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

Los Angeles Rams 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Rams finished the 2015 season at 7-9, but were worse than their record suggested. Five of their 7 wins came by 8 points or fewer, while just 3 of those losses did. Their only wins by more than 8 points came at home against the Browns and 49ers, arguably the two least talented teams in the league in 2015. The Rams finished the season 28th in first down rate differential, ahead of only the Dolphins, Saints, Browns, and 49ers. Their defense played well, finishing 5th in first down rate allowed, but their offense only picked up first downs at a 29.13% rate, dead last in the NFL.

It was clear they needed to upgrade their offense, especially the quarterback position, but because they won so many close games, they had just the 15th pick in the draft, not an ideal spot to find a franchise quarterback. To fix this problem, the Rams made an aggressive move up the draft board to the #1 overall pick, sending #15, #43, #45, #76, and a first and third rounder in 2017 for #1, #113, and #177 from the Titans, who did not need a quarterback and could afford to move down and stockpile picks.

It was a surprising move, as neither of the draft class’ top-2 quarterbacks, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, were the type of can’t miss quarterback prospects that teams are willing give up a king’s ransom to get, but the Rams apparently fell in love with Goff and decided they had to have him. Despite all they gave up to get him, Goff spent the entire off-season behind veteran Case Keenum and did not make his first start until the Rams’ 10th game of the season in week 11.

That’s despite the fact that Keenum hardly impressed in his 9 starts. The veteran journeyman completed just 60.9% of his passes for an average of 6.84 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. The Rams picked up first downs at a mere 30.25% rate in those 9 games, 2nd worst only to the Texans at that point in the season. Keenum finished the season 29th out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

It was confusing to many why they took so long to let Goff play, but the reason quickly became clear as soon as Goff took over as the starter. Goff didn’t look remotely ready for game action. As bad as their offense was with Keenum, they took a huge step backwards in Goff’s 7 starts, as they moved the chains at a ridiculously low 24.62% rate. Goff led the offense to just 88 first downs and 10 offensive touchdowns in 7 games and they finished the season dead last in first down rate for the 2nd straight season at 27.92%, significantly worse than their league worst rank from a season before. The gap between them and 31st ranked Houston (30.62%) was bigger than the gap between Houston and 24th ranked Minnesota.

Their offensive issues are not all Goff’s fault, as they really lack talent around the quarterback on offense, but there’s no denying that this offense got significantly worse when they switched from Keenum, a backup caliber talent, to Goff. Goff completed just 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions and took 26 sacks in 7 games. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked quarterback behind only Blaine Gabbert. The Rams fired defensive minded head coach Jeff Fisher with 3 games left to go last season and then hired ex-Redskin offensive coordinator Sean McVay this off-season to replace him and hopefully inject some life into Goff’s career.

McVay worked alongside Jay Gruden on one of the best offenses in the league over the past couple of seasons and was instrumental in the development of Kirk Cousins. Goff is still only going into his age 23 season and you can’t call him a bust after just 1 season, but his career couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start and there are major concerns for his future. Given all they gave up for him, the Rams desperately need Goff to pan out. Their only other option at the quarterback position is Sean Mannion, a 2015 3rd round pick who has never made a start. If Goff continues to struggle, it’s conceivable that Mannion could see starts down the stretch, but Goff will be given every chance in 2017.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

After bringing in an offensive minded head coach, their first order of business this off-season was to upgrade Goff’s supporting cast. Without a first round pick due to the Goff trade, the Rams’ best option to immediately improve their offensive supporting cast this off-season was free agency. Fortunately, they had a good amount of cap space to use. Their biggest signing was Andrew Whitworth, who comes over from Cincinnati on a 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal and will immediately slot in at left tackle.

Whitworth is going into his age 36 season in 2017 and ordinarily it isn’t a good idea to give a player who is that old that much money, but Whitworth hasn’t shown any signs of age, finishing last season 2nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s also been a top-15 offensive tackle on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 8 seasons and has made 126 of 128 starts over that time period. It’s possible his abilities will fall off a cliff soon, but the Rams can get out of his deal after 1 year and 12.5 million if they want.

He will replace Greg Robinson, who has been arguably the worst left tackle in the league over the past 3 seasons. The 2nd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Robinson came into the league with a ton of upside, but finished 2nd worst, 5th worst, and 8th worst among offensive tackles in 3 seasons in the league (42 starts). The Rams moved him to right tackle this off-season, but ended up trading him to the Lions for a 2018 6th round pick in June when he struggled there and got benched for Jamon Brown. Robinson was one of the biggest busts in recent draft history.

Brown is currently penciled in as the starting right tackle with Robinson out of the picture, but Rob Havenstein has made 28 starts at right tackle over the past 2 seasons since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2015 and has played well, finishing 26th and 33rd respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The current plan seems to be to move Havenstein to right guard and play Brown at right tackle, but Brown spent the last 2 seasons at right guard, so they could easily flip them back at some point.

Brown, a 3rd round pick in 2015, has been significantly worse than Havenstein through 2 years in the league, finishing 70th out of 81 eligible guards as a rookie in 2015 and then 55th out of 72 eligible guards last season. He also only made 14 starts over those 2 seasons. Cody Wichmann, a 6th round pick from 2015, actually played the most snaps at right guard last season, finishing 51st out of 72 eligible guards on 594 snaps (11 starts). He also struggled on 424 snaps as a rookie. Regardless of who plays where, the Rams should have at least one hole on the right side of the offensive line.

The Rams will start a pair of veterans at left guard and center in Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan. Saffold was a rare bright spot on this offensive line last season, finishing 26th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts. He’s no guarantee to do that again though, as he’s finished below average on Pro Football Focus 4 times in 7 seasons in the league and has missed 29 games with injury over that time period. They will need him to stay healthy and play well again because they don’t have an insurance plan behind him on the depth chart.

Sullivan, meanwhile, comes over from Washington, where he played just 98 snaps as the backup center for Sean McVay’s Redskins in 2016. Sullivan was once one of the better centers in the league. From 2011-2014, he made 63 of 64 starts with the Vikings and finished in the top-12 among centers in all 4 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-3. However, he missed all of 2015 with a back injury and didn’t sign with the Redskins until week 3 last season, after being let go at final cuts by the Vikings. Going into his age 32 season, his best days are probably behind him, but he could prove to be a solid cheap signing by the Rams. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be better than Tim Barnes, who finished 31st out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus in 16 starts in 2016. This offensive line as a whole is improved, but they still have some problems.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Rams’ other big off-season signing was wide receiver Robert Woods, who comes over the from Bills on a 5-year, 34 million dollar deal. He’s really just a replacement for Kenny Britt though, as Britt signed with the Browns on a 4-year, 32.5 million dollar deal in free agency this off-season. He’s also a downgrade from Britt, as he finished 59th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus last season, while Britt finished 39th.

Woods was better than his 51/613/1 slash line suggests as he played on a run heavy offense and averaged a respectable 1.61 yards per route run, but he still was only a league average wide receiver. Last season was also the highest rated season of his career. Still only going into his age 25 season, he’s younger than Britt and could continue getting better, but he’s a solid #2 receiver at best and not the #1 receiver this offense needs.

The Rams also lost their 2nd leading receiver from 2016 in free agency, as Brian Quick (41/564/3) signed with the Redskins this off-season. The Rams replaced him by using a 3rd round pick on Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp, who figures to have an immediate role. Kupp was one of the pro readiest receivers in this draft, even if it could take him a little bit to transition from the FCS level, where set pretty much every receiving record.

However, he’ll be a 24-year-old rookie and doesn’t have a huge upside. He’s only 14 months younger than Woods, who is already entering his 5th season in the league. This was also a weak wide receiver class overall, so calling him one of the pro readiest receivers in the draft doesn’t say a ton. Having to rely on a 3rd round rookie as your #2 receiver is not a good situation.

Kupp will compete for playing time with Tavon Austin. Austin was the 8th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but the 5-8 174 pounder hasn’t developed into anything more than a gadget player and return man in his career. He has finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league and the 509 receiving yards he had last season were the most he’s had in a single season in his career. He’s one of the fastest players in the league, but that hasn’t translated into him being a good wide receiver.

The Rams’ new coaching staff has talked him up as a deep threat this off-season, but that would be a huge shift in how he’s been used thus far in his career. His average catch has occurred just 3.62 yards from the line of scrimmage in his career, as he hasn’t shown the ability to do much other than catch short screens and try to make guys miss in the open field. He’s not going to be Sean McVay’s new DeSean Jackson.

Austin has added 968 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground on 125 career carries and dominates as a return man, but isn’t the traditional receiver they need. Ideally, he’d be only their #3 receiver and a slot specialist because he doesn’t have the size to make catches on the outside. The 4-year, 42 million dollar extension they gave him last season looks like one of the biggest mistakes a team has made in recent years. That contract guaranteed him 28.5 million in new money and doesn’t have an out until after next season.

The Rams also got rid of tight end Lance Kendricks this off-season, as part of a complete overhaul of their receiving corps. Kendricks had a decent 50/499/2 slash line in 2016, but finished 54th out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 830 snaps, so he won’t be a big loss. Like Brian Quick, the Rams also replaced him with a rookie, using their 2nd round pick on South Alabama’s Gerald Everett.

Everett is an athletic freak with a huge upside and has been compared to Jordan Reed, who McVay had in Washington, but he could struggle as a rookie because he comes from a small school and is very raw as a route runner and a run blocker. He’ll compete for playing time with Tyler Higbee, a 2016 4th round pick who finished 58th out of 63 eligible tight ends on 402 snaps last season. Both should have roles in what is still a thin receiving corps. They need young players to step up in a hurry.

Grade: C-

Running Backs

Perhaps the most disappointing player in the league last season from a statistical standpoint was Todd Gurley. The 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Gurley burst onto the scene as a rookie by rushing for 1106 yards and 10 touchdowns on 229 carries (4.83 YPC), but managed just 885 yards and 6 touchdowns on 278 carries in 2016 (3.18 YPC), ruining many fantasy seasons. Gurley was definitely worse from 2015 to 2016, but he wasn’t as good as his numbers looked in 2015 or as bad as his numbers looked in 2016. He fell from 15th among running backs in 2015 on Pro Football Focus to 33rd, which is still about middle of the pack.

The big difference was in 2015 he busted 11 runs of 20+ yards on 229 carries (4.8%), but in 2016 he had just 2 on 278 carries (0.7%). In 2015, he had 38.7% of his yardage on those 11 carries, but managed just 46 total yards on his two 20-yard carries in 2016. In 2015, he only picked up 45 first downs on those 229 carries, a 19.7% rate. That rate isn’t much better than the 17.3% rate he picked them up at in 2017. He should have more long runs in 2017 and he still has obvious upside going into his age 23 season, but he’s unlikely to match his YPC from 2015, especially given how little talent there is on this offense.

The one area where Gurley actually did improve from 2015 to 2016 was in the passing game. After catching just 21 passes for 188 yards in 2015, he caught 43 passes for 327 yards in 2016. In 2015, he was replaced by Benny Cunningham in most obvious passing situations and played just 456 snaps in 13 games. In 2016, he played 748 snaps in 16 games, including 428 pass snaps. It’s unclear how much of a role in the passing game he will have in 2017.

In Washington, Sean McVay’s offense always used Chris Thompson in a pure passing down role and the Rams have talked up free agent acquisition Lance Dunbar as that type of player, but McVay also was dealing with lead backs like Alfred Morris and Rob Kelley, who are not useful in passing situations. Gurley is a much more well-rounded back and capable of playing every down, so they might not want to take him off the field for Dunbar regularly, especially since doing so would signal to the defense when they are going to pass and when they are going to run.

Dunbar has just 68 career catches in 54 games, but that’s because he spent most of his career as a 3rd or 4th running back. In 2015 with the Cowboys, he was their primary passing down back and caught 21 passes in 4 games before tearing his ACL. In 2016, he was phased out of the offense and had just 25 touches on 143 snaps. The Rams guaranteed him 1.375 million on a 1.5 million dollar deal this off-season, so it seems like they have a role in mind for him, but it’s unclear how much he’ll actually play. He has a career 4.49 YPC average, but is undersized at 5-8 195 and has just 94 career carries, so he isn’t much of a threat for carries, even if Gurley were to get hurt. Gurley’s primary backup for carries could be Malcolm Brown, a 2015 undrafted free agent with 56 yards on 22 career carries. They would be in serious trouble if Gurley were to get hurt because he’s their only offensive play maker.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

The Rams had one of the best defenses in the league in 2015, but fell to 16th in first down rate allowed in 2016. As a result of that and their horrendous offense, they finished dead last in first down rate differential at -7.63%%, a full point lower than Cleveland (-6.22%), and over 2 points lower than San Francisco (-5.08%). On the season, they allowed 80 more first downs and 21 more offensive touchdowns than they scored.

They won 4 games, but by a combined 18 points, while their 12 losses came by a combined 188 points, an average margin of defeat of 15.67. Their -170 point differential was just ahead of San Francisco (-171) and Cleveland (-188). The Browns and 49ers won a combined 3 games last season, but you could argue the Rams were worse than both of those teams, especially after Jared Goff took over as quarterback. They lost all 7 of his starts by an average of 19.4 points per game.

Given their issues on offense, their defense will have to bounce back in 2017 for this team to even be respectable. The problem is their decline from 2015 to 2016 was largely as a result of the loss of several starters last off-season, including talented defensive backs Rodney McLeod and Janoris Jenkins, who signed big contracts in free agency with the Eagles and Giants respectively. They still haven’t done anything to replace those guys and in fact they lost even more talent this off-season. Their talent level is nowhere near their 2015 level. The good news is they hired legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips this off-season, after the Broncos’ new coaching staff let him go. Phillips has always had a way of getting the most out of his talent. If this defense is improved in 2017, his leadership and scheme will likely be a big reason why. Phillips will convert this defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4.

Phillips will get to work with one incredibly talented defensive player in Aaron Donald, who will transition from defensive tackle to defensive end in this new defense. The 14th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald has quickly become one of the best players in the league and, for my money, the best player in the league. He’s finished #1 among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in the league and was their highest rated defensive player regardless of position last season.

JJ Watt has had better sack numbers, but Watt is going into his 7th season in the league and coming off of a back injury, while Donald is just entering his 4th season (his age 25 season) and hasn’t missed a single game with injury yet. Donald is also a better run stopper and plays a position where it is tougher to get sacks from, especially on a team that is consistently trailing and rarely plays with a lead.

Watt actually played the position that Donald will play this season when Phillips was the defensive coordinator in Houston. Donald could easily exceed his career high of 11 sacks this season at a new position, while still playing at a high level against the run. The Rams’ offense will limit sack opportunities for him, but he’s my early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. The combination of his talent and Phillips’ coaching and scheme could be deadly for the rest of the league.

In their 4-3 defense last year, Michael Brockers and Dominique Easley split snaps at defensive tackle next to Donald, with Brockers playing in base packages and Easley playing in sub packages. In their new 3-4, Brockers will stay as a base package nose tackle, while Easley will start at the other defensive end spot opposite Donald. Undersized at 6-2 285, Easley struggled against the run in a 4-3 and was only a part-time player as a result, but he could be an every down player in this new 3-4.

A 2014 1st round pick like Donald, Easley was selected 29th overall by the Patriots, but injuries limited him to just 545 snaps in 22 games in 2 seasons in New England and, even though he played well when healthy, the Patriots surprisingly cut him last off-season. The Patriots’ loss was the Rams’ gain, as he finished 15th among defensive tackles on 470 snaps in 2016 and played all 16 games. Now going into his age 25 season, he has breakout potential in this new 3-4 defense. He profiles similar to Malik Jackson, who had a lot of success as a defensive end in Phillips’ defense in Denver. The one big concern with Easley is he has major injury issues dating back to his collegiate days at the University of Florida, where he tore both of his ACLs.

Brockers is also a former first round pick, going 14th overall in 2012. The big 6-5 326 pounder has finished above average as a run stopper on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the 5 seasons in the league, including 3 straight seasons, but has never once finished above average as a pass rusher and has just 14.5 sacks in 5 seasons in the league. He finished last season 13th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but only played 419 snaps as a part-time player.

The Rams gave him a 3-year, 33.25 million extension last off-season ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie deal, but they’re probably regretting that now, given how one dimensional he is and given that he’s locked into a pure base package role in their new 3-4 defense. That deal guaranteed him 25.25 million in new money between his signing bonus and his 2017 and 2018 salaries. He’s the highest paid nose tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary. He’ll be a strong run stuffer for them, but isn’t worth what they’re paying him.

Tyrunn Walker will be their primary reserve on the line, after the Rams signed him as a free agent from the Lions this off-season. A 2012 undrafted free agent, Walker showed promise in the first action of his career in 2013 and 2014, finishing above average on 119 and 308 snaps respectively, but he hasn’t been able to translate that to a larger role. He struggled in 4 starts in 2015 before breaking his leg and missing the rest of the season and then struggled upon his return in 2016, flashing below average on 377 snaps in 15 games (8 starts). He isn’t bad depth though and this is overall a very strong defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Along with Phillips coming in, one thing that could be a big boost for this defense is if Robert Quinn stayed healthy, after he missed 7 games with injury last season. However, Quinn also missed 8 games the year before, so that’s far from a guarantee, and they finished last season with the fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league, so they can’t really count on being healthier overall. Injuries are a part of the game and the Rams struggled without really dealing with them (outside of Quinn) last season.

Quinn was a top-11 3-4 defensive end in 2013, and 2014, and 2015 before getting injured, so he has bounce back potential, still only going into his age 27 season, but he did not look like himself last season when on the field and has played in just 17 of his last 32 games. He’ll move from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker with Phillips coming in and play the old DeMarcus Ware role. He’d likely struggle if ever asked to cover, but Phillips will put him in spots where he can succeed and likely won’t see his passing down role changed much from what he’s used to.

He will start opposite Connor Barwin, who was signed to 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal as a free agent this off-season, replacing William Hayes, who finished last season 10th among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but wasn’t a good fit for a 3-4 defense. Barwin was cut by the Eagles this off-season, but that was because he was owed 7.75 million and wasn’t a good fit for their 4-3 defense. He finished last season 6th worst among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, but finished above average in 3 of the previous 5 seasons in a 3-4 defense and has experience with Wade Phillips from his early years in Houston.

The biggest concern with Barwin is he’s going into his age 31 season and seems to have lost a step over the past couple seasons, regardless of scheme. He’s an underwhelming starter, but their only other option is Ethan Westbrooks, a 2014 undrafted free agent who has finished below average in all 3 seasons in the league. Westbrooks played 533 snaps at 4-3 defensive end  in a rotational role last season with Quinn hurt and figures to be their primary reserve 3-4 outside linebacker in 2017.

Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree remain as every down linebackers. Ogletree will remain inside with the scheme switch, while Barron will move from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. Barron, the 7th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, was a bust at safety for the first 3 years of his career in Tampa Bay, but was traded to the Rams for a late round pick during the 2014 season and made the transition to linebacker the following off-season. That move has paid off in a big way, as he’s finished 20th and 32nd among off-ball linebackers over the past 2 seasons, while making 28 straight starts. Still in his prime, only going into his age 28 season, Barron should continue playing at a high level in 2017.

Ogletree started his career at outside linebacker, but broke his leg 4 games into the 2015 season, which allowed Barron to take over, and then, after Barron broke out, Ogletree moved inside for the 2016 season. Ogletree returned to play all 16 games in 2016 and the 2013 1st round pick played all 32 games in his first 2 seasons in the league before the injury. The problem is he’s finished below average in all 4 seasons in the league.

Ogletree isn’t a bad player, but he hasn’t lived up to his first round draft slot or his immense athletic upside. Owed 8.369 million in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017, the Rams have a big decision to make on him in the next year. He’s still only going into his age 26 season and has a high ceiling, but hasn’t shown it on the field. The Rams have good upside in the linebacking corps, but also considerable downside.

Grade: B-

Secondary

As mentioned, the Rams lost safety Rodney McLeod and cornerback Janoris Jenkins last off-season. This off-season, they lost their other safety TJ McDonald, who was about a league average starter last season. To replace him, LaMarcus Joyner will move from slot cornerback to safety. A 2014 2nd round pick, Joyner is coming off the best season of his career, finishing 30th among cornerbacks on 699  snaps, after barely playing as a rookie and struggling on 730 snaps in his 2nd year in the league in 2015. Joyner has played cornerback, safety, and even some linebacker thus far in his career, but figures to be an every down safety in the final year of his rookie deal in 2017. A solid season could earn him a decent sized contract on the open market next off-season.

Joyner will start opposite Mo Alexander, who was a pleasant surprise in his first full season as a starter in 2016. After struggling mightily in the first 5 starts of his career in 2015, finishing 2nd worst among safeties on Pro Football Focus, the 2014 4th round pick shot up to 17th in 2016 in 14 starts. He’s a complete one-year wonder and could easily regress this season, but another strong season would also get him a good sized contract on the open market next off-season. The Rams will have decisions to make in the next year to avoid losing more talent at the safety position.

Cornerback Trumaine Johnson will also be a free agent next off-season, although that’s been the case for each of the previous two seasons as well, as he’s been franchise tagged in back-to-back off-seasons. A 2012 3rd round pick, Johnson had a breakout year in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015, finishing 19th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and was franchise tagged instead of fellow cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Rams understandably didn’t want to commit to a long-term deal with him until he proved himself again, which he did in 2016, when he finished 25th among cornerbacks, but now they don’t want to give him a long-term deal until he’s proven himself in Wade Phillips’ defense.

The Rams will pay him 30.7 million fully guaranteed between 2016 and 2017 on the two franchise tags, which is probably more than he’s worth, and franchise tagging him for a 3rd time next off-season would cost them at least 24.11 million, making that not a realistic option. If he has another strong season, the Rams would likely be forced to either let him walk or pay him at least what Desmond Trufant got on his extension this off-season (68.75 million over 5 years). Johnson is a good player, but he’s not a top level corner and might not be worth that kind of dough.

With Joyner moving to safety, incumbent #2 cornerback EJ Gaines will compete for playing time with a pair of free agent acquisitions, Kayvon Webster and Nickell Robey-Coleman. Gaines burst onto the scene as a mere 6th round rookie in 2014, finishing 29th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 15 starts, but his career has since been derailed by injuries. He missed all of 2015 with a foot injury and then was limited to 10 starts by more leg injuries in 2016. He also did not remotely resemble his old self in 2016, finishing 106th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks. He’s entering a make or break final year of his rookie deal and could easily lose his starting job this off-season.

Webster only has 2 career starts in 4 seasons in the league, but got 7.75 million on a 2-year deal and is familiar with Wade Phillips’ scheme from Denver, so he’s much more likely to earn a role than Robey-Coleman, a slot specialist who signed for near the minimum this off-season. Webster never played much in Denver and didn’t show much when he did play, but he was a 3rd round pick in 2013 and Phillips seems to like him. Robey-Coleman, meanwhile, is a capable slot cornerback, but isn’t a realistic option outside because of his lack of size at 5-8 165. This should be an underwhelming secondary once again.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Rams do have a few things going for them. They have one of the youngest rosters in football and could easily be better this season if some of that young talent develops. They also should be much better coached with Sean McVay and Wade Phillips coming in. And they adding a much needed blindside protector in free agency when they signed Andrew Whitworth from the Bengals.

However, they were one of the worst teams in the league last season, arguably the worst once Goff took over, despite barely having any injuries. They also lost more talent on defense this off-season, with talented starters like TJ McDonald and William Hayes going elsewhere. On paper, this is one of the least talented rosters in the league and, while they could exceed their talent level because of good coaching, especially on defense with Phillips, it’s hard to see them winning more than 5 or so games. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Arizona Cardinals 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals fell to 7-8-1 in 2016, after winning 13 games the previous season, but they were much better than their record suggested. In fact, they finished 1st in first down rate differential for the second straight season, though they did drop from+8.45% to +5.92%. The problem was their special teams swung more than a few games. They missed a game winning field goal against New England. They allowed a long punt return to set up the winning score against the Rams. They had a blocked punt and a number of missed field goals in the tie against the Seahawks. They allowed a kickoff return touchdown in a 6-point loss to the Vikings. And against Miami, in a 3-point loss, special teams cost them 7 points on 3 plays with a missed field goal, a missed extra point, and a blocked extra point that was returned for 2 points. They could have been 12-4 if not for those screw ups. They should have better luck this season.

The area in which they had the biggest decline last season was their passing game  After completing 62.8% of their passes for an average of 8.50 YPA, 35 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2015, they completed just 59.3% of their passes for an average of 6.85 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions in 2016. Their receiving corps was not nearly as good (more on them later), but there’s no denying that Carson Palmer declined in a big way. Palmer’s QB rating fell 17.4 points and he fell from 4th to 17th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The decline shouldn’t have been a huge surprise, as 2015 was easily the best season of his career. His QB rating was his highest in a full season in his career by over 10 points. On top of that, 2016 was his age 37 season. Palmer has always been a solid quarterback and has finished above average among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 8 straight seasons, but he is now going into his age 38 season, so he could easily be in his final season in the league and a big decline is certainly possible.

Many thought they would take a quarterback early in the draft, but they didn’t draft one at all. Adding a developmental quarterback would have made sense, not only given Palmer’s age, but also given the fact that their veteran backups Drew Stanton and Blaine Gabbert are among the worst in the league and have always struggled when forced to start in their careers. Stanton has a 66.3 QB rating in 13 career starts, while Gabbert has a 71.5 QB rating in 40 career starts. If Palmer does end up struggling at his advanced age, the Cardinals won’t really have another option. They need him to hold it together for at least one more season.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, the Cardinals’ receiving corps got a lot worse in 2016, after they had one of the best receiving corps in the league in 2015. In 2015, Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown were one of four wide receiver duos to both finish with over 1000 yards and ended the season ranked 8th and 27th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Michael Floyd, meanwhile, finished 25th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and had 52 catches for 849 yards and 6 touchdowns on the season, despite playing only 652 snaps as the 3rd receiver. In 2016, however, Floyd managed just 33 catches for 446 yards and 4 touchdowns and was cut after week 14 when he was arrested for DUI. Brown, meanwhile, was limited to 39 catches for 517 yards and 2 touchdowns on 594 snaps by a mysterious sickle cell disease that limited his explosiveness and his snap count.

The only one who repeated his strong 2015 season was Larry Fitzgerald, who has been one of the best receivers in the league over the last decade plus. Fitzgerald finished last season 10th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, just 2 spots lower than his 2015 rank. His slash line fell from 109/1215/9 to 107/1023/6, but most of that was as a result of the overall decline of the passing game. Going into his 14th season in the league, Fitzgerald has 1125 career catches (3rd all-time) for 14,389 receiving yards (9th all-time) and 104 receiving touchdowns (8th all-time) in 202 career games, despite not always having great quarterback play, and has finished in the top-10 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 6 of the past 10 seasons. The only concern is he’s going into his age 34 season and is far from a guarantee to continue playing at a high level. He is also rumored to be considering retiring after this season.

John Brown is reportedly back to 100% after the illness he dealt with last season, which could be huge for this offense. He had a strong season in 2015, in just his 2nd season in the league, and could easily bounce back in his age 27 season in 2017. Going into the final season of his rookie deal, Brown could cash in as a free agent this off-season if he proves himself again. With Brown and Floyd struggling, JJ Nelson actually finished 2nd on the team in receiving yards by a wide receiver last season, catching 34 passes for 568 yards and 6 touchdowns. A 2015 5th round pick, Nelson is a one dimensional speedster at 5-10 160 and finished below average on 472 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, but is one of the fastest players in the league. He will compete with 3rd round rookie Chad Williams for the #3 receiver job to start 2017.

The #3 receiver has a pretty big role in this offense because they don’t throw to tight ends often. Jermaine Gresham returns for his 3rd season as the Cardinals’ starting tight end. He was used more in the passing game last season out of desperation because Brown and Floyd were not themselves, almost doubling his target total from the previous season (61 vs. 32). However, he didn’t really produce, averaging just 6.41 yards per target on 61 targets. The 6-5 260 pound Gresham is a capable blocker, but has finished below average in 5 straight seasons on Pro Football Focus and is coming off of one of his worst overall seasons, finishing 59th out of 63 eligible tight ends in 2016. He has averaged just 31.8 yards per game in 105 career games, despite starting 93 of them. He won’t be much of a factor in the passing game again this season.

Darren Fells only played 371 snaps as the #2 tight end last season. He signed in Detroit as a free agent this off-season, so Troy Niklas will take over his old role. Niklas was a 2nd round pick in 2014, but his career hasn’t gotten off the ground because of injuries, as he has just 8 catches in 26 career games in 3 seasons in the league. Niklas will get one last chance in the final year of his rookie deal, but he’s unlikely to do much with it, though he still has upside going into only his age 25 season. The 6-6 270 pounder at least has the frame to be a strong blocker, which is about the most the Cardinals can hope for out of him. This team really lacks a good 3rd option in the receiving corps.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Despite the decreased production from the passing game, the Cardinals still finished 6th in first down rate at 38.31%. That’s a significant decrease from their league leading 40.73% rate in 2015, but they were still one of the best in the league in that metric. Their offensive MVP was definitely running back David Johnson, whose breakout 2016 season offset some of the issues they had in the passing game. Not only did he have a strong season on the ground, rushing for 1239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.23 YPC), but he was also their 2nd leading receiver by a wide margin, catching 80 passes for 879 yards and another 4 touchdowns. Johnson finished the season 1st in the league in yards from scrimmage and in total touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked overall back and their 1st ranked back in receiving grade.

A 3rd round pick in 2015, Johnson flashed some of this ability as a rookie when he started the final 5 games of the regular season and then 2 playoff games, rushing for 537 yards and 5 scores on 120 carries in those 7 games (4.48 YPC) and adding 32 catches for 327 yards and 1 touchdown through the air. Going into his age 26 season, Johnson should be able to keep up his high level of play in 2017. Johnson looks like a modern day version of Marshall Faulk with his all-around ability. The 6-1 224 pounder has good size, speed, and runs routes like a receiver. They’ll need him in a big way in the passing game again, given that they lack another good 3rd option.

Johnson will carry the load again for the Cardinals, but, if he were to get injured, the Cardinals would use a committee of Kerwynn Williams, TJ Logan, and Andre Ellington. Williams is a bottom of the roster special teamer who has averaged 5.56 yards per carry on 98 career carries in 3 seasons in the league. Logan is an undersized (5-9 195) 5th round rookie. Ellington is the most experienced of the trio, with a 4.26 career YPC average on 398 carries and 112 catches in 4 seasons in the league, but he is always an injury risk and has never proven capable of carrying the load at 5-9 199. The Cardinals briefly tried him at wide receiver this off-season before moving him back to running back. He might be their primary change of pace back, but wouldn’t become an every down back even if Johnson were to get hurt.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The offensive line is another area where the Cardinals took a step back in 2016. Injuries were a big part of it, as left tackle Jared Veldheer missed the final 8 games of the season with a torn triceps and right guard Evan Mathis missed the final 12 games of the season with an ankle injury. Both were big losses, but Mathis’ was probably the bigger one because he was a top-3 guard on Pro Football Focus in each of the previous 5 seasons prior to 2016 and replacement Earl Watford struggled mightily in his absence, finishing dead last among guards on Pro Football Focus in 11 starts.

Watford is in Jacksonville now, but Mathis retired ahead of his age 36 season this off-season, so the Cardinals might not get much better play at the position this season. Evan Boehm, a 2016 4th round pick who was underwhelming in 2 starts last season, is penciled in as the starter, but he will face competition from 2016 5th round pick Cole Toner, who played just 10 snaps as a rookie, and Dorian Johnson, who was a 4th round pick this year. Their only veteran option is Tony Bergstrom, a 2012 3rd round pick who has made just 4 starts in 5 seasons in the league and is already going into his age 31 season. Regardless of who starts, this figures to be a position of weakness in 2017.

Veldheer returns from injury, but the Cardinals are planning on keeping DJ Humphries at left tackle and playing Veldheer at right tackle. Humphries was their 1st round pick in 2015 and was about a league average starter in 13 starts last season, first at right tackle then at left tackle, after not playing a single snap as a rookie in 2015. Veldheer would probably be the better option at left tackle because he has finished in the top-17 among offensive tackles in each of his last 4 healthy seasons and hasn’t played right tackle since college, but he is going into his age 30 season and has lost 2 of the last 4 seasons to torn triceps injuries. Humphries, meanwhile, has tremendous upside and is still only going into his age 24 season, so the arrow is definitely pointing up for him. The Cardinals could also flip their tackles at any time if this arrangement doesn’t seem to be working out. Owed a non-guaranteed 7 million in the final year of a 5-year, 35 million dollar deal, Veldheer could be entering his final season in Arizona if he doesn’t have a strong season.

Veldheer is one of two well-paid veteran linemen on this offensive line. The other is left guard Mike Iupati, who is going into the 3rd year of a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal. Originally a 2010 1st round pick by the 49ers, Iupati has started 103 games in 7 seasons in the league and has finished above average in all 7 seasons, including 5 seasons in the top-14 among guards on Pro Football Focus. He fell to 33rd among guards last season, which is a bit of a concern, as he’s now going into his age 30 season. He should still be at least a solid guard for them for another couple seasons though.

Rounding out the offensive line at center is veteran AQ Shipley. Shipley is already going into his age 31 season, but last season was his first as a full-time starter. His 16 starts at center last season were more than he had at center in the rest of his career (13). Shipley struggled mightily at left guard in 2013 with the Ravens, but has finished above average in all 4 seasons in which he’s made starts at center and he finished 14th among centers in 2016. His age is a bit of a concern, but he should be a solid center once again in 2017. This offensive line should be solid if they can be healthier this season.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

While the Cardinals’ offense took a bit of a step backwards from 2015 to 2016, their defense was remarkably consistent. In 2015, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 32.28% rate, 9th best in the NFL, and, in 2016, they allowed opponents to move the chains at a 32.39% rate, 5th best in the NFL. Unfortunately, they lost 4 defensive starters in free agency this off-season, including a few very talented players, so they could take a big step back defensively this season. That and Carson Palmer’s age are likely to prevent them from bouncing back to 2015 form.

Their biggest defensive loss was defensive end Calais Campbell, who has quietly been their best defensive player for about a decade. Drafted in the 2nd round in 2008, Campbell played 9 seasons with the Cardinals and finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 6 straight seasons. Last season was arguably the best season of his career, as he finished 1st among 3-4 defensive ends, but he signed a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal with the Jaguars this off-season, leaving a very big hole on their defensive line.

The Cardinals have an obvious internal replacement in Robert Nkemdiche, their first round pick in 2016, but he played just 83 snaps as a rookie because the Cardinals were not confident in him. With Campbell gone, they won’t have any choice but to play him, so they will obviously be hoping for a huge 2nd year leap from a naturally very talented player. The Cardinals called out his conditioning and he reportedly has responded well this off-season, so a solid 2nd season in the league for him is certainly a possibility. He’ll be an obvious downgrade from Campbell though.

Nkemdiche will probably work in a rotation at defensive end with the three players who rotated opposite Campbell last season, Frostee Rucker (304 snaps), Josh Mauro (388 snaps), and Rodney Gunter (243 snaps). Nkemdiche probably won’t play the 828 snaps that Campbell did last season, so those three will all likely have bigger roles in 2017, even though all three finished well below average. Rucker is the veteran of the bunch, going into his 11th season in the league, but he’s only finished above average twice in 10 seasons in the league and is unlikely to be any better now, going into his age 34 season. At this point in his career, he doesn’t offer much beyond veteran leadership. Meanwhile, Mauro is a 2014 undrafted free agent who the Cardinals signed off the Steelers’ practice squad in 2014, while Gunter is a 2015 4th round pick. Neither has ever finished above average.

Nose tackle Corey Peters finished 2nd on the defensive line in snaps played last season with 497 and was also their 2nd best defensive lineman, finishing just above average overall. He’s only finished above average twice in 6 healthy seasons in the league though and already has two torn achilles on his resume. He’s best as a run stuffer, but he has some experience as an interior pass rusher and could be counted on for a larger role and more sub package snaps with Campbell now in Jacksonville. This defensive line is much worse without Campbell and needs a breakout year from Nkemdiche to even be respectable.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

One defensive starter they didn’t lose as a free agent this off-season was Chandler Jones, who was franchise tagged and eventually signed to a 5-year, 82.5 million dollar long-term deal. The Cardinals traded a 2nd round pick to the Patriots for Jones last off-season and he responded with the best season of his career, finishing 4th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, so there was no chance the Cardinals were going to let him go, even with other key players hitting free agency.

When they traded for him, they essentially committed to him long-term over Campbell because Campbell likely would have been tagged and re-signed if not for that trade and they didn’t have the money to keep both. Campbell has had a more impressive career, but Jones is significantly younger, still only going into his age 27 season. The 2012 1st round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of being the top level player he was last season, but has finished above average in 4 of 5 seasons in the league, including a 2014 season in which he finished 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He should continue being at least a solid edge defender going forward and is the Cardinals’ best pass rusher.

Opposite him, Markus Golden had a breakout year, giving the Cardinals a pair of edge rushers with 10+ sacks. A 2015 2nd round pick, Golden was solid on 518 snaps as a rookie, but finished his second season in the league 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers. He’s only really been a starter for one year, so he will need to prove it again in 2017, but he looks like one of the best young edge rushers in the league. The Cardinals also signed veteran Jarvis Jones in free agency and he’ll be the primary reserve. A bust as a 2013 1st round pick, Jones had just 6 career sacks in 4 seasons in the league, but is a solid run stopper and will have an early down role. He won’t take any sub package snaps away from Jones and Golden though, as those two are too good at getting to the quarterback to take off the field in passing situations.

The Cardinals did lose middle linebacker Kevin Minter in free agency, but, although he had a solid contract year, he’s easily the most replaceable of the 4 defensive starters they lost in free agency. There’s a reason he had to settle for just a 1-year, 4.25 million dollar deal from the Bengals in free agency. The Cardinals also replaced him very quickly, using the 13th overall pick on Temple’s Haason Reddick. A great edge rusher at Temple, but undersized, Reddick shot up draft boards when he showed he could play off-ball linebacker at the Senior Bowl and figures to be pretty much an every down middle linebacker for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals may move him around the formation some because of his versatility and he’ll probably get about 100 or so shots at rushing the quarterback between blitzes and snaps where he lines up outside, but his best pro position is going to be middle linebacker, given his 6-1 237 frame. He’s drawn comparisons to Jamie Collins because of his ability to rush the passer, cover backs and tight ends, and stop the run as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. He has excellent upside and could be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

He should start opposite another former first round pick Deone Bucannon, who went 27th overall in 2014. I say “should” because Bucannon had off-season ankle surgery and is a questionable for the start of the season. He could begin the year on the reserve/PUP list, which would cost him the first 6 games of the season at least. If he misses any time, he’d be a big loss, as he’s played at a high level over the past two seasons, since converting from safety to middle linebacker, finishing 15th among middle linebackers in 2015 and 27th in 2016. Undersized at 6-1 211, Bucannon was a trendsetter for box safeties moving to linebacker. Many teams now use box safeties in at least hybrid roles.

In his absence, the Cardinals would start Karlos Dansby, a 13-year veteran who is now on his 3rd stint with the Cardinals. Originally a 2nd round pick by the Cardinals in 2004, Dansby has also played for the Dolphins, Browns, and Bengals. He’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 9 of the last 10 seasons, but he is going into his age 36 season, so he’s a major question mark going forward. When Bucannon is healthy, Dansby will be a pure reserve. This is still a talented linebacking corps, but much depends on Bucannon’s health.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Along with Campbell and Minter, the Cardinals also lost starting safeties Tony Jefferson and DJ Swearinger in free agency. Both will be big losses, as they finished 5th and 9th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus on 931 and 839 snaps respectively. To replace them, the Cardinals signed veteran Antoine Bethea and drafted Washington’s Budda Baker in the 2nd round. They also have Tyrann Mathieu and Tyvon Branch back healthy after they were limited to 10 games and 6 games respectively by injury last season. Mathieu is expected to start at one safety spot in base packages with Bethea, Baker, and Branch competing at that other spot.

Mathieu is healthy now, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy throughout his career. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Mathieu burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus as a hybrid cornerback/safety. However, his rookie season was cut short when he tore his ACL week 14 and missed the rest of the season. In 2014, he was limited to 438 nondescript snaps as he was eased back from the injury. In 2015, he seemed to be all the way back, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd highest ranked defensive back, but he again tore his ACL week 15 and missed the rest of the season.

He returned for week 1 of 2016, but he missed another 6 games with a shoulder injury and looked nowhere near 100% all season. He’s only going into his age 25 season, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2017, but the 5-9 185 pounder is undersized for how physical he plays and may just be a permanent injury risk. The Cardinals bet a lot of money on him, guaranteeing him 40 million dollars on a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension even after his 2nd ACL tear last off-season. They’re obviously hoping he can return to form and stay healthy. He covers the slot in sub packages and plays safety in base packages, often playing around the line of scrimmage.

Like Mathieu, Tyvon Branch can also cover the slot in sub packages, and, unfortunately, like Mathieu, he has major problems staying healthy. He’s finished above average in 5 of his last 6 seasons, but has missed 37 of 64 games with injury over the past 4 seasons and hasn’t played more than 428 snaps in a season since 2012. Going into his age 31 season, it’s unclear if he can make it through an entire season anymore. Budda Baker, who the Cardinals traded up to 36 to get, was selected as insurance for both Mathieu and Branch and could see significant snaps as a rookie. Like Mathieu and Branch, he can cover the slot and play safety. The downside with Baker is that he is just 5-10 195 and received just a 3rd round grade from Pro Football Focus before the draft.

Antoine Bethea is the lone true safety in the mix. He’s also easily the most durable safety they have, as he has played all 16 games in 8 of the last 9 seasons and once went 5 seasons without appearing on the injury report once. The problem is he’s in his age 33 season and has finished below average on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons, including 67th out of 90 eligible safeties in 2016. The Cardinals are deep at safety, but there should be opportunity for everyone to have a role this season because they like to use 3 and 4 safety sets in nickel and dime packages and because their 2 best safeties are very injury prone.

The Cardinals depth at safety is especially beneficial because they don’t have much depth at the cornerback position. They do have one side locked down though, because Patrick Peterson is one of the best cornerbacks in the league. Peterson has finished in the top-16 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the last 5 seasons, maxing out at #5 in 2015 and finishing 14th last season. The only season he struggled was in 2014, when he dealt with complications from undiagnosed diabetes all season, issues that have since been resolved. The 5th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Peterson has been as advertised, making all 96 starts in 6 seasons in the league, and is still only going into his age 27 season.

Their safety depth will help them in sub packages, but they still need someone to play outside every down outside Peterson and cover opponent’s #2 receivers. That position was their achilles heel last season and they didn’t do much to upgrade it this off-season. It looks like they will turn back to Justin Bethel to start the season, although he’s far from locked into the job. Solely a special teamer for the first 3 seasons of his career, Bethel has been unimpressive on 703 snaps over the past 2 seasons and lost his starting job early last season to Marcus Cooper, who finished 100th among 111 eligible cornerbacks in 13 starts. Bethel’s main competition is Brandon Williams, who struggled mightily on 241 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2016. Harlan Miller, a 2016 6th round pick who flashed on 140 snaps as a rookie, and Jonathan Ford, a 6th round rookie, could also be in the mix. It’s a major flaw in a secondary that will need to stay healthy.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Cardinals could have easily been an 11 or 12 win team last season and they won 13 games the season before, but their window might have closed. They lost way too much talent on defense this off-season and too many of their key players are either injury risks or getting up there in age. This team still has good talent on offense and could still make the playoffs, but they could also end up at 6-10 or worse if older players show their age or injury risks can’t stay on the field. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

New York Jets 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jets had a surprise 10-6 season in 2015, but it looked unlikely they would repeat that season in 2016. Not only did they enter the 2016 season with one of the oldest starting lineups in the NFL, but they also had a bunch of veterans coming off of career best seasons who were unlikely to repeat those seasons. As a result, they declined in a big way in 2016, finishing at 5-11 and dead last in the AFC East. Their 5 win drop was big, but their decline is even worse than that suggests as they fell from 5th in first down rate differential at +5.11% in 2015 to 29th at -4.30% in 2016. That was the biggest decline in the NFL, just ahead of the Carolina Panthers. In 2015, the Jets finished 15th and 1st respectively in first down rate and first down rate allowed, but they fell to 28th and 18th respectively in those two metrics in 2016.

One of those veterans coming off a career best season was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who completed 59.6% of his passes for 6.95 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions in 2015. An aging journeyman, Fitzpatrick wanted to cash in on his big season as a free agent last off-season and he and the Jets played hardball into training camp, before he eventually re-signed on a 1-year, 12 million dollar deal. Once he finally returned to the team, the Jets probably wished he hadn’t, as he completed just 56.6% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions in 2016. No eligible quarterback finished the season with a worse QB rating.

Missing off-season work likely had something to do with it, but the fact is he’s an aging journeyman who was unlikely to repeat his 2015 season regardless. Fitzpatrick was actually benched on two separate occasions last season. He was first benched for backup Geno Smith, but then Smith tore his ACL, which forced Fitzpatrick back into action. Then, after the team fell to 3-8, Fitzpatrick was benched for 2nd year quarterback Bryce Petty, who made the first 4 starts of his career, before suffering an injury of his own and forcing Fitzpatrick back into action once again for week 17.

None of the Jets’ three quarterbacks even resembled a capable starting quarterback in 2016, as the Jets finished dead last in the NFL with a 67.6 QB rating. Not only was that the worst QB rating in the league last season, but it was the worst by any team in a season since the Jets in 2013. Fitzpatrick, now going into his age 35 season, and Smith were both not re-signed this off-season, as they signed with the Buccaneers and Giants respectively as pure backups. Bryce Petty returns, but he was abysmal in his 4 starts, completing 56.4% of his passes for an average of 6.08 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Only a 4th round pick in 2015, Petty doesn’t even look like a long-term backup.

The Jets also return another young quarterback, 2016 2nd round pick Christian Hackenberg, but he didn’t throw a pass last season, despite all 3 quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart struggling. There’s a good reason for that as Hackenberg didn’t look remotely ready for game action in the pre-season, completing a comical 36.2% of his passes for an average of 3.38 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions in 2 games, even though he was playing against 3rd and 4th stringers, many of whom didn’t even make a final roster in 2016.

Hackenberg was a high pick, but could go down as one of the biggest reaches in recent history. Hackenberg was a top recruit coming out of high school and showed promise as a freshman at Penn State, but completed less than 55% of his passes over the next 2 seasons with just 28 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. The Jets took a flier on his upside and it already seems to have backfired. Wildly inaccurate with horrendous pocket presence, Hackenberg wasn’t even given a draftable grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft and it’s very telling that he couldn’t get on the field even in a lost season in 2016.

Both Petty and Hackenberg will likely see action at some point in 2017, but the Jets are expected to start the season with veteran journeyman Josh McCown under center, after the Jets signed him to a 1-year, 6.5 million dollar deal this off-season, passing on more expensive veterans like Mike Glennon, Colin Kaepernick, and (before his retirement) Jay Cutler. Those other three players would have been better options, but the Jets seem to be expecting a lost season in 2017 and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on the quarterback position.

The Jets didn’t seem to want to spend a lot of money in general, releasing several highly paid veterans and not signing any high priced free agents. Rather than pushing forward with a mediocre, expensive veteran roster, the Jets smartly seem to be embracing the rebuild, building up cap space and letting young players play, though the immediate results on the field could be very ugly. The Jets didn’t draft a quarterback, but 2018 is a much better quarterback class and this is going to be much more than a one-year rebuild, so it was smart of them not to reach for someone in this year’s draft, especially with needs all over the field.

McCown will more or less be the sacrificial lamb as they need someone to start games under center for them this season. McCown does have experience with this kind of thing, starting 11 games for the 2-14 Buccaneers in 2014 (#1 pick), 8 games for the 3-13 Browns in 2015 (#2 pick), and then 3 games for the 1-15 Browns in 2016 (#1 pick). Over those 3 seasons, he’s completed 58.7% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions and is 2-20 as a starter. That’s not all his fault, but that record is unlikely to improve much this season.

Prior to that, McCown flashed in 5 starts in place of an injured Jay Cutler with the Bears in 2013, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and an interception, which is probably why he’s continued to get chances, but prior to 2013 he made just 2 starts from 2008-2012 and didn’t have a QB rating higher than 70 since 2005. Now going into his 16th season in the NFL, the fact that he’s still in the league is a testament to what he provides in terms of leadership and intangibles, but he’s never had a good arm and that’s highly unlikely to change going into his age 38 season. He also has not been able to stay healthy over the past couple seasons, so Petty and Hackenberg will both likely have opportunities to play by the end of the season. The Jets have the worst quarterback situation in the league.

Grade: F

Receiving Corps

Two of the highly paid veterans the Jets parted ways with this off-season were wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. An example of how quickly things can change in the NFL, Marshall and Decker one of four wide receiver duos in 2015 to both top 1000 yards, but the rebuilding Jets decided to let both of them go this off-season, rather than paying them 7.5 million and 7.25 million respectively in their age 33 and age 30 seasons respectively.

Marshall finished 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards and first in receiving touchdowns in 2015, totalling 1502 yards and 14 touchdowns on 109 catches, but fell to 59/788/3 in 2016 and caught just 46.1% of the targets thrown his way. Quarterback play was a huge part of the problem, but he still fell from 15th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 to 67th out of 115 eligible in 2016. Decker, meanwhile, had a 80/1027/12 slash line in 2016, but missed all but 3 games with injury last season. Now neither are with the team anymore.

Fortunately, Quincy Enunwa did have a solid year in Decker’s absence, though he’ll likely be overmatched as a #1 receiver. He’s also a one year wonder who caught just 22 of 46 targets (47.8%) for 315 yards and 0 touchdowns in 2015, finishing 103rd out of 108 eligible wide receivers on 522 snaps in the first significant action of his career. Last season, the 2014 6th round pick was much better in a bigger role, catching 58 passes for a team high 857 yards and 4 touchdowns on 106 targets (54.7%) and finishing slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, but, even at his best, he’s only a competent #2 receiver.

Not only is Enunwa overmatched as a #1 wide receiver, but the Jets have no depth behind on the depth chart. Robby Anderson finished 3rd on the team in snaps played among wide receivers with 717 last season, and the undrafted rookie was predictably was overwhelmed, catching just 42 passes for 587 yards and 2 touchdowns and finishing 108th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He’s unlikely to be much better this season, but he’s the early favorite to start opposite Enunwa. He’ll be pushed for snaps by 3rd round rookie ArDarius Stewart, the early favorite for the #3 receiver job. Fourth round rookie Chad Hansen and 2016 7th round pick Charone Peake, who struggled on 324 snaps as a rookie, will also be in the mix for snaps in the league’s thinnest wide receiver group.

Things aren’t any better at tight end either. Former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey never used the tight end in the passing game, so the Jets never addressed their need at tight end. In 2 seasons under Gailey, the Jets completed just 26 passes to tight ends, easily the fewest in the league over that time period. Gailey is no longer with the team, but their lack of tight end depth remains. In fact, 5th round rookie Jordan Leggett, an unremarkable prospect, is currently the favorite to be the week 1 starter. That could change after week 3, when Austin Seferian-Jenkins returns from suspension, but Leggett will have a significant role as a rookie regardless.

Seferian-Jenkins had first round talent coming out of the University of Washington, with great pass catching and run blocking ability at 6-5 262, but fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2nd round because of concerns about his alcohol use. Those concerns have proven to be legitimate, as ASJ has struggled with discipline and conditioning throughout his career and was arrested for DUI last September, which led to the Buccaneers releasing him. He was also arrested for DUI in college. He’ll serve a 2-game suspension to start 2017, but reports have been very positive about him and his maturity this off-season. Still only going into his age 25 season, there’s time for him to turn it around and turn into a productive player in the league if he can be disciplined and stay out of trouble, but that’s far from a guarantee. With Josh McCown throwing to this receiving corps, it’s a mystery how the Jets plan on moving the ball through the air.

Grade: D

Offensive Line

In addition to Marshall and Decker, the Jets also got rid of a couple highly paid offensive linemen who were going into their age 30+ seasons, center Nick Mangold and left tackle Ryan Clady. Mangold, the Jets’ first round pick in 2006, started 164 games in 11 seasons with the Jets, but was no better than average over the past 2 seasons and was not worth his 9.075 million dollar salary to a re-building team in his age 33 season. Mangold will be replaced by Wesley Johnson, who made 8 starts when Mangold was injured last season. The 2014 5th round pick struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2016 though, finishing 33rd out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a very underwhelming replacement.

Unlike Mangold, Clady has only been with the team for one year and didn’t play well, finishing 62nd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in just 9 games in an injury shortened season. That made it an easy decision to cut him, rather than paying him 10 million in 2017. Clady once had a promising career, but it has been completely derailed by injuries. After making all 80 starts in the first 5 seasons of his career, Clady has played just 27 games over the last 4 seasons and remains unsigned as a free agent. Going into his age 31 season, he could just be completely done physically.

The Jets did spend some money on offensive linemen this off-season though, signing ex-Jaguar Kelvin Beachum to a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal and re-signing Ben Ijalana and Brian Winters to deals worth 10.25 million over 2 years and 29 million over 4 years respectively. Beachum is expected to take over for Okung at left tackle. He struggled mightily in 15 starts at left tackle in Jacksonville last season, finishing 63rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but wasn’t healthy all season in his first year back from the torn ACL that ended his 2015 season after 6 games.

In 2014, he finished 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and looked on his way to another strong season in 2015 before the injury, so he has obvious bounce back potential, still only going into his age 28 season. However, it’s worth noting that Beachum finished below average in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2012 and 2013 as well, so he’s a bit of a one-year wonder. The Jets are essentially guaranteeing him 16 million over the next 2 seasons, so it’s a risky deal, but he could easily be a capable starter with upside.

Ijalana saw time at left tackle last season when Okung was hurt, but he’ll likely move back to right tackle with Beachum coming in. Ijalana struggled mightily on the blindside, but didn’t play well on either side last season, finishing 60th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts. Those 13 starts were actually the first of his career, as the 2011 2nd round pick struggled mightily with injuries early in his career and didn’t play an offensive snap in 2013, 2014, or 2015. Given that and his struggles last season, it’s very puzzling why the Jets decided to give him decent money on a two-year deal. He was a high pick, but he’s already going into his age 28 season, so it’s not like he’s some hot young prospect anymore. He figures to struggle on the right side.

Winters’ deal made a little bit more sense, as he finished 31st among guards on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts at right guard last season, a rare pleasant surprise for this team. However, the 2013 3rd round pick is a complete one-year wonder who struggled mightily in his first 3 seasons in the league (28 starts). Prior to 2016, his best season came in 2015, when he finished 58th out of 81 eligible guards. Still only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue to be a solid starting guard for them going forward, but he’s the 15th highest paid guard in the league in average annual salary, so the Jets are risking a lot of money to find out.

Rounding out the offensive line at left guard is James Carpenter, who has probably been their best offensive lineman for the past 2 seasons, finishing 17th among guards on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. A 2011 1st round pick by the Seahawks, Carpenter was largely a bust in Seattle, making 39 starts in 4 seasons, but never finishing above average in any of them. However, the light seems to have clicked for him in 2 seasons with the Jets. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, Carpenter should have another solid season again in 2017 on an overall weak Jets offensive line.

Grade: C

Running Backs

One veteran I’m surprised the Jets didn’t let go of in their off-season purge is Matt Forte, who is going into his age 32 season. Forte’s 4 million dollar salary is now fully guaranteed, but the Jets had a window at the start of the off-season to let him go before the salary became guaranteed and decided against it. Signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season, the ex-Bear was once one of the best all-around backs in the league, excelling as a runner and a pass catcher, but he was outplayed by the younger Bilal Powell in both aspects last season. Forte averaged just 3.73 yards per carry on 218 carries last season and caught just 30 passes, while Powell averaged 5.51 yards per carry on 131 carries and caught 58 passes. Given his age and that he has 2,770 career touches, Forte is at the point where he could just be done as an effective back.

Powell will be the starter this season in his age 29 season, while Forte will be the backup in what could be his final season in the league. Powell has never had more than 212 touches in a season in 6 seasons in the league, so there will still be a role for Forte, but Powell is the better back at this point. He has a career 4.37 YPC average on 533 carries and has caught 105 passes over the past 2 seasons, including 58 last season, tied for 2nd most on the team. Running back is the one position on the offensive depth chart where the Jets aren’t completely devoid of talent.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Jets also tried to part ways with defensive end Sheldon Richardson and his 8.069 million dollar salary this off-season, but they couldn’t find any takers in a trade and cutting him wouldn’t have made any sense because he is still talented and could get a significant deal in free agency next off-season if he has a strong year in 2017, in which case the Jets would get a 3rd or 4th round compensation pick. It’s been a swift fall for Richardson, who was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, when he finished 5th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, after the Jets drafted him #13 overall in the first round out of the University of Missouri.

Richardson finished 2nd at his position in 2014, but was arrested the following off-season and also failed a drug test. Richardson was suspended for the first 4 games of the season in 2015 for the failed test and then for the first game of the season in 2016 for the arrest. He still played at a pretty high level in 2015 and 2016, but not as high of a level as 2013 and 2014 and reports came out that the Jets were not happy with his discipline, conditioning, and focus. That’s likely a big part of why no one would trade for him this off-season, even though he’s theoretically still in his prime, going into his age 27 season. Perhaps he’ll be more motivated in his contract year this season and return to his 2013 and 2014 form.

Another reason why the Jets tried to move Richardson this off-season is because they already have a pair of 3-4 defensive ends in Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson ahead of him on the depth chart. Williams is probably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, finishing 6th and 4th among 3-4 defensive ends in two seasons in the league, since going 6th overall in 2015, while Wilkerson is also a former first round pick (2011) and was re-signed to a massive 5-year, 86 million dollar deal last off-season. Williams, Wilkerson, and Richardson played 896, 845, and 762 snaps respectively in 2016, so the Jets find ways to get all 3 on the field at the same time, but that usually requires playing someone out of position. Not only do the Jets have little talent on either side of the ball, but their most talented players all play the same position and are not as effective together as they would be apart.

Wilkerson actually struggled mightily in the first year of the huge contract the Jets gave him last off-season, finishing 90th out of 127 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football focus. That’s very out of character for him, considering he was a top-15 3-4 defensive end in 4 straight seasons prior to last season. Part of it was that he did play out of position on the outside more than he was used to and part of it was that he was coming off of a broken leg that he suffered at the end of the 2015 season and was never fully healthy, but Wilkerson also reportedly had issues with discipline and focus in 2016, which is very concerning, considering how much money the Jets gave him. Owed a non-guaranteed 17 million in 2018, the Jets might just cut their losses and move on from him next off-season if he doesn’t bounce back in 2017. Now healthier, he does have some bounce back potential, but Wilkerson could also struggle to stay motivated on what should be one of the worst teams in the league.

Steve McLendon is the Jets’ nose tackle when they use a pure nose tackle, which isn’t often because he played just 381 snaps in 2016. The 6-3 310 pounder has finished above average as a run stopper in 6 straight seasons, but has never finished above average as a pass rusher and has just 8.5 sacks in 7 seasons in the league. He’s also never finished above average overall in a season in which he played more than 355 snaps. Going into his age 31 season, his best days are probably behind him, but the Jets don’t need him to play a big role and he’s still a useful player in base packages. The Jets’ defensive line is easily their best unit.

Grade: A

Linebackers

In addition to their strong depth at the 3-4 defensive end position, another reason why guys like Wilkerson and Richardson line up outside frequently in base packages is because they have very little talent at the 3-4 outside linebacker position. A pair of recent 3rd round picks, Jordan Jenkins (2016) and Lorenzo Mauldin (2015) led the position in snaps played last season with 513 and 353 respectively. Jenkins showed promise in pass rush situations and finished about average overall, but both players struggled mightily against the run and Mauldin finished the season just 82nd out of 109 eligible edge defenders. They’ll both likely play a bigger role in 2017, so the Jets will need at least one of them to take a step forward this season, but that’s far from a guarantee. They also really lack depth at the position, as Freddie Bishop, a former CFL star who struggled in the first 151 snaps of his NFL career last season, will be their primary reserve. Fifth round rookie Dylan Donahue could also be in the mix for snaps.  

The Jets will also need Darron Lee, their 2016 1st round pick, to take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league. Lee struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 3rd worst among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 641 snaps. Lee was primarily a coverage specialist and sub package linebacker as a rookie, but will have to play every down this season and could be a major liability against the run. The 6-1 232 pounder is a great athlete, but has had issues with tackling dating back to his collegiate days and was considered a major reach by Pro Football Focus in the first round. He has upside and could be improved in his 2nd year in the league, but he could be largely improved by default and may never develop into the player the Jets were expecting him to when they drafted him.

David Harris played every down at middle linebacker last season, but he was part of the veteran purge this off-season, being let go ahead of a 6.5 million dollar salary in his age 33 season in 2017. Harris might have only had a couple years left in the league, so it makes sense for the Jets to part ways with him as part of this rebuild, but he was still a solid player last season and won’t be easy to replace. The Jets will attempt to replace him with a familiar face, Demario Davis, who they acquired in a trade from the Browns for safety Calvin Pryor this off-season.

Davis spent the first 4 seasons of his career in New York, after they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012, and finished 15th among middle linebackers in 2014, but fell to 77th out of 97 eligible linebackers in 2015 and had to settle for a cheap two-year deal with the Browns last off-season. Davis continued to struggle with the Browns, finishing 59th out of 87 eligible linebackers and barely played by season’s end, playing just 144 snaps over the final 5 games of the season. Even though he’s making a reasonable 3.8 million this season, he likely would have been cut by the Browns if they couldn’t trade him. With the Jets, he’s a cheap replacement for Harris, but an obvious downgrade. 2014 remains the only season in his career in which he finished above average. Like the rest of the Jets’ roster, their linebacking corps leaves a lot to be desired.

Grade: C-

Secondary

Calvin Pryor, who was sent to Cleveland in that trade for Demario Davis, was a first round pick by the Jets in 2014 and started 38 games over the past three seasons, but, after two solid seasons to start his career, he fell to 74th out of 90 safeties in 2016 and fell out of favor with the coaching staff. If the Browns didn’t trade for him, the Jets might have just cut him outright at final cuts, even though he was owed just 1.58 million. The Jets also got rid of Marcus Gilchrist, their other starting safety last season. Gilchrist was a solid player in 2016, but suffered a torn patellar tendon late in the season that will likely sideline him for all of the 2017 season, so the Jets decided against paying him 6 million non-guaranteed.

Instead of Pryor and Gilchrist, the Jets will start a pair of rookies Jamal Adams, the 6th pick in the draft, and Marcus Maye, a second round pick who went 39th overall. Adams was one of the best players in the draft and was an easy choice for the Jets when he fell to them at 6. He’ll make an instant impact and compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Maye, meanwhile, could struggle as a rookie, but has the tools to be a long-term starter. Both were good selections by the Jets.

The Jets also parted ways with Darrelle Revis this off-season. Revis was once one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he was a massive bust on a 5-year 70 million dollar deal that the Jets signed him to after he won a Super Bowl with New England in 2014. Revis fell to 30th among eligible cornerbacks in 2015 and then 65th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. Even though they still owe him 6 million guaranteed this season, it was an easy decision for the rebuilding Jets to cut him and get out of the 9 million non-guaranteed that he would have been owed if they hadn’t. The 39 million that they guaranteed him total was a sunk cost and it was smart of them to cut their losses, with Revis unlikely to bounce back in his age 32 season in 2017.

Buster Skrine was also signed to a significant contract by the Jets two off-seasons ago, as the Jets gave the ex-Brown a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal. Skrine still remains on the team, but hasn’t been worth that deal at all, finishing 94th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2015 and 87th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. A 2011 5th round pick, Skrine has 58 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, but hasn’t finished above average in any of those 6 seasons. Skrine is probably locked into one of the starting jobs, but figures to struggle once again.

The Jets signed ex-Cowboy Morris Claiborne this off-season and he figures to start opposite Skrine. The Cowboys traded up to get Claiborne 6th overall in 2012, but he didn’t do anything of value for the Cowboys last season. He finished below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, but shot up to 12th last season, though he was limited to 406 snaps in 7 games by injury. Claiborne has always had the talent, but he struggled to adapt to the NFL early on and then suffered a huge setback when he tore his patellar tendon in the 2014 season.

Injuries have always been a huge issue with him, as he’s missed 33 of 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and he obviously comes with a lot of risk, but he wasn’t a bad signing on 1-year prove it deal worth 5 million. He proved his upside last season and is still only going into his age 27 season. He could be a good starter if he can make it through the whole season, but he could also regress or get hurt, so he’s kind of boom or bust. The Jets are in a position where they can afford to take risks like that in hopes of striking gold.

Marcus Williams finished 3rd on the team in snaps played among cornerbacks last season with 455, behind Revis and Skrine, and is expected to remain the 3rd cornerback behind Claiborne and Skrine in 2017. Williams wasn’t bad in 2016, but finished below average in the first significant action of his career. The 2014 undrafted free agent is unlikely to be better in 2017. He rounds out a secondary that has potential with Morris Claiborne and Jamal Adams coming in, but that should also struggle once again in 2017.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Jets have probably the worst roster in the NFL and maybe one of the worst rosters in recent years. Like the Browns last off-season, the Jets are purging veterans and going all in on a rebuild. Next off-season, they could have a good amount of cap space and a high pick to rebuild with, but, like the Browns last season, the Jets are going to be very bad in the interim and will take at least 2-3 years get back into playoff contention. The Raiders are a good example of a team that purged veterans and built a much more competitive roster from basically scratch very quickly, but it doesn’t always go that way. Finding a quarterback will be key. In 2017, it’ll be a struggle for them to win any games, but they should pull out a couple wins simply because it is very tough to go 0-16. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Buffalo Bills 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills found a steal at the quarterback position in free agency two off-seasons ago, a very uncommon occurrence. They gave a 3-year, 3.55 million dollar deal to Tyrod Taylor, who, at the time, was a 2011 6th round pick with 35 career pass attempts in 4 seasons as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore, and Taylor came in and won their starting quarterback job, beating out veteran journeyman Matt Cassel and 2013 1st round pick bust EJ Manuel. Not only did Taylor win the job, but he kept it all season and performed at a high level, completing 63.7% of his passes for an average 7.99 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. He only attempted 380 passes in 14 games on a run heavy offense, but he also took off 104 times as well, rushing for another 568 yards (5.46 YPC) and 4 touchdowns on the ground. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback

He was a bargain in 2015, making just 1.15 million despite the strong season, but, because of how many starts he made, language was triggered in his contract voiding the 3rd year of the deal and making 2016 his contract year. That put a lot of pressure on the Bills to extend him before the season and they did so with a “5-year, 90 million dollar deal.” I put that in quotes because all that was guaranteed was that he’d make 9.5 million in 2016. It was a significant pay increase, but provided no long-term security.

In 2016, he started another 15 games, but only completed 61.7% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on 436 pass attempts on once again a heavy run offense. However, the dip in statistical production is not really his fault, as his #1 receiver Sammy Watkins missed most of the season with a foot injury, leaving him with arguably the worst receiving corps in the league (more on them later). He also once again added significant value on the ground, rushing for 580 yards (6.11 YPC) and 6 touchdowns on 95 attempts. He finished 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, just two spots behind 2015.

Despite that, there were many reports that the Bills would not be picking up Taylor’s option for next season, allowing him to hit free agency. The Bills even sat Taylor in week 17 of last season after they had been eliminated from the playoffs because they didn’t want to risk him getting injured and guaranteeing his salary for 2017. It’s possible they never really wanted to part ways with Taylor and that much of that might have been an act by the Bills in order to scare Taylor into renegotiating his contract, which he ultimately did, but they still don’t seem sold on Taylor long-term. His renegotiated contract guarantees him 14.5 million this off-season, but nothing beyond that, so he and the Bills could go through this situation all over again next off-season.

The most likely reason why the Bills are not sold on Taylor is because he’s always been supported by a strong running game and hasn’t had to throw many passes, even if he has contributed on the ground. The Bills’ defense hasn’t been great in the past 2 seasons, so the Bills and the new offensive coaching staff under first-year head coach Sean McDermott may want a more traditional quarterback so they can open their offense up more. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has always worked with pocket passers like Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning, and Joe Flacco, though he was the quarterbacks coach in Baltimore in 2014 when Taylor was the backup there.

They drafted a more traditional quarterback in the 5th round in Nathan Peterman, who was regarded to be a steal that late in the draft, so they may be preparing to part ways with Taylor next off-season. I think that would be a mistake and that a poor receiving corps is what’s preventing this team from opening up the playbook offensively much more than Taylor. Taylor is actually the perfect fit for this offense right now, because he can make plays with his legs when receivers don’t get open, which is often. Fortunately, Taylor will have at least one more season to prove himself.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, Sammy Watkins’ injury was a big problem for this receiving corps last season and a big reason why Taylor’s numbers declined. The 4th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, who the Bills traded two first round picks (#9 in 2014 and #19 in 2015) to move up and draft, Watkins came into the 2016 season with huge expectations, after catching 60 passes for 1,047 yards and 9 touchdowns in 13 games on a run heavy offense in his age-22 season in 2015. Unfortunately, he had foot surgery before the season and never got right, catching just 28 passes for 430 yards and 2 touchdowns in 8 games on 235 routes run.

Not only did he miss time, but he wasn’t himself when on the field and finished just 47th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 10th in 2015. The foot injury didn’t just limit his explosiveness, but it also limited his snaps and forced the Bills to basically only use him in passing situations. The Bills passed on 61.7% of the snaps he played, significantly higher than their team average. That allowed opposing defenses to guess run or pass much more easily, a big problem for a wideout who is at his best on deep shots off of play action.

Still only going into his age 24 season and dripping with natural talent, Watkins has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy and play every down again. The Bills seem to be hedging their bet with him though, declining his 5th year option for 2018. That makes more sense than it seems given his injury situation. If the Bills picked up the option and Watkins was to seriously re-injure his foot, the Bills would be locked into paying Watkins the average cap number of the top-10 highest paid receivers in the league in 2018, regardless of whether or not he plays.

By declining the option, the Bills avoid that scenario and, because they have the franchise tag available, they can still keep him for 2018 if he has a big year. The franchise tag value is the average of the top-5 cap numbers for wide receivers, a little bit more than his 5th year option would have been, but, if they’re really not sure about his health long-term, it might be worth the risk. Regardless, the move casts a shadow of doubt on his ability to return to form this season, which makes this receiving corps a big question mark.

Robert Woods led the Bills in receiving last year in Watkins’ absence, but he signed with the Rams this off-season. He only had 613 yards on 1 touchdown on 51 catches, but his numbers were kept down by how run heavy this offense was. Those numbers came on 382 routes run and 74 targets in 13 games and he finished about average on Pro Football Focus, so he’s no small loss. He’ll be replaced by 2nd round pick Zay Jones, who will immediately slot in as the #2 guy in this weak wide receiver group and could have a significant role as a rookie.

Outside of Woods, no Buffalo wide receiver had more than 29 catches last season. Marquise Goodwin was their de facto #2 receiver when Watkins was out. He averaged 14.9 yards per catch, but he also only caught 42.6% of his targets and finished 94th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. A one-dimensional speedster, Goodwin signed with the 49ers on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season and won’t really be missed, even on a team with a thin receiving corps.

With Goodwin gone, free agent acquisitions Corey Brown and Andre Holmes will compete for the #3 receiver job. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Brown has 19 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has finished below average in both seasons and was not tendered as a restricted free agent by the Panthers this off-season, even though the Panthers also have a thin receiving corps. Holmes, meanwhile, made 13 starts in 2014 with Oakland, but finished 103th out of 121 eligible receivers on Pro Football Focus that season and has been the Raiders’ #4 receiver in 2 seasons since. The 2011 undrafted free agent has made just 7 starts in his other 6 years in the league. Both he and Davis are poor options.

Given how thin they are at wide receiver, the Bills need their tight ends to step up in the passing game. Charles Clay finished second on the team with 57 catches for 552 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, but averaged just 6.34 yards per target on a team high 87 targets and finished below average on Pro Football Focus as a pass catcher. Meanwhile, #2 tight end Nick O’Leary caught just 8 passes. Fortunately, Clay and O’Leary were strong run blockers, finishing 4th and 2nd respectively among tight ends in pure run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus. O’Leary was a 6th round pick in 2015 and played just 373 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, but Clay actually has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons. Unfortunately, he’s averaged just 611 yards per season over those 4 seasons. A strong run blocker and a reliable set of hands at 6-3 255, Clay is useful player, but he isn’t the weapon they need in a weak receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

Despite the decreased production in the passing game, the Bills actually picked up first downs at a much higher rate in 2016. In 2015, they ranked just 25th in first down rate at 33.37%, but in 2016 they jumped to 36.96%, 11th in the NFL. They had 31 more first downs and 4 more offensive touchdowns on 4 fewer offensive snaps. That’s because the Bills’ running game was much improved in 2016. It wasn’t that they had a bad running game in 2015. In fact, they had one of the best in the league, finishing 2nd in carries with 509, first in rushing yards with 2432, and first in yards per carry with 4.78.

However, they took it to another level in 2016. On 17 fewer carries (492), they rushed for 198 more yards (2630), and their YPC of 5.35 was more than 4/10ths of a point higher than any other team in the league and close to 6/10ths of a point higher than the number they led the league with in 2016. They led the league with 146 rushing first downs and got 44.51% of their first downs on the ground, more than 4% higher than any other team in the league and the highest run first down percentage of any team since Tim Tebow’s 2011 Broncos.

Tyrod Taylor’s 6.11 YPC average on 95 rushes was a big help, but the Bills also got great play from their top-two running backs. Feature back LeSean McCoy rushed for 1267 yards and 13 touchdowns on 234 carries, an average of 5.41 YPC, and was also their 3rd leading receiver, catching 50 passes for another 356 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back, not a huge surprise, considering McCoy has been one of the better backs in the league over the past few seasons.

The surprise was backup Mike Gillislee rushing for 577 yards and 8 touchdowns on 101 carries, considering he entered the season with just 53 career carries. That’s an average of 5.71 yards per carry, best in the league among backs with more than 100 rushes. Gillislee signed with the Patriots this off-season and, because of how run heavy this team is, that could prove to be a significant loss. Second year back Jonathan Williams is expected to take over as the #2 back, but he rushed for just 94 yards on 27 carries (3.48 YPC) as a 5th round rookie in 2016 and he’s highly unlikely to have the kind of breakout season that Gillislee had in 2016.

LeSean McCoy could also take a step back too. He’s a talented back, but his YPC average of 5.41 was a career high and significantly higher than his career average of 4.72 YPC. In 2015, his first season with the Bills, he averaged just 4.41 yards per carry on 203 carries. What he did last season is simply very tough to repeat. Since the AFL/NFL merger, 76 backs have averaged more than 5 yards per carry on more than 200 carries in a season. Only 7 of them did so again the following season. McCoy is also getting up there in age, going into his age 29 season with 2,280 career touches. He could still have a strong season, but he’s likely to be significantly less effective than last season, which would have a very noticeable impact on this offense.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

This strong running game was definitely helped out by a strong run blocking offensive line. They are a solid offensive line overall, but they excel in the run game, which makes them a perfect fit for this offense. Their best offensive lineman over the past 2 seasons, as surprising as this may be, has been left guard Richie Incognito. Incognito is infamous for his role in the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal and sat out a year and a half from 2013-2014, but the Bills took a chance on him after the 2014 season and it has paid off in a big way, as he has finished 2nd and 6th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Incognito has been especially good in run blocking.

In 2014, the Bills averaged just 4.11 yards per carry on the ground, but they have been significantly better over the past 2 seasons as a direct result of the additions of Richie Incognito and LeSean McCoy that off-season. The one concern with Incognito, besides his checkered past, is that he’s going into his age 34 season, so he could decline soon. He’s finished above average in each of the past 8 seasons he’s been in the league though and could easily be a big asset for the Bills upfront again this season.

Incognito forms a strong left side of the offensive line with highly paid left tackle Cordy Glenn, who should be healthier this season, after missing 5 games last year with ankle problems that limited him throughout the season. Even playing through injury, he still finished 22nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but he finished 10th in 2015, so he could be even better in 2017 if he’s 100%. The 2012 2nd round pick has made 72 starts in 5 seasons in the league at left tackle and finished in the top-33 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons. The Bills locked him down with a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal last off-season. Going into his age 28 season, he’s still in the prime of his career and should have another strong season on the blindside.

Also returning from injury is center Eric Wood, who broke his leg and missed the final 7 games of last season. Backup Ryan Groy wasn’t bad in his absence, but Wood has started all 104 games of his career and is likely to remain the starter. He’s been about a league average starter throughout his career, but he finished last season 32nd out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus and he’s going into his age 31 season, so he could be on the decline. Groy actually outplayed him last season.

Groy was offered a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent to start at center for the Rams this season, but the Bills matched it, suggesting they see him as a starter in 2018. Wood is going into the final year of his contract. Groy also has experience at guard and could be a long-term replacement for Incognito at left guard. He’ll also provide insurance at right guard, but he’s unlikely to be needed there. Right guard John Miller, a 2016 3rd round pick, is coming off of what looks like a breakout 2016 season, finishing 29th among guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder who struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 77th out of 81 eligible guards in 2015, but it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue to be a solid starting option going forward.

Rounding out this offensive line at right tackle is likely going to be 2nd round rookie Dion Dawkins. The Bills moved up from the 3rd round to grab him at the end of the 2nd at #63 overall and he has the tools to be a starting right tackle in the NFL. He could struggle as a rookie, but has little competition for the job. Seantrel Henderson and Jordan Mills, their last two starting right tackles, are both still on the roster, but both struggled mightily in their opportunities. Henderson finished 81st out of 84 eligible offensive tackles in 16 starts in 2014 and then 69th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles on 10 starts in 2015. Mills then took over and finished 57th out of 77 eligible in 6 starts in 2015 and 64th out of 78 eligible in 16 starts in 2016. It wouldn’t be hard for Dawkins to be an upgrade over them. Outside of right tackle, this is a strong offensive line.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

In 2014, the Bills had one of the best defenses in the league under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Schwartz was let go when the Bills fired head coach Doug Marrone and replaced him with Rex Ryan, who wanted his own defensive staff and to implement a 3-4 defense. The results were not good, as the Bills finished 20th in first down rate allowed in 2015 and then 24th in first down rate allowed in 2016, a big part of why the Bills made the decision to fire Rex Ryan this off-season.

Ryan will be replaced with another defensive minded head coach, ex-Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who will convert this defense back to a 4-3. Unfortunately, the Bills have just 4 starters left from their 2014 defense and McDermott isn’t working with the most talented group, but his defenses always outperformed their talent level in Carolina. It’s unclear if that will continue with McDermott in a head coaching role with less of a hands on approach with the defensive players, but he was a wise hire by the Bills.

Two of those four starters that return are defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle WIlliams, who both played at a high level last season, finishing 23th and 16th respectively among interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. Dareus should also play significantly more snaps than last season, when he was limited to 417 snaps in 8 games by suspension and injury. Prior to last season, Dareus missed just 5 games in his first 6 seasons in the league. The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus finished in the top-15 at his position in each of his first 5 seasons in the league. Still only going into his age 27 season, I see no reason why he can’t play at that level again in 2017.

Williams was limited to 6 games by injury in 2015, so Dareus and Williams haven’t been healthy in the same season since 2014. Having them back together inside in this 4-3 defense should be a good thing for them, as they were once arguably the best 4-3 defensive tackle duo in the league, but Williams’ age is a bit of a concern, as he’s going into his age 34 season. Williams still played at a high level last season and has been one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league when healthy over the past several seasons, finishing in the top-7 at his position in his 4 previous healthy seasons prior to 2016, so he could have another strong season, but it’s far from a guarantee. Owed 8.4 million in the final season of his contract, this could be his final season with the Bills. His long-term replacement is likely Adolphus Washington, a 2016 3rd round pick who was alright on 331 snaps as a rookie. Washington will be the primary reserve at defensive tackle this season.

Defensive end Jerry Hughes was also with the Bills in 2014. Hughes finished in the top-14 at his position in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015, but fell to 32nd among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2016, slightly below average. Hughes is scheme versatile and had a strong season in a 4-3 in 2014, so he has bounce back potential, still going into only his age 29 season. If the Bills can get strong seasons from Williams, Dareus, and Hughes, like they did in 2014, that will go a lot way towards fixing this defense.

Mario Williams, the 4th member of the Bills’ dangerous 2014 defensive line, is no longer with the team, but the Bills replaced him in the first round in 2016, taking Clemson’s Shaq Lawson. Unfortunately, shoulder surgery limited him to 236 unimpressive snaps as a rookie, but he is healthy now and is moving back to his collegiate position of 4-3 defensive end, so he could have a solid second season in the league. Ryan Davis, a journeyman reserve who has always flashed in limited action, but has never found a permanent home, will be the primary reserve at defensive end this season on what could be a very strong defensive line if all goes well.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While there are some familiar faces on the Bills’ defensive line, the Bills’ back 7 has been almost completely remade over the past few off-seasons and they have a lot of problems. Preston Brown is the only back 7 player who started on the 2014 team that remains on the 2017 team and he’s far from a lock to be a starter this season. Brown has made 46 starts in 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, but struggled mightily in Rex Ryan’s 3-4, after finishing 15th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense as a 3rd round rookie in 2014. He’s finished in the bottom-10 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons, a significant dropoff.

A switch back to a 4-3 could be good for Brown, but McDermott seems less than convinced, bringing in veteran Gerald Hodges to compete with him and talking up 2016 2nd round pick Reggie Ragland as a starter, after he missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL. Hodges and Ragland are the favorites to be the two starters, although Brown could still see a passing down role because Ragland is best as a two-down thumper and Hodges has never played more than 584 snaps in a season. Brown isn’t great in coverage though, so the Bills are likely hoping Ragland and Hodges can breakout in every down roles this season.

The 6-2 252 pound Ragland has good upside, but wasn’t very good moving in reverse even before the torn ACL. Hodges, meanwhile, has finished in the top-14 at his position in 2 of the last 3 seasons and has experience at both outside and inside linebacker, but is much better against the run than he is in coverage and has never been used as an every down player. The 2013 4th round pick was a solid cheap signing late in free agency on a 1-year deal, but he doesn’t give the Bills the coverage athlete they need. They could really miss Zach Brown, who finished 11th among middle linebackers last season and excelled in coverage. He signed with the Redskins this off-season.

Lorenzo Alexander isn’t the coverage athlete they need either, but he’ll play a two-down role at outside linebacker and either come off the field in passing situations for a 5th defensive back or move to the defensive line and rush the passer off the edge in a rotational role behind Hughes and Lawson. Alexander played 788 snaps at 3-4 outside linebacker last season when Lawson was injured and improbably finished with 12.5 sacks, after totalling just 9 in his previous 9 seasons. He also played the run well. A complete one-year wonder who isn’t a great fit in a 4-3 defense at 6-1 245, Alexander probably won’t come close to having the kind of impact he had last season, but could still be an asset for them as a hybrid player off the edge. This linebacking corps should be good against the run, but they’ll have serious problems covering running backs and tight ends and playing zone coverage underneath.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to losing Zach Brown to the Redskins, the Bills were dealt a shocking blow this off-season when Stephon Gilmore signed with the the division rival Patriots on a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. Gilmore was a first round pick by the Bills in 2012 and seemed like someone the Bills would keep long-term after he finished 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but he fell to 60th among 111 eligible in 2016, so the Bills declined to franchise tag him. No one saw the Patriots snatching him in free agency because they never sign big money free agents and letting him go could prove to be a mistake if he bounces back and the Bills have to face him twice a year, but the Bills at least did a good job of replacing him, drafting Tre’Davious White 27th overall.

White isn’t a flashy player, but he’s a rock solid cover cornerback who can play in any system and ranked 12th among draft prospects on Pro Football Focus. Not only does he fill a huge need, but the Bills picked up a 2018 1st round pick when they traded down from 10 to 27. With White, Zay Jones, and Dion Dawkins, the Bills ended up with three solid players in the draft who will start immediately at positions of need. Add in the future first rounder they got and that they got Nathan Peterman in the 5th round and they were one of the obvious winners on draft weekend.

White will start opposite Ronald Darby, a third year cornerback that the Bills need to step up in Gilmore’s absence. Darby, a 2015 2nd round pick, had a great rookie season, finishing 6th in pass deflections with 21 and ranking 4th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 14 starts. However, his play was much more average in 2016, as he finished 66th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and deflected just 12 passes. Still only going into his age 23 season, Darby still has a great upside and could easily be closer to his rookie year form in 2017. He could develop into a long-term #1 cornerback, probably part of the reason why the Bills were so comfortable letting Gilmore walk in free agency.

Gilmore wasn’t the only defensive back the Bills lost this off-season, as slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and safeties Corey Graham and Aaron Williams are no longer with the team. They added veteran cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and Shareece Wright in free agency, but neither of them is any good. Johnson has 20 career starts in 5 seasons since going undrafted in 2012, but hasn’t finished above average since his rookie season and finished 104th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 436 snaps last season.

Wright, meanwhile, is a 2011 3rd round pick and has made 42 starts over the past 4 seasons, but only finished above average once in those 4 seasons. That was in 2015 when he made just 6 starts, but he fell to 75th out of 111 eligible in 2016 in 9 starts, which led to his release. Second year cornerback Kevon Seymour is also in the mix and he might be their best option, which says something about Johnson and Wright because Seymour was just a 6th round pick and played just 287 snaps as a rookie. Their depth at cornerback behind White and Darby is very suspect.

At safety, the Bills signed Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer in free agency. Hyde was a hybrid cornerback/safety in Green Bay and, though he started most seasons as a reserve, the 2013 5th round pick ended up making 33 starts in 4 seasons with the Packers because of his versatility and finished about average in all 4 seasons. He’ll be a pure every down safety in Buffalo, for the first time in his career. He was more expensive than I would have guessed, signing for 30.5 million over 5 years, but he should be at least a capable starter for the Bills.

That’s a lot more than you can say about Jordan Poyer, who came much cheaper, 13 million over 4 years, but for good reason. Poyer, a 7th round pick in 2013, has just 10 career starts and didn’t become a full-time starter until his 4th season in the league in 2016 with the Browns, who had arguably the worst safety group in the league. Poyer only lasted 6 games before getting injured and finished the season 70th out of 90 eligible safeties. He’s never proven himself as a starter and could easily be one of the worst starting safeties in the league again this season. He’s likely locked into a starting job out of desperation though. The Bills’ secondary is far from what it once was.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

On one hand, the Bills should be healthier this season, after having the 8th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, including injuries to key players like Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn, and Sammy Watkins and their top-2 draft picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland. The Bills also drafted well, filling major needs with their first 3 picks, all of whom are projected week 1 starter. On the other hand, they lost key players like Stephon Gilmore, Zach Brown, Mike Gillislee, and Robert Woods in free agency and didn’t sign any replacements. Their rookie class is strong, but they are still just rookies and could have growing pains in their first year in the league.

Their passing game should be better with the return of Sammy Watkins and their defensive line should be better as well, but their running game is unlikely to be as good as it was last season and their defensive back seven still has a lot of problems. They were slightly better than their 7-9 record last season, finishing 17th in first down rate differential, but they could have a tough time exceeding that record in 2017. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD