Cincinnati Bengals 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bengals were 12-4 in 2015, but fell to 6-9-1 in 2016, one of the biggest declines in the NFL. What happened? Well, part of it was just bad luck in close games, as they went 1-5-1 in games decided by a touchdown or fewer. Their +10 point differential suggests they should have been about an 8-9 win team, as does their +1.03 first down rate differential (12th in the NFL). The biggest reason for their decline though is simply that they weren’t the same team. The Bengals lost several useful players in free agency last off-season and, after having the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2015, they were without key offensive players like tight end Tyler Eifert, wide receiver AJ Green, and running back Giovani Bernard for large chunks of the season.

With wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu leaving in free agency last off-season, Andy Dalton was left throwing to the likes of Brandon LaFell, a veteran free agent acquisition, Tyler Boyd, a 2nd round rookie, and CJ Osumah, a reserve tight end, down the stretch last season. As a result, his numbers dropped substantially from 2015 to 2016. He went from completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 8.42 YPA, 25 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions to completing 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.47 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions.

All things considered, Dalton had a solid season, finishing 16th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished in the top-16 in 3 of his last 4 seasons, but needs more talent around him if he’s going to get back to the playoffs. Dalton gets a lot of flack for being 0-4 all-time in the post-season, but it’s unfair to judge his career on 4 playoff games, especially since the Bengals were underdogs in 3 of those games. Dalton was the only real injury the Bengals had in 2015 and, even though backup AJ McCarron was solid in his absence, the Bengals still fell from 10-2 to 12-4 and a first round playoff loss without him. Had Dalton been healthy, they would likely would have had a first round bye and they would have had a better chance to win in the playoffs.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Bengals clearly made upgrading Dalton’s weapons a big priority this off-season. They used their first 2 draft picks on offensive weapons, including using the 9th overall pick on Washington wide receiver John Ross, who will compete with Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell for snaps behind AJ Green on the depth chart. With Green missing the final 6 and a half games of the season with a hamstring injury, Brandon LaFell actually led all Cincinnati wide receivers in snaps played with 1008.

LaFell was coming off of a miserable 2015 season with the Patriots, in which he was Pro Football Focus 118th ranked wide receiver out of 121 eligible on 659 snaps, catching just 37 of 74 targets (50%) for 515 yards and 0 touchdowns in 11 games, despite catching passes from Tom Brady. He bounced back in his first season in Cincinnati though, posting a 64/862/6 slash line and finishing above average on Pro Football Focus for just the 3rd time in 7 seasons in the league (42nd among wide receivers). Going into his age 31 season, last season is probably his ceiling at this point in his career. He could be the #4 receiver by season’s end, depending on the development of their young receivers.

Given that they used the 9th overall pick on him, the Bengals clearly envision John Ross as a long-term complement to AJ Green, with Boyd working as a #3 receiver on the slot. Boyd posted a 54/603/1 slash line on 738 snaps as a 2nd round rookie in 2016 and finished about average on Pro Football Focus. Ross, meanwhile, was a surprise pick at 9, considering some didn’t even expect him to be a first rounder. He’s arguably the biggest boom or bust prospect that was taken in the top-10. He has record breaking speed, but a history of knee problems and needs to get stronger and become a more refined route runner. Given how deep the Bengals are at wide receiver, Ross could easily open the season as the #4 receiver. Cincinnati has had 4 first round picks since 2012 that did not start as rookies.

AJ Green returns as the #1 receiver, which is obviously huge for this team. Green was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked wide receiver before going down last season and was on pace for a 117/1714/7 slash line through 9 games before the hamstring tear. With more options in the passing game, he’s unlikely to receive the 11 targets per game he was receiving on average before the injury; that would have led the league in 2016 over a full season. However, prior to the injury, he was a top-17 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 4 seasons, averaging 88 catches for 1274 yards and 10 touchdowns per season over that time period. Still in his prime in his age 29 season, with just 4 games missed due to injury in his first 5 seasons in the league prior to last season, Green has obvious bounce back potential in 2017.

If Tyler Eifert can stay healthy too, this is a very deep receiving corps. A first round pick in 2013, Eifert has finished 4th and 3rd among tight ends over the past 2 seasons respectively. Whether or not he can stay healthy is a big if though, as he’s missed 27 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 8 last season, and now is coming off of off-season back surgery. Eifert has 81 catches for 1009 yards and 18 touchdowns in his last 23 games, which extrapolates to a 56/702/13 slash line over 16 games, but he has never played more than 14 games in a season in 4 years in the league.

Given Eifert’s injury history and the fact that he’s going into the final year of his rookie deal, I thought the Bengals would use an early pick on a tight end in the draft, but they didn’t address the position until the 7th round. As a result, CJ Uzomah and Tyler Kroft remain as the top reserves at the position. They both finished below average last season on 411 and 375 snaps respectively, in the first significant action of their careers. Kroft was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and presumably has the higher upside, but Uzomah played ahead of him last season when both were healthy. He’s the early favorite for the #2 tight end job and could easily see a few starts given Eifert’s injury history. This receiving corps has a very high upside and should be better than last season’s regardless.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

After taking John Ross at #9, the Bengals traded down in the 2nd round and selected running back Joe Mixon at 48. Mixon was arguably the most controversial player in the draft because he was suspended for his entire freshman season after assaulting a woman in a confrontation in 2014 when he was 18. In terms of pure talent, he was a first round caliber running back with a huge upside and he doesn’t even turn 21 until July, but the assault took him off most teams’ boards.

Cincinnati is an obvious landing place for him because they’ve always been comfortable bringing in potentially problematic people if they can play and because they had the need for a new lead back, with Jeremy Hill averaging 3.67 yards per carry on 445 carries over the past 2 seasons. Purely as a football player, Mixon is a nice addition to this team and has Offensive Rookie of the Year potential, but it was definitely a risky pick.

Hill will be Mixon’s primary competition for the lead back role and for carries, but he’ll need to run like he did when he was a rookie to have any shot of beating out Mixon. A 2nd round pick in 2014, Hill burst onto the scene by rushing for 1124 yards and 9 touchdowns on 222 carries (5.06 YPC) as a rookie, but has not been nearly the same back since. He’s also a liability on passing downs, whereas Mixon can play all 3 downs. The Bengals used Giovani Bernard as a change of pace and passing down back to complement Hill, but it’s easier to disguise whether you’re running or passing with an every down back like Mixon.

Bernard should still have a role, although he’s coming back from a torn ACL suffered last November that cost him the final 6 games of the season. He’s questionable for the start of the season, but the Bengals gave running backs 470 touches last season and 455 touches the season before, so there will be a role for Bernard when he returns, even with Mixon coming in. A 2013 2nd round pick, Bernard has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in his career and has rushed for 2442 yards and 14 touchdowns on 583 carries (4.19 YPC), with 187 catches for an additional 1671 yards and 6 touchdowns through the air. He was missed when he was injured last season. Hill, meanwhile, is likely to be the 3rd back when Bernard is healthy and likely will not have much of a role. This is a deep group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Though the Bengals added some more offensive firepower in the draft, they also lost a pair of starting offensive linemen in free agency, which should really hurt them. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and right guard Kevin Zeitler were not small losses either, finishing last season 2nd and 7th at their respective positions on Pro Football Focus. The Bengals have always been cheap when it comes to signing free agents, including re-signing their own free agents, and that could really hurt them this time around. They enter the season with 18.7 million in unused cap space, 10th most in the NFL.

The Bengals used their first two draft picks in 2015 on offensive linemen, likely with a scenario like this in mind, but they should still have major issues upfront. Cedric Ogbuehi, their first rounder in 2015, will move from right tackle to left tackle to replace Whitworth, but he struggled mightily at right tackle in 2016, in his first starting experience. He finished the season 70th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 12 starts and will have an even tougher task on the blindside this season. Ogbuehi still has upside, but could easily struggle again in 2017.

Jake Fisher was their 2nd round pick in 2015. He has just 4 career starts in 2 seasons in the league, but is expected to start at either right tackle or right guard. Veteran Andre Smith is also in the mix at those 2 positions, while 2016 5th round pick Christian Westerman has an outside shot at the right guard job, despite not playing a snap as a rookie last season. Smith was once a solid starter for the Bengals, finishing in the top-28 among offensive tackles in every season from 2011-2013 (45 starts), but he’s struggled mightily over the past 3 seasons, finishing below average in all 3 and playing in just 27 of 48 games due to injury. Smith returns to the Bengals after a season in Minnesota and hopes to find new life at right guard, but, going into his age 30 season, that’s unlikely. This team didn’t come close to adequately replacing Zeitler and Whitworth.

Left guard Clint Boling and center Russell Bodine return. Boling is probably their best offensive lineman now. He finished last season 33rd among guards on Pro Football Focus, but that was his lowest rated season in 5 years as a starter, as he finished 22nd, 18th, 19th, and 21st in 2012-2015 respectively. Boling has made 74 of 80 starts over the last 5 seasons, and is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 28 season, so he should have another solid season in 2017.

Bodine, however, is not as good. The 2014 4th round pick has started every game of his career, but has largely played like a 4th round pick, finishing 33rd out of 41 eligible centers in 2014, 30th out of 39 eligible centers in 2015, and then 26th out of 38 eligible centers in 2016. This offensive line is now one of the worst in football after they lost their two best offensive linemen in free agency. Even with as much skill position talent as they have, that will really hurt their offense.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

While the Bengals won significantly fewer games in 2016 than 2015, their defense wasn’t really that much worse, as they finished 11th in first down rate allowed, after finishing 8th the season before. Their offense was the unit that declined most, falling from 5th in first down rate to 16th in 2016, without so many of their offensive playmakers from the season before. After using their first two draft picks on offensive players, the Bengals took a pair of defensive ends in the 3rd and 4th rounds to shore up a need on defense, first taking Kansas State’s Jordan Willis and then taking Auburn’s Carl Lawson. Willis and Lawson were Pro Football Focus’ 15th and 14th ranked overall draft prospects and are NFL ready pass rushers, so they were arguably the two biggest steals of the draft.

The Bengals really need an upgrade over Michael Johnson at the defensive end spot opposite Carlos Dunlap. Johnson has finished below average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 3 seasons, including 105th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on 832 snaps in 2016. Now going into his age 30 season, Johnson’s best days are behind him and he’s only ever played well in contract years. Johnson may nominally remain the starter in 2017, but Willis and Lawson will eat into his snaps, especially in sub packages. Lawson is also getting some action at linebacker this off-season and could be an option there in base packages. With Johnson owed 5 million non-guaranteed in 2018, it’s possible this is his final season in Cincinnati, opening the door for either Lawson or Willis to take over as the starter next season.

Dunlap is one of the best defensive ends in the league though. He’s been a top-15 defensive end in each of the last 6 seasons on Pro Football Focus and finished last season 8th. Over the past 4 seasons, he’s made 63 starts and has played in all 64 games. A true every down defensive end, capable of rushing the passer and stuffing the run, Dunlap played 840 snaps last season and is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 28 season. With Willis and Lawson coming in, they might line Dunlap up inside on passing downs to get their 4 best pass rushers on the field at the same time. Dunlap has the size to do that at 6-6 290.

Another reason why lining Dunlap up inside more often makes sense is because they lack a 2nd interior sub package rusher next to Geno Atkins. Veteran Pat Sims and 2nd year player Andrew Billings will compete for the starting job, but neither is much of a pass rusher, so ideally it would be only a base package job. Sims was a solid run stopper in his prime, but is going into his age 32 season and has finished below average in 3 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Billings has upside, but was just a 4th round pick and missed his entire rookie season with injury. It’s likely to be a position of weakness regardless of who starts.

Regardless of where he lines up, Dunlap forms a dangerous one-two punch on the defensive line with Atkins, who is every down defensive tackle. Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked defensive tackle in both 2011 and 2012, Atkins’ career was sidetracked by a torn ACL suffered in 2013. He missed 7 games that season and was not the same player in 2014, but he’s returned to form over the past 2 seasons, finishing 3rd and 5th among defensive tackles in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Outside of the 7 games he missed in 2013, he’s played in every game in 7 seasons in the league. Like Dunlap, Atkins is still in the prime of his career, going into his age 29 season, so they should be a dangerous duo once again. They haven’t had a 3rd player step up over the past 2 seasons, but rookies Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson have potential. The arrow is pointing up on this defensive line.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

In addition to the offensive playmakers they were missing, the Bengals also were without top linebacker Vontaze Burfict for 5 games last season, which hurt this defense. Three of those games missed were as a result of suspension, following his illegal hit in the playoff loss to the Steelers the previous season. Burfict has had a reputation as a dirty player since college and is always a suspension risk, but injuries are actually a bigger concern for him. Not only did he miss the final 2 games of last season with concussion, but he was limited to 15 games by injuries in 2014 and 2015 combined.

Since playing all 32 games in his first 2 seasons in the league, Burfict has played in just 26 of 48 games since. He finished in the top-4 among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013, 2014, and then last season, when he finished 2nd, so he’s a very good player when he’s on the field, but he’s had a lot of trouble staying on the field over the past 3 seasons. Fortunately, he’s still only going into his age 27 season, so he should still have a lot of good seasons left in the tank if he can stay healthy.

With Burfict missing time, veteran Karlos Dansby led this linebacking corps in snaps played with 781 last season and played pretty well, despite his advanced age. He is no longer with the team, but the Bengals brought in 5th year linebacker Kevin Minter from the Cardinals to replace him. Minter will compete for snaps with last year’s 3rd linebacker Vincent Rey and last year’s 3rd round pick Nick Vigil, with Carl Lawson also potentially in the mix for snaps at outside linebacker in base packages.

Minter received 4.25 million on a one-year deal this off-season, so he’s probably the favorite for the every down job inside. Minter was always known as a two-down run stuffer before 2016 and struggled mightily in his first every down role in 2015, when he finished 78th out of 97 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus, especially struggling in coverage. In his contract year in 2016, however, the 2013 2nd round pick put it all together and played well both in coverage and against the run. He finished 18th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder, but the Bengals protected themselves by only giving him a one-year deal. He could have another solid season.

If he doesn’t and starts to struggle again, the Bengals could move Vincent Rey inside. Currently, Rey is the favorite for the base package outside linebacker job. He would play about half the snaps and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in obvious passing situations. Rey is going into his age 30 season and has some talented young options behind him on the depth chart, but he’s coming off arguably the best season of his career. He finished 6th among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 590 snaps, just the 2nd time in his 7-year career in which he’s finished above average. He’s unlikely to be as good again, but Vigil played just 111 snaps as a rookie and Lawson was just a 4th round pick, so Rey could hold them off. They have options and depth in what is a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Bengals used first round picks on cornerbacks in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Dre Kirkpatrick, the 17th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, didn’t become a full-time starter until his 4th season in the league in 2015. Darqueze Dennard, the 24th pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, is now going into his 4th season in the league with just 4 career starts under his belt. William Jackson, the 24th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, missed his entire rookie season with a torn pectoral and could have to wait equally long to become a starter, given all the depth the Bengals have at the position.

Not only did Kirkpatrick take until his 4th season to become a starter, but he hasn’t played well in two seasons since becoming the starter, especially struggling in 2015, when he finished 103rd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. He was better in his contract season in 2016, finishing 52nd, but he hasn’t lived up to his potential as a first round pick. The Bengals didn’t seem to care though, locking him up on a 5-year, 52.5 million dollar deal this off-season as a free agent, while letting their top-2 offensive lineman walk. He’s the 11th highest paid cornerback in the NFL. Considering how much depth the Bengals have at cornerback, it’s a move that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Darqueze Dennard, meanwhile, is not even a lock for a starting job in now his 4th season in the league, as Adam Jones is still playing at a pretty high level opposite Kirkpatrick. Jones is also a former first round pick, way back in 2005 with the Titans. Jones is now going into his age 34 season, but has been the Bengals’ best cornerback over the past 5 seasons, despite all of the first round cornerbacks the Bengals have added over that time period. He’s finished above average in all 5 seasons, including 33rd in 2016. His age is a concern, but he’s still probably the favorite for the starting job. At the very least, he’ll continue covering the slot in sub packages, which is where he’s best.

Dennard is not even a lock for the #3 job, with William Jackson returning from injury and Joshua Shaw also in the mix, after playing alright on 618 snaps in 2016. Shaw, a 2015 4th round pick, flashed in limited action as a rookie too and played ahead of Dennard last season when both were healthy. Dennard has a higher upside, but has been nondescript on just 585 career snaps in 3 seasons in the league. It’s possible that Shaw and/or Jackson open the season ahead of him on the depth chart. This is a crowded cornerback group.

Kirkpatrick isn’t the only defensive back this team has given a big contract to recently, as they also re-signed safety George Iloka to a 5-year, 30 million dollar deal last off-season. Iloka was a much better re-signing than Kirkpatrick, as he finished in the top-20 among safeties on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2013-2015. The 2012 5th round pick fell to 47th in the first year of his new contract, but he is only going into his age 27 season, so he definitely could bounce back in 2017. He’s at least a solid starting safety regardless and he’s durable, missing just 4 starts in 4 seasons as a starter.

The Bengals did not re-sign fellow safety Reggie Nelson as a free agent last off-season, but they had an obvious internal replacement in Shawn Williams. Williams flashed on 474 snaps in 2015 and then finished 33rd among safeties in 15 starts in 2016, his first full season as a starter. The 2013 3rd round pick was given a 4-year, 20.185 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie contract in 2016. The Bengals likely saved themselves a significant amount of money by locking him up before his strong 2016, as he would have been a hot commodity on the open market this off-season. The Bengals’ safeties are better than their cornerbacks, but they are deep at cornerback and have a solid overall secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Bengals probably peaked in 2015. They had next to no injuries until Andy Dalton got hurt late in the season, derailing their playoff chances after a 10-2 start. Last off-season, they lost two significant wide receivers in free agency in Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu. Then, during the season, they lost several key offensive players to injury in AJ Green, Tyler Eifert, and Giovani Bernard. They added much needed offensive weapons in the draft this year, but they lost their top-2 offensive linemen in free agency, which will hurt this offense immensely.

Green, Eifert, and Bernard should all be back healthy this season, but the Bengals still had the 7th fewest offensive adjusted games lost to injury in 2016, as pretty much all of their other starters played all 16 games. They probably won’t be able to count on having fewer games lost in 2017, but those games lost might be by less important players. Defensively, they added needed edge rushers through the draft, but they are likely to have more injuries on that side of the ball, after finishing with the 2nd fewest defensive adjusted games lost to injury last season. This team still has enough talent to compete for a playoff spot, but they’re unlikely to come close to what they were in 2015 before Dalton got hurt. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Kansas City Chiefs 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chiefs finished last season 12-4, but finished 24th in first down rate differential at -1.04%. They had 37 fewer first downs than their opponents and only had one more offensive touchdown than their opponents. Their record was largely the result of 6 wins by 8 points or less (including two overtime victories), a +16 turnover margin (best in the NFL), and a +7 return touchdown margin (best in the NFL). Unfortunately, they can’t rely on takeaways and return touchdowns to win them close games because takeaways, return touchdowns, and record in close games tend to have very little week-to-week and year-to-year correlation. This team was only a few snaps away from being an 8-8 or 9-7 team last season. If they want to continue winning at a high rate in 2017, they will need do a better job of winning first down battles.

Even though the Chiefs had a strong record last season, they treated the draft like they were rebuilding. They traded this year’s first round pick and next year’s first round pick to the Bills to move up from 27 to 10 to get Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who is unlikely to play as a rookie behind experienced veteran Alex Smith. Because of that, It’s possible that none of their rookies have a significant impact on this team, which hurts their chances of making a deep playoff run in 2017.

Alex Smith isn’t the best quarterback in the world, but he has been solid in 4 seasons as the Chiefs’ starting quarterback. He’s completed 64.5% of his passes for an average of 7.03 YPA, 76 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions, while adding 1317 yards and another 9 scores on 257 carries (5.12 YPC). He has finished 20th, 16th, 18th, and 14th respectively among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus from in those 4 seasons. He’s only averaged 483 pass attempts per season on a conservative offense though and will be owed 17 million non-guaranteed in an age 34 contract year in 2018, so the move might make long-term sense.

Smith is currently one of 11 Chiefs with a cap number of 7 million or higher for 2018. Those 11 players are set to count for a combined 128.5 million on the cap, or about 72.2% of the projected 178 million dollar cap for next season. Releasing Smith next off-season and going with the much cheaper Mahomes under center would save them 17 million immediately on the cap. The selection doesn’t help the Chiefs in 2017, but could pay off if Mahomes makes good on his high upside and develops into a franchise quarterback long-term.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

In an effort to increase their long-term financial flexibility, the Chiefs opted against bringing back wide receiver Jeremy Maclin at his scheduled 10 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It was a controversial move because Maclin topped 1000 yards in the first season of a 5-year, 55 million dollar deal in 2015, the only 1000+ yard season by a Chiefs receiver in the past 5 seasons. Maclin was limited to a 44/536/2 slash line in 2015, but injuries were largely the culprit, as he missed 4 games with a groin tear and was limited in several others upon his return. Through 7 games, before getting injured, Maclin was on pace for a solid 69/859/5 slash line and was only going into his age 29 season, but the Chiefs couldn’t financially justify bringing him back.

A big part of the reason why the Chiefs felt comfortable moving on from Maclin is because 2016 5th round pick Tyreek Hill showed promise as a rookie. Hill didn’t really start playing regularly until Maclin got hurt, but ended up leading all Kansas City wide receivers in receiving yards with a 61/593/6 slash line. That’s very impressive, considering he ran just 270 routes. He finished the season 33rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. However, he isn’t the traditional wide receiver Maclin was.

Hill’s 2.20 yards per route run average is very impressive, but he was largely utilized on screens and short passes. His average catch came just 5.31 yards from the line of scrimmage and he averaged an underwhelming 7.14 yards per target on 83 targets. Fortunately, he does more than just catch passes, as he also averaged 11.13 yards per carry and scored 3 times on 24 rush attempts and then scored another 3 times on returns. He had a total of 12 touchdowns last season, despite not really playing until midway through the season.

Hill is one of the fastest players in the entire NFL, but he’s very unrefined as a receiver and teams might be better prepared for him this season. He’s more of a “give him the ball in space however possible and hope he makes a play” type player than a true #1 receiver that can win downfield. He may not get the ball as many times on end arounds or be as effective on those plays with defenses now expecting them, and they’ve already said he’ll return only punts and not kickoffs this season, but he should see plenty of balls come his way this season without Maclin. He was targeted on a ridiculous 31% of his routes run last season. Even on a conservative offense, he has a shot at 1000 receiving yards and should go over 1000 in yards from scrimmage.

With Hill not really coming on until midway through the season and Maclin injured, Chris Conley actually led this team in snaps by a wide receiver with 818. The 2015 3rd round pick struggled mightily in his first season as a starter, posting just a 44/530/0 slash line and finishing the season 98th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Only going into his age 25 season, Conley could be better in his 3rd season in the league, but it’s possible he never develops into a useful player. He’s not consistent enough to be the true downfield threat this team needs.

Albert Wilson will be the 3rd receiver, but he too struggled mightily last season, finishing 102th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on 466 snaps and posting just a 31/279/2 slash line. He averaged just 9.00 yards per catch and 5.47 yards per target. Wilson flashed on 223 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2014, but has been overmatched in larger roles over the past 2 seasons. It’s possible he could be pushed for snaps down the stretch by 4th round rookie Jehu Chesson, though it’s unlikely he’d really be an upgrade.

The Chiefs were actually led in yards per catch last season by running back Spencer Ware (13.5 yards per catch) and tight end Travis Kelce (13.2 yards per catch). Kelce is their best all-around receiver and one of the best tight ends in the league. A 2013 3rd round pick, Kelce didn’t play a snap as a rookie in 2013 because of knee problems, but has improved his receiving total in 3 straight seasons, culminating with his first 1000+ yard season in 2016 (85/1125/4). He has finished in the top-4 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 2 of those 3 seasons, including a #1 finish last season. Most importantly, he’s played in 48 of 48 possible games. Also a strong run blocker at 6-5 260, Kelce is one of the best all-around tight ends in the game and should have another strong season.

Demetrius Harris remains as the #2 tight end and has started 20 games over the past 2 seasons, but he’s finished 7th worst and worst among tight ends on Pro Football Focus over those two seasons. The 2013 undrafted free agent caught just 17 passes for 123 yards and 1 touchdowns in 2016 (all of which were career highs) and the former college basketball player is not a blocker at 6-7 230. The Chiefs really lack a 3rd option in the passing game and need to hope that Tyreek Hill can continue developing as a receiver.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

As I mentioned, running back Spencer Ware actually led this team in yards per catch, catching 33 passes for 447 yards and 2 touchdowns, a pretty big surprise, considering the 2013 6th round pick had just 6 career catches before last season. Ware had just 3 offensive touches in his first 2 seasons in the league, but flashed on 72 carries in 2015, averaging 5.60 yards per carry and scoring 6 times, and then rushed for 921 yards and 3 touchdowns on 214 carries (4.30 YPC) as the lead back in 2016. He finished the season 16th among running backs on Pro Football Focus.

Prior to 2015, Jamaal Charles was their feature back, but he tore his ACL early in the 2015 season and managed just 106 touches in 8 games in 2015 and 2016 combined. Going into his age 31 season, the Chiefs made the easy decision to part ways with him this off-season, rather than paying him 6.2 million non-guaranteed. Spencer Ware has taken over as the lead back in his absence, but the Chiefs did need to upgrade backup Charcandrick West this off-season, as he’s averaged just 3.74 yards per carry on 248 carries over the last 2 seasons.

They did so by selecting Kareem Hunt in the 3rd round. Hunt is fully expected to be the #2 back this season, but he also has had an impressive off-season and there’s talk that he could push Ware for touches more than West did, making this more of a two-headed backfield. He was given a 2nd round grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft, making him a steal with the 86th overall pick, and he was one of the best pass catching backs in the draft. Charcandrick West had 116 touches last season, but 150+ touches would not be a surprise for Hunt. He’s a nice addition to this backfield and complements Ware well.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Chiefs used to have problems on the offensive line, but they’ve gotten a lot better in recent years. The addition of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz in free agency last off-season was a big part of that. A 2012 2nd round pick, Schwartz has made all 80 starts in 5 seasons in the league, all at right tackle, and has been arguably the best right tackle in the league over that time period. He’s finished 19th, 30th, 11th, 6th, and 27th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in the past 5 seasons respectively and should continue playing well, only going into his age 28 season. He was a good value on a 5-year, 33 million dollar deal.

It has also helped that left tackle Eric Fisher has been improved over the past 2 seasons. Fisher has not lived up to his potential as the #1 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he has finished 36th and 34th among offensive tackles in 2015 and 2016 respectively, after finishing 70th out of 76 eligible in 2013 and 72nd out of 84 eligible in 2014. The Chiefs gave him a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension last off-season, even though he had two years left on his rookie deal, making him the 5th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary and keeping him under contract through 2021. They clearly think he can continuing improving and, still only going into his age 26 season, that’s certainly possible.

Right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is also better than he used to be. The 2014 6th round pick didn’t play a snap as a rookie and struggled in the first 13 starts of his career in 2015, finishing 62nd out of 81 eligible guards, but the Chiefs stuck with him and he rewarded them, finishing 27th among guards in 2016. The Chiefs locked him up on a 5-year, 42.363 million dollar extension this off-season, ahead of what would have been the final season of his rookie deal. Considering he’s a one-year wonder and the Chiefs have a lot of other expensive players, they might end up regretting that, but he could easily have another solid season in 2017.

The Chiefs also have a young player at center, where Mitch Morse is going into his 3rd season in the league. A 2nd round pick in 2015, Morse has made 31 starts in 2 seasons in the league and has finished about average in both seasons, ranking 15th among centers in 2015 and 20th among centers in 2016. Still only going into his age 25 season, Morse could take another step forward this season, but, even if he doesn’t, he should remain a capable starter.

Left guard is the only position that is up for grabs. Zach Fulton made 12 starts at the position last season and has been better in the past 2 seasons, after finishing 64th out of 78 eligible guards in 16 starts at right guard as a 6th round rookie in 2014, but still has never finished above average on Pro Football Focus. He’ll be pushed by Parker Ehinger, a 2016 4th round pick who was alright in 4 starts as a rookie, but missed 12 games with injury and ended the season on injured reserve with a torn ACL. He’ll likely be back for week 1, but the injury won’t help him win the job. Also in the mix is Andrew Tiller, a 2012 6th round pick who has been about a league average guard in 14 starts over the past 2 seasons with San Francisco. Left guard is their weakest spot upfront, but they’re solid across the line.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The Chiefs lost Dontari Poe to the Falcons this off-season, but he was coming off of a down year and the Chiefs signed Bennie Logan from the Eagles to replace him at nose tackle, so he won’t really be missed. Logan finished 85th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen last season, but that was because he wasn’t a good fit for Philadelphia’s 4-3 defense. The 6-2 309 pounder was better as a pure nose tackle in a 3-4 in 2014 and 2015 and has finished above average as a run stopper in each of the last 3 seasons (43 starts), including 10th among defensive tackles in pure run stopping grade in 2015. He isn’t much of a pass rusher, but, only going into his age 28 season, he has obvious bounce back potential in a scheme that is more suited to him.

Unlike Poe, who played every down and finished last season with 821 snaps, most on the defensive line, Logan is only a base package player who will only play about half of the snaps. The good news is they should be healthier on the defensive line, as defensive ends Allen Bailey and Jaye Howard missed 11 games and 8 games respectively with injury in 2016. Bailey has started all 31 games he’s played in the last 3 seasons and figures to be a starter again in 2017, though he has finished below average in 2 of those 3 seasons. He’s an underwhelming option.

Jaye Howard is no longer with the team, getting cut this off-season and signing with the Bears, but 2016 2nd round pick Chris Jones played at a high level down the stretch with Howard and Bailey out and will start at the other defensive end spot opposite Bailey. Jones played 574 snaps and finished 5th among eligible 3-4 defensive ends as a rookie. Though he fell to the 2nd round, he was given a top-15 grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft and has a huge upside. He’ll turn 23 in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 and could have a breakout year in an every down role. He’s the favorite to lead this line in snaps played.

The Chiefs also drafted Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon in the 2nd round of this year’s draft, though he’s very raw and, like their first round pick, might not make much of an impact as a rookie. The 6-7 289 pounder looks the part and has a high upside, but will have to compete for reserve snaps as a rookie. Rakeem Nunez-Roches is also in the mix for reserve snaps, but the 2015 6th round pick struggled mightily on 286 snaps last season in the first significant action of his career. The Chiefs lost a couple defensive linemen this off-season, but still are solid upfront.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Along with the emergence of rookies Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones down the stretch in 2016, the Chiefs also got edge defender Justin Houston back from injury, after he missed the first 9 games of the season recovering from off-season knee surgery. As a result, the Chiefs were a better team down the stretch, as compared to earlier in the season. Houston was a top-4 player at the 3-4 outside linebacker position on Pro Football Focus in each of the previous 4 seasons from 2012-2015, so he was obviously a big re-addition. He didn’t play quite as well as he’s used to upon his return, but has obvious bounce back potential in still only his age 28 season and is one of the best defensive players in the league when healthy. Injuries are becoming a concern though, as he’s missed 21 games with injury over the past 4 seasons.

Houston and Tamba Hali used to form a dangerous edge rush duo, but Hali is older now, going into his age 34 season, and is on a snap count. He played just 596 snaps last season, despite Houston being injured, and is unlikely to even have that many snaps in 2017. He’s still playing at a high level when he does play though, finishing last season 10th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 8 straight seasons, but his age is becoming a concern and his abilities could drop off a cliff at any point.

With Houston injured and Hali on a snap count, Dee Ford led all Kansas City outside linebackers with 798 snaps last season. A first round pick in 2014, Dee Ford had his best season yet in 2016, but still did not finish above average on Pro Football Focus. He finished above average as a pass rusher and is a good rusher off the edge, but he’s useless against the run, which really hurts him. Going into his age 26 season, Ford still has upside and could continue to improve, but the 6-2 252 pounder has had issues against the run since his collegiate days, so he could be a liability in running situations throughout his career.

Along with Tamba Hali, the Chiefs have another aging former All-Pro at middle linebacker in Derrick Johnson, who is going into his age 35 season. Johnson finished last season 15th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but that’s a noticeable drop off because he was a top-5 middle linebacker in his previous 4 healthy seasons. His season was also ended in December after 13 games when he tore his achilles tendon. Johnson also tore his other achilles back in 2014, missing all but one game that season, so it’s fair to wonder if he’s falling apart. He should be ready for week 1, but he’s a big unknown for the Chiefs this off-season. He’ll likely be a cap casualty next off-season, owed 8 million non-guaranteed.

In Johnson’s absence, second year middle linebacker Ramik Wilson became an every down player. A 2015 4th round pick, Wilson struggled on 121 snaps as a rookie and was actually let go by the Chiefs ahead of final cuts last season, but he was signed to the practice squad and worked his way up from the practice squad to a base package role to eventually an every down role when Johnson was injured. He played very well, finishing 12th among middle linebackers on 524 snaps.

The Chiefs have traditionally used a box safety like Daniel Sorensen as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages, so the other middle linebacker spot opposite Derrick Johnson has traditionally been only a base package role, but Sorensen isn’t good and Wilson showed well both in coverage and against the run last season. He has potential at the very least and should be given a chance to stay on the field for all 3 downs. This is still one of the more talented linebacking corps in the NFL, but they have some key players who are either injury prone, aging, or both.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The Chiefs have talent in the secondary as well, led by safety Eric Berry, who was re-signed to a 6-year, 78 million dollar contract this off-season, making him the highest paid safety in the league. Berry finished last season 8th among safeties on Pro Football Focus and has finished in the top-8 at his position in 3 of the last 5 seasons. Berry was diagnosed with lymphoma in November of 2014, but returned for the start of the week 1 season in 2015 and has arguably been a better player since. I expect another strong season from him.

Fellow starting safety Ron Parker is also coming off of a good season, finishing 25th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Unlike Berry, Parker is not typically this good. In fact, prior to this season, Parker had never finished higher than 40th among safeties. Parker has only been a starter for 3 seasons, but he was a late bloomer and is already going into his age 30 season. I wouldn’t be surprised if he regressed somewhat, but he’s still a capable starter.

At cornerback, Marcus Peters is coming off of a strong season, finishing 10th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. A first round pick in 2015, Peters has a league leading 14 interceptions over the past 2 seasons, but allowed far too many big plays as a rookie and finished just above average on Pro Football Focus as a result, despite a league leading 8 interceptions. He was improved dramatically from his first to his second season in the league though and has a huge upside going forward. He could easily finish this season as one of the top few cornerbacks in the league.

The rest of the Chiefs’ cornerbacks are much bigger question marks. Steven Nelson made 14 starts opposite Peters last season, the first 14 starts of the 2015 3rd round pick’s career, and wasn’t bad, finishing just below average on Pro Football Focus. He’ll face competition from Phillip Gaines and Terrance Mitchell. Gaines struggled mightily as the 3rd cornerback last season, finishing 109th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 449 snaps in his first season back from a torn ACL. Gaines was better in a similar role as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 and could improve in his 2nd season after the injury, but he’s not a strong candidate for the starting job.

Terrance Mitchell actually took over as the #3 cornerback down the stretch last season and flashed on 240 snaps, so he could continue seeing snaps to start the 2017 season, but the 2014 7th round pick is incredibly inexperienced. He has just 2 career starts in 3 seasons in the league and it’s unclear if he can handle a larger role. Eric Murray, the Chiefs’ 4th round pick in 2016, is probably also in the mix for snaps, though he too is inexperienced, after playing just 68 defensive snaps as a rookie. The Chiefs may try different combinations throughout the season to try to patchwork together passable cornerback play behind Peters on the depth chart. This is still a strong secondary nonetheless.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Chiefs were not as good as their record in 2016, but they did get better as the season went on, with Justin Houston returning from injury and rookies Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones playing at high levels. This looks like another case of a team that will be improved, but that will still win fewer games, as they are unlikely to do as well in close games, in return touchdowns, and in turnover margins. Their roster is talented enough to make the playoffs, but it won’t be as easy for them to make the playoffs as most think, especially since they play in a loaded AFC West and face a first place schedule. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Los Angeles Chargers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Chargers have probably been the unluckiest team in the league over the past 2 seasons. After back-to-back 9-7 seasons to start the Mike McCoy era in 2013 and 2014, the Chargers won just 9 games total over the past 2 seasons. A big part of that is because they’ve won just 4 of 20 games decided by a touchdown or less over those 2 seasons. In terms of first down rate differential, they’ve ranked 14th (-0.88%) and 7th (+1.58%) over the past 2 seasons. They have 55 more first downs and just 3 fewer offensive touchdowns than their opponents over the past 2 seasons.

On top of that, they’ve ranked 26th and 31st in adjusted games lost to injury in 2015 and 2016 respectively, making them arguably the most injury plagued team over the past 2 seasons. Both close losses and injuries tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Chargers could have a lot better luck in 2017. They fired head coach Mike McCoy this off-season and replaced him with another offensive mind, ex-Bills offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. Perhaps that will help their play in close games.

One player the Chargers have never really had to worry about getting injured is quarterback Philip Rivers, who hasn’t missed a start since he took over as the starter in 2006, even playing the 2007 AFC Championship despite a partially torn ACL. Because of his durability and toughness, they’ve never really valued the backup quarterback position. The Chargers clearly are still not worried about the possibility of a Rivers injury, not adding a single quarterback in the draft or free agent this off-season, even though many thought they’d invest in a quarterback of the future, with Rivers going into his age 36 season.

The only quarterback added was undrafted free agent Eli Jenkins, who will compete with mediocre backup Kellen Clemens for the #2 job. Clemens has a career 69.4 QB rating on 630 pass attempts in 11 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 34 season. He hasn’t made a start since 2013 with the Rams, but should be considered the heavy favorite for the backup job. The Chargers would be in big trouble if Rivers were to get injured or show some signs of decline.

Rivers did finish below average on Pro Football Focus in 2016, for just the second time in 11 seasons as the starter, but he still finished 19th, which isn’t bad. He completed 60.4% of his passes for an average of 7.59 YPA, 33 touchdowns, and 21 interceptions. In his career, he’s completed 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.75 YPA, 314 touchdowns, and 156 interceptions. He’s a gunslinger who has led the NFL in interceptions in 2 of the last 3 seasons, but he pushes this offense forward and has done a solid job over the past two seasons, despite so many injuries around him.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

No injured Charger has been missed more over the past 2 seasons than Keenan Allen. Allen was on pace for a 134/1450/8 slash line in his age 23 season in 2015 through 8 games, but then ruptured his kidney and missed the rest of the season. In 2016, he had a huge first half against the Chiefs week 1, catching 6 passes for 63 yards, but then tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. Injuries have been a problem for him dating back to college, as knee problems dropped him to the 3rd round in 2013. He had a strong rookie season, finishing with a 71/1046/8 slash line and becoming just one of 11 rookie receivers in the last 20 years to top 1000 yards, even though he didn’t become a starter until week 4.

However, his last 3 seasons were all been ended by season ending injuries. Still only going into his age 25 season, Allen still has the upside to be one of the top wide receivers in the league if he can stay healthy, but that’s becoming a very big if at this point. Rivers completed 69.8% of his passes for an average of 7.91 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions through the first 8 games of the 2015 season with Allen healthy, so he’s obviously hoping for a bounce back season from him. The Chargers gave him a 4-year, 45 million dollar extension last off-season.

The Chargers’ receiving corps still performed pretty well in Allen’s absence last season, thanks primarily to a breakout season from 2nd year undrafted free agent Tyrell Williams. Williams did his best Keenan Allen impression, catching 69 passes for 1059 yards and 7 touchdowns in the first significant action of his career, despite only starting 12 of 16 games. He finished 31st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He could see his numbers drop with Allen back, but he figures to be the starter opposite Allen. If both are healthy and at their best, they could be one of the best wide receiver duos in the league.

Their complementary receivers also had solid seasons in 2016, as ex-CFL star Dontrelle Inman finished with a 58/810/4 slash line as the #2 receiver and free agent acquisition Travis Benjamin finished with a 47/677/4 slash line as the #3 receiver. Inman finished 33th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, a significant improvement over 2015, when he finished 111th out of 121 eligible wide receivers on 691 snaps in the first significant action of his NFL career. Benjamin, meanwhile, came to the Chargers on a 4-year, 24 million dollar deal from the Browns. He has never finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 seasons in the league and is a one-dimensional deep threat, but he hasn’t been bad over the past 2 seasons.

Despite all this depth at wide receiver and Keenan Allen set to return from injury, the Chargers shocked everyone by selecting Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams 7th overall. Williams was not expected to be a top-10 pick, but was arguably the best receiver in the draft class and is certainly not a bad addition. The issue is how much he’ll actually play. I assume Allen and Williams are locked in as the top-2 receivers, so that leaves Williams to compete with Dontrelle Inman and Travis Benjamin for the #3 receiver job.

As talented as he is, that’s a competition he might not win, especially since he injured his back in off-season practice and could be out until Training Camp, which puts him behind the 8-ball in a tough competition. The Chargers legitimately go 5 deep at wide receiver when they’re healthy, but it’s fair to wonder if the 7th pick could have been put to better use. I know they wanted to get Philip Rivers as much help as possible, but it doesn’t help him if the team’s 7th overall pick is sitting on the bench when they could have drafted a starter at another position. Inman is going into the final year of his rookie deal and Benjamin is owed a non-guaranteed 5.75 million in 2018, and both now look like they are entering their final season with the Chargers. The selection also calls into question whether or not they will extend Tyrell Williams when his time comes (he has two years left on his rookie deal) and how confident they are in Keenan Allen’s long-term durability.

The Chargers are deep at tight end too, as 2016 2nd round pick and future Antonio Gates replacement Hunter Henry showed promise as a rookie, while Gates could have another strong season left in the tank, even in his age 37 season. Henry, who finished 12th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 574 snaps in 2016, is expected to be the starter with Gates taking on more of a complementary role. Henry posted a 36/478/8 slash line on just 54 targets (6th on the team) and 254 routes run last season and is a capable run blocker at 6-5 250. He could easily have a breakout 2nd season in the league. Philip Rivers seems to love throwing to him on the goal line, where he is very tough to defend on jump balls.

Rivers loves throwing to Gates on the goal line too, as he has 23 scores in the past 3 seasons and caught 7 last season, despite playing just 585 total snaps in a crowded receiving corps. He’s never been much of a run blocker, but has finished above average as a pass catcher on Pro Football Focus in every season of his career. His age is obviously a concern, but he could still play a role in this receiving corps. He might have his worst statistical season since his rookie season in 2003 (the last season in which he had fewer than 500 receiving yards), but that could be more because of how many other passing options they have, rather than Gates declining in a big way. This is arguably the deepest receiving corps in the league.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Chargers also had a lot of injuries at the running back position, most importantly a torn ACL suffered by Danny Woodhead that cost him the final 14 games of the season. Woodhead caught 75+ passes in his previous 2 healthy seasons as a passing down back and also provided some change of pace on the ground, so he was a big loss. The Chargers also lost Branden Oliver for the year when he tore his achilles before the season even began. Undrafted rookie Kenneth Barrow finished 2nd on the team in carries with 60 and averaged just 3.20 yards per. Melvin Gordon was their feature back for most of the season, but missed the final 3 games with injury and, because all of their other useful backs were injured, the Chargers had to turn to a combination of Farrow and Andre Williams, who was signed mid-season and who has just a 3.30 career YPC on 323 carries.

Danny Woodhead signed in Baltimore this off-season, so Melvin Gordon remains the every down back. The 15th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, that is what Gordon was drafted for, but it looked like he might be a bust after his disappointing rookie season. He averaged just 3.48 yards per carry on 184 carries, caught just 33 passes for 192 yards, and didn’t score once. He finished the season 65th out of 69 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus. To make matters worse, he had off-season microfracture surgery on his knees, so a breakout second season in the league seemed unlikely.

However, he surprised all his doubters, finishing the season 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus. He only averaged 3.93 yards per carry on 254 carries, but that was largely because he didn’t have good blocking all season. He ran with great toughness, pushed through contact, and broke tackles. He also added 41 catches for 419 yards through the air and scored 12 times total. A knee injury cost him essentially the final 4 games of the season, but he averaged 20.92 carries per game through 12 games, which would have been the 3rd highest among all running backs last season, behind only Ezekiel Elliott and Le’Veon Bell. With better blocking, he could have a monster statistical season in 2017. He has a huge upside and is only going into his age 24 season. Durability is a bit of a concern for him though, between last off-season’s knee surgery and the knee injury that ended his season in 2016.

The Chargers didn’t add another back this off-season, so they seem confident in Gordon as an every down back again and think he can stay healthy. Branden Oliver is back from his achilles injury and has the inside track on the #2 back job. Prior to last season’s injury, Oliver averaged just 3.61 yards per carry on 191 career carries, but is a tough runner who runs through contact and contributes in passing situations. The 2014 undrafted free agent is inexperienced and has played just 22 career games in 3 seasons in the league, but finished about average on Pro Football Focus in limited action in both 2014 and 2015. He isn’t a bad backup, but the Chargers will obviously be hoping that Gordon can stay healthy all year and handle 300+ carries. If he can, he could easily finish the season in the top-5 in rushing yards.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

As mentioned, the Chargers had major problems on the offensive line last season. In response, they changed things up this off-season and will have new starters at 3 of 5 positions upfront. The Chargers released starting left tackle King Dunlap and starting guards Orlando Franklin and DJ Fluker this off-season, saving them 6.75 million, 6 million, and 8.821 million respectively. None of them played well in 2016 or were worth their salary. Dunlap, who retired this off-season, finished 53rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Franklin and Fluker, meanwhile, finished 66th and 54th respectively out of 72 eligible guards. They won’t be missed.

They made a big splash in free agency to replace Dunlap, signing Russell Okung away from the Broncos, for whom he started all 16 games last season. Okung finished last season 38th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2016 and should be an upgrade, but they overpaid him, giving him a 4-year, 53 million dollar deal that makes him the 2nd highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary. Last season was the first season in his career in which he played all 16 games, missing 24 games in his first 6 seasons in the league combined. He’s also only finished above average just 3 times in 7 seasons in the league on Pro Football Focus. Now going into his age 30 season, it shouldn’t be surprising if Okung regresses or gets injured. His backup is Chris Hairston, who has 31 career starts, but has never played well.

The Chargers replaced their guards by drafting a guard in both the 2nd and 3rd rounds, taking Western Kentucky’s Forest Lamp and Indiana’s Dan Feeney, who will likely start at right guard and left guard respectively. Even though they are just rookies, they could have solid rookie seasons, as they were arguably the best two guards in the draft. They may have some growing pains, but it wouldn’t be hard for them to be an upgrade over what they had at guard last season. The Chargers also have the option of shifting Matt Slauson from center back to guard, where he spent the first 7 seasons of his career before moving to center last season. In that scenario, last year’s 3rd round pick Max Tuerk, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie because of knee problems, would start at center.

For now, Slauson is the starting center, after finishing about average in his first season at the position in 2016 (18th out of 38 eligible centers). At guard, Slauson finished above average in each of his first 6 seasons in the league, including 9th in 2015 with the Bears, but he’s now in his age 31 season, so the Chargers seem to prefer him at center. He could easily have another solid season there though. The 2009 6th round pick took over as a full-time starter in 2010 with the Jets and has made all 16 starts in 6 of 7 seasons since.

Veteran Joe Barksdale rounds out the offensive line at right tackle. Barksdale has made 60 starts at right tackle over the past 4 seasons, 2 seasons with the Rams and the past 2 seasons with the Chargers. He too struggled last season, finishing 58th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 15 starts, but he finished above average in the previous 3 seasons and 21st as recently as 2015. Only going into his age 29 season, he could easily have a bounce back season on what looks like an overall improved offensive line.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

With Anthony Lynn coming in to replace Mike McCoy, the Chargers replaced defensive coordinator John Pagano with Gus Bradley, who will transition this defense to a 4-3. Bradley wasn’t good as a head coach with the Jaguars, but was a good defensive coordinator with the Seahawks before that and has some good talent to work with. The player who could benefit most from the scheme change is Joey Bosa, the 3rd overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Bosa was an odd fit in the Chargers’ 3-4 defense at 6-5 280, which makes his rookie season even more impressive.

The Defensive Rookie of the Year missed the first 4 games of the season with a stupid holdout and an injury, but finished 2nd among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus and had 10.5 sacks on 563 snaps. Now back in the 4-3 defense in which he dominated in college, he could take another step forward in full first season in the league. Only going into his age 22 season, the sky seems like the limit for his potential right now. He will line up as a defensive end in base packages, but could see a fair amount of snaps on the inside in sub packages. He showed the ability to disrupt the quarterback from multiple spots as a rookie and also plays the run well.

Joey Bosa’s counterpart on the other side of the defensive line, Melvin Ingram, is not as clean of a fit in this new defense. The Chargers don’t seem concerned though, giving him a 4-year, 66 million dollar extension this off-season, after franchising tagging him. That deal is risky for a number of reasons. Ingram has 18.5 sacks over the past 2 seasons combined and has finished 8th and 3rd among 3-4 outside linebackers in the last 2 seasons respectively, but the 2012 1st round pick managed just 6 sacks in 29 games in his first 3 seasons in the league, thanks primarily to injuries. He’s played all 32 games over the past 2 seasons, but his injury history makes him risky on a long-term deal.

Ingram is also older than most players with his experience, already going into his age 29 season, so he might only have 2-3 strong seasons left in the tank at best. On top of that, the 6-2 247 pounder is a better fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker. He’ll rush the passer from more or less the same spot in the new defense, but could struggle against the run as a base defensive end and doesn’t get to utilize his impressive coverage skills either. He could still be a strong pass rusher for them, but he was a risky re-signing on an expensive long-term deal.

In sub packages, when Bosa moves inside, Jeremiah Attaochu and Kyle Emanuel are the top candidates for snaps outside opposite Ingram. Attaochu, a 2014 2nd round pick, finished 19th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 12 starts in 2015, but was limited to 178 disappointing snaps in 8 games in 2016 by ankle problems and an eventual broken leg that ended his season. He didn’t play much as a rookie in 2014, so he’s a one-year wonder, but, only going into his age 24 season, he could easily have a bounce back season in a situational role in 2017. He’s also a candidate for the base package outside linebacker job. Emanuel is probably the favorite for that job, with Attaochu more likely to see sub package snaps at defensive end. A 5th round pick in 2015, Emanuel has struggled mightily as a pass rusher in 2 seasons in the league, but played the run pretty well last season.

At defensive tackle, Corey Liuget and Brandon Mebane will start. Liuget is an every down player, but Mebane is just a base package run stuffer. Mebane played at a high level last season, not just stopping the run, but also getting some pass rush, but only played 340 snaps in 10 games as a situational player, before tearing his biceps and going down for the season. Mebane has always been a good run stuffer, but is going into his age 32 season and has missed 14 games with injury over the past 3 seasons, so there’s some uncertainty with him.

In Mebane’s absence last season, Damion Square took over as the nose tackle, making 7 starts in total and playing 364 snaps in 11 games. The 2013 undrafted free agent had started just one career game before last season, but did a solid good against the run and figures to be part of the rotation again in 2017. Tenny Palepoi, a 2014 undrafted free agent who struggled on 378 snaps in 2016 in the first significant action of his career, could also be in the mix for snaps.

Liuget, meanwhile, has 87 starts in 90 games in 6 seasons in the league and played 812 snaps last season, most among Charger defensive linemen. The 2011 1st round pick signed a 5-year, 51.25 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago, but is not as good as his salary suggests. He’s finished above average just twice in 6 seasons in the league and finished slightly below average in 2016. Still only going into his age 27 season, Liuget is still in his prime, but he’s an overrated and overpaid player. This is still a strong defensive line though, especially on the edges.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As mentioned, either Jeremiah Attaochu or Kyle Emanuel will play the base package outside linebacker job. Going into last season, Manti Te’o and Denzel Perryman were their two every down linebackers, but Te’o missed 12 games with injury, while Perryman missed another 4 games. The injuries were actually a blessing in disguise, because it allowed couple young linebackers to get a chance and they played pretty well in their opportunity. Jatavis Brown was the biggest beneficiary, as the 5th round rookie finished the season 19th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, playing 600 snaps in 12 games and making 7 starts. He will be an every down player at outside linebacker this season. He’s still a relatively unproven one-year wonder and the fact that he fell all the way to the 5th round a year ago isn’t irrelevant yet, but he could easily have a strong season in his new role.

Korey Toomer also flashed in limited action last season, finishing 16th among middle linebackers on 479 snaps and excelling in coverage. The 5-year veteran made the first 8 starts of his career last season, so he’s still a one-year wonder, but he showed enough to compete for a role in 2017. Manti Te’o is in New Orleans now, but Denzel Perryman returns, so he and Toomer could compete for the starting middle linebacker job. Perryman, a 2015 2nd round pick, has only played 884 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, but plays the run well. He and Toomer could platoon, with Toomer coming in for Perryman in base packages obvious passing situations. This is an underrated linebacking corps.

Grade: B-

Secondary

While the injury to Keenan Allen was probably their biggest loss last season, a torn ACL suffered by cornerback Jason Verrett was also a huge blow to this team. Verrett was a first round pick in 2014 and has played well whenever he’s been on the field, but has been limited to just 24 games in 3 seasons in the league by injury. In addition to the torn ACL that ended his 2016 season after 4 games, he was limited to 6 games as a rookie by shoulder surgery. He was Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback in 2014 when he went down and their 6th ranked cornerback in his one healthy season in 2015, so the sky is still the limit in terms of his upside, only going into his age 25 season, but he’s a major injury risk.

If Verrett is healthy, the Chargers could have one of the best cornerback duos in the league, as free agent acquisition Casey Hayward excelled in Verrett’s absence last season in his first season with the Chargers, making 14 starts and finishing 6th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Hayward was an absolute steal on a 3-year, 15.3 million dollar extension. Hayward came so cheap because he only started 20 games in 4 seasons with the Packers, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2012, but he always flashed in limited action, so he’s hardly a one-year wonder. He finished 4th among cornerbacks as a rookie in 2012, 9th among cornerbacks in 2014, and then 16th in 2015. One of the most underrated players in the entire NFL, Hayward is also one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

Their depth is very weak at cornerback though, even more reason why they need Verrett to stay healthy. Brandon Flowers started the season as their 3rd cornerback, but he missed 10 games with concussions and is no longer with the team. Instead Craig Mager (408 snaps) and Steve Williams (388 snaps) are their top returning reserves, but they both struggled mightily in 2016, finishing 105th and 99th respectively among 111 eligible cornerbacks.

Despite that, they didn’t add a single cornerback this off-season. Mager was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and has the most upside of the two, so he’s probably the favorite for the #3 job, but he could easily struggle again. Williams, meanwhile, is a 2016 undrafted free agent who was called up from the practice squad as a rookie. He was predictably overwhelmed and doesn’t look like anything more than maybe a #4 cornerback long-term.

Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers were not the only Charger defensive backs to miss significant time with injury last season, as a broken collarbone limited safety Jahleel Addae to 510 snaps in 8 games. Addae had a strong season when on the field, finishing 12th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, so he was definitely missed. Addae finished 76th out of 89 eligible safeties in his first full season as a starter in 2015 and hadn’t finished above average since his rookie season in 2013 (437 snaps), so he’s a one-year wonder, if you can even call him that, considering how much time he missed. However, he’s still only going into his age 27 season and definitely has upside. The Chargers were able to bring him back on a 4-year, 22.5 million dollar deal this off-season, a pretty reasonable deal.

Dwight Lowery returns as the other starter. The 9-year veteran missed 28 games in a 5-year stretch from 2009-2013, but hasn’t missed a game in 3 seasons since and has finished above average 7 times in 9 seasons in the league. He’s never been a great player and only finished last season 42nd among safeties, but he’s still a capable starter. The one concern is his age, as he goes into his age 31 season. The Chargers drafted a pair of safeties in the mid rounds, 4th rounder Rayshawn Jenkins and 5th rounder Desmond King, as potential long-term options. This is a solid secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

Looking through this roster, this does not look like a team that’s gone 9-23 over the past 2 seasons. If they can stay healthy and do better in close games, they could easily compete for a playoff spot in their first season under new head coach Anthony Lynn. Some of their top players, like Jason Verrett and Keenan Allen, are not durable, but this team definitely has upside. My one complaint is that they drafted Mike Williams at 7, even though he didn’t fill an immediate need, when they could have added much more needed players like Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, Ohio State safety Malik Hooker, and Ohio State cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Given Rivers’ age, it didn’t make sense for this team to not add an immediate starter with that pick. Still, this should be one of the most improved teams in the league in terms of wins. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Oakland Raiders 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Prior to last season, I predicted a breakout season for the Raiders in 2016, expecting them to not just make the post-season for the first time since 2002, but also for them to finish with one of the top-2 seeds in the conference and a first round bye in the playoffs. That didn’t quite happen, but that’s because they lost Derek Carr for the season with a broken leg week 16 and then lost the division on a tiebreaker to the 12-4 Chiefs when they lost to the Broncos without Carr the following week. Carr went 12-3 in his 15 starts, but without him the Raiders couldn’t win in Houston as the #5 seed and lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Even though they had a strong record, the Raiders were not as good as I expected them to be in 2016 and likely would not have gone on a deep run in the post-season even with Carr. Eight of their 12 victories came by 7 points or fewer, including a 5-0 record in games decided by a field goal or less, and their point differential of +31 was just behind non-playoff teams in the Eagles and Ravens (both at +36). That’s despite the fact that they finished with a league best +16 turnover margin. Turnovers tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year basis, so the Raiders won’t be able to count on that again in 2017.

In terms of first down rate differential, the Raiders finished just 19th and had just one more offensive touchdown than their opponents all season. They finished 15th in first down rate and 23rd in first down rate allowed, though their first down rate is a little misleading as they ranked 12th in first down rate through 15 games, before Carr was injured. Still, that’s not all that much better than 2015, when they finished 20th in first down rate, 16th in first down rate allowed, and 17th in first down rate differential. Even though they added several big free agents and won several more games, they weren’t really that improved from 2015 to 2016.

The good news is they have several players who could have bounce back seasons, they added more talent this off-season, without really losing anyone important, and they are still a relatively young team, despite all of their recent veteran free agent additions. They could easily be an improved team from 2016 to 2017, even if it doesn’t show up in the standings. The big concern with this team is how expensive they could become over the next couple of seasons.

They built themselves to where they are now by hitting on draft picks, which gave them cheap young talent, and then signing talented veterans to big money deals in free agency to pair with their young players. However, most of their young players will be up for big extensions in the next two off-seasons. In 2017, they have 8 players with cap hits of 6.4 million or higher. Those 8 take up a combined 66 million on the cap, or about 39.5% of the total cap for this season, and that’s without extensions for young players like Amari Cooper, Derek Carr, Gabe Jackson, and Khalil Mack, who will need expensive extensions in the next couple of off-seasons.

Quarterback Derek Carr was first in line for an extension, as the Raiders made him the highest paid quarterback in the league this off-season, giving him a 5-year, 125 million dollar extension, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. He was set to make just 1.153 million before the extension. Carr isn’t the best quarterback in the league, but most of the top quarterbacks are underpaid compared to what their market value would be, so I don’t have a problem with the Raiders giving Carr as much money as they did. They didn’t really have another choice.

Carr struggled mightily as a 2nd round rookie in 2014, finishing 38th out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and averaging just 5.46 yards per attempt, worst in the NFL. He was the only quarterback in the last decade and a half to average so few yards per attempt and still make all 16 starts. However, he’s completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.99 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in the two seasons since and has finished 10th and 8th respectively among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in those 2 seasons. His best attribute is avoiding interceptions, but I would like to see him complete a higher percentage of his passes and average a higher YPA in the future. Still only going into his age 26 season, his best days could still be ahead of him.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why I want to see Carr average a higher YPA and complete a higher percentage of his passes is because he has a strong supporting cast and should be moving the ball downfield more easily. His offensive line is arguably the best in football. Kelechi Osemele was easily their best free agent acquisition from last off-season, as he made 15 starts at left guard and finished 5th among guards on Pro Football Focus in the first season of a 5-year, 58.5 million dollar deal. He is the 2nd highest paid guard in the NFL in average annual salary, only behind Kevin Zeitler, who signed with the Browns on a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal this off-season. He’s finished in the top-13 among guards in each of the last 3 seasons and is still in his prime, going into his age 28 season, so he should have another strong season in 2017.

Osemele is not the only starting offensive lineman that they’ve added in free agency over the years, as left tackle Donald Penn, center Rodney Hudson, and right tackle Austin Howard all joined the Raiders as free agents. Donald Penn is arguably their 2nd best offensive lineman and he has been a bargain for them, first signing a 2-year, 9.2 million dollar deal before the 2014 season and then signing a 2-year, 14 million dollar deal last off-season. Going into his age 34 season, his age is a concern and the reason why they’ve been able to get him so inexpensively, but Penn has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 7 straight seasons and, though he looked on the decline in Tampa Bay in 2013, his career has found a second life with the Raiders. He has finished 7th, 11th, and 10th among offensive tackles in 3 seasons in Oakland.

Carr’s absence for the playoff game last season obviously hurt them, but Penn being out with a leg injury didn’t help. Fortunately, he is back to full health now and has never missed a regular season game with injury in 10 full seasons in the league. The Raiders are hoping he has one last strong season in the tank, but that’s far from a guarantee. The Raiders may have to move on from him as a free agent next off-season to keep some of their younger players, so Kelechi Osemele could end up long-term at left tackle, where he has some experience.

Center Rodney Hudson is also a very good offensive lineman. The Raiders signed him to a then record 5-year, 44.5 million dollar deal in free agency two off-seasons ago, after the 2011 2nd round pick had a breakout contract year in 2014, finishing 3rd among centers on Pro Football Focus. He’s lived up to that deal, finishing 8th and 4th respectively among centers in 2 seasons in Oakland. Now the 4th highest paid center in the league in terms of average annual salary, Hudson is a good value and a big part of this offensive line.

Their only weakness upfront is right tackle, where Austin Howard hasn’t quite lived up to the 5-year, 30 million dollar deal the Raiders gave him in free agency 3 off-seasons ago. Howard finished 19th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but has finished below average in his other 2 seasons in Oakland, including last season, when he finished 54th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles. He’s not a bad player and could have a solid season on the right side, but he’s also going into his age 30 season, so his best years could be behind him at this point. Owed a non-guaranteed 5.5 million in 2018, this could easily be his last season in Oakland. The Raiders used a 4th round pick on Florida offensive tackle David Sharpe as insurance.

The only starter on this offensive line that was actually drafted by the Raiders is right guard Gabe Jackson, a 3rd round pick in 2014 who is going into the final year of his rookie deal and will likely become one of the highest paid guards in the league in the next calendar year. A starter from the word go, Jackson has made 44 starts in 3 seasons in the league and has finished above average in all 3 of them, including 13th among guards in 2015 and 22nd among guards in 2016. The Raiders have decisions to make on him and Donald Penn next off-season, but, for now, still have one of the best offensive lines in football and return all 5 starters from 2016.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers

Derek Carr also has a pair of talented wide receivers in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, who were one of four wide receiver duos to both top 1000 yards in 2016 (Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas, Michael Thomas/Brandin Cooks, and DeSean Jackson/Pierre Garcon). Cooper, the 4th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, is one of the Raiders top young players and one of the best young wide receivers in the whole league.

Cooper caught 72 passes for 1070 yards and 6 touchdowns as a rookie, but struggled with drops and wasn’t that efficient on a per target basis (130 targets), so he finished around middle of the pack among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still, that was a very impressive rookie season, as he became one of just 11 rookie receivers to top 1000 receiving yards in the last 20 years, and then he took his game to another level in 2016. He again had a good amount of targets (132), but caught 83 passes for 1,153 yards and 5 touchdowns and finished 23rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still only going into his age 23 season, Cooper’s best days are likely still ahead of him and he could have a huge statistical season in his 3rd season in the league. After finishing 8th in receiving yards last season, Cooper has a good shot at the top-5 in 2017.

If Cooper is more productive in 2017, it would likely be at the expense of Michael Crabtree, who has actually led the team in targets in each of the last 2 seasons, with 146 in 2015 and 145 in 2016. Crabtree looked done in 2013 and 2014, struggling to return to form after tearing his achilles after the 2012 season, but he has bounced back with back-to-back above average seasons in Oakland. A 2009 1st round pick, Crabtree has finished above average in 5 of 6 healthy seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 30 season, so he could have another solid season in 2016. Even if he has fewer targets, he could be more efficient on a per target basis if Cooper breaks out and this offense as a whole improves.

In addition to Cooper’s breakout potential, one reason why this offense could be better in 2016 is because they added an upgrade at tight end in free agency, signing ex-Packer Jared Cook to a 2-year, 10.6 million dollar deal. Cook missed 6 games with an ankle injury last season, but finished the season hot for Green Bay and continued that into the post-season. All in all, he finished last season 11th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus, the highest rank of his career.

Cook struggled in 2015, but was a solid tight end before that, also finishing 15th among tight ends in 2014, so he’s a nice addition to this offense, still only going into his age 30 season. He might not post huge receiving numbers as the 3rd option in this passing game, but he’s a good overall tight end and a big upgrade over Clive Walford, who finished 57th out of 63 eligible tight ends in his first season as a starter in 2016, after flashing on 447 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2015. Walford will compete with Lee Smith, a veteran blocking tight end, for snaps behind Cook.

The Raiders also upgraded the #3 receiver spot, signing Cordarrelle Patterson from the Vikings to compete with incumbent Seth Roberts, who has been one of the least effective wide receivers in the league over the past 2 seasons. Roberts finished 102th out of 121 eligible wide receivers in 2015 and 111th out of 115 eligible wide receivers in 2016. Patterson is most valuable as a return man and never developed into the wide receiver the Vikings envisioned when they drafted him in the first round in 2013, but had a 52/453/2 slash line as the 3rd receiver in Minnesota last season and would be an upgrade over Roberts. He also has a career 10.74 YPC average on 31 career carries, so he can provide value for them on end arounds as well. Patterson and Cook will eat into Crabtree’s targets, as could Amari Cooper if he has a breakout 3rd season in the league. This is a much deeper and more talented receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

The Raiders also upgraded the running back position this off-season by signing Marshawn Lynch out of retirement. Latavius Murray has been their lead back over the past 2 seasons and has overall put up good numbers, rushing for 1,854 yards and 18 touchdowns on 461 attempts in the two seasons combined, but his 4.02 YPC average is disappointing given the offense around him and the offensive line blocking for him and he didn’t add any value on passing downs. The Raiders didn’t try too hard to re-sign him this off-season and let him sign a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal with the Vikings.

How much of an upgrade Marshawn Lynch will be remains up in the air. At his best, Lynch was one of the best runners in the league, rushing for 4,153 yards and 36 touchdowns on 896 attempts from 2012-2014 and finishing in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in all 3 of those seasons. His 4.64 YPC average during those three seasons is even more impressive when you consider the Seahawks were not a good run blocking team.

However, he was limited to 3.76 yards per carry in an injury plagued 2015 season, didn’t play at all last season during his “retirement,” and now is entering his age 31 season, which is around when top running backs using break down. It’s possible he’s fresh after a year off, but it’s really tough to know if the Raiders are getting Beast Mode or not in 2017. At the very least, he’ll run behind the best run blocking offensive line he’s ever had and should be more effective than Murray.

Like Murray, Lynch is not very useful on passing downs, so 2nd year players DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard will continue to see action as change of pace and passing down backs. They played 241 and 237 snaps respectively as rookies in 2016 and both were very impressive in limited action. Washington, a 6th round pick, averaged 5.37 yards per carry on 87 carries and added a 17/115/0 slash line through the air, while Richard, an undrafted free agent, averaged 5.92 yards per carry on 83 carries and added a 29/194/2 slash line through the air. This is a deep running back group, but Marshawn Lynch is close to a complete mystery in his first season back from retirement.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

As mentioned, the Raiders were actually a little bit worse defensively in 2016, as compared to 2015, despite adding three talented players in free agency, cornerback Sean Smith, safety Reggie Nelson, and defensive end/linebacker Bruce Irvin. Those three players actually all played pretty well. The issue was that, at the positions where the Raiders were bad in 2015, they were really bad in 2016, including defensive tackle.

Second round rookie Jihad Ward led all Raider defensive tackles in snaps played last season with 636, but he struggled mightily, finishing dead last at the defensive tackle position and really hurting this defense. Considered very raw coming out of the University of Illinois, Ward could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he received just a 5th round grade from Pro Football Focus before the draft, so there’s no guarantee he ever develops into anything useful. His career is certainly off to about as bad of a start as possible. The Raiders may want him to play fewer snaps this season.

Denico Autry played 690 snaps last season, but he split snaps between defensive tackle and defensive end, playing outside in base packages at 6-5 270. Autry also struggled mightily, finishing 113rd out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. He wasn’t supposed to be in that role, but Mario Edwards missed all but two games with injury and was underwhelming when he did play.

A 2nd round pick in 2015, Edwards played well on 605 snaps as a rookie and, only going into his age 23 season, has obvious upside if he can stay healthy. Considering how badly Autry did in his absence, Edwards is the heavy favorite to get back his old role. The 6-3 280 pounder will play outside in base packages and then shift inside in sub packages, leaving Autry as a pure sub package interior rusher. Ward, Edwards, and Autry will all see snaps inside in sub packages.

In base packages, holdovers Darius Latham and Justin Ellis will compete for snaps with 3rd round rookie Eddie Vanderdoes. Latham struggled on 319 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and is best in a reserve rotational role. Ellis, meanwhile, is a capable run stuffer at 6-2 335. He’s coming off the worst season of his career, but the 2014 4th round pick still finished above average as a run stuffer on 336 snaps. He doesn’t get any pass rush, but is a great fit as a base package run stuffer and could easily see more snaps in 2017. Vanderdoes, meanwhile, is a raw boom or bust prospect and could be thrown into the fire early. All 3 players could see base package snaps, as the Raiders try to patchwork together decent defensive tackle play.

In sub packages, when Edwards moves inside, Bruce Irvin will move from outside linebacker to rush the passer off the edge opposite Khalil Mack. They were arguably the best edge rush duo in the league last season, finishing 1st and 11th respectively among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Irvin was a solid addition in the first year of a 4-year, 37 million dollar deal, while Mack is arguably the best defensive player in the league and won Defensive Player of the Year in 2016.

The 5th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Mack has finished #1 at his position in all 3 seasons in the league and is still only going into his age 26 season. Expect another monster season from him. He’s one of the talented young players the Raiders will have to lock up in the next couple off-season. He is owed just 16.8 million over the final 2 years of his rookie deal, but could become the highest paid defensive player of all time on his next contract. Like Derek Carr, the Raiders will not let him leave and will pay him whatever it takes to keep him.

While Mack has been a strong pass rusher since entering the league, Bruce Irvin actually finished below average as a pass rusher in the previous 2 seasons before last season. A first round pick in 2012, Irvin finished 10th, 11th, and 13th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2013, 2014, and 2015 respectively with the Seahawks, but that was mostly because of his run stopping ability and also his ability to drop into coverage when needed. In Oakland, he’s used much more as a pass rusher and a defensive end than he was in Seattle.

The 6-3 250 tweener is versatile and should have another solid overall season in 2017, but might regress a little bit as a pass rusher, especially since he’s already going into his age 30 season. Shilique Calhoun, a 2016 3rd round pick, will likely be the primary reserve edge rusher in sub packages, but won’t see a huge role behind Mack and Irvin, after struggling on 173 snaps as a rookie. The Raiders are deep on the edge, but have serious problems at defensive tackle still.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As mentioned, Bruce Irvin plays outside linebacker in base packages and drops down to the defensive line and rushes the passer off the edge in sub packages, when the Raiders go to two linebackers and bring in a fifth defensive back. The problem is the Raiders got very poor play from those two every down linebackers last season, which really hurt this defense as a whole. They shook things up this off-season by letting outside linebacker Malcolm Smith walk and replacing him with ex-Dolphin Jelani Jenkins.

Smith was one of the worst linebackers in the league last season, finishing 67th out of 87 eligible. Jenkins was even worse, finishing dead last at the position, but knee issues slowed him all season. He made 27 starts in 2014 and 2015 combined and finished above average in both seasons, before being limited to 372 snaps by injuries in 2016. Still only going into his age 25 season, Jenkins has bounce back potential and still has a bright future if he can stay healthy. He could prove to be a steal on a 1-year, 1 million dollar deal.

At middle linebacker, the Raiders didn’t add anything this off-season and did not re-sign veteran Perry Riley, who made 11 starts in 2016. Ben Heeney made the first 2 starts of the season, but the 2015 5th round pick struggled mightily, got benched, and then went down for the season with an ankle injury. He hasn’t shown much in 2 seasons in the league. 6th round rookie Cory James took over for him before they signed Perry Riley and didn’t play much better, struggling mightily on 377 snaps. James and Heeney will compete for the job and 5th round rookie Marquel Lee could push for snaps down the stretch. Middle linebacker figures to be a position of weakness again in 2017, though Jenkins could easily be an upgrade at outside linebacker.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to Irvin, the Raiders also signed cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson to deals worth 38 million over 4 years and 8.5 million over 2 years respectively last off-season. Both players played well. Smith got off to a rough start and was actually benched for poor play in week 1, but went on to make 15 starts and finish 17th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. He was a little bit better in 2014 (5th) and 2015 (12th), but has finished above average in 6 of 8 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 30 season, his best days could be behind him, but he should have another solid season in 2017.

Reggie Nelson also struggled to start the season, but rebounded and finished above average for the 7th straight season. He ended the season ranked 29th among safeties. That was a decline from 2015, when he finished 8th at the position, and he is now going into his age 34 season, so it’s unclear if he can continue playing at a high level going forward, but the Raiders didn’t pay him all that much on that two-year deal and he could have another capable season. He was a smart signing.

One of the problems on this defense last season was that David Amerson, their other starting cornerback, took a big step back, finishing 59th among cornerbacks (below average) after finishing 14th the season before. That wasn’t a huge surprise, considering the 2013 2nd round pick was one of the worst cornerbacks in the league in his first 2 seasons int he league and was actually cut by the Redskins early in the 2015 season, before going to Oakland and playing well.

Despite the risks, the Raiders bet a lot of money to keep him last off-season, giving him a 4-year, 33.93 million dollar extension, ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal in 2016, so they are obviously hoping he can bounce back. If he doesn’t turn it around, the Raiders can get out of the rest of his deal this off-season, but they will have paid him 12.55 million in new money for one extra season if they do that, so the Raiders definitely want to avoid that.

At the other safety spot, the Raiders will start 2016 1st round pick Karl Joseph who was decent on 590 snaps (9 starts) in an injury plagued rookie season. Injuries have been an issue for him since his collegiate days and he missed most of his final season at West Virginia with a torn ACL, but he has high upside if he can stay healthy. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a breakout second season in the league, but that’s far from a guarantee.

The Raiders also used a first round pick on a defensive back this year, taking Ohio State’s Gareon Conley at #24 overall. Conley was a top-15 talent, but it was a very risky pick because Conley was accused of rape the week before the draft. Though he was taken off of many teams’ boards, the Raiders did their homework and feel comfortable that he won’t be charged. They clearly love his talent and had to draft him in the first to prevent a team like Dallas from drafting him, but he obviously comes with a lot of risk. He has yet to be charged with anything, but the investigation is still open and that could change at any time.

As of right now, Gareon Conley is expected to take over as the 3rd cornerback and play in sub packages. He has a high upside and should immediately be an upgrade over DJ Hayden, who finished last season 96th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 476 snaps as the 3rd cornerback in 2016. Hayden is now in Detroit. The Raiders also used their 2nd round pick on a defensive back, taking Connecticut’s Obi Melifonwu. At 6-4 224, Melifonwu has the size to play safety, but he also has some experience at cornerback and is an incredible athlete for his size. He’ll start as a versatile dime back, but the Raiders are probably planning on him being Reggie Nelson’s successor at safety long-term. This secondary is deeper than last season because of the draft.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Raiders were not as good as their record suggested last season, but they are still one of the more talented teams on the league on paper. They have made several upgrades on offense and could be one of the best offensive teams in the league, while their defense could easily be improved as well, especially if someone steps up at defensive tackle or linebacker. They might not win as many games as they did last season, but they should be an improved team overall and are probably the favorites to win the tough AFC West. Last year’s winner, Kansas City, is another team that was not as good as their record in 2016. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Denver Broncos 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, despite having one of the worst offenses in the league, as they finished 27th in first down rate (32.77%). They were carried all season by a defense that ranked 2nd in first down rate allowed (30.79%), but they also had tremendous luck in close games. Overall on the season, including playoffs, they went 15-4, but 11 of those 15 wins came by a touchdown or less and their record in games decided by a touchdown or less was 11-3.

In 2016, their defense wasn’t quite as good, but they still finished 2nd in first down rate allowed and only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 31.04% rate. Their offense, meanwhile, finished 30th in first down rate at 31.47%, just slightly below their 2015 mark. They fell from 8th to 14th in first down rate differential, from 1.98% to 0.43%, but weren’t that much worse of a team in 2016. However, they still fell to 9-7 and didn’t even make the playoffs because they did not win as many close games, going just 2-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less.

Even though their offense was similar from 2015 to 2016, the faces under center were not. Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler started games for them in 2015, but Manning retired after his defense dragged him to his 2nd Super Bowl win, while Osweiler was foolishly given a 4-year, 72 million dollar deal by the Texans in free agency. The Broncos traded up to draft Memphis’ Paxton Lynch at 26 overall as their quarterback of the future. He was supposed to compete with veteran Mark Sanchez for the week 1 starting job.

However, 2nd year quarterback Trevor Siemian crashed the party and outplayed both of them in the off-season, despite not throwing a pass as a 7th round rookie in 2015. His strong off-season earned him the week 1 starting job, left Lynch as the backup, and got Mark Sanchez released at final cuts. Not only did Siemian start week 1, but he started in all 14 games for which he was healthy enough to play.

Siemian was unspectacular, completing 59.5% of his passes for an average of 7.00 YPA, 18 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions, finishing the season 30th out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, only ahead of Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brock Osweiler, Jared Goff, and Blaine Gabbert. However, he still outplayed Lynch, as Lynch looked lost in the 2 ½ games he played in Siemian’s absence, completing just 59.0% of his passes for an average of 5.99 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception.

Siemian has been a pleasant surprise, but would be best as a backup quarterback long-term. Lynch has the much higher upside and was drafted to be their franchise quarterback, so they need him to develop. Reports this off-season have suggested that Siemian is still ahead of Lynch on the depth chart, which probably says more about how raw Lynch still is than it does about Siemian. Both quarterbacks will battle into training camp and the pre-season, but the Broncos could get poor play from the position for the 3rd straight season.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

Quarterback was not the only issue on this offense last season though. In fact, the biggest reason why this team declined a little bit offensively from 2015 to 2016 is because they didn’t run the ball nearly as well. In 2015, they averaged 4.18 yards per carry, 13th in the NFL, but they fell to 3.62 yards per carry in 2016, 28th in the NFL. Lead back CJ Anderson missed 9 games with injury and 4th round rookie Devontae Booker averaged just 3.52 yards per carry on 174 carries in his absence. To improve their depth, they took a flier on veteran Jamaal Charles in free agency and used a 6th round pick on Coastal Carolina’s DeAngelo Henderson.

Anderson will still be the lead back. Anderson has averaged 4.55 yards per carry on 441 carries over the past 3 seasons, but injuries have been a recurring problem for him, as he also was limited for most of the first half of the 2015 season with lower leg injuries. He still hasn’t topped 179 carries in a season, though he definitely has the ability to if he can stay healthy. Still only going into his age 26 season, Anderson still has upside and could finally have the breakout season he’s been expected to have for each of the past 2 seasons. That’s far from a guarantee though.

Jamaal Charles is also injury prone as well. He tore one ACL in 2011 and missed the whole season and then he tore the other one in 2015 and has been limited to 83 carries in 8 games over the past 2 seasons. Last season, he was shut down after 3 games and 12 carries and had cleanup surgery on both knees. It was an easy decision for the Chiefs to move on from him and his 6.2 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, especially considering he’s going into his age 31 season.

His best days are almost definitely behind him, but Charles has some bounce back potential in Denver if he can stay healthy. His career 5.45 yard per carry average (on 1,332 carries) is the highest all-time by a running back and he’s also a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield. He could carve out a change of pace and passing down role behind Anderson. That would leave Booker to compete with Henderson for the #3 back job, but though both could see carries if Anderson and Charles struggle to stay healthy again. They should be better on the ground overall this season, but their best two backs are injury risks.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The Broncos also had major problems on the offensive line last season, which hurt both their passing game and their running game. Things got even worse this off-season, when Russell Okung, who played pretty well on the blindside last season, signed with the Chargers. The Broncos signed veteran Menelik Watson in free agency as a potential replacement, but the 2013 2nd round pick is an underwhelming starting option on either side. He’s struggled in just 17 career starts. Donald Stephenson, who finished last season 77th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 12 starts at right tackle, is also an underwhelming starting option. He has 33 career starts, but has finished well below average on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons in the league.

With Watson and Stephenson penciled in as the starters going into the draft, offensive tackle was their biggest draft day need and they addressed it right away, taking Utah’s Garett Bolles 20th overall. In an overall very weak offensive line class, Bolles was the first offensive lineman off the board. He has the most left tackle upside of anyone in the draft class, but is very raw and played just one season at the FBS level. Already going into his age 25 season, Bolles is also older than most rookies and received only a late 2nd round grade from Pro Football Focus, so he’s definitely a risky pick. He could easily struggle as a rookie, but is considered the favorite for the left tackle job, with Watson and Stephenson competing on the right side.

The Broncos did make one big addition in free agency, signing guard Ronald Leary from the Cowboys on a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal. A 2012 undrafted free agent, Leary made 31 starts from 2013-2014 and run blocked very well, but left something to be desired in pass protection and was benched in 2015 for rookie La’El Collins. In 2016, he began the season as a backup, but made 12 starts in place of Collins, who was injured, and had the best season of his career, finishing 24th among guards on Pro Football Focus and playing well both as a run blocker and pass protector. He doesn’t fix their issues at offensive tackle, but he’s finished above average in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and could easily be a strong starter for the Broncos in 2017.

Leary is expected to slot in at left guard and move Max Garcia, a 16-game starter last season, to right guard. A 2015 4th round pick, Garcia has been about a league average starter in 21 career starts, playing both left guard and right guard, and should hold onto his job in 2017. At right guard, he’ll replace Michael Schofield, who was mediocre at 16 starts last season. Schofield could challenge for a job at right tackle, but the 2014 3rd round pick struggled mightily at right tackle in 2015 before moving inside. He’s more likely to be a versatile reserve. Ty Sambrailo could also be in the mix at either tackle spot, but the 2015 2nd round pick has also struggled whenever he’s been counted on at tackle in 2 seasons in the league (7 starts). Like Schofield, he’s best as a versatile reserve.

Center Matt Paradis is probably their best offensive lineman, coming off a breakout 2016 season in which he finished #1 among centers on Pro Football Focus. A 6th round pick in 2014, Paradis was about a league average starter in his first season as a starter in 2015, but took it to a completely new level in 2016. He’s a one-year wonder and could regress in 2017, but he looks like one of the best centers in the league. With the addition of Leary, the Broncos have a strong interior of their offensive line, but could easily have big problems at both tackle positions, which hurts their offensive line overall.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Despite the overall struggles of the passing game, both Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders went over 1000 yards for the 3rd straight season in 2016. They were one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to both top 1000 yards (Brandin Cooks/Michael Thomas, Pierre Garcon/DeSean Jackson, and Amari Cooper/Michael Crabtree) and they are the only wide receiver duo to do so in 2 straight seasons, let alone 3. If you include the 2013 season, when Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both went over 1000 yards, the Broncos have had two wide receivers with at least 1000 yards in each of the past 4 seasons.

Both Thomas and Sanders are going into their age 30 season in 2017 though, which is a bit of a concern. Thomas has showed some signs of age in recent seasons, falling to 49th among wide receivers in 2015 and 27th among wide receivers in 2016, after finishing in the top-5 in all 3 seasons from 2012-2014. The 2010 1st round pick has incredible physical gifts, but has been slowed by injuries in the last 2 seasons. Sanders, however, has not shown any signs of age, finishing in the top-15 among wide receivers in all 3 seasons in Denver, despite being at best a league average receiver in 4 seasons with the Steelers prior to arriving in Denver. The 2010 3rd round pick is a true late bloomer. Both Thomas and Sanders could easily top 1000 yards again in 2017.

Part of the reason why Thomas and Sanders have had 3 straight seasons of 1000+ yards each is because the Broncos haven’t really had anyone else to throw to. In 2014, 2015, and 2016 respectively, those two counted for 53.5%, 51.7%, and 49.8% of the Broncos’ targets, as the Broncos haven’t had anything resembling a #3 receiver over the past 3 seasons. Their last wide receiver other than their top-2 to top 500 yards was Wes Welker in 2013 and they haven’t had another wide receiver even over 250 yards in the last 2 seasons.

Last season, their leading receivers behind Thomas and Sanders were running back Devontae Booker (31/265/1) and Virgil Green (22/237/1). Jordan Norwood was their #3 receiver, but posted just a 21/232/1 slash line and finished 109th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He is no longer with the team, so, behind Thomas and Sanders, their leading returning wide receivers in terms of snaps played last season are Jordan Taylor (277 snaps), Bennie Fowler (242 snaps), and Cody Latimer (217 snaps). Latimer has upside because he was a second round pick in 2014, but he has just 16 catches in 3 seasons in the league and is not a lock for the final roster. Third round rookie Carlos Henderson could easily win the #3 wide receiver job.

Tight end was another position of need for the Broncos this off-season. They used a 5th round pick on Michigan’s Jake Butt and he has 2nd round talent when he’s healthy, but he’s questionable for the start of the season after tearing his ACL in January and would be behind the 8-ball as a rookie after missing the whole off-season. He won’t have a big role in 2017. Virgil Green led the position in snaps played last season with a career high 485 snaps and could easily lead the position in snaps again. His 22 catches in 2016 were also a career high, so he isn’t much of a pass catcher, but he’s a capable run blocker.

Third year players Jeff Heuerman and AJ Derby will compete for snaps behind Green. Both are better pass catching options. A 3rd round and a 6th round pick in 2015 respectively, both missed their entire rookie season with injury and both played limited action last season, 236 and 219 snaps respectively. Heuerman outplayed Derby overall and has the higher upside, but neither one is a proven option. Butt could easily be the starting tight end by 2018. This receiving corps still lacks even a capable 3rd option.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Broncos lost a pair of key defensive starters from 2015 to 2016, with middle linebacker Danny Trevathan signing with the Bears and defensive end Malik Jackson signing with the Jaguars, but still got strong play on the defensive side of the ball. This off-season, they lost just one starter, nose tackle Sylvester Williams, who won’t really be missed. However, did they lose defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who was let go when Vance Joseph took over as the new head coach for the retiring Gary Kubiak.

Joseph replaced Phillips with Joe Woods, their defensive backs coach last season. Joseph actually served on Phillips’ defensive coaching staff in Houston from 2011-2013, so both Woods and Joseph have worked under Phillips in the past. It’s a bit strange they wouldn’t want to keep their mentor around, especially since he’s arguably the best defensive coordinator in the league, but they seem to think they’re better off without him. Their 3-4 defensive scheme won’t change much, but their defense could decline a little bit without Phillips.

As mentioned, Williams won’t be missed much. He played 644 snaps for this defense last season, but has finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league. A first round pick in 2013, Williams has been a complete bust, hence why the Broncos didn’t pick up his 5th year option for 2017. He was overpaid on a 3-year, 17.5 million dollar deal by the Titans this off-season. The Broncos will replace him with veteran Domata Peko, though he isn’t an upgrade.

Peko has made all 112 possible starts over the past 7 seasons, but has finished as one of the worst interior defensive linemen in the league on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 4 seasons, including 106th out of 127 eligible in 2016, and is now going into his age 33 season. He’ll be a pure base package run stuffer at nose tackle for them and won’t play as many snaps as Williams did, but he figures to struggle nonetheless. The 6-3 307 pounder isn’t even a good run stopper anymore.

Defensive end Jared Crick actually led this defensive line in snaps last season with 939, but he finished 118th out of 127 eligible interior defensive linemen in 2016, so the Broncos probably want to avoid giving him so many snaps again. The 2012 4th round pick has never once finished above average in 5 seasons in the league and has been one of the worst 3-4 defensive ends in the league for the past 2 seasons, first in Houston in 2015 and then in Denver last season as the replacement for Malik Jackson.

The Broncos are counting on last year’s 2nd round pick, Adam Gotsis, to play a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. He struggled on 221 snaps as a rookie though and was considered a reach in the 2nd round when the Broncos drafted him, so there are no guarantees he plays well. The Broncos also used a 2nd round pick this year on Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker and he could have an immediate role as an interior rusher in sub packages. The 6-4 280 pounder is a weird fit in a base 3-4 defense, but has some interior pass rush ability.

At the other defensive end position, Derek Wolfe remains as an every down player and has finished 4th and 13th respectively among 3-4 defensive ends in 2015 and 2016. There are a couple concerns with him though. For one, he finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league before Wade Phillips came in, so he could decline a little bit with Phillips gone, though the Broncos are sticking with the 3-4 defense that Wolfe fits best. The other concern is that he’s had a lot of nagging injuries over the past 2 seasons, including multiple neck injuries. He’s only missed 6 games over those 2 seasons, but his durability is a question mark. Wolfe is their only good veteran defensive lineman, so they need him to continue playing at a high level and they need a young player to step up.

Grade: C

Linebackers

The Broncos also lost the retired DeMarcus Ware this off-season, but, while he is a future Hall-of-Famer, he was limited to 315 snaps in 10 games last season by injury and didn’t have much left in the tank, ahead of what would have been his age 35 season in 2017. Ware finished just 4th on the team in snaps played by an edge defender last season and won’t really be missed. In his absence, Shane Ray and Shaquil Barrett will split snaps on one side, with Von Miller remaining in an every down role on the other side.

Ray, a first round pick in 2015, was drafted with this scenario in mind and he has more sacks over the past 2 seasons than Barrett (12 vs. 7), but Barrett has been the better overall player over the past 2 seasons, excelling against the run, and figures to still have a role even if Ray is nominally the starter. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Barrett finished 20th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 566 snaps in 2015 and 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers on 416 snaps in 2016. Ray, meanwhile, struggled on 341 snaps as a rookie, but finished slightly above average on 664 snaps in his 2nd season in the league, excelling as a pass rusher. Ray has the higher upside, but Barrett is probably the favorite for base package snaps, with Ray coming in as a situational pass rusher. They’re a promising young duo.

On the other side, Von Miller is one of the best defensive players in the league and an annual Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The 2nd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Miller started his career as a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end in a 4-3 defense, but has spent the past 2 seasons as a pure 3-4 outside linebacker. He’s excelled in both schemes, finishing in the top-2 at his position on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons in the league, including a 2016 season in which he finished #1 among 3-4 outside linebackers. He excels as a pass rusher, but plays the run really well too and can even drop into coverage, though the Broncos obviously would prefer him rushing the passer. Even with Wade Phillips gone, Miller should have a monster season.

At middle linebacker, Brandon Marshall returns as an every down player and will hopefully be healthy this season, after missing 5 games with injury in 2016. After barely playing in his first 2 seasons in the league, Marshall has developed into one of the best all-around linebackers in the league, finishing 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014, 8th among middle linebackers in 2015, and 10th among middle linebackers in 2016. Still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, Marshall should have another strong season in 2017.

Todd Davis remains the starter at the other middle linebacker spot, after making 15 starts in his first season as a starter in 2016. Davis went undrafted in 2014, but was better than expected in his first starting experience, finishing as around a league average middle linebacker. He plays the run much better than he covers, but fortunately he only really plays in base packages, with box safety TJ Ward frequently dropping down and playing as the 2nd linebacker in sub packages. Davis played just 697 snaps last season and may not even have that many this season, especially if Marshall can stay healthy all season. This is still a very strong linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

In addition to Todd Davis’ issues in coverage, another reason why it makes sense for the Broncos to use Ward as a 2nd linebacker in passing situations is simply that the Broncos are much deeper at safety than linebacker. Both Ward and fellow starter Darian Stewart are solid starters, while 2016 3rd round pick Justin Simmons flashed on 296 snaps last season and is likely to see a bigger role in 2017. Simmons and Stewart will be their two safeties in sub packages, while Ward will play linebacker next to Brandon Marshall.

Ward finished below average last season for the first time in his 7-year NFL career, but wasn’t bad, finishing 50th out of 90 eligible safeties on Pro Football Focus. Ward isn’t very big at 5-10 200, but plays much bigger than that, which allows him to stop the run well as a safety and play linebacker in passing situations. He was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked safety in 2015, so he has some bounce back potential, but he’s also entering his age 31 season and could be on the decline. Going into the final year of his contract, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let him walk next off-season and make Simmons an every down starter.

Stewart, meanwhile, would have been a free agent this off-season, but was given a 4-year, 28 million dollar extension late last season. He’s come a long way from his failed first stint as a starter with the Rams in 2011, when he finished 82nd out of 87 eligible safeties. Stewart was an undrafted free agent in 2010 and was overmatched as a starter on a terrible team in his 2nd season in the league, which led to him not playing much in 2012. However, he became a starter again in 2013 with the Ravens has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons since (49 starts). His best season came in 2015, when he finished 16th among eligible safeties, but he also finished 33rd last season. Still only going into his age 29 season, Stewart should be a solid starter for at least the next couple of seasons.

As much talent as the Broncos have at safety, they’re significantly more talented at cornerback. In fact, their top-2 cornerbacks, Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, finished last season #1 and #2 respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, the first duo to go 1-2 like that in Pro Football Focus’ history. That masked their other issues on defense and kept this as one of the top defenses in the league, even with key players signing elsewhere last off-season.

For Chris Harris, this was nothing new, as he finished 1st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2014 as well. He “fell” to 9th in 2015, but that was his lowest rating since his rookie season in 2011. In the 5 seasons since his rookie season, he has made 74 starts and has played in 79 of a possible 80 games. He was not slowed in the slightest by a torn ACL that ended his 2013 season in the playoffs. One of the most successful undrafted free agents of all time, Harris excels on the slot and outside and is arguably the best cornerback in the NFL.

Talib, however, has never been as good as he was last season. In his 7 previous seasons in the league, Talib had maxed out at 15th among cornerbacks and finished just 28th in 2015. On top of that, he’s going into his age 31 season and has missed 24 games in 8 seasons in the league, including 3 last season. He could easily regress, especially without Wade Phillips around. Owed 11 million non-guaranteed in 2018, the Broncos may part ways with him this off-season if he does not have a strong season again.

The Broncos have an obvious long-term replacement behind Aqib Talib in Bradley Roby, their 1st round pick in 2014. Roby has made just 10 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but that’s hardly been his fault, given who is ahead of him on the depth chart. Roby fell to 83rd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016, but finished 23rd among cornerbacks the season before and has obvious long-term upside, still only going into his age 25 season.  He would start on most teams. The Broncos clearly still believe in him as a long-term starter, picking up his 8.526 million dollar option for 2018, though that is only guaranteed for injury. Next off-season, they will have to make choices because this secondary will get even more expensive to keep together, but, for now, they still have the best secondary in the league

Grade: A

Conclusion

In 2015, the Broncos had the talent level of a 9-7 team, but went 12-4 and won the Super Bowl because of close victories. Last season, they had the talent of a 9-7 team and actually went 9-7. They were a little bit worse last season than 2015 and could be a little bit worse again if the defense declines somewhat in the absence of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but they should be in the mix for a playoff spot again. The big concern is the quarterback position, but if Paxton Lynch can develop in a hurry and give them solid quarterback play, this team has enough supporting talent to be a threat. That’s a big if though, considering how lost he looked in limited action last season. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

San Francisco 49ers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The 49ers once had one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, but they have since lost a ton of talent, either through retirement or free agency or guys either getting injured or suspended. As a result, they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league over the past 2 seasons, going a combined 7-25 in 2015 and 2016 and finishing 32nd and 30th respectively in first down rate differential in those 2 seasons. This off-season, they hired ex-Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as head coach to inject some life into this offense and preside over this rebuild. Shanahan has always gotten the most out of his offensive talent as a coordinator, though it remains to be seen whether or not that can continue with him as head coach and not having as much day-to-day interaction with the offense.

With Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick both leaving as free agents this off-season, their biggest task this off-season was to find a quarterback. They had a bunch of cap space and the #2 pick in the draft, but instead of spending big money on a quarterback like Mike Glennon in free agency or reaching for a quarterback like Mitch Trubisky at the top of the draft, they signed a veteran stopgap in Brian Hoyer and did not address the quarterback position until the end of the 3rd round, when they drafted Iowa’s CJ Beathard.

It’s not the flashy move many of their fans would have liked, but it makes some sense. Next off-season is going to be a much stronger quarterback class both in the draft or in free agency and this is going to be more than a one-year rebuild. Why not focus on other positions this off-season, especially when they seem to be the favorite to sign Kirk Cousins if he ever hits the open market. Cousins would be owed 34.5 million if he was franchised a third time by the Redskins next off-season and Shanahan is familiar with Cousins from his time in Washington. Cousins could always end up agreeing to a long-term deal with the Redskins, but then the 49ers could still sign someone like Jimmy Garoppolo or Sam Bradford in free agency or draft a quarterback high in the draft.

In the meantime, Hoyer is a capable low level starter who knows this offense from when he was in Cleveland with Shanahan. Beathard, meanwhile, was not a highly touted prospect, but Shanahan seems to like him and it wouldn’t surprise me if he developed into a solid backup long-term. The 49ers also signed ex-Bear Matt Barkley this off-season, though he flopped in the first starting action of his career last season (59.7% completion, 7.46 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions), so he isn’t anything more than a backup for Hoyer.

Hoyer, meanwhile, is onto his 4th team in 5 seasons, but he has made 30 starts over those 4 seasons. There’s a reason he keeps bouncing around the league, but there’s also a reason he keeps ending up starting games for someone. He’s not good enough that anyone would commit to him as their starter for a long period of time, but he’s still good enough to be starting somewhere. He’s completed 59.6% of his passes for an average of 7.25 YPA, 42 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions over the past 4 seasons. He’s one of the worst starting quarterbacks in football, but he fits this offense well and could end up being an upgrade on what the 49ers have had over the past 2 seasons.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, the 49ers had a lot of cap space this off-season. They used a big chunk of it to sign Pierre Garcon from the Redskins, bringing him in on a 5-year, 47.5 million dollar deal that guarantees him 23 million in the first 2 seasons. Like Hoyer, he has experience in the Shanahan offense and gives this offense a desperately needed boost at wide receiver. Garcon spent 5 seasons in Washington and finished about average or better on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons.

His biggest statistical season came in 2013, when he caught 113 passes for 1346 yards and 5 touchdowns, but he needed 184 targets to do so, so last season was actually his highest rated season. He caught 79 passes for 1041 yards and 3 touchdowns on 116 targets and finished 8th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. His age is a bit of a concern, as he goes into his age 31 season, but he’s the type of receiver who should age well because his game is more about making tough contested catches than it is about blowing defensive backs away with athleticism.

He gets a downgrade in quarterback play going from Cousins to Hoyer, but should get more targets now that he isn’t competing with guys like DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, and Jamison Crowder for targets. Now with the 49ers, there’s barely any depth at wide receiver behind him on the depth chart, which is both a good and bad thing for Garcon. He’ll get the ball often, but could see more double teams than he’s used to. He could easily be targeted 130-150 times as the #1 receiver in this offense and have another 1000-yard year, but he’ll find life tougher on San Francisco’s offense than on Washington’s, especially given the downgrade at quarterback.

Garcon should be a huge upgrade on Torrey Smith though, after Smith caught just 20 passes in 12 games last season and finished 2nd worst among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Smith was cut this off-season, saving the 49ers 8 million in cash, an obvious move. Quinton Patton is also gone, so the 49ers have just one of their top-3 receivers from last season left. Patton wasn’t good either, so he also won’t be missed, but they didn’t do much to replace him. They signed ex-Buffalo receiver Marquise Goodwin to a 2-year, 6 million dollar deal, but I also expected them to draft a receiver high and they didn’t.

Goodwin will compete for playing time with the one lone holdover wide receiver from last season, Jeremy Kerley. Kerley was easily their best receiver in 2016, leading the team with 64 catches for 667 yards and catching 3 touchdowns. He finished slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, 49th among wide receiver. Kerley is an unspectacular player, but he has graded out above average in 3 of 6 seasons in the league and is better than Goodwin, a one dimensional speedster who struggled mightily in Buffalo last season when forced into the starting lineup for the first time in his career.

A 2013 3rd round pick, Goodwin had one career start going into last season and caught just 3 passes in 2014 and 2015 combined, but ended up playing 641 snaps and making 9 starts in the thinnest receiving corps in the league in Buffalo. He caught just 29 passes for 431 yards and 2 touchdowns and finished 94th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He caught just 42.6% of his targets. Kerley could beat him out for the #2 job, but Kerley is best on the slot, so Goodwin is considered the favorite for the #2 job outside opposite Garcon. He’s a very underwhelming option and would be one of the worst starting wide receivers in the league.

Garrett Celek and Vance McDonald were their top-2 tight ends last season, playing 605 and 446 snaps respectively, but the new regime doesn’t seem sold on either of them, adding veteran blocking tight end Logan Paulsen, who is familiar with this offense from when he was Washington in the Shanahans, using a 5th round pick on Iowa’s George Kittle, and signing pass catching fullback Kyle Juszczyk to a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal.

The 49ers actually tried to trade Vance McDonald this off-season, even though he was entering the first year of a 3-year, 19.65 million dollar extension that the old regime already paid him a 7 million dollar signing bonus on. That extension was a mistake, but McDonald is a solid blocker who can be useful for this team and his guaranteed 2.1 million dollar salary isn’t cost prohibitive (he can make up to 2.75 million after bonuses). He’s owed 4.6 million non-guaranteed in 2018 and that’s a different story, but McDonald should still have a role on this offense in 2017.

It’s surprising the 49ers didn’t try to move Garrett Celek too, after he finished last season 60th out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Celek has looked better in the past, but the 605 snaps he played last season were more than he played in his first 4 seasons in the league combined. Owed a non-guaranteed 1.9 million, he could easily be let go before final cuts. He’ll compete with Paulsen for a role. Paulsen is a strong run blocker, but has just 82 catches in 91 games in 7 seasons in the league and caught just 3 passes last season. Now in his age 30 season, he’s not a pass catching threat. None of the 49ers top-3 tight ends really are.

For that reason, Kyle Juszczyk figures to have a big role as a pass catching fullback. Juszczyk has 78 catches for 587 yards and 4 touchdowns over the past 2 seasons and has finished #1 in pass catching grade by a fullback in both seasons. He’s also a good run blocker and pass blocker and led all fullbacks with 465 snaps played last season. He’ll act as their pass catching tight end. George Kittle also has good pass catching upside because of his athleticism and could carve out a role in passing situations by the end of the season. This offense really lacks receiving options behind Garcon.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

I also thought the 49ers would use a relatively early pick on a guard, but they didn’t draft a single offensive lineman. They mostly focused on defense in the draft, especially early, using their first 3 picks on defensive players before selecting Beathard at the end of the 3rd round. They filled needs with all of their picks, but figure to have major problems on offense again this season. At guard, left guard Zane Beadles and right guard Joshua Garnett return, but they finished 71st and 70th respectively among 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus last season, in 16 starts and 11 starts respectively. The only guard who wasn’t bad was Andrew Tiller (5 starts), who signed with the Chiefs this off-season.

Garnett was the 28th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, so he could be better in his 2nd season in the league, but he was considered a reach and a 2nd round prospect at best, so there’s no guarantee he ever develops into the player they are expecting him to become. His career is certainly off to a bad start. If he’s better in 2017, it could largely be by default, as it would be hard for him to be worse than he was as a rookie. Beadles, meanwhile, is going into his age 31 season and has finished below average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, including back-to-back terrible seasons. He’s made 110 of 112 starts in his career and has never missed a game with injury, but wasn’t that good in his prime and now it seems like his best days are behind him. He could easily struggle again in 2017.

Both guards could face competition at some point from veteran free agent acquisition Brandon Fusco. Fusco finished 8th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 2013, but has finished below average in 4 of 5 seasons as a starter overall. Last season was probably his worst season, as he finished 63rd among 72 eligible guards, which is why he was released by the Vikings. He has experience, with 64 starts over the past 5 seasons, and he has some bounce back potential, but he might not be an upgrade at either guard spot.

Their other veteran addition, Jeremy Zuttah, will be more valuable for them. He finished last season 13th among centers on Pro Football Focus and has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons (89 starts), but the 49ers were strangely able to acquire from him the Ravens for a swap of late round picks, even though he’s owed a very reasonable 3.5 million in his age 31 season. He has experience at both left guard and center, but will be tried first at center, where he will be an upgrade on Daniel Kilgore, who finished last season 30th out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in 2016 in his first full season as a starter. Kilgore would likely slot back in if Zuttah moves to left guard to replace Beadles, which is definitely a possibility if Beadles continues to struggle this off-season.

Trenton Brown and Joe Staley return at right tackle and left tackle respectively. Brown, a 2015 7th round pick, started all 16 games last season, after flashing in 2 starts as a rookie. Brown wasn’t great, finishing 55th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but he will get another chance at the starting job in 2017 because they lack a better option. The 49ers will hope he can take a leap forward in his 3rd season in the league, but there’s no guarantee that happens.

On the other side, Joe Staley is going into his 11th season in the league and has been one of the best offensive tackles in the league for years. Unfortunately, Staley is going into his age 33 season and showed some signs of age last season. He missed 3 games with injury, his first games missed with injury since 2010, and he fell to 25th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-6 in 4 straight seasons from 2012-2015. It’s possible he still has a couple more strong seasons left in the tank, but last season could have been the beginning of the end. They need Staley to play at a high level if they’re going to get even adequate play from their offensive line.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Carlos Hyde has been the 49ers’ starting running back for the past 2 seasons. He has a career 4.32 YPC average on 415 career carries, despite playing on some terrible offenses, but he isn’t a great fit for Kyle Shanahan’s running scheme and doesn’t catch passes (50 career catches), so the 49ers tried to add some competition for him this off-season, signing veteran Tim Hightower and drafting Utah’s Joe Williams in the 4th round.

In addition to competition for Hyde, they will also be insurance for Hyde, who has missed 14 games with injury in 3 seasons in the league. Hyde is the favorite for carries and is still their best runner (15th and 23rd in pure rushing grade among running backs on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively), but Hightower will likely play in passing situations and steal some carries, while Williams could have an immediate role as a change of pace back.

Hightower is going into his age 31 season and has had a very interesting career, missing 3 seasons from 2012-2014 with knee injuries. Hightower shockingly returned midway through the 2015 season with the Saints and rushed for 923 yards and 8 touchdowns on 229 carries (4.03 YPC) in 24 games in 2 seasons in New Orleans. He played all 16 games last season for the first time since his 3rd season in the league in 2010. He’s an unspectacular runner, but is a good pass protector and has decent hands out of the backfield, so he’ll have a role. He is also familiar with the Shanahan offense from his time in Washington in 2011. The 49ers have a decent trio of backs.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The 49ers traded down one spot from 2 to 3, so Chicago could take quarterback Mitch Trubisky, and then drafted Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas 3rd overall. Thomas has a huge upside and was one of the most talented players in the draft, but he does play pretty much the same position as their last 2 first round picks, Arik Armstead (17th overall in 2015) and DeForest Buckner (7th overall in 2016). Thomas is a base defensive end who is best rushing the passer from the interior in sub packages, while Armstead and Buckner are prototypical 3-4 defensive ends that are kind of odd fits in this new 4-3 defense.

Armstead (6-7 296) and Buckner (6-7 291) are bigger than Thomas (6-3 273), but all three of them are best at rushing the passer from the interior in sub packages. All three will play in base packages, Thomas as primarily a base defensive end and Buckner and Armstead moving all around the formation, but one of them will have to rush the passer from the edge in sub packages if they’re going to get their best 4 defensive linemen on the field at the same time.

Buckner figures to lead the trio in snaps played after playing a ridiculous 1002 snaps as a rookie in 2016, 2nd most in the NFL among interior defensive linemen. He also played at a high level, finishing 14th among 3-4 defensive ends. Still only going into his age 23 season, Buckner was one of the highest rated players in last year’s draft and has immense upside. If he and Thomas can achieve their potential together, they could be monsters on this defensive line long-term. They won’t be easy to deal with in 2017 either.

Armstead will probably finish 3rd in the trio in snaps played, but he still has a high upside, in his age 24 season, and will have a big role on this defensive line. Buckner flashed on 384 snaps as a rookie, but struggled on 333 snaps in 2016. He injured his shoulder before the season started, was not effective playing through the injury, and then missed the final 8 games of the season after having surgery. He could have a breakout 3rd season in the league in 2017 if he’s healthy, though I’m not as sold on his upside as I am on the upside of Buckner and Thomas.

In base packages, veterans Quinton Dial and Earl Mitchell will have a role at defensive tackle. Dial played 478 snaps last season and could see a similar role in 2017. Purely a run stuffer at 6-5 318, Dial has been about a league average defensive lineman when on the field over the past 3 seasons. Mitchell, meanwhile, comes over as a free agent from Miami, where he’s been terrible for the past 2 seasons. He was a solid run stuffer in his prime, but the 6-3 310 pounder is going into his age 30 season and seems to be past his prime. He was overpaid on a 4-year, 16 million dollar deal this off-season, but figures to have a role in base packages.

In sub packages, with Thomas, Buckner, and Armstead all seeing the majority of their sub package snaps inside, Aaron Lynch and Elvis Dumervil will likely be their primary edge rushers this season. Both had miserable 2016 seasons, but both have bounce back potential. A 2014 5th round pick, Lynch finished above average in his both of his first 2 seasons in the league, but was limited to 222 snaps in 7 games in 2016 by a combination of suspension and injury. He also did not play well when on the field and was reportedly out of shape all season. Still only going into his age 24 season, Lynch still has great upside, but fell to the 5th round because of character and work ethic issues and is no lock to bounce back.

Dumervil, meanwhile, was once one of the best edge rushers in the league, but was limited to 272 snaps in 8 games last season because of a foot injury. He finished in the top-10 in pure pass rush grade on Pro Football Focus at the 3-4 outside linebacker position in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and is a perfect fit in this defense as a pure sub package edge rusher. The 5-11 250 pounder doesn’t play well against the run, but has always thrived in a pure pass rush situation. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 33 season, but he could easily have a solid season in a situational role if he can stay healthy. This is an improved defensive line with Thomas and Dumervil coming in, Armstead coming back from injury, and Aaron Lynch possibly bouncing back.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The 49ers also used a high pick on a linebacker, moving up from 34 to 31 to grab Alabama middle linebacker Reuben Foster ahead of the Saints at the end of the first round. In terms of pure talent, Foster was a top-10 prospect, but fell because of concerns about his character and the health of his shoulders. The 49ers apparently have none of those concerns and see him as an every down middle linebacker as a rookie. Assuming he stays healthy, he could have a real impact in the middle of this defense and could compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

That leaves NaVorro Bowman and free agent acquisition Malcolm Smith to compete for roles at the outside linebacker position, though the 49ers are reportedly trying to trade Bowman. In that case, Smith would play every down at outside linebacker and Ahmad Brooks would be the base package linebacker on the other side who would come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Bowman was a top-6 middle linebacker on Pro Football Focus in every season from 2011-2013, but his career has been completely derailed by injuries and now moves to outside linebacker in a 4-3 for the first time in his career.

A torn ACL cost him the entire 2014 season and he was not nearly the same upon his return in 2015. In 2016, he looked much better, but his season ended after just 4 games when he tore his achilles. Owed a guaranteed 6.75 million in salary, no one will want to trade for him, so the 49ers will just have to hope he can bounce back in his age 29 season, despite the two major leg injuries he has suffered. He may be limited to base package work and come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages.

The 49ers signed Malcolm Smith to a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar deal this off-season, so he figures to be an every down player with Foster, which doesn’t leave a huge role for Bowman. Smith isn’t a good player though, so it’s unclear why he received this kind of a deal. Smith flashed early in his career as a part-time linebacker with the Seahawks, but he has struggled over 30 starts in the past 2 seasons with the Raiders, with his worst season coming in 2016, when he finished in the bottom-10 among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He figures to struggle in an every down role.

Unless Bowman gets traded, Ahmad Brooks is probably the odd man out in this linebacking corps, despite playing 918 snaps in 2016. Brooks was a very useful player in his prime, but has finished below average in each of the last 4 seasons and struggled mightily in 2016 as a 15-game starter at 3-4 outside linebacker in the 49ers’ old 3-4 defense. Now in his age 33 season in this new 4-3 defense, his easiest path to playing time might be as a sub package rusher off the edge. Owed a non-guaranteed 5.3 million in 2017, Brooks could also easily be released before the season starts. It’s an overall underwhelming linebacking corps that needs the rookie Foster to have a big rookie year.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The 49ers also drafted a cornerback early in the draft, taking Colorado’s Ahkello Witherspoon 66th overall at the top of the 3rd round. The 49ers got solid cornerback play last season, with starters Tramaine Brock and Jimmie Ward both finishing above average, but Brock was released this off-season after being suspended for domestic violence, while Ward is moving to safety to replace departed veteran Antoine Bethea. As a result, Witherspoon has a chance to play immediately in a cornerback depth chart that is completely up for grabs.

Rashard Robinson is their leading returning cornerback in terms of snaps played last season, as he played 543 snaps as the 3rd cornerback as a 4th round rookie in 2016. He was overwhelmed as a rookie, finishing 80th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but the 49ers are hoping he can take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league. He’s penciled in as one of the starting cornerbacks. Robinson was one of two cornerbacks the 49ers drafted in 2016, as they also used a 3rd round pick on Will Redmond. Redmond missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL, but will compete for a role in 2017. He has upside, but is completely unproven at the NFL level.

K’Waun Williams is probably their most proven cornerback, but the 5-9 183 pounder is only an option on the slot and also missed all of last season with injury. Undrafted in 2014, Williams played well as a slot cornerback in Cleveland for the first two seasons of his career, finishing above average on 351 and 516 snaps respectively, but was let go last season by the Browns when he got hurt. Assuming he’s healthy, Williams is likely the favorite for the slot cornerback job. Still only going into his age 26 season, the Browns’ loss is the 49ers’ gain.

Dontae Johnson and Keith Reaser are the relative veterans of the bunch. Johnson was a 4th round pick in 2013, while Reaser went in the 5th round in 2014. They have just 6 career starts and 0 career starts respectively and neither has ever finished above average on Pro Football Focus, but they are in the mix for snaps nonetheless. Neither are locks for the final roster though, which shows you how open things are at the cornerback position for the 49ers. They desperately need someone to step up.

As mentioned, Ward will move from cornerback to safety with a new defensive coaching staff coming in. A 2014 1st round pick, Ward has finished slightly above average among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, playing well at both outside cornerback and slot cornerback, but his collegiate position was safety and he could have his best season yet at safety in 2017, still only his age 26 season. The one concern with him is his injury history, as he’s missed 13 games with injury in 3 seasons in the league.

Given how thin they are at cornerback, it’s possible that Ward spends some time at cornerback covering the slot in either nickel or dime packages. The 49ers are deeper at safety than cornerback and Jaquiski Tartt, a 2015 2nd round pick, could see a role in sub packages. Tartt has potential, but has struggled mightily in 2 seasons in the league, finishing 80th out of 89 eligible safeties on 721 snaps in 2015 and 73rd out of 90 eligible safeties on 612 snaps last season.

He could also push Eric Reid for his starting job, but Reid figures to open the season as the starter. A 2013 1st round pick, Reid was about a league average safety for the first 3 seasons of his career, but fell to 70th out of 90 eligible safeties in 2016. He has bounce back potential, but he could be on a short leash. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, this could easily be his final season in San Francisco. They need him to play well because they have one of the thinnest groups of cornerbacks and one of the worst secondaries in the league.

Grade: C-

Conclusion

The 49ers started their rebuild this off-season and did some nice things, but they are a long way away from being competitive. They currently lead the league with 66.9 million in unused cap space and it shows when you look at how little talent this roster has. Their defensive front 7 is improved and could play well, but they have one of the worst secondaries in the league and their offense figures to struggle to move the ball once again. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Seattle Seahawks 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Since drafting Russell Wilson in the 3rd round in 2012, the Seahawks have gone 56-23-1 and won 8 playoff games. Wilson doesn’t deserve all the credit, as he’s always been supported by a strong defense, but this team could not have had the success they’ve had without strong quarterback play. Wilson has made every start in his career and has completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.98 YPA, 127 touchdowns, and 45 interceptions in 5 seasons in the league, while adding another 2689 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground on 483 carries (5.50 YPC). He’s been a top-6 quarterback on Pro Football Focus in 4 of those 5 seasons.

Wilson wasn’t quite himself in 2016 and multiple nagging numbers were the culprit. The most serious injury was a knee sprain he suffered early in the season. Ordinarily an injury that keeps players out for 4-6 weeks, Wilson played through it, but was not himself, especially on the ground. In the first 7 games of the season, he completed 65.6% of his passes for an average of 7.52 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, while rushing for just 44 yards on 25 carries (1.76 YPC). The Seahawks moved the chains at a mere 31.14% rate in those 7 games, 29th in the NFL over that stretch.

In the Seahawks’ final 9 regular games and their two 2 playoff games, he looked much more like himself, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 7.82 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions, while rushing for 261 yards and 1 touchdown on 56 carries (4.66 YPC). The Seahawks moved the chains at a 37.02% rate in those 11 games. Unfortunately, the Seahawks lost safety Earl Thomas for the season with a broken leg week 13 and were not nearly the same defense after that, which significantly hurt their chances of making a deep run in the playoffs.

They were 3rd in the NFL with a 31.52% first down rate allowed at the time when Thomas was injured, but allowed opponents to move the chains at a 39.55% rate in the 6 games (4 regular season, 2 post-season) they played without Thomas. They went 4-1 in the 5-game stretch where Wilson looked healthy and Thomas was on the field, but, all in all, last season was probably their worst season in the Russell Wilson era, as they finished the season 8th with a 1.25% first down rate differential, impressive for most teams, but subpar for the Seahawks. They have a good chance to be better in 2017, but Wilson staying healthy is a necessity, especially since only veteran journeyman Austin Davis is behind him on the depth chart.

Grade: A

Running Backs

It wasn’t just Russell Wilson’s relative struggles that hurt this offense. They also couldn’t move the ball on the ground, which has always been a huge part of this offense. They finished the season averaging 3.95 YPC, 24th in the NFL. Part of that was because Wilson wasn’t as effective running the ball, but the running backs themselves also deserve a fair amount of the blame. In their first season without Marshawn Lynch, issues at the running back position weren’t a huge surprise, but the Seahawks were counting on Thomas Rawls, who averaged 5.65 yards per carry on 147 carries as an undrafted rookie in 2015, to fill Lynch’s shoes as the lead back and that didn’t happen.

Rawls ended up averaging just 3.20 yards per carry on 109 carries thanks to injuries. Rawls’ 2015 season ended with a broken leg and then he re-broke it again in the 2nd game of the season in 2016. When he returned, he did not look like himself. Third round rookie CJ Prosise flashed in his absence, but was limited to 6 games by injuries of his own. He finished the season with a 5.73 YPC average on 30 carries and 17 catches for 208 yards. With Rawls and Prosise both hurt, Christine Michael actually led the team in yards and carries with 117 and 469 (4.01 YPC), but he didn’t even finish the season with the team, getting cut mid-season and ending up in Green Bay.

If the Seahawks are going to get back to being a top level team, they will have to run the ball better. Wilson threw a career high 546 passes last season and, between pass attempts, sacks, and quarterback runs, Wilson was used on 659 plays last season, easily a career high. They will want him to run more this season, but they probably don’t want him throwing the ball that often and they definitely don’t want him to take all those sacks (41), so this offense needs to get back to being two-dimensional. They finished last season just 19th in first down rate.

Prosise and Rawls both have upside going into 2017, but the Seahawks didn’t feel that was enough, so they added veteran Eddie Lacy in free agency. Lacy has strong upside as well, but he also has considerable downside. A 2013 2nd round pick, Lacy rushed for 2315 yards and 20 touchdowns on 530 carries (4.37 YPC) in his first 2 seasons in the league and finished in the top-5 among running backs on Pro Football Focus in both seasons, but he was out of shape in 2015 and rushed for just 758 yards and 3 touchdowns on 187 carries (4.05 YPC). In 2016, he was in better shape and averaged 5.07 yards per carry on 71 carries in the first 5 games of the season, but then went down for the year with an ankle injury.

Going into his age 27 season, Lacy should still theoretically be in the prime of his career and could have a big season if he can stay healthy and stay in shape. His contract is heavily incentivized and he needs to meet certain weight goals at certain points to get bonuses, so the Seahawks are protecting themselves against risk. If all goes well, Lacy should be their lead back, with Prosise working as the passing down/change of pace back. Rawls’ path to playing time is blocked by Lacy, but he could finish 2nd on the team in carries and would take over as the lead back if Lacy were to struggle or get injured. Overall, there’s obvious upside here and the arrow is pointing up at running back for the Seahawks.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

A big part of the reason why Wilson took so many sacks last season was simply that they couldn’t block upfront. The Seahawks have never really invested in the offensive line in the Russell Wilson era, always believing a good offensive line was less important because of Wilson’s scrambling ability and also trusting the ability of legendary offensive line coach Tom Cable to coach players up.

For the most part, that strategy has worked, as they’ve been able to invest at other positions and still have offensive success without strong offensive line play, but they took things a little too far last season. They had easily the cheapest offensive line in the league and had no proven starters. Cable was only able to do so much and Wilson’s injury turned him into more of a pocket quarterback and often left him a sitting duck when protection broke down. That led to more injuries, so it’s very important that they keep Wilson upright this season. Better offensive line play should help their running game too.

It wouldn’t be hard for them to be better upfront this season, but they’re still not very good on paper. Their two off-season additions were Luke Joeckel, signed from the Jaguars, and Ethan Pocic, drafted in the 2nd round out of LSU. Pocic made 27 of his 37 collegiate starts at center, but that’s the one position where the Seahawks got good play last season, as Justin Britt finished 10th among centers in his first season at the position.

A 2014 2nd round pick, Britt struggled mightily at right tackle as a rookie, finishing 74th out of 84 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, and then wasn’t any better at right guard in his 2nd season in the league, finishing 75th out of 81 eligible guards. He seems to have found a home at center, though he is a one-year wonder, so I’d like to see him prove it again. If he does, he could be well-paid in free agency next off-season.

Pocic could end up at center in 2018 and beyond if Britt isn’t re-signed, but, for now, he will either play right guard (where he made 9 starts in college) or right tackle (where he made just 1 start in college. Pocic is a big lineman, but doesn’t have long arms, so right guard seems like a better fit for him, especially since he barely as any experience at right tackle. The Seahawks also seem to want to move last year’s first round pick Germain Ifedi from right guard to right tackle.

According to the Seahawks, Ifedi playing right tackle in his 2nd year in the league was always their plan and that was his collegiate position, but he struggled mightily at right guard last season, finishing dead last at the position on Pro Football Focus. Ifedi came into the league super raw and with a lot of bad college tape, so he was probably a reach in the first round. They need him to deliver on his upside quickly. He’s only going into his age 23 season. Veteran free agent Oday Aboushi is also an option at both right tackle and right guard, but he wouldn’t really be an upgrade at either spot. The 2013 5th round pick has made 18 career starts, but has never finished above average in a season on Pro Football Focus.

Luke Joeckel, their other off-season acquisition, was actually the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but was a massive bust in Jacksonville. As a rookie, he played just 5 games at right tackle before missing the rest of the season with an ankle injury. He then moved to left tackle, where he struggled mightily, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 50th ranked offensive tackle out of 77 eligible in 2014 and their 67th out of 84 eligible in 2015. He then moved to guard in 2016 and was a little bit better, but missed the final 12 games of season after tearing his ACL.

The Seahawks took an expensive flyer on him this off-season, giving him a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal, making him easily their highest paid offensive lineman. He was once a highly touted player and is still only going into his age 26 season, but it’s becoming less and less likely that he’ll ever deliver on his upside. His durability is also a concern. The Seahawks think he played better at guard than tackle, so they will try him at left guard to start, but he could also end up playing left tackle for this team because that was a huge hole last season.

Undrafted rookie George Fant made 10 starts at left tackle last season, a position he had never played at any level. Fant was a basketball player and tight end at Western Kentucky University, but the Seahawks decided to try to turn him into an offensive lineman. The results were not pretty in year one, as he finished dead last among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He truly did not look like he belonged and was responsible for multiple big hits on Wilson. The Seahawks still seem to like his upside and he is currently penciled in as the starting left tackle, after bulking up from 296 to 321 this off-season, but he’s likely to struggle again.

If the Seahawks move Joeckel from left guard to left tackle, Mark Glowinski, who made 16 starts at left guard last season, would move back into the starting lineup. Glowinski, a 2015 4th round pick, did not play well in the first significant action of his career, finishing 61st out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, but he played better than Fant did at left tackle. Rees Odhiambo, their 3rd round pick in 2016, is also an option at both left guard and left tackle, but he played just 75 snaps as a rookie and is completely unproven. The Seahawks will likely use a bunch of different combinations upfront to find their best 5. Center is the only position that is solidified. This could easily be the worst offensive line in football again.

Grade: D

Receiving Corps

The good one thing Russell Wilson had going for him last season was this receiving corps. He got better play from his receivers last season than he ever had in his career. Not only did Doug Baldwin repeat his 2015 breakout season, but tight end Jimmy Graham made a miraculous recovery from a nasty torn patellar tendon injury suffered in November of 2015 during his first season with the Seahawks. Graham, who the Seahawks traded talented center Max Unger and a first round pick to acquire from New Orleans two off-seasons ago, seemed to be 100% returned to form in 2016.

Jimmy Graham didn’t match his 89/1099/12 season average from 2011-2014, but that’s mostly because the Seahawks are not as pass heavy as the Saints. He still caught 65 passes for 923 yards and 6 touchdowns and finished 5th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus, his 6th straight season in the top-15 among tight ends. He also had arguably his best run blocking season in 2016, which is very significant, given the type of offense this team likes to run. Now going into his age 31 season, there’s some risk he might decline, especially given his injury history, but he could easily have another couple strong seasons left in him. His numbers will likely fall if this team becomes more run heavy in 2017 though.

Doug Baldwin will remain Russell Wilson’s #1 target. A 2011 undrafted free agent, Baldwin had a breakout season in 2015, catching 78 passes for 1069 yards and 14 touchdowns on a run heavy offense and finishing 7th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. It was the first 1000 yard season of his career, but it should not have come as a shock because he was productive on a per route run basis through the first 4 seasons of his career, averaging an impressive 1.84 yards per route run and finishing in the top-27 among wide receivers in all 4 seasons.

In 2015, he just took it to another level and then he maintained that level of play into 2016, when he caught 94 passes for 1128 yards and 7 touchdowns and again finished 7th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 29 season, Baldwin should still be in his prime and is one of the best receivers in the NFL. Like Graham, his numbers could go down if this team doesn’t pass as often this season, but he still has a good chance at a 3rd straight 1000+ yard season.

Jermaine Kearse has been their #2 receiver over the past 3 seasons, making 45 starts over that time period, but he is coming off of arguably the worst season of his career, finishing last season 110th out of 115 eligible wide receivers and managing just a 41/511/1 slash line. He caught just 45.6% of his targets and led the league in offensive pass interference penalties. He was a league average starting wide receiver in 2014 and 2015, so he has some bounce back potential, but he could also easily lose his starting job to Tyler Lockett.

Lockett was supposed to take Kearse’s job last off-season, after finishing 32nd among wide receivers on 664 snaps as the #3 receiver in 2015, as a 3rd round rookie. However, Lockett was limited by knee issues for much of the season and then broke his leg in week 16, ending his season. He finished 60th among wide receivers on 558 snaps and made just 9 starts. Still only going into his age 25 season, Lockett has much more upside than Kearse and is probably the favorite to start opposite Baldwin. Lockett could easily have a breakout 3rd season in the league if he can stay healthy.

Kearse is not even a lock for the #3 receiver job. He’ll be pushed for the job by Paul Richardson, a 2014 2nd round pick who flashed down the stretch last season with Lockett injured. A 2014 2nd round pick, Richardson hasn’t played much in his career, but that’s largely because he tore his ACL at the end of his rookie season and was buried on the depth chart by the time he came back. Still only going into his age 25 season, he’s flashed in limited action throughout his career and has plenty of talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if he beat out Kearse for the #3 job. Amara Darboh, a 3rd round rookie, could also be in the mix for snaps.

The Seahawks will also use a lot of two tight end sets with Luke Willson, who was re-signed this off-season. Willson is an underwhelming player and has never caught more than 22 passes in a season, but he’s an adequate #2 tight end and a solid blocker. He won’t be needed much in the passing game though, because the Seahawks will probably pass fewer times this season and because they have other good options in the passing game like Doug Baldwin, Jimmy Graham, Tyler Lockett, and CJ Prosise.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

Despite needs on offense, the Seahawks spent their first pick on a defensive tackle, trading down three times from 26 to 31 to 34 to to 35 select Michigan State defensive tackle Malik McDowell at the top of the 2nd round. He fills an immediate need at defensive tackle and will play at least in sub packages as a rookie. McDowell has first round talent, but was off some team’s boards because of concerns about his work ethic.

The Seahawks clearly think they can get the most out of him. As a rookie, he’ll likely split snaps with last year’s second round pick Jarran Reed (49th overall pick), who struggled on 477 snaps as a rookie, but could be better in his second season in the league. In contrast with the 6-6 296 pound McDowell, Reed is a big run stuffer at 6-3 311 and will play primarily in base packages, with McDowell coming in for him in sub packages.

Reed will play next to Ahtyba Rubin in base packages, although Rubin is arguably their worst starter. Rubin finished last season 113rd out of 125 eligible interior defensive lineman on 602 snaps and has finished well below average in 3 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus. Rubin was a solid player in his prime, but is now going into his age 31 season and is unlikely to get any better going forward. Owed a non-guaranteed 3.8 million in the final year of his contract in 2018, he could easily be let go this off-season. McDowell and Reed are the future at this position.

In sub packages, hybrid defensive lineman Michael Bennett moves from defensive end, where he plays in base packages, to defensive tackle. The 6-4 274 pounder has been one of the best defensive linemen in football in that role over the past several seasons. He’s been a top-7 4-3 defensive end in 6 straight seasons. He doesn’t always post huge sack numbers, but that’s partly because he usually lines up inside in passing situations and partly because he’s more of a disruptor than someone who finishes off the quarterback.

He takes on double teams, gets hits and hurries, makes it easier for other guys to get sacks, and plays the run at a high level as well. He’s going into his age 32 season, so there’s some reason for concern, but he still isn’t someone you want lining up in front of you as an offensive lineman. He finished last season 5th at his position, but did miss 5 games with injury, his first missed games since 2011.

With Bennett playing inside in passing situations, Frank Clark and Cliff Avril are their top edge rushers. They also rotate heavily in base packages and played 682 and 830 snaps respectively in 2016. Those roles could be flipped in 2017 because Clark is one of the best young edge rushers in the league, going into his 3rd season in the league (age 24), while Avril is a bit on the decline, going into his 10th season in the league (age 31).

Clark was a 2nd round pick in 2015 and appears to be a good one. After flashing on 364 snaps as a rookie, Clark broke out in 2016, finishing 12th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus. Avril, meanwhile, finished around middle of the pack, though he did finish 13th at his position in pure pass rush grade. Both he and Clark had double digit sacks last season. Avril has always been a much better pass rusher than run stuffer, finishing above average on Pro Football Focus 8 times in 9 seasons as a pass rusher, but just once as a run stuffer. The undersized 6-3 255 pounder would be best as a pure nickel rusher at this stage of his career, with Bennett and Clark as every down players. It’s a talented defensive line, even if their defensive tackles are underwhelming.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

The Seahawks also have a very talented linebacking corps. Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright are arguably the best linebacking duo in the NFL. Wagner is the better known player, but Wright has had just as good of a career. A mere 4th round pick in 2011, Wright has made 88 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-17 among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in all 6 seasons, including 3 straight seasons in the top-6. Last season was his highest rated season, as he finished 3rd at the position. Still only going into his age 28 season, Wright is a do everything linebacker in the prime of his career and is criminally underrated on this Seattle defense.

Wagner, meanwhile, is also in the prime of his career, as the 2012 2nd round pick is just going into his age 27 season. He’s been a top-18 middle linebacker in each of his first 5 seasons in the league, including 3 seasons in the top-5. One of those 3 seasons was last season, when he finished 3rd among middle linebackers. Both players should have strong seasons again, as every down linebackers on this defense.

Cassius Marsh was the 3rd linebacker last season, but the 2014 4th round pick and ex-defensive end didn’t fare well in his first season at linebacker and will face competition from free agent acquisition Michael Wilhoite. Wilhoite has made 34 starts over the past 3 seasons at middle linebacker in the 49ers’ 3-4 defense, but has finished in the bottom-10 among middle linebackers in all 3 seasons on Pro Football Focus. He might fare better as a base package outside linebacker in Seattle’s 4-3, but he’s definitely an underwhelming option and might not be an upgrade on Marsh. Fortunately, this role doesn’t play many snaps, as the Seahawks are often in sub packages. Marsh played just 387 snaps last season. This is still an incredible linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

The Seahawks’ secondary is probably the group that gets the most attention, led by the Legion of Boom, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor. However, they have a big problem at cornerback behind Sherman on the depth chart. DeShawn Shead and Jeremy Lane were their #2 and #3 cornerbacks respectively last season, but Shead tore his ACL late last season and is unlikely to play at all in 2017, while Lane struggled mightily, finishing 94th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 769 snaps.

To upgrade the position, the Seahawks used a pair of draft picks, first taking Central Florida cornerback Shaquill Griffin in the 3rd round and then taking Cincinnati safety Mike Tyson in the 6th round, who they will convert into a cornerback. Those two will compete for playing time with Lane. Lane is a solid slot cornerback, but he has struggled in the past when he’s had to play outside and he only has 15 starts in 5 seasons in the league, so either Griffin or Tyson could be the favorite to start outside opposite Sherman. They could be easier to pass on this season than they have been in recent years.

Fortunately, they still have Sherman, Thomas, and Chancellor, who will help mask their depth issues at cornerback. Sherman is coming off of a bit of a down year though, finishing 13th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, after finishing in the top-5 in each of the previous 4 seasons. He reportedly wasn’t 100% all season, as he played through a knee injury, so he could easily bounce back in 2017, his age 29 season. He’s still one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.

Chancellor and Thomas also dealt with injuries in 2016. Chancellor missed 4 games with a groin injury, while Thomas missed the final 4 games of the season and their 2 playoff games with a broken leg. Chancellor has missed 7 games with injury over the past 2 seasons, which is a bit of a concern, but he’s also going into his age 29 season, so he’s in his late prime like Sherman and could easily have another strong season. In fact, he finished last season a career best 3rd among safeties on Pro Football Focus. He’s been a top-22 safety on Pro Football Focus for 6 straight seasons. The Seahawks did draft a pair of safeties for depth purposes, Delano Hill in the 3rd round and Tedric Thompson in the 4th round, so the Seahawks might not bring Chancellor back as a free agent next off-season.

Thomas, meanwhile, talked about retirement last season after he broke his leg, but that was never a serious consideration. Prior to the injury, he had made 106 straight starts to begin his career and is still only going into his age 28 season. He finished “only” 14th among safeties last season before the injury, but he’s been a top-10 safety in 4 of the last 7 seasons. This is still a strong secondary, but their lack of cornerback depth makes them more vulnerable.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Seahawks have obvious issues on the offensive line still, but their key players should be healthier this season and they should run the ball better with the addition of Eddie Lacy. This team should be better than they were last season and should compete for another Super Bowl, though there are a few teams I would rank higher than them. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD