and could have a big leap in win total this season. They should have better luck in close games, more explosive plays on offense, an improved defense, and hopefully a healthy Jameis Winston for the full season. Considering they finished last season 12th in first down rate differential despite Winston being banged up for half of the season, they could easily be a top-10 team in 2018 and, on paper at least, they have the talent to back that up. The biggest barrier to them making the playoffs might be simply that the NFC is too good and not every deserving team is going to make the playoffs. Last year, the Buccaneers had one of the toughest schedules in the league and, in the loaded NFC South, they will likely have one of the toughest schedules in the league again this season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

New Orleans Saints 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

A big reason why the NFL can be so tough to predict year-to-year is that some teams get huge contributions from their rookie classes and it’s not always easy to predict which teams those are going to be. Not only is the draft largely a crapshoot that even the best front offices have never consistently mastered, but even draft classes that turn out to be strong down the line don’t always make major impacts in year one.

Going into last season, the Saints were coming off three straight 7-9 finishes, despite quarterback Drew Brees exceeding 4800 passing yards and 32 passing touchdowns in each of those 3 seasons. Brees was 38 years old and his supporting cast didn’t seem to improve drastically last off-season, so the Saints were understandably a longshot in the NFC.

However, thanks in large part to their rookie class, the Saints ended the season with a 11-5 record and won the NFC South. Few experts considered the Saints to be draft day winners in 2017, even though they had 6 picks in the first 3 rounds (the extra picks were acquired in trades that sent away Brandin Cooks and a 2018 2nd round pick), but their rookie class was easily the most impactful in the league last season.

All 6 of their picks in the first 3 rounds made positive rookie year impacts, most notably cornerback Marshon Lattimore and running back Alvin Kamara, who were Defensive and Offensive Rookie of the Year. Lattimore was one of four defensive players the Saints took in the first 3 rounds, which helped shore up a defense that was annually the worst in the league prior to 2017, while Kamara and first round offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk helped improve the running game and offensive line around Brees.

Brees still looked good, finishing 4th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus (his 12th straight season in the top-7) and completing an NFL record 72.0% of his passes, but he was not nearly as involved in the offense as he was prior to 2017, as his 536 pass attempts were his fewest in a season since 2009 and his 23 passing touchdowns were his fewest since 2003. With Brees in his late 30s, the Saints want to be more of a run heavy team and their 2017 draft class helped them to do that last season by improving their running game and defense.

The big question at quarterback for the Saints is who comes after Drew Brees. The Saints have drafted just one quarterback higher than the 7th round in the Drew Brees era and that was 2015 3rd round pick Garrett Grayson, who never threw a pass in a regular season game and is no longer with the team. Head Coach Sean Payton has talked up 2017 undrafted free agent Taysom Hill as a quarterback of the future option, but he hasn’t thrown a regular season pass either.

When the Saints traded away their 2019 1st round pick to move up from 27 to 14 with the Packers, most assumed it was to draft quarterback Lamar Jackson, but the Saints shocked everyone by selecting defensive end Marcus Davenport instead. Without a pick in the 2nd round from their trade for the Alvin Kamara selection in 2017, the Saints didn’t draft a quarterback in any round and now go into the 2018 season with a major long-term question mark at quarterback and no 2019 first round pick to use to address it.

If Davenport has the kind of impact that their first round picks did last year, the lack of a 2019 first round pick might not be a huge deal for a team that is in win now mode, but, if Brees declines and the Saints disappoint, they may regret trading away that first rounder. We’ve seen quarterbacks play well into their late 30s and early 40s in recent years, but we’ve also seen quarterbacks like Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Dan Marino lose it in a hurry. Without a better option (Taysom Hill is competing with failed Texans starter Tom Savage for the backup job), a significant drop off in play by Brees would likely sink this team’s playoff chances in a tough NFC.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

While Lattimore and Kamara were the Saints’ two best rookies, 32nd overall selection Ryan Ramczyk had a huge impact as well. Many saw him as a bit of a panic selection for a team that was planning on taking linebacker Reuben Foster, only to see the 49ers trade up and take him one spot ahead of them. Ramczyk didn’t fill an obvious need for a team that used a first round pick on an offensive lineman in 2015 and had capable veteran starters at the other 4 spots, but offensive tackles Terron Armstead and Zach Strief missed a combined 20 games with injury last season, so Ramczyk ended up making all 16 starts as rookie (2 at left tackle and 14 at right tackle).

Ramczyk didn’t just make all 16 starts, but also played at a high level, finished 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, excelling in the run game and allowing just 3 sacks and 5 hits on Brees. Strief retired ahead of his age 35 season this off-season, so Ramczyk is locked in at right tackle and will also provide insurance at left tackle in case Terron Armstead continues to struggle with injuries. Armstead has missed 15 games over the past 2 seasons, but has played well when healthy and is still only going into his age 27 season.

Armstead’s last healthy season was 2015, when he finished 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF, after which the Saints locked him up on a 5-year, 65 million dollar extension. That extension hasn’t paid off yet, but, if both Armstead and Ramczyk stay healthy, the Saints should have one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league. If either suffers an injury, the Saints will probably shift left guard Andrus Peat outside, as they did last year for 4 starts at left tackle.

The 13th pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Peat was drafted to play tackle and has made starts at 3 different spots on the line (15 at left tackle, 20 at left guard, 2 at right tackle), but, with Armstead and Ramczyk locked in at tackle, Peat is locked in at left guard barring an injury. He hasn’t been any better than a marginal starter in 3 years in the league, but perhaps he’ll take a step forward in his 4th season in the league in 2018. The Saints still have high hopes for him, picking up his 5th year option worth 9.63 million for 2019, though that is only guaranteed for injury, so he might not see that money if he struggles this season.

One reason they may not want to give him that money is that, in addition to Terron Armstead’s big contract, they also have big long-term contracts with center Max Unger and right guard Larry Warford, though none of those three deals have any guaranteed money beyond 2018 either. Unger received a 3-year, 22.22 million dollar extension from the Saints before the 2016 season and is scheduled to make 6.25 million and 6.95 million respectively in 2018 and 2019, while Warford signed a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal as a free agent coming over from the Lions last off-season and still has 23.9 million remaining over 3 seasons.

If Warford continues to play like he did last season, the Saints should have no problem paying him, as he finished 30th among guards on PFF. A 2013 3rd round pick of the Lions, Warford has been a top-20 ranked guard in 3 of 5 seasons in the league, with his best season coming as a rookie in 2013, when he ranked 5th at his position. His rookie year was also the last time he played all 16 games, as he’s dealt with numerous injuries over the past 4 seasons. He’s only missed 9 games, but he’s been limited with abdominal, ankle, knee, and hip injuries in recent years and has also suffered multiple concussions. Only going into his age 27 season, he should have another solid season if he can stay healthy, but his health is always a question mark.

Max Unger, on the other hand, has only missed 1 game over the past 3 seasons, but he seemed limited early on last season after having off-season foot surgery. He improved down the stretch, but he finished 29th out of 38 eligible centers on the season because of a terrible start. Going into his age 32 season, Unger may need a bounce back season to justify his non-guaranteed salary for 2019, but he definitely could have that bounce back season. Prior to last season, he finished 10th and 9th respectively at his position in 2015 and 2016 and he has made 114 starts in 9 seasons in the league. The Saints lost key reserve Senio Kelemete this off-season and he was capable in 8 spot starts in 2017, but, as long as they stay healthy, they should have one of the better offensive lines in the league.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

Despite Drew Brees having his lowest passing touchdown total in a decade and a half, the Saints still finished last season with 46 offensive touchdowns, 3rd most in the NFL behind the Patriots and Eagles. That’s because the Saints led the league in rushing touchdowns with 23, with no other team rushing for more than 18 touchdowns. Alvin Kamara was Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he was more of a hybrid running back/wide receiver, so it was Mark Ingram instead who lead this team with 230 carries, almost double Kamara’s 120. Twelve of those 23 rushing touchdowns were his, tying him with LeSean McCoy for most in the league.

Ingram didn’t quite have Alvin Kamara’s league leading 6.07 yards per carry, but that’s because few ever reach that number. Kamara is one of just 15 running backs all-time to average more than 6 yards per carry on 100+ carries and just one of 5 running backs to do it in the last 30 years. Ingram’s 4.89 yards per carry average on almost double the carries was really impressive too, as that figure ranked 3rd in the NFL among running backs, only behind Kamara and Dion Lewis.

Ingram and Kamara combined for 16 carries of 20 yards or more, most of any duo in the NFL, and also did a good job keeping the offense on schedule, ranking 6th and 12th respectively in carry success rate. The offensive line was a big part of their success, but Kamara and Ingram were a huge part of what made this offense work last season. Ingram also caught 58 passes for 416 yards, but that was dwarfed by what Alvin Kamara did in the passing game. While all of Ingram’s catches came as a running back out of the backfield, Kamara routinely lined up in the slot (79 snaps) and out wide (66 snaps) and totaled 81 yards and 826 touchdowns on 5 catches on the season.

It wasn’t just the big plays with Alvin Kamara either, as he totaled 78 first downs on just 201 touches. Mark Ingram, as well as he played, had just 69 on 288 touches, while rushing yards leader Kareem Hunt, who finished 2nd to Kamara in Offensive Rookie of the Year voting, had the same amount of first downs as Kamara (78) on 325 touches. Kamara finished the season tied with Todd Gurley as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked running back.

The problem for the Saints going into 2018 is that Mark Ingram was suspended for the first 4 games of the season after testing positive for a performance enhancer. In his absence, Kamara will be the feature back, while end of the roster types like Jonathan Williams, Trey Edmunds, and 6th round rookie Boston Scott will compete for backup duties. Those players are obvious drop offs from Ingram talentwise, but it’s only for 4 games and the Saints were reportedly planning on featuring Kamara more in the running game anyway.

Kamara will have an opportunity to lock down the lead back job in Ingram’s absence, but Ingram should still have a role upon his return regardless. The Saints have always used multiple backs, and, because of how much work he gets in the passing game, Kamara may never be a 300+ carry back. Kamara could easily clear 300 touches this season though, if he proves he can handle the larger workload. It’s unrealistic to expect him to be as efficient of a runner on a per carry basis as was last season, especially with a much larger role, but he definitely has the talent to be one of the best few all-around running backs in the league for the foreseeable future if he can avoid injury.

Ingram, on the other hand, may be limited to a 10-12 touch role upon his return, a big drop off from the 18 touches per game he averaged last season. He’s still a talented all-around back, who has worked hard to become an improved pass catcher in recent years, and he’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career, but he’s going into his age 29 contract season and might not be brought back as a free agent next off-season if Kamara proves he can handle the larger role. It’s also fair to wonder how much of his career best season last year was as a result of whatever he tested positive for. All things considered though, the Saints still have an enviable running back situation.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

Part of the reason why the Saints had so many completions to running backs last season (league leading 143) is because they lacked for options at wide receiver and tight end. Brandon Coleman ranked 3rd among Saints wide receivers/tight ends with just 23 catches. That’s a drastic shift from 2016, when the Saints had 3 wide receivers and a tight end with more than 600 yards and 2 wide receivers with more than 1000 yards. Mark Ingram’s 46 catches in 2016 were just 5th on the team. In fact, the Saints were so deep in the receiving corps after 2016 that they were comfortable trading away top receiver Brandin Cooks to the Patriots for a 1st and 3rd round pick.

Cooks departure was a big part of the reason why the Saints were not nearly as good in the receiving corps in 2017 as they were in 2016, but they also got disappointing seasons from both Willie Snead and tight end Coby Fleener, who totaled 895 and 631 receiving yards respectively in 2016. In 2017, Snead was suspended for the first 3 games of the season for DUI and was buried on the depth chart upon his return, with injuries and ineffectiveness limiting him to just 8 catches in 11 games. Fleener, on the other hand, had 5 catches in the opener against Minnesota, but just 17 catches the rest of the way. He also missed 5 games with injury and finished the season on injured reserve with concussion problems. Both Snead and Fleener are no longer with the team.

With Snead and Fleener struggling, veteran free agent acquisition Ted Ginn stepped up as the #2 receiver, putting up a 53/787/4 slash line. Known mostly for his return abilities early in his career, Ted Ginn has developed into a useful deep threat in recent years, topping 700 yards in 3 straight seasons with the Panthers and Saints and averaging 15.1 yards per reception over that time period. However, he’s going into his age 33 season, so it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can keep this up, especially given how reliant he is on the top level athleticism he may quickly lose in the next couple years.

The Saints made finding better depth behind him a priority this season, so it’s very possible Ginn sees a significant drop off in production this season. The Saints signed restricted free agent Cameron Meredith from the Bears on a 2-year, 9.5 million dollar deal and also used a 3rd round pick on Central Florida’s Tre’Quan Smith. Meredith is a 2015 undrafted free agent who had a mini-breakout season in 2016 with a 66/888/4 slash line, but missed all of last season with a torn ACL, while Smith is a bigger bodied deep threat at 6-2 203, but needs to become a more natural catcher of the football. Smith may take a year to develop, but Meredith should be able to push Ginn for playing time in 2018, provided he’s healthy after missing last season.

The Saints also made adding talent at tight end a priority this off-season, bringing back a familiar face to replace Coby Fleener as the pass catching tight end, signing Ben Watson from the Ravens. Watson spent 2013-2015 with the Saints and proved to have good chemistry with Drew Brees, posting an improbable 74/825/6 slash line in his age 35 season in 2015, all of which were career highs. Watson is now going into his age 38 season and has a torn achilles that cost him his entire 2016 season on his resume, but he proved to have something left in the tank in 2017, leading the Ravens with 61 catches. He showed a complete lack of explosiveness, averaging just 8.6 yards per catch, but he could still be a reliable underneath target for Drew Brees in 2018.

Coby Fleener only leaves behind 269 snaps, as he fell down the depth chart as the season went out and then had his season cut short by injury, but Watson should have the opportunity to get more playing time than that, after signing a 1-year, 2 million dollar deal. He’ll be pushed for playing time by Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui, who played 588 and 419 snaps respectively last season. Neither is much of a pass catcher, totaling 16 catches and 6 catches respectively last season. Hill is a backup caliber tight end who doesn’t stand out as a receiver or a blocker, while Hoomanawanui has never topped 13 catches in 8 seasons in the league, but is still around because of his above average blocking at 6-4 265. Watson is their only receiving threat at tight end.

With an uncertain group at wide receiver and tight end, the Saints will likely rely heavily on #1 wide receiver Michael Thomas, a 2016 2nd round pick who has emerged as a legitimate All-Pro caliber player in just 2 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. Thomas has put up 92/1137/9 and 104/1245/5 slash lines on 122 and 149 targets respectively in those 2 seasons and, only going into his age 25 season, may not have reached his peak yet. His emergence was the #1 reason why the Saints felt comfortable moving on from Cooks, but the Saints do need players at step up behind him on the depth chart at wide receiver and they need someone to step up as a pass catching tight end.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As good as the Saints’ offense was in 2017, they would not have made the playoffs if they didn’t improve significantly on defense. After finishing dead last in first down rate allowed in both 2015 and 2016, the Saints were middle of the pack in 2017, finishing 17th. Combined with an offense that ranked 2nd in first down rate, the Saints finished last season with the 7th best first down rate differential in the league.

Defensive lineman Cameron Jordan was on those last place defenses and played well, but he had arguably the best season of his career in 2017 and that was a big part of why the Saints improved defensively. Jordan was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked 4-3 defensive end, totaling 14 sacks, 14 quarterback hits, 47 quarterback hurries, and 10 batted passes, all among the most in the league, while also playing well against the run. Though last season was arguably the best of his career, Jordan is no stranger to dominant seasons, finishing 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends in both 2015 and 2016 as well. Going into his age 29 season, Jordan is one of the best defensive players in the league and should continue playing at a high level in 2018.

The Saints didn’t have another pass rusher with more than 5 sacks in 2017 though, so, in that sense, it’s not a huge surprise that the Saints moved up in the first round to draft defensive end Marcus Davenport. However, it is a big surprise that the Saints gave away a future first round pick to move from 27 to 14 to get a player that many expected would fall into the late teens. They became the first team in the modern draft era to trade two first round picks to move up and get a pick outside of the top-12.

I understand the Saints wanting to be aggressive with Drew Brees in the twilight of his career, but, unless Davenport becomes an All-Pro caliber player, they may regret moving up for him. Davenport has the tools to become a really good player down the line, but he’s considered a work in progress and more of an athlete than a pass rusher coming out of FBS UT San Antonio. He could struggle to have an immediate impact like last year’s rookies did.

Davenport also joins a pretty crowded position group, with 2017 3rd round pick Trey Hendrickson deserving of a larger role after flashing on 281 snaps as a rookie and veteran Alex Okafor re-signing on a 2-year, 6.7875 million dollar deal this off-season. Even though the Saints didn’t have another big sack total other than Jordan’s, Okafor still had a pretty solid season last year before tearing his achilles, totaling 5 sacks, 4 hits, and 21 hurries on 304 pass rush snaps in 10 games. Obviously the injury complicates his 2018 outlook and last season was the first season in his career in which he earned positive grades from PFF, but Okafor could be a useful part of this rotation in 2018.

With the Saints going four deep at defensive end, they may frequently use three defensive ends in passing situations, lining up either Cameron Jordan or Trey Hendrickson inside in sub packages. Jordan didn’t line up inside that often last season, but has the size to do so at 6-4 287 and has some experience as an interior pass rusher from earlier in his career. Hendrickson also has good size at 6-4 270 and saw about half of his pass rush snaps from the interior last season, totaling 135 edge rush snaps and 100 interior rush snaps.

Both Tyler Davison and David Onyemata are involved heavily in the rotation at defensive tackle in base packages (588 snaps and 598 snaps respectively last season), but neither is much of an interior pass rusher, totalling just 3 sacks and 5 hits between them. Davison and Onyemata are both one-year wonders too, as neither had shown much on the field prior to last season. Davison was a 5th round pick back in 2015, while Onyemata was a 4th rounder back in 2016, so it’s possible both players continue playing well against the run, but that’s not a given.

Sheldon Rankins is the Saints’ only true every down defensive tackle. A 2016 1st round pick, Rankins was limited to 9 games as a rookie after breaking his leg during the pre-season and struggled mightily when he did return to the field, but he was much improved in 2017 when he was healthy. Rankins struggled a bit against the run, but impressed as a pass rusher and earned a positive overall grade from PFF. He managed just 2 sacks, but also had 7 hits and 35 hurries. Only going into his 3rd season in the league, he could easily continue improving in 2018 and beyond. This is a pretty deep defensive line going into the season.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

Trey Hendrickson was one third round rookie that made a small impact on this defense as a rookie. Former Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone is the other one. Anzalone started the first 4 games of the season and held his own on 77% of the snaps during the first 3 weeks of the season, but then went down for the season with a shoulder injury 4 snaps into week 4. That’s especially concerning because his shoulder issues date back to his collegiate days and are a big part of why he fell to the 3rd round. In fact, many were surprised that he went as early as he did given his durability issues. If he can come back healthy and stay healthy, he has the talent to be an every down linebacker in the NFL, but that’s far from a guaranteed.

If Anzalone is able to return in 2018, he’ll return to a linebacking corps where the playing time is very much up for grabs, with only free agent acquisition Demario Davis locked into a role. Davis, formerly of the Jets, signed a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal with the Saints this off-season. That’s a big increase from 2017, when he made just 1 million in base salary and 1.225 million in incentives. Davis was originally scheduled to make 3.7 million for the Browns in 2017, but the Browns were going to cut him at that rate, so instead they traded him to the Jets for Calvin Pryor, who the Browns eventually cut anyway.

Once with the Jets, Davis re-negotiated an incentivized contract to stay on the roster and ended up playing every defensive snap for them. Not only that, but he also played at a high level, totaling 135 tackles (6th most in the league), including 14 for a loss and 5 sacks. He also led all middle linebackers in run stops with 65. Perhaps most importantly, he held up in coverage, which had always been a big issue for him. As a result, he finished 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus.

Davis was a relatively high pick, going in the 3rd round in 2012, and he’s experienced, with 82 starts in 6 seasons in the league, including 79 out of 80 in the past 5 seasons. However, he’s never come close to matching the level he played at in 2017. He’s always been a capable run stuffer, but he earned a negative overall grade from PFF in each of his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season because of struggles in coverage. It’s fair to question if he can do it again and the Saints are paying a lot of money to find out, as he’s guaranteed 16.4 million over the first 2 years of the deal. He’s also spent his entire 6-year career in a 3-4 defense and isn’t a great fit as a 4-3 middle linebacker because of his lack of sideline to sideline speed.

In Anzalone’s absence, Craig Robertson (790 snaps), AJ Klein (664 snaps), and Manti Te’o (500 snaps) led New Orleans linebackers in snaps last season. All three veterans are still on the roster and will compete for roles in this crowded linebacking corps. Te’o played middle linebacker last season, the position Davis figures to take over, so his role seems to be the most in doubt. Te’o was a 2nd round pick by the Chargers in 2013, but never lived up to it. He graded as one of the worst linebackers in the league in 2015 and then tore his achilles 3 games into 2016. The Saints got him cheap on a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal last off-season and he wasn’t horrible in a two-down role in 2017, but it’s hard to see where he fits in with Davis in town.

Klein was the worst of the trio in 2017, finishing 38th out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on PFF. Prior to last season, Klein never played more than 350 snaps in a season, so it’s unclear why the Saints committed 10 million guaranteed to him in the first 2 seasons of a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal last off-season. Klein came over from Carolina, where he was a 5th round pick back in 2013. He’ll compete with Anzalone and Robertson for playing time at outside linebacker.

Robertson was probably their best linebacker last season, though that isn’t saying much. He’s experienced, with 64 starts in 89 career games in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s always struggled in coverage, so he might be best in a two-down base package role at this stage of his career, going into his age 30 season. He’s part of a linebacking corps that is crowded, but lacks major difference makers. The Saints will obviously be hoping that Demario Davis can continue playing like he did last season in an every down role and that Alex Anzalone can stay healthy and play like he did last season before getting hurt, but those things happening are far from guaranteed.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The biggest reason why the Saints improved so much defensively last season was the addition of rookie Marshon Lattimore, the 11th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and eventual Defensive Rookie of the Year. Lattimore allowed just 52.9% completion as a rookie and had 5 interceptions and 10 pass deflections, while not allowing a single touchdown. Finishing 9th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, he was one of the best cornerbacks in the league from the word go as a rookie. Only Jacksonville’s AJ Bouye played more coverage snaps without allowing a touchdown in 2017.

Lattimore obviously has a massive upside and could easily be one of the best cornerbacks in the league over the next 5 years, but injuries are the one concern with him. Hamstring problems limited him at Ohio State and possibly caused him to fall out of the top-10. While he did not have hamstring problems as a rookie, he did miss 3 games with concussion and ankle problems. Barring injuries slowing him down, he has a very bright future.

As big as the addition of Lattimore was to this defense, the Saints also benefited from a breakout year from #2 cornerback Ken Crawley. Crawley, a 2016 undrafted free agent, struggled mightily in limited action as a rookie (502 snaps), but earned a starting role for the Saints in the pre-season and ended up holding up well opposite Lattimore. Crawley did commit 10 penalties and only had 1 interception, but he deflected 13 passes and allowed just 50% completion on his targets. He finished the season as PFF’s 30th ranked cornerback, though he did also miss 3 games with injury. Given that he’s a one-year wonder and a former undrafted free agent, it’s fair to wonder if he can do it again, but he should have a big role in the Saints’ secondary regardless.

The one area the Saints really struggled last season was covering slot receivers. Converted safety Kenny Vaccaro was their primary slot coverage back last season, but he finished 103th out of 121 in coverage grade among cornerbacks last season. PJ Williams also saw some time on the slot as the 3rd cornerback, but he’s a more natural fit outside, where he did an adequate job in 6 spot starts when Lattimore and Crawley were hurt. In an effort to improve their slot coverage, the Saints signed ex-Eagle cornerback Patrick Robinson to a 4-year, 20 million dollar deal.

It’s a homecoming for Robinson, who was originally drafted by the Saints with the 32nd pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Robinson got off to a solid start in New Orleans, grading out above average in both 2010 and 2011 and becoming a starter in 2012, making all 16 starts. However, he struggled mightily in 2012 and then missed all but two games in 2013 with injury. In 2014, he was solid in a part-time role, but was not brought back as a free agent and then spent a year in San Diego, Indianapolis, and then Philadelphia last season.

He was only able to sign a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal with the Eagles, but had easily the best season of his career, excelling on the slot and finishing as PFF’s 5th ranked cornerback. The Saints are hoping that his performance last season was not a fluke, but, given that he’s already going into his age 31 season, it’s unlikely that he matches last year’s strong performance. He won’t need to match last season to be an upgrade for the Saints on the slot though. He also has experience outside and could push Crawley for his job if Crawley has an underwhelming off-season.

Lattimore was not the only rookie to have a big impact in the Saints’ secondary in 2017, as 2nd round pick Marcus Williams started 15 games and finished as PFF’s 12th ranked safety on the season. He might be most famous for his missed tackle on Minnesota’s game winning touchdown in the playoffs, but the terrible defensive play call was more to blame for the result of that play and Williams did a stellar job as a deep safety prior to that. That completion was just the 6th completion he allowed all year and he also picked off 5 passes, including one in that playoff loss. He should be able to bounce back from that and have a strong season.

Opposite him, the starting job is up for grabs, though free agent acquisition Kurt Coleman signed a 3-year, 16.35 million dollar deal that would suggest he’s the favorite for the starting job. It was a bit of a surprise that Coleman received that big of a contract, given that the Panthers cut him rather than paying him 4.1 million non-guaranteed in 2018. It’s rare that a player gets cut and ends up getting a raise, but that’s exactly what happened in Coleman’s case. Coleman was PFF’s 82nd ranked safety out of 89 eligible in 2017, but was a capable starter in both 2015 and 2016. Going into his age 30 season, his best days might be behind him, but he still could be a capable starter for another couple seasons.

The other candidate for the other starting job is Vonn Bell, a 2016 2nd round pick who has made 24 starts in 2 seasons in the league. Bell has struggled in both seasons, especially in 2017, when he finished 84th out of 89 eligible safeties, which is probably why they brought in Coleman. That being said, Bell could still play a valuable role as a 3rd safety because of his versatility. While he struggles with deep coverage, he has the ability to play closer to the line of scrimmage as a linebacker in sub packages. With an uncertain group at linebacker and two safeties probably ahead of him on the depth chart, Bell may see significant action as a sub package linebacker. The Saints have a strong secondary.

Grade: A-

Overall

The Saints didn’t change too much this off-season, after a strong strong that ended in a stunning late second defeat in the divisional round in Minnesota. They could easily be as good as they were last year and contend for the Super Bowl again, but there’s also downside with this team. Drew Brees is getting up there in age, their running back duo might not be as good as it was last season, and their young defense may struggle to match last season’s surprising season. They still have the talent to be a playoff team, but may find making the postseason tough in the loaded NFC if they aren’t quite as good as they were last season. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC South

2018 NFL Draft – Second Round Re-Mock

  1. Cleveland Browns – DE Harold Landry (Boston College)
  2. New York Giants – G Will Hernandez (UTEP)
  3. Cleveland Browns – OT Connor Williams (Texas)
  4. Indianapolis Colts – RB Derrius Guice (LSU)
  5. Indianapolis Colts – CB Josh Jackson (Iowa)
  6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Donte Jackson (LSU)
  7. Chicago Bears – WR Courtland Sutton (SMU)
  8. Denver Broncos – RB Ronald Jones (USC)
  9. Oakland Raiders – CB Carlton Davis (Auburn)
  10. Miami Dolphins – TE Dallas Goedert (South Carolina State)
  11. New England Patriots – QB Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State)
  12. Washington Redskins – C James Daniels (Iowa)
  13. Green Bay Packers – WR Christian Kirk (Texas A&M)
  14. Cincinnati Bengals – G Austin Corbett (Nevada)
  15. Arizona Cardinals – OT Tyrell Crosby (Oregon)
  16. Los Angeles Chargers – DE Sam Hubbard (Ohio State)
  17. Indianapolis Colts – WR Anthony Miller (Memphis)
  18. Dallas Cowboys – S Ronnie Harrison (Alabama)
  19. Detroit Lions – DE Rasheem Green (USC)
  20. Philadelphia Eagles – TE Mike Gesicki (Penn State)
  21. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – S Justin Reid (Stanford)
  22. Kansas City Chiefs – OLB Lorenzo Carter (Georgia)
  23. Carolina Panthers – S Jessie Bates (Wake Forest)
  24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – RB Nick Chubb (Georgia)
  25. Tennessee Titans – OLB Uchenna Nwosu (USC)
  26. Atlanta Falcons – DT Harrison Phillips (Stanford)
  27. San Francisco 49ers – DE Josh Sweat (Florida State)
  28. Pittsburgh Steelers – WR James Washington (Oklahoma State)
  29. Jacksonville Jaguars – OLB Jerome Baker (Ohio State)
  30. Minnesota Vikings – DT Tim Settle (Virginia Tech)
  31. New England Patriots – OT Orlando Brown (Virginia Tech)
  32. Cleveland Browns – DT Maurice Hurst (Michigan)

2018 NFL Mock Draft

Updated 4/26/18

* = player has had private visit with team

FIRST ROUND

1. Cleveland Browns – QB Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma)*

Update: I feel pretty good about a lot of this mock, so I’m not making any sweeping changes on the day of the draft, but it does sound like the Browns are going with Baker Mayfield, so I’m flipping him and Josh Allen in this mock.

This could change before draft day, as there are a lot of variables in play, but recent reports suggest the Browns prefer Josh Allen over Sam Darnold. If that’s the case, they will probably take him at #1, though you could argue they’d be better off taking Saquon Barkley at 1 because Barkley could go 2nd to the Giants, while Josh Allen could easily slip through to the 4th pick with neither the Giants or Jets high on him reportedly. However, they may not want to risk a team moving up to 2 to get Allen and the Jets taking Darnold, which would leave them with one of their less favored quarterbacks at 4 and they would still get Barkley at 4 if the Giants pass on him.

2. New York Giants – QB Sam Darnold (USC)*

Non update: I’ve thought about this, but I’m keeping Darnold here. The common opinion seems to be that they’re going to take one of Saquon Barkley, Bradley Chubb, or even Quenton Nelson and pass on a quarterback, but, if that was the case, why wouldn’t they trade down with the Jets when the Jets were looking to move up. They could have gotten one of those three at 6 and picked up at least three second round picks in the process. My hunch is they love one of the quarterbacks and the reports about non-quarterbacks are smokescreens.

I’ve had a trade down here in the past, but it doesn’t sound like the Giants want to move too far down, as they’d still like one of Saquon Barkley, Quenton Nelson, or Bradley Chubb. I don’t see any obvious trade partners in the 5-8 range and they might not want to move all the way down to 12 with the Bills. Barkley will probably be the pick here if Sam Darnold goes to the Browns, but Darnold is reportedly the Giants’ favorite of the quarterback prospects and taking him as a franchise quarterback of the future behind Eli Manning might be too tempting. Manning is going into his age 37 season and has seen better days, while Darnold isn’t even 21 until this summer and could benefit from a year behind a veteran.

3. New York Jets – QB Josh Allen (Wyoming)*

The Jets moved up for a quarterback and are clearly comfortable with more than one quarterback, only moving up to the 3rd pick. With Sam Darnold probably off the board at this point, the Jets will move on to a player they’ve been linked with a lot in the past week, Baker Mayfield. Both Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater are on one-year deals and the Jets badly need a quarterback of the future, which is what Mayfield gives them. He makes more sense for them than Josh Rosen, who reportedly is likely to fall out of the top-5 because of character concerns.

4. Cleveland Browns – RB Saquon Barkley (Penn State)

Securing their quarterback at 1 works out for the Browns, as they still get Saquon Barkley at 4. Barkley doesn’t fill a huge need after the Carlos Hyde signing, but the Browns reportedly think he’s the best player in the draft and could use a playmaker like him. Hyde has already said he wouldn’t mind pairing with Barkley and the Browns only guaranteed 6 million on his 3-year deal, so they could let him go next off-season without owing him anymore money.

5. Denver Broncos – G Quenton Nelson (Notre Dame)

The Broncos have been linked to the top quarterbacks, but Josh Rosen’s character concerns have him likely to drop out of the top-5 and the Broncos don’t have a huge need for a quarterback anyway. They signed Case Keenum to a 2-year deal that guarantees him money into 2019 and they still have hope for Paxton Lynch, their 2016 first round pick. Instead, they build around the quarterback by adding the top offensive lineman in the draft. Nelson has future All-Pro written all over him and would be an immediate upgrade at right guard over Max Garcia.

6. Indianapolis Colts – OLB Roquan Smith (Georgia)*

Bradley Chubb is a popular pick here and he’s probably the best player available left on most boards, but there are always some surprise picks early because not everyone has the same board and Smith makes a lot more sense for the Colts given their needs. While they are pretty good at defensive end with Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Margus Hunt, and last year’s 3rd round pick Tarell Basham, they have next to nothing at the linebacker position. If Chubb is significantly higher on their board, he’d still be their pick, but they reportedly love Smith, who is a perfect fit for the 4-3 defense new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus wants to implement. He’s getting a lot of top-10 buzz and may remind the ex-Cowboys linebacker coach of Sean Lee.

7. Buffalo Bills – QB Josh Rosen (UCLA)*

Bradley Chubb is also a popular pick here and could be the choice if the Buccaneers stay put, but with Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul added this off-season, defensive end is no longer the pressing need at once was, so the Buccaneers might prefer to focus on the secondary in the first round. If that’s the case, they could be an ideal candidate for a trade down with the Bills, who want to secure one of the top-4 quarterbacks. With Minkah Fitzpatrick, Derwin James, and Denzel Ward all still on the board, they can afford to move down 5 spots to 12, pick up some extra picks in the process (they don’t have a 3rd rounder due to the JPP trade), and still get a player they like that fills a need. The Bills give up picks 53 and 65 to make the swap, which is about $1.25 on the dollar per the trade value chart, but we’ve seen that kind of multiple paid by teams moving up for quarterbacks in the past and the Bills should be willing to pay if it means they can secure their quarterback before someone else moves up for him.

8. Chicago Bears – OLB Bradley Chubb (NC State)*

With the Colts and Buccaneers passing on Chubb, the Bears are able to fill arguably their biggest need with the best player in the draft at that position. The Bears had a veteran purge at outside linebacker this off-season, cutting both Pernell McPhee and Willie Young. 2016 1st round pick Leonard Floyd can look down one starting spot long-term, but their best options at the other starting spot right now are Aaron Lynch and Sam Acho, both underwhelming choices. Chubb can be an instant starter for them. The Bears have worked him out privately and are probably his floor.

9. San Francisco 49ers – S Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama)*

Like the Buccaneers, the 49ers’ biggest need right now is probably in the secondary. They have their choice of the top-3 defensive backs in the draft, pure safety Derwin James, pure cornerback Denzel Ward, and hybrid Minkah Fitzpatrick. James I think is least likely because cornerback is a bigger immediate need and because they haven’t worked him out privately. Ward would give them an instant starter opposite Richard Sherman and would form a talented trio with Sherman and last year’s 3rd round pick Ahkello Witherspoon, but Fitzpatrick gives them more options, including the option to move Jimmie Ward back to cornerback. He may spend his rookie year as a movable chess piece before taking over as an every down safety in 2019, with both Ward and Jaquiski Tartt heading into the final year of their rookie deals.

10. Oakland Raiders – OT Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame)

The Raiders also have a need in the secondary, but they may opt to address their offensive line need first because this is a much deeper draft in the secondary than it is on the offensive line. McGlinchey is the top offensive tackle in the draft and can give them an instant starter at right tackle before potentially moving to left tackle long-term. Right tackle is a huge hole right now and left tackle Donald Penn is going into his age 35 season and might not play at a high level much longer. The Raiders have some former mid-to-late round pick options on the roster, but McGlinchey gives them a blue chip prospect.

11. Miami Dolphins – DT Vita Vea (Washington)

The Dolphins have a need at quarterback too, but are unlikely to have one of the top-4 quarterbacks fall to them and might not be aggressive in trying to trade up for him because they have so many other needs. One of those needs is defensive tackle, following the release of the highly paid Ndamukong Suh. Vita Vea is the top defensive tackle in the class and should come off the board between picks 10-15. He’s a monster at 6-4 347 and is athletic enough to be a three down player. He’s comparable to Dontari Poe, a former 11th overall pick himself.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – S Derwin James (Florida State)*

Trading down works perfectly for the Buccaneers, who can still choose between Derwin James and Denzel Ward here. Both would fill needs and both have worked out for the Buccaneers privately, but they reportedly prefer James. That makes sense, as safety is a slightly better need and he’s a local prospect from Florida State. James has Eric Berry like upside, but falls out of the top-10 because of injury concerns and inconsistent tape. He’d instantly be the Buccaneers’ best safety and could form a talented young duo with last year’s 2nd round pick Justin Evans, who is expected to have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league in 2018.

13. Washington Redskins – CB Denzel Ward (Ohio State)

The Redskins reportedly like Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne a lot, but may have a hard time passing on this draft class’ top cornerback if he falls to them at 13. Payne may end up just being a two-down player, while Ward has #1 cornerback potential. After losing Bashaud Breeland and Kendall Fuller this off-season, the Redskins have a big need at cornerback. Last year’s 3rd round pick Fabian Moreau is expected to play a bigger role and they signed veteran Orlando Scandrick in free agency, but Moreau is unproven and Scandrick is on the decline going into his age 31 season and doesn’t have guaranteed money on his contract beyond 2018.

14. Green Bay Packers – MLB Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech)*

The Packers reportedly love Denzel Ward and could move up for him on draft day, but if he’s not available someone like Tremaine Edmunds, who they’ve worked out privately, would make a lot of sense. Edmunds blew up at the combine, has the versatility to stop the run, drop in coverage, and rush the passer, and isn’t yet 20 years old. He’s a top-10 talent who could fall into the early teens because of a run on quarterbacks. Former GM Ted Thompson never valued the middle linebacker position and former defensive coordinator Dom Capers preferred using safeties around the line of scrimmage instead of linebackers in base packages, but both of them were let go this off-season. Edmunds could start every down at middle linebacker next to promising young linebacker Blake Martinez, which would allow them to move Justin Jones, formerly a hybrid safety/linebacker, to safety every down to replace departed free agent Morgan Burnett.

15. Arizona Cardinals – DT Da’Ron Payne (Alabama)

New Cardinals new coach Steve Wilks was a defensive line coach with the Panthers, who used high draft picks on defensive tackles in 2013 (Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short) and 2015 (Vernon Butler). The Cardinals are not nearly as deep at that position, with Corey Peters and Robert Nkemdiche atop the depth chart. Peters is a marginal starter, while Nkemdiche has been a complete bust in 2 seasons since going in the first round in 2016. Da’Ron Payne would add talent at the position and fits the mold of the big defensive tackles that Wilks had in Carolina at 6-2 311. He should come off the board in the teens.

16. Baltimore Ravens – WR DJ Moore (Maryland)*

The Ravens added Michael Crabtree, John Brown, and Willie Snead to a previously barren wide receiver group this off-season, but still need more talent, especially with Brown only signed on a one-year deal. DJ Moore is competing with Calvin Ridley to be the top receiver off the board. Ridley was a more impressive college player, but lacks Moore’s top level athleticism. It could be a tough choice for the Ravens who have worked out both. Moore is a local product, but GM Ozzie Newsome is a former Alabama player and has drafted plenty of Alabama prospects in the past. I’m going with Moore because Ridley is too similar to Crabtree athletically, while Moore has more upside as a potential long-term #1 receiver.

17. Los Angeles Chargers – MLB Leighton Vander Esch (Boise State)

The Chargers’ defense was much improved last season, but that was primarily because they had one of the best pass defenses in the league. Their run defense left much to be desired and defensive tackle and middle linebacker are their two biggest needs going into draft day. The Chargers are probably hoping one of the top-2 players at middle linebacker or defensive tackle will fall to them at 17 and may also trade up to secure a player like they, but, if they can’t get one of them, they may settle for someone like Leighton Vander Esch, a likely top-25 pick. At 6-4 256, Vander Esch is a big run stuffer and has off the charts athleticism. He was only a one-year starter at Boise State, but has enough upside to justify a pick in the teens.

18. Seattle Seahawks – DE Marcus Davenport (UT-San Antonio)

The Seahawks have plenty of needs and don’t pick again until the 4th round, so you can bet they’ll try to move down, but, if they can’t, Marcus Davenport is the best available player who makes sense. The Seahawks had one of the deepest groups of defensive ends at one point, but Michael Bennett was let go this off-season and Cliff Avril will likely be retiring because of neck problems. Frank Clark is going into the final year of his rookie deal, while Dion Jordan and Marcus Smith are from sure things, even though the former first round busts did show some potential down the stretch last season.

19. Dallas Cowboys – WR Calvin Ridley (Alabama)*

The Cowboys have worked out wide receiver prospects who are projected to go in several different rounds, but, after releasing Dez Bryant, you have to figure they’re going to take one pretty early. Calvin Ridley might not be the top wide receiver off the board, but he could still be a top-20 pick in a weak wide receiver class. The other wide receiver projected to go in the first round is Courtland Sutton, who the Cowboys reportedly don’t like. Ridley is reportedly higher on their board and has drawn plenty of interest from them throughout the process, including a private visit.

20. Detroit Lions – G Will Hernandez (UTEP)

The Lions are better on offense than defense, but they still have pressing needs at left guard, running back, and tight end on offense and new defensive head coach may feel confident in his ability to coach up mid round defensive prospects. Will Hernandez is a plug and play starter for them at left guard and is the best available player who fills a need for them. Last year’s starter at left guard was Graham Glasgow, but he’s expected to move to center to replace free agent departure Travis Swanson. Hernandez is a monstrous run stuffer at 6-3 348 and should be a first round pick.

21. Cincinnati Bengals – G Isaiah Wynn (Georgia)

The Bengals originally had the 12th pick, but they swapped first rounders with the Bills in the Cordy Glenn trade. Even after adding Glenn to play left tackle, the Bengals shouldn’t be done upgrading their offensive line, as they still have major needs at right guard and center. It’s very possible the reason the Bengals were comfortable moving down from 12 to 21 in the Glenn trade is because they’re targeting a guard in the first round and any guard they could have gotten at 12 they can probably get at 21. Isaiah Wynn is a plug and play starter at right guard and has a good chance to go in the first round.

22. Buffalo Bills – WR Courtland Sutton (SMU)

The Bills were able to move up and get their quarterback without giving up their other first round pick, which is big because they have plenty of other needs. Wide receiver is one of them and, if history is any indication, the Bills could address that position here. Teams that draft quarterbacks in the first round typically use their next pick on another offensive player. Offensive line is a need, but, with Will Hernandez and Isaiah Wynn off the board, Courtland Sutton might be a better value on their board. With last year’s 2nd round pick Zay Jones struggling mightily as a rookie and top receiver Kelvin Benjamin going into a contract year, the Bills have a big need for pass catchers.

23. New England Patriots – QB Lamar Jackson (Louisville)*

I had the Patriots moving up for a quarterback in my last mock draft and they may have to do so to get Lamar Jackson in reality, as other teams may want to move ahead of them to grab him, but Jackson makes a lot of sense as a developmental quarterback behind Tom Brady either way. The Patriots have been interested in him throughout the process and, as strange as the fit may be, given how different his skillset is compared to the Patriots’ current quarterback, Bill Belichick may see how the league is moving towards more athletic quarterbacks and trust offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to put together an innovative offense with Lamar Jackson at the helm after Tom Brady decides to hang them up. In the short-term, they could also scheme up a few specialty plays for him to take advantage of his athleticism while he develops as a passer.

24. Carolina Panthers – S Ronnie Harrison (Alabama)*

Mike Adams is the Panthers’ best safety and he’s going into an age 37 contract year, so safety is the Panthers’ biggest need. They need to add at least two safeties through the draft, including one who can start immediately. Ronnie Harrison is one of the first round prospects they’ve worked out privately and he’s an obvious fit for them as the top safety remaining. He can start immediately next to Adams.

25. Tennessee Titans – OLB Sam Hubbard (Ohio State)*

Starting edge rushers Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are both going into the final year of their contracts. They will be going into their age 30 and 33 season respectively as free agents, so there’s a good chance one or both is not brought back. Without many pressing needs, expect the Titans to prioritize adding a long-term option or two on the edge. Sam Hubbard is an option for them at 25 and they’ve worked him out privately, so we know they’re at least interested.

26. Atlanta Falcons – DT Taven Bryan (Florida)

The Falcons don’t have a lot of pressing needs, but defensive tackle is a big one with Dontari Poe signing with the Panthers this off-season. Expect defensive tackle to be a target position for them early in the draft. They’ll have a few options late in the first round and reports say they like Taven Bryan, who fits this draft slot well. He should be a late first round pick. He gives them a long-term starter at the position next to Grady Jarrett.

27. New Orleans Saints – DT Maurice Hurst (Michigan)

The Saints signed Nick Fairley to a 4-year, 28 million dollar extension last off-season, but he wound up never playing a snap for them on that extension because of heart problems that have put his career in jeopardy. Even if he can continue playing, the Saints have let him go, so they need to replace him, something they were unable to do last off-season because of how late in the off-season they found out about his issues. Hurst is arguably the best interior pass rusher in the draft and would make an immediate impact on this defense.

28. Pittsburgh Steelers – MLB Rashaan Evans (Alabama)

The Steelers have already announced that Ryan Shazier will not play in 2018, so they have to be looking for replacements. Shazier wants to continue his career, but he’ll be a free agent after the 2018 season and the Steelers may not be willing to clear him medically, so he could have to go elsewhere if he wants to continue playing. If Shazier does ever return to the Steelers, he and Evans could form a dangerous duo inside in their 3-4 defense.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars – TE Hayden Hurst (South Carolina)*

Hayden Hurst would be a first round lock if it wasn’t for his age, as the former minor league baseball player will be 25 before the start of his rookie year. The Jaguars’ roster is about to get very expensive to keep together in the next few years, so the Jaguars are in win now mode and might not be too concerned about Hurst’s age. They’ve worked him out privately, so we know they’re at least interested in him. He’s the most NFL ready tight end in the draft and can have an immediate impact on this offense. The Jaguars have very few needs, but need another tight end to pair with short-term free agent acquisition Austin Seferian-Jenkins, which is what Hurst gives them.

30. Minnesota Vikings – OT Connor Williams (Texas)*

The Vikings’ offensive line was much improved this season, but guard is still a weakness for them, especially with right guard Joe Berger retiring ahead of his age 36 season this off-season. The Vikings played Mike Remmers at guard down the stretch last season and may prefer him there long-term. If that’s the case, expect them to target a new starting right tackle early in the draft. Williams could also end up at guard long-term. He’s one of several offensive linemen the Vikings have worked out privately and is a likely first round pick.

31. New England Patriots – CB Josh Jackson (Iowa)

The Patriots don’t have a pressing need at cornerback after adding Jason McCourty via trade with the Browns, but McCourty is just a short-term solution and the Patriots love using early picks on defensive backs. Josh Jackson is a good value at 31 and fits the Patriots’ scheme well. With only Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, and Jonathan Jones behind McCourty and fellow starter Stephon Gilmore, Jackson could earn a big rookie season role.

32. Philadelphia Eagles – RB Derrius Guice (LSU)*

The Eagles don’t pick again until #131 after this and don’t have any glaring needs, so they could easily trade down from this spot, especially since a team may want to move up and secure a 5th year option on a quarterback they like. If they stay put, Derrius Guice makes a lot of sense. They’ve been interested in him throughout the process and, while running back isn’t a huge need, Jay Ajayi is going into the final year of his rookie deal and could be tough for the cap strapped Eagles to keep long-term. Guice can rotate with Ajayi and passing down back Corey Clement in the short-term before potentially taking over as the feature back in 2019 and beyond.

SECOND ROUND

33. Cleveland Browns – OT Kolton Miller (UCLA)

It’s a shame that Joe Thomas retired right as it looks like the Browns are finally building something. They signed Chris Hubbard to a big contract in free agency, but he’ll slot in at right tackle. Their current options at left tackle are veteran journeyman Donald Stephenson, last year’s right tackle Shon Coleman, and Spencer Drango, who struggled in Thomas’ absence last season and fits better at guard. Miller could be their week 1 starter at the position if he has a good off-season.

34. New York Giants – C Billy Price (Ohio State)

The Giants spent big money on Nate Solder to play left tackle, but still have a big need on the interior of the offensive line. Mediocre veterans John Jerry and Patrick Omameh are penciled in as the starters at guard, while Brett Jones (14 career starts) is penciled in as the center. Both Jerry and Jones are only under contract for one more season anyway. Billy Price can play all 3 interior offensive line positions. He likely would have been a first rounder if he hadn’t torn his pectoral at the combine, but he could still be a starter as a rookie. The Giants need to protect Eli Manning in the short-term and Sam Darnold in the long-term.

35. Cleveland Browns – DE Harold Landry (Boston College)

The Browns have been tied to Bradley Chubb in the top-5, but I think it’s more likely they address their defensive line on day 2. Harold Landry gives them an edge rusher that they don’t currently have opposite Myles Garrett. After Garrett on the depth chart, their top defensive ends are Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib, both of whom have the size to rush the passer from the interior in sub packages. Landry is an immediate upgrade over both as an edge rusher.

36. Indianapolis Colts – CB Mike Hughes (South Florida)

Rashaan Melvin was the Colts’ best cornerback last season, but the Colts did not bring him back as a free agent, despite having a ton of cap space. Their depth chart is pretty thin at cornerback right now, so expect the Colts to use at least one early pick on the position. Outside of last year’s 2nd round pick Quincy Wilson, their best cornerbacks are Kenny Moore, Nate Hairston, and Chris Milton, none of whom should be guaranteed a role. Hughes should come off the board in the top-40 picks and has a shot at the first round.

37. Indianapolis Colts – RB Sony Michel (Georgia)

The Colts let Frank Gore go this off-season so they could get younger at the running back position. They didn’t address the position in free agency, so it makes sense that they’d spend a high pick on a running back to pair with last year’s 4th round pick Marlon Mack. Saquon Barkley would be their pick if he fell to 6, but that seems unlikely, so the Colts will probably address the position with one of their 3 picks in the second round.

38. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – CB Jaire Alexander (Louisville)*

The Buccaneers used their first round pick on a safety, but they also have a need at cornerback and could easily use a day 2 pick on that position as well, especially if they move down to obtain extra day 2 picks. Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves are currently their starting cornerbacks, but Grimes is going into his age 35 season and only signed to a one-year deal, while Hargreaves has been a disappointment in 2 seasons since the Buccaneers drafted him in the first round in 2016. They also completely lack depth behind them. Alexander is a borderline first round pick who the Buccaneers have worked out privately. They could be thrilled if he slides to them. He could start in the slot immediately and profiles as a long-term starter.

39. Chicago Bears – C James Daniels (Iowa)*

The Bears reportedly love Quenton Nelson and would take him at 8 if he was there, but that’s probably unlikely. After cutting Josh Sitton, the Bears have a big hole at left guard and, without a 3rd round pick, they’ll have to address that need in the 2nd round. James Daniels is a center prospect, but they’ve worked him out anyway, suggesting they may be open to moving center Cody Whitehair to left guard. Daniels is arguably the top center in the draft and could go in the late first round if a team likes him enough. The Bears at 39 may be his floor.

40. Denver Broncos – RB Ronald Jones (USC)*

The Broncos released CJ Anderson for financial reasons, which opened up a big hole at running back, with only Devontae Booker and inexperienced 2017 6th round pick De’Angelo Henderson left on the roster. The Broncos like Booker as a passing down back, but they need an early down compliment. Jones is an explosive runner with breakaway speed and would complement the bigger Booker (5-11 219) well. He’s one of several backs they’ve worked out this off-season and should be one of the first 5 backs off the board.

41. Oakland Raiders – CB Carlton Davis (Auburn)

Part of the reason I have the Raiders taking McGlinchey in the first round is because they can find good defensive backs in the 2nd round. Carlton Davis has an outside shot at the first round and is a good value outside of the top-40 picks. The Raiders lost three cornerbacks this off-season, cutting Sean Smith and David Amerson and losing TJ Carrie to the Browns in free agency. Last year’s first two picks, Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu, will have bigger roles this season at cornerback and they signed Rashaan Melvin in free agency, but Melvin is only on a one-year deal and Melifonwu is a hybrid type that may end up at safety long-term. Davis could compete for an immediate role.

42. Miami Dolphins – TE Dallas Goedert (South Dakota State)*

Julius Thomas was released because he wasn’t worth his salary, but the Dolphins don’t have anything resembling a starting tight end left on their roster. Picking at 11 in the first round, the Dolphins probably won’t address this need until the 2nd unless they trade down into the 20s, but they’ll have some good options at 42. Goedert is a tight end they’ve worked out privately and he fits the draft slot well. He could go in the late first if a team likes him enough, as he’s arguably the best tight end prospect in the draft.

43. New England Patriots – TE Mike Gesicki (Penn State)

The Patriots need to plan as if Rob Gronkowski is going to retire early. I expect him to return for 2018, but it shouldn’t be a surprise if he retires in the next couple years, given all of the injuries he has suffered and the opportunities he has to do other things. The Patriots could use a new #2 tight end anyway.

44. Washington Redskins – DT Tim Settle (Virginia Tech)*

The Redskins are reportedly interested in Da’Ron Payne at 13, but pass on him with Denzel Ward available. They could also take Vita Vea at 13 if he falls to them, but which he does not in this mock. If they don’t get either of those two, they’ll have to address their nose tackle need in the 2nd round. Settle is a great run stuffer at 6-3 335 and a local prospect the Redskins have worked out privately.

45. Green Bay Packers – WR Christian Kirk (Texas A&M)*

The Packers moved on from the highly paid Jordy Nelson this off-season and could lose Randall Cobb next off-season, as he’s going into the final year of his deal. The Packers need young developmental receivers behind Davante Adams on the depth chart. Kirk should be one of the top-5 receivers off the board and would make sense for the Packers, who have worked him out privately.

46. Cincinnati Bengals – C Frank Ragnow (Arkansas)*

Center is also a need for the Bengals, as incumbent starting center Russell Bodine signed with the Bills this off-season. Bodine wasn’t that good anyway, so it shouldn’t be hard to find an upgrade. Ragnow missed the combine with injury, but has been a late riser in the pre-draft process, with some reports saying he could go as high as the late first and be the first center off the board. I still have Billy Price and James Daniels ahead of him, but the Bengals worked out Ragnow privately and could easily pull the trigger on him at 46. He’d be an instant starter at a position of need.

47. Arizona Cardinals – QB Kyle Lauletta (Richmond)*

With Sam Bradford a perennial injury risk on a short-term deal, the Cardinals are fully expected to find a quarterback of the future at some point on draft day. Kyle Lauletta over Mason Rudolph might surprise some people, but the Cardinals have not shown much interest in Rudolph this off-season and reportedly like Lauletta a lot. Lauletta has a few teams interested in him on day 2, so the Cardinals will have to take him in the 2nd if they want him.

48. Los Angeles Chargers – DE Lorenzo Carter (Georgia)

Defensive tackle is a bigger need for the Chargers than defensive end, but there are better values available at defensive end than defensive tackle with this pick. The Chargers don’t have much depth behind Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram and have worked out several edge rushers throughout the pre-draft process. Carter was not one of them, but he’s a possible top-40 pick, so he’s a good value here at 48. The Chargers could use him, Bosa, and Ingram at the same time in passing situations because Bosa has the size to line up inside.

49. Indianapolis Colts – WR James Washington (Oklahoma State)

The Colts need to get Andrew Luck some better targets. Ryan Grant and Chester Taylor are currently their top receivers behind TY Hilton and both of them would be best as #4 receivers. James Washington could push for a big rookie year role. He has an outside shot of sneaking into the late first round in a weak receiver class and should come off the board by the middle of the 2nd.

50. Dallas Cowboys – S Jessie Bates (Wake Forest)

The Cowboys had safety problems last season and they got even thinner at the position when they moved Byron Jones back to cornerback. Barring an unlikely trade for Earl Thomas in the next week, expect the Cowboys to use an early pick on a safety. Bates is a versatile prospect who could push to start immediately at either safety spot with a good off-season. He’s a likely 2nd round pick.

51. Detroit Lions – RB Kerryon Johnson (Auburn)*

Even after signing LeGarrette Blount, the Lions should still draft a running back. Blount was only signed to a one-year deal and Ameer Abdullah is also going into the final year of his contract. Neither Blount nor Ameer Abdullah is a great back, so Johnson could have a major role as a rookie. He’s a likely 2nd round pick that the Lions have worked out privately.

52. Baltimore Ravens – QB Mason Rudolph (Oklahoma State)

The Ravens need a long-term solution at quarterback. Joe Flacco’s salary has far exceeded his performance over the past few seasons and the Ravens finally will be able to get out of his contract next off-season if they want. I expect them to take a developmental quarterback in the first 3 rounds. Mason Rudolph should come off the board in the 2nd round and makes some sense for them if he’s still available.

53. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – RB Rashaad Penny (San Diego State)*

This is the first of the two picks that the Buccaneers received in their trade down from 12 to 7 with the Bills. The Buccaneers have seemingly worked out every running back projected to go on day 2 and figure to draft one of them to pair with Peyton Barber, a former undrafted free agent who flashed down the stretch last season. Their odds of taking a back on day 2 would increase even further if they picked up a pair of day 2 picks in a trade. Penny is probably the best back remaining on the board and he’s one of the backs the Buccaneers worked out privately.

53. Kansas City Chiefs – S Justin Reid (Stanford)

With Eric Berry out last season, the Chiefs had arguably the worst safety play in the league. Even with Berry coming back in 2018, safety is still a big need for the Chiefs, as they need an upgrade at the other safety spot. Justin Reid could be a starter as a rookie.

54. Carolina Panthers – CB Isaiah Oliver (Colorado)

The Panthers used 2nd and 3rd round picks on cornerbacks in 2016, taking James Bradberry and Daryl Worley respectively. However, both struggled last season and Worley was traded to the Eagles this off-season for Torrey Smith. Bradberry is probably locked into a starting job in 2018 for lack of a better option, but they need a cornerback to compete with free agent addition Ross Cockrell. Even if Oliver doesn’t make starts as a rookie, he could have a role in sub packages.

55. Buffalo Bills – G Austin Corbett (Nevada)

With center Eric Wood and left guard Richie Incognito both retiring this off-season, the Bills need help on the offensive line. Ryan Groy and Russell Bodine are currently penciled in as their replacements, but both would be mediocre options. Corbett was a great collegiate tackle, but his lack of length at 6-4 makes it likely he moves to guard or center at the next level. He could push either Groy or Bodine for their job as a rookie.

56. Tennessee Titans – DT Harrison Phillips (Stanford)

The Titans missed out on Ndamukong Suh and had to settle for signing Bennie Logan to a one-year deal. Logan is a solid run stuffer, but little else, so he might just spend the one season in Tennessee. The Titans need young depth on the defensive line.

57. Atlanta Falcons – DE Rasheem Greene (USC)

The Falcons used a first round pick on a defensive end last year, taking Takkarist McKinley, but they could still use help at the position with Adrian Clayborn signing with the Patriots this off-season. Greene is more of a hybrid defensive end/defensive tackle than McKinley and fellow edge rush specialist Vic Beasley. Greene could see snaps both inside and outside for the Falcons and has a huge upside for a late 2nd round pick if he can ever live up to his physical abilities.

58. San Francisco 49ers – WR DJ Chark (LSU)

Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin are a solid starting duo, but the 49ers could use depth and insurance behind them. Garcon is going into his age 32 season and coming off of a neck injury, while Goodwin is a one-year wonder.

60. Pittsburgh Steelers – S Kyzir White (West Virginia)

Even after signing Morgan Burnett, the Steelers have a need at the safety position. Burnett will lock down one starting spot, but Sean Davis and JJ Wilcox are mediocre options at the other starting spot. Burnett also hasn’t made it through a full 16-game season since 2012, part of why he had an underwhelming free agency market.

61. Jacksonville Jaguars – OT Tyrell Crosby (Oregon)*

The Jaguars improved their offensive line in a big way by signing Andrew Norwell to play left guard, but they still got shaky play at left tackle and right guard last season from Cam Robinson and AJ Cann respectively. Crosby is a versatile offensive lineman that should go in the 2nd round, possibly to a team like the Jaguars, who have worked him out privately. He might begin his rookie year as a 6th offensive lineman, but, with AJ Cann going into the final year of his rookie deal, there should be a starting job open for him on this line in 2019. If Robinson continues to struggle, they could move him inside to guard and replace him with Crosby. Right tackle Jermey Parnell is also a candidate to end up at guard long-term, going into his age 32 season in 2018. Crosby could also play right guard himself, so he gives them needed options.

62. Minnesota Vikings – DE Uchenna Nwosu (USC)*

Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter lead a dangerous pass rush for the Vikings, but Griffin sees frequent snaps inside in passing situations, while Hunter is going into the final year of his rookie deal and might not be kept long-term with the Vikings having several other pending free agents next off-season. Even if they lock him up long-term, adding a defensive end in the draft would still make sense for them as 3rd defensive end Brian Robison is going into his age 35 season and says he expects to retire after the season. Nwosu is a defensive end they’ve worked out privately and he fits the range at the end of the second.

63. New England Patriots – OT Orlando Brown (Oklahoma)

The Patriots have a few options to replace Nate Solder at left tackle, including last year’s 3rd round pick Tony Garcia, but Garcia missed his entire rookie season with blood clots and just recently started working out again. Veteran backup LaAdrian Waddle is an underwhelming option to protect 40+ year old Tom Brady, so the Patriots will bring in at least one more option through the draft. Orlando Brown looked like a first round pick on tape before a horrendous showing at the combine and should still go relatively high. The Patriots like bigger offensive tackles and may feel that legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can coach Brown up. If he can, Brown could prove to be a steal for a team for a team that desperately needs a new franchise left tackle.

64. Cleveland Browns – WR Deon Cain (Clemson)

Even after signing Jarvis Landry to a long-term deal, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Browns used a relatively high draft pick on a wide receiver. Josh Gordon hasn’t exactly been reliable in the past and 2016 1st round pick Corey Coleman has been underwhelming thus far in his career and has missed a lot of time with injury.

THIRD ROUND

65. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – DT Da’Shawn Hand (Alabama)

This is the 2nd pick the Buccaneers picked up in their swap with the Bills in the first round. Even after signing Beau Allen, the Buccaneers still have a need for depth at the defensive tackle position and Hand, a potential 2nd round pick, is a good value at this point in the draft.

66. New York Giants – OT Brian O’Neill (Pittsburgh)*

Even with Nate Solder coming in this off-season, the Giants shouldn’t be done adding offensive tackles. Ex-left tackle Ereck Flowers was told he’d compete for the job at right tackle and they don’t have any viable competition for him. O’Neill is a day 2 prospect that they’ve worked out privately.

67. Indianapolis Colts – G Martinas Rankin (Mississippi State)

The Colts have needs all over the field, but they should make improving the offensive line an early round priority because of how important keeping Andrew Luck healthy is to this team. The Colts have had revolving doors at right guard and right tackle for years. Rankin can play both spots and can hopefully lock down one of the starting jobs long-term.

68. Houston Texans – OT JaMarco Jones (Ohio State)

The Texans spent money on offensive linemen in free agency, but still need help, especially at offensive tackle, as they failed to add a significant upgrade at that position in free agency, striking out on Nate Solder. Jones could make starts as a rookie.

69. New York Giants – OLB Josh Sweat (Florida State)*

The Giants got this pick in the Jason Pierre-Paul trade. JPP was traded because he’s expensive and wasn’t an ideal fit for their new 3-4 defense, but they haven’t really replaced him, other than signing Kareem Martin, a pure base package outside linebacker who was primarily brought in for his familiarity with the scheme. With so many other needs, the Giants might have to wait until the 3rd round to address this need unless they trade down. Sweat can be a situational pass rusher immediately and could go as high as the 2nd round. The Giants, who have worked him out privately, could definitely be interested in him if he falls to the top of the 3rd.

70. San Francisco 49ers – OLB Jerome Baker (Ohio State)*

The 49ers were ecstatic when they were able to get Reuben Foster with the 31st pick last year and his play when healthy as a rookie justified the 49ers’ excitement, but he now faces an uncertain future with the team after an off-season domestic violence arrest. The 49ers can’t count on Foster for 2018, so they need to add linebacker depth. If Foster can get his act together long-term, he and Baker could form a talented young duo.

71. Denver Broncos – WR Dante Pettis (Washington)*

The Broncos used a 3rd round pick on Carlos Henderson last year and are still hoping he can be the #3 receiver they’ve lacked for years, despite missing his entire rookie season with injury. I wouldn’t be surprised if they brought in another receiver though. Henderson is far from a lock to become a productive player, while both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders are on the wrong side of 30 with big contracts and might not be around too much longer. Pettis is also one of the best return men in the draft so he can provide value to the Broncos on special teams even if he doesn’t develop as a pass catcher.

72. New York Jets – OT Braden Smith (Auburn)*

The Jets have needs on both sides of the ball, but teams that draft a quarterback in the first round usually use their next pick on an offensive player to help him out. The Jets have a big need at tight end, but right tackle is a need too and Braden Smith, a potential 2nd round pick, would be a good value at this point. He’s one of several day 2 prospects they’ve worked out privately and makes a lot of sense if he’s still available. He can immediately push for the starting job at right tackle.

73. Miami Dolphins – QB Luke Falk (Washington State)*

The Dolphins are unlikely to get any of the top quarterbacks in the first round, so they may settle for someone like Luke Falk on day 2. The Dolphins reportedly like Falk a lot and have brought him in for a private visit as well. He may need a year of development, but he could give them a cheaper long-term option than Ryan Tannehill, who hasn’t played since December 2016 due to knee problems and is owed 18.75 million and 19.522 million non-guaranteed in 2019 and 2020. Falk could also develop into a long-term backup, which is also a need, as Brock Osweiler is currently their #2 quarterback.

74. San Francisco 49ers – DE Kemoko Turay (Rutgers)*

The 49ers lost both Elvis Dumervil and Aaron Lynch this off-season, so they have a big need for an edge rusher opposite last year’s first round pick Solomon Thomas. They’ve understandably worked out several edge rush prospects, including Kemoko Turay, a possible 2nd round pick who can contribute immediately as an edge rusher.

75. Oakland Raiders – RB Nick Chubb (Georgia)

Marshawn Lynch only has one more year under contract and it’s unclear what he has left in the tank, going into an age 32 season after a disappointing 2017. His last good season came in 2014. The Raiders could use an early pick on a running back to give them a long-term lead back. They’ll have several options on day 2.

76. Green Bay Packers – CB Donte Jackson (LSU)*

The Packers used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks in 2015, taking Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and then they took Kevin King in the 2nd round last year, but cornerback was still a weakness for them last season. It’s even more of a weakness now, as Damarious Randall was sent to the Browns in a trade and veteran Davon House remains unsigned as a free agent. The Packers need at least one more cornerback to go with Rollins and King. The Packers are reportedly targeting Denzel Ward with the 14th pick, but he’s far from a lock to be there, so it makes sense that the Packers have worked out cornerbacks who could get drafted after the first day, including Donte Jackson, who would be a good value here in the 3rd.

77. Cincinnati Bengals – CB Anthony Averett (Alabama)

With Adam Jones gone, the Bengals lack depth behind Dre Kirkpatrick, William Jackson, and Darqueze Dennard, the latter of whom is going into the final year of his rookie deal.

78. Kansas City Chiefs – DT BJ Hill (NC State)

Bennie Logan signed with the Titans this off-season, so the Chiefs are pretty thin on the defensive line. Hill is a good run stuffer at 6-4 315 and is versatile enough to play anywhere on the Chiefs’ 3-man defensive line in base packages, including nose tackle.

79. Arizona Cardinals – MLB Darius Leonard (South Carolina State)*

The Cardinals used a first round pick on a linebacker last year, taking Haason Reddick with the 13th pick, and they also have 2014 1st round pick Deone Bucannon at linebacker, but they’ve worked out a bunch of linebackers and they could use another player at the position. Reddick is more of a movable chess piece than an every down linebacker and may see significant snaps as an edge rusher in obvious passing situations, while Bucannon is coming off of an injury plagued season and could be cost prohibitive for the Cardinals to re-sign as a free agent next off-season if he bounces back in 2018. They might not take a linebacker in the first couple rounds, but they could definitely take someone in the mid rounds. Leonard, one of the linebackers they’ve worked out privately, is a day 2 prospect that could immediately push 3rd linebacker Josh Bynes for his role and could develop into an every down player long-term.

80. Houston Texans – S Armani Watts (Texas A&M)*

Tyrann Mathieu was a great addition, but he was only signed to a one-year deal, so the Texans could still use a draft pick on a developmental safety. With 3 picks in the 3rd round, they’ll have a few options, including Watts, a local prospect they’ve been interested in.

81. Dallas Cowboys – OLB Fred Warner (BYU)*

With Anthony Hitchens signing with the Chiefs, the Cowboys are pretty thin at linebacker behind Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, both of whom have a serious injury history. The Cowboys should add depth in the draft. Warner is a likely 3rd round pick who they’ve worked out privately. He’d fit their scheme well and could see snaps immediately as the 3rd linebacker.

82. Detroit Lions – DE Arden Key (LSU)*

The Lions’ bigger needs are on defense, but they used their first 2 picks on offensive players, which wouldn’t be a surprise, as new head coach Matt Patricia may feel he can coach up mid rounders on defense. One of those mid-rounders he may be interested in coaching up is Arden Key, a first round talent who could fall to the 3rd or 4th round because of character concerns. The Lions have been interested in him throughout the process, including a private visit. He gives them another pass rusher opposite Ezekiel Ansah and insurance in case they can’t agree to a long-term deal with Ansah.

83. Baltimore Ravens – TE Ian Thomas (Indiana)

The Ravens’ best pass catching tight end last season was Ben Watson, who signed with the Saints this off-season as a free agent, leaving them very thin at the position. The Ravens could use an early pick on a tight end. Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle are their top-2 tight ends and they’ve missed a combined 39 games over the past 3 seasons due to injury and suspension.

84. Los Angeles Chargers – DT Derrick Nnadi (Florida State)

The Chargers added a linebacker in the first round to improve their run defense, but they need an upgrade at defensive tackle too, especially with Corey Liuget getting suspended for the first 4 games of the season. Brandon Mebane, the other starter, was one of the worst starting defensive tackles in the league last season and is going into his age 33 season. Nnadi is an NFL ready run stuffer who can immediately push Mebane for his role.

85. Carolina Panthers – WR Anthony Miller (Memphis)*

The Panthers got this pick from the Bills in the Kelvin Benjamin trade and it would make a lot of sense for them to use it on his replacement. The Panthers traded for Torrey Smith this off-season, but he hasn’t been the same player since he left Baltimore, so they need someone to push him for snaps. Miller is a receiver the Panthers have worked out privately and he could potentially give them a talented trio of young receivers with Devin Funchess and last year’s 2nd round pick Curtis Samuel, who flashed as a rookie before going down for the season with an injury.

86. Kansas City Chiefs – CB JC Jackson (Maryland)

The Chiefs added David Amerson and Kendall Fuller this off-season, but they also traded away Marcus Peters, so they need at least one more cornerback. Jackson could push for a role in sub packages as a rookie and gives them long-term insurance in case Amerson is unable to bounce back from a disastrous final season in Oakland.

87. Los Angeles Rams – MLB Josey Jewell (Iowa)*

The Rams traded away Alec Ogletree because he was expensive and wasn’t a great fit for their scheme and may do the same with Mark Barron in the next year, as it’s going to be very expensive for them to keep all of their young talent under contract. The Rams trust Wade Phillips’ ability to coach up linebackers, but will have to get him some more talent to work with on draft day. Jewell fits their scheme better and has had a private visit with the Rams.

88. Carolina Panthers – RB Royce Freeman (Oregon)

The Panthers used the 8th pick in last year’s draft on a running back, taking Christian McCaffrey, but they’re going to use him all over the field, including wide receiver and slot receiver, so they need a traditional running back to take over at least some of the 198 carries vacated by Jonathan Stewart, who the Panthers let go of this off-season. Why not replace one Oregon running back with another? The 5-11 234 pound Freeman has been compared to Stewart and is one of several day 2 running backs who could have an immediate impact.

89. Tennessee Titans – MLB Malik Jefferson (Texas)*

The Titans lost Avery Williamson to the Jets this off-season, so it’s no surprise they’ve worked out a bunch of linebackers, including Malik Jefferson, who will likely be a 3rd round pick. Last year’s 5th round pick Jayon Brown is supposed to play a bigger role in Williamson’s absence, but Wesley Woodyard, their other starting middle linebacker, is only a two-down player and is going into his age 32 season.

90. Atlanta Falcons – WR Michael Gallup (Colorado State)

Taylor Gabriel has been the Falcons’ #3 receiver over the past two seasons, but he signed with the Bears this off-season and the Falcons don’t have a clear replacement. They could use a mid round pick on a wide receiver.

91. New Orleans Saints – TE Mark Andrews (Oklahoma)

The Saints signed tight end Coby Fleener to a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal two off-seasons, but he’s been a major disappointment, catching 50 passes in 2016 and just 22 passes last season. The only reason he hasn’t been released yet is because they don’t have another option, but they’ll probably change that on draft day. Andrews can compete with age-38 veteran Ben Watson for pass targets as a rookie.

92. Pittsburgh Steelers – OLB Duke Ejiofor (Wake Forest)

The Steelers used first round picks on 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013, 2015, and 2017, but they still need help at the position. Jarvis Jones, their pick in 2013, is no longer with the team after 4 underwhelming seasons, while Bud Dupree, their pick in 2015, hasn’t been much better and could be “four and done” like Jones was if he doesn’t improve this season (his 5th year option is guaranteed for injury only). TJ Watt, their pick in 2017, looks like a good one, but they need depth behind him and Dupree in the short-term and someone to push Dupree for the starting job long-term.

93. Jacksonville Jaguars – CB Duke Dawson (Florida)

With AJ Bouye signed to a big contract already and Jalen Ramsey in line for one in the next couple of years, the Jaguars’ cornerbacks are going to get expensive fast, so I don’t think they’ll be able to commit significant money to the slot cornerback long-term. They signed DJ Hayden to a 3-year, 19 million dollar deal this off-season, but only 9.45 million of that is guaranteed, so they could use a mid round pick on a developmental slot cornerback who they can have cheaply on a rookie deal for 4 years.

94. Minnesota Vikings – DT Nathan Shepherd (Fort Hays State)*

The Vikings signed Sheldon Richardson, but should still use a high draft pick on a defensive tackle. Richardson was only signed for one season and the Vikings could use more depth behind Richardson and Linval Joseph regardless. Nathan Shepherd is an intriguing small school prospect and a good value at the end of the 3rd round. The Vikings, who have worked him out privately, could be thrilled that he’s still on the board.

95. New England Patriots – DE Jalyn Holmes (Ohio State)

Even with last year’s 3rd round pick Derek Rivers coming back after missing his entire rookie season with injury and Adrian Clayborn being added in free agency, the Patriots still need help at the defensive position. There is no guarantee Rivers ever develops into the player they drafted him to be and Trey Flowers, currently their best pass rusher, is going into the final year of his rookie deal without an extension. Jalyn Holmes won’t fit a lot of team’s schemes well, but he fits what the Patriots look for because he has good size for a defensive end at 6-5 283 and can line up inside in passing situations. He also played for Urban Meyer at Ohio State, who is a good friend of Bill Belichick’s, and he’s a good value at the end of the 3rd because he doesn’t fit what many other teams are looking for.

96. Buffalo Bills – CB Tarvarus McFadden (Florida State)

EJ Gaines was basically a throw-in in the Sammy Watkins trade, but he played well as the #2 cornerback opposite talented rookie Tre’davious White. Given that, it was strange that the Bills signed Vontae Davis to a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal early in the off-season and allowed Gaines to take a 1-year, 4 million dollar deal with the Browns. Davis is a more proven cornerback, but he’s going into his age 30 season and has been hit hard by injuries. He has missed 13 games over the past 2 seasons, was limited in several other games, and he hasn’t been a top level cornerback since 2014. The Bills need a developmental cornerback behind him on the depth chart, especially since he’s only on a one-year deal.

97. Arizona Cardinals – OT Chukwuma Okorafor (Western Michigan)

The Cardinals signed Justin Pugh this off-season, which appeared to fill a big hole for the Cardinals at right guard, but then they traded right tackle Jared Veldheer to the Broncos, so Pugh might end up playing right tackle instead. Regardless of where he plays, the Cardinals need to add an offensive lineman in the draft. Okorafor has good physical tools and upside, but he also had underwhelming tape in his final season at Western Michigan and could slide in the draft as a result. If he develops into a starting right tackle for the Cardinals, they can keep Pugh at guard, where he’s been a better player in his career.

98. Houston Texans – TE Dalton Schultz (Stanford)*

CJ Fiedorowicz is retiring because of concussions, which leaves the Texans thin at tight end. They need a big target over the middle, which is what Schultz can be. He’s a likely day 2 prospect that they’ve worked out privately.

99. Denver Broncos – OT Geron Christian (Louisville)*

Even after taking a guard with the 5th pick, the Broncos shouldn’t be done adding offensive linemen. Jared Veldheer was acquired from the Cardinals this off-season and is penciled in as their right tackle right now, but he’s going into his age 31 contract year, so he’s not a long-term solution. Christian is a day 2 prospect that they’ve worked out privately that could develop into a starting right tackle.

100. Cincinnati Bengals – S Terrell Edmunds (Virginia Tech)

Terrell Edmunds is a tweener who isn’t a perfect fit at safety or linebacker, but he should still get drafted on the 2nd day. The Bengals would make sense for him as they could use help at both spots. Starting safety Shawn Williams is a marginal option at best and linebacker depth is needed with Vontaze Burfict getting suspended yet again.

FOURTH ROUND

101. Green Bay Packers – G Wyatt Teller (Virginia Tech)

Offensive line is far from the Packers’ biggest need, but starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga is coming off of a torn ACL and is one of the highest paid right tackles in the league, while incumbent starting right guard Jahri Evans is unsigned going into his age 35 season. Justin McCray struggled in Bulaga’s absence last season and now is penciled in as the starting right guard. Expect the Packers to take an offensive lineman at some point. Teller could push for playing time as a rookie at right guard if Evans is not brought back.

102. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OT Joseph Noteboom (TCU)

Donovan Smith has made all 48 starts at left tackle since the Buccaneers took him in the 2nd round in 2015, but he hasn’t been that good, so the Buccaneers might not bring him back as a free agent next off-season if he doesn’t have a breakout year in his 4th year in the league in 2018. On the other side, right tackle Demar Dotson is a much better player, but injuries have limited him to just 27 starts in the past 3 seasons and he’s going into his age 33 season. They need better depth at both spots. Noteboom is a raw prospect, but he blew up the athletic drills at the combine, which could get him drafted relatively early on day 3 in a weak offensive tackle class.

103. Houston Texans – CB Parry Nickerson (Tulane)*

Even after signing Aaron Colvin and re-signing Johnathan Joseph, the Texans still have a need at cornerback. Joseph is going into his age 34 season and both Kevin Johnson and Kareem Jackson are coming off of down seasons. Jackson is going into an age 30 contract year, while Johnson could also be heading into a contract year if the Texans are scared off by his injury history and decline his 5th year option for 2019. The Texans have worked out Nickerson privately and he’s a good value here at the top of the 4th round, as he could easily be a day 2 pick.

104. Indianapolis Colts – DT Breeland Speaks (Mississippi)

The Colts let Johnathan Hankins go because he wasn’t an ideal fit for their new 4-3 defense. New defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus comes from Rod Marinelli’s system in Dallas and prefers smaller, quicker defensive linemen. The 6-3 283 pound Breeland Speaks fits the scheme better.

105. Chicago Bears – WR Equanimeous St. Brown (Notre Dame)*

The Bears signed Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel in free agency to deals worth 42 million over 3 years and 26 million over 4 years respectively, but they still have a need at the wide receiver position after strangely letting Cameron Meredith, their best receiver in 2016, sign with the Saints for 9.6 million over 2 years as a restricted free agent. Taylor Gabriel is only a slot receiver, so Kevin White is currently penciled in as the #2 receiver opposite Allen Robinson. White was the 7th pick in the 2015 draft and still has upside, but he’s a complete mystery because he’s missed so much time with injury, catching just 21 passes in just 5 career games. The Bears will have to add competition. St. Brown fits the range here at the top of the 4th and the Bears have worked him out privately.

106. Denver Broncos – DT Deadrin Senat (South Florida)

The Broncos have gone heavy on offense so far in the draft, but they have defensive needs as well. Domata Peko was a solid nose tackle last season, but he’s going into his age 34 season, so the Broncos could use a long-term solution. Senat has the size to play nose tackle at 6-0 314 and could also have a base package role as a 5-technique defensive end. 2016 2nd round pick Adam Gotsis was supposed to play a big role at defensive end in 2018, but he faces an uncertain future after being charged with rape from his college days.

107. New York Jets – DE Trenton Thompson (Georgia)

The Jets used to be loaded on the defensive line, but Damon Harrison left in free agency, Sheldon Richardson was traded to the Seahawks before he could leave in free agency, and Muhammad Wilkerson struggled mightily after signing a long-term extension two off-seasons ago and was subsequently cut this off-season after his guaranteed money ran out. Thompson could have an immediate role as a rookie opposite Leonard Williams.

108. New York Giants – RB Mark Walton (Miami)*

Orleans Darkwa and Shane Vereen are both free agents this off-season. The Giants signed Jonathan Stewart to replace Darkwa, but they need a replacement for Vereen as the passing down back. Walton is undersized at 5-10 188, but he’s an explosive athlete in the open field and can line up in different spots around the formation. He fits what they need well, so it’s not a surprise that the Giants have worked him out privately. He can have passing down role as a rookie and potentially develop into a more complete back. With Jonathan Stewart going into his age 31 season and 2016 4th round pick Wayne Gallman as the only capable back behind him on the depth chart, running back is definitely a need for this team.

109. Washington Redskins – MLB Micah Kiser (Virginia)*

The Redskins re-signed both Zach Brown and Mason Foster this off-season, but the latter was only signed to a 2-year, 4 million dollar deal, so the Redskins may have him compete for his starting job. He’s a competent run stuffer, but a limited athlete in coverage and is coming off of a season ending shoulder injury. Kiser is a local prospect they brought in for a workout and can at least provide them depth and special teams ability.

110. Oakland Raiders – P Michael Dickson (Texas)*

The Raiders cut Marquette King even though he was one of the best punters in the league because they thought he was overpaid and didn’t like his tendency to draw personal foul penalties. Now they’re left without a good option at the position, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve worked out Michael Dickson privately, as he’s the top punter in this draft. The Raiders will probably have to take him in the 4th if they want him.

111. Los Angeles Rams – OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo (Oklahoma)*

Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin began last season as the Rams’ starting outside linebackers, but Quinn was traded away to the Dolphins this off-season and Barwin remains unsigned as a free agent going into his age 32 season. Currently topping the depth chart at the position are Samson Ebukam, a 2017 4th round pick, and Matt Longacre, a 2017 undrafted free agent. Both flashed as rookies and the Rams like both of them long-term, but they need at least one other player in the mix.

112. Cincinnati Bengals – WR Antonio Callaway (Florida)*

This is a match made in heaven. Antonio Callaway will be off of a lot of team’s boards because of off-the-field problems, but the Bengals have proven time and time again that they’re willing to take chances on players like that, so it’s no surprise they’ve been linked with him this off-season and worked him out privately. Callaway is a borderline first round talent and could give the Bengals a dangerous trio long-term with AJ Green and last year’s first round pick John Ross.

113. Denver Broncos – CB Rashaan Gaulden (Tennessee)

Trading Aqib Talib obviously hurts the Broncos at cornerback, even if they didn’t feel he was worth his salary anymore. The Broncos used a 3rd round pick on a cornerback last year and signed Tramaine Brock in free agency, but Brock was only signed to a one-year deal and Bradley Roby is also going into the final year of his contract, so more depth is needed. Gaulden has the size to remind some of Talib (6-1 193), though he could end up at safety long-term because of his lack of fluidity. The Broncos could use help at that position as well, with Will Parks struggling as the 3rd safety last year and trade acquisition Su’a Cravens having a concerning concussion history and spending last year out of football.

114. Cleveland Browns – S Marcus Allen (Penn State)

The Browns traded for Damarious Randall to fill a hole at safety, but the Browns could still add a safety in the draft with one of their many picks. Randall’s 2019 option has yet to be exercised and would be guaranteed for injury only even if it does get picked up, so Randall could end up only being in Cleveland for a year if he struggles.

115. Chicago Bears – MLB Oren Burks (Vanderbilt)

The Bears are going to give 2016 4th round pick Nick Kwiatkowski a shot to lock down the starting middle linebacker job inside next to Danny Trevathan, but they’re pretty thin behind him on the depth chart, so expect them to add some depth and competition through the draft.

116. Dallas Cowboys – DT PJ Hall (Sam Houston State)*

Defensive tackle is still a weak point for the Cowboys, as both Brian Price and Maliek Collins struggled inside next to David Irving in 2017. Hall is a small school prospect that was not invited to the combine, but he blew up the athletic tests at his Pro Day and he’s gotten a lot of interest around the league, taking 8 private visits, including one to the Cowboys. He’s undersized at barely 6-1, but he fits their scheme well as a one gap penetrator.

117. Detroit Lions – TE Tyler Conklin (Central Michigan)*

The Lions let Eric Ebron go because he wasn’t worth his salary, but the Lions now have a big need for a pass catching tight end. Atop their depth chart at tight end are veteran free agent acquisition Luke Willson, who has a career high of 22 catches in 5 seasons in the league, and 2017 4th round pick Michael Roberts, a blocker who caught 4 passes as a rookie. Conklin could have more catches than both of them as a rookie. He’s a local prospect they’ve had a lot of interest in.

118. Baltimore Ravens – C Mason Cole (Michigan)

The Ravens should be better on the offensive line next season with both Alex Lewis and Marshal Yanda returning from injury, but losing center Ryan Jensen to the Buccaneers was a big loss, as he was their best offensive lineman last season and they don’t have a clear replacement for him. Cole could compete to start as a rookie.

119. Los Angeles Chargers – S DeShon Elliott (Texas)

The Chargers surprisingly got a good season out of Tre Boston, after he was waived by the Panthers as a restricted free agent last off-season, but he remains unsigned as a free agent for some reason. If the Chargers don’t bring him back, their best option to replace him is last year’s 4th round pick Rayshawn Jenkins, but don’t be surprised if they at least add competition through the draft.

120. Seattle Seahawks – WR DaeSean Hamilton (Penn State)

The Seahawks lost both Paul Richardson and Jimmy Graham in free agency this off-season and Jaron Brown and Ed Dickson aren’t exactly adequate replacements. The Seahawks don’t have many picks, but they need to get Russell Wilson someone else to throw to at some point. Hamilton could push Brown for playing time as a rookie and gives them an insurance option in case they lose Tyler Lockett in free agency next off-season.

121. Buffalo Bills – DT RJ McIntosh (Miami)*

Even after adding Star Lotulelei on a big contract in free agency, the Bills still have a need at defensive tackle. Kyle Williams is going into his age 35 season and was only brought back on a one-year deal this off-season and top reserve Adolphus Washington struggled mightily when pushed into a larger role last season after the Bills traded Marcell Dareus. McIntosh is a bit undersized at 6-4 293, but he can play an immediate role as a situational pass rusher. The Bills worked him out privately and he’s expected to go in rounds 3-5.

122. Kansas City Chiefs – OLB Dorance Armstrong (Kansas)*

With Dee Ford limited to 6 games of poor play by back issues last season, the Chiefs struggled mightily to get to the quarterback opposite Justin Houston. Last year’s 2nd round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon could play a bigger role in 2018, but Ford is going into the final year of his rookie deal and could be cost prohibitive for the Chiefs to re-sign as a free agent if he bounces back in 2018, so the Chiefs should add another developmental prospect at the position. Armstrong is a local player they’ve had some interest in and he fits the range in the 4th round.

123. Miami Dolphins – G Will Clapp (LSU)

Adding Josh Sitton in free agency improves the Dolphins’ situation at guard a lot, but the Dolphins still have a big hole at the left guard position and Sitton isn’t a long-term option at right guard, as he’s going into his age 32 season. Clapp played all over the line at LSU and projects best as a guard or center at the next level. Even if he doesn’t develop into a starter, his versatility would make him a valuable reserve for a Miami team that perennially has issues on the offensive line.

124. Kansas City Chiefs – WR Daurice Fountain (Northern Iowa)*

Even with the Chiefs adding Sammy Watkins on a long-term deal in free agency, they could still use more help at wide receiver. Chris Conley is currently penciled in as the #3 receiver, but he’s an underwhelming player coming off of a torn achilles, so the Chiefs should add competition for him long-term. Fountain was not invited to the combine, despite looking like he belonged in the East/West Shrine Game. He’s drawn plenty of interest around the league, making private visits to 10 teams that were not able to meet with him at the combine, including the Chiefs. He should go off the board relatively early on day 3.

125. Tennessee Titans – WR Keke Coutee (Texas Tech)

Last year’s 3rd round pick Taywan Taylor is expected to replace Eric Decker on the slot in 2018, but the Titans could still add some competition for him in the middle rounds. Coutee could also be a long-term replacement for Rishard Matthews if the Titans don’t bring him back as a free agent next off-season.

126. Kansas City Chiefs – G Jamil Demby (Maine)

Andy Reid is always pushing his front office to draft linemen on both sides of the ball and usually gets his way. The Chiefs have an unsettled situation at left guard right now, so adding a developmental prospect would make a lot of sense. Demby is the kind of lineman Reid likes at 6-5 335. He was a punishing left tackle at the FCS level for the University of Maine, but he projects better at guard in the NFL because he isn’t a good athlete. If he can successfully make the switch, he has the tools to be a long-term starter.

127. New Orleans Saints – WR Cedrick Wilson (Boise State)*

Wide receiver isn’t as big of a need for the Saints as it was before they signed Cameron Meredith away from the Bears, but Ted Ginn is going into his age 33 season and might not age well, given his reliance on speed, so the Saints need a long-term replacement for him. Wilson is a mid-round wide receiver prospect that they’ve worked out privately.

128. San Francisco 49ers – CB MJ Stewart (North Carolina)

The 49ers used their first pick on a defensive pick, taking Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick, but he may end up at safety long-term, so the 49ers could still use one of their other picks on a cornerback. Even if Richard Sherman is able to bounce back from his torn achilles and continue to play well at age 30, the 49ers still lack depth at the cornerback position.

129. Jacksonville Jaguars – QB Mike White (Western Kentucky)

The Jaguars signed Blake Bortles to a long-term extension this off-season, but that shouldn’t preclude the Jaguars from adding a developmental quarterback in the draft, considering how inconsistent Bortles’ play is. His deal doesn’t have a ton of guaranteed money for a quarterback, so the Jaguars should add a developmental quarterback at some point to give them another long-term option should they decide to move on from Bortles. They added Cody Kessler via trade from the Browns this off-season, but they barely gave anything up for him and he has more of a backup’s skill set. White has a strong arm and a good frame, but needs to develop better field vision, footwork, and accuracy.

130. Philadelphia Eagles – TE Durham Smythe (Notre Dame)*

Zach Ertz is signed long-term as the Eagles’ top tight end, but with Brent Celek getting released and Trey Burton signing for more money with the Bears, the Eagles are suddenly thin at the position behind him. They don’t have a lot of needs, but they need someone who can be their #2 tight end long-term. Smythe is an NFL ready blocker who can contribute immediately, so it’s not a surprise the Eagles have worked him out privately. He’d be a good fit for them in the 4th round.

131. Miami Dolphins – RB John Kelly (Tennessee)

The Dolphins signed Frank Gore to give them a complementary back to pair with Kenyan Drake, but Gore is going into his age 35 season and was only signed to a one-year deal, so he’s not a long-term option. Expect the Dolphins to add another back to the mix at some point.

132. Philadelphia Eagles – OT Brandon Parker (North Carolina A&T)*

Jason Peters will be back for the 2018 season, but he’s going into his age 36 season and coming off of a torn ACL, so the Eagles have to plan for life without him. The Eagles like Halapoulivaati Vaitai, but he was underwhelming in Peters’ absence last season, so they should add some long-term competition for him. Even if Vaitai does become a starter long-term, Parker can replace him as the swing tackle.

133. Green Bay Packers – WR D’Jon Moore (Missouri)*

The Packers took a wide receiver in the 2nd round, but they could double up on the position. Randall Cobb is going into the final year of his contract, so he could follow Jordy Nelson out the door next off-season. D’Jon Moore is a mid round receiver they’ve worked out privately.

134. Arizona Cardinals – WR Marcell Ateman (Oklahoma State)

A few years back, the Cardinals had arguably the best receiving corps in the NFL with Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, and John Brown, but Floyd and Brown never repeated their strong 2015 seasons and are no longer with the team, while Fitzgerald is going into his age 35 season and probably won’t be around much longer. The Cardinals need to add a wide receiver at some point on draft day, as their best options behind Fitzgerald are 2017 3rd round pick Nick Williams, who barely played as a rookie, deep threat JJ Nelson, and Brice Butler, who was the Cowboys’ #4 receiver last year.

135. Los Angeles Rams – C Tony Adams (NC State)*

The additions of center John Sullivan and left tackle Andrew Whitworth last off-season were a big part of the reason why the Rams turned things around so drastically on offense from 2016 to 2017, but both are getting up there in age, going into their age 37 and 33 seasons respectively. The Rams don’t have any early picks this year, but they have plenty of mid round picks, so expect them to take some offensive linemen that can potentially start long-term. Adams’ lack of length will have him off a lot of team’s board as a guard, but he could still be a relatively early pick on day 3 if teams think he can play center, where he saw some action in college. The Rams are at least interested in him, bringing him in for a private workout, and he could develop for a couple years behind Sullivan, while providing depth at multiple spots.

136. Los Angeles Rams – OLB Marquis Haynes (Mississippi)

The Rams double up on outside linebackers. While their first outside linebacker selection, Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, is a jack of all traits type with underwhelming athleticism, Haynes is a pass rush specialist who needs to get stronger.

137. Dallas Cowboys – OT Desmond Harrison (West Georgia)*

The Cowboys have worked out quite a few offensive linemen in the pre-draft process. Given how much emphasis they put on having a good offensive line, they couldn’t have been happy with their underwhelming performance upfront last season, after losing Ronald Leary and Doug Free in the off-season and having left tackle Tyron Smith in and out of the lineup with injuries. They signed Cameron Fleming this off-season to play right tackle, which will move La’El Collins to left guard, where he’s a better fit, but Fleming was only signed on a one-year deal and Collins is no lock to develop into a starter, so expect them to use at least one pick on a developmental offensive lineman. Harrison is one of those offensive linemen they’ve worked out and has good upside for a 4th rounder. He’s inexperienced and has off the field issues, but he has the tools to develop into a starter.

 

Top-50 2018 NFL Free Agents

  1. QB Drew Brees

Prediction: Re-signs with Saints – 2 years, 50 million

Brees is listed as #1 because he’s the best player with an expiring contract, but no one believes he’s going anywhere other than New Orleans. He’s even said he’s willing to take less money to stay in New Orleans if it means his team can add talent at other positions. Brees is going into his age 39 season, but shows no signs of slowing down and his return to New Orleans for a 13th season looks like a mere formality at this point.

  1. QB Kirk Cousins

Prediction: Signs with Vikings – 4 years, 120 million

Unlike Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins will not be returning and will hit the open market as a franchise quarterback in his prime with no injuries, a very uncommon occurrence in the modern NFL. The Redskins refused to meet his asking price on a long-term deal for 3 off-seasons, slapping the franchise tag on him twice, and eventually trading for Alex Smith as his replacement this off-season. Because of how rarely a quarterback like Cousins hits the open markets, he figures to have many interested suitors this off-season, including some that will offer him record shattering deals.

However, Cousins has said it’s not all about money for him and that he wants to win. Multiple reports have said that Cousins’ first preference is to go to Minnesota, as long as the money is competitive. The Vikings made the NFC Championship last season, but don’t have a quarterback under contract for 2018. They could play it safe and re-sign Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater, but Cousins is a surer thing than either of them and it’s looking increasingly likely that Minnesota is leaning that direction. They might not make him the biggest offer, but Cousins should still end up signing the richest contract in NFL history. The Vikings have to extend some young players on expiring contracts, but they should have the cap space to add Cousins to the mix.

  1. G Andrew Norwell

Prediction: Signs with Giants – 4 years, 50 million

Norwell was talented enough to be franchise tagged, but the Panthers have invested big contracts into left tackle Matt Kalil, right guard Trai Turner, and center Matt Kalil, so the Panthers let him walk. With right tackle Daryl Williams set to hit free agency next off-season and 2017 2nd 2nd round pick Taylor Moton ready to start in Norwell’s spot at left guard, it is an understandable decision. That being said, whichever team ends up signing him should be very happy, as he’s one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league. The Giants need him badly and multiple reports have already connected the dots between Norwell and new Giants GM Dave Gettleman, who signed Norwell as an undrafted free agent in 2014 as the GM of the Panthers.

  1. WR Allen Robinson

Prediction: Signs with Redskins – 4 years, 56 million

Allen Robinson also could have been franchise tagged, but he tore his ACL week 1 last season and the Jaguars got breakout play from rookies Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole in his absence, so they’re letting him test the open market. The Redskins are known to be interested and they’ve never been shy about spending money in free agency under owner Dan Snyder. The Redskins missed DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon last season, as Terrelle Pryor and Ryan Grant were underwhelming in their absence. Pryor and Grant are free agents this off-season and the Redskins could definitely shop in the top of the wide receiver market to replace them. Robinson gives them a good wide receiver trio with Josh Doctson and Jamison Crowder.

  1. DT Sheldon Richardson

Prediction: Signs with Browns – 4 years, 48 million

Richardson was one of the better defensive linemen in the league in 2013 and 2014, but missed 6 games with suspension and injury in 2015 and 2016 combined and ultimately wore out his welcome with the Jets ahead of his contract year in 2017, getting traded to the Seahawks for a 2nd round pick and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse back in August. The Jets ended up being the winners of that trade, as Richardson was underwhelming in his one season with the Seahawks and Jermaine Kearse was arguably the Jets’ best receiver. Now Richardson looks likely to take the biggest offer on the open market, after not being franchised by the cap strapped Seahawks.

Richardson still is only 28 in November and has a dominant top level form, but he’s inconsistent and has clashed with coaching staffs. That will hurt his market, but it’s a weak off-season in terms of top level free agent talent and a lot of teams have money to spend, so he should still get a big payday. The Browns still have a ton of cap space after trades for Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry and now have a need at defensive tackle after trading Danny Shelton to the Patriots for a draft pick. Richardson would pair well inside with Larry Ogunjobi, a 2017 3rd round pick who flashed in limited action as a rookie.

  1. S Morgan Burnett

Prediction: Signs with Browns – 5 years, 47 million

If trades for Tyrod Taylor and Jarvis Landry are any indication, the Browns have some intention of trying to compete in 2018, which is something that could not be said about them in 2016 and 2017. They may continue to be aggressive in free agency and safety is another position where they could use an upgrade. 2016 4th round pick Derrick Kindred was underwhelming in his first season as the starter and would fit best as a 3rd safety behind 2017 1st round pick Jabrill Peppers and big off-season addition. Morgan Burnett is the top available safety. His age (30 next January) will hurt his market a little bit, but his versatility and the lack of top level talent in this free agency class should have him in high demand and the Browns have the cap space to make an aggressive move for him.

  1. CB Malcolm Butler

Prediction: Signs with Buccaneers – 5 years, 62 million

We may never know why Malcolm Butler didn’t play in the Super Bowl, but he should still be in high demand as a free agent this off-season, based off of his entire track record in New England. The Buccaneers have a major need at cornerback and the cap space to shop at the top of the market, so they figure to be a major player for him.

  1. WR Sammy Watkins

Prediction: Signs with Bears – 4 years, 54 million

Sammy Watkins barely has 1000 yards total over the past 2 seasons, after posting a 60/1047/9 slash line in his 2nd season in the league in 2015, but that won’t stop him from getting a big contract in free agency. The former #4 overall pick is still only 25 and has top level ability. Foot injuries limited him mightily in 2016 and led to the Bills not picking up his 5th year injury-guaranteed option for 2018. The Bills then traded him ahead of his contract year to the Rams for a 2nd round pick.

Watkins stayed healthy with the Rams, but only posted a 39/593/8 slash line in 15 games, as he struggled to integrate into the new offense after arriving in August and lost out on targets to players Jared Goff was more comfortable throwing to. Watkins still showed his abilities from time to time and was a threat in the red zone, but the Rams decided to franchise tag safety LaMarcus Joyner instead of him. Now the Rams are at a strong risk of losing him to the highest bidder for nothing. The Bears could easily be that highest bidder, as they badly need a #1 wide receiver for young Mitch Trubisky and have the cap space to outbid the competition. They could also be competitive for Allen Robinson.

  1. CB Trumaine Johnson

Prediction: Signs with Jets – 4 years, 54 million

Trumaine Johnson has made 30.7 million over the past 2 seasons on two franchise tags. He may have to take a slight pay cut now that he’s actually hit the open market, but he should still be highly paid. A 2012 3rd round pick, Johnson broke out in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015 and was franchise tagged by the Rams instead of Janoris Jenkins. Unable to come to a long-term agreement, Johnson played on the franchise tag in 2016 and played well again, but again was tagged and not given a long-term deal because Wade Phillips was not sure how he’d fit his scheme. He ended up having a down season in 2017 and will likely not be brought back, as the Rams have already acquired Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to replace him this off-season. The Jets have a big need at cornerback, the cap space to outbid teams for him, and are known to be interested.

  1. DE Muhammad Wilkerson

Prediction: Signs with Titans – 3 years, 30 million

In 2015, Muhammad Wilkerson was as good as any defensive linemen outside of JJ Watt and Aaron Donald, getting 12 sacks from the 3-4 defensive end position for a Jets defense that almost dragged the team into the playoffs. The Jets rewarded him with a 5-year, 86 million dollar deal, but he seemed to check out after signing, posting underwhelming seasons in 2016 and 2017 and having disciplinary issues. The Jets cut him after 2 years and 37 million, even though they didn’t need the cap space, so Wilkerson will have an opportunity to start fresh somewhere else.

Only 28, Wilkerson could have a bounce back season in 2018 if he’s motivated and has already drawn a lot of interest in free agency. The Titans haven’t been linked to him yet, but they have the cap space to make a competitive offer for him and could use an upgrade on pending free agent defensive end DaQuan Jones. Wilkerson could form a very dangerous duo with Jurrell Casey in the Titans’ 3-4 defense if he can get back to being the player he was.

  1. G Justin Pugh

Prediction: Signs with the Jaguars – 4 years, 40 million

This is just dot connecting, but the Jaguars make a ton of sense for Justin Pugh, who have some cap space and need to get better in front of Blake Bortles in 2018. Pugh would reunite with his college coach Doug Marrone and his former Giants coach Tom Coughlin in Jacksonville and would fill a big hole at left guard.

  1. QB Case Keenum

Prediction: Signs with Broncos – 2 years, 36 million

Case Keenum is going to be a very interesting free agency case. He signed for just 2 million on a one-year deal last off-season, but had a breakout year in the absence of an injured Sam Bradford in 2017, leading the Vikings to the NFC Championship game. He figures to get a major pay increase, but the Vikings seem to be leaning towards paying Kirk Cousins instead of bringing back Keenum and there are questions about how Keenum will perform outside of Pat Shurmur’s system.

Still, as we saw with Mike Glennon last off-season, quarterbacks get paid, even if there are major question marks about them. At $18 million, he’d still only be the 17th highest paid quarterback in the NFL and the Broncos aren’t taking a ton of risk with a two-year deal. The Broncos are expected to pursue Kirk Cousins, but, if he goes to Minnesota, Keenum could be a good backup option. The Broncos reportedly tried to trade for him during the 2016 season and Gary Kubiak, who has returned to the team in an advisory role, was the one who originally signed Keenum as an undrafted free agent, back in 2012 with the Texans.

  1. DT Dontari Poe

Prediction: Signs with Redskins – 3 years, 33 million

Concerns about his back led Dontari Poe to take a one-year prove it deal with the Falcons last off-season. Poe didn’t have his best season in 2017, but played all 16 games and is still only going into his age 28 season. The former first round pick has intriguing upside and could get good money on a multi-year deal this off-season. The Redskins were known to be interested in him last off-season and still have a massive need on the defensive line. Poe’s best years have come in the kind of 3-4 defense the Redskins run and, as I mentioned before, the Redskins love making splash signings in free agency, even if they have to overpay.

  1. OT Nate Solder

Prediction: Re-signs with Patriots – 2 years, 24 million

Nate Solder isn’t the best left tackle in the world, but he’s by far the best available free agent tackle and the Patriots don’t have another good option. Solder is going into his age 30 season and he’s been underwhelming over the past couple of seasons, but the Patriots need to keep Tom Brady’s blindside protector around, at least on a short-term deal. Solder has plenty of incentive to stay in New England with Tom Brady and company and would probably choose returning over leaving if the money is comparable.

  1. QB Teddy Bridgewater

Prediction: Signs with Dolphins – 1 year, 8 million (heavily incentivized)

Teddy Bridgewater might be the most interesting free agency case of all. Theoretically, he’s a franchise caliber quarterback hitting free agency at only 25 years old. The 2014 1st round pick made 28 starts for the Vikings in his first 2 seasons in the league and looked like one of the league’s promising young quarterbacks, but he’s attempted just 2 passes in 2 seasons since because of a brutal knee injury that wiped out his entire 2016 season and most of his 2017 season. Upon return, Bridgewater sat on the bench behind breakout star Case Keenum and now looks likely to leave Minnesota as a free agent, with the Vikings expected to go after Kirk Cousins.

If Bridgewater is healthy, he could prove to be a steal in free agency and he’ll be 25 months removed from the injury by week 1, so he’s a worthwhile flier. I think he makes a ton of sense for the Dolphins and not just because he’s from the Miami area. The Dolphins are not sold on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who hasn’t played in a regular season game since December 2016 thanks to an ACL injury and who is due 17.5 million and 18.75 million in 2018 and 2019 respectively. However, the Dolphins don’t have the cap space or a high enough draft pick to find a legitimate upgrade this off-season.

Instead, they could take a flier on Bridgewater, give him an incentivized deal based on playing time, and have him compete with Tannehill for the job in training camp. They could also structure a deal with him where a 2nd year option at a starting quarterback salary (let’s say $16 million) triggers if Bridgewater makes a certain amount of starts this season. Worst case scenario, Bridgewater should be an adequate backup for Tannehill, which is something they need this off-season anyway. He’s a low risk flier and would be a smart signing.

  1. CB Prince Amukamara

Prediction: Signs with Patriots – 3 years, 24 million

A 2011 1st round pick, Amukamara has always been a solid cornerback, but he’s missed 29 games in 7 seasons in the league and had to settle for 7.5 million on 1-year prove it deal from the Bears in his first attempt at free agency last off-season. Amukamara played 14 games last season, which could ease the concerns of some teams about his injury proneness, but he also played in 14 games in 2016 before settling for a one-year deal, so it might not make much of a difference. The Patriots need a replacement for Malcolm Butler and should be able to get Amukamara on a short-term deal without much money guaranteed beyond 2018.

  1. G Jack Mewhort

Prediction: Re-signs with Colts – 4 years, 30 million

Free agency comes at a bad time for Jack Mewhort. A 2014 2nd round pick, Mewhort looked like one of the best young interior offensive linemen in the league in his first season at left guard in 2015. He continued playing well into 2016, but then missed time with a triceps injury and a knee injury. He played in just 10 games in 2016 and then had his 2017 season ended after 5 games when he re-aggravated that knee injury. He could still get a good contract offer from the Colts, who have a ton of money to play with and a massive need on the offensive line. They could give him his best offer.

  1. OLB Nigel Bradham

Prediction: Signs with Saints – 4 years, 26 million

Bradham greatly outperformed a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal with the Eagles and figures to get a bigger deal his 2nd time in free agency. The Eagles don’t have the cap space to outbid teams for him, so he’ll likely sign elsewhere. The Saints won’t have a ton of cap space left after re-signing Brees, but Brees is expected to take a team friendly deal so the team can sign other players. Expect them to be aggressive in free agency and go all in on 2018. Bradham would become their best linebacker.

  1. QB Sam Bradford

Prediction: Signs with Bills – 1 year, 8 million (incentivized)

The Bills traded Tyrod Taylor without an obvious replacement on the roster or a high drive pick, so expect them to add a quarterback in free agency. They have the ammunition to move up in the draft, but I doubt they’ll go into draft day with Nathan Peterman as the only quarterback under contract. Whoever they draft may not be ready to start week 1 anyway.

Bradford is the 3rd starting caliber quarterback that would need a new home if the Vikings sign Kirk Cousins, though Bradford is likely gone from Minnesota regardless, as the Vikings reportedly prefer Case Keenum and Teddy Bridgewater and believe Sam Bradford’s knee is degenerative, after two ACL tears and a 3rd cleanup surgery last season. It’s a shame because Bradford is only going into his age 31 season and has played like a top-15 quarterback when healthy in recent years. He’ll likely have to settle for an incentivized short-term deal with a team like the Bills that wants him to keep the seat warm for a rookie.

  1. G Josh Sitton

Prediction: Signs with Texans – 3 years, 21 million

Josh Sitton is still an above average starting guard, but he will be looking for a new team for the 2nd time in 3 off-seasons. The Packers made Sitton a cap casualty before the 2016 season and then he spent two seasons with the Bears, before the Bears declined his 3rd year option this off-season, which would have been worth 8 million. Going into his age 32 season, Sitton will likely have to take a paycut, but can still be a big help upfront for some team. The Texans have one of the worst offensive line situations in the league and the cap space to make big free agent signings.

  1. TE Jimmy Graham

Prediction: Signs with Packers – 4 years, 36 million

The Packers let go of GM Ted Thompson in part because of his unwillingness to be aggressive in free agency, so the Packers could be much bigger players in free agency this off-season than normal. They signed Martellus Bennett to a sizeable contract last off-season, but that didn’t work out. They could try again with Jimmy Graham, the top available free agent tight end. Graham is going into his age 32 season in 2018 and had a terrible knee injury a couple years back, but much of his lack of production in Seattle came because he was the 3rd or 4th option on a team that didn’t throw the ball that often. He could have huge numbers in Green Bay and will likely still be paid as a top of the market tight end. This 9 million dollar annual salary would be 3rd highest in the league by a tight end.

  1. QB AJ McCarron

Prediction: Signs with Cardinals – 4 years, 62 million

AJ McCarron only has 5 career starts, but could still be a hot commodity on the open market, much like Mike Glennon was last off-season. I don’t buy the hype because the success he had in 2015 came on a really good Bengals team that was significantly better when Andy Dalton was out there. Dalton is at best an average starter quarterback, so McCarron might not be much more than a high end backup, but that won’t stop some team from giving him starter money. The Cardinals don’t have a single quarterback on their roster right now and don’t pick until #15, so they could make McCarron a lucrative offer. Even if McCarron gets a 3 or 4 year deal, it’s unlikely to have much money guaranteed beyond 2018.

  1. C Weston Richburg

Prediction: Signs with Bears – 4 years, 30 million

When the Bears cut Josh Sitton, it wasn’t for cap reasons, as they have among the most cap space in the league. Sitton was cut because the Bears want to get younger upfront. Weston Richburg is going into his age 27 season and is one of the best free agent interior offensive linemen. He can play either guard or center, with most of his experience coming as a center. If he played center, the Bears could shift incumbent center Cody Whitehair to guard, where he might be a better fit.

  1. QB Josh McCown

Prediction: Re-signs with Jets – 1 year, 10 million

The Jets will also be in the running for Kirk Cousins and can offer him the most money, but Minnesota and Denver both give him much better chances to win right now. If they can’t sign him, they are expected to target Teddy Bridgewater, with Josh McCown as their third option. McCown wasn’t bad in 13 starts for them last season before getting hurt. Though he’s going into his age 39 season and lacks durability, he can still be a bridge quarterback that the Jets can bring a rookie along behind and he fits their system well. He should get an increase on the 1-year, 6 million dollar deal he got from the Jets last off-season.

  1. CB EJ Gaines

Prediction: Signs with Packers – 4 years, 32 million

The Packers make another big free agent signing and address a big need at cornerback. The Packers were thin at cornerback even before trading Damarious Randall and now it is their biggest need heading into the off-season. Gaines is a risky signing because he’s missed 27 games with injury in 4 seasons in the league and struggled mightily in 2016, leading to him being a throw-in in the Sammy Watkins trade. However, he was an above average starter in 2014 and 2017 and probably earned himself a big contract with his strong play in 2017, even if he did only play 11 games.

  1. DT DaQuan Jones

Prediction: Signs with Falcons – 1 year, 5 million

  1. S Tre Boston

Prediction: Re-signs with Chargers – 3 years, 18 million

  1. DT Kyle Williams

Prediction: Re-signs with Bills – 1 year, 6 million

  1. DE Adrian Clayborn

Prediction: Signs with Colts – 3 years, 24 million

  1. CB Rashaan Melvin

Prediction: Signs with Panthers – 3 years, 25 million

  1. C Spencer Long

Prediction: Signs with Buccaneers – 5 years, 32 million

  1. DT Bennie Logan

Prediction: Signs with Buccaneers – 3 years, 19 million

  1. OLB Zach Brown

Prediction: Signs with Raiders – 4 years, 28 million

  1. RB Dion Lewis

Prediction: Signs with 49ers – 3 years, 19 million

  1. WR Donte Moncrief

Prediction: Signs with Ravens – 1 year, 5 million

  1. G Josh Kline

Prediction: Signs with Texans – 3 years, 18 million

  1. TE Trey Burton

Prediction: Signs with Bears – 4 years, 28 million

  1. CB Johnathan Joseph

Prediction: Re-signs with Texans – 3 years, 18 million

  1. S Eric Reid

Prediction: Signs with Buccaneers – 4 years, 24 million

  1. OLB Dee Ford

Prediction: Signs with Jets – 3 years, 24 million

  1. MLB Avery Williamson

Prediction: Re-signs with Titans – 4 years, 24 million

  1. CB Patrick Robinson

Prediction: Signs with Titans – 2 years, 14 million

  1. S Marcus Gilchrist

Prediction: Re-signs with Texans – 3 years, 24 million

  1. OLB Kony Ealy

Prediction: Signs with Rams – 2 years, 10 million

  1. C Ryan Jensen

Prediction: Signs with Redskins – 4 years, 24 million

  1. MLB NaVorro Bowman

Prediction: Signs with Chargers – 2 years, 12 million

  1. DE Julius Peppers

Prediction: Re-signs with Panthers – 2 years, 12 million

  1. WR Paul Richardson

Prediction: Signs with Colts – 4 years, 28 million

  1. CB Bashaud Breeland

Prediction: Signs with Colts – 4 years, 32 million

  1. CB Aaron Colvin

Prediction: Signs with Bills – 4 years, 26 million