Chicago Bears 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bears used the 2nd overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on quarterback Mitch Trubisky and, like many teams that feel they have a franchise quarterback on a cheap rookie deal, they were aggressive about adding talent to this team, in order to maximize their chances of winning while their quarterback is still cheap. An off-season spending spree after Trubisky’s first season in 2017 pushed the Bears up to 3rd in the NFL in total average salary under contract for the 2018 season and 7th for the 2019 season, even though they were hardly spending any money on the quarterback position.

No move was a better example of the Bears being aggressive than their decision to trade for Khalil Mack on the eve of the 2018 season. Mack is undoubtedly one of the top few defensive players in the entire NFL, but the Bears had to give up a pair of future first round picks, which  became the 24th pick in 2019 and 19th pick in 2020, to acquire Mack and they had to give him a 6-year, 141 million dollar extension that still makes him the highest paid non-quarterback in the league two years after it was signed.

The moves seemed to work at first. Trubisky took a step forward in his 2nd season in the league after a nondescript rookie year and the rest of this roster played at a high level as well, including a defense that ranked 1st in first down rate allowed, led by Defensive Player of the Year contender Khalil Mack. As a result, the Bears jumped all the way up to 12 wins and, though they lost in heartbreaking fashion in their first post-season game, the future seemed bright for this team.

However, as things tend to do in this league, things have changed quickly in Chicago. Instead of taking another step forward in his 3rd season in the league, Trubisky regressed significantly, while the rest of this team wasn’t as good, due to a few off-season departures and overall less injury luck, having the 13th fewest adjusted games lost to injury in the league after having the 3rd fewest adjusted games lost to injury in 2018. The defense was still solid, finishing 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%, but their offense plummeted to 28th in first down rate at 31.89%, so they were lucky to even finish 8-8.

Now the Bears are at a crossroads. Teams built around defense usually aren’t built to last because it becomes difficult to keep all of their defensive talent under the cap long-term and that has become a problem for the Bears, who still have the 7th highest average salary, but have had to let several key defensive players leave over the past two off-seasons. This team is only going to become more expensive to keep going forward, especially since their quarterback costs will increase going forward.

Not only is Trubisky is now in the final year of his cheap rookie deal, but his struggles in 2019 caused the Bears to go out and add more expensive competition, sending a 4th round pick to the Jaguars for Nick Foles, who will make 8 million this year with the potential to earn more, after agreeing to a restructured 3-year, 24 million dollar contract. Unless the Bears can end up with a high pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, they’re almost definitely going to be paying more for quarterback play going forward, given the cost of even a capable veteran starting quarterback in today’s NFL, which will make it even tougher for them to keep talent on the rest of this roster.

For 2020, the Bears will have a competition between Foles and Trubisky in what is one of the worst quarterback situations in the league. Trubisky has shown flashes since the Bears drafted him, but he’s struggled to develop into a consistently competent quarterback, completing 63.4% of his passes for an average of 6.68 YPA, 48 touchdowns, and 29 interceptions, while finishing in the bottom third among qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in all three seasons. Perhaps more importantly, he seems to be heading in the wrong direction in terms of his development, completing 63.2% of his passes for an average of just 6.08 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Trubisky’s high draft status will get him another chance, but if he hasn’t improved from last year and this is a fair competition, Foles should be able to beat him out pretty easily.

This isn’t to say Foles is a good option though. He certainly has his moments, posting the 3rd highest QB rating of all time in a single season in 2013 (119.2) and taking the Eagles on back-to-back playoff runs as a backup quarterback in 2017-2018, including a Super Bowl victory in 2017, but he’s been wildly inconsistent. In five of his eight seasons in the league, he’s finished with a QB rating of 85 or lower, including the 2017 regular season, which was a microcosm of his career, as he struggled in 3 regular season starts before going on one of the more improbable Super Bowl runs of all-time. 

Even at his best, Foles has never finished higher than 15th among quarterbacks on PFF, nor has he ever made it through a full 16-game season as a starter, due both to injury and poor performance. Now in his age 31 season, it’s unlikely Foles turns into a consistent 16-game starter in his 9th year in the league, but he’s likely to give this offense a much higher upside week-to-week than Trubisky, who would almost definitely be among the worst few quarterbacks in the league if he had to see action again.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

Along with Trubisky’s regression at quarterback, the biggest reason this offense struggled in 2019 compared to 2018, when they ranked 14th in first down rate, is that their offensive line fell off significantly, going from Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked offensive line in pass blocking grade and 12th ranked in run blocking grade in 2018 to 20th in both pass and run blocking grade in 2019. That’s despite the fact that little changed in terms of personnel. In fact, the only change to their expected starting five upfront between the two seasons was that they flipped center Cody Whitehair and left guard James Daniels and even that move was reversed by mid-season. 

Whitehair was only an average guard last season, after finishing in the top-13 among centers on PFF in each of his first 3 seasons in the league prior to moving to guard, which is likely why he was moved back, but Whitehair wasn’t necessarily better last season after being moved back. Daniels, meanwhile, was just an average starting guard as a 2nd round rookie in 2018 (10 starts) and wasn’t much better at center to start last season, but the final 8 games of last season at left guard was by far the best stretch of his career, as he was PFF’s 12th ranked guard over that period of time. For that reason, Daniels is likely to stay at left guard and, while he might not be quite as good over a full 16 game season, there’s a good chance he’s an above average starter, while Whitehair has obvious bounce back potential at center, still only in his age 28 season.

Right guard Kyle Long missed most of last season with injury, limited to 250 snaps in 4 games, but that wasn’t really a big change from 2018 either, as he also was limited to 511 snaps in 8 games with injuries in 2018. His extensive injury history caused him to retire ahead of what would have been his age 32 season this off-season, leaving the Bears to either start Rashaad Coward, a 2017 undrafted free agent who finished 71st out of 89 qualifying guards on 660 snaps in his first career action in 2019, or Germain Ifedi, an underwhelming free agent acquisition.

Coward profiles as a backup at best long-term, but if Ifedi would be an upgrade it would only be by default, as the former 2016 31st overall pick struggled mightily in 4 seasons with the Seahawks, earning a below average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons across 60 starts (46 at right tackle, 14 at right guard), including a 72nd ranked finish out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF in 2019. Still in his age 26 season, he has theoretical upside, but would likely struggle as a starter this season. Regardless of who wins the job, right guard figures to be a position of weakness.

The biggest difference from 2018 to 2019 was at tackle, where left tackle Charles Leno and right tackle Bobby Massie finished 18th and 33rd respectively among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018, but didn’t come close to matching that level of play in 2019. Massie was a middling starter in 10 games and wasn’t really missed when he was out for the final 6 games of the season, as swing tackle Cornelius Lucas was solid in his absence, while Leno fell to 68th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF, a big change for a player who earned an above average grade from PFF in 4 straight seasons as a starter prior to last season (61 starts). Given that he’s still only in his age 29 season, he has obvious bounce back potential in 2020 and could easily be a solid starter again, even if his best days happen to be behind him at this point.

Massie’s bounce back chances aren’t as good, however, as he’s going into his age 31 season and has never finished higher than his 33rd ranked finish in 2018 in any of his other 8 seasons in the league (102 career starts total). He should be capable and the Bears don’t have another option, but I wouldn’t expect much more than capable play. Leno and Whitehair have enough bounce back potential that this group should be better in 2020, but they have an obvious hole at right guard and are highly unlikely to be as good as they were in 2018.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Bears were also worse on the ground in 2019. Their 4.14 YPC average in 2018 wasn’t great (27th in the NFL), but lead back Jordan Howard consistently kept this offense on schedule (17th among running backs in carry success rate at 50%) and their YPC average dropped to 3.69 in 2019. Their rushing attempts also fell from 468 (7th in the NFL) to 395 (20th in the NFL), as the Bears weren’t consistently leading as much and dialed up more pass attempts as a result. Quarterback and offensive line play were part of the reason for their rushing production decreasing, as there wasn’t much room to run, but running backs were part of the problem too. 

The Bears got rid of 2018 lead back Jordan Howard for basically nothing ahead of the final year of his rookie deal and decided to move forward with 3rd round rookie David Montgomery instead, which proved to be a mistake as Montgomery rushed for just 889 yards and 6 touchdowns on 242 carries (3.67 YPC), while ranking 29th among running backs in carry success rate at 46% and adding just 5.29 yards per target on 35 targets. Without any real competition added for Montgomery this off-season, they will hope he can be better in his second season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee.

Passing down back Tarik Cohen also struggled last season, averaging just 3.33 YPC on 64 carries and a ridiculously inefficient 4.38 yards per target on 104 targets. A 4th round pick in 2017, Cohen was better in his first two seasons in the league, averaging 4.38 YPC on 186 carries and 5.93 yards per target on 162 targets, but, even if he does bounce back in 2020, the miniscule 5-6 191 pounder would never be a threat to Montgomery’s lead back role.

The Bears lack traditional running back depth behind Montgomery and Cohen on the depth chart, with their other three backs all being former undrafted free agents with 2 career carries between them who aren’t roster locks, but wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson sees carries from time to time (17 carries for 103 yards last season), either as a running back, as a wide receiver, or as a wildcat, and the 6-2 238 pounder has shown he can play some traditional running back in a pinch as well in the past. This position group could be better than last season, but that’s not a guarantee and it still looks like an underwhelming group overall.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Top wide receiver Allen Robinson was by far the Bears’ best offensive player last season and was arguably the only Bears offensive player to be better in 2019 than 2018. Even though the offense around him wasn’t as good, Robinson still saw his slash line improve from 55/754/4 to 98/1147/7, as he was a big beneficiary of this team having to pass more, with his target total shooting up from 94 to 154. Robinson also jumped to 14th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, from 34th in 2018.

Robinson missed all of 2017 with injury, so it’s not surprising he was able to be better in 2019 than 2018, another year removed from the injury, especially since Robinson also missed 3 games with a different injury in 2018. Robinson has been a bit inconsistent in his career, but he’s averaged a 79/1084/8 slash line per 16 games over the past 5 seasons and his 80/1400/14 slash line and 15th ranked finish among wide receivers on PFF in 2015 show his high end ability. Even after some injuries, Robinson still has a high ceiling, only in his age 27 season.

Taylor Gabriel opened last season as the #2 receiver, but he was limited to 445 snaps in 9 games by injury, allowing Anthony Miller, who opened the season as the #3 receiver, to finish second on the team among wide receivers with 686 snaps played. Gabriel, who averaged 1.21 yards per route run last season, is no longer with the team, allowing Miller to be the every down #2 wide receiver going forward. The 2018 2nd round pick has shown some promise thus far with 1.30 yards per route run on 828 routes run in two seasons in the league and could easily take a step forward in his third season in the league.

With Gabriel gone, the #3 wide receiver job is up for grabs. Cordarrelle Patterson is an experienced veteran, but he hasn’t topped 52 catches in 7 seasons in the league and has averaged just 349 snaps played over the past four seasons, so he’s not likely to have more than a situational role. 2019 4th round pick Riley Ridley would make sense as the 3rd receiver, but he played just 108 snaps as a rookie, behind 2018 7th round pick Javon Wims. Wims finished 101st out of 102 qualifying wide receivers on 487 snaps in the first significant action of his career last season, but Ridley isn’t a guarantee to beat him out for the job.

Without a first round pick and with limited cap space, the Bears didn’t have many resources to spend this off-season, but one position where they spent significant resources is tight end, as they signed veteran Jimmy Graham to a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal and used the #43 overall pick on Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet. It was definitely a position where they needed help, as they completed just 46 passes to tight ends in 2019, but Graham was a massive overpay and, while Kmet was a solid value where he was picked, he may be too raw to contribute in a big way as a rookie.

Graham was once one of the top tight ends in the league in his prime, but he hasn’t been the same player in recent years, with his last above average year on PFF coming in 2016. Since then, Graham has averaged just 1.13 yards per route run on 1,409 routes, despite playing with Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers, giving him an average 50/534/5 slash line over the past 3 seasons. He’s also finished below average overall on PFF in back-to-back seasons, including a 36th ranked finish out of 44 qualifying tight ends last season. 

Now going into his age 34 season, Graham is likely to continue declining and probably shouldn’t even be starting anymore, let alone making significant money, but his salary suggests they view him having a big role in the passing game, for better or for worse. Graham was never a good blocker in his prime and his athleticism and passing catching ability have significantly fallen off, so he’ll almost definitely continue struggling this season. The Bears guaranteeing him 9 million was one of the strangest moves any team made this off-season. With Kmet as an up and coming option, however raw he may be, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he overtook Graham as the starter by season’s end.

The Bears also still have 2017 2nd round pick Adam Shaheen in the mix, though he’s only played 573 career snaps thus far, in part due to injuries that have limited him to 27 games total in 3 seasons, and any chance of him having a bigger role in his 4th season went down significantly when Graham and Kmet were added ahead of him on the depth chart. It’s possible Shaheen could earn a situational role with a good off-season, but it’s clear they don’t view him as a big part of their future anymore. The Bears’ tight ends should be better by default this season, but this is still a questionable receiving corps overall, without a consistent option behind #1 wide receiver Allen Robinson.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

The Bears’ defense was still good in 2019, ranking 8th in first down rate allowed at 33.33%, but that was a steep dropoff from their league best 2018 unit, which allowed just a 30.38% first down rate on the season. Part of the reason why the Bears weren’t quite as good was simply that their schedule was tougher, but they also weren’t as talented. Not only did they lose a pair of every down players in the secondary last off-season, but they also weren’t nearly as healthy in 2019 as 2018, going from the 4th fewest adjusted games lost on defense to the 12th fewest.

The biggest absence was interior defender Akiem Hicks, who finished 4th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in 2018 and then was limited to just 191 snaps in 5 games in 2019. The Bears can’t count on being as healthy as they were in 2018 again, as injuries are just part of the game, but having Hicks back will be a boost. He’s going into his age 31 season and coming off of an injury plagued season so his best years are likely behind him, but he was a top-36 interior defender on PFF in 3 straight seasons prior to last season and even last season he fared well in limited action, so even if he declines he should still be an above average starter unless his abilities totally fall off a cliff. 

Eddie Goldman also had a dominant year alongside Hicks in 2018, finishing 14th among interior defenders on PFF. He wasn’t injured in 2019, but he didn’t play at the same level, falling to 41st among interior defenders. He especially fell off as a pass rusher, going from a 8.0% pressure rate to a 5.4% pressure rate. Goldman has some bounce back potential, still only in his age 26 season, but in his 5-year career, his 2018 campaign is an obvious outlier, as he has just a 7.1% pressure rate for his career and has never finished higher than 22nd among interior defenders on PFF in any of his other 4 seasons in the league. He should still be an above average starter, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good as he was in 2018.

With Hicks out last season, Roy Robertson-Harris (544 snaps), Nick Williams (532 snaps), and Bilal Nichols (445 snaps) all saw significant action. Williams is gone, but Robertson-Harris and Nichols remain with the team and should continue having situational roles. Nichols figures to start with Goldman and Hicks in base packages on the Bears’ 3-man defensive line, as he’s a pure base package player who has struggled as a pass rusher in his career (5.1% pressure rate). The 2018 5th round pick also struggled as a run stuffer last season, but was significantly better as a rookie (445 snaps total), when he earned an above average run stopping grade from PFF. He has a good chance to bounce back in a situational run stuffing role in 2020.

Robertson-Harris, meanwhile, is a situational pass rusher who figures to rotate in heavily in sub packages. The 2016 undrafted free agent has seen his snap count increase every year in the league from 0 to 212 to 354 to 544 and has always been a productive pass rusher in a situational role, with 7.5 sacks, 20 hits, and a 9.0% pressure rate in his career. He should continue giving the Bears more of the same. The Bears also added veteran run stuffer John Jenkins in free agency and, even though he’s going into his age 31 season, he’s coming off of arguably the best season of his career, finishing 41st among interior defenders on PFF on 480 snaps. They won’t be as good at this position as they were in 2018, but with Hicks and Goldman as their top-2 guys and solid situational depth, this is a strong group.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The one big addition the Bears were able to make this off-season despite their lack of cap space was edge defender Robert Quinn, who comes over from the Cowboys on a 5-year, 70 million dollar deal to replace Leonard Floyd, who was released ahead of a 13.222 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. That should prove to be a smart swap, as Floyd has developed into a solid run stuffer, but little else in 4 seasons since the Bears drafted him 9th overall in 2016. In many ways Quinn is the opposite, as the 9-year veteran has consistently struggled as a run defender throughout his career, but has been a consistently good, if not dominant pass rusher, with 80.5 sacks, 88 hits, and a 11.3% pressure rate in 125 career games.

Quinn’s age is a minor concern in his age 30 season, but he’s coming off of one of his better years, with 11.5 sacks, 12 hits, and a 14,1% pressure rate, while earning Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked pass rush grade among edge defenders. The other minor concern is that Leonard Floyd played 899 snaps last season and the Bears, who lack depth on the edge, may need Quinn to play a similar role, even though he struggles against the run and hasn’t played more than 647 snaps in a season since 2014 and has never played more than 836. He should remain an above average starter overall though, as a result of his strong pass rush ability.

On the other side, Khalil Mack shouldn’t have any problem with a huge snap count, as he has averaged 59.2 snaps per game in 94 career games in 6 seasons in the league and has thrived, finishing in the top-14 among edge defenders on PFF in all 6 seasons, including 4 seasons in the top-4. All in all, he has 61.5 sacks, 58 hits, and a 14.3% pressure rate in his career, while dominating against the run. Still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, with no real injury history, Mack should continue being one of the top defensive players in the league in 2020.

Free agent acquisition Barkevious Mingo is likely to be their primary reserve on the edge, though largely by default, as Aaron Lynch, who was their top reserve with 344 snaps last season, is no longer with the team. Mingo has only finished above average on PFF in 2 of 7 seasons in the league, on an average of just 394 snaps per season and, now he’s going into his age 30 season and coming off of a season in which he played 75 defensive snaps total, so he’s a really underwhelming reserve option. His primary competition for reserve snaps will be Isaiah Irving, who played the most snaps of any returning reserve from last season with 128, but has overall been underwhelming on just 286 career snaps since going undrafted in 2017. Mack and Quinn will have to play significant snaps at a position with little depth.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

The Bears also had injury problems at the off ball linebacker spot, as expected starters Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith were limited to 559 snaps in 9 games and 719 snaps in 12 games respectively. The Bears didn’t really miss them much, as reserves Nick Kwiatkowski (512 snaps) and Kevin Pierre-Louis (213 snaps) both played well in their absence, but this off-season Trevathan, Kwiatkowski, and Pierre-Louis were all set to hit free agency, so the Bears had to make some decisions. They opted to bring back Trevathan on a 3-year, 21.75 million dollar deal, while letting Kwiatkowski sign with the Raiders on a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal and Kevin Pierre-Louis sign with the Redskins on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal. 

Trevathan was one of the better off ball linebackers in the league in his prime, but the Bears may have made a mistake picking him. While Kwiatkowski is going into his age 27 season and has fared well in his last two extended starting stints, finishing 10th among off ball linebackers on PFF on 382 snaps in 2017 and 16th on 512 snaps last season, Trevathan has had a lot of injuries (32 of 96 possible games missed over the past 6 seasons) and appears to be declining ahead of his age 30 season, dropping from 11th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2017 to 23rd in 2018 to 45th in 2019. 

Even if Trevathan is the more proven player, the Bears probably would have been better off over the next few seasons going with Kwiatkowski instead. Trevathan still played at a high level against the run last season, but struggled mightily in coverage, while Kwiatkowski showed himself to be more of a three down player. Trevathan could bounce back a little bit in 2020 because he’s not totally over the hill, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and there’s a good chance he misses time at some point.

Roquan Smith remains locked in as the other starter, now going into his 3rd season in the league since the Bears took him 8th overall in 2018. He’s been a middling starter in 26 career starts, actually taking a small step back in his 2nd season from his rookie season, falling from 45th among off ball linebackers on PFF to 76th out of 100 qualifiers. Now going into his third season in the league, he could easily have the best season of his career in 2020.

With both Kwiatkowski and Pierre-Louis gone, depth becomes a big problem for the Bears at the off ball linebacker position. 2018 4th round pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe would seem to be the favorite for the job, but he’s played just 27 snaps in his career, with just 3 of those snaps coming last season, so he would be a big question mark if he ever had to see significant action as an injury replacement. This isn’t a bad group, but they likely would have been better off keeping Kwiatkowski instead of Trevathan.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Bears’ secondary is the group that declined the most from 2018 to 2019. That’s unsurprising, considering the Bears lost Bryce Callahan, Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked cornerback in 2018, and Adrian Amos, PFF’s 10th ranked safety in 2018, in free agency last off-season. Callahan was replaced by free agent acquisition Buster Skrine, who finished below average on PFF on 727 snaps, but that wasn’t the only issue at cornerback, as starting outside cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara fell from 8th and 13th among cornerbacks on PFF in 2018 to 72nd and 48th in 2019. At safety, HaHa Clinton-Dix wasn’t a huge downgrade from Amos, but his 22nd ranked finish among safeties on PFF was still a dropoff from Amos, while fellow starting safety Eddie Jackson fell from 1st among safeties in 2018 to 50th among safeties in 2019.

This season, things look likely to be even worse. Clinton-Dix is gone and was replaced with a much more middling veteran in Tashaun Gipson, while Prince Amukamara was let go ahead of a 9 million dollar guaranteed salary and replaced with 2nd round rookie Jaylon Johnson and veteran flyer Artie Burns. Only Fuller and Jackson remain from the Bears’ 2018 secondary and both are coming off of significantly down years. If they can bounce back, it will be an obvious boost to this secondary, but that remains to be seen.

For Jackson, his 2018 season stands as an obvious outlier, as the 2017 4th round pick was also a middling starter as a rookie. Only in his age 27 season, Jackson has some bounce back potential, but it’s very possible he’ll never be quite as good as he was in 2018 again. Fuller, meanwhile, has had other good seasons in 6 years in the league, but he’s never been as good as 2018 in any of his other seasons (29th ranked finish in 2017 is his 2nd best season) and he’s been pretty inconsistent overall in his career.

Fuller will start outside opposite either Jaylon Johnson and Artie Burns. Johnson would likely have a lot of growing pains as a rookie, but he still might be a more reliable option than Burns. A first round pick in 2016 by the Steelers, Burns’ career got off to a promising start, as he was a solid starter in 25 starts in his first two seasons in the league, but he then fell out of favor with the coaching staff due to concerns about his work ethic and discipline and he only played 375 middling snaps over the past two seasons, as a result. Still only going into his age 25 season, Burns is a worthwhile flyer and maybe just needs a change of scenery, but it’s unlikely he ever develops into a consistently solid starter. Regardless of who starts, they will almost definitely be a downgrade from Amukamara, even though Amukamara had a down 2019 season compared to his 2018 season.

It’s possible both Johnson and Burns could see action, with one of them playing the slot, but the Bears kept incumbent slot cornerback Buster Skrine even though they could have saved 3 million by releasing him, so he’s likely to remain in that role even after finishing 87th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 727 snaps in 2019. Skrine’s struggles weren’t just limited to last season either, as he’s somehow played 9 years in the league (89 starts) despite never being more than a middling cornerback. Now going into his age 31 season, he’s unlikely to suddenly get better. He’s not the worst slot option in the world because of his experience, but he’s a very underwhelming player.

Tashaun Gipson is also coming off of a down year, ranking 77th out of 100 qualifying safeties on PFF on 868 snaps (14 starts) with the Texans. Gipson has been better in the past, but he’s been inconsistent throughout his 8-year career (104 starts) and now is going into his age 30 season, so he’s a clear downgrade from Clinton-Dix. Outside of Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson, who have been inconsistent in their careers, the Bears have a very underwhelming secondary. Even if Fuller and Jackson both manage to bounce back, this is still a far cry from their 2018 secondary.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Bears were a 12 win team in 2018, led by a dominant defense and a passable offense, but they’ve gotten significantly worse on both sides of the ball since then. Their 2018 defense benefitted from several players having career years and from barely having any notable injuries, but that was always unlikely to continue, especially with the Bears losing talented defensive coordinator Vic Fangio last off-season. The Bears have also lost some key players from that 2018 defense as well, particularly in the secondary.

Their 2018 offense, meanwhile, benefitted from a serviceable year from quarterback Mitch Trubisky and good play by the offensive line and running game, three things they didn’t get in 2019 and that they are unlikely to get in 2020. Their offense could be a little better by default this season, after finishing 28th in first down rate, but I wouldn’t expect their defense to even be as good as their 8th ranked finish in first down rate allowed last season and, as a result, this team figures to have a tough time making it back to the post-season. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 71.33

Defensive Score: 73.86

Total Score: 72.60

Kansas City Chiefs 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when the Chiefs taking Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft was controversial. Not only was Mahomes considered a boom or bust prospect, but remember the Chiefs were coming off of a 12-4 season and seemed to have a viable quarterback in place in Alex Smith and the two first round picks (#27 in 2017 and eventually #22 in 2018) they gave up to move up to take Mahomes at 10 could have been used on non-quarterbacks to add pieces to an already strong roster. 

It’s the kind of decision that could have badly backfired if they had selected a quarterback who didn’t pan out, but Mahomes has proven the Chiefs to be spectacularly right for taking a chance on him. Mahomes spent his rookie year on the bench behind Smith, only starting a meaningless week 17 game, and then the Chiefs traded Smith to the Redskins for a 3rd round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller and anointed Mahomes the starter for his second season in the league in 2018. 

All Mahomes did was win the MVP in his first season as a starter, joining Peyton Manning as the only quarterback in the 5,000 yard/50 touchdown club, while completing 66.0% of his passes for an average of 8.79 YPA and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked quarterback, only behind Drew Brees, who had almost a hundred fewer pass attempts. Overall, the Chiefs led the league with a 45.18% first down rate on the season, the highest single season mark in recent memory.

The Chiefs’ 2018 season ended in the AFC Championship game, but that was hardly Mahomes’ fault, as he got them within a defensive penalty of making the Super Bowl, despite being supported by a league worst defense that allowed a league leading 42.20% first down rate on the season. In 2019, with a better supporting cast, Mahomes was able to take this team all the way, giving him a regular season and a Super Bowl MVP in his first 2 seasons as a starter, the only quarterback in NFL history to do that.

The story is a little bit more up and down than that, as Mahomes dealt with leg injuries early in the 2019 season and at one point looked like he had suffered a potentially devastating knee injury during a week 7 game against the Broncos, but he ended up only missing two and a half games, returning in week 10 to take this team all the way. In fact, that knee injury may have been a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Mahomes to fully rest a lingering ankle injury that could have limited him all season if he didn’t rest it. 

In the last two games between injuring his ankle and going down with the knee injury, he had completed just 55.4% of his passes for an average of 8.03 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions and had led the Chiefs to a 40.36% first down rate, after a 45.34% first down rate in his previous 20 career starts prior to the ankle injury. Even at less than 100%, Mahomes is still one of the best quarterbacks in the league, but the Chiefs likely would not have won the Super Bowl if he remained limited for the rest of the season.

Upon Mahomes’ healthy return in week 10, the Chiefs lost their first game in close fashion to a Tennessee team that turned out to be better than they looked at the time, but then the Chiefs ripped off 9 straight wins en route to the Super Bowl, including 7 wins by double digits. Including the Tennessee loss, the Chiefs had a 43.06% first down rate in 10 games after Mahomes returned. Mahomes also earned PFF’s highest quarterback grade from week 10 on and was arguably better down the stretch last season than he was in his MVP season, which just shows the kind of player he can consistently be if he can stay healthy long-term.

Mahomes’ injury also lined up with when this defense started playing better, which may be coincidence more than anything, but the Chiefs allowed a 34.36% first down rate in their final 10 regular games and their three post-season games, starting with that game against Denver, a drastic improvement from a 41.85% first down rate allowed in Mahomes’ previous 22 career regular season starts. All in all, the Chiefs had a +7.82% first down rate differential from Mahomes’ return in week 10 through the Super Bowl, so it’s not surprising they were able to go all the way. I’ll get into their defense later, but if they can be even serviceable on that side of the ball this season they should be very much in the mix to become the NFL’s first back-to-back champion since the 2003-2004 Patriots.

With Mahomes still only going into his age 25 season, there’s no question that he has the potential to be the best quarterback in the NFL for the next decade. The only question was how the Chiefs would keep him long-term and how much they’d have to pay to do so. There was speculation that the Chiefs would get creative with his contract structure and they certainly did, signing Mahomes to an unheard of 10-year extension that pays him 450 million in new money, with another 25 million available in incentives for Super Bowl appearances and MVPs. On top of that, because of the structure of the deal, the whole contract is functionally guaranteed.

Those are eye popping numbers, but the Chiefs were always going to have to break the bank to keep Mahomes long-term and it’s a more team friendly deal than you’d think because of the length and the way the cap has been going in recent years. Including the 2 years and 28 million remaining on his current rookie deal, it’s a 12-year deal in total that keeps him under team control through 2031. If you look at just the first 4 years of the extension, Mahomes is set to make 155.8 million in new money, 38.95 million annually, which is obviously a lot, but it’s not a bad value when you compare it to the 35 million, 33.5 million, and 32 million annually that Russell Wilson, Jared Goff, and Carson Wentz got annually on 4-year extensions, as those three are all older and not as good as Mahomes. Most estimates had a 4-year extension for Mahomes valued at 40 million annually this off-season, so in that sense the Chiefs got off easy.

After the first 4 years, Mahomes is set to take home 294.6 million in new money over 6 years, an average of 49 million annually, but that’s actually where the real value of this deal comes in. In just the past 6 seasons, the salary cap has increased 50% and the average salary of the highest paid quarterback (prior to Mahomes’ new deal) increased by 60% from 22 million to 35 million, so it’s conceivable that just 4 years into Mahomes’ extension, the highest paid quarterback could be making 55 million annually (a roughly 60% increase), making Mahomes’ 49 million dollars annually look like a bargain by comparison, with another 6 years to go on the deal. As much money as this is, the Chiefs almost definitely would have ended up paying him more over the next twelve years if they had signed him to a series of shorter term deals.

Anyway you look at it though, it’s a lot of money and a steep increase from his rookie deal, so there’s concern that the Chiefs won’t be able to keep talent around him long-term. That will definitely become a concern at some point, but the way this deal is structured, his cap hits are just 5.347 million and 24.807 million over the next two seasons respectively, so it won’t hamper them just yet. In fact, they managed to bring back the 2nd most snaps of any team in the league this off-season and have a good chance to repeat as a result. However, with Mahomes becoming the Chiefs 11th player making more than 8 million annually (169.9 million combined), something will have to give at some point, even if the cap keeps climbing like it has.

No team has won the Super Bowl since 1994 with more than 12.5% of the cap committed to the quarterback position and just 6 teams have won it over that stretch with a quarterback taking up more than 10% of the cap. Mahomes is set to count between a projected 12%-19% of the cap throughout most of his new contract, but if any quarterback is capable of being the exception it’s Mahomes. We’ve already seen him take a less than stellar supporting cast, including a terrible defense, to the brink of the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs obviously hope they never have to use their backup quarterback, especially since their backup is an underwhelming option in Chad Henne, who has just a 75.5 QB rating in his career in 53 starts and hasn’t made a start since 2014. Matt Moore wasn’t horrible last season in Mahomes’ absence last season, completing 59 of 91 for 659 yards and 4 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and if the Chiefs can convince him to come back for his age 36 season he’d probably be a better option than Henne. Either way, this team will go as Mahomes goes, so they’d be in a lot of trouble if they had to turn to a backup regardless of who it is.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As good as this offense was down the stretch last season, the Chiefs were still able to potentially add a new dimension to this unit when they used the 32nd overall pick on LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Chiefs didn’t have a bad running game last season, rushing for 4.18 YPC, 20th highest in the NFL, but that was primarily because teams couldn’t stack the box against the run, for fear of Mahomes beating them deep. They also had the 6th fewest carries in the league with 375 and that includes 43 carries by Mahomes himself, so running backs were really not a big part of this offense in 2019.

The Chiefs used to have a dominant feature back, using a 3rd round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft on Kareem Hunt, who not only played well on the ground, rushing for 2,151 yards and 15 touchdowns on 453 carries (4.75 YPC) in 27 games, but also was a big threat out of the backfield as a receiver, averaging a 47/494/6 slash line per 16 games. However, Hunt was kicked off the team in the middle of the 2018 season for disciplinary reasons. In his absence the Chiefs have turned to Damien Williams as their lead back and used both Williams and aged veteran LeSean McCoy in tandem together last season (111 carries and 101 carries respectively).

Williams hasn’t been bad, rushing for 4.68 YPC on 161 carries in 27 games with the Chiefs, but he’s a 6-year veteran who has never topped 111 carries in a season and he has a career 4.19 YPC average, so he’s a very underwhelming lead back. Edwards-Helaire, meanwhile, profiles more similarly to Hunt as a player, as he’s not only a talented runner, but also he was the best pass catching running back in the draft. McCoy is no longer with the team and Damien Williams looks like the clear #2 back right now, so Edwards-Helaire should be a big part of this offense. How big of a part remains to be seen, as they still may want to keep Williams somewhat involved so they don’t overload the rookie, but Edwards-Helaire has feature back upside as a rookie and looks like an obvious upgrade at a position of need.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Aside from the upgrade at running back, the rest of this offense looks more or less the same as the one they won the Super Bowl with last season. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski is the only missing starter on offense and he’s a middling player who only made 2 regular season starts, so he won’t be hard to replace. The Chiefs will likely go back to Andrew Wylie, who began last season as the starting left guard before missing time with injury and eventually losing his job. Wylie went undrafted in 2017, but has earned a slightly above average grade from Pro Football Focus on 21 starts over the past two seasons, so he’s not a downgrade. 

The other option would be Mike Remmers, a veteran who can play both tackle and guard. Remmers was a solid starter in his prime and earned a middling grade from PFF last season in 14 starts at right tackle for the Giants, but he’s now going into his age 31 season and may end up as versatile depth more than anything. With Wisniewski and swing tackle Cameron Erving gone, the Chiefs needed to replenish depth upfront this off-season and they did just that with Remmers, even if he doesn’t end up beating out Wylie to start week 1.

Aside from that, the rest of this offensive line is the same as last year and they could possibly be better this season with better health. Left tackle Eric Fisher was the most notable absence, as he missed 8 games in the regular season and his replacement Cameron Erving finished 85th out of 87 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF last season. Fisher isn’t a spectacular player, but he’s earned an average or better grade from PFF in each of the past 6 seasons (85 starts), maxing out at 24th in 2016, so having him in the lineup for 16 games or close to it would be significant.

Right guard Laurent Duvarney-Tardif also missed a couple games due to injury, but that’s been the norm for him, as he’s never started all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league. He played at a high level in 2017, finishing 19th among guards on PFF in 11 starts, but he’s otherwise been a middling starter in 57 career starts, so that year looks like an obvious outlier. Still in his age 29 season, Duvarney-Tardif should remain at least a capable starter when on the field, though he’s likely to miss time at some point if history is any indication.

Center Austin Reiter and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz were the only two Chiefs offensive lineman to make all 16 starts last season. Reiter was serviceable in his first full season as a starter, finishing 23rd out of 38 qualifying centers on PFF, after the 2015 7th round pick flashed on 333 snaps in the first 4 seasons as his career prior to last season, and, though he’s relatively unproven, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have a comparable year in 2020.

Schwartz, meanwhile, is hands down their best offensive lineman and arguably the top right tackle in the whole league. Schwartz has earned an above average grade from PFF in all 8 seasons he’s been in the league, including three seasons in the top-15 among offensive tackles, He’s going into his age 31 season now, but he’s shown no signs of slowing down, setting and matching a career high 5th ranked finish at his position over the past two seasons respectively, and he has no injury history, missing just 6 snaps total in his entire career, including a 7,894 consecutive snap streak that ended last season. Even if he slows down a little bit, it would be a surprise if he wasn’t one of the best in the league at his position again. He leads an overall solid offensive line that should benefit from better health in 2020.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The Chiefs could also benefit from better health in the receiving corps, as #1 wide receiver Tyreek Hill was limited to 563 snaps in 12 games by injuries last season. Hill still finished with a 58/860/7 slash line, as he was highly efficient on a per route run basis, ranking 4th in the NFL with 2.45 yards per route run. That’s largely par for the course for him, as he’s averaged 2.42 yards per route run in 4 seasons in the league. He’s also finished in the top-12 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons in which he’s been a starter. Still only going into his age 26 season, if Hill can stay healthy all season with a healthy Mahomes in 2020, he should match or surpass his 87/1479/12 slash line from 2018 (4th in the NFL in receiving yards).

If Hill can stay healthy, the Chiefs should have a pair of thousand yard receivers in 2020, like they did in 2017 and 2018, with tight end Travis Kelce having surpassed that mark in four straight seasons. A 3rd round pick in 2013, Kelce had significant injury concerns coming out of the draft and missed his whole rookie season with injury, but he remarkably hasn’t missed a game due to injury in 6 seasons and he has had at least 862 receiving yards in each of those seasons, including 103/1336/10 and 97/1229/5 slash lines in two seasons with Mahomes. He’s not a great run blocker, but he can hold his own and has overall finished in the top-4 among tight ends on PFF in 5 of the past 6 seasons, including 4 straight seasons. He’s going into his age 31 season, but he has shown no signs of decline, he has no recent injury history, and, even if he does decline a little, he would still be one of the top tight ends in the league.

The Chiefs also have good depth in the receiving corps. Most thought #2 wide receiver Sammy Watkins and his 14 million dollar non-guaranteed salary were gone this off-season, but the Chiefs were able to come to an agreement to bring him back for 9 million. Watkins never developed into the #1 receiver it looked like he would be, after going #4 overall pick in 2014 and putting up a 60/1047/9 slash line in just 13 games in 2015, as a series of injuries have seemingly sapped his explosiveness and limited him to a 54/754/5 slash line per 16 games over the past four seasons, with no full 16-game seasons played since his rookie year, but he’s still a solid #2 wide receiver who has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons in the league and who is still only going into his age 27 season. He’s almost a guarantee to miss time at some point, but he should be an asset while on the field.

With Watkins and Hill both missing time last season, DeMarcus Robinson played 735 snaps, but he was highly ineffective given the offense he played in, totalling just a 32/449/4 slash line and averaging just 0.96 yards per route run. Robinson is a good athlete who went in the 4th round in 2016 and he’s still only in his age 26 season, but he should have averaged more than 0.87 yards per route run in his career, given the offense he has played on. There was some speculation that Robinson could get a big contract somewhere this off-season based on upside, but that speculation never made much sense and Robinson ended up having to take a 1-year, 2.2975 million dollar deal back in Kansas City. 

It’s very possible Robinson won’t be any higher than 4th on the depth chart this season, as 2019 2nd round pick Mecole Hardman flashed on 471 rookie year snaps and seems to have earned a bigger role, especially if Robinson is his only real competition. Hardman finished with a 26/538/6 slash line on 41 targets (13.1 yards per target), while averaging 1.84 yards per route run as well. The speedster is a perfect fit for this vertical offense and, while he might not be quite as efficient in a bigger role in 2020, he still has a chance to put up good production even as the 4th or 5th option in the passing game.

The Chiefs also upgraded at the #2 tight end spot this off-season, signing Ricky Seals-Jones to replace Blake Bell, who finished 65th out of 73 qualifying tight ends on PFF on 398 snaps last season. Seals-Jones isn’t much of a blocker, but he’s averaged a decent 1.29 yards per route run in three seasons in the league. He won’t get much playing time or many targets behind Travis Kelce, but he’s a better fit for the #2 tight end role than Bell was. This is a deep and talented receiving corps overall.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

One key player whose days with the team could be numbered after the Mahomes extension is interior defender Chris Jones, who remains unsigned long-term after being slapped with a 16.126 million dollar franchise tag. Jones wants upwards of 20 million annually on a long-term deal, something he could get if he hit the open market, as he’s finished in the top-8 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 3 seasons, has totalled 31 sacks, 33 hits, and a 12.3% pressure rate over that stretch, and is still only going into his age 26 season. However, the Chiefs really don’t have the flexibility to add another big deal long-term. Jones has recently said he won’t play for the Chiefs without a new deal and, while he has plenty of financial incentive to not actually sit out the season, it’s possible the Chiefs end up having to explore a trade for him before the season starts if they don’t want to meet his asking price. 

If they do end up trading him, they may end up settling for less than they could have gotten had they moved him earlier in the off-season. Considering the Colts gave up the 13rd overall pick to acquire DeForest Buckner from the 49ers and gave him 21 million annually on a long-term extension, the Chiefs probably could have gotten a similar deal had they been willing to move Jones before the draft. Now at the very least the Chiefs wouldn’t get an asset that could help until 2021 if they moved Jones and it’s debatable if they could even still get a first at this point in the off-season, with the Chiefs running out of time to reach an extension.

Obviously the ideal would be to keep him for at least one more year on the franchise tag, as they have to cap space to do so and don’t have anyone close to being able to replace him at the defensive tackle position. Derrick Nnadi was the other starter and played 598 snaps total. He was adequate against the run, but got no pass rush, with 1 sack, no hits, and a 6.1% pressure rate on the season. The 2018 3rd round pick also had a similar year on 448 snaps as a rookie prior to last season. He may take a step forward in his 3rd season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee and it’s very possible he never develops as a pass rusher and his ceiling is as an above average situational run stuffer.

The Chiefs also used a 2nd round pick in 2019 on an interior defender in Khalen Saunders, but he didn’t show much on 303 rookie year snaps. He could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but even in that case I wouldn’t expect him to be more than a solid rotational player. Saunders particularly struggled as a pass rusher, with just a 2.0% pressure rate on the season, so the Chiefs used oversized defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon (6-7 289) inside somewhat frequently in passing situations, but he struggled as well. He may have to play that role again though, for lack of a better option. The Chiefs have some young talent at this position, but Chris Jones elevates the position group by himself and if they had to trade him before the season begins, this would become a big position of weakness.

Grade: B

Edge Defenders

Tanoh Kpassagnon also saw significant snaps at the edge defender position, especially down the stretch, playing 691 snaps total, but he earned below average grades from Pro Football Focus as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher. The reason he had to play significant snaps down the stretch is because both Alex Okafor (42.1 snaps per game) and Emmanuel Ogbah (41.0 snaps per game) suffered season ending injuries. Ogbah is no longer with the team, but Okafor returns from injury, as does 2018 2nd round Breeland Speaks, who missed all of 2019 with injury. Those three will compete for snaps on the edge, with Frank Clark locked into an every down role (51.8 snaps per game) at one spot.

Clark is obviously the best of the bunch, though he did struggle to begin last season due to a neck injury. From week 11 on, he was PFF’s 40th ranked edge defender and totalled 4 sacks in 6 games with a 12.2% pressure rate. That’s much more in line with what he did in his three prior seasons, when he earned an above average grade from PFF in all 3 seasons (career best 20th in 2018) and had a 12.7% pressure rate with 33 sacks in 47 games. Still in his prime in his age 27 season, Clark should continue being an above average starter in 2019 if he’s healthy. The Chiefs probably overpaid by giving up a first and second round draft pick to acquire him and give him a 5-year, 104 million dollar extension, money that could have been better spent on Chris Jones, but if they can keep both Clark and Jones for 2020, they should be a strong inside/outside pass rush duo.

The rest of this group is questionable. Speaks came into the league with a lot of upside as the 46th overall pick in 2018, but his long-term projection is more questionable now after he struggled on 475 snaps as a rookie and then missed all of 2019 with a knee injury. Kpassagnon also went in the 2nd round, back in 2017, but he struggled in the first significant action of his career in 2019 and is no guarantee to get better. 

Okafor is the veteran of the bunch and has some history of success, finishing 28th among edge defenders on PFF on 486 snaps in 2017 and 38th on 658 snaps in 2018, but he struggled mightily last season, finishing 114th out of 118 qualifying edge defenders on 421 snaps before the injury, and he’s been very inconsistent throughout his career. Injuries are also not new for him, as he’s missed 34 games and suffered three season ending injuries in 7 seasons in the league. He has some bounce back potential, but, like the rest of this group aside from Clark, he’s not a reliable option.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Chiefs’ linebackers were their worst position group last season. Of the 5 players who played any significant snaps for them, only Reggie Ragland, a situational run stuffer who played 235 snaps total, earned an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus, and he’s no longer with the team. The Chiefs addressed this position in the second round with Willie Gay and he could easily play a significant role, even though he’s still a raw rookie. Damien Wilson (709 snaps), Anthony Hitchens (699 snaps), and Ben Niemann (400 snaps) were their top-3 linebackers last season in terms of snaps played and, even though all three struggled and are underwhelming options, they should all be in the mix for roles again in what looks like a weak group again.

Hitchens is the most proven option, as he earned an above average grade from PFF as a rotational player in 2016 and 2017, but he’s also finished below average in his other 4 of 6 seasons in the league and he’s really only their most proven option by default. Wilson was a first year starter last year, never topping 321 snaps in 4 seasons in the league prior to last season, but he wasn’t even good as a reserve, so it’s hard to see him ever developing into a capable starter at this point. 

Niemann, meanwhile, is a 2018 undrafted free agent who barely played as a rookie before struggling in a larger role in 2019. With the unproven rookie Gay as their only potentially good coverage option, the Chiefs could frequently use three safeties in sub packages, with one lining up near the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, something they did somewhat frequently last season. Linebacker looks likely to be a position of weakness again.

Grade: C-

Secondary

The biggest reason for the Chiefs’ defensive turnaround last season was their safety play, as not only is safety a position where the Chiefs go three deep in sub packages, but they also have one of the better safety duos in the league as their starters in base packages. That wasn’t the case at all in 2018, when their horrendous defense had probably the worst safety play in the league, but the Chiefs fixed the problem quickly by signing Tyrann Mathieu to a 3-year, 42 million dollar deal and using a second round pick on Juan Thornhill last off-season. Together, they made all 16 starts and finished 21st and 33rd respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus.

Mathieu’s career has been a winding road since entering the league as a 3rd round draft pick in 2013. He appeared to be on his way to Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards in 2013 and 2015 respectively, finishing 9th and 1st respectively at his position on PFF in those two seasons, but both seasons ended with a torn ACL and he wasn’t nearly as good in injury plagued seasons in 2014 (428 snaps) and 2016 (561 snaps). 

He played all 16 games in 2017, but wasn’t as good as he had been previously, so the Cardinals released him ahead of the 4 years and 42.5 million remaining on his 5-year, 62.5 million dollar extension. However, he’s bounced back pretty well over the past two seasons, finishing 20th among safeties in 2018 on a one-year deal with the Texans and then 21st last season in his first year in Kansas City. Perhaps most importantly, he’s stayed healthy, playing all 48 games over the past 3 seasons. 

Still in his age 28 season, Mathieu should remain at least an above average safety for several more years if he can continue avoiding injury. Thornhill has his own injury concerns, coming off of a torn ACL suffered in week 17, which complicates his projection for 2020, but he could easily remain an above average starter and continue getting better long-term. So far everything seems to have gone well with his recovery, as he’s reportedly considered likely to be ready for week 1, roughly 8 months after the injury. The Chiefs also still have veteran Daniel Sorensen, who has struggled when he’s had to play every down in his career, but was capable in a sub package role last season (563 snaps), primarily playing as a coverage linebacker.

At cornerback, the Chiefs have to replace Kendall Fuller, their only real off-season loss (4-year, 40 million dollar deal from the Redskins this off-season). Fuller was an underwhelming player last season though and was only playing a part-time role down the stretch, while expected replacement Rashad Fenton flashed a lot of potential on 166 rookie year snaps. Fenton is still obviously a projection to a larger role, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he was comparable to Fuller, who finished 78th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF.

Fenton could end up as high as 2nd on the depth chart coming into the season, which would guarantee him an every down role. His primary competition for that job would be veteran Bashaud Breeland, although Breeland is facing potential discipline for an off-the-field incident and could be sidelined to begin the season anyway. Breeland has generally been a solid starter throughout his career (77 starts), but he’s coming off of a terrible season in which he finished 122nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF in 15 starts. Still only in his age 28 season, Breeland has some bounce back potential whenever he’s allowed to play, but he’s obviously a shaky option. While he’s absent, the Chiefs would likely turn to 4th round rookie L’Jarius Sneed, who is expected to be the #4 cornerback.

Chavarius Ward is the nominal #1 cornerback of this group, largely by default, as Ward was solid in his first significant action last (16 starts), but likely lacks #1 cornerback upside, as a former undrafted free agent (2018). He finished 39th among cornerbacks on PFF last season, which isn’t bad, but there’s no guarantee he’s even that good again. The Chiefs talented safeties mask their cornerback problems a little bit, but this secondary has obvious concerns at corner.

Grade: B

Conclusion

There’s no question the Chiefs will have a dominant offense this season and for the foreseeable future as long as Mahomes is under center. The question is if their defense is closer to the unit that struggled to begin last season or the one that played well down the stretch during their Super Bowl run. If it’s the latter, the Chiefs should be considered favorites to repeat. If it’s the former, the Chiefs should still be in the mix, but not as the favorites. I tend to side with the latter more because, outside of Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, and Chris Jones (who may get dealt before the start of the season), this is a pretty underwhelming group, but there’s no doubt this is one of the top few teams in the league any way you look at it.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 81.26

Defensive Score: 71.77

Total Score: 76.52 (1st in AFC West)

Los Angeles Chargers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Chargers in 2019. They finished just 5-11, but most of their losses were close, with 9 of 11 coming by 8 points or fewer, giving the Chargers just a 2-9 record in such games. They actually finished with a winning record in games decided by more than 8 points (3-2) and their -8 point differential was much more in line with a 8-8 record. That’s despite the fact that the Chargers had a league worst turnover margin at -17. Turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis and in terms of first down rate differential, which de-emphasizes the turnover margin, the Chargers actually finished 7th in the NFL last season at +3.84%, far better than their record suggests.

That’s despite the fact that the Chargers weren’t close to full strength all season due to injuries. They had the 3rd most adjusted games lost to injury in the league and those injuries disproportionately affected their top level players, so you could argue they were the most injury affected team in the league last season. Safety Derwin James (11 games), center Mike Pouncey (11 games), left tackle Russell Okung (10 games), safety Adrian Phillips (9 games), edge defender Melvin Ingram (3 games), and tight end Hunter Henry (4 games) all missed significant time with injury and all were big absences. 

Given their turnover margin, the amount of talent they were without for much of the season, and how many close games they lost, not to mention the fact that they play in front of road crowds every week in Los Angeles, it’s actually pretty impressive this team was even able to go 5-11 last season. Injuries, turnovers, and close games tend to vary highly from year-to-year and the Chargers might not have to play in front of fans at all this season, so the Chargers at first glance appear to have a lot of potential for a big jump forward in the win total. 

This is a very different Chargers team in some ways though. The Chargers ranked middle of the pack with the 16th fewest snaps lost this off-season, but the big change is at the quarterback position, where Philip Rivers wasn’t brought back as a free agent for his age 39 season, after starting 224 straight games for the Chargers over 14 seasons dating back to his 3rd season in the league in 2006. 

Rivers never led the Chargers to the Super Bowl, but that usually wasn’t his fault, as he finished in the top-10 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 10 of those 14 seasons and completed 64.7% of his passes for an average of 7.81 YPA, 397 touchdowns, and 198 interceptions overall, likely putting him in Hall-of-Fame territory even without the Super Bowl appearance. However, he fell to 17th among quarterbacks on PFF last season, while completing 66.0% of his passes for 7.81 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions, prompting the Chargers to move on, rather than try to match the 1-year, 25 million dollar deal Rivers received from the Colts this off-season.

To replace Rivers, the Chargers used the #6 overall pick on Oregon’s Justin Herbert and they still have incumbent backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who started 46 games from 2015-2018 with the Bills and Browns, and he could potentially open the season as the starter. At first glance, Taylor and Herbert may seem like very different quarterbacks, but Herbert is a better runner and athlete than you’d expect, while Taylor’s passing skills are underrated, so the Chargers can do some of the same things with both quarterbacks. Both fit what head coach Anthony Lynn looks for in a quarterback better than the statuesque Rivers, who carried just 12 times for 29 yards last season.

Taylor also already has experience with Lynn, not only last season as Rivers’ backup, but in 2015 and 2016 with the Bills, where Lynn was the assistant head coach and eventually offensive coordinator, prior to leaving to take the head job with the Chargers. Taylor had some success in Buffalo, completing 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 51 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions in 3 seasons as the starter from 2015 to 2017 (43 starts), while adding 1,575 yards and 14 touchdowns on 283 carries (5.57 YPC). 

Taylor only averaged 28.2 pass attempts per start, leading a run heavy offense, and he didn’t make many big plays downfield, but he was a big part of that run heavy offense himself as a runner, he did a good job protecting the ball and not committing turnovers, and his receiving corps was a big part of why he didn’t have many big plays downfield. Overall, he finished 11th, 16th, and 9th among quarterbacks in 2015-2017 respectively on PFF and went 23-20 with an underwhelming roster around him.

Taylor’s time with the Browns stands out as a rough stretch, as he completed 42 of 85 (49.4% for 473 yards (5.56 YPA), 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, before being replaced by Baker Mayfield midway through the 3rd game of the season, which is likely why he was available as a backup for the Chargers the following off-season, but that stretch can be chalked up to him being a poor fit for Todd Haley’s scheme. In a more familiar scheme, he has a good chance to win the starting job over an inexperienced rookie and could start later into the season than most expect if he plays like he did with the Bills, as the rest of this roster is talented enough for Taylor to win with if he does that. Herbert could also win with this roster, but he’s a more questionable option as a rookie and the Chargers may hesitate to bench Taylor if he’s winning. Either way, this isn’t a bad quarterback situation.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

I mentioned Tyrod Taylor had problems with his receiving corps in Buffalo, but that won’t be the case with the Chargers. Wide receiver Keenan Allen and Mike Williams put up slash lines of 104/1199/6 and 49/1001/2 respectively, making them one of five wide receiver duos in the league to both surpass 1000 yards receiving last season, and, while they’ll have trouble doing that again on what figures to be a run heavier offense, they should remain a big part of the offense in 2020. 

Williams was the 7th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, flashed on 234 snaps as a rookie, posted a 43/664/10 slash line and averaged 1.74 yards per route run as the 3rd receiver in 2018, and then had a mini breakout last season, when he averaged 1.91 yards per route run and finished 33rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Still only in his age 26 season, Williams could keep getting better and should remain an above average starter regardless.

Allen, meanwhile, has been playing at a high level basically since he entered the league as a 3rd round pick in 2013, averaging a 97/1192/6 slash line per 16 games in his career. He’s had injury problems in the past, including 23 of 32 games missed from 2015-2016, but he’s shed the injury prone label by playing in 48 straight games over the past three seasons. Over those 3 seasons, he’s finished 5th, 4th, and 14th among wide receivers on PFF and, still in his prime in his age 28 season, he should continue playing at the same level in 2020.

Wide receiver depth was a big problem last season though, as the Chargers didn’t have another wide receiver with more than 9 catches. Andre Patton ranked 3rd among Chargers wide receivers with 507 snaps played, but he averaged just 0.18 yards per route run (worst among wide receivers with at least 15 targets) with a 6/56/0 slash line on 303 routes run and he finished dead last among qualifying wide receivers on PFF, in the first action of the 2017 undrafted free agent’s career. It would be hard for Patton to be worse in 2020, but he’s not necessarily a guarantee to be better and, despite that, all the Chargers did to address their wide receiver depth this off-season was use a 5th round pick on Joe Reed and a 7th round pick on KJ Hill, who will both have opportunities to earn roles, even as late round rookies.

To mask their lack of wide receiver depth, the Chargers threw frequently to tight end Hunter Henry and pass catching back Austin Ekeler. Henry put up a 55/652/5 slash line, despite missing 4 games with injury, and finished 14th among tight ends on PFF in overall grade, while Ekeler had a 92/993/8 slash line that ranked him 2nd among running backs in receiving yardage and he finished 1st among running backs in pass catching grade on PFF.

For Henry, staying healthy has always been the key, as he’s missed 23 of 64 games since the Chargers drafted in the 2nd round in 2016. He’s averaged a 53/667/7 slash line per 16 games, despite spending his first two seasons as a part-time player behind Antonio Gates on the depth chart, and he has averaged 1.87 yards per route run and 8.85 yards per target in his career, while also faring well as a run blocking and finishing in the top-14 among tight ends in all 3 seasons in which he’s played a snap. 

Despite missing time last season, he still finished 9th among tight ends in receiving yards and was on a 73/869/7 pace that would have put him among the best in the league at his position. He’s always an injury risk, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and has all the tools to have a big year if he can put it all together, so the Chargers were wise to keep him on the 10.607 million dollar franchise tag, rather than letting him leave or signing him to a big long-term deal with significant guarantees. He could easily end up as one of the top overall tight ends in the league this season. With only blocking tight end Virgil Green (99 catches in 131 career games) behind Henry on the depth chart, the Chargers badly need Hunter to stay healthy this season.

Ekeler, meanwhile, could be taking on an even larger target share with tandem back Melvin Gordon leaving for the Broncos last season, after receiving 55 targets in 12 games and turning it into 42/296/1 last season. Justin Jackson will likely take over as the #2 back and he’s averaged just 5.23 yards per target on 30 career targets in two seasons in the league, so he’s not nearly the threat Gordon was out of the backfield. 

This offense figures to be run heavier with Herbert and especially Taylor under center, so Ekeler might not necessarily see more targets overall even if his target share goes up, but he’s averaged 2.49 yards per route run in 3 seasons in the league, while finishing in the top-9 among running backs in pass catching grade from PFF in all 3 seasons. With Allen and Williams leading the way at wide receiver and Henry and Ekeler involved as intermediate passing options, the Chargers lack of depth at wide receiver, however severe, isn’t a big deal, barring injuries.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Taylor taking off and running on his own is a big part of why this offense figures to be run heavy, but the Chargers’ running backs figure to be heavily involved as well, even without Melvin Gordon. Gordon averaged just 3.78 YPC on 162 carries last season and, while that might have been partially due to Gordon being out of shape after an ill advised holdout, Ekeler was still the better runner, averaging 4.22 YPC on 132 carries. 

Ekeler hasn’t been as good as a runner as he’s been as a receiver, but he’s still averaged an impressive 4.81 YPC in his career. The concern is that he’s never topped 132 carries in a season, with just 285 carries total in 3 seasons in the league, and, while he should exceed that this season, it’s fair to wonder by how much, as Ekeler also figures to see a bunch of touches in the passing game and the Chargers are likely to be wary of how much they overload the 5-10 200 pounder. 

With that in mind, there should be opportunities for their backups to see carries, not just 2018 7th round pick Justin Jackson, who has flashed with a 5.14 YPC average on 79 carries as the #3 back over the past two seasons (3.28 YPC after contact), but also 4th round rookie Joshua Kelly, who could also see action, even if he opens the season as the #3 back. Both are unproven and it’s unclear if either can translate to being a capable #2 back, let alone the 1b to Ekeler’s 1a they may need if they want to avoid overloading Ekeler. This isn’t a bad backfield, especially when you factor in Ekeler’s pass catching, but they may want to add a veteran early down back to the mix if they want to run the ball consistently to protect either Taylor or the rookie Herbert.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Chargers’ biggest problem on offense last season was their offensive line, which ranked 2nd worst in pass blocking grade on Pro Football Focus and 6th worst in run blocking grade. Injuries were part of the problem, with left tackle Russell Okung and center Mike Pouncey being limited to just 257 snaps and 305 snaps respectively, and they didn’t get good play from anyone else, with right guard Michael Schofield being their only healthy starter to earn even an average grade from PFF.

Schofield is no longer with the team and the same is true of Okung, who was sent to the Panthers for Trai Turner, who will replace Schofield at right guard. It’s strange to see two offensive lineman get traded for each other, but the move made some sense for the Chargers, as Okung was owed 13.5 million in his age 32 contract year in 2020, with Turner is still only going into his age 27 season and has 20.5 million in non-guaranteed money left over the remaining 2 years of his contract. A 3rd round pick by the Panthers in 2014, Turner has made 80 starts in 6 seasons in the league and has earned an average or better grade from PFF in all 6 seasons, with his best years coming in 2015 (10th among guards) and 2017 (16th). Coming off of a 37th ranked finish and still in the prime of his career, he should remain an above average starter in 2020.

The Chargers also added right tackle Bryan Bulaga in free agency on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. The Chargers probably got a bit of a discount with Bulaga because he’s going into his age 31 season and has an extensive injury history (45 games missed in 10 seasons in the league), but he made all 16 starts last season for just the second time in his career and he’s shown no signs of slowing down yet, finishing in the top-26 among offensive tackles on PFF in each of his last 3 non-injury ruined seasons (2016, 2018, 2019), including a 13th ranked finish last season. Even if he does decline a little bit in 2020, he should remain an above average starter.

Turner and Bulaga should play well, but the rest of this line is a concern. They get center Mike Pouncey back from injury, but injuries have been a persistent problem for him in recent years. A first round pick in 2011, Pouncey’s career got off to a great start, as he made 46 of 48 starts in his first 3 seasons in the league and finished above average on PFF in all 3 seasons, including a pair of 9th ranked finishes in 2012 and 2013, but then he was limited to 12 games in a down season in 2014 season, en route to missing 28 games over the past 6 seasons. 

Those injuries seem to have taken their toll on him, as he’s finished below average on PFF in each of the past 4 seasons, including 28th out of 36 qualifying centers on PFF last season. Now going into his age 31 season, not only are his best days almost definitely behind him, but he could be on his last legs. 2018 5th round pick Scott Quessenberry wasn’t an upgrade in 9 starts in the first significant action of his career last season (27th among 36 qualifying centers), but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him in the starting lineup by season’s end, whether by Pouncey getting hurt or getting benched.

Dan Feeney returns at left guard, but the 2017 3rd round pick has been middling at best in 41 career starts, including a 70th ranked finish out of 88 qualifying in 2019. He’s likely locked into the job because his only competition is Forrest Lamp, also a 2017 draft pick, who has played just 174 mediocre snaps in 3 seasons in the league due to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness. Regardless of which player starts, they are likely to struggle, even if there’s a small chance one of them takes a significant step forward, now in their 4th season in the league.

Left tackle is up for grabs, with at least three players in the mix to replace Okung, and regardless of who starts, this figures to be a position of weakness. Sam Tevi is the incumbent right tackle who is losing his job to Bulaga and could flip over to the left side. He’s made 29 starts at right tackle over the past two seasons, but the 2017 6th round pick has struggled in both seasons, finishing 78th among 85th qualifying offensive tackles in 2018 and 61st out of 89 qualifiers in 2019, and he’s unlikely to be better on the blindside.

Trent Scott made 9 starts as an injury fill in last season (7 at left tackle and 2 at right tackle), but the 2018 undrafted free agent struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career, finishing 83rd among 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. 2019 3rd round pick Trey Pipkins is probably their best option as he held his own on 251 snaps as a rookie and could take a step forward in his second season in the league, but he’s hardly a reliable option either. This offensive line should be better than last season, but it could be largely by default.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

As I mentioned, turnover margin was a big problem for the Chargers last season, as they finished dead last at -17, which, given how many of their losses were close, could arguably be the sole reason why this team didn’t win nearly as many games as their 7th ranked first down rate differential would suggest. Turnover margins are highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis though and it’s not hard to see how the Chargers could be significantly improved in that area. 

Philip Rivers’ interceptions were part of the problem and that is something that will almost definitely improve with the more careful Tyrod Taylor under center, even if their offense becomes less explosive as a result, but their defense was actually a bigger part of the problem with a league low 14 takeaways. They ranked 14th in first down rate allowed at 34.78%, and have much more talent than their takeaway total would suggest, so the takeaways should come eventually. Even getting to the 20 takeaways they had with similar personnel in 2018 would make a big difference and they certainly have the talent to do so.

Arguably the top player on this talented defense is edge defender Joey Bosa. Bosa arguably got overshadowed by his younger brother Nick, who won Defensive Rookie of the Year and made the Super Bowl with the 49ers last season, but Joey is the more proven player. Since going #3 overall in 2016, Bosa has totalled 40 sacks, 44 hits, and a 14.8% pressure rate in 51 games, while also holding his own against the run. Aside from an injury ruined 2018 season (7 games), he’s finished in the top-8 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in every season in the league, including a 5th ranked finish in 2019, and he could easily keep getting better, only in his age 25 season.

Melvin Ingram remains as the starter opposite Bosa, coming off of a season in which he was limited to 13 games by injury, one of several key players to miss time on this defense. Ingram still played pretty well when on the field, especially as a pass rusher, with 7 sacks, 5 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate. His age is becoming a concern in his age 31 season and he has fallen off a little bit over the past two seasons, but falling off for him means finishing 36th and 27th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively, after finishing 10th and 12th in 2016 and 2017 respectively. He’s still not totally over the hill and the 3 games he missed last season were his first since 2014, so he could easily remain an above average starter and, even if he continues to decline, he still should be someone you can do a lot worse than.

The Chargers don’t have much need for reserves at this position, but they return their top-2 reserves from last season in Uchenna Nwosu (362 snaps) and Isaac Rochell (274 snaps). A 2nd round pick in 2018, Nwosu has shown a lot of promise in two seasons in the league and could arguably be a starter in his own right, but he’s been limited to 628 snaps total at a position where Bosa and Ingram dominate the snaps when both are healthy. Rochell, meanwhile, is more of a deep reserve, as the 2017 7th round pick has struggled throughout his career on a total of 862 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. With a talented starting duo and a high level reserve in Nwosu, the Chargers are in good shape at this position.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

By contrast, the Chargers were not nearly as good on the interior of their defensive line last season. Justin Jones (504 snaps), Brandon Mebane (408 snaps), Damion Square (402 snaps), and Jerry Tillery (354 snaps) all saw significant action and all finished with below average grades on Pro Football Focus. There are reasons to believe they can be significantly improved at this position in 2020 though. For one, they let Mebane go after he finished 121st out of 125 qualifying interior defenders on PFF last season and replaced him with free agent acquisition Linval Joseph, who figures to be a significant improvement.

Once one of the top interior defenders in the league in his prime, Joseph is clearly on the decline, now going into his age 32 season, but he’s still finished 43rd and 38th among interior defenders on PFF over the past two seasons respectively and, even if he continues declining, he should still be a significant upgrade unless his abilities totally fall off a cliff. The 2-year, 17 million dollar deal the Chargers signed him to doesn’t break the bank, so he was a very smart signing at a position of desperate need.

The Chargers should also get more from Jerry Tillery this year, even if only by default, as the 2019 28th overall draft pick shockingly finished as PFF’s worst ranked interior defender as a rookie. Tillery struggled as a pass rusher (2 sacks, 1 hit, and a 5.4% pressure rate) and, more importantly, he consistently offered little resistance against the run. Tillery has nowhere to go but up and he still has a high ceiling as a former first round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took a big step forward in 2020, but even a big step forward might not make him even a middling starting option.

Tillery could earn the starting role next to Joseph, but he’ll have to compete with Jones and Square, who still remain from last season. Jones has the most upside of the two, as he was a 3rd round pick just two years ago and is still only in his age 24 season, while Square is going into his age 31 season and has never been more than a capable reserve (414 snaps per season over the past four seasons), but Jones has struggled on 804 career snaps and is not a guarantee to improve. Regardless of who wins the starting job, all four players will likely play significant snaps at this position. Even with Joseph coming in and Tillery likely improving, this group still has problems, but they should still be noticeably improved from last year’s weak group.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

Off ball linebacker was also an underwhelming position for the Chargers in 2019. They weren’t as bad as they were at the interior defender spot, but they lacked a standout player and got middling play at best. Thomas Davis led the position with 805 snaps played and earned a middling grade, but he’s no longer with the team. Instead, the Chargers traded up to select Kenneth Murray 23rd overall in the first round and they added veteran Nick Vigil on a 1-year, 2.4 million dollar deal to compete with holdovers Denzel Perryman (359 snaps), Dre Tranquill (382 snaps), and Kyzir White (372 snaps) for playing time in this linebacking corps.

Even though he’s a rookie who has never played a snap, Murray is arguably their best off ball linebacker going into the season, as Vigil and the rest of the options are all underwhelming. As a result, Murray seems likely to play a three down role in the middle as a rookie, even as early as week 1. Vigil and Perryman are the veterans of the group, making 37 starts in 4 seasons in the league and 45 starts in 5 seasons in the league respectively, but Vigil was largely starting out of necessity with the Bengals, while Perryman is purely a base package player who has been injury prone throughout his career and has never topped 481 snaps in a season. He should at least earn a base package run stuffing role, but he likely wouldn’t play every down, even without a better option.

Tranquill and White, meanwhile, are less proven, but come with more upside, as they went in the 4th round in the 2019 and 2018 NFL Drafts respectively and have shown promise in limited action thus far, Tranquill on 382 snaps as a rookie last season and White on 514 snaps between two seasons in the league. Both players will have significant opportunity to earn playing time in this unsettled group, though both are obviously projections to larger roles. The Chargers also like to use 3 safeties together in sub packages, with one playing around the line of scrimmage as a coverage linebacker, and that’s something they figure to continue doing to mask their lack of coverage ability at linebacker. With an unproven rookie leading the way, this is a shaky group.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The Chargers’ expected week 1 starting safeties last season were Adrian Phillips and Derwin James, but injuries limited them to just 7 games and 5 games respectively, while 2nd round rookie Nasir Adderley, who could have started in their absence, was limited to 10 snaps by an injury of his own. Despite that, the Chargers’ secondary wasn’t bad last season and they should be a lot better this season. Phillips is no longer with the team, but both James and Adderley are expected to return from injury and the Chargers also added veteran cornerback Chris Harris on a 2-year, 17 million dollar deal.

Harris has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league over the past decade with the division rival Denver Broncos, finishing in the top-18 among cornerbacks in each of his first 8 seasons in the league, including five top-4 finishes and a pair of #1 finishes, but he fell to 38th last season and now is going into his age 31 season, so he was greeted by a relatively cold market. Harris was also a weird fit for the Chargers because he’s been best in his career on the slot, while the Chargers seemed to need an outside cornerback more than anything. Playing primarily outside was part of the reason why he wasn’t the same player last season in Denver and he would be more likely to continue declining if he has to play more outside in Los Angeles.

With the Chargers, it’s unclear where he’ll play primarily. Michael Davis has made 21 starts outside over the past two seasons, but he’s been middling at best and is coming off of a season in which he finished 92nd among 135 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 659 snaps, while slot cornerback Desmond King has allowed an impressive 1.05 yards per route run on the slot in 3 seasons since the Chargers took him in the 5th round in 2017 and has finished in the top-31 among cornerbacks on PFF in all 3 seasons.

One possibility is the Chargers could play Davis outside, Harris on the slot, and move King to safety at least in passing situations, which would allow the Chargers to regularly use three safeties together in sub packages, to mask their lack of linebacker depth. It would be a risky move because King has played so well on the slot, but some pegged him as a safety coming out of college, so it could be a relatively natural fit for him and it would allow Harris to play his natural position on the slot. The other two safeties in three safety packages would be Derwin James and either Nasir Adderley, who is now healthy after missing his most of his rookie season, or Rayshawn Jenkins, 2017 4th round pick who was middling in 16 starts in the first significant action of his career last season.

Adderley and Jenkins are decent options with some upside, but Derwin James is obviously the best of the bunch. The 17th overall pick in 2018, James burst onto the scene with a 6th ranked finish among safeties as a 16-game starter as a rookie and his absence was the one that affected the Chargers the most last season, as he didn’t return from an off-season injury until week 13. Upon his return, he was still PFF’s 7th ranked safety from week 13 on and, only going into his age 24 season, James still has a massive ceiling if he can stay healthy long-term. He could easily be one of the top safeties in the league this season, so he’s a huge re-addition. He’s also incredibly versatile with his ability to play anywhere in the back seven and he would likely be the one who would work as a linebacker in sub packages when the Chargers use three safeties.

#1 cornerback Casey Hayward is also one of the best in the league at his position and he remains locked into his role as an every down outside cornerback. Hayward has finished in the top-17 among cornerbacks on PFF in each of his four seasons with the Chargers (62 starts) and, though he’s going into his age 31 season, he’s yet to show any decline, finishing 4th among cornerbacks on PFF last season. Even if he does start to decline this season, he should be more than capable of being a top cornerback.

Who plays where besides Hayward is still up in the air. The most likely scenario is Hayward and Harris play together outside in base packages with James and either King, Jenkins, or Adderley at safety and then in sub packages, Harris will move to the slot, Davis will enter as the 3rd cornerback and play outside, and the Chargers will frequently use three safeties at once to mask their lack of linebacker depth. They have some versatile options in a secondary that should be significantly better with Derwin James healthy and Chris Harris being added.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Chargers went 5-11 last season because of close losses, injuries, and a league worst turnover margin, three things that are highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. Case in point, with a very similar roster in 2018, the Chargers went 6-1 in games decided by 8 points or fewer, had a +1 turnover margin, and ranked 20th in adjusted games lost to injury, and, largely as a result, they won 12 games and made it to the 2nd round of the post-season. The Chargers don’t have Philip Rivers anymore, but I’m higher on Tyrod Taylor than most, now in a system that fits his skillset again, and the rest of this roster has a lot of talent. They’re obviously behind the Chiefs in the AFC West, but they should be in the mix for one of the three wild card spots in the AFC. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.91

Defensive Score: 76.16

Total Score: 74.54 (2nd in AFC West)

Las Vegas Raiders 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After the 2017 season, the Raiders decided to take things in a drastic new direction. They were coming off of a 6-10 season and, while they were 12-4 the season before, they were never as good as their record suggested that season (19th in first down rate differential at -0.49%) and that was their only playoff appearance since 2002. To try to turn back the clock to their recent glory days, the Raiders gave former head coach (1998-2001) and at the time ESPN Monday Night Football commentator Jon Gruden a 10-year, 100 million dollar deal that not only gave him total job security, but complete control over the roster. 

Even though Gruden didn’t inherit a bad roster, he wasted no time starting to rebuild the team the way he wanted to, armed with complete job security. He made several major personnel changes in his first off-season, but none were bigger than trading Khalil Mack, one of the top defensive players in the league, to the Bears for a pair of first round picks. Obviously losing a player like Mack is a significant blow, but the Raiders would have had to pay him upwards of 22 million annually to keep him long-term and the money they saved by not extending him and the draft picks they received by trading him gave Gruden significant long-term flexibility with this roster.

The short term results have not been good. In Gruden’s first season, the Raiders fell to 4-12 and finished 28th in the league in first down rate differential at -4.96%. In his second season, the Raiders seemed better, winning 7 games, but they still ranked 29th in the league in first down rate differential at -5.27%. All 7 of their wins were close games, decided by 8 points or fewer, including a few that easily could have gone the other way, while 6 of their 9 losses came by 18 points or more, giving them a -106 point differential on the season, which is much more in line with a 4-5 win team than a 7-win team. The offense wasn’t really the problem last season, as they ranked a middle of the pack 17th in first down rate at 35.39%, but their defense ranked dead last in first down rate allowed at 40.66%. I’ll get into their defense later, but it will be impossible for the Raiders to take a step forward in 2020 if their defense continues to play at that level.

Given how much has changed since Gruden arrived and that Gruden’s background is with quarterbacks, there has been constant speculation since Gruden arrived that he would look for an alternative to starting quarterback Derek Carr. Instead, Carr has actually started all 32 games since Gruden took over, one of the few parts of this team that hasn’t changed. A 2nd round pick by the Raiders in 2014, Carr has started 94 of 96 possible games in 6 seasons in the league and has generally been a solid starter, finishing in the top-21 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 5 seasons, including a 5th ranked finish in 2016 and a 10th ranked finish in 2015. Carr’s first season in Gruden’s system was one of the worst of his career, as he finished 21st among quarterbacks on PFF, but he was noticeably improved in his second season with Gruden, moving back up to 12th among quarterbacks on PFF in 2019.

That doesn’t mean Gruden hasn’t looked for alternatives though, as it’s simply that none of the reclamation projects Gruden has taken on (Mike Glennon, Nathan Peterman, DeShone Kizer, AJ McCarron) have even developed into capable backups and that Gruden hasn’t found a quarterback to his liking in the draft yet. This off-season, Gruden added a quarterback that has the best chance of anyone yet to dethrone Carr as the starter, signing Marcus Mariota from the Titans and paying a high price to do so, giving him a 2-year, 17.6 million dollar deal that suggests he’s viewed as a little bit more than a true backup. 

The Raiders have publicly backed Carr this off-season and he figures to be the week 1 starter, but as Mariota knows from being on the opposite side of this last season when the Titans added Ryan Tannehill in the off-season, sometimes things can change quickly when you have an experienced veteran backup behind you on the depth chart. Titans’ offense got much better when Tannehill was inserted into the lineup for Mariota last season and Mariota typically did not lead effective offenses in 61 starts in Tennessee, but he also showed some promise, including 14th and 18th ranked finishes among quarterbacks on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Still in his age 27 season, the former #2 overall pick definitely has the upside to end up under center for another team at some point and it’s very possible his eventual second stint as a starter will end up being better than his first, so he was a worthwhile flyer for the Raiders, even though he didn’t come cheap. He’s not a guarantee to dethrone Carr this season and he wouldn’t necessarily be an upgrade if he did, but I don’t expect Mariota’s days as a starter to be totally finished. With a solid starter and a capable alternative, this is a pretty good quarterback situation.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Along with getting an improved season from Derek Carr from 2018 to 2019, another big reason why the Raiders’ offense was better in 2019 than 2018 was the addition of talented running back Josh Jacobs with the 24th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, one of the two first rounders they got in the Khalil Mack trade. Jacobs was limited to 13 games by injury and was not 100% for most of the season, but he still rushed for 1,150 yards and 7 touchdowns on 242 carries (4.75 YPC), with 3.48 YPC of his yardage coming after contact and a position leading 69 broken tackles as a runner. He wasn’t just breaking big runs either, as he also had the 14th highest carry success rate of any running back in the league at 51%, consistently keeping this offense on track. All in all, he was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked running back in rushing grade.

The one area where Jacobs wasn’t a factor as a rookie was in the passing game, totalling just 20 catches on 27 targets all season. Jacobs wasn’t used much in the passing game in college either, but there was some speculation he could see a bigger role in the passing game in his second season in the league in 2020. The chances of that happening would seem to have dropped significantly when the Raiders used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden. 

One of the most interesting prospects in the draft, Bowden played both receiver and option quarterback in college, but he saw carries at both of those positions and the Raiders are expected to use the 5-11 204 pounder as a passing down running back, a role he’s likely to see action in immediately. The Raiders could also use him on some trick plays, especially with his ability to play wildcat quarterback and at least keep teams honest in the passing game.

Aside from trick plays, the Raiders didn’t really seem to need Bowden because they have Jalen Richard, who had a 68/607/0 slash line in 2018 and then followed that up with a 36/232/0 slash line in 2019 and who also has a career 5.02 YPC average on 233 carries in 4 seasons in the league. However, there are enough targets for running backs in this offense for both Bowden and Richard to have a role, with DeAndre Washington also adding a 36/292/0 slash line last season. Both Bowden and Richard could surpass 30 catches, but neither is likely to have a big role as a runner behind Jacobs, who could surpass 300 carries and push for the rushing title if he can stay healthy this season.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

This offense also got good play on the offensive line last season, with all five starters earning average or better grades from Pro Football Focus. In 2020, not only do they return all five starters, but they also could be even healthier, as only one of the five played all 16 games last season and they only had their expected starting five together for 4 full games all season. If they can stay relatively healthy, they should be an even better offensive line this season.

Left tackle Kolton Miller was their only 16-game starter last season and he was arguably their worst starter, though he still earned an average grade from PFF, which was a big step forward from his rookie year in 2018 when he finished 81st out of 85 qualifiers at his position. Miller was a reach as the 15th overall pick, but he still profiles as a solid starter long-term and could take another step forward in his third season in the league in 2020.

On the other side, right tackle Trent Brown was the most banged up starter they had upfront, as he was limited to 582 snaps on the season and frequently played through multiple injuries even when on the field. He still finished 35th among offensive tackles on PFF, his third straight season with an above average grade (40th among offensive tackles in 2018 and 27th in 2017), but he’s also missed 11 games with injury over that stretch. He’s still in his prime in his age 27 season and he should remain a solid starter when on the field this season, but he’s not as good as his 4-year, 66 million dollar contract suggests, as he’s the 2nd highest paid right tackle in the league in average annual salary, only behind the Eagles’ Lane Johnson. He’s a good player, but not on that level.

At guard, Richie Incognito made 12 starts on the left side, while Gabe Jackson made 11 starts on the right side. Jackson was only about an average starter, but he’s been better in the past, finishing in the top-32 among guards on PFF in 4 straight seasons prior to last season, including a pair of top-15 finishes in 2016 and as recently as 2018. Injuries were likely part of the reason for his struggles last season and he has obvious bounce back potential, still only in his age 29 season, but it’s worth noting that injuries have kind of piled up for him in recent years (10 games missed over the past 3 seasons, while being limited in several others), so even if he bounces back a little bit, it’s very possible his best days are behind him. 

Incognito, meanwhile, is coming off of a better season, finishing 11th among guards on PFF, but he’s going into his age 37 season. Incognito has had a crazy career that has included two full seasons missed for off-the-field reasons, among other missed time, but he’s continued to get chances because of how well he’s played, finishing in the top-23 among guards on PFF in each of the past 8 seasons in which he’s played, dating back to 2010 (115 starts). He’s hardly a reliable player, especially given his age, but unless his abilities significantly fall off or he gets in serious trouble again, he should remain at least a capable starter in 2020.

Center Rodney Hudson was mostly healthy last season, missing only about a game and a half. He was once again one of the top centers in the league, ranking 11th among centers on PFF, his 6th straight season in the top-11 among centers, including a pair of top-5 finishes in 2016 and 2018. Hudson’s age is becoming a minor concern in his age 31 season, but he hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down yet and he’s been pretty healthy in recent years, missing just 4 games over the past 7 seasons. He anchors an offensive line that should be at least an above average unit again, returning their starting five from last year, hopefully getting better health, and also still having top reserves like David Sharpe and Denzelle Good around just in case.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The one group that didn’t help Derek Carr much last season was this receiving corps. Tight end Darren Waller had a 90/1145/3 slash line, which gave him the second most yards of any tight end in the league, while slot receiver Hunter Renfrow averaged 2.09 yards per route run, 11th most among wide receivers, but Renfrow is a slot only option who was limited to 13 games last season and the Raiders really lacked consistent play at the outside receiver spots. 

In order to try to correct that, the Raiders used a first round pick on Alabama’s Henry Ruggs and a third round pick on South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards. They also hope to get a healthier season from Tyrell Williams, who was held to 1.58 yards per route run and a 42/651/6 slash line in the first year of a 4-year, 44.3 million dollar contract the Raiders signed him to as a free agent last off-season. With Renfrow locked in on the slot, those three will compete for outside receiver snaps.

Edwards will have a shot to earn time, but is likely a long-shot for a top-3 role, given that Ruggs went higher than him in the draft and that Williams is highly paid. Williams isn’t a guarantee to play as well as his contract, however, even if he can stay healthier than he did last season. Williams had a 69/1059/7 slash line in 2016 as Philip Rivers’ #1 option and he ranked 30th among wide receivers on PFF that season, but he’s averaged just a 42/677/5 slash line over the past 3 seasons, while earning middling grades from PFF, so he’s more of a complementary receiver than a #1 receiver. He may need to be their de facto top outside receiver for another year though, as Ruggs may be too raw for that role as a rookie. The Raiders should be better at the outside receiver spots in 2020 than 2019, but this is still a questionable group.

Renfrow still looks like their most reliable wide receiver, given how much promise he showed as a mere 5th round rookie last season, and he could easily see more playing time this season, after seeing limited snaps early last season and then missing time with injury later in the season, but he’s capped on the amount he can play because he’s only a slot option at 5-10 185 and he was pretty NFL ready when he came into the league and, already going into his age 25 season, without high end athleticism, it’s possible he’s already very close to his ceiling. He could easily develop into an above average slot option, but he’s hardly true a #1 option.

Tight end Darren Waller will likely remain their #1 option, though he may not have the same target share as he had last season, when he ranked 2nd among tight ends with a 22.4% target share (117 of 523 pass attempts), given that this should be a more talented receiving corps overall. Waller showed very little as a blocker, but his performance as a receiver was so good that he still finished 5th overall among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Given where Waller was a couple years ago, he’s really come a long way, in more ways than one.

A 6th round pick by the Ravens in 2015, Waller was very raw when he entered the league, only catching 44 passes as a big wide receiver on a run heavy wishbone offense at Georgia Tech, but he’s always had the upside to develop into a mismatch at the tight end position because of his combination of size and athletic ability. However, he never developed in Baltimore due to drug problems, catching just 12 passes in 2015 and 2016 before being suspended for all of the 2017 season and ultimately getting released by the Ravens ahead of the 2018 season.

Waller eventually got clean and signed with the Raiders, who he played 42 snaps for late in the 2018 season (6 catches), before having a breakout off-season and a breakout season in 2019, with his drug problems behind him, hopefully for good. He’s still a one-year wonder and might not be as productive in 2020 due to sheer regression, even if he does get the same target share as last season, but he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season and he should continue being an above average pass catching tight end for years to come if he can avoid relapsing.

The Raiders signed veteran tight end Jason Witten this off-season, but he’s unlikely to eat into Waller’s targets as much as the wide receivers. Witten was one of the best receiving tight ends in the league in his prime, averaging a 90/994/5 slash line from 2007-2013, but now he’s going into his age 38 season. He still had a 63/529/4 slash line last season, but that was primarily due to opportunity, as he averaged just 1.19 yards per route run on a good Cowboys offense last season and earned a below average grade from PFF overall. 

Witten is still a capable blocker who can catch some passes as an underneath option in two tight end sets, but he’s much more of a replacement for Foster Moreau, who had a 21/174/5 slash line last season as a 4th round rookie, than a threat to any of Waller’s playing time. With Moreau moving into the #3 role, I would expect similar production from Witten in a receiving corps that is improved, but still lacks a legitimate #1 receiver.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

Given that the Raiders had the worst defense in the league last season in terms of first down rate allowed, there is nowhere to go but up for this unit. The interior defender spot was their best position last season, as Maurice Hurst and PJ Hall had the two highest grades on Pro Football Focus of any Raiders defender last season, finishing 30th and 46th respectively among interior defenders on PFF, while Johnathan Hankins earned a middling grade. Those three split snaps pretty evenly, with Hurst playing 522 snaps, Hall playing 551 snaps, and Hankins playing 670 snaps and this season they add ex-Cowboy Maliek Collins to the mix on a 1-year, 6 million dollar deal. All four could see pretty equal playing time if all four can stay healthy.

Hurst is still the best of the bunch, earning above average grades from PFF on 522 snaps and 472 snaps in two seasons in the league. He’s a capable run stuffer, but he brings the most value as an interior pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, 4 hits, and a 8.1% pressure rate in his career. Hurst was just a 5th round pick in 2018, but could have gone much higher if not for a medical condition that has yet to be a concern, so he projects as a long-term above average starter. Hall, meanwhile, was a 2nd round pick in that same draft and, while he hasn’t been quite as good as Hurst, he still earned an average grade from PFF on 512 snaps as a rookie in 2018 before taking a step forward in 2019 and he could easily keep getting better. He’s more of a base package player than a sub package rusher, but he can play in both situations.

Hankins figures to continue to see a significant role in base packages. The 7-year veteran has never been much of a pass rusher, with 13.5 sacks and a 6.2% pressure rate in 98 career games, but he’s earned an above average grade as a run stuffer in every season he’s been in the league and he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so he should be able to keep it up. Collins, meanwhile, struggles against the run, but has developed a capable interior pass rusher, with 4 sacks, 8 hits, and a 9.8% pressure rate last season. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being that level of a player, but he has a 7.9% pressure rate for his career and the 2016 3rd round pick could theoretically keep getting better, still only in his age 25 season. This is a deep position group.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The Raiders also added edge defender Carl Nassib this off-season on a 3-year, 25.25 million dollar deal. A 3rd round pick by the Browns in 2016, Nassib was pretty underwhelming in his first two seasons in Cleveland, leading to him being released ahead of final cuts in 2018, but he proved the Browns gave up too early on him, earning slightly above average grades from Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons with the Buccaneers, on snap totals of 598 and 630. He’s best against the run, but has also added 12.5 sacks, 13 hits, and a 8.6% pressure rate over the past two seasons as well.

Nassib may not start at defensive end in this 4-3 defense, but he’ll at least be heavily involved as a rotational player, at a position group where reserves Arden Key, Benson Mayowa, and Josh Mauro all struggled last season. Nassib may even rotate evenly with nominal starters Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby, who are both going into their second season in the league. Crosby led this team with 10 sacks, but his peripheral pass rush snaps (6 hits, 9.4% pressure rate) weren’t as good and he struggled against the run, so he only ended up with an average grade overall from PFF on 750 snaps. He still exceeded expectations for a 4th round rookie and he projects as a solid starter long-term, but he wasn’t as good as his sack total suggested and he’s not a guarantee to get better this season.

Ferrell, meanwhile, should be better this season, as the 2019 4th overall pick has a high upside and, though he earned a middling grade overall for his rookie season, he was significantly better down the stretch, ranking 8th among edge defenders on PFF from week 12 on. He might not be able to continue that over a full 16 game season and he was primarily a run stuffer, with a mediocre 7.4% pressure rate overall as a rookie, but he projects as an above average starter and could take a step forward both as a pass rusher and against the run in 2020. Nassib, Ferrell, and Crosby should play the vast majority of the snaps at this position, but Arden Key, a 2018 3rd round pick who has struggled on 823 career snaps, would be the top reserve if needed. Even though he hasn’t played well yet in his career, he still has upside and he’s not a bad #4 end in what is a decent position group overall, even if they lack a high level player at the position.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Raiders’ big off-season addition this year was middle linebacker Cory Littleton, who comes over from the Rams on a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal that makes him the 9th highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL in average annual salary. An undrafted free agent in 2016, Littleton worked his way from a reserve and practice squadder in his first two seasons in the league to a capable starter in 2018, when he finished 35th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, to a dominant season in 2019, in which he finished 7th among off ball linebackers on PFF, leading to the Raiders signing him to a big contract. Littleton is a one-year wonder as a top level player and may not be able to repeat his career best year from 2019, but he’s still in his prime in his age 27 season and should remain an above average every down off ball linebacker at the very least.

The Raiders also signed ex-Bear Nick Kwiatkoski to a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal and he figures to play every down outside in this 4-3 defense. A 4th round pick in 2016, Kwiatkowski has never been a regular starter, making just 22 starts in 4 seasons in the league as a spot starter, but he’s fared well in his last two extended starting stints, finishing 10th among off ball linebackers on PFF on 382 snaps in 2017 and 16th on 512 snaps last season. He deserves to get a shot at a full-time starting role and the Raiders will give it to him. He’s a projection to that role, but could easily end up as an above average starter, still only in his age 27 season.

Littleton and Kwiatkowski are big additions because the Raiders’ linebacking corps was led by Tahir Whitehead (941 snaps) and Nicholas Morrow (728 snaps) last season and they finished 68th and 90th respectively among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF. Whitehead is gone, but Morrow remains on the team and will compete for the 3rd linebacker job, which would play only in base packages. Morrow isn’t a lock for that role though, as the 2017 undrafted free agent has struggled mightily throughout his 3 seasons in the league and will have to fend off 3rd round rookie Tanner Muse to even keep a part-time role. This is a solid group thanks to off-season additions.

Grade: B

Secondary

The Raiders also made a few additions to their secondary this off-season. At cornerback, they signed veteran Prince Amukamara to a deal that barely pays him more than the league minimum, which could be a steal for a player who was still a solid starter last season in Chicago and who was only released because the cap-strapped Bears didn’t want to pay his 9 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. 

Amukamara is going into his age 31 season and has only played all 16 games in a season once in 9 years, but he’s also played at least 13 games in 6 of 9 seasons and he has earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of his past 8 seasons as a starter (99 starts), including a 13th ranked finish as recently as 2018. Even if he declines in 2020, he should be able to be at least an average starter. 

Amukamara was signed after the Raiders drafted Damon Arnette 19th overall this past April and, with Arnette still being a raw prospect, Amukamara should at least open the season as the starter, unless Arnette has a big training camp. It’s possible both Amukamara and Arnette could start outside, but that’s unlikely, as 2019 2nd round pick Trayvon Mullen is likely locked into a starting role after holding his own on 675 snaps (10 starts) as a rookie. Mullen could easily take a step forward in 2020 after a middling first season in the league, but that’s not a guarantee.

At safety, the Raiders added veteran Damarious Randall on a 1-year, 1.5 million dollar deal and he could prove to be a steal as well, as he has started and has earned slightly above average grades from PFF in each of the past two seasons with the Browns. The former first round pick struggled earlier in his career at cornerback with the Packers, but is a more natural fit at safety. Injuries that cost him 5 games last season may have depressed his market and he’s never made it through a full 16 game season without missing at least a game in 5 seasons in the league, but as long as he’s healthy he should be at least a solid starter.

The Raiders also get 2019 first round pick Johnathan Abram back, after an injury limited him to 48 snaps as a rookie. Abram is still unproven, but he has a high upside and getting him back is like having an extra first round pick. The Raiders also have plenty of depth options at safety, as Erik Harris, who has held his own in 18 starts over the past two seasons with the Raiders, and free agent signing Jeff Heath, who has been a capable starter over the past three seasons in Dallas (44 starts), are both available as depth options.

Given how deep they are at safety, the Raiders are likely to leave LaMarcus Joyner at slot cornerback, even though he struggled mightily there last season, in the first year of a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal, and even though his best days with the Rams prior to signing with the Raiders were at free safety. Joyner finished 2nd among safeties on PFF in 2017 and 28th in 2018, but fell to 126th among 135 qualifying cornerbacks last season. 

A 2014 2nd round pick, Joyner also struggled at cornerback earlier in his career, so it should be clear that safety is his best spot, but he looks likely to remain at slot cornerback given the other personnel in this secondary. Other slot options would include 4th round rookie Amik Robertson and 2019 4th round pick Isaiah Johnson, who played 14 snaps as a rookie, and neither of those players would be reliable options. Much like this defense as a whole, this secondary still has some problems, but looks to be significantly improved from last year’s league worst unit.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The Oakland Raiders were not as good as their record in 2019, with all seven of their wins coming by 8 points or fewer and 6 of their 9 losses coming by 18 points or more, but there are reasons to believe this team can play significantly better than last season, now in their first season in Las Vegas. The big one is simply that they’re more talent after some smart off-season additions, particularly on defense, where they still have problems, but figure to be much improved from last year’s league worst season. 

The Raiders also should be healthier this season, after losing the 7th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, which will especially matter on offense, where their desired offensive line and top running back Josh Jacobs rarely all were on the field at the same time. Led by this running game and offensive line and Derek Carr setting up play action off the run, this offense could take a big step forward this season along with their improved defense. They’re starting from a lower base point than most realize because they were much worse than their record suggested last season, so they might not have a big increase in win total, but they should be in the mix for one of the three wild cards in the AFC.  I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.57

Defensive Score: 72.29

Total Score: 74.43 (3rd in AFC West)

Denver Broncos 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Broncos won the Super Bowl in 2015, but they did so in spite of their quarterback play, not because of it, and over the past few seasons the Broncos have shuffled through various options trying to find the right solution. Their defense has remained consistently good, but the 2015 Broncos defense was one of the best defenses in the league over the past decade, so they haven’t been able to maintain that level of play and their inability to find a quarterback has caused them to miss the post-season in every season since their Super Bowl win. As recent as that Super Bowl seems, the Broncos now have tied for the 4th longest active streak of not making the post-season, only behind the Browns, Buccaneers, and Jets, so the urgency is obviously there for this team to return to the post-season.

Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler were their quarterbacks in 2015, but Manning retired and Osweiler signed with the Texans, so the Broncos drafted Paxton Lynch in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. He turned out to be a megabust though, making just 4 starts in 2 seasons before being let go. Instead, backup caliber quarterback Trevor Siemian made 24 starts between 2016 and 2017 and Osweiler also came back and made 4 starts in 2017, after proving to be a bust on a big contract with the Texans. 

Neither Siemian and Osweiler were getting the job done, so the Broncos turned to free agent acquisition Case Keenum in 2018, who pocketed 22 million for one mediocre season before being sent to the Redskins for a late round pick. They then tried Joe Flacco in 2019, acquiring him from the Ravens for a 4th round pick and taking on his 18.5 million dollar salary, but he lasted just 8 mediocre starts before going down for the season with a neck injury. 

The Broncos also used a 2nd round pick last off-season on quarterback Drew Lock, but he broke his thumb in the pre-season and was not available when Flacco got hurt, leaving the Broncos to start practice squad caliber quarterback Brandon Allen for 3 games, before Lock eventually returned for the final 5 games of the season. Lock was a mixed bag in those 5 starts, but he showed enough for Broncos fans to be excited that he could potentially be the long-term starter. 

Lock’s overall numbers weren’t great, as he completed 64.1% of his passes for an average of 6.54 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 35th ranked quarterback out of 39 qualifiers, but even that was enough for this team to go 4-1, only losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, so this is a very intriguing team going into 2020. The 34.95% first down rate the Broncos moved the chains at in Lock’s 5 starts last season isn’t great, but it’s a noticeable improvement from the 30.83% first down rate they had in the first 11 games of the season and it made a big difference in the win/loss column for a team with a defense that finished 7th in first down rate allowed last season at 33.20%. 

The Broncos clearly liked what they saw from Lock, releasing Flacco and not pursuing a veteran replacement besides career backup Jeff Driskel (79.6 QB rating in 8 career starts), so they are all in on Lock at the position. Lock comes with a lot of uncertainty, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be the best quarterback they’ve had since Manning’s last good year in 2014. If they can get capable quarterback play and play at a high level on defense, this team could make some noise in the AFC.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

I’ll get into whether or not their defense can continue playing at a high level later, but on offense everything is looking up and not just because of Drew Lock’s potential, as the Broncos have done a good job adding talent around the quarterback on offense. That’s especially true at the wide receiver position, where they used their first two picks this year on Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Penn State’s KJ Hamler to give them a high upside young trio with incumbent #1 option Courtland Sutton. 

Hamler enters the league pretty raw, but he has a high upside and Jeudy was arguably the top wide receiver in the draft, so he was a great value at #15 overall and can have an immediate impact. Relying on rookies is tough, but the Broncos didn’t have a wide receiver other than Sutton or Emmanuel Sanders, who was traded away mid-season, that topped 297 receiving yards last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for the rookies to be an upgrade.

In the second half of last season when Sanders was gone, including Lock’s 5-game stretch, Sutton was the Broncos’ only consistent passing game option, but at least the 2018 2nd round pick was able to break out as a legitimate #1 option in his second season in the league. After a middling rookie year in which he had a 42/704/4 slash line on 84 targets, Sutton jumped to 11th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2019 and finished the season with a 72/1112/6 slash line on 124 targets, despite frequent double teams and inconsistent quarterback play. 

Sutton might not have the same target share as last season (24.6%) in a deeper group, but he could still post similar numbers on a smaller target share if this passing game is improved as a whole and other wide receivers draw coverage away from him. Sutton is technically a one-year wonder, but he’s only going into his age 25 season and could easily develop into one of the best wide receivers in the league for years to come.

The Broncos have also used significant draft capital on the tight end position in recent years, taking Noah Fant in the first round in 2019 and using a 4th round pick this year on Albert Okwuegbunam. Fant had a pretty underwhelming rookie year, but still finished the season second on the team with a 40/562/3 slash line and he has obvious upside going forward. He may never develop into a good blocker, but he has the upside to be a major mismatch in the passing game. He might not have a breakout year this year, but he could easily take a step forward in his second season.

Okwuegbunam, meanwhile, will compete for the #2 job with incumbent #2 Jeff Heuerman. Heuerman is a mediocre option who isn’t much of a blocker and has never topped 281 receiving yards in a season in 5 seasons in the league, but Okwuegbunam enters the league pretty raw, especially as a run blocker, so he probably wouldn’t be an upgrade as a rookie. This is definitely a deeper receiving corps than last year and they have a huge ceiling, but their overall lack of experience also gives them a low floor.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

The Broncos also added at the running back position this off-season, signing ex-Charger Melvin Gordon to a 2-year, 16 million dollar deal. It was a surprising signing because the Broncos didn’t seem to need to spend significant money on the running back position, with lead back Phillip Lindsay having topped 1,000 yards rushing in each of the past two seasons and still only going into his age 26 season without a significant injury history. In total, Lindsay has rushed for 16 touchdowns and 4.92 YPC on 416 carries over the past two seasons, while earning Pro Football Focus’ 5th highest and 9th highest rushing grade over the past two seasons respectively.

The Broncos also probably overpaid for Gordon, even if Gordon settled for less than the 10 million he was originally offered by the Chargers prior to his ill-advised holdout last season. Gordon tried to cash in on a 2018 season in which he rushed for 5.06 YPC and 10 touchdowns on 175 carries and finished as PFF’s 2nd ranked running back overall, but the Chargers wouldn’t give him the top of the running back market deal he wanted, leading to him sitting out the first 4 games of the 2019 season. 

The Chargers were wise to not pay him at the top of the market, as they were arguably better in the games that Gordon didn’t play last season, with Austin Ekeler impressing as the lead back and Gordon struggling (3.78 YPC on 162 carries) upon his return. His holdout likely caused some of his struggles, but when you look at his 5 seasons with the Chargers in total, his 2018 season stands out as an obvious outlier, as he’s never topped 4 YPC in any of his other 4 seasons in the league. Poor offensive line play was part of the problem, but he’s also never finished higher than 19th among running backs on PFF in any of his other 4 seasons in the league. Even as the 7th highest paid running back in the league, he’s overpaid and he wasn’t really necessary for a team that had a strong lead back already.

The biggest area Gordon helps this running back group is in the passing game, as Lindsay has averaged just 4.60 yards per target in his career thus far and last year’s passing down back Royce Freeman averaged just 5.12 yards per target, while Gordon has averaged a 53/447/3 slash line per 16 games in his career. In addition to playing most passing downs, Gordon figures to split early down work with Lindsay and there could be a lot of carries available for both on a team that will likely try to be run heavy to protect their young quarterback.

It also wouldn’t be hard for Gordon to be an upgrade as a runner over Freeman, who averaged just 3.76 YPC and ranked 42nd out of 45 qualifying running backs with just a 41% carry success rate, but the Broncos probably would have been better off adding a running back through the draft or a cheaper veteran, rather than paying significant money for a running back with one strong year out of five. This is a deep backfield though, with Freeman now moving into at best the #3 back role.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Broncos made some offensive line additions this off-season, though they primarily were replacing off-season departures, with starting center Connor McGovern and starting right guard Ron Leary no longer with the team. Leary won’t be a big loss, but McGovern was Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked center last season. The big addition was Graham Glasgow, who comes over from the Lions on a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal. 

A 3rd round pick in 2016, Glasgow has made 58 starts in 4 seasons in the league and he has earned an above average grade on PFF in 3 straight seasons, including a career best 10th ranked finish among guards in 2019. In addition to being an above average starter, he’s versatile and proven at different spots (18 starts at left guard, 26 starts at center, 14 starts at right guard). It’s unclear where Glasgow will play in Denver, but wherever he ends up the Broncos will be expecting him to essentially be a replacement for McGovern.

Where Glasgow ends up playing may come down to how the Broncos feel about other starting options on this line. If Glasgow plays right guard, the Broncos would likely have to start 3rd round rookie Lloyd Cushenberry at center. If Glasgow plays center, the Broncos would likely start Elijah Wilkinson at right guard. Wilkinson struggled in 12 starts at right tackle last season, but the 2017 undrafted free agent was better in 7 starts at right guard in 2018. He may never develop into a consistent starter anywhere, but he’s not a bad option if the Broncos aren’t comfortable starting a rookie at center and want to move Glasgow to the pivot instead.

Wilkinson was also only an injury fill in at right tackle last season, with the Broncos signing Ja’Wuan James from the Dolphins on a 4-year, 51 million dollar last off-season and then watching him play just 63 snaps all season due to a knee injury that he had multiple setbacks with. Injuries have been a problem for him in the past as well, as he’s been limited to 8 games or fewer in 3 of 6 seasons in the league, but he’s expected to be healthy at least going into this season, which would be a big boost for this team. James is not as good as his contract suggests, as, in addition to his injury history, he’s never finished higher than 28th among offensive tackles on PFF in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s also been an average or better starter in every season in the league as well and he’s only in his age 28 season, so he should be a solid starter again in 2020 if he can stay on the field.

The left side of this offensive line remains the same, with Garett Bolles and Dalton Risner locked in at left tackle and left guard respectively. Bolles was a first round pick in 2017 and has had a lot of problems with penalties, committing 45 in 48 career starts, but he’s otherwise developed into a high level player, allowing 6 sacks over the past 2 seasons and finishing 29th and 16th among offensive tackles on PFF over the past 2 seasons respectively. 

If Bolles can ever figure out his penalty problem, he could be one of the top offensive tackles in the league. That’s easier said than done and he’s older than most players in their 4th season in the league (age 28), but even if he continues to play the same as he has, you could do a lot worse at left tackle. Risner, meanwhile, is a 2019 2nd round pick who was a capable starter in 16 rookie year starts and could take a step forward in his second season in the league. This could be a solid group if they’re healthy, but they have at least one starting spot where they’re likely going to be relying on an underwhelming option.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

The Broncos’ offense should take a step forward in 2020, after ranking 27th in first down rate in 2019 at 32.08%, so if their defense can continue playing at a high level, after ranking 7th in first down rate in 2019 at 33.20%, they could easily take a step forward from last year’s 7-9 record and compete for a playoff spot. At the interior defender spot, the Broncos are actually better than they were last season. 

Shelby Harris led the position with 636 snaps last season and finished 19th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus, but the Broncos weren’t expecting to be able to re-sign him at the start of the off-season, so they traded for Jurrell Casey from the Titans, flipping late round picks to acquire Casey and the 37.9 million over 3 years remaining on his contract in a salary dump. Then when Harris’ market didn’t develop, he agreed to return on a 1-year, 3.095 million dollar deal in hopes of getting a more favorable market next off-season.

The Broncos didn’t bring back long-time starter Derek Wolfe (108 starts over 8 seasons), but he was a middling starter in 2019 and Harris and Casey, who will both start and play significant roles, are both above average starters. It’s not that surprising that Harris’ market didn’t develop the way he expected because, as well as he played last season, it was the first season of his career in which he was a starter, but he had showed plenty of promise in 2017 and 2018 as a reserve as well, playing the run at a high level and totalling 7 sacks, 12 hits, and a 7.3% pressure rate, so he could easily continue being an above average starter in 2020, which makes him a steal at his salary.

Casey is more expensive, but could also prove to be a good value, considering the Broncos hardly gave up anything in terms of draft compensation to acquire him. Casey had a down year in 2019, but for him a down year means finishing 26th among interior defenders on PFF, after 4 straight seasons in the top-19 prior. Any decline is a concern for a player who is going into his age 31 season, but even if he keeps declining, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see him remain an above average starter for at least the next couple years, even if his best days are behind him.

The Broncos run a base 3-4 defense and in base packages Mike Purcell will be the 3rd interior defender, playing the traditional base package run stuffing nose tackle role, a role he thrived in last season, when he finished #1 among interior defenders on PFF in run stuffing grade. Purcell is a complete one-year wonder though, as not only were the 416 snaps he played last season a career high, but last season was his first career above average grade from PFF and it was also the first time he had played a defensive snap since 2016. 

Purcell is highly unlikely to be as good as he was last season again, but he’s still in his age 29 season and it’s possible he’s a late bloomer who can continue playing well in a situational early down role going forward. The 6-3 329 pounder certainly looks the part and, while he doesn’t get much pass rush at all (3.3% career pressure rate), the Broncos won’t need him to play in sub packages because they have Casey and Harris, who are capable of playing every down.

The Broncos also have good depth at this position, so much so that I wouldn’t expect all of the players in the mix for roles to make the final roster. Casey, Harris, and Purcell are obviously locked in to roster spots, as are 3rd round rookie McTelvin Agim and 2019 3rd round pick Dre’Mont Jones. Agim might not have a big rookie year role, but Jones showed promise as a situational pass rusher as a rookie (10.5% pressure rate) and, now in his second season in the league, he’s likely to exceed the 283 snaps he played as a rookie and will likely be their top reserve.

That leaves 2017 2nd round pick DeMarcus Walker and Christian Covington competing not only for playing time, but possibly for roster spots. Walker was a high pick, but has been limited to 341 snaps in 3 seasons in the league. He’s played both inside and outside in this defense, but hasn’t been able to find a consistent role anywhere. Last season, he was primarily a situational interior pass rusher and wasn’t bad (8.7%), but he only played 220 snaps total and it’s hard to see how there would be more snaps available for him in 2020, unless injuries hit. Covington, meanwhile, is a free agent acquisition who has excelled as a rotational reserve throughout his career, only averaging 330 snaps per season over the past four seasons, but earning an average or better grade from PFF in all four of those seasons. This is a deep group that should be improved from last season.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

The Broncos should also be improved in the edge defender group, set to get Bradley Chubb back from a torn ACL that ended his 2019 season after 4 games, following a rookie season in which the 5th overall pick led all rookies with 12 sacks in 2018. Chubb’s return isn’t as big of a deal as you’d think though, as he wasn’t quite as good of a pass rusher as his rookie year sack total suggested and the players who replaced him weren’t much of a dropoff. 

Malik Reed (468 snaps), Jerry Attaochu (322 snaps), and Justin Hollins (266 snaps) couldn’t match Chubb as a pass rusher, but they were upgrades against the run, an area in which Chubb struggled as a rookie. There are other factors involved, but the Broncos were actually better defensively in the 12 games they played without Chubb last season (32.16% first down rate allowed), as compared to the 4 games they played with Chubb (36.55% first down rate allowed).

Now coming off the injury, Chubb’s future is a little bit more uncertain, but he still has the upside to develop into one of the best edge defenders in the league long-term, even if he hasn’t been as good as his rookie year sack total has suggested thus far in his career. Whether or not he can take a big step forward in his third season in the league in his first year back from the injury in 2020 is the question. If he can, it will be a big boost to this defense, but that remains to be seen. 

It’s possible the Broncos could play Malik Reed, the best of the three players who played in Chubb’s absence last season, more on early downs and save Chubb as a pass rush specialist to hide his struggles against the run and keep him fresher to rush the passer. Either way, Reed, a 2019 undrafted free agent who flashed on 465 rookie season snaps, figures to be the primary reserve, while Hollins and Attaochu are still around and could make the roster again as deep reserves.

Von Miller figures to remain in an every down role on the opposite side, so unless Reed can earn an early down role at Chubb’s expense, the Broncos won’t have much need for reserves, barring injuries. Miller has been one of the best edge defenders in the league over the past decade, totalling 106 sacks, 122 hits, and a 15.9% pressure rate in his career, while also excelling against the run. Selected #2 overall in 2011, Miller finished in the top-4 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 8 seasons in the league, before slipping to 22nd among edge defenders in 2019. 

Any decline is concerning for a player now going into his age 31 season, but he still managed 8 sacks, 11 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate, while maintaining his usual level of play against the run. Even if his best days are behind him, he could remain one of the top players at his position for several years to come if he ages gracefully. With Miller elevating his group by himself, Chubb returning opposite him, and some good depth led by Malik Reed, this figures to be a strong position group again.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Broncos defense was significantly improved after the first 4 games of last season, in spite of Bradley Chubb’s season ending injury. Part of that was Chubb’s replacements holding their own, but it also lines up with the insertion of AJ Johnson into the lineup at middle linebacker in place of Josey Jewell, who fared well as a run stuffer as the early season starter but struggled mightily in coverage. Johnson didn’t play a defensive snap in the first week 4 weeks of the season, but he became an every down player in week 5 and beyond (60.9 snaps per game) and he was a revelation, ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 5th highest graded off ball linebacker over that stretch.

Not only did Johnson not play a defensive snap in the first 4 weeks of last season, but he also had never played a defensive snap in the NFL ever prior to week 5 of 2019, even though he was technically part of the 2015 NFL Draft class. I say technically because Johnson was kicked off the team at the University of Tennessee during his senior season in 2014 after being charged with rape and, as a result, he went undrafted in 2015 and went unsigned until the Broncos gave him a shot in 2018, signing him to their practice squad following his acquittal. 

It certainly seemed unlikely a few years ago that Johnson’s career would ever get started, let alone that he’d ever been one of the top players at his position for a 12-game stretch, but he had the potential to be a high draft pick before his legal troubles and he still doesn’t turn 29 until the end of December so, even if he doesn’t quite match what he did last season, it wouldn’t surprise me if he remained an above average every down player in 2020 and a few years beyond.

Johnson will continue to start alongside Todd Davis, who will also play close to every down. Davis has made 59 starts for the Broncos over the past 4 seasons and has consistently been an above average run stuffer, but he only recently developed into a capable coverage linebacker as well, which has allowed him to play 58.0 snaps per game over the past two seasons, after playing just 40.6 snaps per game in 2016 and 2017. Davis has finished 24th and 34th among off ball linebackers on PFF in 2018 and 2019 respectively and, still only going into his age 28 season, he should continue playing around the same level in the same role in 2020.

Josey Jewell is still around, but only as a pure reserve. A 4th round pick in 2018, Jewell has shown potential against the run in both seasons in the league, but he’s consistently struggled in coverage and has played just 674 snaps total. He’s not a bad reserve because he’s at least very capable in one aspect of the game, but the Broncos’ coverage unit would take a big hit if he had to fill in for Johnson or Davis. As long as both are on the field, Johnson and Davis should remain an above average starting duo.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The one big loss the Broncos had on defense this off-season was Chris Harris, who has been their #1 cornerback for years. Harris fell to 38th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus last season, after finishing in the top-18 in each of the first 8 seasons prior to last season, and is now going into his age 31 season, so the Broncos didn’t want to bring him back on a deal similar to the 2-year, 17 million dollar deal he signed with the Chargers and instead they sent a 4th round pick to the Jaguars for AJ Bouye, to whom the Jaguars did not want to pay a 13.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020. 

Time will tell if that was the right move. Bouye is younger than Harris, going into his age 29 season, but may be declining faster, finishing 5th among cornerbacks on PFF on 2016, 7th in 2017, 22nd in 2018, and then falling to 92nd out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks in 2019, which led to the Jaguars wanting to move on. He has some bounce back potential because he’s not totally over the hill, but it’s not a guarantee that he’s going to rebound, so the Broncos are taking a risk moving on from Harris to add him.

One reason going with Bouye over Harris makes sense is because Bouye is a natural outside cornerback, while Harris has been at his best on the slot in his career. The Broncos tried to have Harris play outside more last season, which is probably part of why he wasn’t as good as usual in 2019, and now they are getting slot cornerback Bryce Callahan back from an injury that cost him all of last season, so they really need a natural outside cornerback more than anything.

An undrafted free agent of the Bears in 2015, Callahan played 84.2% of his coverage snaps on the slot in 4 seasons in Chicago and lacks the size to play consistently outside at 5-9 185, but he allowed just 0.77 yards per route run on the slot in his final two seasons in Chicago, while finishing 26th among cornerbacks on PFF on 512 snaps in 2017 and 11th on 676 snaps in 2018. That landed him a 3-year, 21 million dollar deal from the Broncos last off-season, but he has yet to play a snap on that deal, missing all of last season with a foot injury. Injuries have been an issue for him throughout his career, as he’s never played more than 13 games in a season, but he’s still in his age 29 season and, if he’s healthy in 2020, he should remain an above average slot option for however many games he can make it through.

The one job up for grabs in this cornerback group is the other outside cornerback job opposite Bouye, with Bouye locked in on one side and Callahan locked in on the slot. Isaac Yiadom ranked second among Bronco cornerbacks in starts (8) and snaps (504) and may be the favorite for the #2 cornerback job this season, but he struggled last season, ranking 120th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks, after struggling on 264 snaps as a 3rd round rookie in 2018, so he’ll have to compete for the job. His primary competition may be 3rd round rookie Michael Ojemudia, but he enters the league pretty raw and the Broncos have several holdovers who saw action last season who could be in the mix for roles in 2020.

Davontae Harris made 6 starts outside last season, but he too struggled, finishing 114th out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF on 429 snaps, in the first action of the 2018 5th round pick’s career. De’Vante Bausby was better in his 2 starts, but the 2015 undrafted free agent has played just 395 snaps total in his career, so he’s highly unproven. Duke Dawson also played 343 snaps last season and he played pretty well, earning an average grade from PFF, but he was primarily a slot cornerback in Callahan’s absence, so he probably isn’t a real contender to start outside and will likely open the 2020 season as Callahan’s backup. He’s good depth to have because of Callahan’s injury history, but their lack of a #2 cornerback is an obvious problem.

Fortunately, the Broncos are very strong at the safety position, with Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson coming off of a season in which they finished 1st and 8th respectively among safeties on PFF. They may not be quite as good in 2020, for different reasons, but they should both remain above average starters at the least. Simmons’ reason is simply that he is a one-year wonder as an elite safety, finishing 30th among safeties in his first season as a starter in 2017, then falling to 77th out of 100 qualifiers in 2018, before shooting up to the top in 2019. It’s possible the 2016 3rd round pick has permanently turned a corner, but it’s also very possible he continues to be inconsistent going forward. Still only going into his age 27 season, he could have more dominant seasons in his future, but 2020 might not necessarily be one of them.

The concern with Jackson, meanwhile, is his age, as he goes into his age 32 season, but he hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, having one of the best seasons of his career in 2018, finishing 5th among cornerbacks, before moving to safety and having another strong season in 2019. A consistently above average cornerback throughout his prime (137 career starts in 10 seasons in the league), Jackson can age more gracefully at the safety position because he won’t need to be as athletic, so he could easily remain an above average starting safety for at least another couple seasons, even if his best days are now behind him. He and Simmons could easily be one of the top safety duos in the league, which elevates a position group that has some question marks at cornerback, but looks to overall be an above average group.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Broncos ranked 7th in first down rate allowed last season, but their offensive struggles led to them still finishing with a negative first down rate differential at -1.12% and, as a result, they finished out of the playoffs for the 4th straight season, going just 7-9 overall. This year, their defense is changed, but looks to still be one of the top defenses in the league once again, so if an offense that has added a lot of young talent in recent off-seasons can take a step forward, this team could easily be in playoff contention in 2020, especially with a 3rd wild card spot opening up. How much of a step forward they take is largely dependent on unproven 2nd year quarterback Drew Lock. If he can be even an average starting quarterback, this could be a dangerous team, but being an average starting quarterback is a lot easier said than done. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 71.66

Defensive Score: 76.89

Total Score: 74.28 (4th in AFC West)

San Francisco 49ers 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It wasn’t hard to see how the 49ers could be significantly improved from 2018 to 2019. The 2018 49ers went just 4-12, but they were significantly better than that in first down rate differential, ranking 19th at -0.05%. Their struggles in 2018 were primarily due to their horrific league worst turnover margin of -25, but turnover margins tend to be highly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis in general and the 49ers were getting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo back from a torn ACL that limited him to 3 games in 2018 and they made some significant defensive additions, so it wasn’t hard to see how they could be significantly improved in the turnover margin, even beyond the natural randomness of turnovers.

However, I don’t think anyone foresaw the 49ers being as good as they were in 2019, as they exceeded expectations on both sides of the ball, finishing in the top-10 in first down rate (9th at 38.24%) and in first down rate allowed (6th at 32.95%), joining only the Ravens as one of two teams to do so last season. Overall, the 49ers went 13-3, earned the #1 seed in the NFC, finished 2nd in the NFL in first down rate differential at 5.29%, and came within a half quarter of winning the Super Bowl, blowing a double digit 4th quarter lead to the Chiefs.

The question now becomes what can the 49ers do for an encore and can they make it all the way. History suggests they can’t, as there have only been three teams to ever win the Super Bowl the year following a Super Bowl defeat, including just one team over the past 47 years, and the 49ers were also handicapped by a lack of cap space this off-season. However, they still managed to rank 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and they return 18 of 22 offensive and defensive starters. They should also be healthier this season, after having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury in 2019, so there is plenty of reason to believe the 49ers can continue to play at a high level. 

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returns, after making all 16 starts last season for the first time in his career. The jury is still out on him being an elite quarterback and he’s not as young as you’d think given his relative lack of experience (26 career starts), but he showed last season that he’s good enough to take this team very far with the right supporting cast. His injury history is still a minor concern, but the fact that he played all 16 games last season is very promising and it’s very possible we could see him take a step forward in 2020 in his 2nd year removed from the injury.

For a quarterback who completed 69.1% of his passes for an average of 8.36 YPA, 27 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions and who ranked 13th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, any noticeable improvement from him in 2020 would likely put him among the top-10 of starting quarterbacks in the league. He may never become the true elite quarterback he flashed signs of one day being earlier in his career, but as long as he can stay healthy, he should at least be a consistently above average starter long-term.

The 49ers are also in good shape at the backup quarterback spot, as 2017 undrafted free agent Nick Mullens showed some promise as the 49ers’ 3rd starting quarterback option in 2018, completing 64.2% of his passes for an average of 8.31 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions and leading the 49ers to a 37.80% first down rate in his 8 starts, most equivalent to the 12th ranked Seahawks if he had done that over the full 2018 season. Mullens would obviously be a dropoff from Garoppolo and he’s still very inexperienced, but they could get by with him for a few games if needed, given the level of talent on the rest of this roster.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

One of the four starters the 49ers lost from 2019 is left tackle Joe Staley, who opted to hang them up this off-season, rather than return for his age 36 season in 2020. Staley was still Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked offensive tackle last season, so he was still playing at an above average level, though injuries did limit him to 434 snaps last season. The 49ers did a good job replacing him though, sending a 2021 3rd round pick and a 2020 5th round pick to the Redskins for disgruntled left tackle Trent Williams. 

Williams held out all last season and is now going into his age 32 season, so he comes with some uncertainty, especially since he seemed to be declining in his most recent season in 2018, but for him declining means finishing 20th among offensive tackles on PFF after 7 straight seasons in the top-14, including 4 finishes in the top-6. Even if he continues to decline in 2020, he should still be an above average starter. He’s a comparable starter to Joe Staley and not a downgrade, especially since he’s likely to play more than Staley was able to last season.

The 49ers also need a new right guard as 14-game starter Mike Person also retired this off-season. He wasn’t bad last season, earning an average grade from PFF overall, but the 49ers have some decent options to replace him. 2017 undrafted free agent Daniel Brunskill and 2019 6th round pick Justin Skule both showed promise at tackle as injury fill-ins last season, playing 474 snaps and 545 snaps respectively in the first action of either of their careers, and they could be options at right guard. Brunskill has a much better chance of winning the starting right guard job though, as he was better than Skule last season at left tackle and also saw a pair of starts in place of an injured Mike Person down the stretch. Brunskill is still relatively unproven, but has the potential to develop into a consistently solid starting right guard, while Skule will likely back up Williams at left tackle.

The 49ers also added veteran Tom Compton to the mix this off-season, signing him to a 1-year, 2.75 million contract that suggests he’ll get a chance to win the starting job. Compton has only made 34 starts in 8 seasons in the league, but he’s generally been a capable spot starter, even earning an average grade from PFF on 837 snaps (14 starts) in 2018. However, he fell to 75th out of 88 qualifying guards last season on 363 snaps and is now going into his age 31 season. He could start in a pinch, but he’s an underwhelming option who is probably best as a reserve. 

Ben Garland, their top interior reserve last season, is also an option, as he’s flashed in 10 starts over the past 3 seasons. He played center for the 49ers down the stretch last season, but has experience at guard as well. He got a late start to his career and is already in his age 32 season though, so he may also be an underwhelming option. Brunskill, Garland, and Compton all have a legitimate chance to start at right guard and it’s possible whoever wins the job can be a capable starter, but that’s not a guarantee.

Garland could also potentially have to open the season as the starter at center, as regular center Weston Richburg suffered a torn patellar tendon down the stretch last season and is questionable for the start of the year. Patellar tendon tears are arguably the toughest injury to come back from, even for an offensive lineman who isn’t as reliant on athleticism, and Richburg was already struggling before the injury, finishing 32nd out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF in 2018 and 23rd out of 36 qualifying in 2019. Richburg is still only going into his age 29 season and he finished 1st among centers on PFF in 2015 and 8th in 2016, but he’s been pretty banged up in his career, so his best days are almost definitely behind him. Even if he is ready for the start of the season, he may be a below average option.

Left guard Laken Tomlinson and right tackle Mike McGlinchey return and are locked into their spots. McGlinchey was a first round pick by the 49ers in 2018, 9th overall. His career got off to a great start, as he finished 23rd among offensive tackles on PFF, but he had a bit of a sophomore slump in his 2nd season, slipping to 39th among offensive tackles. He still has a bright future though and part of his struggles last season were likely due to an early season knee injury, as he played better down the stretch. He could easily have a bounce back year in 2020 and long-term could develop into consistently one of the better right tackles in the league.

Tomlinson, meanwhile, is also a former first round pick, selected 28th overall in 2015, but he was largely a bust in two seasons with his original team the Detroit Lions, struggling in 24 starts and getting traded to the 49ers for a 5th round pick prior to the 2017 season. Tomlinson was able to prove the Lions gave up on him too early, however, making 47 starts in 3 seasons with the 49ers and grading out as a solid starter in all 3 seasons. Still only in his age 28 season, he should remain a solid starter for years to come. This isn’t quite the same line as last season, but they also could be healthier and all of the players they lost this off-season were adequately replaced, so this should still be a solid unit.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Along with the two starting offensive lineman they lost, the 3rd offensive starter they lost this off-season is wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who joined the team in week 8 via trade and averaged a 58/803/5 slash line per 16 games across 10 regular season games with the team, while ranking as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked wide receiver over that stretch. In the regular season, their first down rate split between games Sanders played and games he didn’t play was 40.03%/35.61%. 

That being said, losing him didn’t seem to be a big deal because the 49ers used the #25 overall pick on wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and they have promising young talent Deebo Samuel going into his second season in the league, after he averaged 2.04 yards per route run as a rookie and totaled 35 catches for 575 yards and 2 touchdowns in his final 8 regular season games (70/1150/4 slash line over 16 games), also largely coinciding with the 49ers offensive improvement down the stretch. However, Samuel broke his foot in an off-season workout and not only seems unlikely to be ready for the start of the season, but also could possibly begin the season on the reserve/PUP list, costing him the first 6 games of the season.

Without Samuel, the 49ers’ wide receiver depth will be tested. They have some intriguing reserve options, but no sure things, leaving the rookie Aiyuk as their #1 option to open the season, even though he’s never played a down of professional football. The 49ers have another couple recent high draft picks at this position, taking Dante Pettis in the 2nd round in 2018 and Jalen Hurd in the 3rd round in 2019, both of whom have upside, but Hurd missed his whole rookie year with injury, while Pettis hasn’t shown much consistency on 766 career snaps and spent most of last season in the doghouse after a promising finish to his rookie campaign.

Kendrick Bourne and Trent Taylor are also options, but they’re better fits on the slot than on the outside and the 49ers don’t use a lot of 3 wide receiver sets. Bourne isn’t a bad player, totalling a 42/487/4 slash line on a 57.2% snap share in 2018 and a 30/358/5 slash line on a 43.7% snap shart in 2019, but the 2017 undrafted free agent doesn’t have a huge ceiling and shouldn’t be much more than #3/#4 receiver. Taylor, meanwhile, flashed with a 43/430/2 slash line as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but was limited to 26/215/1 in 2018 and missed all of 2019 with injury. Physically limited on the outside, he’s a slot only option and could easily play behind Bourne.

The reason the 49ers don’t use a lot of 3 wide receiver sets is because they like to run two tight end sets and two back sets. Ross Dwelley played 359 snaps as the #2 tight end last season, while fullback Kyle Juszczyk led all fullbacks with 388 snaps played, despite missing 4 games with injury. These aren’t just running formations either. Dwelley struggled both as a pass catcher and a blocker last season, but Juszczyk caught 20 passes in 12 games and has a 32/293/1 slash line over the past 5 seasons, while also being a good run blocker, and of course top tight end George Kittle can be just as productive as any wide receiver in the passing game.

A 5th round pick in 2017, Kittle was average as a rookie, but has quickly broken out as the best all-around tight end in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, taking that title from Rob Gronkowski, a player he compares favorably to. Kittle had a 88/1337/5 slash line in 2018 and, though that fell to 85/1035/5 in 2019, that was primarily due to the 49ers being more run heavy and Kittle missing some time due to injury, as his yards per route run actually improved from 2.82 to 3.12, both of which were position leading marks in the respective year. In addition to being a high level pass catcher, Kittle is also one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL and has finished #1 among overall tight ends on PFF in each of the past two seasons. He’s arguably the most dominant offensive player in the league regardless of position.

Still only in his age 27 season, Kittle has a lot of high level football ahead of him if he can stay healthy, something that hasn’t been a significant concern for him thus far in his career. The 49ers didn’t upgrade on Ross Dwelley as the #2 tight end, even though the 2018 undrafted free agent showed very little on 359 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2019, but Kittle and Juszczyk will allow them to continue getting big passing plays out of non passing formations, which will mask some of their depth problems at wide receiver. Deebo Samuel’s injury hurts this group, but when he’s back they should be an above average group again if he can continue developing, especially with George Kittle elevating this group by himself.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

This will remain a run heavy team, after a 498/478 run/pass split in 2020, making them one of three teams in the league (Ravens, Vikings) to have more rush attempts than pass attempts last season. This season, they’ll perhaps be even more run heavy at the beginning of the year, with top wide receiver Samuel likely to be sidelined. The 49ers traded away running back Matt Brieda after he averaged 5.07 YPC on 123 carries last season, but they still have a deep running back group, with holdovers Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman in the mix and long-injured running back Jerick McKinnon looking likely to be healthy for 2020.

McKinnon is the biggest unknown of the group, given that he was expected to play a big role for the 49ers two off-seasons ago when they signed him to a 4-year, 30 million dollar contract in free agency, but he has yet to play a snap for the team, missing all of 2018 with a torn ACL and all of 2019 after suffering another knee injury during his rehab. McKinnon averaged just 4.05 yards per carry on 474 carries in 4 seasons with the Vikings, but a lot of that was due to a poor offensive line (2.40 yards per carry after contact) and his primary value is as a receiver. 

In his final season in Minnesota, he caught 51 passes in a part-time role and averaged 2.63 yards per carry after contact, and the 49ers clearly had big plans for him when they brought him in, given the contract they signed him to. He had to take a pay cut down to 1.16 million for 2020 and he’ll likely be limited to primarily passing down work, assuming he can even stay healthy, but this offense had three backs with more than 123 carries last season, so McKinnon will have an opportunity to earn some carries as well.

With McKinnon likely to be the primary passing down back, Mostert and Coleman are expected to split early down work. How they split the work is up in the air though. Mostert was a breakout star down the stretch last season, taking over as the lead back in week 13 and starting the final 5 regular season games and their three playoff games, in which he rushed for a combined 715 yards and 11 touchdowns on 117 carries (6.11 YPC). All in all, Mostert averaged 5.64 YPC on 137 carries in the regular season and 6.34 YPC on 53 carries in the post-season and could easily continue in the lead back role in 2020.

Whether or not he can continue running as well is up for debate though. As impressive as his 8-game stretch was, he’s still highly unproven, with just 114 career carries outside of those 8 games, even though he’s already in his age 28 season. He certainly wouldn’t be the first obscure running back to ever break out in a Shanahan blocking scheme and he’s shown promise throughout his 3 seasons in San Francisco, with a 6.01 YPC average. Even if he is able to translate to a larger role over a 16-game season, he’s highly unlikely to hit that mark, but he could easily keep having success in this offense.

Coleman has also spent most of his career in the Shanahan blocking scheme, playing for now 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta where Shanahan was the offensive coordinator, before eventually following him to San Francisco. Coleman has had some success throughout his 5-year career, rushing for 4.34 YPC and 24 touchdowns on 665 carries, so he’s not a bad lead back option, but Mostert will likely be given the first chance after how he finished last season. Neither Mostert nor Coleman are much of a receiver, but the 49ers are hoping the return of Jerick McKinnon can add that new dimension to their offense. This is a good group overall.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

The position where the 49ers were most improved from 2018 to 2019 was the edge defender spot. It was predictable they’d get better play at the position, using the #2 overall pick on Nick Bosa and trading a 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for Dee Ford, who they extended on a 5-year, 85.5 million dollar deal. Ford was limited to 226 snaps by injury, but just about everything else went well. Ford played at a high level when on the field, particularly as a pass rusher, with 6.5 sacks and a 14.4% pressure rate, while Bosa exceeded most expectations by finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 11th edge defender and earning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In addition to playing at a high level against the run, Bosa had 9 sacks, 19 hits, and a 16.3% pressure rate and he has the upside to become even better in the future. 

In addition, the 49ers got a somewhat surprising breakout year from Arik Armstead, who played a little on the interior, but saw the vast majority of his snaps on the edge in place of Ford. Armstead finished 3rd among edge defenders on PFF, playing the run at a high level and totalling 10 sacks, 9 hits, and a 12.5% pressure rate. Armstead had just 9 sacks in 4 seasons prior to last season, but he is a former first round pick and he had shown signs of being a consistently above average player prior to last season, despite the low sack total. Injuries were part of the problem, as he was limited to 46 out of 64 games over those 4 seasons, but he still added 15 hits and a 12.3% pressure rate and was an above average run defender. He’s a one-year wonder, but not as much as it seems, so he could easily remain an above average starter if he can stay healthy.

It’s likely Armstead sees more action inside this season, as Ford seems to be healthy. Durability has been a concern for him in recent years, as he was also limited to 316 snaps in 6 games in another injury plagued season in 2017, but in between he finished 10th among edge defenders on PFF in 2018, which is why the 49ers gave up a premium pick in order to acquire him, even though he needed a big extension. Ford is still only going into his age 29 season and he’s shown he can play at a high level when on the field, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy, but that’s not quite a guarantee.

The 49ers also get reserve edge defender Ronald Blair back from injury, after he went down with a torn ACL in week 10. A 5th round pick in 2016, Blair played 981 nondescript snaps in his first 3 seasons in the league, but seemed to be on his way to a strong season as a reserve before getting hurt last season. He was limited to 199 snaps total in 9 games, so he’s still very unproven, and the injury complicates his outlook, but he could return as a talented reserve again.

Solomon Thomas is also in the mix for a reserve role on the edge. Like Armstead, Thomas played some on the interior last season, but primarily played on the edge. He wasn’t particularly good on 425 snaps total though, earning a below average grade from PFF. Thomas was the 3rd overall pick in 2017, but he’s been a massive bust thus far, earning middling at best grades in 3 seasons in the league, on an average of 38.4 snaps per game in 46 games. Still only in his age 25 season, he may have some late breakout potential, but it’s hard to expect much from him. He could be used on the interior more this season, as this is a deep and talented edge group.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

Part of the reason why the 49ers will likely play Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas on the interior more often this season is that they lost top defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who played 811 snaps and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 14th ranked interior defender last season. The 49ers couldn’t afford to keep Buckner long-term and they used the first round pick they got for trading Buckner to the Colts on a replacement in Javon Kinlaw, who is much cheaper and has a huge upside long-term, but he’s unlikely to be as good as a rookie and could be a significant dropoff even if he doesn’t have a bad season.

The 49ers also lost reserve Sheldon Day, but he was underwhelming on 325 snaps last season. They still have DJ Jones, who was better on 304 snaps last season than Day was, especially against the run. A 2017 6th round pick, Jones didn’t show much on 304 snaps in the first two seasons of his career before showing improvement last season and he doesn’t have a huge upside, but he could remain a capable reserve. He’ll play a role along with Kinlaw, Armstead, and Thomas, at a position group that lost its best player from last season.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The 49ers were also improved in the linebacking corps last season. This wasn’t really a surprise, as the 49ers signed Kwon Alexander to a 4-year, 54 million dollar deal in free agency, but Alexander was actually limited to 357 middling snaps in the regular season by injury. Instead, this group took a step forward because Fred Warner stepped up in his 2nd year in the league and 5th round rookie Dre Greenlaw proved to be a steal, holding his own in an every down role in Alexander’s absence and finishing 38th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 725 snaps.


Warner is likely locked into an every down role again in 2020, after playing in that capacity in each of his first two seasons in the league and improving from his rookie year to his 2nd season, in which he finished as PFF’s 28th ranked off ball linebacker. A former 3rd round pick only in his age 24 season, Warner has the ability to keep getting better. Alexander and Greenlaw, meanwhile, will compete for the other every down role, with the loser likely to play in a pure base package role when the 49ers play with 3 off ball linebackers. 

Greenlaw is still pretty unproven and Alexander’s contract and coverage ability suggests he’s the favorite, but Alexander has never played as well as he’s being paid, topping out at 33rd among off ball linebackers (2016) in 5 seasons in the league and consistently struggling against the run and as a tackler (86 missed tackles in 54 career games), so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Greenlaw outplayed him in training camp and the pre-season and won the job. Alexander has also had each of his last three seasons impacted by significant injuries (26 games played out of 48 possible), so there’s a good chance Greenlaw ends up in an every down role at some point one way or another. This is a deep and talented group, even if it lacks an elite player.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The 49ers were also better in the secondary last season than 2018 and, unlike the other defensive position groups where they were better, they didn’t make any major additions to the secondary. Instead, they just got much better play from pretty much everyone across the board. No player was more important than #1 cornerback Richard Sherman, as the multi-time All-Pro turned back the clock in 2019 and finished #2 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

Sherman seemed to be on the decline going into 2019, tearing his Achilles midway through the 2017 season, falling to 49th among cornerbacks on PFF upon his return in 2018, and now on the wrong side of 30, but last season he showed himself to be every bit of the cornerback who finished in the top-10 among cornerbacks on PFF in 5 straight seasons from 2011-2015. Sherman’s age is still a concern, but in his age 32 season it’s reasonable to expect he could continue playing at a high level for another couple seasons even if he declines, especially since he’s much more reliant on intelligence than athleticism. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as good in 2020 as he was in 2019, but Sherman could easily decline gracefully over the next few years if he can avoid further injury.

Slot cornerback K’Waun Williams also made a big jump from 2018 to 2019, ranking 58th among cornerbacks in 2018 before jumping to 10th in a 2019 season in which he also ranked 17th in yards per route run allowed among slot cornerbacks (0.99). Last year was the best year of Williams’ career, but he’s not a one-year wonder, finishing in the top-34 among cornerbacks on PFF in 4 of 5 healthy seasons in the league and allowing 0.98 yards per route run on the slot in his career. Still in his age 29 season, he should remain one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league even if he isn’t as good as he was last season.

Sherman and Williams are locked in, but the other outside cornerback spot opposite Sherman is up for grabs. Ahkello Witherspoon opened last season as the starter and played at a high level in the first 3 weeks of the season, but then he got injured, missed 6 games, struggled upon his return, and then eventually was benched. Witherspoon has been up and down throughout his 3 seasons in the NFL, but he’s still a former 3rd round pick who is only going into his age 25 season, so it’s possible he could have a mini-breakout year in 2020 if he can stay healthy, but, given how inconsistent he’s been in the past, he’s not guaranteed to even win his old job back.


Emmanuel Mosley started in Witherspoon’s absence last season and eventually took his job down the stretch. Undrafted in 2018, Mosley wasn’t bad in the first 577 snaps of his career last season (9 starts). It’s still worth noting that every team including the 49ers let him fall out of the draft, given that he still has very little NFL experience, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he beat the undrafted rookie odds and developed into a consistently capable starter long-term. Neither him nor Witherspoon are sure things to be solid starters in 2020, but both have upside.

At safety, the 49ers got a big improvement between 2018 and 2019 from Jimmie Ward, who finished below average on PFF on 388 snaps in an injury plagued season in 2018, but then jumped to 7th among safeties in 2019. Ward still missed 3 games with injury and injuries have plagued him throughout his career, costing him 32 of a possible 96 games since the 49ers took him in the 1st round in 2014. 

Ward is also a one-year wonder in terms of being the kind of player he was last season, so even if he does stay relatively healthy, he’s unlikely to play as well. He’s definitely shown potential in the past when healthy though and is a good fit in his role as the deep safety in this defense, after moving around both safety spots and the slot cornerback spot early in his career. Still only in his age 29 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him have another above average year, but I wouldn’t expect him to be as good and he’s an obvious injury risk.

Fellow safety Jaquiski Tartt didn’t improve from 2018 to 2019, but he remained a solid starter and played more games, playing in 12 after being limited to 8 the previous season. Injuries have been a problem for him throughout his 5-year career, as he’s never played all 16 games in a season and has missed a total of 19 games over the past 3 seasons, but he’s generally been an above average starter when healthy. He’ll probably miss time at some point again, but should continue playing around the same level when on the field. 

With two injury prone starting safeties, depth will be important for the 49ers at the safety position, but they will be in reasonably good hands if either of their starters goes down, as 2018 3rd round pick Tavarius Moore showed some promise on 234 snaps last season and could easily be an above average reserve in his 3rd season in the league in 2019. The 49ers might not be quite as good in the secondary in 2020, but this is still a well above average group.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

It’s typically tough for teams to be as good as the 49ers were last season in back-to-back years, but the typical risk factors for regression aren’t really present here. The 49ers didn’t benefit from an unsustainably high turnover margin (+4). They didn’t win an unsustainably high amount of close games (5-3 in games decided by 7 points or fewer). They didn’t stay unsustainably healthy, actually having the 6th most adjusted games lost to injury of any team in the league last season. They also mostly avoided the significant personnel losses that high level teams often have, ranking 4th in the NFL in snaps returned from last season and generally doing a good job of replacing the few key players they lost. They also bring back all key members of their coaching staff. None of this ensures the 49ers will win the Super Bowl this year or even make it back, but they should be considered one of the top few contenders. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 75.85

Defensive Score: 77.02

Total Score: 76.44 (1st in NFC West)

Seattle Seahawks 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Seahawks won 11 games and made the post-season last year, their 7th post-season trip in 8 seasons with Russell Wilson, but they played a lot worse than their record suggests. Of their 11 wins, only one came by more than a touchdown and they actually had a losing record on the season in games decided by a touchdown or more at 1-3. At least two of their wins came because the opponent missed a makeable field goal at the end of the game. 

Their +7 point differential was more in line with an 8-8 team and, going into week 17 last season, the Seahawks actually had the worst point differential ever for a 11-4 or better team. In terms of first down rate differential, they were even worse, ranking 19th at -1.17%, worst among playoff qualifiers, as they relied heavily on a +12 turnover margin to win many of those close games, something that tends to be highly unpredictable on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis. If the Seahawks want to win double digit games and make it back to the post-season in 2020, they’ll likely need to elevate their level of play.

The Seahawks’ offense was not the problem in 2019, as they ranked 12th in first down rate at 37.00%, unspectacular, but above average. The Seahawks’ offense has consistently been above average throughout Wilson’s tenure in Seattle, despite Wilson not always having the best supporting cast. Last year was arguably Wilson’s best season, as he finished a career high 3rd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, completing 66.1% of his passes for an average of 7.97 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions, while adding 4.56 YPC and 3 touchdowns on 75 carries.

Overall, Wilson has been a top-16 quarterback on PFF in every season of his career, including 5 of 8 seasons in the top-7 among quarterbacks. Over his career, he’s completed 64.5% of his passes for an average of 7.87 YPA, 227 touchdowns, and 68 interceptions, while adding 5.55 YPC and 19 touchdowns on 720 carries. In addition to being a high level quarterback, Wilson is also incredibly tough and durable, having never missed a game in his career (128 starts) despite routinely taking significantly more hits than your average quarterback. Because of that, the Seahawks have never invested in a backup for him and will once again go with veteran Geno Smith (72.2 QB rating, 31 career starts). Needless to say, he’d be a significant dropoff from Wilson if he had to see action.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

There were once again a lot of issues with Russell Wilson’s supporting cast last season, but an obvious strength were their top-2 wide receivers, Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf. Both players earned above average grades from Pro Football Focus and they had slash lines of 82/1057/8 and 58/900/7 respectively, despite playing on a relatively run heavy offense. That’s not surprising from Lockett, who had a 57/965/10 slash line in 2018, but Metcalf was just the 64th pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and was considered very raw entering the league, so few expected a big rookie year from him.

After his impressive first season in the league, Metcalf looks like he could develop into one of the better wide receivers in the league long-term, even if it takes him a few seasons to get there. In 2020, he’ll need to avoid a sophomore slump to take a step forward. Lockett, meanwhile, finished in the top-34 among wide receivers on PFF last season for the 3rd times in 5 seasons in the league and is still in his prime in only his age 28 season, so he should remain an above average receiver for at least another couple years. This could be one of the better wide receiver duos in the league for years to come if Metcalf can continue developing quickly.

The Seahawks really lacked a 3rd option in the passing game last season though, as no other pass catcher topped 349 receiving yards and a whopping 40.6% of their passing targets went to either Lockett or Metcalf. Among wide receivers, David Moore ranked 3rd with 34 targets received, turning them into 17/301/2, while Malik Turner (242 snaps), Jaron Brown (374 snaps), and Josh Gordon (136 snaps) also saw notable action. Moore remains, but the other three are all gone, leaving Moore to compete with free agent acquisition Phillip Dorsett, 2019 7th round pick Josh Ursua (11 rookie year snaps), and 6th round rookie Freddie Swain for the #3 receiver job and for reserve roles.

The two veterans, Moore and Dorsett, are likely the favorites for the job, but both would be underwhelming options, hence why they’ll have to compete with inexperienced late round picks. Moore was selected by the Seahawks in the 7th round in 2017 and has been middling at best in limited action over the past two seasons. He’s best as a situational deep threat, as he’s caught just 43 of his 87 career targets (49.4%), but for an average of 17.3 yards per catch, 6th most among players with at least 40 catches over the past 2 seasons.

Dorsett, meanwhile, comes over from New England on a close to minimum level deal. He was a first round pick by the Colts in 2015 and then was traded to the Patriots for Jacoby Brissett two seasons later, but he was a disappointment for both teams, earning mediocre grades from PFF throughout his 5-year career and never topping more than 33 catches in a season, despite ample opportunity with the Patriots over the past two seasons. Whoever wins the #3 receiver job figures to be underwhelming.

At tight end, Jacob Hollister led the way with a 41/349/3 slash line, even though he didn’t join the team until week 6. The 2017 undrafted free agent wasn’t bad in the first significant action of his career, but he’ll face competition for playing time, with 2019 week 1 starter Will Dissly returning from injury and free agent Greg Olsen arriving from Carolina on a 1-year, 7 million dollar deal that suggests he’ll at least have a big role, if not start.

Dissly was drafted by the Seahawks in the 4th round in 2018 and has shown a lot of upside as both a blocker and a receiver (2.43 yards per route run), but he’s suffered a torn patellar tendon and a torn achilles tendon over the past two seasons respectively, limiting him to just 376 snaps total. It’s possible he could break out in a starting role if healthy and he’s still only going into his age 24 season, but he’s still unproven and his durability and long-term athleticism after a pair of significant injuries are both big question marks.

Olsen has also had injury problems over the past three seasons, limited to 30 games total over that stretch. Prior to the past three seasons, he finished in the top-12 among tight ends on PFF in 5 straight seasons and averaged a 77/969/5 slash line over that stretch, including a 3-year stretch from 2014-2016 where he was the only tight end in the league to surpass 1000 yards receiving in all 3 seasons, but he’s been limited to a 51/575/4 slash line per 16 games over the past 3 seasons and is now going into his age 35 season, so, even if he can stay healthy, he’s likely to be a significantly diminished player from what he was in his prime. He’s not a bad starting option, but he comes with a lot of uncertainty. 

Along with 4th round rookie Colby Parkinson, who could also be in the mix for a role, the Seahawks are hoping they can find a couple productive players at the tight end position, to mask their lack of depth at the wide receiver position, but that’s far from a guarantee. This isn’t a bad receiving corps, talented by a talented top duo, and their overall depth is better, but they may still lack a consistent 3rd option in the passing game.

Grade: B

Running Backs

The Seahawks have always been a run heavy team in the Russell Wilson era, in part because of Wilson’s propensity to take off and run himself, but also because this offense loves to feed the ball to running backs as well. Chris Carson has been the beneficiary of that over the past two seasons, totalling 525 carries in 29 games, which he has taken for 4.54 YPC and 16 touchdowns, leading to him ranking 11th and 7th in rushing grade among running backs on Pro Football Focus over the past two seasons respectively. 

Unfortunately, Carson’s 2019 season was ended in week 16 by a serious hip injury and, making matters worse, backup running back Rashaad Penny, who has flashed with a 5.26 YPC average on 150 carries in 2 seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2018, also suffered a season ending injury that week, going down with a torn ACL. With #3 back CJ Prosise also injured at the time, the Seahawks had to turn to 6th round rookie Travis Homer and former lead back Marshawn Lynch, who was signed out of retirement.

Carson is expected to be ready to return for week 1, even if he spends most of the off-season rehabbing, but Penny is very much in doubt for the start of the season and Prosise is gone. Likely in an attempt to avoid last year’s disaster situation, the Seahawks added a pair of reinforcements at the position this off-season in veteran Carlos Hyde and 4th round rookie DeeJay Dallas. Dallas is probably more of a long-term play, barring significant injuries to guys ahead of him on the depth chart, but Hyde is an experienced back who figures to open the season as the #2 back until Penny is able to return and he provides insurance for Carson as well, as not only is Carson returning from a significant injury, but he also has a history of significant injuries.

Hyde has primarily worked as a lead back in his career, averaging 13.4 carries per game in 80 games in 6 seasons in the league, but he figures to be a true backup as long as Carson is healthy, as Carson figures to regain his 2019 role. Hyde’s career 4.08 YPC average is underwhelming and he does nothing on passing downs (129 catches in 80 games with a 3.87 yards per target average, while struggling as a pass protector), but he’s coming off arguably the best season of his career, rushing for 1,070 yards and 6 touchdowns on 245 carries (4.37 YPC) with the Texans in 2019, and he’s a perfect fit for what the Seahawks look for in a running back, as they value tough between the tackles runners and don’t often throw to running backs out of the backfield (Carson has just 57 catches over the past 2 seasons). He’s useful depth behind Penny and Carson, who have injury concerns, in a deep backfield overall.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Russell Wilson has consistently had offensive lines that have struggled in front of him. That was the case last season and, while they made significant changes this off-season, it seems likely that will remain the case in 2020. Of their five regular starters last season, two of them, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Germain Ifedi were set to hit free agency and, while Iupati returned, the Seahawks also cut center Justin Britt, ahead of an 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, and right guard DJ Fluker, ahead of a 3.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so the Seahawks will have at least three new starters upfront this season.

Left tackle Duane Brown is the only starter locked in at the position he played last season, understandably so, as he was by far their best offensive lineman. That’s been the case since Brown arrived in Seattle in 2017, as he’s finished in the top-25 among offensive tackles in all 3 seasons, including a 20th ranked finish in 2019. That streak of high level play actually goes back a full decade, as his last finish outside of the top-25 at his position was his 2nd season in the league in 2009. Over that ten year stretch, Brown has finished in the top-10 at his position in 5 of 10 seasons and he’s been one of the consistently better left tackles in the league overall. His age is a concern in his age 35 season though, especially given how important he is to this line. He could easily decline noticeably this season and the Seahawks really can’t afford that happening, given the state of the rest of this group.

Iupati is probably locked in at left guard too. He was underwhelming last season, but he was a capable starter and, with the Seahawks having to replace right guard DJ Fluker already, it’s unlikely that Iupati won’t be able to lock up a starting job. Even though Iupati was a marginal starter in 2019, the big news is that he played all 16 games, after missing 21 games over the previous 2 seasons combined. Iupati is going into his age 33 season, so his days of being an above average starter like he was in his prime are almost definitely gone, but if he can remain healthy he could remain a capable starter for another couple seasons.

The Seahawks didn’t add any veterans to replace Fluker, so they’ll have to turn to someone inexperienced to replace Fluker. Fluker didn’t play at a particularly high level last season, but it’s hard to see how any of his replacements would be a significant upgrade. Their options are 2019 4th round pick Phil Haynes, who didn’t play a snap as a rookie, 3rd round rookie Damien Lewis, and 2018 5th round pick JaMarco Jones, who played 317 snaps as a versatile reserve last season in the first significant action of his career, seeing action at left tackle, left guard, and right guard. Jones might be their best option because he has some experience, but the Seahawks like his versatility as a reserve and may opt to keep him in that role. There’s also an outside chance two guards from that group start, sending Iupati to the bench, but that’s unlikely in an underwhelming group.

At center and right tackle, the Seahawks did make veteran additions this off-season, signing BJ Finney and Brandon Shell respectively. Shell, a 5th round pick by the Jets in 2016, has developed into a capable starter over the past 3 seasons (37 starts). He may have reached his ceiling, but his 2-year, 9 million dollar deal is pretty fair for his skill set and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade by default over Germain Ifedi, who finished last season 72nd out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles.

Finney, meanwhile, only has made 13 starts in 5 seasons in the league as a reserve, but he’s played pretty well in limited action and his 2-year, 8 million dollar contract suggests he’s viewed as a full-time starter in Seattle. Finney is a versatile player who has played both center and guard, but he has a much clearer path to playing time at center, without another capable center on the roster. Finney is a projection to a larger role, so he’s not a guarantee to be an upgrade over Britt, who finished last season 25th out of 36 qualifying centers, but he comes with some upside. Overall, this group should struggle again in 2020, especially if Duane Brown regresses significantly at left tackle.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Seahawks’ biggest problem last season was their defense, which ranked 25th in first down rate allowed. They had the 3rd most takeaways at 32, behind the Patriots and Steelers, who were also the top-2 defense in first down rate allowed, but turnover margin tends to be unpredictable on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis and defenses that rank significantly higher in takeaways than they do in overall team defensive stats almost always see significant regression in their takeaway total the following season. The Seahawks are never going to be a team that turns the ball over a lot because Russell Wilson is one of the least turnover prone quarterbacks in the league, but I wouldn’t expect them to match their +12 turnover margin from last season, which will have a noticeable effect for a team who won so many of their games by a thin margin last season.

In addition to natural regression in takeaways, this defense also lost some key players this off-season, most notably edge defender Jadeveon Clowney. The Seahawks haven’t ruled out a reunion with Clowney, but as of right now he’s not on the roster, after a 2019 season in which he finished 9th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, despite playing most of the second half of the season through injuries. Clowney’s sack total (3) wasn’t overly impressive, but he added 10 hits and a 11.4% pressure rate while dominating against the run and he did all that while being consistently double teamed. His absence will have a noticeable effect on a defense that had a lot of problems to begin with.

In Clowney’s absence, the Seahawks have a variety of options to try to replace him, although none have Clowney’s upside. The Seahawks signed a pair of veterans in free agency in Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa to deals of 1-year, 5.5 million and 1-year, 3.05 million and they used 2nd and 5th round picks on Tennessee’s Darrell Taylor and Syracuse’s Alton Robinson. They also have 2019 first round pick LJ Collier set for a bigger role after an injury plagued rookie season in which he was limited to just 152 mediocre snaps and they have a pair of holdovers in Rasheem Green and Branden Jackson who could also be involved.

Both Green and Jackson were both pretty mediocre last season, but Green was a 3rd round pick in 2018 and still has some upside, so he’s likely to still be involved, while Jackson is an 2016 undrafted free agent who has struggled throughout his career and may not be a lock for a roster spot at a position group with a lot of options. Collier also still has significant upside, despite his terrible rookie year, though it’s worth noting many considered Collier in the 2nd-3rd round range, rather than the late first where the Seahawks took him. Darrell Taylor also has upside and could earn a role as a rookie, but Alton Robinson seems better suited for a deep reserve role at this stage of his career.

Veterans Bruce Irvin and Benson Mayowa should also be in the mix. Mayowa struggled early in his career, but has been a solid rotational player on an average of 404 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons and, still in his age 29 season, could see a similar role with the Seahawks this season. Irvin, meanwhile, is coming back to where his career started, spending the first 4 seasons of his career in Seattle before spending the past 4 seasons with the Raiders, Falcons, and Panthers. Irvin is now going into his age 33 season and has been noticeably worse over the past two seasons, earning middling at best grades from PFF after being an above average starter for most of his prime. He’s still played 540 snaps per season over the past two seasons and should still have a role in 2020, but he could continue declining. 

The Seahawks will have to determine roles in this group in training camp and the pre-season. They have plenty of depth, with Bruce Irvin, LJ Collier, Benson Mayowa, and Rasheem Green being most likely to see significant snaps and Darrell Taylor, Branden Jackson, and Alton Robinson also potentially in the mix, but they lack a clear top edge defender and there’s unlikely to be one that emerges from this group to even come close to effectively replacing Jadeveon Clowney. Until they bring back Clowney, this looks like an underwhelming group.

Grade: C

Interior Defenders

The Seahawks also lost players on the interior of their defensive line, losing Quinton Jefferson and Al Woods. Woods was a strong run stuffer, while Jefferson was a capable pass rusher (9.7% pressure rate), so they’ll be missed, especially since the Seahawks did nothing to replace them. As a result, they have little depth on the interior, in contrast to the edge where they have up to 7 options for playing time. They also don’t really have top end talent at this position either, with Jarran Reed and Poona Ford, their top holdovers from 2019, looking locked into starting roles.

Ford has shown a lot of promise as a run stuffer in 2 seasons in the league, flashing on 231 total snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2018 and then carrying that over into a larger role in 2019, playing 506 snaps total and finishing 17th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in run stuffing grade. He may be overmatched in an every down role though, as he’s not much of a pass rusher, with 0.5 sacks, 3 hits, and a 4.2% pressure rate in his career. He should play at a high level on early downs, but on passing downs he’ll probably be a liability.

Reed, meanwhile, was a well-rounded player as a solid starter for the Seahawks in 2017 and 2018, but he missed the first 6 games of 2019 with suspension and was not the same upon his return, earning a middling grade from PFF. Only in his age 28 season, the 2016 2nd round pick has bounce back potential, but he was never as good as his 10.5-sack total in 2018 suggested and it’s surprising the Seahawks couldn’t re-sign him to a more favorable deal as a free agent this off-season given how last season went for him, bringing him back on a 2-year, 23 million dollar deal that pays him as an above average starter and lets him hit the open market again before he’s 30.

Ford and Reed may be solid starters, but depth is a big problem. Bryan Mone, who played just 89 snaps last season, is the only other player at the position who played at least 1 snap for this defense last season and they didn’t add any reinforcements. Despite being a highly unproven 2019 undrafted free agent who struggled in what limited action he’s seen thus far, Mone could still have a big role as a rotational reserve in 2020. 2019 6th round pick DeMarcus Christmas would also seem to be an option, even though he didn’t play a snap as a rookie. Depth is a huge problem at this position and their starters aren’t good enough to compensate.

Grade: C

Linebackers

Despite their issues on the defensive line and other parts of this roster, the Seahawks surprisingly decided to use their first round pick on off ball linebacker Jordyn Brooks. The Seahawks have had one of the best linebacker duos in the league over the past decade or so with Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright and, even though Wright is on the wrong side of 30 and seems to be on the decline, the Seahawks also used a 3rd round pick in last year’s draft on off ball linebacker Cody Barton, who seemed like a potential future starter, so linebacker didn’t seem like much of a need. They also used 5th round picks in 2018 and 2019 on Shaquem Griffin and Ben Burr-Kirven, so they had solid young depth as well. On top of that, Brooks was considered by many to be a 2nd-3rd round prospect and the Seahawks drafted him one spot ahead of Patrick Queen, who was arguably the top off ball linebacker in the draft class.

Brooks’ draft status suggests he’ll play as a rookie, but he may be limited to being the 3rd linebacker and only playing in base packages, as Wright could keep his every down role for another season. Wright had earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in each of his first 8 seasons in the league prior to last season (108 starts), but he fell to about average last season in 16 starts and now is heading into his age 31 season. He may have another couple solid seasons left in the tank as an every down player, but he could also continue declining and obviously his long-term future with the team seems shaky, given all the draft capital they’ve spent on the position in recent years.

Bobby Wagner is also now in his 30s, as of this summer at least, and he’s also coming off of a relatively down year, but for him that means he finished 12th on PFF among off ball linebackers after 3 straight seasons in the top-4 prior to last season, including back-to-back seasons as the #1 overall player at the position in 2017 and 2018.  Wagner could continue declining over the next few seasons, but he should remain an above average every down linebacker, something he’s been throughout his 8-year NFL career (118 starts). Wagner and Wright might not be what they once were, but the Seahawks have no shortage of promising young depth players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

The one big addition for the Seahawks on defense this off-season was cornerback Quinton Dunbar, or at least it seemed that way when he was acquired. Dunbar had a breakout season with the Redskins in 2019, starting all 11 games he played and finishing 3rd among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus overall, but the Seahawks were still able to get him for just a 5th round pick this off-season. Dunbar flashed in the first four seasons of his career prior to last season, but he made just a combined 14 starts over those 4 seasons, so he’s a complete one-year wonder, and he’s never made it through a full 16-game season without missing time with injury. He’s also going into the final year of his contract and wants a big extension, which is why the Redskins wanted to move him, but he was still an obvious steal for a 5th round pick.

Unfortunately, the situation has changed since Dunbar was acquired, as he was arrested for armed robbery in May. The details of the case are still unclear and it seems like there’s at least a chance that Dunbar was set up, but it’s a serious legal situation that complicates his status for the season. Even if he doesn’t end up facing legal charges, he could still be subject to league discipline, although the league usually lets the legal process play out first, so he may not be suspended realistically until 2021 at the earliest. If he can play, he should be a solid starter even if he regresses from last season, but it’s not a guarantee he’ll be allowed to play.

If the Seahawks have Dunbar available, they’ll have a solid cornerback duo with him and incumbent #1 cornerback Shaq Griffin. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Griffin was up and down in his first 2 seasons in the league (27 starts), before breaking out with an 11th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF in 2019. He’s still a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s an experienced starter who is only going into his age 25 season, so he could easily develop into a consistently above average starter long-term.

If Dunbar is out, the Seahawks would likely have to turn back to Tre Flowers, who has made 30 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has finished 103rd out of 126 qualifiers and 110th out of 135 qualifiers among cornerbacks on PFF in coverage grade in 2018 and 2019 respectively. Flowers is still young, in his age 25 season, and he’s a solid run defender, but the former 5th round pick is far from a guarantee to ever develop into a capable coverage cornerback. It makes a lot of sense that the Seahawks would bring in Dunbar as an upgrade over him and if the Seahawks have to go back to Flowers because of Dunbar’s off-the-field situation it would be a big blow to this secondary.

Tre Flowers could still be the 3rd cornerback, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be the primary slot cornerback, as the Seahawks are much deeper at safety than they are at cornerback and could easily use 3 safeties together in sub packages with regularity. 2019 4th round pick Ugo Amadi could also be in the mix for the #3 cornerback job, after playing 76 nondescript snaps as a rookie last season.

If the Seahawks decide to go with three safeties as their primary sub package look, 2019 2nd round pick Marquise Blair seems like the best option to cover the slot. Blair was a relatively high pick and showed a lot of potential on 230 snaps as a rookie, but he doesn’t have a clear path to a starting job at safety and could be a natural fit on the slot. At safety, Blair’s biggest competition for a starting job is Bradley McDougald, who has made 39 starts for the Seahawks over the past 3 seasons. He finished 33rd among safeties on PFF in 2017 and 25th in 2018, but fell to 72nd out of 100 qualifiers in 2019 and is now going into his age 30 season, so it’s possible Blair could push him into the #3 safety role, but it’s unlikely and he’d probably have a big role either way, as will Blair likely.

Quandre Diggs is locked in as an every down player at the other safety spot, after being acquired from the Lions for a 5th round pick at last year’s trade deadline, which proved to be a steal, as Diggs was PFF’s 4th ranked safety from week 8 on after joining the Seahawks. Diggs had been a capable starter throughout the previous two and a half seasons with the Lions, showing his versatility by playing both safety spots and on the slot, but the Seahawks got the most out of him by playing him as a single high safety on almost every snap, something the Lions never did with him. 

Diggs probably won’t be quite as good as he was down the stretch last season, but it’s entirely possible he’ll have a big of a late career breakout in his age 27 season, his 6th season in the league, now in a spot that seems to fit him the best. The Seahawks’ cornerback depth is suspect, especially with Dunbar potentially looking at a suspension, but if he can play, This secondary has a massive upside if Griffin, Diggs, and Dunbar can all play like they did last season. The downside is there as well there.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Seahawks weren’t as good as their record suggests last season and that’s the baseline coming into this season. On top of that, they lose probably their best defensive player from last season in Jadeveon Clowney. However, this defense could be significantly better on the backend if Quinton Dunbar is able to play, as Dunbar and 2019 mid-season addition Quandre Diggs would really boost this secondary, potentially back to “Legion of Boom” esque levels, although that’s far from a guarantee. The Seahawks also appear to be slightly improved in the receiving corps and on the offensive line, even though they didn’t make any major off-season additions. The Seahawks are probably still behind the 49ers in the division, but they could still qualify for one of the three wild card spots depending on how everything shakes out. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 76.54

Defensive Score: 72.32

Total Score: 74.43 (2nd in NFC West)

Arizona Cardinals 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cardinals went in a bold new direction last off-season. After the 2017 season, the Cardinals cleaned house and went forward with new head coach Steve Wilks and first round quarterback Josh Rosen, but the Cardinals struggled mightily in a 3-13 season and decided to abruptly change plans, firing Wilks after just one season, replacing him with college head coach Kliff Kingsbury, sending Josh Rosen to the Dolphins for the 62nd overall pick, and using the #1 overall pick on Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, Kingsbury’s hand picked quarterback who he had recruited in college. Kingsbury ran an offense at Texas Tech that was very much not the traditional “pro-style” offense and Murray was unconventional himself, making just 17 college starts and measuring in at 5-10 207, both of which usually prevent guys from going in the first round, let alone #1 overall.

For as much talk as there was about this unconventional duo, they had a first season that was actually relatively boring. Grandiose predictions about the Cardinals running 1,200 plays or attempting 700 passes were always unrealistic and were never based on what Kingsbury’s offense actually did at Texas Tech, as they were always pretty run/pass balanced. Instead, the Cardinals ranked 22nd in offensive plays with 1,000 and 18th in pass attempts with 554, far from unconventional. The one signature feature that was present in Kingsbury’s offense was their tendency to use 3 and 4 wide receivers regularly at the expense of tight ends, but even that wasn’t as extreme as some expected, as there were predictions that the Cardinals would essentially run 4-wide receivers as their base set.

For a quarterback considered boom or bust coming into the league, Kyler Murray was pretty standard as a rookie, completing 64.4% of his passes for an average of 6.87 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions, while rushing for 544 yards and 4 touchdowns on 93 carries (5.85 YPC). The Cardinals’ offense ranked just 18th in first down rate at 35.20%, but Murray wasn’t working with the best supporting cast and that was a huge leap from 2018, when the Cardinals ranked dead last in first down rate at 29.16%. 

All in all, Murray finished 28th among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, not great, but not bad for a rookie quarterback. The jury is still out on Murray long-term and I don’t think he’s changed many people’s opinion of his chances to develop into a franchise quarterback long-term, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him at least take a small step forward in his 2nd season in the league and he obviously could take a much more significant step forward as well. 

The Cardinals have been all in on Murray since day 1, only ever having Brett Hundley (67.6 career QB rating on 337 attempts) behind him on the depth chart as the backup. Hundley had to see limited action in 2019 (11 attempts) and predictably struggled, so the Cardinals are obviously hoping Murray can avoid missing any time with injury. Murray’s small frame and propensity to take off and run seem like they would make him more injury prone, but he doesn’t have a significant injury history, so it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he made all 16 starts in 2020.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

Like many teams with a young quarterback on a cheap rookie deal, the Cardinals have been somewhat aggressive adding veteran talent around Murray, in order to maximize their chances of winning in the short window their quarterback is cost controlled. The Cardinals have maintained some long-term flexibility, with a projected 64 million in cap space for next off-season, but they made a big long-term addition when they traded for Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

It was a shocking move, not just because no one publicly knew the Texans were looking to move Hopkins, but because the Cardinals paid significantly less for him than the Browns did for Odell Beckham and the Bills did for Stefon Diggs, even though Hopkins is the best of that trio. While the Bills gave up a first, a fourth, and a swap of late round picks and the Browns gave up a first, a third, and starting safety Jabrill Peppers, the Cardinals gave up just a 2nd round pick and running back David Johnson for Hopkins and a 4th round pick. 

Obviously the Texans value Johnson highly, but they’d have to value him equivalent to a late first round pick for the Texans to have gotten fair value in that trade compared to what the Giants and Vikings got for Beckham and Diggs. In negotiations with any other team, Johnson may have been seen as a negative value in a trade, as the seemingly washed up former feature back had a 11.2 million dollar guaranteed salary and may have cost the Cardinals a draft pick to get rid of in a salary dump if the Texans hadn’t come along with valued him like a first round draft pick.

Thanks to the Texans’ bizarre affinity for Johnson, the Cardinals now have a legitimate #1 receiver for Murray. He’s not only the Cardinals’ #1 receiver, but he’s been one of the top receivers in the entire league for years, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, Hopkins has averaged a 103/1352/9 slash line per 16 games, despite having routinely horrible quarterback play for years before DeShaun Watson arrived in 2017.

With Watson, he has averaged an 111/1422/10 slash line per 16 games in 37 starts. He’s also missed just one game with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has shown he can continue playing at a high level through injuries and constant double teams. Hopkins may want a pay increase, but he wouldn’t need a huge one, with 39.915 million over 3 years left on his deal, and so far he’s shown no signs of wanting to hold out for that pay increase.

Hopkins will take over the #1 receiver role from future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald, who remains with the team for his age 37 season, his 17th season in the league, all in Arizona, and possibly his final season overall. Fitzgerald obviously isn’t still what he was in his prime, when he averaged a 90/1136/8 slash line per season from 2005-2017, while missing a total of just 6 games due to injury, but he still led this team in receiving last season and finished above average on PFF, something he’s done in every season in the league. Fitzgerald’s 75/804/5 slash line and 49th ranked finish on PFF in 2019 weren’t great and he could decline further in 2020, but he won’t be needed nearly as much with Hopkins in town.

Before Hopkins was acquired, it looked like Christian Kirk would be the long-term #1 receiver after Fitzgerald, as he’s averaged 1.53 yards per route run in two seasons in the league since the Cardinals took him in the second round in 2018, but instead Kirk will be a complementary receiver behind Hopkins. That doesn’t mean he won’t have a big role though, as the Cardinals figure to use Hopkins, Fitzgerald, and Kirk together on most snaps in 2020. Kirk could easily take a step forward in his third season in the league.

Hopkins, Fitzgerald, and Kirk being locked in as close to every down players leaves the three receivers the Cardinals drafted in 2019 to compete for the #4 receiver job, but the Cardinals use 4 wide receivers as much as any team in the league, so whoever wins that job could have a somewhat significant role. Andy Isabella was drafted in the 2nd round and seems like the obvious favorite for the role, but he was limited to 157 snaps as a rookie, behind 6th round rookie KeeSean Johnson, who played 370 snaps. Johnson struggled on those snaps and Isabella has more long-term upside, but there will be training camp battles to decide the depth spots, with 2019 4th round pick Hakeem Butler also potentially in the mix after missing his rookie year with injury.

The Cardinals don’t have much at tight end, but that’s not a big deal because they don’t use tight ends that often. The Cardinals completed just 40 passes to tight ends in 2019 and that number could be even lower as veteran Charles Clay (18 catches) is no longer with the team. That leaves Darrell Daniels and Dan Arnold, who have played just 333 snaps and 271 snaps respectively in 3 seasons in the league total since going undrafted in 2017, to compete for the #2 tight end job. Arnold at least has shown some upside (1.79 yards per route run in his career), but it’s tough to expect much from either player.

Clay’s departure should also open up more playing time for Maxx Williams, who led the position with 490 snaps last season. Williams has never topped 32 catches in a season in 5 seasons in the league and is unlikely to significantly improve on last year’s 15/202/1 slash line, even with Clay gone, but he’s at least a consistently strong run blocker, including a #1 ranked finish among tight ends in run blocking grade in 2019. With good depth at wide receiver, that’s really all the Cardinals need Williams to be.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Part of the reason why the Cardinals wanted to move David Johnson is because they had found a better lead back in Kenyan Drake, who took Johnson’s starting job down the stretch last season, and they couldn’t justify paying big money to both Johnson and Drake, who was set to hit free agency this off-season. Johnson one of the best running backs in the league in 2016, but had been limited to 3.60 YPC on 363 carries over 3 seasons since 2016, while Drake, acquired at the trade deadline last year for a mere 6th round pick, rushed for 643 yards and 8 touchdowns on 123 carries (5.23 YPC) in 8 games. 

Drake was originally acquired to be an injury fill-in for David Johnson and injured backup Chase Edmonds, but he ran so well that he kept the job. His play had a noticeable impact on this team, as they had a 37.53% first down rate in 8 games with Drake, most equivalent to the 10th ranked Colts on the season, as opposed to a 33.01% first down rate in 8 games without Drake, most equivalent to the 26th ranked Bengals on the season.

Drake’s breakout stretch isn’t all that surprising, as he had always shown a lot of talent in three and a half seasons with the Dolphins. His 4.60 YPC average on 333 carries with the Dolphins may not seem like anything spectacular, but 3.29 YPC of that came after contact, as he routinely ran behind terrible offensive lines in Miami. His offensive line isn’t much better with the Cardinals, but he’s a perfect fit for this offense because he has the size and agility to take advantage of defenses lined up to defend 3-4 wide receivers and he’s a solid receiver in his own right, with 53 catches in 2018 and 50 catches in 2019, including 28 in 8 games with the Cardinals. He could easily catch another 50-60 passes in 2020 and, while he’s unlikely to be quite as efficient as a runner as he was down the stretch last season, he should continue having a lot of success on the ground as well.

With Johnson gone, the Cardinals kept Drake on a 8.483 million dollar transition tender while they work on a long-term deal and Drake is locked in as the feature back at least for 2020. Chase Edmonds remains, but he won’t be anything more than a true backup behind Drake. A 4th round pick in 2018, Edmonds hasn’t been a bad backup thus far in his career, averaging 4.26 YPC on 120 carries and showing some potential in the passing game as well. He could easily take a step forward in his third season in 2020, although it would likely take an injury to Drake for any improvement from Edmonds to be noticeable. With 7th round rookie Eno Benjamin in the mix as a deep reserve, this is a solid position group.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Cardinals made a big jump on the offensive line from 2018 to 2019. They still had problems upfront, but they were one of the worst offensive lines in the league in 2018 and were largely a capable unit last season. The Cardinals improved upfront despite any major off-season additions, only adding veteran right guard JR Sweezy and veteran right tackle Marcus Gilbert on inexpensive deals, the latter of whom ended up missing the whole season with injury.

The big difference was that this group was much healthier than the year before, as, outside of Gilbert’s injury, the Cardinals had just 2 missed starts on the offensive line all season in 2019, after leading the league in adjusted games lost on the offensive line in 2018. In 2018, left tackle DJ Humphries, left guard Justin Pugh, and center AQ Shipley were limited to 522 snaps, 343 snaps, and 0 snaps respectively due to injury, but in 2019 all three made all 16 starts and they combined to miss just 43 snaps all season. All three also return to the Cardinals in 2019, along with right guard JR Sweezy and right tackle Justin Murray, so the Cardinals could start the same starting five again in 2020 if they want.

That being said, we could see new faces upfront at a couple positions, especially right tackle. Not only do the Cardinals have veteran Marcus Gilbert returning from injury at a position where his backup Justin Murray was serviceable at best in the first significant action of the 2016 undrafted free agent’s career last season, but the Cardinals also used a 3rd round pick on offensive tackle Josh Jones, who could easily end up making starts before season’s end.

Marcus Gilbert is probably their best option, although it’s tough to know what to expect from him. Not only did he miss all of last season with injury, but injuries limited him to just 12 starts between 2017 and 2018 and he’s now going into his age 32 season. Gilbert performed well in limited action in 2017 and 2018 and was Pro Football Focus’ 25th ranked offensive tackle in his last relatively healthy season in 2016, but Gilbert is a big question mark because of his age and injury history. He could easily not be the same player he was or get injured again. Murray showed he can be capable last season, but he’s still relatively inexperienced and probably would best as a backup long-term, while Jones could develop into a starter long-term, but would likely struggle as a rookie, so the Gilbert gives the Cardinals’ their best chance at capable right tackle play in 2020, even if he’s a very unpredictable option.

The Cardinals could also change starting centers. In 2018, Mason Cole made all 16 starts as a 3rd round rookie in place of an injured Shipley and finished 36th out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF, but Shipley wasn’t much better last season, finishing 30th out of 36 qualifying centers. Shipley, who hasn’t received an above average grade from PFF since 2016, is now going into his age 34 season, while Cole is heading into his 3rd year in the league and may be the better option. 

Even if Cole can’t lock down the starting job, I would still expect him to see some playing time as the top reserve option on this offensive line. In addition to playing center, he can also play guard, where he started in two games last season when Justin Murray was out, pushing typical left guard Justin Pugh out to right tackle in the process. Pugh should remain as the starting left guard, but his ability to move to right tackle in a bunch is a bonus. 

Pugh finished 22nd among guards last season on PFF last year and has mostly played well throughout his 7-year career, but injuries have been a big problem for him in recent years, costing him 22 games from 2016 to 2018 and limiting him to 779 underwhelming snaps combined in two seasons from 2017-2018. Pugh showed he can still be an above average starter when healthy last season, but he’s now going into his age 30 season and the days of him finishing 11th and 15th among guards on PFF like he did in 2015 and 2016 are probably gone at this point. He could remain a solid starter for at least another couple seasons, but his injury history is concerning.

Left tackle DJ Humphries also has a concerning injury history, as he played all 16 games for just the first time last season, after being limited to just 27 games total in his first 4 seasons in the league combined. A former first round pick, Humphries showed some of why he was taken so high in his first healthy season, earning an average grade from PFF, and he’s showed plenty of potential in limited action in the past as well, so he has the potential to be a consistently solid left tackle going forward if he can stay healthy. 

The problem is the Cardinals re-signed him to a contract this off-season that basically pretends his injury history doesn’t exist, giving him 43.75 million over 3 years and guaranteeing 30 million of it over the next two seasons. Humphries is only in his age 27 season and could remain a solid starter in 2020, but if he gets hurt again the Cardinals could regret that contract quickly. If he were to miss time, the Cardinals would likely turn to rookie Josh Jones, who is the most natural fit on the left side of any of their right tackle options. 

JR Sweezy is locked in at right guard for the 2nd year in a row, after posting a middling grade in his first season in Arizona. An 8-year veteran, Sweezy has had stretches of solid play throughout his career, but his middling year last year was his highest ranked season since 2015, prior to a significant back injury that cost him all of 2016, and now he’s going into his age 31 season, so he’s unlikely to get better. He could remain a capable starter, but he comes with some downside as well. Overall, this doesn’t look like a bad offensive line, but they need to stay healthy and they have injury prone projected starters at left tackle (Humphries), left guard (Pugh), and right tackle (Gilbert).

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

In addition to spending heavily to add DeAndre Hopkins and keep Kenyan Drake on offense, the Cardinals also spent some significant money on defense this off-season. At the interior defender position, their big addition was ex-Bills defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who comes over on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Phillips seemingly had a breakout year with 9.5 sacks last season, but totalled just 5.5 sacks in his first 4 seasons in the league combined and he wasn’t nearly as good as his sack total in 2019, totalling just a 7.7% pressure rate and earning middling grades overall from Pro Football Focus, getting his high sack total primarily from being in the right place at the right time on a good Buffalo defense. 

Even only earning middling grades made 2019 the best season of Phillips’ career, as he’s consistently been mediocre at best in 5 seasons in the league, both as a run stuffer, and a pass rusher (7.2% career pressure rate), leading to the 2015 2nd round pick being available for just 4.5 million on a 1-year deal in his first trip to free agency last off-season. Even after last year’s big sack total, it’s hard to argue he deserves much more than that this off-season, so he’s an obvious overpay on a contract that guarantees him 14.5 million in the first year and will realistically pay him 20 million over 2 years before the Cardinals can comfortably move on. He’s also had work ethic concerns in the past, which could easily become a problem again now that he has significant guaranteed money. Either way, he’s not going to have the impact that the Cardinals are expecting.

Phillips will most directly replace Rodney Gunter, who played 602 snaps last season. Corey Peters led this defensive line with 805 snaps played last season, but that was a career high and I would expect that to go down in 2020. Not only is Peters primarily a run stuffer, earning above average grades from PFF as a run stuffer in 6 straight seasons, while only totalling a 4.6% pressure rate over that same time, including just 2.5 sacks, 2 hits, and a 5.3% pressure rate in an every down role in 2019, but he’s also going into his age 32 season and Phillips could easily overtake him in snaps in his first season in Arizona. He should continue to play a significant role, but he’s not someone you can regularly play in passing situations and expect to get consistent pass rush and he could easily decline in 2020, given his age.

Second year player Zach Allen will likely be the beneficiary of Peters playing reduced snaps, as he figures to be the 3rd starter in base packages with Phillips and Peters and he figures to play a role in passing situations as well. Allen barely played as a rookie, limited to 144 snaps by injury, but he was the 65th overall pick and still has the upside to develop into a capable starter, at the least. I wouldn’t expect huge things from him this season, but he should be a solid rotational player. The Cardinals also have reserve Jonathan Bullard, who has been a capable situational run stuffer while playing an average of 335 snaps per year over his 4-year career, and used 4th round picks and defensive tackles Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu, who could also see action as rookies. This is an underwhelming group that lacks high end talent and has questionable depth.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

On the edge, the Cardinals’ big free agent addition was Devon Kennard, who comes over from the Lions on a 3-year, 20 million dollar deal. Kennard isn’t much more than a snap eater though and the Cardinals no longer have a pair of key contributors at the position from last season in Terrell Suggs (638 snaps) and Cassius Marsh (429 snaps), so Kennard isn’t really an upgrade Kennard spent the first 4 seasons of his career with the Giants as a hybrid off ball linebacker/edge defender before moving more into a pure edge defender role with the Lions over the past 2 seasons. 

Kennard’s versatility is a plus, as is his experience in multiple defensive fronts, and he’s been a consistently solid run stopper regardless of where he’s lined up, but he leaves something to be desired as a pass rusher, totalling just 14 sacks over the past 2 seasons, despite playing 58.9 snaps per game, and adding just 16 quarterback hits and a 9.2% pressure rate. Now in his age 29 season, Kennard is who he is at this point, which isn’t a bad thing, but he doesn’t come with much upside.

Depth is also a big problem at the edge defender position because Kennard was their only off-season addition and two of the Cardinals’ only three edge defenders to surpass 100 snaps last season are no longer with the team. Without another good depth option, the Cardinals will likely play hybrid edge defender/off ball linebacker Haason Reddick on the edge in a significant role as the primary reserve. A first round pick in 2017, Reddick was lauded for his versatility entering the league, but he still hasn’t found a consistent role and he unsurprisingly had his 5th year option, which would have guaranteed him 10.089 million for injury, declined this off-season. 

Reddick began his career primarily on the edge, but he failed to get consistent pressure (7.3% pressure rate) and was subsequently moved to more of an off ball role. As an off ball linebacker, Reddick developed into a plus blitzer, but struggled both in coverage and against the run, leading to him being benched down the stretch in 2019. Now he looks likely to move back to the edge just because the Cardinals are deeper at off ball linebacker than they are at the edge, but Reddick isn’t a guarantee to be much better than he was as a rookie. Still only in his age 26 season, Reddick theoretically still has untapped potential, but he’s running out of chances.

The Cardinals’ lack of edge defender depth isn’t as big of a deal as it would be for other teams because top edge defender Chandler Jones comes off the field as infrequently as any edge defender in the league, leading the position by a wide margin with 1,069 snaps played last season (no one else had more than 980) and averaging 62.8 snaps per game over the past 4 seasons, while not missing a single game due to injury. 

Jones isn’t just durable, as he’s also one of the best players in the league at his position. Jones leaves something to be desired against the run, but his 72.5 sacks over the past 5 seasons are first by a pretty significant amount (Aaron Donald is 2nd with 63) and he’s added 48 hits and a 11.3% pressure rate over that stretch as well, while finishing in the top-35 among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons, including 3 seasons in the top-20 and a 15th ranked finish in 2019. 

Jones’ age is a minor concern in his age 30 season, but even if he begins declining he should remain a top flight pass rusher. He should also continue playing close to every snap, as could Devon Kennard (935 in edge defenders snaps last season), to compensate for the Cardinals’ lack of depth at the position. Jones significantly elevates this group by himself, but they’d be in huge trouble if Jones ever missed significant time with injury and Kennard is a middling player overall.

Grade: B

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Cardinals are much deeper at off ball linebacker than they are on the edge, which is why Haason Reddick figures to play on the edge much more often. That wasn’t the case last season, but the Cardinals used the 8th overall pick on Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons and signed ex-Falcon De’Vondre Campbell to a one-year deal worth 6 million in free agency. Along with holdover Jordan Hicks, added from the Eagles on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal last off-season, all three of the Cardinals’ top off ball linebackers figure to see significant snaps and they may also see the field together in some base packages.

Simmons is the most intriguing of the bunch. Not only is he highly talented, as evidenced by his high draft selection, but he’s also a very unique talent, as he’s 6-4 238, moves and covers like he’s about 215 pounds, and can rush the passer off the edge. He drew mixed reviews as a draft prospect, with some teams having him as their top ranked overall player and some teams having him much further down the board because of his lack of a clear position.

With a player like Simmons, it’s always a risk that he can’t find one area where he excels, but if he develops he has the ability to be a truly unique talent. The Cardinals seem relatively committed to playing him at linebacker and that definitely figures to be his base package position, but they could move him to the slot or to the edge or even to safety in sub packages, which would allow them to play their top-3 linebackers together in some sub packages. It’ll be interesting to see how Simmons develops long-term and, in the short-term, he may be the favorite to win Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Hicks also has upside, after a career worst 50th ranked finish among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, as he finished in the top-14 in his 3 healthiest seasons in Philadelphia. Hicks was still effective against the run in his first season in Arizona last year, but struggled in coverage. Hicks has a significant injury history, missing 8 games in 2015, 9 games in 2017, and 4 games in 2018, and those injuries may have piled up to sap his athleticism and slow him down in coverage. Contract guarantees made moving in from Hicks unrealistic this off-season, but it’s possible he sees primarily base package snaps, with Simmons and Campbell added to the mix this off-season and possibly working as the top-2 coverage linebackers. Hicks is only in his age 28 season though, and played all 16 games last season, so he has some bounce back potential if he can continue staying healthy.

Campbell also has issues in coverage, but his contract suggests the Cardinals have a big role in mind for him. Campbell has been a decent run stuffer in 4 seasons with the Falcons, but the 2016 4th round pick never developed in coverage and finished 80th out of 100 qualifying off ball linebackers in his final season in Atlanta. It’s unclear why the Cardinals felt he was worth 6 million dollars and, even if he does take a step forward in his 5th season in the league, the Cardinals will have to pay even more to keep him when he hits free agency again next off-season. This isn’t a bad linebacking corps, but they lack another coverage linebacker besides the rookie Simmons, who may play elsewhere on a significant amount of sub packages.

Grade: B-

Secondary

The Cardinals didn’t make a significant addition in their secondary this off-season, but they do get a significant addition from last off-season back from injury, as Robert Alford was signed to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season and subsequently missed the entire 2019 season with injury. Alford isn’t a big re-addition though as, like many of the Cardinals’ signings this off-season, as he was an overpay, even before he missed an entire season. He was a capable starter in his prime, but he fell to 112nd out of 126 qualifying cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his final season in Atlanta in 2018, before missing all of last season, and now he’s going into his age 32 season, so his best days are almost definitely behind him. 

Alford probably won’t have to play every down in this secondary, but he doesn’t have much competition for the #3 cornerback job and he may struggle even in a lesser role. Tramaine Brock was the Cardinals’ 3rd cornerback last season and he wasn’t bad in that role, but he’s no longer with the team, leaving 2018 undrafted free agent Chris Jones and 2016 undrafted free agent Kevin Peterson, who struggled on 275 snaps and 255 snaps respectively last season in the first significant action of their career, as their top alternatives to Alford. Even though he’s an underwhelming option, Alford seems likely to see significant action in sub packages.

Patrick Peterson and Byron Murphy return as the top-2 cornerbacks and will play every down. Murphy struggled mightily last season, finishing 121st out of 135 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF, but he was just a rookie and the 2019 33rd overall pick still has a huge upside, so he could easily take a significant step forward in 2020, even if only by default. Peterson, meanwhile, has been with the Cardinals since they drafted him 5th overall in 2011 and he’s finished in the top-19 in 5 of 9 seasons with the team. He’s been a bit up and down though and last season he fell to 44th among cornerbacks on PFF, after finishing 10th in 2018. On top of that, his age is becoming a concern in his age 30 season. Peterson has some bounce back potential, but it’s very possible his best days are behind him at this point.

At safety, the Cardinals return 16-game starter Budda Baker at one spot and Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson, who both made starts last season, at the other. A 2nd round pick in 2017, Baker took over as a starter halfway through his rookie year and has made 36 starts since. He’s underwhelming in coverage, but makes up for it with strong play against the run and his ability to blitz and rush off the edge in certain situations as well and he’s still only going into his age 24 season, so his coverage abilities could improve going forward. Even with his underwhelming coverage play, he’s earned average or better overall grades from PFF in all 3 seasons in the league, including a career best 33rd ranked finish in 2020. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he surpassed that in 2020.

Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson, meanwhile, were both 5th round rookies last year, Jalen arriving through the supplemental draft and Deionte through the traditional draft. Jalen saw significantly more snaps (607 vs. 252) and played slightly better, but both struggled and there’s no guarantee either one is any better in 2020. They’ll compete for the starting job in training camp and it’s possible one of them can develop into a capable starter, but this looks like a weakness in this secondary as of right now. Their lack of proven depth at cornerback behind a possibly declining Patrick Peterson is a problem as well.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Cardinals come into 2020 with some hype, with some expecting Kyler Murray to make a similar 2nd year leap like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson have over the past, now that he has acquired DeAndre Hopkins as a #1 receiver. What Mahomes and Jackson did is hardly the norm, however, and Murray’s MVP betting odds, which currently give him the 6th highest chance to win the MVP ahead of players like DeShaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Carson Wentz, show that he’s overhyped right now.

Also, aside from acquiring Hopkins, the Cardinals didn’t do much of anything to significantly upgrade this roster this off-season, with most of the money they spent in free agency going to players who aren’t upgrades on the players they’re replacing. The Cardinals will likely be better in 2020 than 2019, but they finished last season 27th in first down rate differential, so they have a long way to go to get into playoff contention, especially on defense, where they ranked 30th in first down rate allowed and don’t seem noticeably better in 2020. Barring a breakout year from Murray, I wouldn’t expect much from this team. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 71.81

Defensive Score: 71.34

Total Score: 71.58 (4th in NFC West)

Los Angeles Rams 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

It’s common for teams with quarterbacks on a rookie deal to be aggressive in adding talent around the quarterback to maximize their Super Bowl chances while the quarterback is still cheap. The Rams took that to the extreme, trading a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 second round pick, and a 2021 fourth round pick to get cornerback Jalen Ramsey, a 2018 first round pick and a 2018 6th round pick for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, a 2018 2nd round pick for wide receiver Sammy Watkins, a 2019 2nd round pick for cornerback Marcus Peters, a 2019 3rd round pick and a 2019 5th round pick for edge defender Dante Fowler, and a 2018 5th round pick for cornerback Aqib Talib. 

They also signed safety Eric Weddle, interior defender Ndamukong Suh, wide receiver Robert Woods, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth in free agency and re-signed wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Todd Gurley, defensive tackle Aaron Donald, tight end Tyler Higbee, and right tackle Rob Havenstein to deals that paid them among the highest at their position, while structuring deals in ways that hurt their long-term financial flexibility, while allowing them to maximize their talent under the cap in the short term.

The results were pretty good for a couple years. After the Rams finished 4-12 in 2016, the following season they shot forward to a 11-5 record and finished 8th in first down rate differential, in a season that ultimately ended with a playoff loss to the Falcons. The Rams then backed that up the following season by going 13-3, finishing 3rd in first down rate differential, and making the Super Bowl, where they lost to the New England Patriots.

That’s where things started getting tricky. Quarterback Jared Goff became eligible for an extension after the Super Bowl appearance because he was heading into his 4th season in the league and the Rams decided to tack on 4 years and 134 million with 73 million of guaranteed new money on to a deal that already had Goff under team contract for 27.042 million in 2019 and 2020 combined. 

The Rams could have waited, but they felt Goff’s price would increase if they did so and signed him to an extension that hampered their ability to fill out the rest of this roster and the Rams didn’t have as good of a supporting cast in 2019 as a result. That led to a 9-7 season in which they finished 11th in first down rate differential and finished just on the outside of a 3rd straight playoff berth. Their offense saw the biggest dropoff, falling from 3rd in first down rate at 43.02% in 2018 to 14th at 36.40% last season.

This off-season is when the Rams really had to pay the price for being so aggressive over the past few years. Faced with a tough cap situation, the Rams suffered significant personnel losses this off-season. They didn’t have to lose as many players as they did and they could have kicked the can on their cap issues a little bit longer, but paying off the bill in one year will lead to the Rams being more financially flexible long-term. The Rams have just 5 million of cap space remaining for 2020 even after all of their off-season losses, but that jumps to 43 million projected for next off-season. The Rams could be back in contention in a couple seasons.

The problem is this strategy leaves them with an underwhelming roster around the quarterback in the short-term, which is a problem, as quarterback Jared Goff has proven to be no better than his supporting casts, completing 54.6% of his passes for an average of 5.31 YPA, 5 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions on a terrible offense as a rookie, then completing 63.6% of his passes for an average of 8.18 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in a very talented offense in 2017 and 2018, before falling to 62.9% completion, 7.41 YPA, 22 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions on a middling offense in 2019.

Goff isn’t the same quarterback he was as a rookie, but in some ways as is, particularly under pressure, which has remained a consistent problem for him throughout his career. In 4 years in the league, Goff has finished in the bottom-10 among qualifying quarterbacks in completion percentage under pressure in all 4 seasons, completing between 41.3% and 43.3% of his pressured passes in a given season over that stretch. Goff has also consistently struggled when he’s had to look past his first option, with the biggest gap in Pro Football Focus grade between throws to his first read and throws to his second read or beyond of any quarterback in the league over the past 4 seasons.

Goff’s non-pressured stats improved significantly after his rookie year and he’s earned solid grades overall from PFF over the past 3 seasons, finishing 15th, 8th, and 20th respectively among quarterbacks. However, he needs a lot of help if he’s ever going to bring the Rams a Super Bowl and, currently owed 135 million over the next 5 seasons without a realistic out on his contract until 2023, Goff’s salary is likely to hamper the Rams’ ability to build around him. With an even weaker supporting cast than last season, expect both Goff and the Rams to struggle this season.

Backup quarterback is also a big concern. Last season, the Rams had former Jaguars starter Blake Bortles who, while he was a failed starter, was still among the top half of backup quarterbacks in the league, but he wasn’t retained this off-season and, if the season were to begin today, it looks like 2018 undrafted free agent John Wolford, who has never thrown a pass in a regular season game, would be the primary backup. That would obviously be a problem if Goff was to get hurt, although it’s worth noting Goff hasn’t missed any of his 54 career starts due to injury and that the Rams could still bring back Bortles later in the off-season. Either way, they’d be in trouble if they lost Goff, but Bortles’ experience would give him a better shot of replacing Goff for a few games if needed.

Grade: B

Receiving Corps

The most notable players that Goff lost around him on offense this off-season were running back Todd Gurley and wide receiver Brandin Cooks. At one point, Gurley and Cooks looked like the future for the Rams, as the former first round pick Todd Gurley received a 4-year, 57.5 million dollar extension two off-seasons ago, despite there being two years left on his rookie deal, while Brandin Cooks, acquired two off-seasons ago for a first round pick, was given a 5-year, 81 million dollar extension. However, the Rams got rid of them both this off-season, Cooks just one year and 30 million in new money into his extension and Gurley having received 20 million in new money on an extension that technically never started, as 2019 would have been the final year of his original rookie deal.

Not only did the Rams move on from both players, but they also did it in a way that barely freed up any immediate cap space, with Gurley and Cooks accounting for 31.05 million in dead cap in 2020. Doing so ensures that both Gurley and Cooks will be totally off their cap in 2021, so it helps their long-term cap situation significantly, and the Rams were also able to add a much needed extra second round pick in the Cooks trade, but in the short-term both players will be missed, even if they were coming off of injury plagued seasons in which they weren’t as good as they had been in the past, and the dead cap hurt their overall ability to fill out this roster.

The Rams also had adequate depth at both wide receiver and running back, which is another reason why it made some sense to move on from Cooks and Gurley, and it looked likely that, without a first round pick, they’d use their two second round picks on much needed additions to the defense and offensive line. Instead, they not only used the 2nd round pick they acquired from the Texans for Cooks on a replacement for Cooks in Van Jefferson, but they also used their original 2nd round pick on a replacement for Todd Gurley in Cam Akers. Making those selections helps ensure they’ll continue having talented skill positions long-term, but they might not necessarily help them much in the short-term and they come at the expense of addressing much more pressing needs.

The Rams bring back their top-2 wide receivers from last year in Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, so Jefferson will compete for the #3 wide receiver job with last year’s #4 wide receiver Josh Reynolds, a 2017 4th round pick who has been capable on 1,092 snaps over the past 2 seasons and has experience as the #3 receiver job as an injury replacement. Reynolds would have been fine as the #3 receiver and could still end up in that role to begin the season because Jefferson is pretty raw, but it’s clear the Rams envision Jefferson as the long-term future.

Woods and Kupp, meanwhile, were one of three wide receiver duos to both surpass 1,100 yards receiving in 2019 and they should remain one of the best wide receiver duos in the league. Both players joined the Rams three off-seasons ago, Kupp as a 3rd round pick and Woods as a somewhat unheralded free agency signing. That’s coincides with the Rams’ turnaround as a team and that’s no coincidence, as Woods and Kupp have averaged a 86/1166/5 and a 80/1065/9 slash line respectively per 16 games over those three seasons and both have finished in the top-31 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons. Even on a diminished offense overall, both players topping 1000 yards in 2020 is certainly a strong possibility if both can stay healthy.

Another reason it’s surprising the Rams used a premium pick to replace Cooks is that it seemed like the Rams were going to be using more two tight end sets in 2020. Over the past 3 years, they’ve routinely run 3 wide receiver sets as their base package, making their #3 receiver essentially an every down player, and usually only playing one tight end on the field at a time, either Tyler Higbee or Gerald Everett. 

However, Higbee took over as an every down player in place of an injured Everett down the stretch last season and broke out in that role, suggesting he should be a true every down tight end, with Everett being a true backup #2 tight end, but Everett is a useful talent as well, so it makes sense to run two tight end sets more often to get both on the field together, something they’ve rarely done in the past. Even with the addition of Jefferson, this seems like a strong possibility because of how well Higbee played at the end of last season.

During Higbee’s final 5 games, he played 91.2% of the Rams’ offensive snaps, put up a 43/522/2 slash line (a ridiculous 128/1670/6 over 16 games), and was PFF’s 3rd ranked tight end overall over that stretch, playing well as a run blocker in addition to a pass catcher. Even if Higbee does remain an every down tight end, I wouldn’t expect him to have quite the same snap share with Everett back and he’s far from a guarantee to be anywhere near as efficient as he was in those final 5 games last season. 

A 4th round pick in 2016, Higbee averaged just 0.99 yards per route run in his first 3 seasons in the league combined before last season, though it’s worth mentioning that he averaged 1.81 yards per route run in his first 10 games in 2019 before breaking out with 3.16 yards per route run in the final 5 games, so it’s not as if he just has one good 5-game stretch under his belt. Also a consistently strong blocker throughout his career, Higbee should put up at least decent receiving numbers if he’s given close to an every down role and he has the upside for a lot more if they make him a bigger part of this offense with Cooks and Gurley gone.

Everett should also be involved in this offense as the #2 tight end, as the 2017 2nd round pick has flashed with 1.41 yards per route run in his career and still has upside in his age 26 season. He’s never played more than 440 snaps in a season though, as he’s only been a rotational tight end behind Higbee, and it’s unlikely he exceeds that total in 2020, given how Higbee played as the every down tight end in his absence down the stretch. The Rams will likely miss Brandin Cooks at least somewhat, but they still have a pretty deep receiving corps.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

At running back, #52nd overall pick Cam Akers is added to a group that wasn’t bad even after getting rid of Todd Gurley, with talented long-time backup Malcolm Brown and 2019 3rd round pick Darrell Henderson in the mix. Along with Akers, there will be a three way competition for playing time in this backfield in 2020, though it’s hard to imagine the Rams don’t envision Akers as the long-term lead back given where they drafted him. Henderson was a relatively high pick too, going 70th overall in 2019, and he still has upside, but he showed very little as a rookie (3.78 carries for 39 yards) as the 3rd running back and is likely going to be behind Akers in the pecking order, especially since Akers projects as a better passing down back.

Brown, meanwhile, has never topped 69 carries in a season in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s shown well as a backup, playing ahead of Henderson last season despite where Henderson was drafted, and he deserves a shot at a larger role with Gurley gone. Brown hasn’t shown much burst in his career, with no carries longer than 20 yards on 197 career carries, but his 3.90 YPC average is pretty impressive for someone who hasn’t broken any big runs, showing that Brown has been able to consistently keep this offense on track when he’s subbed in for Gurley over the years. Brown likely won’t have a huge role in 2020 and he’s limited as a receiver (20 catches in 54 career games seasons in the league), but he should carve out at least a rotational role on early downs. The Rams have some intriguing pieces at a position where roles figure to become clearer closer to the season.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The biggest reason for the Rams’ offensive decline from 2018 to 2019 was the decline of this offensive line. Not only did they contribute to Jared Goff’s statistical decline, but they also were a big part of the reason why the Rams finished just 27th in yards per carry last season at 3.74.  In 2017 and 2018, the Rams didn’t have a single offensive lineman miss a game due to injury and the only change that ever occurred upfront was when the Rams lost 2017 starting right guard Jamon Brown to a suspension for the start of the 2018 season and had to start backup Austin Blythe, who proved to be an upgrade.

That all changed last season. The Rams knew things would be different going into 2019, losing left guard Rodger Saffold and center John Sullivan for financial reasons last off-season, but they felt they could replace them adequately with 2018 3rd round pick Joe Noteboom and 2018 4th round pick Brian Allen respectively. Instead, both Noteboom and Allen struggled before suffering season ending injuries and returning starters left tackle Andrew Whitworth, right guard Austin Blythe, and right tackle Rob Havenstein, all had significantly down years compared to 2018.

The Rams didn’t make any additions upfront this off-season, so they’ll have to hope they can find a combination of their existing players who can be a consistent starting five, after cycling through 9 different starters across this line in 2019, only one of whom (Whitworth) finished with an average or better grade from Pro Football Focus. The Rams cycled through several different starting units last season and the lack of continuity made things even worse. The Rams may benefit from more continuity this season, but it’s hard to see what combination upfront makes them a significantly improved unit without any additional options added this off-season.

The unit the Rams had for the final 6 games of last season had Whitworth at left tackle (where he started all 16 games), 3rd round rookie Bobby Evans at right tackle, 5th round rookie David Edwards at right guard, former right guard Austin Blythe at center, and mid-season acquisition Austin Corbett at left guard. The Rams could keep the same five, but it wasn’t a particularly good group and the Rams are getting some players back from injury, so I would expect every spot except left tackle to be up for grabs.

Even left tackle is a questionable position, given Andrew Whitworth’s age, now in his age 39 season. Whitworth was still PFF’s 25th ranked offensive tackle in 2019, but for a player who had finished in the top-11 at his position in 6 straight seasons prior to last season, it was a noticeable dropoff and potentially a sign of things to come. He could continue defying age and play at an above average level in 2020, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and it would not be a surprise if he continued declining in what could easily end up being his final season.

Whitworth and right tackle Rob Havenstein were one of the best offensive tackle duos in the league in 2018 and, while both declined in 2019, it was surprisingly Havenstein who declined the most, falling from 3rd among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018 to all the way down to 81st out of 89 qualifiers in 2019, even though he was seemingly in the prime of his career in his age 27 season. It’s hard to tell why Havenstein declined so significantly, as he had been a top-38 offensive tackle in each of his first 4 seasons in the league before last year’s down year.

Havenstein missed some time with a knee injury, but it’s not clear if he was slowed by that injury prior to missing time and even upon his return he was benched for 3rd round rookie Bobby Evans, even though Evans struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 84th out of 89 qualifying offensive tackles on PFF. Havenstein was kept at a 7 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season, suggesting the Rams still view him as a starter and he has obvious bounce back potential if he can win his job back from Evans. It’s highly unlikely he’ll be as good as he was in 2018 again, but it’s definitely possible he and Whitworth could both be above average starters again in 2020, which would definitely be a boost for an otherwise very questionable unit.

Brian Allen may reclaim his old starting job at center as well, back from a knee injury that cost him the final 7 games of last season, but Allen was PFF’s 26th ranked center out of 36 qualifiers before going down, and the Rams shifted Austin Blythe inside to center in his absence, so Allen isn’t a guarantee to get his job back. Even if he does, the 2018 4th round pick is far from a guarantee to ever develop into a capable starter and so far he’s shown little signs of doing so.

One reason the Rams may leave Blythe at center is simply that he was better there last season than he was at right guard. Blythe was surprisingly PFF’s 12th ranked guard in 2018 in the first real action of the 2016 7th round pick’s career, but he started the 2019 season as PFF’s 72nd ranked guard out of 76 qualifiers in the first 8 games of the season, before moving to center and ranking 25th out of 35 qualifying centers across the final 8 games of the season. 

Blythe’s best season came as a full-time right guard, but that season is a clear outlier when you look at his career, so it’s possible center will be his best position going forward. Re-signed on a 1-year, 3.9 million dollar deal this off-season, Blythe figures to start somewhere this off-season, whether it be center or right guard. If Blythe moves back to right guard, he would likely be sending 2019 5th round pick David Edwards back to the bench, although that wouldn’t be the worst thing, as he was PFF’s 46th ranked guard out of 88 qualifiers on 10 rookie year starts and doesn’t necessarily project as a long-term starter, given where he was drafted.

Edwards could also move back to left guard, where he made two of his 10 rookie year starts. At left guard, he would be in competition with Joe Noteboom, a 2018 3rd round pick who was PFF’s 87th ranked guard out of 88 qualifiers in the first significant action of his career last season, before suffering a season ending torn ACL, and Austin Corbett, a 2018 2nd round pick of the Browns who couldn’t get on the field in Cleveland (15 snaps in a season in a half), was sent to the Rams for just a 2021 5th round pick midway through last season, and then finished 69th out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF on 541 snaps with the Rams. The Rams have enough young players upfront that one or two of them could break out as a capable starter and they should get a better season from right tackle Rob Havenstein, but with Andrew Whitworth’s age, there isn’t a position on this unit the Rams can be fully confident in.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Rams didn’t just suffer losses on offense, as they arguably lost more on defense, including some of their best defensive players. One of those players was edge defender Dante Fowler, who led the team with 11.5 sacks, finished 33rd among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, and signed with the Falcons this off-season on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal that the Rams simply didn’t have the financial flexibility to match. In a less important departure on the edge, the Rams also released edge defender Clay Matthews ahead of 5.75 million non-guaranteed, after he played capably across 614 snaps last season.

The Rams signed ex-Bear Leonard Floyd in free agency, but he’s a significant downgrade from what Fowler was last season. Floyd was a first round pick by the Bears in 2016 and has developed into an above average run stuffer, but he has not developed as a pass rusher. In fact, he’s seen his pressure rate drop from 13.4% in his first two seasons in the league to 8.5% over the past two seasons, including 3 sacks, 9 hits, and a 8.8% pressure rate in 2019. 

Floyd’s run play still led to him finishing above average overall on PFF at 44th, but that was a career best finish for him. He’s more of a replacement for Matthews than Fowler, but the Rams are paying him well on a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal. That’s a lot of money for Floyd and it’s hard to see the upside of that deal for the Rams, as Floyd is already going into his age 28 season and, if he does happen to break out as a pass rusher, the Rams would have to pay even more to keep him long-term because he’s scheduled to hit free agency again next off-season.

Top holdover Samson Ebukam (565 snaps) figures to start opposite Floyd. The 2017 4th round pick was about average across those snaps, as he was on 692 snaps in 2018 and 351 snaps as a rookie in 2017. He’s a little better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher, but his career 9.9% pressure rate isn’t bad. Ebukam may max out as a capable starter, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but he’s also still only going into his age 25 season, so it’s possible he could keep getting better in 2020 and beyond.

Floyd and Ebukam aren’t bad starters, but depth is a big problem behind them. The Rams used a third round pick on Alabama’s Terrell Lewis and he could see their primary reserve, even as a rookie. Other options include 2018 5th round pick Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, who played 115 nondescript snaps last season after missing his rookie year with injury, and 2018 7th round pick Justin Lawler, who played 33 snaps as a rookie and missed all of last year with injury. Lacking a top end starter and any proven depth, this is a very underwhelming group.

Grade: C+

Interior Defenders

The Rams’ interior defender group is their only defensive position group that is likely to be improved this season. That’s because they return their top-5 interior defenders in terms of snaps played last season and also added A’Shawn Robinson as a free agent to be an upgrade at nose tackle. A 2016 2nd round pick, Robinson isn’t much of a pass rusher, with a 5.7% career pressure rate, but he’s consistently been an above average run stuffer, maxing out at 6th among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in run grade back in 2018. That year stands out as an outlier in his career, but the 6-4 322 pounder is a natural fit on the nose. He should move Sebastian Joseph-Day, who was marginal on 481 snaps last season in the first action of the 2018 6th round pick’s career, to a rotational reserve role, where he’s a better fit.

Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers remain locked in as every down players. Donald not only is a saving grace on an otherwise underwhelming roster, but he’s easily the best player in the league in terms of being better than anyone else at his position. The 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Donald burst onto the scene as a rookie, finishing 2nd among interior defenders on PFF only behind Defensive Player of the Year JJ Watt, and then he went on to finish 1st among interior defenders in each of the 5 seasons since his rookie year, totalling 63 sacks, 96 hits, and a 15.8% pressure rate from the interior, despite figure double teams, while also playing at a high level against the run. 

Donald “only” has two Defensive Player of the Year awards (2017 and 2018), but he could easily have won more and, still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, having never missed a game to injury, Donald should continue dominating for at least another couple seasons and could easily win another Defensive Player of the Year award or two at some point. He should arguably be considered the favorite for that award going into 2020, as he has been in recent years.

Brockers isn’t nearly as good, but he’s still a strong run stuffer who has finished above average as a run stuffer on PFF in 6 straight seasons, including top-13 finishes in three of the past four seasons. He’s not nearly as good as a pass rusher, earning middling grades throughout his career in that aspect and managing just a 5.7% pressure rate throughout his 8-year career. Now in his age 30 season, he is who he is at this point and could even begin declining, though his 25th ranked finish among interior defenders in 2019 was the second highest finish of his career. Even if he does decline a little bit, he should remain at least a capable starter who excels against the run.

The Rams don’t have a good situational interior pass rusher to take Brockers off the field in obvious passing situations, so Brockers will have to continue to play an every down role, but the Rams do have solid depth on the interior. In addition to Sebastian Joseph-Day, who has shown some potential as both a run stuffer and a pass rusher (6.4% pressure rate) and could thrive in a reserve role, the Rams also have 2019 4th round pick Greg Gaines, who flashed as situational run stuffer in limited action (183 total snaps) as a rookie. Aaron Donald elevates this group significantly by himself, but this is a strong group throughout.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Arguably the Rams’ biggest loss on defense this off-season was off ball linebacker Cory Littleton, a former undrafted free agent and special teamer who had developed into one of the top overall off ball linebackers in the league, finishing 7th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 2019. As a result, he was priced out of the Rams’ market this off-season, signing with the Raiders on a 3-year, 35.25 million dollar deal. Not only is Littleton a big loss, but the Rams also didn’t do anything to really replace him and they already had a thin group of off ball linebackers to begin with. Aside from Littelton, no other Rams true off ball linebacker played more than 298 snaps, with the Rams relying heavily on playing 3 safeties in sub packages to mask their lack of depth.

The Rams will continue using safeties as linebackers this season, but even still this is set to be a really thin group and they can’t rely on safeties to stop the run in base packages. The Rams have a good track record of developing linebackers in recent years, most notably Littleton, but that was with legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is no longer with the team. Troy Reeder was 2nd among Rams off ball linebackers with 298 snaps last season, but the 2019 undrafted free agent embarrassed himself, finishing as PFF’s second worst ranked off ball linebacker and missing a ridiculous 12 tackles in limited action. He would be very overmatched in any sort of significant role. 

Other off ball linebacker options include 2018 7th round pick Travin Howard, who played 102 nondescript snaps in his first career action in 2019, 2018 4th round pick Kenny Young, who played 470 mediocre snaps in 21 games with the Ravens before playing special teams only after being acquired by the Rams mid-season last season, and 2018 5th round pick Micah Kiser, who played just 1 snap as a rookie and then missed his entire second season in 2019 with injury. Barring significant additions before the start of the season, this is probably the thinnest linebacking corps in the league.

Grade: D

Secondary

In the secondary, the Rams lost starting safety Eric Weddle, who was slightly above average on Pro Football Focus last season and, less importantly, they lost Marqui Christian, who played 371 nondescript snaps last season as primarily a situational cover linebacker. However, this is still a good safety group, as they get John Johnson back from an injury that limited him to 395 snaps in 6 games last season and they used a 3rd round pick on Terrell Burgess, who figures to see action as a 3rd safety in sub packages with Johnson and second year player Taylor Rapp. 

A second round pick, Rapp could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league in 2020 and he’s a versatile player capable of player safety, slot cornerback, and linebacker. The same is true of Burgess, so both Rapp and Burgess figure to see significant action near the line of scrimmage in sub packages. Rapp is more experienced and has a higher upside, so he figures to be the better of the two, but Burgess might not necessarily be bad in that role.

That leaves John Johnson as their primary deep safety and he figures to play every down, assuming he’s over last year’s injuries. Prior to his injury ruined season, Johnson finished 11th and 8th among safeties on PFF in 2017 and 2018 respectively, even though those were just the first two seasons of the 2017 3rd round pick’s career, so he has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in his age 25 season in 2020.

The Rams also lost slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, which is a bigger deal than you’d think, as he’s been one of the top slot cornerbacks in the league over the past few seasons, earning 4 straight above average grades from PFF, including 3 straight seasons in the top-20, and allowing among the fewest yards per route run in the league over those four seasons at 0.77. The Rams will replace him internally, likely with 2019 3rd round pick David Long, who flashed on 109 snaps as a rookie, but even though Long profiles as a starter long-term, it’s hard to imagine he’s going to be as good as Robey-Coleman was immediately, especially since he’s not a natural pure slot cornerback. Long is the heavy favorite for the #3 job though, as his only competition is 2018 undrafted free agent Darious Williams, who flashed on the first 221 snaps of his career last season, but is ultimately probably best as a 4th cornerback.

Outside at cornerback, the Rams will start Jalen Ramsey and Troy Hill. Going into last season, Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib were their starting cornerbacks, as they were in their Super Bowl appearance the year before, but Talib got hurt week 5, which led to the Rams trading away Marcus Peters for next to nothing to free up cap space to trade for Ramsey, then of the Jaguars. Ramsey then started the rest of the way with veteran Troy Hill, who had largely been a backup in the first 4 seasons of his career prior to 2019.

It kind of worked, as the Rams allowed a 29.94% first down rate in games that Ramsey and Hill both started and finished, compared to a 37.78% first down rate in their other games. That’s highly unlikely to continue in 2020, however, and not just because of personnel losses and the absence of defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, but also because Troy Hill is unlikely to match his career best 12th ranked finish among cornerbacks on PFF on a career high 538 snaps, after earning middling grades at best on an average of 264 snaps per game in the first 4 seasons of his career prior to last season.

It’s possible Hill has turned a corner and will remain a consistently solid starter, still only in his age 29 season, but his strong season last year was also only a 9-start stretch, so significant regression is also possible and it’s very possible that his 2019 season will end up being an outlier at the end of his career. He’s still locked in as a starter though, coming off of a strong season, without a better option.

Ramsey, meanwhile, should continue playing at a high level. The 5th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey has been a bit up and down in his career, but he’s never finished lower than 31st among cornerbacks on PFF in 4 seasons in the league and he showed his top level ability with a 2nd ranked finish among cornerbacks in only his 2nd season in the league in 2017. Ramsey got off to a bit of a slow start with the Jaguars last season before being traded, possibly due to injury, possibly due to intentionally not going 100% while demanding to be traded, but Ramsey was PFF’s 18th ranked cornerback from week 7 on after joining the Rams and, still only in his age 26 season, I’d expect him to be around there or better in 2020, though cornerback is a difficult position for anyone to play at a high level consistently.

The tricky part is figuring out how to keep Ramsey long-term. Many of the moves the Rams made this off-season to free up long-term cap space were likely made with Ramsey in mind, but any way you look at it Ramsey won’t be cheap, especially given that the Rams have already paid a pair of first round picks to acquire him. Darius Slay is the highest paid cornerback in the league at 16.683 million annually, but Ramsey is likely looking to be paid among the top defensive players in the league regardless of position in the range of 20 million annually. At the very least any long-term extension for Ramsey will likely start at at least 18 million annually and reset the cornerback market, given his age, experience, lack of injury history, and track record. 

The Rams have the ability to keep him on the franchise tag for 2021 at around 17 million, but other than that they have no real leverage with Ramsey, who knows the team can’t afford to lose him after paying multiple first round picks to acquire him, similar to how the Bears and Texans had to give Khalil Mack and Laremy Tunsil top of the market deals to keep them after giving up a pair of first rounders to acquire them. Ramsey has also shown he’s willing to hold out to get what he wants and he likely wouldn’t be happy about being forced to play on a franchise tag. 

It’s unlikely it gets to that point, however, as the Rams seem likely to cave and pay him what he wants eventually, but, even if they don’t, Ramsey is locked in as the #1 cornerback in a secondary that is good, especially with John Johnson returning from injury, but also that will miss safety Eric Weddle and slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and that likely will see cornerback Troy Hill likely regress in his first full season as a starter.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Rams suffered significant losses on both sides of the field this off-season, most notably losing wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Todd Gurley, off ball linebacker Cory Littleton, edge defender Dante Fowler, slot cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman, and safety Eric Weddle. Losing defensive coordinator Wade Phillips can’t be overstated either. This all comes after the Rams were already diminished from 2018 to 2019, particularly on their offensive line, which they didn’t upgrade this off-season. All in all, this appears to be a below average team in terms of overall talent, a steep fall for a team that was one of the league’s best a couple years ago. Barring a surprising breakout year from quarterback Jared Goff, I don’t expect this team to return to the post-season in 2020. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 72.42

Defensive Score: 73.55

Total Score: 72.99 (3rd in NFC West)

Houston Texans 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Texans went 10-6 in 2019, but they weren’t as good as their record suggested, finishing middle of the pack with a -7 point differential and a +0.01% first down rate differential, winning 10 games primarily due to a 8-3 record in games decided by a touchdown or less, something that will likely not continue into 2020. The Texans won a playoff game, but even at home they needed a huge comeback just to narrowly defeat an equally underwhelming playoff qualifier in the Buffalo Bills and then the following week they got blown out in Kansas City in a 51-31 loss that had the second most lopsided first down rate differential of any game in the league all year at 29.82%.

The Texans’ offense was not the problem, as they were actually improved from 2018, when they were a better overall team. In 2018, they finished 17th at 35.67% in first down rate, but they moved up to 8th at 38.35% last season. The problem was their defense, which plummeted from 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.68% in 2018 to 26th in first down rate allowed at 38.33% in 2019. I’ll get more into their defense later, but they look likely to continue to struggle on that side of the ball, so they’ll need a lot from their offense to be legitimate contenders in 2020.

With Deshaun Watson at quarterback, the Texans will always be at least serviceable on offense, as he’s one of the best young quarterbacks in the league. A rookie year torn ACL threatened to derail the 2017 12th overall pick’s career, but Watson has bounced back with strong years in both 2018 and 2019. Not only has Watson played at a high level over the past two seasons, but his two seasons are close to identical.

In 2018, he ranked 12th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus and completed 68.3% of his passes for an average of 8.25 YPA, 26 touchdowns and 9 interceptions with 551 yards and 5 touchdowns on 99 carries (5.57 YPC), and in 2019 he ranked 9th and completed 67.3% for an average of 7.94 YPA, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions with 413 yards and 7 touchdowns on 82 carries (5.04 YPC). Still only in his age 25 season, Watson could take another step forward in 2020.

Perhaps most important for Watson is that he hasn’t missed a single game to injury since returning from the ACL tear. Watson’s playing style and his propensity to take off and run lead to him significantly taking more hits than your average quarterback, which increases his changes of getting injured, but it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise if he made it through the year without a significant injury again. If Watson does miss time, the Texans would have to turn to career backup AJ McCarron (86.2 QB rating on 173 pass attempts in 6 seasons in the league), who would obviously be a huge downgrade, as Watson is one of the top young quarterbacks in the league.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

As good as Watson is, he’ll need help from his supporting cast if this offense is going to be as good as it was last season. Like many teams with quarterbacks on cheap rookie deals, the Texans have been aggressive spending money to try to maximize their Super Bowl chances while Watson is still inexpensive, as they have the 4th highest payroll in the NFL in terms of average annual salary, in spite of Watson’s inexpensive deal. On offense, they have the 5th highest payroll in average annual salary and the 4 teams above them are all paying their quarterbacks 25 million or more annually.

How the Texans have spent that money is questionable, however. Head coach Bill O’Brien took over as the de facto general manager last off-season and he has definitely made his mark on this team with trades and free agent signings, but it’s hard to argue the result of all of his moves has been positive. No trade was more head scratching than his decision to send #1 wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and a 4th round pick to the Cardinals for David Johnson and a 2nd round pick this off-season.

Hopkins was not only the Texans’ #1 receiver, but he’s been one of the top receivers in the entire league for years, finishing in the top-5 among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 4 of the past 5 seasons. Over those 5 seasons, Hopkins has averaged a 103/1352/9 slash line per 16 games, despite having routinely horrible quarterback play for years before DeShaun Watson. With Watson, he has averaged an 111/1422/10 slash line per 16 games in 37 starts. He’s also missed just one game with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has shown he can continue playing at a high level through injuries and constant double teams.

Only going into his age 28 season with 39.915 million over 3 years left on his deal, Hopkins should not have been moved for any less than the first and third round pick the Giants got for Odell Beckham last off-season. The only way the Texans got comparable value to what the Giants got is if they value David Johnson equivalent to the 28th overall pick and Johnson arguably is a negative value, as he has a 11.2 million dollar guaranteed salary and may have cost the Cardinals a draft pick to get rid of in a salary dump if the Texans hadn’t come along with valued him like a first round draft pick.

Moving Hopkins didn’t even really free up much money given Johnson’s salary and yet the Texans still went out and spent heavily to replace Hopkins, signing slot receiver Randall Cobb to a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal and trading away their own second round pick to get Brandin Cooks and the 47 million over 4 years remaining on his contract. All in all, the Texans went from paying DeAndre Hopkins 12.5 million in 2020 to paying David Johnson, Randall Cobb, and Brandin Cooks 29.325 million combined, and they got to move up 17 picks in the second round. As a result, the Texans have the most expensive offensive supporting cast in the league and yet still lack a clear #1 wide receiver.

Cooks and Cobb will compete for targets and playing time with holdovers Will Fuller and Kenny Stills. Cooks is the closest thing they have to a #1 receiver and he actually topped 1000 yards in 4 straight seasons from 2015-2018, but he benefited from playing with Drew Brees and Tom Brady and never finished higher than 24th among wide receivers on PFF during that stretch. He also has a concerning concussion history and was limited to just a 42/583/2 slash line in an injury plagued 2019 season. Still only in his age 27 season, Cooks has bounce back potential if he can stay healthy in 2020, but he also legitimately could be one concussion away from having to retire. Even if he does stay healthy all year and bounce back, he’s still a significant drop off from Hopkins.

Cobb is the only natural slot option, so he’s likely locked in to that role. Cobb has been primarily a slot receiver throughout his career, running 84.5% of his routes from there in 9 seasons in the league. Cobb had strong impressive seasons early in his career with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, putting up slash lines of 80/954/8, 91/1287/12, and 79/829/6 in 2012, 2014, and 2015 respectively, but his 55/828/3 slash line last season in his first and only season in Dallas in 2019 was his best yardage total since 2015, as he averaged a 55/549/3 slash line over a 3 year span from 2016-2018. Injuries have been part of the problem as, while he stayed relatively healthy last season, injuries frequently limited him throughout his final years in Green Bay, even when on the field. Now Cobb is going into his age 30 season and could be on the decline. He should remain a useful slot receiver, but he probably won’t match last year’s numbers.

That leaves Will Fuller and Kenny Stills to compete for the other outside receiver job, with Stills as the heavy favorite. Fuller has shown #1 receiver ability in the past, as the former first round pick has averaged a 68/1056/10 slash line per 16 games in 22 games with DeShaun Watson, even with Hopkins dominating targets opposite him. The problem is he’s never played more than 14 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 20 games missed over the past 3 seasons combined. Now going into his age 26 season, it’s certainly conceivable he could have a breakout year with Hopkins gone, but of course he’ll have to finally stay healthy, which is far from a guarantee.

Fuller likely starting opposite Cooks would leave Kenny Stills as the 4th receiver. Stills is highly paid for a 4th receiver, with a 7 million non-guaranteed salary for 2020, so there’s some speculation the Texans will try to trade him or potential release him outright, but he’s worth keeping as depth, given the injury history of the Texans’ top-3 wide receivers and Stills’ ability to play both outside and on the slot. Stills has been a capable receiver throughout his 7-year career, finishing average or better on PFF in 5 of 7 seasons and averaging a 43/671/5 slash line per season, including 44th ranked finish on PFF on 587 snaps and a 40/561/4 slash line in 2019. 

Stills’ salary is significant for a player who probably won’t have a defined role going into the season, but the Texans aren’t desperate for immediate cap space and they should be in win now mode with DeShaun Watson running out of cost controlled years on his rookie deal and Stills could easily end up seeing a fair amount of targets when all is said and done regardless of his week 1 role. The Texans also have 2018 4th round pick and slot specialist Keke Coutee in the mix for a reserve role and he’s shown some promise in limited action in two years in the league, though injuries have limited him to just 605 snaps in 15 games total. Now buried on the depth chart, I wouldn’t expect much from Coutee statistically in 2020, unless Stills is moved, but he’s a good depth option to have.

Another good reason to keep Stills is the Texans figure to run a lot of 3 and 4 wide receiver sets to make up for their lack of tight ends. Jordan Akins and Darren Fells split time at tight end last season and played together in two-tight end sets, but they were limited to 1.07 yards per route run and 1.09 yards per route run respectively. Akins also struggled as a blocker, though blocking specialist Fells wasn’t bad in that aspect. The Texans didn’t make any additions to this tight end group this off-season, but they do have some upside in a young position group.

Jordan Akins probably has the most upside, as he was a 3rd round pick in 2018. He hasn’t shown much in two years in the league, playing 388 middling snaps as a rookie before a disappointing year in a larger role in 2019, but he still has upside and could be better in his third season. The Texans also used a 3rd round pick in 2019 on a tight end, taking San Diego State’s Kahale Warring, but he missed his entire rookie year with injuries. Warring still has obvious upside, but he entered the league really raw and it’s unclear what the Texans can expect from him in his first career action. 

Warring will likely push both Akins and Fells for playing time, though Fells’ blocking ability makes him more likely to be locked into a role. Even if Fells does see significant playing time, I wouldn’t expect much from him as a receiver, as his 34 catches in 2019 were the best in his 7-year career and now he’s going into his age 34 season. The Texans also used a 6th round pick on a tight end in 2018 on Jordan Thomas, although he struggled mightily on 470 snaps as a rookie, finishing 45th out of 50 eligible tight ends on PFF, and then he barely played last season (67 snaps) even with Warring hurt, so he’s unlikely to lock down a role in 2020 and is probably not a roster lock either. I don’t expect much from the Texans’ tight ends, but there’s no denying their wide receiver depth, even if they’re lacking an obvious #1 option after the bizarre DeAndre Hopkins trade.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Given how much they are paying him and how much they valued him in the DeAndre Hopkins trade, it’s hard to imagine the Texans aren’t going to make David Johnson their feature back. Johnson has experience in this role and in 2016 was one of the top running backs in the NFL, rushing for 1,239 yards and 16 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.23 YPC), while adding a 80/879/4 slash line through the air and finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked running back overall, despite being in just his 2nd season in the league. If it was guaranteed that Johnson would do that again, the Texans’ trade for him might be justifiable, but the problem is he hasn’t come close to matching that 2016 season in 3 seasons since.

Johnson missed almost all of 2017 with injury, was not nearly the same player in 2018, rushing for 3.64 YPC and 7 touchdowns on 258 carries and adding a 50/446/3 slash line through the air, and then again struggled in 2019, averaging 3.67 YPC and being limited to just 94 carries, missing three games with injury and then being benched upon his return. Johnson didn’t have much in the way of a supporting cast in Arizona over the past two seasons, so his low production isn’t all his fault, but it’s also fair to point out that Johnson had an incredible supporting cast on one of the best offenses in the league in 2016. 

Johnson is a useful passing down back, totaling a 36/370/4 slash line last season even in limited action and earning an above average pass catching grade from PFF, but he’s earned middling grades as a runner aside from his outlier 2016 season and is unlikely to bounce back, now 4 years removed from his best season, in his age 29 season. The Texans also already had a useful passing down back in Duke Johnson and they paid a fairly high price to acquire him from the Browns last off-season, sending away a 3rd round pick. Now with David Johnson coming in, his role is unclear.

Duke Johnson was already being underutilized compared to what the Texans paid to get him, as the Texans ended up turning to street free agent signing Carlos Hyde as their lead back last season, while limiting Johnson to 83 carries. Even Johnson’s 44/410/3 slash line was lower than his 59/543/2 average in 4 seasons in Cleveland. Johnson has a 4.44 YPC average for his career, but he’s never topped 104 carries in a season, so he was overvalued when the Texans gave up a 3rd round pick to acquire him and that trade doesn’t look better now that Johnson spent 2019 behind Carlos Hyde and now will play behind David Johnson.

Duke Johnson will likely have an even smaller role in 2020 than 2019 and may be used as a true backup, only coming in when David Johnson needs a breather. With little depth at the position behind the two Johnsons, Duke Johnson is locked into the #2 back role, but it’s unclear how much that role will be utilized. Even if he hasn’t had a good year since 2016, the Texans seem determined to use David Johnson as a feature back. I wouldn’t expect much from him aside from volume.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

The biggest area in which the Texans have improved around DeShaun Watson in his career is on the offensive line, which was one of the worst in the league in Watson’s first two seasons. The Texans made significant investments in this unit last off-season, spending premium picks to add three new starters, drafting right tackle Tytus Howard in the first round, left guard Max Scharping in the second round, and trading a 2020 first round pick, a 2021 first round pick, and a 2021 second round pick to the Dolphins for left tackle Laremy Tunsil, and the moves paid off. 

The Texans still allowed 49 sacks (8th most sacks allowed in the league) and Watson was still pressured on 38.4% of his dropbacks (6th in the NFL), but that was down from a league leading 62 sacks and a league leading 44.7% allowed pressure rate in 2018 and Watson’s tendency to hold the ball (3rd longest time in pocket per play in 2018 and 2nd longest in 2019) is partly to blame for how often he is sacked and pressured. This offensive line was also significantly improved in the run game from 2018 to 2019, which is a big part of the reason why the Texans ranked 9th in the NFL with 4.63 yards per carry.

The Texans return all five starters this year and could be improved even more because of continuity and young players taking a step forward. Laremy Tunsil figures to benefit the most from continuity because he arrived in Houston from Miami just about a week before the start of last season. Even still, Tunsil finished 18th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and allowed just 3 sacks, but he also led all offensive linemen with 18 penalties, probably in large part due to his relative unfamiliarity with the team. 

It’s not hard to see how Tunsil could have a significantly better season in 2020 just by cutting those penalties in half, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Tunsil improved in other areas as well, as he’s a former first round pick still only going into his age 26 season. Tunsil has made 58 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-24 among offensive tackles in each of the past two seasons and could easily have his best year yet in 2020, especially if he can get his penalties down. The Texans are obviously banking on him improving long-term, not only giving up several premium draft picks to acquire him, but also extending him long-term on a 3-year, 66 million dollar deal that is almost fully guaranteed and makes him the highest paid offensive lineman in the league in average annual salary.

Second year players Tytus Howard and Max Scharping could also take a step forward. Scharping wasn’t terrible in 14 rookie year starts, but he still finished below average on PFF, ranking 61st out of 88 eligible guards, while Howard was more of a middling starter, but was limited to just 488 snaps in 8 games by injury. Both profile as long-term starters and could easily be better now that they have a year under their belts. At the very least, the Texans should benefit from Tytus Howard likely being healthier.

Right guard Zach Fulton and center Nick Martin are the relative “long-timers” on this offensive line, though Fulton is entering just his 3rd season with the team. Fulton was signed to a 4-year, 28 million dollar deal as a free agent two off-seasons ago in one of the Texans’ first big moves to improve this offensive line and, while he hasn’t quite lived up to his contract, finishing below average on PFF in both seasons (28 starts), he’s still been an upgrade for a team that once had the worst offensive line in the league. Fulton has made 74 starts in 6 seasons in the league and was a more capable starter earlier in his career in Kansas City, but I would expect him to be below average again in 2020, even if just slightly. Fulton is locked into a starting role to begin the season at least, without clear competition, but it’s possible 4th round rookie Charlie Heck could push him for his job before season’s end. 

Martin is also locked in at center, having finished 18th and 19th among centers on PFF over the past two seasons respectively, after the 2016 2nd round pick missed his rookie year and struggled in his 2nd season. Having developed into a consistent starter and still only in his age 27 season, I would expect more of the same from Martin in 2020. The Texans also have solid depth with tackle/guard Brent Qvale (15 career starts), guard Senio Kelemete (37 career starts), and guard/center Greg Mancz (28 career starts) available as reserves. This is an unspectacular line overall, but they could be easily a solid unit and they should be better than last season overall, even if just because of continuity and experience.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

As I mentioned, the Texans’ defense declined drastically from 2018 to 2019, falling from 3rd in first down rate allowed at 32.68% to 26th at 38.33% The reasons why are pretty clear. In 2018, their top-7 defensive players in some order were JJ Watt, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, Kareem Jackson, Benardick McKinney, DJ Reader, and Johnathan Joseph. In 2019, Clowney, Mathieu, and Jackson were elsewhere, Watt was limited to 469 snaps in 8 games by injury, McKinney was unable to match his career best year from 2018, and Joseph declined significantly, falling from 12th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in his age 34 season in 2018 to 64th in his age 35 season in 2019. 

Watt should return healthy for 2020, but the defensive exodus continued this off-season, as Joseph is now with the Titans and DJ Reader signed with the Bengals, following a dominant 2019 season in which he ranked 6th among interior defenders on PFF. Without any key additions made on defense this off-season to replace all their lost talent, expect this unit to continue struggling, even if they get a healthy season from Watt.

Reader will be most closely replaced by 2nd round rookie Ross Blacklock, who the Texans took with the pick they got for DeAndre Hopkins. Blacklock projects as an above average starter long-term and could have gone in the first round, but it’s going to be difficult for him to replace Reader as a rookie, both as a pass rusher in sub packages and as a run stuffing nose tackle in sub packages, as Reader was above average in both aspects of the game last season. 

Charles Omenihu (443 snaps), Angelo Blackson (427 snaps), Brandon Dunn (399 snaps), and Carlos Watkins (265 snaps) all return from last season and it’s possible Eddie Vanderdoes could earn a role if he’s healthy, after playing 78 snaps in 3 games down the stretch last season. All five of those players earned below average grades last season though, so I wouldn’t expect much from this group as a whole without Reader and it’s possible the rookie Blacklock could be their best interior defender by default.

Omenihu probably has the best shot of the holdovers to develop into a solid starter or heavy rotational player, as the 2019 5th round pick wasn’t horrible as a rookie and flashed as a pass rusher, with 3 sacks, 4 hits, and an 8.3% pressure rate. He should at least have a sub package role as a situational interior pass rusher in 2020 and he has a good chance to exceed last year’s snap total in his second season in the league. 

Omenihu is a projection to a larger role and needs to get better against the run, but he should continue being a factor as a pass rusher and has the upside to develop into a starter long-term. Carlos Watkins may also have some upside, as he was a 4th round pick in 2017, but he’s been mediocre on 636 career snaps and is already in his age 27 season, so he’s running out of time to develop into anything other than a bottom of the roster talent. Even in a thin group, Watkins is not guaranteed a role.

Brandon Dunn is the biggest of the bunch at 6-2 310 and would be the most natural fit on the nose in base packages, as he’s been a capable run stuffer for most of his career. He has also never topped 416 snaps in 6 seasons in the league, he has a career 3.7% pressure rate, and he struggled in all aspects of the game last season, so he’s an underwhelming option. Fellow veteran Angelo Blackson also struggled mightily last season, finishing 122nd out of 125 eligible interior defenders on PFF, and he hasn’t been much better than that on an average of 308 snaps per season in 5 seasons in the league.

Vanderdoes is the wild card of the bunch as he was a 3rd round pick in 2017 by the Raiders, but he struggled on 464 snaps as a rookie, missed all of 2018 with a torn ACL, and then was waived/injured at final cuts after suffering a concussion in the pre-season before the 2019 season. The Texans claimed him to the practice squad and called him up later in the season. Still only in his age 25 season, it’s possible he could still develop into something long-term if he’s healthy, but it’s hard to know what to expect from him. This looks like a very weak group going into the season.

Grade: C

Edge Defenders

JJ Watt is the saving grace is this defense, assuming he can stay on the field, which has hardly been a given over the past few seasons. The 11th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Watt burst onto the scene with one of the most dominant 4-year stretches ever by a defensive lineman from 2012-2015, as he finished in the top-2 among interior defenders on Pro Football Focus in all four seasons and won three Defensive Player of the Year awards along the way, tying him with Lawrence Taylor for most all-time. 

Over that stretch, Watt totaled 69 sacks, 142 hits, and a 15.0% pressure rate, despite primarily rushing from the interior, and he dominated against the run as well, while playing 61.9 snaps per game in 64 of a possible 64 games. Unfortunately, the injuries have really piled up over the past 4 seasons, as he suffered season ending injuries early in 2016 and 2017 that limited him to 374 snaps total in 8 games and then, after playing in all 16 games in 2018, he again missed significant time with injury last season. 

Watt has still played at a relatively high level when on the field, now primarily playing on the edge. He’s had 21.5 sacks, 38 hits, and a 12.7% pressure rate in 32 games and he finished 2nd among edge defenders on PFF in his one healthy season in 2018 and was PFF’s 5th ranked edge defender through week 8 when he went down last season. However, it’s fair to wonder if all of Watt’s injuries will start to pile up and slow him down, especially now going into his age 31 season. Even a diminished JJ Watt would likely be one of the better defensive ends in the league and the Texans will obviously take that if he can stay on the field, but his best days are almost definitely behind him and it’s far from a guarantee he makes it through the season.

With Watt injured and his former running mate Jadeveon Clowney traded last off-season, Whitney Mercilus took on a much larger role in 2019, going from 785 snaps to 950 snaps and, most importantly, going from 367 pass rush snaps to 591 pass rush snaps. That didn’t really lead to more pressure though. His sack total jumped from 4 to 7.5, but his quarterback hits fell from 11 to 6 and he had just 5 more total pressures on the season, dropping his pressure rate from 11.4% in 2018 to 8.0% in 2019. 

Mercilus has been an average or better starter for years and he finished 9th and 15th among edge defenders in 2015 and 2016 respectively, but he missed most of 2017 with injury, fell to 71st and 63rd respectively in 2018 and 2019, and now is going into his age 30 season. He could remain an average or better starter for another couple seasons at least, but his best days are likely behind him.

Brennan Scarlett (491 snaps) and Jacob Martin (220 snaps) saw significant action last season with Watt injured, with Scarlett working primarily as a base package player and Martin serving as a situational edge rusher. Both return to the team in 2020 and will compete for reserve roles behind Watt and Mercilus with third round rookie Jon Greenard, who could easily play a role even as a raw rookie. 

Scarlett has never been much of a pass rusher (7.6% career pressure rate) and he’s averaged just 254 snaps per season in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s been capable against the run and has the versatility to drop into coverage and play some off ball linebacker as well, something he could do situationally in 2020 if he can’t secure consistent playing time on the edge. 

Martin, meanwhile, has only played 445 snaps in two seasons since being drafted in the 6th round in 2018, but he’s shown some pass rush potential, with 6.5 sacks, 5 hits, and a 14.0% pressure rate in his career. He doesn’t hold up against the run, but his youth and pass rush ability make him a strong candidate to secure a sub package role. If Watt can stay healthy, this is a strong group with adequate depth, but that depth would really be tested if Watt were to miss time again.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, off ball linebacker Benardrick McKinney was one of their best defensive players on their dominant 2018 unit, but regressed in 2019. He still finished 25th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus, his 4th time finishing in the top-25 in 5 seasons in the league, but that was a steep dropoff from his 9th ranked in 2018. McKinney is still young, in his age 28 season, but his 2018 season looks like an outlier when you look at his career, as he’s otherwise never finished higher than 19th among off ball linebackers on PFF. He should remain an above average starter, but I would be surprised if he regained his 2018 form.

Zach Cunningham will be the other starting off ball linebacker inside in their 3-4 defense, playing both base packages and nickel packages, but coming off the field for a 6th defensive back in dime packages. A second round pick in 2017, Cunningham has been underwhelming in coverage thus far in his career, but he’s still earned an average or better grade from PFF overall in all 3 seasons anyway because of his ability against the run. He’s finished above average on PFF among off ball linebackers against the run in all 3 seasons, including a 4th ranked finish in 2019. Still not 26 until December, Cunningham still has time to get better in coverage, but even if he doesn’t he’s still a solid starter all things considered.

The Texans don’t have much depth at this position, which is why Brennan Scarlett may also see situational snaps as an off ball linebacker, especially in situations where they need a coverage upgrade on Cunningham. Dylan Cole (136 snaps), Tyrell Adams (108 snaps), and Peter Kamalbayi (91 snaps) all struggled mightily in 2019 and are not roster locks even at a thin position. The Texans will have to hope that McKinney and Cunningham remain healthy again, otherwise they could be in a lot of trouble at this position.

Grade: B+

Secondary

The Texans’ secondary is the unit that declined the most from 2018 to 2019, as they lost Tyrann Mathieu, who ranked 20th among safeties on Pro Football Focus in 2018, and Kareem Jackson, who ranked 5th among cornerbacks, and they didn’t adequately replace them. Not much has changed in this unit from 2019 to 2020, so they should continue to struggle. The only personnel change is they released safety Tashaun Gipson, even though 3.25 of his 6.5 million dollar salary was already guaranteed, and they replaced him with ex-Brown Eric Murray on a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal. 

Gipson was an underwhelming starter in 2019, but Murray is unlikely to be an upgrade, as the 2016 4th round pick has made just 12 career starts at safety (3 starts at slot cornerback) and has been underwhelming on 1,568 career snaps in 4 seasons in the league. The Texans aren’t paying him a ton, but he’s still overpaid, as he’s clearly a below average starting option. His salary and lack of an alternative likely locks him into a starting role though.

Murray will start next to Justin Reid, who is probably their best defensive back overall. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Reid took over as a starter in week 6 of his rookie year, finishing 27th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, and then he jumped up to 14th among safeties on PFF in 15 starts in his second season in the league. He profiles as a potential Pro-Bowl caliber talent long-term and could take another step forward in 2020, now in his third season in the league.

At cornerback, the Texans have spent significant resources trying to replenish their talent after not only losing Kareem Jackson last off-season, but also watching cornerback Johnathan Joseph decline last season and then leave in free agency this off-season. So far, none of their moves to replace Jackson and Joseph have panned out. They used a 2nd round pick on Kentucky cornerback Lonnie Johnson in the 2019 NFL Draft and then watched him finish dead last out of 135 eligible cornerbacks on PFF as a rookie on 531 snaps. They traded a 3rd round pick at last year’s trade deadline to acquire former 2017 first round pick Gareon Conley after two and a half disappointingly average seasons in Oakland and he ended up not being much better in 412 snaps with the Texans. 

They also signed ex-Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby to a 1-year, 10 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season and then re-signed him for 31.5 million over 3 years this off-season, even though he was just a middling starter in 10 starts in an injury plagued 2019. Roby’s contract likely makes him the de facto #1 cornerback, even though he’s only finished in the top-50 among cornerbacks on PFF in 2 of 6 seasons in the league and has never finished higher than 23rd in a single season. He’ll likely remain an adequate starter in 2020, but he was definitely overpaid this off-season.

Roby being the top cornerback leaves Gareon Conley and Lonnie Johnson to compete for the #2 cornerback job. The 3rd round pick the Texans gave up to acquire Conley at the deadline last year suggests they view him as a starter long-term, but they also declined his 5th year option for 2021, worth 10.244 million guaranteed for injury only, so perhaps they’ve already soured on him a little bit. 

Conley is still young, going into his age 25 season, he still has upside, as a former 24th overall pick, and he hasn’t been bad in 26 career starts so far, but he’s not locked into a starting role. Even as badly as Lonnie Johnson played as a rookie, the Texans are likely still high on his upside long-term and he could easily take a step forward in his 2nd season, even if it’s just by default. If he ends up in the starting lineup, it might say more about Conley than it says about him though.

Slot cornerback snaps are also up for grabs in three cornerback sets. Bradley Roby began last season moving inside to the slot in sub packages and the Texans could do that again with Conley and Johnson outside if they feel those are their best three cornerbacks, but Roby is better outside, so it’s more likely the Texans either stick with Vernon Hargreaves, who played the slot down the stretch last season after being signed mid-season from the Buccaneers, or even possibly that they go with 4th round rookie John Reid.

Normally starting a 4th round rookie isn’t recommended, but Reid is a natural fit on the slot, where he played extensively in college, and he’s significantly less raw than more 4th round picks, already in his age 24 season. He also doesn’t have great competition in Hargreaves, who has developed into an above average run stuffer in 4 seasons in the league since the Buccaneers drafted him 11th overall in 2016, but little else, struggling in coverage in all 4 seasons in the league, including a 126th ranked finish out of 135 eligible cornerbacks overall on PFF in 2019. Still in his age 25 season, the potential is still there, but he’s running out of time to develop. Regardless of how it shakes out, cornerback is obviously not a position of strength for the Texans and they have a below average starter at one of the two safety spots as well.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

It’s hard to argue the Texans haven’t gotten significantly worse in recent years, losing players like DeAndre Hopkins, DJ Reader, Kareem Jackson, Jadeveon Clowney, Tyrann Mathieu, and Johnathan Joseph over the past two off-seasons without adequately replacing any of them. They still have DeShaun Watson and they still have capable skill position talent around him and their offensive line has gotten a lot better, but their defense has gotten a lot worse very quickly and has become very dependent on JJ Watt, whose age and injury history are a significant concern. 

They won 10 games last year, but they played more in line with an 8-8 team and this year they look likely to be worse than that. They’ll win some shootouts, but they’re going to have a hard time making the playoffs, even with a third wild card being added and the AFC being a weaker conference. In the AFC South, I have the Texans clearly behind both the Colts and the Titans. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Offensive Score: 75.50

Defensive Score: 72.23

Total Score: 73.87 (3rd in AFC South)