Tennessee Titans 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Titans were arguably the most improved team in the league last season, going 9-7 after winning a combined 5 games in the previous 2 seasons. Going into week 16, it looked like the Titans had a good chance to make the playoffs, but then they had a week from hell. Not only did they suffer their biggest loss of the season, losing 38-17 against a 2-12 Jacksonville team (previously their biggest loss this season was by 9), but they also saw starting quarterback Marcus Mariota break his leg. That loss coupled with Houston’s week 16 victory eliminated the Titans from the playoffs and made Tennessee’s week 17 matchup with the Texans meaningless.

It’s really a shame because a healthy Titans team could have been some noise in the post-season. They finished 6th in first down rate margin, second among non-playoff teams behind the Cardinals, and had 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents, also the 6th best margin in the NFL. They were equally good on both sides of the ball, finishing 14th in first down rate and 12th in first down rate allowed, joining the Patriots, Cardinals, and Steelers as the only teams in the league with that kind of balance. They could have put up much more of a fight in New England than the Texans, who won the division on a tiebreaker despite finishing 26th in first down rate differential and then lost 34-16 in New England.

There are a number of reasons why the Titans have been able to turn things around so quickly, but the Titans started their rebuild by selecting quarterback Marcus Mariota 2nd overall in 2015. He has solidified the quarterback position and been a massive upgrade over the likes of Jake Locker and Zach Mettenberger, which has helped this team immensely. In 2 seasons in the league, Mariota has completed 61.6% of his passes for an average of 7.61 YPA, 45 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions, while adding 601 yards and 4 touchdowns on 94 carries (6.39 YPC) on the ground.

He hasn’t finished in the top-20 among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus yet, but he is developing nicely and could break into the middle tier of quarterbacks in his 3rd season in the league in 2017. The one concern with him is injuries, especially given that he is a mobile quarterback who takes some hits in the open field. In addition to the broken leg he suffered at the end of last season, he also missed essentially 5 games with injury as a rookie. The good news is Mariota is ahead of schedule in his recovery and will participate in OTAs with his teammates. That improves his chances of a 2017 breakout year.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The five games Mariota missed with injury as a rookie might have actually been a blessing in disguise. The Titans lost all 5 of those games, which, combined with 4 close losses (within a touchdown) when Mariota was in the lineup, dropped them to 3-13, despite not being nearly as bad as they were the year before when they went 2-14. Unlike most 3-13 teams, the Titans didn’t have the need for a quarterback #1 overall, so they sent the pick to the Rams for a king’s ransom, getting #15, #43, #45, #76, and the Rams’ first and third rounders in 2017 for #1, #113, and #177.

The Titans then packaged #15 and #76 with a 2017 2nd round pick to move back up to #8 with the Browns to grab Michigan State offensive tackle Jack Conklin, who plugged in immediately at right tackle. Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott got most of the attention of the offensive rookies, but Jack Conklin was just as impressive, finishing 6th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. As important as Mariota was to this team last season, he got a lot of help from a strong offensive line and running game and Conklin was a big part of both of those.

Left tackle Taylor Lewan was also a big part of both of those, finishing 7th among offensive tackles right behind Conklin. Lewan and Conklin are arguably the best offensive tackle duo in the NFL and they are only going into their age 26 and 23 seasons respectively. Like Conklin, Lewan was a first round pick, going 11th overall in 2014. Lewan was eased in as a rookie, but flashed in 6 starts and then finished 11th among offensive tackles in 15 starts in a breakout 2015 season. He then continued that high level of play into 2016. The Titans made the no brainer move to pick up his 5th year option for 2018 this off-season and will work to reach a long-term extension with him over the next calendar year. He deserves to be one of the highest paid offensive linemen in the league.

The Titans are also solid on the interior of the offensive line. Left guard Quinton Spain, center Ben Jones, and right guard Josh Kline were all basically new starters in 2016 (Spain started the final 6 games of 2015) and all 3 graded out above average on Pro Football Focus. Jones is the most experienced on the bunch with 59 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, including all 48 over the past 3 seasons. A 2012 4th round pick, Jones started his career at guard, but graded out below average in all 3 seasons at that position. He converted to center before the 2015 season and it has been a great move for his career, as he’s finished 18th and 9th respectively among centers in the past 2 seasons, both above average. He should continue to give them solid play on the pivot. A former Houston Texan, Jones was a wise signing on a 4-year, 17.5 million dollar deal last off-season.

Kline also has some experience, starting 32 games in 4 seasons in the league, including 27 over the past 2 seasons. Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Patriots in 2013, Kline flashed as a reserve in the first 2 seasons of his career and then graded out above average in 13 starts in 2015. Kline was signed to a 2-year, 3.3 million dollar extension by the Patriots following that season, but he was inexplicably made a final cut by New England after losing his starting job to rookie Joe Thuney. The Titans claimed Kline off waivers and he improved on his 2015 season, finishing 26th among guards in 14 starts. New England’s loss has been the Titans’ gain. They could look to lock him up on another extension this off-season. He’s owed 1.575 million in the final year of that 2-year extension in 2017, with incentives worth up to 2.375 million based on playing time.

On the other side, Spain is one of two holdovers from Tennessee’s 2015 offensive line, along with Lewan. Spain started the final 6 games of the season at left guard after the Titans had tried a number of different options. Spain was unimpressive, but won the job again in training camp last off-season and then broke out with an 18th ranked season among guards on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts in 2016. He’s still a one-year wonder, but the 2015 undrafted free agent looks like one of many smart additions the Titans have made in the past 3 off-seasons. The Titans quietly have one of the best offensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Running Backs

As mentioned, in addition to a strong offensive line, the Titans also have a strong running game. They finished last season 4th in carries (476), 3rd in rushing yards (2,187), and 4th in YPC (4.59). The offensive line was a big part of that, as was quarterback Marcus Mariota’s scrambling, but the Titans also have talented running backs. Their lead back was DeMarco Murray, who is another one of their recent smart additions. Murray led the league with 1,845 rushing yards on 393 carries (4.70 YPC) with the Cowboys in 2014 and finished 5th among running backs on Pro Football Focus, but was a major disappointment in 2015 in the first year of a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal with the Eagles. A poor fit for Chip Kelly’s offense, Murray rushed for just 702 yards and 6 touchdowns on 193 carries (3.64 YPC) and fell to 66th out of 67 eligible running backs.

The Titans took a shot on him, swapping 4th round picks with the Eagles and bringing in Murray on a renegotiated deal with less base salary, but more guaranteed money and incentives that would allow him to earn his base salary back. The move paid off in a big way as Murray showed his old form, rushing for 1287 yards and 9 touchdowns on 293 carries (4.39 YPC), adding 53 catches for 377 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns, and finishing 9th among running backs on Pro Football Focus.

Murray had a reputation for being injury prone early in his career, but has played in all but 1 game in the past 3 seasons, despite totalling 1,032 touches over that time period. Even with his disappointing 2015 season thrown in, Murray still has an impressive 4.59 career average and 207 catches over the past 4 seasons. His age is starting to become an issue as he goes into his age 29 season, so the Titans will probably seek to lessen his workload to keep him fresh and on the field, but he has a good chance to still be a major asset for this offense. He’ll make 6.25 million in 2017 with another 700k available in incentives.

If the Titans need to give Murray more breathers in 2017, they’ll be in good hands with backup Derrick Henry, a 2016 2nd round pick who rushed for 490 yards and 5 touchdowns on 110 (4.45 YPC) carries behind Murray as a rookie. Henry doesn’t add much through the air and isn’t as good as Murray, finishing 32nd out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus, but could be better in his 2nd year in the league. The Titans figure to run the ball a lot again in 2016, especially if they are playing with more leads, so Henry is a good bet for at least 150 carries behind Murray if he stays healthy. Murray and Henry could be a two-headed monster at running back.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

With so many good players signed to value deals or still on rookie deals, the Titans entered the off-season with among the most cap space in the league, despite coming off of a good season. They needed to save some of that cap space so they can re-sign young players long-term without making their cap distribution too top heavy, but it was a bit surprising that the Titans didn’t add a single wide receiver in free agency. Rishard Matthews is a solid starter, but 5th round rookie Tajae Sharpe predictably struggled as the other starting receiver last season, catching just 41 passes for 522 yards and 2 touchdowns and finishing 95th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Wide receiver was a huge need for them and it was a good free agent class for wide receivers with guys like Alshon Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon, and Terrelle Pryor all available at reasonable prices.

The Titans did address the position in the draft. Thanks to their trade with the Rams, the Titans had the 5th pick in the draft this year, in addition to their own 19th pick. They used that 5th pick to select a wide receiver, making a shocking pick by selecting Western Michigan’s Corey Davis. It was a weak wide receiver class to begin with overall and most didn’t expect a wide receiver to go in the top-5. Davis was expected by many to be the 3rd receiver off the board behind Clemson’s Mike Williams and Washington’s John Ross and possibly not a lock for the first round at all, considering he was coming from a small school and hadn’t been able to work out for teams because of an ankle injury.

Even though the pick was surprising, it was not a bad one, especially considering the Titans’ need at the position. Davis could struggle to transition to the NFL initially, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 7th ranked draft prospect and has all the tools of a future #1 receiver. Amari Cooper, Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and Sammy Watkins have had big rookie years in recent years, but first round receivers often struggle as rookies, as guys like Devante Parker, Phillip Dorsett, Nelson Agholor, Will Fuller, and Laquon Treadwell have in the past 2 seasons.

Davis could be a secondary target to the veteran Matthews as a rookie. Matthews led the team last season with 108 targets and could hit that number again in 2017 because he is so reliable. Matthews isn’t the biggest name, but the 2012 7th round pick has put together back-to-back solid seasons with the Dolphins and Titans. In 2015 and 2016, he finished 35th and 24th respectively among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and his per game averages over 27 games translate to a 64/952/8 slash line over a 16-game season. Signed to just a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal, Matthews was a great signing by the Titans last off-season.

Tight end Delanie Walker was second on the team with 102 targets last season and he too was a reliable target for Mariota, catching 65 passes for 800 yards and 7 touchdowns and finishing 9th among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. A late bloomer, Walker has made 45 starts over the past 3 seasons and graded out above average in all 3 seasons, including back-to-back top-9 finishes. His age is a concern, as he’s going into his age 33 season, but he could have another couple solid seasons left in the tank. The Titans drafted Florida International tight end Jonnu Smith in the 3rd round as insurance and a potential long-term replacement. Smith is raw though and may spend his rookie year as the 3rd tight end behind mediocre veteran journeyman Phillip Supernaw.

Tajae Sharpe will likely be the 3rd receiver, which is a better role for him after he looked overwhelmed as a starter in 2016. The 2016 5th round pick flashed in the pre-season and could still develop into a useful receiver down the line, but he has yet to show it in a regular season game. He’ll be pushed for playing time by 3rd round rookie Taywan Taylor. Matthews, Davis, and Walker figure to see the majority of the balls in 2017 and the Titans figure to run the ball frequently as well, as Sharpe likely won’t see the ball that often even if he does win the #3 receiver job. Matthews and Walker are reliable options, but if Corey Davis can provide them a legitimate deep threat as a rookie, that could take this offense to another level.

Grade: B

Defensive Line

The Titans also got solid play from their defense last season, especially in the front 7. Their best defensive player is Jurrell Casey, who plays defensive end in their base 3-4 defense and then rushes the passer from the interior in sub packages. A starter since he was a 4th round rookie in 2011, Casey has made 92 starts in 94 of a possible 96 games in 6 seasons in the league and has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the past 5 seasons, including a 2016 season in which he finished 2nd at his position. Still only going into his age 28 season, Casey is in the prime of his career and should continue playing at a high level in 2017.

DaQuan Jones remains as the starter opposite him. After barely playing as a 4th round rookie in 2014, Jones has made all 32 starts over the past 2 seasons, finishing in the top-19 among 3-4 defensive ends in both seasons. At 6-4 322, Jones is a much better run stuffer than pass rusher and frequently comes off the field for interior pass rush specialist Karl Klug, who has graded out above average in a situational role in 5 straight seasons. Unfortunately, Klug tore his achilles late last season, which leaves his status for 2017 in doubt. Even if he returns early in the season, he could easily be less than 100%.

Free agent acquisition Sylvester Williams is also a better run stuffer than pass rusher at 6-3 313 and will slot in at nose tackle in Tennessee’s 3-4, the same role he filled for the Broncos over the past three seasons. Even though he played on some great Denver defenses, Williams himself is far from a great player. He’s made 44 starts over the past 3 seasons, but has graded out below average in all 4 seasons of his career, including 98th out of 127 eligible interior defenders in 2016. Williams was a first round pick in 2013, but is already going into his age 29 season, so he’s unlikely to get much better. There’s a reason the Broncos declined his 5th year option. He figures to struggle in a situational role and will likely prove to be an overpay on a 3-year, 17.5 million dollar contract.

With Klug’s status in doubt for the start of the season, the Titans’ depth is questionable. They used a 2nd round pick on Austin Johnson in 2016, but he struggled on 190 snaps as a rookie and is also a better run stuffer at 6-4 314. Angelo Blackson could also be in the mix for snaps, but the 2015 4th round pick has struggled in limited action thus far in his career and also isn’t much of a pass rusher at 6-4 318. The Titans have one of the best defensive linemen in football and some adequate run stuffers, but need Karl Klug to be healthy to fill a valuable situational role. If he is, this is one of the better 3-4 defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

Veteran edge defenders Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are also big parts of this defense. They finished 19th and 16th respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus, which is pretty par for the course for both of them. Morgan had an injury plagued season in 2015, missing 6 games and finishing just above average, but he was a top-11 player at his position in the previous 3 seasons and played 15 games in a bounce back season last season. Despite going into his 8th season in the league, the 2009 1st round pick is still only going into his age 28 season and should continue playing at a high level for at least another couple seasons. Outside of the 6 games he missed in 2015, he’s missed just 3 games since his rookie year.

Orakpo has a more extensive injury history, but he has played all 32 games in the past 2 seasons and has been worth every penny of the 4-year, 32 million dollar deal the Titans signed him to after the 2014 season. Orakpo was a high level player in Washington prior to signing with the Titans, but was available for relatively cheap because he had been limited to 24 games with injury in the previous 3 seasons combined. He’s been a top-16 player at his position in each of his past 4 healthy seasons (2011, 2013, 2015 and 2016).

The one concern is he’s going into his age 31 season, so his best days might be behind him, but, if he can continue to stay healthy, he could easily still be a productive player over the final 2 seasons of his contract. The Titans drafted Kevin Dodd in the 2nd round last year for depth purposes, but he struggled on 179 snaps as a rookie. He will likely have a larger role as a reserve this season and could still be seen as a future starter by the organization because he was a high selection with high upside.

Avery Williamson remains as an every down middle linebacker, after making 43 starts in the first 3 seasons of his career. The 2014 5th round pick hasn’t matched his rookie season, when he finished 17th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, but he has graded out about average in each of the past 2 seasons and has vastly exceeded his draft slot. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, Williamson is going to get a significant contract from someone in the next year if he keeps it up.

Wesley Woodyard was the other base package middle linebacker last season and he actually graded out higher than Williamson among middle linebackers, but he only played 615 snaps in a rotational role, coming off the field for coverage linebacker Sean Spence in sub packages. Woodyard has excelled in that role in each of the past 2 seasons, but is going into his age 31 season and could struggle if forced into a larger role with Spence signing in Indianapolis this off-season.

Prior to the last 2 seasons, Woodyard played in more or less an every down role with the Broncos from 2011-2014, but graded out below average in 3 of those 4 seasons and now is on the wrong side of 30. The Titans drafted Jayon Brown in the 5th round and he could play as a coverage specialist linebacker as a rookie, but the Titans also have good depth at safety and could drop either Da’Norris Searcy (5-11 2017) or John Cyprien (6-0 217) down to linebacker in sub packages. Despite questions at middle linebacker, this is still a solid linebacking corps.

Grade: B+

Secondary

With Searcy and Cyprien both being better fits as box safeties, 2nd year player Kevin Byard is expected to be the primary deep safety. The 2016 3rd round pick actually led all Titan safeties in snaps played last season with 657 and graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. He has the upside to develop into a solid every down safety long-term. Cyprien, meanwhile, is probably their best safety. He signed a 4-year, 25 million dollar deal with the Titans this off-season, after spending the first 4 seasons of his career with the Jaguars, who drafted him in the 2nd round in 2013.

If Cyprien plays like he did last season, when he finished 7th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, he will be worth every penny of that deal. However, the 2013 2nd round pick graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and was one of the worst safeties in the league in both 2013 and 2015, so he’s the definition of a one-year wonder. The big difference between 2015 and 2016 for him was that he lined up close to the line of scrimmage much more often in 2016 as a pure box safety. Cyprien is not good in deep coverage, but can fly around and make plays near the line of scrimmage, which is why trying him at linebacker is an option.

Searcy has experience as a linebacker from his days as a hybrid player with the Bills and could move back into a hybrid role behind Byard and Cyprien in 2017, after a disappointing 2016 season. Searcy was Pro Football Focus’ 18th ranked safety in 2014 and their 12th ranked safety in 2015, but fell to 63rd out of 90 eligible last season and only played 552 snaps in 14 games in largely a rotational role. Still only going into his age 29 season, Searcy has bounce back potential and could be valuable for them in the right role. Signed to a 4-year, 23.75 million dollar deal by the Titans two off-seasons ago, he agreed to cut his base salary from 5.625 million to 3.4 million this off-season in order to ensure his roster spot. They should have better safety play this year than last year, when Daimion Stafford and Rashad Johnson struggled mightily in rotational roles.

The Titans should also be much improved at cornerback, which, along with wide receiver and safety, were their big weaknesses last season. While the Titans did not make a splash free agent signing at wide receiver, they did at cornerback, signing ex-Patriot Logan Ryan to a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal. Ryan has been the #2 guy opposite Malcolm Butler the last 2 seasons, but will be counted on as the #1 guy in Tennessee. Ryan has been solid throughout his career and finished 22nd and 16th among cornerbacks over the past 2 seasons. The 2013 3rd round pick has made 40 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has never missed a game with injury. It’s unclear if he can be the same player as the top cornerback and outside of New England’s system, but he was still one of the best available free agent cornerbacks and was signed to a reasonable deal. He’ll be a massive upgrade on Perrish Cox, who was Pro Football Focus’ second worst ranked cornerback last season.

The Titans also used their other first round pick on a cornerback, taking USC’s Adoree Jackson at 18. Jackson is an incredible athlete and a weapon with the ball in his hands who can also return kicks, punts, and play some wide receiver, but he’s unrefined as a cornerback and could struggle a little bit as a rookie. He’ll replace Jason McCourty, who was a league average cornerback in 14 starts last season, but ended up getting cut this off-season, owed 7 million non-guaranteed in his age 30 season in 2017. McCourty has been their best cornerback for years, so I think he will be missed, but the Titans seem confident in both Jackson and slot cornerback Brice McCain.

McCain had a surprisingly solid season in 2016, finishing 33rd among cornerbacks on 844 snaps. At 5-9 190, McCain is best as a pure slot cornerback. That’s all the Titans really need him to be, but he’s also only graded out above average twice in 8 seasons in the league. The 2009 6th round pick is going into his age 31 season too, so he’s even older than McCourty. He’s highly unlikely to match last season’s performance. Given that and how raw Jackson is as a prospect, the Titans should have kept McCourty around as insurance and they had the cap space to do it, but this should still be a much improved secondary.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The AFC was lucky the Titans didn’t make the playoffs last season as they could have been a threat with a healthy Marcus Mariota. Their 9-7 record is not indicative of how good they were. They had a -7 margin in return touchdowns, but that’s more of a fluke than anything. They scored 10 more offensive touchdowns than their opponents and finished 6th in the NFL in first down rate differential. This off-season, they addressed their only few positions of need, wide receiver, cornerback, and safety, and come into the 2017 season without an obvious weakness on either side of the ball. If Marcus Mariota can take the next step as a quarterback in his 3rd season in the league, with an improved receiving corps, this team could be a Super Bowl contender. They have done an incredible job of rebuilding in a hurry over the past 3 off-seasons. GM Jon Robinson, who took over in January of 2016, deserves a lot of the credit. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

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Jacksonville Jaguars 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jaguars went just 3-13 in 2016, but were a lot closer to being a respectable team than people realize. Eight of their 13 losses came by a touchdown or less and many of their games were decided by just a couple plays. Usually, one of those plays was a turnover, as they had the 3rd worst turnover margin in the league at -16, but, fortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis. They finished last season 15th in first round rate differential, so, if they can play closer to turnover neutral football, that would likely lead to a big jump in win total, especially considering how many near victories they had last season.

You might think that the Jaguars playing turnover neutral football is an impossibility because of quarterback Blake Bortles, who has the second most interceptions in the league over the past 3 seasons, but he wasn’t the biggest problem for the Jaguars in terms of turnover margin last season. He threw 16 interceptions on 625 attempts last season, an interception rate of 2.55%, which was actually the lowest rate of his career and just 19th highest among 48 quarterbacks who threw more than 50 passes. He actually had a lower interception rate than Ben Roethlisberger (2.56%), Cam Newton (2.75%), and Eli Manning (2.68%). As a team, they ranked tied for 8th in interceptions with three other teams.

The bigger problems for the Jaguars were fumbles lost (13, tied for 4th), and takeaways (13, tied for 2nd fewest). Both of those should be better this season. The Jaguars ranked dead last in fumble recovery rate last season, recovering just 2 of 15 offensive fumbles, which is more bad luck than anything, and their defense is too talented to not generate more takeaways in 2017 (a lot more on that later). Bortles did lose 6 fumbles last season, tied for the league lead with Jameis Winston, but he only lost 6 fumbles combined in his first 2 seasons in the league, so this doesn’t seem to be a pattern with him.

None of this is to say that Blake Bortles is a good quarterback. In fact, he’s pretty bad one. But even if he ranks among the league leaders in interceptions again this season, the Jaguars could still have a reasonable turnover margin. Bortles’ biggest issue is his accuracy, as he has completed fewer than 60% of his passes in all 3 seasons in the league. He had better overall yardage and touchdown numbers in what looked like a breakout season in 2015, but his total career numbers are very underwhelming. In 45 starts in 3 seasons in the league, he has completed 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.59 YPA, 69 touchdowns, and 51 interceptions.

Even in his best season in 2015, he still finished 23rd out of 39 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. In 2014 and 2016 respectively, he finished dead last and 28th out of 34 eligible at the position. As a result of his incompetency, the Jaguars ranked just 23rd in first down rate last season, so their issues on offense definitely go beyond turnovers. The Jaguars used the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft on Bortles and will give him another shot as the starter in 2017, still only his age 25 season, after not adding any meaningful competition for him this off-season, but this is a make or break year for him. The 2018 free agency class and draft class are both much more talented at the quarterback position than 2017’s and Bortles’ 19.053 million dollar salary for 2018 is guaranteed for injury only. This could easily be his final season in Jacksonville if he doesn’t get it together.

Grade: C-

Running Back

The Jaguars offensive struggles last season weren’t all Bortles’ fault and the Jaguars needed to find upgrades at multiple spots on offense around him this off-season. Running back wasn’t seen as a glaring need as both TJ Yeldon and Chris Ivory are capable backs, but the Jaguars couldn’t resist LSU running back Leonard Fournette at #4 overall in the first round. Fournette isn’t quite as complete of a back as last year’s #4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, but he runs with great power and can have an instant impact for this team on early downs. Even with Yeldon and Ivory on the roster, he’s clearly their best runner.

It will be interesting to see how they work in Ivory and Yeldon behind him. They averaged just 3.67 and 3.58 YPC respectively last season, but that wasn’t completely their fault because they didn’t have a lot of supporting talent around them. On top of that, Ivory rushed for 1000 yards in 2015 with the Jets and Yeldon is a 2015 2nd round pick. Yeldon has the most obvious path to a role because of what he can do on passing downs. Yeldon has a mediocre 3.86 career YPC on 1,205 carries and just 3 rushing touchdowns, but has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons because he has caught 86 passes in 2 seasons and because he’s a reliable pass blocker. Fournette isn’t a great passing down option, so Yeldon would complement him well.

Ivory’s path to playing time is much less clear, even though the Jaguars gave him a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. Unlike Yeldon, Ivory is useless on passing downs with 73 career catches in 81 games and he is coming off of a way worse season, finishing 61st out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus last season. Ivory has had success in the past and much of his struggles last season were injury related, but injuries have always been an issue for him because of his violent running style. He’s missed 31 games with injury in 7 seasons in the league and has played through injuries in countless others.

Ivory has a career 4.47 YPC average on 1,000 carries, but, now going into his age 29 season, he might be running out of gas. There isn’t really anything that Ivory does well that Fournette doesn’t do much better, so it’s hard to see Ivory having a big role this season, especially with Yeldon also in the mix. They will probably try to trade Ivory, but he’s owed 5 million guaranteed this season, so that will be next to impossible. The Jaguars will have to just eat the money and release him next off-season. It’s a much upgraded backfield with Fournette entering the mix. They will try to run the ball heavily and win games with a conservative offense and a good defense.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Jaguars also used their 2nd round pick on an offensive player, taking Alabama offensive tackle Cam Robinson at 34 overall. They also acquired veteran Branden Albert from Miami for a late round pick. Those two will probably make up a remade left side of the offensive line, although Albert has yet to report to the team since being traded. Albert has yet to miss anything mandatory, but his absence from the team is giving Robinson a leg up on the competition for the left tackle job. Albert is reportedly holding out for more money, a strange move considering the Dolphins likely would have just cut him if the Jaguars didn’t trade for him.

The Jaguars didn’t give much up for him and he’s already owed 9 million this season. Going into his age 33 season and coming off of a terrible season in which he finished 65th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles, Albert wouldn’t be able to get half of that on the open market. Without any guaranteed money left on his contract, the Jaguars can just cut him if he doesn’t report for mandatory activities. Even if he does report, he could still end up having to move back to left guard, where he last played in college in 2007. He has made 118 starts at left tackle over the past 9 seasons and graded out above average in every season from 2010 to 2015, but he’s not the same player anymore and Robinson could impress.

Albert and Robinson do have a good chance to be an upgrade over what they had on the left side last season. Left tackle Kelvin Beachum struggled all season, while left guard Luke Joeckel struggled until tearing his ACL and going down for the season. His replacement Patrick Omameh was solid in 7 starts, but he’s struggled in the past and is best as a reserve, which is what he’ll be this season. He will backup whoever ends up with the left guard job and right guard AJ Cann, who made 29 starts in 2 seasons in the league since going in the 3rd round in 2015, but has underwhelmed. He could be better in his 3rd year in the league, but he’s also only a former 3rd round pick, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he never developed into an above average starter.

Center Brandon Linder was their best offensive lineman last season, finishing 5th among centers on Pro Football Focus in his first season at the position. Linder ranked 10th among guards as a 3rd round rookie in 2014 too, but missed most of 2015 with injury and was moved to center last off-season. Center seems to be his best pro position, but his versatility is very valuable, especially on an uncertain offensive line this one. The Jaguars would be wise to lock him up ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2017.

Rounding out the offensive line is right tackle Jermey Parnell, who is also a capable starter. A 2009 undrafted free agent, Parnell was very much a late bloomer, making just 2 career starts in his first 5 seasons in the league. In his 6th year in the league in 2014, he flashed in 5 starts for the Cowboys, which landed him a 5-year, 32 million dollar deal with the Jaguars. It was a risky deal to give to someone with 7 career starts, but it has paid off, as he has graded out above average in both seasons with the Jaguars, including a 31st place rank last season. He’s going into his age 31 season, but could still be a solid starter for another couple years. This offensive line has the potential to be better in 2017, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

The receiving corps was the Jaguars’ best offensive unit last season, though largely by default. They weren’t bad, but they played significantly worse than they did in 2015, specifically wide receivers Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, who seemed to have breakout years in 2015. A year after both topped 1000 yards (one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to do so) neither had 1000 yards. Hurns was especially bad, dropping from a 64/1031/10 slash line to a 35/477/3 slash line. Hurns missed 5 games with injury, but did not look like his 2015 self even when on the field, catching just 46.1% of targets and finishing 106th among 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus.

Hurns ranked 18th at his position in 2015, but was also a bottom-10 wide receiver as a rookie and went undrafted in the 2014 NFL Draft. The Jaguars locked him up on a 4-year, 40.65 million dollar extension last off-season after just 2 seasons in the league and that deal could end up as one the biggest mistakes in recent years if he doesn’t turn it around. The Jaguars have already paid him over 8 million in new money on that extension and it hasn’t even technically started yet. His 7 million dollar salary for 2017 is guaranteed. Fortunately, they can get out of the deal after this season without penalty, but they’ll have essentially paid him over 15 million dollars in new money for one year if they do that.

While Hurns was an undrafted free agent who may have had a fluke season in 2015, Allen Robinson has much more talent and much more bounce back potential for that reason. Even in his down season last year, he still caught 73 passes for 883 yards and 6 touchdowns and graded out slightly above average on Pro Football Focus. He also caught fewer than 50% of his targets, but a lot of that had to do with quarterback play and how much bracket coverage he received. In 2015, Robinson caught 80 passes for 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns and finished 12th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and, still only going into his age 24 season, the 2014 2nd round pick still has a bright future. Even if Bortles continues to struggle this season, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Robinson topped 1000 yards again. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Jaguars would be wise to lock him up long-term while his value is at a low point.

Fortunately, Marqise Lee had a mini-breakout year to help offset some of the dip in production by Robinson and Hurns. A 2014 2nd round pick like Robinson, Lee couldn’t stay on the field in his first 2 seasons in the league and didn’t play very well when on the field, catching just 52 passes in 23 games. Finally healthy in 2016, Lee had a breakout year, catching 63 passes for 851 yards and 3 touchdowns and finishing ahead of Robinson on Pro Football Focus, 39th among wide receivers. If the Jaguars can ever get all 3 of Robinson, Hurns, and Lee playing well at the same time, this could be a dangerous group of wide receivers, but that’s a big if. Robinson is the only one who I have a high level of trust in for 2017.

This receiving corps is also hurt by their lack of a good receiving tight end. Julius Thomas led all tight ends in catches in 2016 with just 30 and now he’s not even with the team anymore, after the Jaguars sent him to the Dolphins for a late round pick. It was the right decision because Thomas was not worth his 7.1 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2017 and they likely would have just cut him if they couldn’t trade him, but it left them very thin at the tight end position. After the trade of Thomas, many thought the Jaguars would draft the draft’s best tight end OJ Howard at #4 overall, but they didn’t spend a single draft pick on the position.

All three of Marcedes Lewis, Mychal Rivera, and Ben Koyack could see action as the Jaguars try to patch things together with a tight end by committee type situation. Lewis has by far the most experience, with 141 starts in 154 games in 11 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 33 season, Lewis is not the same player he once was and has missed 19 games with injury over the past 4 seasons, so he may be breaking down. In his prime he was an underrated overall player who could run block, pass block, and catch passes, but isn’t much more than a solid blocker anymore, even when he is on the field. He has just 79 catches over the past 4 seasons. He could see a slight uptick in targets with Thomas gone but, he probably won’t catch more than 25-30 balls even if he can stay healthy this season.

Mychal Rivera also has some experience, playing 61 games in 4 seasons in the league, but only starting 15 of those games. Ten of those starts came in 2014, when he caught 58 passes, but averaged just 5.39 yards per target and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 2nd worst ranked tight end on the season. He’s been alright as a #2 tight end, but the former 6th round pick has averaged just 353 yards per season in his career and doesn’t block well either. Koyack has the most upside of the bunch, but the 2015 6th round pick played just 363 snaps last season and spent his rookie season on the practice squad, so he’s very unproven. The Jaguars will probably use more 3-wide receiver sets to offset their lack of depth at tight end, but not having a good receiving tight end will hurt this offense.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

As I mentioned earlier, the Jaguars struggled to force takeaways last season, finishing tied for 2nd worst with 13 takeaways, but turnovers tend to be very inconsistent and they’re just too talented not to force more takeaways this season. They finished last season 6th in first down rate allowed and look like a top-5 defense on paper after adding more talent in free agency this off-season. Their biggest off-season acquisition was defensive end Calais Campbell, who comes to the Jaguars on a 4-year, 60 million dollar deal, after spending the first 9 seasons of his career with the Cardinals.

Campbell has finished in the top-8 among 3-4 defensive ends in each of the past 6 seasons and ranked #1 at the position last season. Going into his age 31 season, Campbell’s age is a bit of a concern, but he hasn’t shown any signs of aging yet. In Jacksonville’s 4-3 defense, the 6-8 286 pounder will play defensive end in base packages and move inside and rush the passer from the interior in sub packages, like he’s used to. One of the best defensive linemen in the league, Campbell is a huge addition to an already talented defense.

Last off-season, they also made a huge addition to their defensive line in free agency, signing ex-Bronco Malik Jackson to a 6 year 85.5 million dollar deal. A 6-5 290 pounder, Jackson also came from a 3-4 defense and played in a hybrid role in his first season in Jacksonville like Campbell will, finishing 8th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’s finished in the top-12 at his position in 4 straight seasons. With Campbell in town, Jackson will probably play more of a traditional defensive tackle role. Wherever they line up, they should be nightmares for opposing offenses.

The Jaguars are also hoping that 3rd year defensive end Dante Fowler can take a step forward and give them a third nightmare for opposing defenses. The 3rd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Fowler missed his entire rookie season with injury and was underwhelming on 569 snaps last season, but still has huge upside and could have a breakout year in his 3rd year in the league in 2017, still only his age 23 season. That would obviously be another big boost for this defense.

The Jaguars have four other young defensive lineman who will play rotational roles on this defense: Yannick Ngakoue, Dawuane Smoot, Abry Jones, and Sheldon Day. Ngakoue actually led all Jaguar defensive ends with 706 snaps played last season as a 3rd round rookie, but finished 103rd out of 109th eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus and will probably have a smaller role this season with Campbell coming in and Fowler taking on a larger role. His primary role will be rushing the passer off the edge in sub packages opposite Fowler, which is good for him because he was horrible against the run as a rookie. This year’s 3rd round pick, Dawuane Smoot, could also have a role as a rookie.

Jones and Day, meanwhile, will have roles at defensive tackle in base packages. Jones was re-signed this off-season to a 4-year, 15.5 million dollar deal after a breakout 2016 season in which he finished 12th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. A tough run stuffer at 6-3 313, Jones will probably play around the 463 snaps he played last season. The 2013 undrafted free agent entered last season with just 2 career starts and graded out well below average in both 2014 and 2015, but he is still only going into his age 26 season and could continue to be a solid base package player for them. Sheldon Day also played pretty well in limited action last season, although he only played 203 snaps. The 2016 4th round pick could have a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. This is one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in football.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Jaguars also got great play from their linebackers last season as Paul Posluszny and Telvin Smith both played all 16 games and finished in the top-8 at their respective positions. For Smith, it was a breakout year, as he finished 8th among 4-3 outside linebackers after grading out about average in 23 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league. Only going into his age 26 season, Smith is one of the best young 4-3 outside linebackers in the league. The Jaguars are reportedly trying to work out a long-term extension with him ahead of the final year of his rookie deal in 2017.

For Posluszny, last year’s #4 finish among middle linebackers came out of nowhere, considering the veteran was on the wrong side of 30 and hadn’t graded out above average since 2011. Now going into his age 33 season, last year’s outstanding season could prove to be a fluke, but it’s possibly he has another couple seasons as a capable starter left in him. The Jaguars drafted Myles Jack in the 2nd round last year to be the long-term middle linebacker and future replacement for Posluszny, but he was limited to 239 snaps as a rookie and could have a hard time winning an every down job in his 2nd year in the league in 2017 with Posluszny coming off such a strong season.

Jack is talented enough for a big role though. He showed promise as a rookie and was seen as a potential top-5 pick in the draft before concerns about his knees dropped him to the 2nd round. The Jaguars have talked him up this off-season and it’s possible he could move inside and beat out Posluszny for an every down role, but he may have to spend another year as a part-time player. Assuming his knees hold up, he should be valuable to this team in whatever role he ends up in. It’s a good problem to have for arguably one of the strongest 4-3 linebacking corps in the NFL. They have three legitimate every down players.

Grade: A-

Secondary

In addition to Calais Campbell, the Jaguars also signed cornerback AJ Bouye and safety Barry Church to big contracts this off-season, giving them deals worth 67.5 million over 5 years and 26 million over 4 years respectively. Bouye replaces Prince Amukamara, who signed a 1-year, 7 million dollar deal with the Bears this off-season. Amukamara had a good year last year, finishing 41st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, but Bouye finished 3rd, which is significantly better than Amukamara has ever been.

Bouye’s issue is that he’s the definition of a one-year wonder. At this time last year, he was the Texans’ 4th cornerback. A 2013 undrafted free agent, Bouye had finished below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league and had just 8 career starts coming into last season. Injuries to guys ahead of him on the depth chart allowed him to play 722 snaps (11 starts) in 2016 and he made the most of it and made himself a ton of money. He’s a major risk because of his inexperience and unproven track record, but he is only going into his age 26 season and comes with obvious upside.

Barry Church is also a one year wonder, although he comes with less risk because he was paid less. He finished last season 11th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, though he replaces John Cyprien, who finished 7th at the position and signed with Tennessee this off-season. Church is also older than Cyprien, going into his age 29 season, and never did anything like what he did in 2016 in any of his first 6 seasons in the league. The former undrafted free agent has 63 career starts, including 59 in the past 4 seasons, and has never been bad, but last season was just the second season he ever graded out above average and it could easily prove to be a fluke.

Last off-season, the Jaguars gave a 5-year, 36 million dollar deal to another one-year wonder, safety Tashaun Gipson, formerly of the Cleveland Browns. Unlike Bouye and Church, Gipson’s one year was not his contract year. Gipson finished 10th among safeties in 2014, but graded out below average in his other 3 seasons, including 88th out of 89 eligible in his contract year in 2015. He also had missed 14 games with injury in 4 seasons in the league. The Jaguars took a chance on him, betting that he could stay healthy and bounce back. He played all 16 games, but graded out below average again and was not worth the money they gave him. Going into his age 27 season, he has some bounce back potential, but it’s possible 2014 was a complete fluke for the 2012 undrafted free agent. He is the one weak spot on this defense.

Opposite AJ Bouye, second year player Jalen Ramsey remains as the starting cornerback. The 5th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey made all 16 starts as a rookie and finished 21st among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Ramsey has the upside to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league in a few seasons and could take another step forward in his second year in the league. One of the best defensive rookies in the league last season, the Jaguars appear to have made the right selection.

Aaron Colvin is expected to remain as the slot cornerback. Colvin fell to the 4th round in 2014 because of injury and was limited to 6 games as a rookie, but showed his talent in 2015 when he graded out above average in 16 games and made 15 starts. Last season, a combination of injury and suspension limited him to 292 snaps in 10 games, but he still played well when on the field. He won’t beat out either Bouye or Ramsey to win back his starting job, but, assuming he’s healthy, he should be one of the better #3 cornerbacks in the league and play more than half of the snaps. This is a talented secondary with good upside.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Jaguars will be limited by their passing game, but could win games with their defense and running game. Given all the talent they added in the off-season and how many close losses they had last season, it won’t be hard for them to win a lot more games if they can force more takeaways and recover more of their fumbles. On paper, they have a top-5 defense that is strong on all 3 levels. They have a good mix of cheap young players and talented veterans signed to big contracts in free agency and could easily win 7 to 9 games and push for the AFC South title in an unsettled and underwhelming division. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Washington Redskins 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In 2012, the Redskins mortgaged the future to move up 4 spots in the draft to select Baylor quarterback and Heisman winner Robert Griffin, sending picks #6 and #39, along with future first rounders in 2013 and 2014, to the Rams for #2. Griffin won Offensive Rookie of the Year that season and the trade looked like a huge success for a franchise in need of stability at the quarterback position, but he suffered a torn ACL in their playoff loss to the Seahawks that season and was never the same again.

Given all that they gave up to get him, that mistake had the potential to set their franchise back a few years, but the Redskins were saved from that by Kirk Cousins, a 4th round pick in that same 2012 draft and a head-scratching selection in a lot of people’s eyes at the time, given all they had already given up to get Griffin. Cousins struggled early in his career as a spot starter and those struggles continued into his full first season as a starter in 2015. In his first 17 career starts, Cousins completed just 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.97 YPA, 28 touchdowns, and 28 interceptions.

Then the light seemed to click for him 8 games into 2015 and he has been on some kind of run since then, completing 68.8% of his passes for an average of 8.48 YPA, 44 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in 24 starts. His second half tear in 2015 got the Redskins into the playoffs and earned him the 15th place rank on Pro Football Focus among quarterbacks. In 2016, the Redskins just missed the playoffs at 8-7-1 and Cousins finished 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. With Griffin spending last season on a 1-15 Cleveland team, Cousins’ emergence has shown just how quickly things can change in the NFL and the value of selecting the best overall player in the draft regardless of need, especially in the middle rounds.

The Redskins have been rightfully a little skeptical of his sudden emergence, franchise tagging him in each of the last 2 off-seasons, but being very conservative in long-term extension talks. Cousins will make a combined 43.9 million on the two tags, but the Redskins have refused to go above 20 million dollars annually on a long-term deal. Cousins would be owed about 34.5 million on a third franchise tag next off-season, making that not a realistic option. Something will have to give at some point. Cousins is rumored to be interested in signing with ex-offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, who didn’t do much to address the quarterback position this off-season and who would welcome Cousins with open arms. Cousins could ultimately prove to be more of a system quarterback, but he’s a great fit in Jay Gruden’s system and should be able to continue his hot streak.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

Cousins threw for 4,917 yards last season, 3rd best in the NFL, and averaged 8.11 yards per attempt, also 3rd best in the NFL. He deserves a lot of the credit, but he was definitely helped out by one of the league’s best receiving corps. Unfortunately, his top 2 wide receivers, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson, left in free agency this off-season. Both players topped 1000 receiving yards last season, one of 4 wide receiver duos in the league to do so (Brandin Cooks/Michael Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders/Demaryius Thomas, and Amari Cooper/Michael Crabtree), and they combined for 2,046 receiving yards, 41.4% of the team’s total. They won’t be easy to replace.

The Redskins do have some obvious replacements though, including free agent acquisition Terrelle Pryor. A failure as a quarterback, Terrelle Pryor’s NFL career got a second life when he converted to wide receiver with the Browns 2 seasons ago. The position change ended up being one of the smartest things the Browns have ever done, as Pryor had a breakout season in 2016 in just his second season as a wide receiver, catching 77 passes for 1007 yards and 4 touchdowns and finishing 31st among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus.

He’s still a one-year wonder and teams are still skeptical about him as a legitimate top flight receiver, as evidenced by the fact that he had to settle for an incentivized 1-year, 6 million dollar deal in free agency. That being said, he’s incredibly gifted athletically with legitimate 4.3 speed at 6-4 223 and may just be scratching the surface on his potential as a wide receiver, still only going into his age 28 season. With a full season as a starter under his best, Pryor has a good chance to improve on his 2016 numbers on a much better passing offense than Cleveland’s. With Garcon and Jackson leaving behind 216 targets, Pryor could match the 140 targets he received with the Browns last season. He could prove to be a very wise signing on a relatively low risk deal and emerge as the clear #1 receiver in Washington.

Opposite him, last year’s first round pick Josh Doctson is penciled in as the other starter. The 21st overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, Doctson is a complete mystery as an NFL player still, after being limited to 31 nondescript snaps as a rookie by achilles problems. If he’s healthy, he could have a real impact, but he’s basically still a rookie given how little he’s actually played. The one obvious benefit with Doctson and Pryor instead of Jackson and Garcon is height, as Doctson and Pryor are 6-3 and 6-4 respectively, while Jackson and Garcon are 5-10 and 6-0 respectively. The Redskins ranked 30th in red zone touchdown percentage last season, ahead of only the Jets and Texans, so, even if they don’t have as many passing yards as they had last season with Jackson and Garcon, they could make up for it with greater efficiency near the goal line.

Jamison Crowder is the leading returning receiver and he too is undersized at 5-8 182. Just a 4th round pick in 2015, Crowder has surprisingly been a solid slot receiver in 2 seasons in the league, catching 126 passes for 1451 yards and 9 touchdowns in 32 games (15 starts) and grading out about average on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. Still only going into his age 24 season, Crowder’s best football could be yet to come. He’ll probably start the off-season as the 3rd receiver again, but could push Doctson for playing time outside if Doctson underwhelms the coaching staff, though Crowder’s size is a real limitation outside. Even if he remains the slot receiver, he’s surpassed 700 snaps in each of his first 2 seasons in the league in that role, so he will remain a big part of the offense. With Jackson and Garcon gone, expect Crowder to top the 97 targets he had last season, regardless of where he officially lands on the depth chart.

Tight end Jordan Reed could also top his target total from a year ago (87), but only if he can manage to stay healthy, something he’s never been able to do. Reed has never suffered any serious injuries, but hasn’t played more than 14 games in a season in 4 seasons in the league and has missed a total of 18 games, including 4 last season. When on the field, he’s one of the best tight ends in the league, finishing in the top-7 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league. At 6-2 246, Reed moves like a wide receiver and is an improving blocker. His career per game averages translate to a slash line of 86/905/7 over 16 games, so he could have a huge year if he can finally stay on the field. That would go a long way towards replacing Jackson and Garcon and improving their red zone offense.

Reed’s durability issues opened up playing time last season for #2 tight end Vernon Davis, who played 674 snaps. He fared pretty well as the #2 tight end, catching 44 of 59 passes for 583 yards and 2 touchdowns. Davis graded out above average in 5 straight seasons from 2009-2013, but looked like a shell of his former self in 2014 and 2015, grading out 62nd out of 67 eligible in 2014 and then 51st out of 67 eligible in 2015. Davis showed he still had something left in the tank in 2016 though and finished 21st among tight ends on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 33 season, Davis’ best days are probably behind him, but he should still be a solid #2 tight end.

Even with Jackson and Garcon gone, this receiving corps is in good shape. They were one of the deepest receiving corps in the league prior to losing Jackson and Garcon and they may have gotten the steal of the off-season in Terrelle Pryor. Between that, a possible breakout year by Jamison Crowder, and the potential of Jordan Reed and Josh Doctson coming off of injury, this receiving corps has a very high upside. There is always risk involved when you have to change up the receivers as much as the Redskins did this off-season, but the Redskins could have a better passing offense even if they don’t pass for as many yards because they should be more efficient in the red zone.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

Kirk Cousins was also helped by a strong offensive line and, unlike in the receiving corps, they return all 5 starters on the offensive line. The best of the bunch is left tackle Trent Williams, who finished 1st among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Williams has made 73 of 80 starts over the past 5 seasons and finished in the top-18 in all 5 seasons, including a first place finish both last season and in 2013. The one downside with Williams is he’s a failed drug test away from a season long suspension, but, if he can avoid further trouble, he has a good chance to play more games this year than last year, when he missed 4 games with a suspension. If he does miss time, backup Ty Nsekhe would fill in and he played pretty well last season, so the Redskins are deep at the position too.

On the other side, right tackle Morgan Moses is also a strong starter. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Moses struggled in limited action as a rookie, but he has made all 32 starts in the past 2 seasons and finished 16th and 17th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Ahead of what would have been the final year of his rookie contract, the Redskins locked him up long-term with a 5-year, 38.5 million dollar extension this off-season. That makes him the 3rd highest paid right tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary. If he continues playing like he has in the past 2 seasons, he is well worth it.

With Moses locked up long-term, the Redskins may turn their attention to center Spencer Long, another 2014 3rd round pick who is going into the final year of his rookie deal. Long is not as good as Moses, but he has been a solid starter over the past 2 seasons, first at left guard in 2015 and then at center last season. He was a little bit better at left guard and may ultimately move back there, but he’s a capable center as well and worth locking up at the right price because of his versatility.

Current left guard Shawn Lauvao is also going into the final year of his deal, but re-signing him shouldn’t be a priority, especially with Long capable of playing left guard, as Lauvao is the weak link on this offensive line. Lauvao has plenty of experience, with 51 career starts, but has never once graded out above average and finished last season 60th out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 30 season, Lauvao likely isn’t getting any better any time soon and will not be guaranteed a starting job for 2018. The Redskins used a 6th round pick on center Chase Rouiller and could start him at center and Long at left guard in 2018 if Rouiller develops as a rookie.

Rounding out the offensive line is another recent draft pick, Brandon Schreff, the 5th overall pick in 2015. The highest draft interior offensive lineman in 30 years, Schreff drew Zach Martin comparisons coming out of Iowa, but has been somewhat of a disappointment thus far in his career. He has finished 26th and 19th among guards in 2 seasons in the league, but has yet to show that he was worth drafting as high as the Redskins took him. Still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he shows it this year and he definitely still has a high ceiling. It’s a strong offensive line overall.

Grade: A-

Running Backs

One area where the Redskins want to be better this season is on the ground. They averaged a reasonable 4.47 yards per carry average, but that was largely because of a strong offensive line. They also passed 607 times to 379 runs, so much of their production on the ground came as a result of the defense worrying about the pass. Matt Jones started the season as the lead back with 99 carries in the first 7 games of the season, but then lost a fumble, his 6th lost fumble on 243 career carries in 2 seasons in the league, and didn’t see any touches the rest of the season. The 2015 3rd round pick has talent, but has just averaged 3.91 yards per carry in his career and hasn’t been able to hold onto the football. He’s no lock for the final roster.

After Jones lost the job, the Redskins turned to Robert Kelley, an undrafted rookie. The big 6-0 228 pounder picked up what was blocked and rushed for 704 yards and 6 touchdowns on 168 carries (4.19 YPC), but was underwhelming overall and didn’t offer anything in the passing game (12 catches for 82 yards). He will be pushed for the starting job by 4th round rookie Samaje Perine. Perine has good upside, but is very unproven and will be tough to count on.  He’s similar to Kelley in that he has great size (5-10 235), but isn’t overly explosive and doesn’t offer much in the passing game.

Fortunately, the Redskins have Chris Thompson to serve as the passing down back, regardless of who carries the load on early downs. Thompson led the backfield with 489 snaps last season and could easily do so again in 2017. He had just 68 carries, which was actually a career high, but he chipped in 49 passes, after catching 35 a season ago. He’s not a great talent, but fills an important role for this offense because he is their only running back with good hands out of the backfield. Barring a breakout rookie year from Perine, the Redskins’ running backs should be underwhelming again in 2017.

Grade: C

Defensive Line

As good as their offense was last season, 5th in first down rate, the Redskins still missed the playoffs because they had one of the worst defenses in the league, allowing the 3rd highest first down rate of any defense in the league. Making matters worse, the Redskins lost 3 of their top-4 defensive linemen in terms of snaps played this off-season, Chris Baker (783), Cullen Jenkins (308), and Ricky Jean-Francois (442). All 3 players played pretty well, grading out above average, especially Baker, who finished last season 9th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus.

They didn’t do much in free agency to address the defensive line, aside from overpaying Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain on a 5-year, 25 million dollar deal and a 4-year, 21 million dollar deal respectively. Both players are mediocre options. McClain made 15 starts last season, but didn’t start a game from 2012-2015 and finished last season 86th out of 127 eligible interior defensive lineman. Already going into his age 29 season, he probably won’t be any better going forward. McGee, meanwhile, played alright on 242 snaps last season in 9 games in an injury plagued season, but graded out below average in each of his first 3 seasons in the league prior to that. Both figure to see significant playing time at the 3-4 defensive end position.

Given how weak they are they upfront, the Redskins were very fortunate that Alabama defensive end Jonathan Allen fell into their lap at 17th overall. Considered by some a top-3 talent and widely considered a top-10 lock, concerns about his shoulders and an early run on offensive skill position players led to a draft day fall for Allen. Assuming their medical staff cleared him, the Redskins probably didn’t waste much time deciding whether or not to take him once he fell to 17. He adds talent at a position of major need and could end up being one of the steals of the draft if he can stay healthy. He could lead this defensive line in snaps played as a rookie. Allen, McGee, McClain, and second year player Matt Ioannidis, a 5th round pick who struggled on 103 snaps as a rookie, will rotate at the defensive end position this season.

Ziggy Hood is the one holdover from last season and he will remain the starting nose tackle. Unlike Baker, Jenkins, and Jean-Francois, who were all capable or better players last season, Hood struggled mightily, so his return doesn’t really help them. He played 661 snaps, second most on the team, but finished 120th among 127 eligible interior defensive linemen. Hood is plenty experienced, with 60 career starts in 114 games, but has graded out below average in all 8 seasons in the league. Now going into his age 30 season, Hood shouldn’t be given as many snaps as he was last season, even on an overall weak defensive line. He shouldn’t be anything more than a pure base package player who plays 400-500 snaps. The addition of Allen in the draft could help this unit immensely, but, outside of Allen, this might be the least talented defensive line in football.

Grade: C-

Linebackers

The Redskins are much deeper at the outside linebacker position though, where Ryan Kerrigan, Preston Smith, and Trent Murphy rotated snaps last season, playing 788, 768, and 675 snaps respectively. They are even deeper at the position this season, with Junior Galette finally getting healthy after missing the last two seasons with two torn achilles tendons and Ryan Anderson coming in as a 2nd round pick. The Redskins don’t seem to have much room for Galette and Anderson to break into the rotation, so they may line up Smith and Murphy, who are bigger edge defenders at 6-5 265 and 6-5 268 respectively, inside on passing downs in certain situations. That would help mask their issues on the defensive line.

Things aren’t all good at outside linebacker, as Murphy will miss the first 4 games of the season after failing a drug test for performance enhancing drugs and Galette hasn’t played since 2014 and has off-the-field issues as well. Galette isn’t owed any guaranteed money this season, so, if he lacks explosiveness coming off of the injuries or his off-the-field issues become more of a problem, he could easily not make the final roster. Prior to the injuries, Galette finished 12th among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2013 and 4th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, totalling 22 sacks, but that’s close to ancient history at this point. The Redskins are likely considering anything he gives them in 2017 a bonus, but he definitely has some upside, still only going into his age 29 season.

Murphy, meanwhile, will be counted on to contribute upon his return from suspension, though he might not see as many snaps per game as he did last season in a more crowded position group. A 2014 2nd round pick, Murphy has graded out above average in all 3 seasons in the league and is coming off of his best year to date, finishing 11th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. It’s unclear how much of that is as a result of whatever substance he tested positive for, but he should be at least a solid rotational player for them in 2017 regardless.

Ryan Kerrigan is the best of the bunch, playing all 96 games in 6 seasons since going 16th overall in 2011 and finishing 19th, 7th, 26th, 5th, and 9th respectively. One of the most consistent players in the league, Kerrigan is still in his prime, going into his age 29 season, and should continue playing at a high level in 2017. Preston Smith, meanwhile, has been the worst of the bunch through 2 seasons in the league, grading out below average in both seasons, but he’s hasn’t been terrible either and the 2015 second round pick could take a step forward in his 3rd year in the league. The rookie Ryan Anderson will also see some snaps, but they could be limited, considering all of the other edge defenders the Redskins have. He could be in line for a bigger role in 2018 with Murphy and Galette both set to hit free agency next off-season. It’s unclear why the Redskins have used 3 second round picks on the outside linebacker position in the last 4 drafts, but they do have a deep position group.

At middle linebacker, the Redskins have a pair of veteran middle linebackers coming off the best season of their career in Mason Foster and Zach Brown. Foster graded out below average in each of the first 5 seasons of his career, but came out of nowhere to finish 6th among middle linebackers in 2016. Re-signed to a 2-year, 2.5 million dollar deal last off-season, Foster proved to be a steal. Last season was likely a fluke, but he could continue being a capable starter for them in 2017.

Brown, meanwhile, was signed to just a 1-year, 1.25 million dollar deal by the Bills last off-season and responded by finishing 11th among middle linebackers. Brown wasn’t a bad player prior to last season, grading out around average in his first 4 seasons in the league from 2012-2015, but last season was the first season he played well both in coverage and against the run, after struggling to tackle early in his career. The Redskins signed him on an incentivized 1-year, 2.55 million dollar deal this off-season, as Brown was greeted by a skeptical market, and he could prove to be a steal again. At the very least, he should be an upgrade over Will Compton, who made 15 starts and finished 74th among 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. It’s a solid linebacker group.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Su’a Cravens played some linebacker last season as a rookie, but the 2016 2nd round pick is expected to move full time to safety this season, after flashing on 294 snaps in a hybrid role. The 6-1 222 pounder will be primarily a box safety. He will start next to free agent acquisition DJ Swearinger, who could prove to be a steal on a 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal. Swearinger finished 9th among safeties last season with the Cardinals, but drew limited interest on the open market because he was a one-year wonder who was already on his 3rd team with the Cardinals.

A 2013 2nd round pick by the Texans, Swearinger made 22 starts in 2 seasons with the Texans, but didn’t play well and frustrated the coaching staff, which got him released prior to the 2015 season. He spent 2015 with the Buccaneers, where he didn’t play much, before breaking out in a contract year with the Cardinals last season. Still only going into his age 26 season, Swearinger has always had talent and may have turned a corner as a player, but he will need to prove it again considering his history. The Redskins didn’t pay much to get him, so he was a pretty low risk signing, and he has the upside to make a real difference in this secondary. After struggling for consistency at the position in 2016, the Redskins’ safeties figure to be better this season.

The Redskins had more consistency at cornerback last season, where Josh Norman and Bashaud Breeland made 16 starts and 14 starts respectively. The Redskins signed Norman to a 5-year, 75 million dollar deal last off-season after he finished 11th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus with the Panthers in 2015. Norman wasn’t quite as good as he was in 2015, but still finished 22nd at the position. Norman has made 42 starts in 46 games over the past 3 seasons and has finished in the top-27 among cornerbacks in all 3 seasons. He’s not quite the top flight cornerback the Redskins are paying him to be, but he’s definitely a valuable asset. The one concern is his age, as he’s already going into his age 30 season, despite this just being his 6th season in the league. The 2012 5th round pick was an old rookie, part of why he fell in the draft. He should still have another couple strong seasons left in the tank though.

Breeland, on the other hand, didn’t come close to matching his 2015 season. A 2014 4th round pick, Breeland seemingly had a breakout year in 2015, when he finished 21st among cornerbacks, but he fell to 82nd out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. Add in the fact the he finished 99th out of 108 eligible cornerbacks as a rookie in 2014 and his 2015 season looks like a complete fluke. He’s still young though, only going into his age 25 season, so he still has some upside going forward. In the final year of his rookie deal, this is a very big year for him. If he shows his 2015 form, he could cash in somewhere. He’s started 42 games out of 45 played in 3 seasons in the league and will continue to start opposite Norman.

Kendall Fuller, a 2016 3rd round pick, is the favorite to be the nickel cornerback. He actually finished 3rd on the team in cornerback snaps with 478, even though he didn’t really see playing time until week 4. He didn’t play all that well, but he could be better in his second season in the league. He will have to hold off Quinton Dunbar and Dashaun Phillips, both recent undrafted free agents who struggled on 300 and 157 snaps respectively last season, as well as 3rd round rookie Fabian Moreau.

Moreau has serious talent and could have gone in the second round, but he tore his pectoral working out before the draft and might not be ready for the start of the season. Even if he is, he’ll be behind the eight ball after missing the off-season. He’s not a natural fit on the slot either, so he was probably drafted more to be a long-term replacement for Bashaud Breeland than anything. The Redskins are pretty tight on cap space, so, if Breeland plays well this season, he would probably be priced out of Washington’s budget. Fuller should open the season as the 3rd cornerback in an improved secondary.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Redskins had a tough off-season ahead of them with Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson set to leave to take more money elsewhere, but they did a good of job of adding talent on value contracts, bringing in Terrelle Pryor, DJ Swearinger, and Zach Brown. Their receiving corps will look a lot different this season, but they still have a lot of receiving talent and should be better near in the red zone because of their improved size. It’s hard to look past their defensive line and the additions of Stacy McGee and Terrell McClain to replace Chris Baker are unlikely to pan out, but they did get a gift when Jonathan Allen fell into their lap with the 17th overall pick. The Redskins should compete for a playoff spot once again. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Dallas Cowboys 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Cowboys’ season looked over in the pre-season, when quarterback Tony Romo went down with a back injury. The Cowboys had gone just 1-11 without Romo the previous season, finishing 4-12 overall, and were counting on a healthy Romo to take them back to the post-season. It looked like the best case scenario for the Cowboys was that Romo could return around week 8 or 9, but, even in that scenario, the playoffs did not seem likely. Instead, backup quarterback Dak Prescott continued his strong pre-season and ended up making all 16 starts, winning Romo’s job from him outright, even though Romo was healthy enough to return later in the season.

The Cowboys won 12 games and a first round bye, before losing in the divisional round to the Green Bay Packers. After going 2-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less in 2015, a jump in win total was expected, even without Romo healthy, but I don’t think anyone saw this coming. A mere 4th round rookie, Prescott completed 67.8% of his passes for an average of 7.99 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions and rushed for another 282 yards and 6 touchdowns on 57 carries (4.95 YPA).

Prescott wasn’t the only reason why the Cowboys were so much improved from 2015 to 2016 and the Cowboys’ running game and offensive line certainly made much life easier for him, but Prescott played well in his own right, finishing 10th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. It’s possible Prescott could have a sophomore slump and show more of the issues that dropped him in the draft, but he could easily have another strong season. With Tony Romo retiring this off-season, this is Dak Prescott’s job for the foreseeable future.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Prescott was not the Cowboys’ only impact rookie, as #4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott had one of the best rookie seasons ever by a running back, leading the league with 1631 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns on 322 carries, an average of 5.07 YPC. It was the 25th time in NFL history that a running back averaged at least 5 yards per carry on 300+ carries and the first time a rookie accomplished that feat. Elliott had a great mix of long runs and chain moving runs, leading the league with 14 carries of 20+ yards and 91 rushing first downs. He also chipped in with 32 catches for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns on 40 targets, which generated another 11 first downs.

He kept this offense on schedule, made life very easy for Prescott, and was a huge part of the reason why this offense ranked 3rd in first down rate, after finishing 18th in that metric in 2015. Prescott played well, but was helped immensely by the fact that he only had to throw the ball 459 times. Compare that with fellow rookie Carson Wentz, who threw 607 times, just the 2nd time in NFL history that a rookie quarterback threw that many passes. Elliott was helped by a strong offensive line, but deserves a ton of the credit as well, finishing 2nd among running backs on Pro Football Focus. Expected to be a game changing running back from the word go, Elliott lived up to expectations and then some as a rookie. Barring injury, I see no reason why he won’t be among the league’s best running backs again this season.

If Elliott were to get injured, the Cowboys are more than prepared, as they have two backup running backs with starting experience in Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. When Elliott was drafted, many considered him superfluous because of the running backs the Cowboys already had on the roster. Elliott proved he was the type of talent that would not be superfluous to any team, but the concern made sense, especially given the Cowboys’ pressing needs at other positions like defensive end and cornerback.

Morris and McFadden were limited to 69 and 24 carries last season, but between the two veterans they have 2,448 career carries and 5 seasons of 1000+ rushing yards. Both are getting up there in age, going into their age 29 and age 30 seasons respectively, but both are more than capable backups, especially behind a starter with no injury history and who rarely needs a breather. The Cowboys have arguably the best group of running backs in the NFL and figure to be one of the best rushing offenses in the league once again.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

The additions of Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott obviously made a huge impact for this offense, but their outstanding offensive line definitely made life much, much easier for both rookies. Unfortunately, the Cowboys did lose 2 starters upfront this off-season, with left guard Ronald Leary signing with the Broncos and right tackle Doug Free retiring after 10 seasons in the league. They were two of a number of starters who left the Cowboys this off-season. Fortunately, their big-3 upfront return, as left tackle Tyron Smith, right guard Zack Martin, and center Travis Frederick are all among the best players in the league at their respective positions, but Leary and Free played at a high level in 2016 and won’t be easy to replace, particularly Leary, who finished 24th among guards on Pro Football Focus.

The Cowboys had an obvious internal replacement for Leary in La’El Collins, who has made 14 starts over the past 2 seasons and opened last year as the starter before going down for the season with a toe injury. Free retiring threw a wrench into that plan though, as Collins is now expected to move to right tackle to replace Free, leaving a huge hole at left guard. Veterans Jonathan Cooper and Byron Bell will compete for the starting job this off-season, though the Cowboys could opt to keep Collins at left guard and start 3rd year offensive tackle Chaz Green at right tackle.

Whichever of those 3 ends up winning a starting job, they figure to struggle in 2017. Cooper was the 7th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but has been a massive bust throughout his career. Injuries limited Cooper to 11 underwhelming starts in 3 seasons with the Cardinals and he was sent to the Patriots as a throw-in in the Chandler Jones trade. Cooper never played a snap for the Patriots and was cut mid-season. He then went to Cleveland, where he made 3 more underwhelming starts before eventually being cut. Then the Cowboys signed him, putting him on his 4th team in a calendar year. Going into his age 27 season, Cooper may have some untapped upside, but he’s a long shot to ever be a consistent starter in this league.

Bell, meanwhile, is experienced, with 72 starts in the first 5 seasons of his career, but has never graded out above average and missed all of last season with injury. He has experience at both guard and tackle and could be an option at right tackle if they decide they want to keep Collins at left guard. Green would be their other option at right tackle. He was a 3rd round pick in 2015, but missed his entire rookie season with a back injury, struggled in 2 starts in 2016 in place of the injured Tyron Smith, and then needed an additional back procedure this off-season, which he is still working back from. The Cowboys figure to struggle in at least one spot on the offensive line this season.

They may struggle at two if La’El Collins doesn’t turn it around. Collins was a first round talent in 2015, but went undrafted because he was wanted for questioning in his ex-girlfriend’s murder case and didn’t have time to talk to the police and clear his name before the draft, making him untouchable on draft day. Once he was able to talk to the police and it became clear that he had nothing to do with it, he became a very hot commodity as an undrafted free agent and the Cowboys appeared to get a steal, but he was underwhelming in 11 starts as a rookie and then struggled in 3 starts in 2016 before going down for the season with injury. They will need him to take a big step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2017.

Even if they get poor play at both left guard and right tackle, this should still be one of the best offensive lines in the league because of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. First round picks in 2011, 2013, and 2014 respectively, all three are among the best offensive linemen in the league. Smith, the 9th overall pick in 2011, has graded out 3rd, 41st, 7th, 6th, 2nd, and 16th respectively among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in the 6 seasons he’s been in the league (92 starts). Frederick, the 31st overall pick in 2013, has graded out 8th, 2nd, 1st, and 2nd respectively among centers in the 4 seasons he’s been in the league (64 starts). Martin, the 16th overall pick in 2014, has graded out 6th, 4th, and 3rd respectively among guards in the 3 seasons he’s been in the league (48 starts). The Cowboys might not be quite as good upfront as they were last season, but they still have a strong offensive line.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

In addition to the running game and offensive line helping Prescott out immensely, he also got good play from his receiving corps. The Cowboys were led in receiving yards by a surprising player, slot receiver Cole Beasley, who played the 3rd fewest passing snaps of any Dallas receiver. He turned a team high 98 targets into 75 catches for 833 yards and 5 touchdowns. Beasley doesn’t have great athleticism for his size at 5-8 180, but has a knack for getting open underneath, reliable hands, and the quickness to gain some yardage after the catch. The 2012 undrafted free agent has improved his receiving total in all 5 seasons in the league and has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 5 seasons, including last season, when he finished 13th among wide receivers. He may be just a slot receiver, but the Cowboys get him on the field for most passing plays and Prescott enjoys throwing to him underneath, especially when the running game is setting him up with 2nd and 4, 3rd and 1, etc.

Dez Bryant was expected to lead this team in receiving, but had yet another injury plagued season. It wasn’t as bad as 2015, when he broke his foot week 1, missed 7 games, and was never the same upon his return, limiting him to 31/401/3. However, Bryant missed 3 games with a knee injury that limited him for a bit upon his return and once again had a disappointing slash line of 50/796/8. After topping 1200 yards in 3 straight seasons from 2012-2014, Bryant has failed to top 800 yards in either of the past 2 seasons, since re-signing for 5 years, 70 million two off-seasons ago. Bryant’s conditioning has reportedly not been where the Cowboys would have liked it to be, which could be why he hasn’t been able to stay healthy in the past 2 seasons, after playing all 48 games from 2012-2014. Given how much money they gave him, that’s a significant concern.

The good news is Bryant flashed his old form down the stretch once he got over the knee injury, catching 43 passes for 646 yards and 8 touchdowns on 66 targets in the final 7 real regular season games and Dallas’ playoff loss to Green Bay. Overall on the season, he finished 11th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, actually the 3rd highest ranked season of his 7-year career (he finished 10th and 2nd respectively in 2013 and 2014). If he can stay in shape and stay healthy all season, he could easily have another big statistical year, even on a team that doesn’t pass all that often. That would probably mean fewer balls for Cole Beasley, but it would be a big boost for this passing game overall. Bryant staying healthy is far from a guaranteed, but, going into his age 29 season, he has definite bounce back potential.

With Beasley only playing the slot and Dez Bryant missing time with injury, Terrance Williams actually led the team in passing snaps played, though his 61 targets were significantly fewer than Beasley (98), Bryant (97), and the tight end Jason Witten (95). Williams wasn’t bad, turning those targets into 44 catches for 594 yards and 4 touchdowns and the Cowboys opted to bring him back this off-season on a 4-year, 17 million dollar deal. He will remain as the de facto #2 receiver and the primary outside option opposite Dez Bryant. The 2013 3rd round pick has improved on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, but still only finished 49th out of 115 eligible last season. He’s a marginal starting receiver and nothing more, but the Cowboys were able to keep him at a fair price.

Williams will continue to only have a small role in the passing game, with Bryant, Williams, and Witten ahead of him for targets on a run heavy offense. Witten is going into his age 35 season though, so it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can keep doing this. A top-9 tight end in every season from 2007-2014, Witten has slipped to 29th and 22nd respectively over the past 2 seasons, but that is still above average. He’s still a good run blocker and turned those 95 targets into 69 catches for 673 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. He’s also as dependable as they come, missing just 1 game in 14 seasons in the league, way back in his rookie year in 2003. He’s the only player in the NFL to play every game in the last 13 seasons. He also finished 2nd among tight ends in snaps played last season with 1018, only behind Carolina’s Greg Olsen. His age is a concern, but he could have another solid season left in the tank.

Because Witten plays so much and because the Cowboys love to use 3-wide receiver sets, especially in passing situations, there wasn’t much available playing time for other tight ends last season, as backups Geoff Swaim and Gavin Escobar played 203 and 170 snaps respectively. With Witten aging, they may give him more breathers this season, freeing up more playing time for reserves. Escobar is no longer with the team, but Swaim will compete with James Hanna, a blocking tight end who missed all of last season with injury, and 2016 6th round pick Rico Gathers for the #2 tight end job behind Witten.

Hanna is probably the favorite for the job because of his experience, but Swaim and Gathers have more long-term upside. Gathers didn’t play a snap as a rookie though and Swaim has played just 227 offensive snaps in 2 seasons in the league, since going in the 7th round in 2015. For what it’s worth, Gathers has drawn strong reviews this off-season and the ex-basketball player is a great athlete for his size, but it’s unclear if he can translate that to an NFL field. As of right now, Witten’s long-term successor doesn’t appear to be on the roster. The Cowboys will need Witten to have at least one more good season for them, which is far from a guarantee at his age. It’s still a solid receiving corps though, especially if Bryant can continue his strong play from down the stretch last season.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Cowboys’ offense played at a high level last season, their defense did not and ultimately proved to be their downfall in their 34-31 playoff loss at home to the Packers. Their defensive line was a big part of the problem. Third round rookie defensive tackle Maliek Collins led the line in snaps played last season with 656 and looked overwhelmed, finishing 123rd among 127 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. He could take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2017, but the Cowboys probably want to avoid giving him that many snaps again.

One obvious thing they could do is give Cedric Thornton more playing time, particularly in base packages where he is best. Signed to a 4-year, 18 million dollar deal last off-season, Thornton played just 278 snaps in his first season in Dallas. He wasn’t bad when he did play, grading out just below average on Pro Football Focus, so it’s unclear why he was in the doghouse all season. Prior to 2016, Thornton was a top-20 3-4 defensive end in 3 straight seasons with the Eagles, excelling against the run. Only going into his age 29 season, he could be better and play more in his second year with the Cowboys. He doesn’t get any pass rush, but, at his best, is a useful base package player.

In addition to Thornton, free agent acquisition Stephen Paea could also eat into Collins snaps. Paea was Pro Football Focus’ 11th ranked defensive tackle in 2014, but injuries have limited him to 534 snaps in 24 games over the 2 seasons since then. He has still graded out above average in both seasons, showing his abilities in limited action, and could be valuable for the Cowboys in a 400-500 snap role if he can stay healthy. Collins is a better pass rusher than run stopper, so Paea and Thornton could start for the Cowboys in base packages.

Along with Collins, defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and David Irving figure to play significant snaps on the interior in sub packages. Both are bigger ends at 6-4 295 and 6-7 285 respectively who have experience lining up inside in sub packages. Irving was their best defensive lineman last season, finishing 17th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, a surprise breakout year. A 2015 undrafted free agent who the Cowboys signed off of the Chiefs’ practice squad during his rookie year, Irving played 199 uninspiring snaps as a rookie before breaking out on 489 snaps last season. He is still a one-year wonder, so we will have to see if he can replicate that season. Complicating matters is the fact that he might be suspended for the first 4 games of the season for performance enhancing drugs, though he is appealing.

Crawford is also a one-year wonder, but his one year came back in 2014, when he finished 13th among defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. The 2012 3rd round pick has graded out above average just once in his career and finished last season 60th out of 109 eligible edge defenders on 627 snaps. Now dealing with off-season shoulder surgery, Crawford could continue to be a subpar player in 2017. The 5-year, 45 dollar extension they signed him to following his breakout 2014 season is looking like a big mistake. Given that they have already paid him 17.425 million guaranteed, his contract doesn’t have an easy out until after the 2018 season. The Cowboys need at least one of Crawford or Irving to have a big season rushing the passer from the interior.

Irving and Crawford may also both see time at defensive end, but Demarcus Lawrence and Taco Charlton figure to see the majority of the time at the position, especially in passing situations. Charlton is the Cowboys’ first round pick, 28th overall, and has a chance to play significant snaps early in his career. He will be counted on for an even larger role if Lawrence is not healthy in 2017. Injuries have plagued Lawrence throughout his career. The 2014 2nd round pick played all 16 games in 2015 and finished 18th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus, but was limited to 7 games in 2014 and 9 games last season and is now recovering from off-season back surgery. Still only going into his age 25 season, Lawrence could be a big boost to this team if healthy, but that’s a big if. Overall, it’s a deeper defensive line than last season, but they still have major question marks.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

The Cowboys’ best defensive player is probably outside linebacker Sean Lee, who is one of the best in the league at his position. Injuries limited him to 17 games total during a 3 year stretch from 2012-2014, but he has missed just 3 games over the past 2 seasons and does not appear to be limited by any lingering injuries, finishing 2nd and 1st among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Going into his age 31 season, it’s possible Lee shows some signs of age in 2017 and he’s still always an injury risk, having never played all 16 games in 7 seasons in the league, but he’s still one of the best linebackers in the league.

Anthony Hitchens started all 16 games at middle linebacker last season, but only played 581 snaps because safety Barry Church frequently played linebacker in sub packages last season. Lee, for comparison, played 977 snaps in 1 fewer game as an every down linebacker. Church signed with the Jaguars this off-season, but Hitchens might not need to become a true every down player in 2017 because the Cowboys have a pair of promising young linebackers who will compete for roles. That’s a good thing, because Hitchens has graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league, since going in the 4th round in 2014, including 47th out of 87 eligible linebackers in 2016.

Damien Wilson, a 2015 4th round pick, is one of those promising young linebackers. Also a core special teamer, Wilson flashed on 284 snaps as the third linebacker in 2016 in the first significant action of his career. He could have a bigger role in 2017. The Cowboys also might have 2016 2nd round pick Jaylon Smith coming back from injury, after he missed his entire rookie year. Smith’s rehab has reportedly gone well, but he’s far from a sure thing, considering how brutal of a knee injury he sustained in Notre Dame’s bowl game back in January 2016. Smith will be 20 months removed from the injury by week 1 and could have been a top-10 pick before the injury, so there’s definitely upside here, but it’s possible he’ll never be the same player again. Ideally, he’d takeover every down at middle linebacker and Hitchens would compete with Wilson for the base package outside linebacker job, but most likely all 3 linebackers will see action. Lee elevates this whole group, but there are question marks around him.

Grade: A-

Secondary

Church wasn’t the only safety the Cowboys lost this off-season, as JJ Wilcox signed with the Buccaneers. Church and Wilcox played 675 and 557 snaps respectively last season and finished 11th and 27th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus, so they’re big losses. Not only will the Cowboys not be able to use 3-safety looks as often (with one safety in the box as a 2nd linebacker), but they were left with a big hole in the starting lineup at safety next to free safety Byron Jones. Fortunately, Jones is a talented player who finished 19th among safeties in 2016 and 23rd among cornerbacks as a rookie in 2015. The 27th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, Jones is only going into his age 25 season and has a very bright future.

Career special teamer Jeff Heath will be given the first crack at the other safety job. The 2013 undrafted free agent flashed on 243 snaps as a reserve last season, but graded out below average in the first 3 seasons of his career and only has 10 starts in 4 seasons in the league. Youngsters Kavon Frazier, a 2016 6th round pick who played just 37 snaps as a rookie, and Xavier Woods, a 5th round rookie, are also in the mix. Free agent Robert Blanton has the most experience of any candidate for the job, with 19 career starts. Thirteen of those starts came in 2014 when he finished 17th among safeties on Pro Football Focus, but he has finished below average in both seasons since. Only going into his age 28 season, the 2012 5th round pick has bounce back potential and is probably their best option, but only by default. It’s definitely a position of weakness for the Cowboys.

The Cowboys also lost a pair of cornerbacks in free agency too, with Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne signing with the Ravens and Jets respectively. They played 1015 and 406 snaps respectively last season, so they leave behind big roles. They also played at a high level too, finishing 50th and 12th respectively among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus, though Claiborne was limited to 7 games by injury. Free agent acquisition Nolan Carroll will probably get the first crack at replacing Carr. Carroll has made 50 starts in the past 5 seasons and was a solid starter from 2013-2015, but fell to 91st out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus last season and now is going into his age 30 season. He’s a low end starter at best.

Carroll will be pushed by second round rookie Chidobe Awuzie for a starting role. The Cowboys also used a 3rd round pick and a 6th round pick on cornerbacks, taking Jourdan Lewis and Marquez White. White is a long-term project, but Lewis is an NFL ready nickel cornerback and could be one of the steals of the draft, despite his underwhelming size at 5-10 188. Pro Football Focus ranked him as their 24th ranked draft prospect. Holdovers Anthony Brown and Orlando Scandrick will also be in the mix for roles.

Scandrick was probably their best cornerback last season, but the Cowboys are reportedly trying to trade him so they can keep all their rookie cornerbacks on the roster. Scandrick is owed just 3 million dollars this season and finished last season 27th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Scandrick missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL, but graded out above average in 4 of the previous 5 seasons before the injury, including a 10th place finish in 2014. He did miss another 4 games last season and he is going into his age 30 season, but he still seems worth keeping around at his salary.

Brown, meanwhile, was a surprise as a 6th round rookie in 2016, making 10 starts in 16 games in the absence of Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick and finishing above average on Pro Football Focus on 717 snaps. He has a good chance to play a big role again this season, though I’m still skeptical that he can continue playing as well as he did last season. Given that and that they lost four key players in free agency, I expect the Cowboys’ secondary to take a step back this season, but they did bring in some replacements with potential and may be able to patchwork together a decent unit.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Cowboys lost starters on the offensive line and in the secondary, but did a good job of patchworking some holes this off-season with cheap signings and more good drafting. They should be better in the front 7 and they still have obvious talent on offense. There is some potential for sophomore slumps from Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott, especially if the offensive line doesn’t play as well, but they could also get a vintage year from Dez Bryant, giving this offense the downfield threat it didn’t have last season until the final few games. Their schedule will be tougher this season, but they should still compete for the NFC East title and a playoff spot. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Philadelphia Eagles 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Eagles made an aggressive move up the draft board to grab a quarterback in 2016, sending useful defenders Kiko Alonso and Byron Maxwell to the Dolphins to move up from 13 to 8 and then sending #8, #77, #100, a 2017 1st rounder, and a 2018 2nd rounder to the Browns for #2, where they grabbed North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles eventually recouped a first round pick when they sent quarterback Sam Bradford, originally expected to be a veteran stopgap starter in 2016, to the Vikings for their first round pick, following the season ending injury to Minnesota starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

As a result of the Bradford trade, Wentz surprisingly made all 16 starts as a rookie and looked better than many expected, considering he was transitioning from the Division 1-AA. His overall numbers don’t look great, as he completed 62.4% of his passes for an average of 6.23 YPA, 16 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions, but a lot of that is because he was throwing to arguably the worst receiving corps in the league. He finished the season 21st out of 34 eligible quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, unspectacular, but ahead of highly paid veterans like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco.

That’s pretty impressive considering he was a rookie coming from a small school and had to throw 607 times, just the 2nd time a rookie quarterback has thrown 600+ passes in NFL history (Andrew Luck threw 627 times with the Colts in 2012). Going into his 2nd year in the league, Wentz is expected to take another step forward and could easily be a top-15 quarterback by season’s end. He’s still young and inexperienced, but he’s plenty talented and has already exceeded expectations.

Grade: C+

Receiving Corps

In order to assist Wentz with his development, the Eagles made an obvious effort to improve his receiving corps this off-season. As I mentioned, their receiving corps might have been the worst in the league last season. Wide receiver Jordan Matthews (73/804/3) and tight end Zach Ertz (78/816/4) were reliable targets in the passing game, but passing down back Darren Sproles (52/427/2) was 3rd on the team in receiving yards, as wide receivers Dorial Green-Beckham (36/392/2) and Nelson Agholor (36/365/2) both struggled mightily.

The Eagles added 4 wide receivers this off-season, free agents Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and draft prospects Mack Hollins (4th round) and Shelton Gibson (5th round). Hollins and Gibson aren’t candidate for real playing time this season, but Jeffery and Smith certainly are. Along with Matthews, those are going to be the Eagles’ top-3 wide receivers this year, while Hollins and Gibson will force Agholor and Green-Beckham to compete for the final roster spot at wide receiver, assuming they even keep 6 receivers. Agholor was a 1st round pick by the Eagles in 2015, which should help him keep his roster spot, but he hasn’t done anything in 2 years in the league (59 catches in 28 games) and was briefly benched down the stretch last season. He won’t be any higher than 4th or 5th on the depth chart.

Jeffery will probably be Wentz’ new favorite target and their #1 receiver this year. The ex-Bear, Jeffery is as good as any receiver in the league when he’s at his best, but has been limited by injury, suspension, and poor quarterback play over the past 2 seasons and has reportedly has durability and work ethic issues. These issues actually date back to his college days, which is why he fell to the 2nd round in 2012 and why he had to settle for just an incentive heavy one-year deal this off-season. Jeffery will make just 9.5 million this season in base salary, but could earn up to 14 million if he reaches certain milestones. It’s a win, win deal for the Eagles.

Jeffery has been a top-33 wide receiver on Pro Football Focus for 4 straight seasons. His best overall statistical season came in 2013, when he caught 89 passes for 1421 yards and 7 touchdowns and finished 9th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but his best season on a per snap basis came in 2015, when he finished 3rd among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and averaged 89.67 yards per game. However, he missed 7 games with nagging hamstring injuries that season, which the Bears felt stemmed from his poor conditioning, and then last season he missed 4 games with suspension after failing a drug test. A change of scenery could be good for him. Still only in his age 27 season, he should still be in the prime of his career.

Fellow free agent acquisition Torrey Smith will compete with Jordan Matthews for snaps opposite Jeffery. Matthews is a better receiver, but he’s best on the slot catching underneath passes, while Torrey Smith is a true downfield receiving threat, something this offense has lacked since losing DeSean Jackson after the 2013 season. Smith is not a volume catcher though, with just 266 catches in 6 seasons in the league. Even worse, just 53 of those catches came in the last 2 seasons.

Because he is a one trick pony (17.00 yards per catch in his career), he was incredibly miscast with the San Francisco 49ers, who didn’t have the stability at quarterback or on the offensive line to take many deep shots downfield. He also may have quit on a 2-14 team last season, catching 20 passes in 12 games and finishing 114th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. Prior to San Francisco, Smith graded out around average in 4 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. Only going into his age 28 season, he has bounce back potential in a better offense with the Eagles. He could prove to be a steal on a 3-year, 15 million dollar deal.

Matthews should also remain involved in the offense and is better as a complementary player than a #1 guy. A 2014 2nd round pick, Matthews has 225 career catches, but has never finished higher than 55th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus and has a career 11.88 yards per catch average. His 11.01 yards per catch average in 2015 was highest on the team among anyone with 10 catches or more, which just shows you how badly the Eagles needed a deep threat. Matthews will probably see fewer balls this season, after a 117-target season a year ago (28th in the NFL).

Tight end Zach Ertz is also a reliable receiver, though he’s more of an underneath option too. The 2013 2nd round pick has finished in the top-18 among tight ends on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons in the league, with his best season coming in 2015, when he finished 4th among tight ends. Last season, he struggled a bit as a run blocker, but caught 78 passes for 816 yards and 4 touchdowns (all team highs) on 106 targets. Like Matthews, he too may see fewer balls this season, but he should still be a big part of this offense once again, especially if he can bounce back as a run blocker.

The Eagles also have good depth at the tight end position, as both Brent Celek and Trey Burton will play roles on this offense again this season, after playing 442 and 327 snaps respectively in 2016. Celek is an experienced veteran who has made 122 starts in 159 of a possible 160 games in 10 seasons in the league, all with the Eagles. However, he is going into his age 32 season and is not the same player anymore, grading out below average last season for the first time since 2007. The big 6-4 261 pounder isn’t much more than a blocker at this stage of his career, catching just 14 passes in 2016. Burton, meanwhile, caught 37 passes on 60 targets for 327 yards last season and graded out above average (29th among tight ends) for the first time in his career. The 2014 undrafted free agent could have a bigger role this season at Celek’s expense. The Eagles suddenly have a pretty deep receiving corps.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

Wentz likely taking a step forward and an improved receiving corps are two reasons things are looking up for this offense. In addition to that, they also get stud offensive tackle Lane Johnson back from suspension, after he missed a 10-game chunk of time in 2016. In the 6 games Johnson played (the first 4 and the last 2), the Eagles went 5-1, as opposed to 2-8 in their other 10 games. Of those 8 losses, 5 of them came by a touchdown or less, so they could have easily won another 2-3 games if Johnson were available all season.

Overall, they went 1-6 in games decided by a touchdown or less, so they were better than their 7-9 final record suggested. They finished with a +36 point differential, ahead of 5 playoff teams, including the 12-4 Oakland Raiders, and they beat four playoff teams: the Falcons (24-15), Giants (24-19), Steelers (34-3), and the Cowboys (27-13).. They won’t have to play that much better to get a few more wins this season and they should be significantly improved on the offensive side of the ball.

Johnson finished as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked offensive tackle in the 6 games he played. That was a career best rank and it’s the type of player the Eagles envisioned him being when they drafted him 4th overall in 2013. Prior to 2016, Johnson was a top-15 offensive tackle in both 2014 and 2015, so he’s not a one-year wonder either. Still only going into his age 27 season, Johnson could have the best season of his career in 2017 if he can avoid suspension and stay on the field. Johnson has already been suspended twice for performance enhancing drugs, but is suing the league to get the last suspension off his record, alleging the league acted improperly in informing him that the substance he was taking had been banned by the league. If that suspension is not overturned, he would be facing at least a yearlong suspension if he fails another test.

Johnson was originally drafted to be the long-term left tackle, but has spent 4 seasons at right tackle thus far because veteran left tackle Jason Peters has continued to play at a high level. Peters is now going into his age 35 season, but was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle last season, so Johnson will stay on the right side in 2017. Peters has been a top-14 offensive tackle in his last 6 healthy seasons. At his age, it’s fair to wonder how long he can keep this up, as his abilities could fall off a cliff quickly at any point, but he could have another good season on the blindside.

Johnson was signed to a 5-year, 56.25 million dollar extension last off-season, which makes him the 10th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in average annual salary and the highest paid right tackle in the league. He’s being paid like a left tackle, so the Eagles are basically paying for two left tackles, but they also have arguably the best tackle duo in the NFL, so it might be worth it. Peters will make 10.7 million in the third season of a 4-year, 41.3 million dollar extension this season. Peters could opt to retire after the final year of his deal in 2018.

Along with arguably the best tackle duo in the league, the Eagles also have one of the better right guards in the league, ex-Texan Brandon Brooks, who they signed to a 5-year, 40 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season. Brooks had a bit of a down year in the final year of his rookie deal with Houston in 2015, finishing 37th among guards on Pro Football Focus, but leaped back up to 4th in 2016. That’s in line with how he played in 2013 and 2014, when he finished 8th and 10th respectively among guards. The 2012 3rd round pick has made 58 of a possible 64 starts in the last 4 seasons and, still only going into his age 28 season, should continue playing at a high level in 2017.  

In addition to those 3 high level players, the Eagles also have 4 starting caliber players competing for the final 2 starting spots at left guard and center. Center Jason Kelce has made 60 of a possible 64 starts over the past 4 seasons, but is coming off of easily his worst season to date, finishing 27th among 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. Kelce was a top-8 center in each of the previous 3 seasons and, still only going into his age 30 season, is a definite bounce back candidate in 2017, but there’s talk the Eagles could trade him for a future mid round pick before the start of the season. That would save the Eagles Kelce’s 5 million salary for 2017 and free up the center position for either veteran Stefen Wisniewski or 2nd year pick Isaac Seumalo.

Wisniewski and Seumalo are also candidates at left guard. Allen Barbre, who played both left guard and right tackle last season, is penciled in as the starting left guard. He finished 23rd among guards on Pro Football Focus last season, but is going into his age 33 season and is a one-year wonder, so the Eagles are rightfully concerned about whether or not he can continue that kind of play in 2017. Prior to 2016, Barbre had just 24 career starts in 10 seasons in the league and had graded out above average in just 1 of those seasons.

Even though he only started 6 games in 2016, Stefen Wisniewski is much more experienced than Barbre, as he was a starter for the first 5 seasons of his career, making 77 starts between left guard and center. He’s better at center than guard, but has graded out around average in all 6 seasons in his career, including 39th out of 72 eligible guards last season in 6 starts. Seumalo, meanwhile, only saw 336 snaps as a rookie, but played pretty well and the Eagles like how he has been developing as a prospect. They see the 2016 3rd rounder as a future starter, but don’t have an obvious place for him to start right now. Of course, having too much depth is a pretty good problem to have upfront. If Johnson can stay on the field all season and/or Jason Kelce can bounce back, that should push this offensive line from good to great in 2017.

Grade: A

Running Backs

While the Eagles did a good job of adding talent at the wide receiver position, they didn’t do much to address the running back position, where they also needed help. They did add a couple new players though. They used a 4th round pick on San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey and signed veteran LeGarrette Blount to replace Ryan Mathews, who led the team with 155 carries for 661 yards and 8 touchdowns last season. Mathews was not worth the 4 million dollar non-guaranteed salary he would have been owed this season if he had not been cut. Blount comes at about half the price.

Mathews might be the better overall back, but Blount is a better pure runner and much more durable than Mathews. Blount offers nothing in the passing game, with 46 catches in 7 seasons in the league, but has a career 4.39 YPC average and has graded out above average in pure running grade on Pro Football Focus 5 times in 7 seasons. Blount saw a career high 299 carries last season, but averaged just 3.88 YPC, the 2nd lowest season average of his career, and finished below average on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 31 season, Blount is probably on the decline, but could be a valuable early down back for them on about 150-200 carries.

Blount is a good fit in Philadelphia because the Eagles have Darren Sproles to handle passing downs. Sproles has never topped 100 carries in 12 seasons in the league, but has averaged about 70.63 carries per season and 60.38 catches per season over the past 8 seasons, while missing just 6 total games with injury over that time period. Last season, he finished 37th out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus, which is decent. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 34 season, but, because he’s basically a receiver, he’s aged more like a wide receiver than a running back. He led this backfield with 511 snaps last season and has a good chance to do again in 2017. The addition of Blount doesn’t affect his role in the slightest because they are polar opposite players.

Pumphrey, meanwhile, is the all-time leading rusher in NCAA history, but, at 5-9 175, he isn’t anything more than a long-term replacement for Sproles, so Pumphrey could end up having what amounts to a redshirt rookie year in 2017. Last year’s 5th round pick Wendell Smallwood will probably back up both Sproles and Blount. He averaged 4.05 yards per carry on 77 carries as a rookie. His chances for a bigger role in 2017 took a big hit when Blount was added. There is some talent here and the pieces fit together well, but this is still an underwhelming backfield.

Grade: C+

Defensive Line

With the offense struggling at the skill positions in 2016, the Eagles’ defense was their best unit, finishing the season 10th in first down rate allowed, while the offense ranked 21st in first down rate. Their defense was led by their two stud defensive linemen: defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham. Cox is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL. After finishing in the top-5 among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in both 2014 and 2015, Cox showed his scheme versatility, finishing 4th among defensive tackles in 2016. The 2012 first round pick has finished in the top-19 at his position in all 5 seasons in the league, missing just 1 total game with injury, and is in the middle of the prime of his career, going into his age 27 season.

Graham is also in the prime of his career and one of the best players in the league at his position. He’s never put up high sack numbers, but part of that is because he didn’t become an every down player until 2015 and part of that is because he’s much more of a disruptor than a finisher in the backfield. Graham is among the league leaders in quarterback pressures over the past 2 seasons and has finished 9th and 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively. He also plays the run well. Even before 2015, Graham was still one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league from 2012-2014. Going into his age 29 season, having played 80 of a possible 80 games over the past 5 seasons, I see no reason that wouldn’t continue in 2017.

Connor Barwin and Bennie Logan were the other two starters on the defensive line last season and both are gone now. Both were better fits for the Eagles’ old 3-4 defense than their new 4-3 defense though and struggled as a result of the scheme change, so neither will be missed that much. The Eagles basically let them go, allowing Logan to take a 1-year, 8 million dollar deal with the Chiefs and cutting Barwin, rather than paying him his 7.75 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2017.

Barwin will be replaced with first round pick Derek Barnett, who was the most efficient pass rusher in college football last season, even ahead of #1 overall pick Myles Garrett. He doesn’t have Garrett’s athleticism, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked prospect overall and could prove to be a steal at #14 overall. He has been compared to his new teammate Brandon Graham due to his motor and his ability to get to the quarterback with a strong bull rush, which make up for his average athleticism.

Logan, meanwhile, will be replaced with Timmy Jernigan, who the Eagles acquired from the Ravens in exchange for moving down 25 spots in the third round. Jernigan was going into the final year of his rookie deal and the Ravens clearly didn’t want to pay him what he wanted to re-sign, but it’s still weird that they moved him so cheaply, considering he’s graded out above average in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league. Even though he played 3-4 end with Baltimore, the 2014 2nd round pick is a better fit at defensive tackle in a 4-3 defense than Logan was, so he should be an upgrade. Primarily a rotational player prior to last season, Jernigan played a career high 631 snaps last season and made 15 starts in 16 games. If he continues to play at a high level, he could sign for more money somewhere else next off-season. The Eagles drafted Washington defensive tackle Elijah Qualls in the 6th round of the draft as insurance.

Jernigan probably won’t play much more than 600 snaps with the Eagles in 2017 (Logan played 467 snaps last season). That’s because he will be playing primarily a base package role, as the Eagles like to line up defensive end Vinny Curry up at defensive tackle in sub packages. Curry will also provide depth at defensive end, as well veteran free agent acquisition Chris Long. A 2012 2nd round pick, Curry was re-signed to a 5-year, 47.25 million dollar deal last off-season and was expected to play a big role in his first season in a 4-3 defense in 2016, but instead only played 435 snaps.

Those 435 snaps were a career high and he played well once again, finishing 19th among 4-3 defensive ends, the 4th straight season he finished above average, but he wasn’t worth what the Eagles paid him given how small of a role he played. Given how deep the Eagles are on the defensive line, I would be surprised if he played much more than 500 snaps in 2017. Long, meanwhile, signed with the Eagles instead of re-signing with the Patriots this off-season because he was unhappy with his playing time in New England (677 snaps in the regular season, but just 62 in 3 playoff games), but he won’t play much more than 300-400 snaps with the Eagles now that they’ve drafted Barnett. Long isn’t the same player he once was, going into his age 32 season, but is still a good backup. This is a very deep defensive line.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Eagles also got great play from two linebackers in 2016, including breakout star middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. Just a 3rd round pick in 2015, Hicks flashed as a rookie on 459 snaps in 8 games, but had his rookie season cut short by a torn pectoral. Hicks picked up right where he left off in his 2nd year in the league in 2016 though, finishing 5th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus and, more importantly, staying healthy for all 16 games. Going into his 3rd year in the league, his best football might be still ahead of him.

Outside linebacker Nigel Bradham also had a great year, finishing 4th among 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Bradham had shown top level ability before, as the 2012 4th round pick flashed in limited action in the first 2 seasons of his career and then finished 13th among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2014, before plummeting to 81st out of 97 eligible linebackers in his contract year in 2015. As a result, the ex-Buffalo Bill had to settle for a 2-year, 7 million dollar deal with the Eagles, where he reunited with defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, who Bradham played under with the Bills in 2014. Reuniting with Schwartz seemed to make a big difference and now Bradham is arguably the best value of any veteran in the league contract wise. He should be a big part of this Philadelphia defense again in 2017.

Conversely, fellow linebacker Mychal Kendricks has one of the worst contracts in the NFL. Signed to a 4-year, 29 million dollar extension following a 2014 breakout year, in which he finished 6th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus, Kendricks hasn’t been nearly the same since. He fell to 60th out of 97 eligible linebackers in 2015 and then things got even worse for him when Schwartz came in and implemented a 4-3 defense, which Kendricks doesn’t fit at all. Kendricks played just 273 snaps as the 3rd linebacker last season, only playing in base packages.

He played the run well, which is all you really need to do in that role, but he wasn’t worth the 8 million dollar signing bonus they gave him or his 3 million dollar salary in 2016. This season, he is scheduled to make a guaranteed 5 million, so the Eagles are desperately trying to trade him. They are unlikely to find someone willing to pay him his salary though, so the Eagles will be stuck with him for another year and will have effectively flushed 16 million dollars down the toilet. He will undoubtedly be cut next off-season, ahead of a non-guaranteed 6 million dollar salary he would be owed in 2018. The Eagles drafted Nathan Gerry in the 5th round as a potential long-term replacement. It’s overall a talented linebacking corps.

Grade: A

Secondary

As you can see, the Eagles have a pretty talented front 7 and one that could be even better this season with Barnett and Jernigan replacing Barwin and Logan. That’s much needed because the Eagles had arguably the worst group of cornerbacks in the league last season, much in the same way they had arguably the worst group of wide receivers in the league last season. Unlike the wide receiver position, where the Eagles made multiple upgrades this off-season, they did not really get any better at the cornerback position. In fact, they might have gotten worse, as their two best cornerbacks last season were Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin and neither is with the team anymore.

Carroll and McKelvin finished last season 91st and 70th respectively among cornerbacks out of 111 eligible, which isn’t great, but they were better than Jalen Mills, who remains with the team, and they didn’t really replace them. They signed veteran Patrick Robinson in free agency and he will start opposite Mills, but he’s a pretty mediocre player, and they drafted Washington cornerback Sidney Jones in the 2nd round of the draft, but he could miss his entire rookie year with a torn achilles. Jones likely would have been a top-15 pick if not for the injury and could still return to play down the stretch, but he likely wouldn’t be at 100%. Not only would he be coming off of a significant injury, but he also will miss the entire off-season, which is so valuable for rookies. Jones could end up as the draft class’ best cornerback when all is said and done, but I don’t expect him to be much of a factor in 2017.

That leaves Robinson and Mills as probably the worst starting cornerback duo in the league, with next to no depth behind them. Mills finished last season as Pro Football Focus’ lowest ranked cornerback, which is no surprise, considering he was a mere 7th round rookie. The Eagles like him for some reason, but I’d be surprised if they got good play for him this season. Robinson, meanwhile, was a little bit better last season, but not much, finishing 93rd out of 111 eligible, behind both Carroll and McKelvin. Robinson has had solid seasons in 2011, 2014, and 2015, but has graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league and now is going into his age 30 season, so his best days are probably behind him. He wouldn’t be starting for most teams, but he’ll be the de facto #1 cornerback in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, Ron Brooks will compete with hybrid cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins, and 3rd round rookie Rasul Douglas for the #3 cornerback job. None of them are good options. Brooks struggled mightily on 235 snaps in 6 games last season, before going down for the season with a torn quad. Prior to last season, Brooks had been primarily a special teamer, making 3 career starts in 4 seasons. Watkins can play both cornerback and safety, as can starting safety Malcolm Jenkins, so the Eagles might use more 3-safety looks in 2017. Watkins was alright on a career high 387 snaps as the dime back last season, but is a very unproven player. Douglas, meanwhile, is very raw coming out of West Virginia. Cornerback will remain a problem position for this team until Sidney Jones can get back to 100%.

The Eagles will have to continue to mask their issues at cornerback with strong play in the front 7 and at safety, where Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are one of the better safety duos in the NFL. McLeod has made all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons and has graded out above average in the last 3 seasons, including a season in 2015 in which he finished 10th among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Last season, he finished 36th. Jenkins, meanwhile, has ranked 19th, 2nd, and 28th in 3 seasons in Philadelphia, after an inconsistent tenure in New Orleans to start his career. Jenkins’ age is a bit of a concern as he goes into his age 30 season, but McLeod will only be 27 this season and they should both have solid seasons again, at the very least. They somewhat make up for Philadelphia’s terrible cornerbacks.

Grade: C

Conclusion

The Eagles were 7-9 last season, but could have easily won 8-10 games, given how many close games they lost. This season, with Lane Johnson back from suspension, Carson Wentz going into his 2nd year in the league, and an improved receiving corps and defensive line, they have a good chance to make a big jump in win total. Looking up and down their roster, they have one of the best in the league. Whether or not they’ll be a real Super Bowl contender is going to depend on how Carson Wentz develops, but the Eagles should be able to challenge the Cowboys, who lost several starters in free agency, for the NFC East.  I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

New York Giants 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Giants made the playoffs in 2016, for the first time since the 2011 season, but had their worst offensive season in a while, moving the chains at a mere 31.53% rate, 29th in the NFL. They won 11 games and made the playoffs on the strength of a defense that ranked #1 in first down rate allowed at 30.41%. That came after they ranked 12th in first down rate and 29th in first down rate allowed in a 6-10 season in 2015. Given all the money they spent last off-season on defense, it was not a surprise that they were significantly improved on that side of the ball, but I don’t think anyone thought they would be as good as they ended up being in 2016. Likewise, few expected their offense to drop off like it did.

The biggest reason why they struggled offensively was the play of quarterback Eli Manning, who finished 27th out of 35 eligible quarterbacks, his lowest ranked season in Pro Football Focus’ 10 year history. He completed 63.0% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 26 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. Manning’s disappointing season came as somewhat of a surprise, considering the Giants promoted offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo to head coach to replace long-time head coach Tom Coughlin. McAdoo was credited was revitalizing Manning’s career, following a terrible 2013 season, and was promoted with Manning’s long-term success in mind.

However, Manning is no spring chicken anymore, going into his age 36 season, so age is probably catching up with him. He could bounce back somewhat in 2017, but we seem to be nearing the end of Eli’s tenure as a starting quarterback. With this in mind, the Giants used a 3rd round pick on California’s Davis Webb, who could potentially develop into a long-term starter. Webb is regarded as very raw though and will probably spend his entire rookie year as the 3rd quarterback, behind Manning and veteran backup Geno Smith.

Given that, Manning’s job is probably safe for at least 2017, as Smith hasn’t proven himself to be anything more than a backup thus far in his career. The 2013 2nd round pick has made 30 starts in 4 years in the league, but has completed just 57.9% of his passes for an average of 6.73 yards per attempt, 28 touchdowns, and 36 interceptions in his career. If he has to start for an extended period in 2017, the Giants are going to be in trouble. Fortunately, Eli hasn’t missed a start since he took over as a starter way back in his rookie year in 2004, but, given his age, it’s fair to wonder how long that streak can continue. Even if he does play all 16 games again in 2017, the Giants are still not in a great situation quarterback-wise.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

All that being said, it’s unfair to put all of the blame for the Giants’ offensive struggles in 2016 on the quarterback, as they had major issues around the quarterback position. Because they spent all that money on their defense last off-season, they didn’t have any left over to fix glaring holes on offense and those holes got even more glaring in 2016 with Eli not playing at a high enough level to mask them. With little financial flexibility this off-season, the Giants had to turn to the draft to address offensive needs. They used 3 of their first 4 picks on offensive players (including Davis Webb), but did not get around to addressing the offensive line until the 6th round, when they drafted Pittsburgh’s Adam Bisnowaty, who isn’t a serious candidate for playing time as a rookie.

The right side of the offensive line is the problem side for the Giants, but ideally they would have found a new left tackle this off-season and moved Ereck Flowers to the right side, where he would probably be a better fit, upgrading two spots at once. They didn’t do that, so they will have to hope that Flowers can be much improved at left tackle in his 3rd year in the league in 2017. It’s certainly a possibility, given that Flowers was the 9th overall pick in 2015 and is just going into his age 23 season, but Flowers has looked overmatched in 2 seasons (31 starts) on the blindside, finishing 74th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles in 2015 and 57th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles in 2016. He could easily take another step forward in 2017, but many considered the 6-5 324 pounder to be a better fit on the right side coming out of the University of Miami and he may end up there long-term.

For now, incumbent starter Bobby Hart and free agent acquisition DJ Fluker will compete for the starting job on the right side. Hart made 13 starts in 2016, but was easily the Giants’ worst offensive lineman, finishing 67th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on the season. The 2015 7th round pick also struggled on 151 snaps as a rookie. Also only going into his age 23 season, he’s young enough to be noticeably improved in 2017, but he is a much shakier bet than Flowers. He doesn’t nearly have Flowers’ natural abilities, hence why he fell to the 7th round and Flowers went 9th overall.

Given that, Fluker would probably be the better option, though Hart will open the off-season as the starter. The 11th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Fluker was similar to Flowers coming out of the University of Alabama. He began his career at right tackle, where he was serviceable, but unspectacular in his first 2 seasons in the league. When the Chargers signed veteran Joe Barksdale, they shifted Fluker inside to guard, where he was not a fit at all, finishing 67th out of 81 eligible guards in 2015 and 54th out of 72 eligible guards in 2016. A move back to right tackle could be good for him and he should be an upgrade over Hart if he does win the job.

Fluker is also a candidate at right guard, but he would have to unseat John Jerry, who is coming off of a solid year, finishing 33rd out of 72 eligible guards. That’s the first time in 7 seasons (83 starts) in the league that he’s graded out above average though and, already going into his age 31 season, he’s unlikely to be that good again in 2017. In 2015, he finished 56th out of 81 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus. Jerry would be better than Fluker though, as Fluker has already proven he is not a fit at guard.

Left guard Justin Pugh and center Weston Richburg were the saving graces of this offensive line in 2016, though neither was as good as they were in 2015. After they finished 9th among guards and 3rd among centers respectively in 2015, they “fell” to 16th and 16th respectively in 2016, with Pugh also missing 5 games with injury. Prior to their strong 2015 seasons, both players played different positions and were not nearly as good, as Pugh was about a league average starting right tackle in the first 2 seasons of his career, while Richburg was one of the lowest ranked guards in the league in his first year in the league in 2014. Both players should have solid years again in 2017, but both are also going in the final year of their rookie contracts, so the Giants will have some decisions to make soon. Considering they are easily their best two offensive linemen, the Giants should try to re-sign both, but the numbers might just not work out.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

In addition to struggling on the offensive line last season, the Giants also couldn’t run the ball, averaging just 3.55 yards per carry, 3rd worst in the NFL. Part of that was the offensive line, but the backs running the ball were a big part of the problem too. The Giants cut veteran running back Rashad Jennings this off-season, which should be addition by subtraction, as he averaged just 3.28 yards per carry on 181 carries and finished just 58th out of 62 eligible running backs on Pro Football Focus. Unfortunately, the Giants didn’t do much addition by addition, just adding Clemson running back Wayne Gallman in the 4th round of the draft. He is no guarantee to be an upgrade on Jennings.

Gallman does have more upside though and probably won’t see as many carries as Jennings did last season, as the Giants will be giving 2nd year running back Paul Perkins a larger role. A steal in the 5th round in 2016, Perkins averaged a solid 4.07 YPC average on 112 carries as a rookie and saw a larger role down the stretch, carrying the ball 62 times in the final 4 weeks of the regular season and 10 times in the Giants’ first round playoff loss in Green Bay. He has some breakout potential in his 2nd year in the league and, at the very least, he should be an upgrade over Jennings. Perkins is a smaller back at 5-10 208 though, so the bigger Gallman (6-0 215) could see short yardage work and vulture touchdowns on the goal line. Gallman will have a change of pace role.

Along with Perkins and Gallman, the Giants also have veteran Shane Vereen coming back from injury, after two separate torn triceps injuries limited him to just 5 games in 2016. Vereen isn’t a threat for many carries, as the 6-year veteran has never made more than 96 carries in a season, but he caught 158 passes in 40 games from 2013-2015 with the Patriots and Giants. If healthy, he should be their primary passing down back, but injuries have always been a concern with him. He’s been limited to 63 of a possible 96 games in his career. Still, he should be able to give them more than he gave them last year and, between that and Jennings being released, this should be an improved running back group in 2017. There is still a lot of uncertainty at the position though.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

While the Giants didn’t do much to upgrade the offensive line or the running game, they did upgrade the receiving corps. Odell Beckham is obviously one of the best receivers in the game, but they didn’t have another receiver with more than 683 receiving yards last season, so they would have been in trouble if Beckham were to ever get hurt. To give themselves insurance, the cut the struggling Victor Cruz and replaced him with ex-Jet Brandon Marshall and used a first round pick on Mississippi tight end Evan Engram.

Despite being a tight end, Engram is actually similar in size to Brandon Marshall. While Marshall is one of the biggest wide receivers in the league at 6-4 230, Engram is one of the smallest tight ends ever drafted at 6-3 234. More of a big slot receiver than an inline tight end, Engram moves like a wide receiver and set the combine on fire with his 4.42 40. He won’t contribute much as a run blocker, but he will be a matchup nightmare in the passing game. He will be an instant upgrade over incumbent starter Will Tye, who was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd lowest ranked eligible tight end in 2016. Tye will compete with 2016 6th round pick Jerell Adams for the #2 tight end job. Adams struggled on 204 snaps as a rookie. Whoever wins the job, the #2 tight end role is small in this offense because of how often they line up with 3 wide receivers.

Victor Cruz was the Giants’ 3rd receiver in 2016 and played 766 snaps in that role, about 72.2% of the Giants offensive snaps. Brandon Marshall will probably be the #2 receiver this year, moving last year’s #2 wide receiver Sterling Shepard to the #3 role, but all three of Beckham, Marshall, and Shepard will get significant playing time. Shepard may be better in the #3 role because the 2016 2nd round pick is best as a pure slot receiver. Shepard was about a league average starter in his first season in the league and could be even better in his 2nd year in the league in a more natural role.

Marshall, meanwhile, should be a lot better than Victor Cruz, who was clearly not the same player as he once was in 2016, his first season back from a 2014 torn patellar tendon. Cruz finished 99th out of 115 eligible wide receivers and was subsequently cut and remains unsigned as a free agent, ahead of his age 31 season. Marshall was also cut, but saw a much more robust market for his services, signing with the Giants on a 2-year, 11 million dollar deal. Marshall is going into his age 33 season and not the same player as he once was, finishing with fewer than 1000 yards in 2 of the last 3 seasons, after going over 1000 yards in every season from 2007-2013. He finished last season ranked below average for the first time in Pro Football Focus’ 10-year history. However, in 2015, he had one of the best statistical seasons of his career and finished 16th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, so he’s probably not completely washed up. Even if he plays like he did in 2016, he’ll still be an upgrade over Cruz.

Marshall will play outside opposite Beckham, who, as I already mentioned, is one of the best receivers in the league. He hasn’t been as efficient as he was as a rookie, when he caught 91 passes for 1305 yards and 12 touchdowns on 132 targets in 12 games and finished 4th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, but he has been a top-12 wide receiver in all 3 seasons he’s been in the league. The 12th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Beckham has already caught 288 passes for 4,122 yards and 35 touchdowns on 460 targets in 3 seasons in the league. Only going into his age 25 season, his best football could still be ahead of him. He has two years left on his rookie deal, but expect the Giants to make him the highest paid wide receiver in the league sometime in the next calendar year. He’s easily their most important offensive player.

Grade: A-

Defensive Line

As I mentioned, the Giants spent a lot of money on defensive players last off-season and it paid off in a big way. Two of the big contracts they handed out were to defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison, who signed 5-year deals worth 85 million and 46.25 million respectively. This off-season, they re-signed their other starting defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul on a 4-year, 62 million dollar deal. Unfortunately, not only did all their highly paid defensive players make it tough to address needs on the offensive side of the ball this off-season, but it also made it tough for the Giants to add needed depth on defense and it caused them to lose defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins to the Colts on a 3-year, 30 million dollar deal.

The Giants are very top-heavy salary wise, with 7 players combining to take up 86.521 million on their 2017 cap, about 52% of the total 167 million dollar cap. Five of those players are defensive players: Damon Harrison, Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Janoris Jenkins. The Giants have not drafted well in recent years, particularly in rounds 3-7, so they have had to sign other team’s free agents to bolster their roster. It has worked to an extent, but it has left them in a very inflexible position cap wise and, without good young players on cheap rookie deals to fill in the gaps, it has left them with some glaring holes on both sides of the ball.

One of those glaring holes was defensive tackle, following the departure of Hankins. The Giants filled that hole in the second round of the draft with defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, but he could be overmatched as a rookie. The Giants don’t really have another choice though, as Jay Bromley is the only reserve with any career starts and he struggled mightily in 2016, finishing 102th out of 127 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football Focus. Fortunately, the Giants frequently line defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon up inside in obvious passing situations, so Tomlinson will really only be counted on for a base package run stuffing role. He’s an adequate run stuffer, but won’t give them any pass rush.

Fellow starting defensive tackle Damon Harrison is also primarily a base package player, but he did play a career high 674 snaps in his first season in a 4-3 defense in 2016, after spending the first 4 seasons of his career in a 3-4 defense with the Jets. A monstrous 6-4 350 pounder, Harrison is arguably the best run stuffing defensive tackle in the league, but also moves surprisingly well for his size and can pressure the quarterback a little bit if asked to do so. He proved himself to be surprisingly scheme versatile in his first season with the Giants in 2016.

Harrison has been a top-14 defensive tackle in all 4 seasons as a starter, making 64 of 64 possible starts over that time period, and has finished #1, #3, #1, and #1 among defensive tackles in those 4 seasons respectively in terms of pure run stuffing grade. A former undrafted free agent who at one time weighed over 400 pounds, Harrison has done a great job getting in shape, staying in shape, and dominating on the defensive line. Going into his age 29 season in 2017, I see no reason why that wouldn’t continue. Only the 21st highest paid defensive lineman in the league in terms of average annual salary, Harrison was a great value signing last off-season.

Olivier Vernon wasn’t quite as good of a value, but helped this defensive line tremendously in his first season in New York. Vernon came to New York as a one-year wonder, finishing 2nd among 4-3 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but maxing out at 17th in the first 3 seasons of his career before that. Vernon proved himself as a high level player once again in 2016, finishing 7th at his position and should finish somewhere around there again in 2017. Going into his age 27 season, Vernon is in the prime of his career.

Along with Vernon and Harrison, JPP is also in the prime of his career, going into his age 28 season. His prime and possibly his whole career looked to be in jeopardy after he lost part of his hand in a fireworks accident on the Fourth of July in 2015, but JPP played pretty well in the final 8 games of the season in 2015 and then appeared to be back to his former self in 2016, finishing 6th among 4-3 defensive ends, earning the big extension the Giants gave him this off-season. Prior to the injury, he finished 6th, 3rd, and 7th in 2011, 2012, and 2014 respectively, with an injury plagued 2013 season in between. Injuries are kind of piling up for him, between the 2013 back injury, the hand injury, and the sports hernia injury that ended his 2016 after 12 games, but, assuming he is healthy, he should have another strong year in 2017.

As I mentioned, both Vernon and JPP are bigger defensive ends (6-2 275 and 6-5 278 respectively) that they like to line up inside in obvious passing situations. With Hankins gone and Tomlinson replacing him, they will probably have to do that even more this season. Unfortunately, that could be a problem because the Giants’ depth at the defensive end position is about as poor as it is at the defensive tackle position. Romeo Okwara was the 3rd defensive end last season and made 4 starts in JPP’s absence, but struggled mightily on 368 snaps, particularly as a pass rusher. That’s unsurprising, considering he went undrafted in 2016.

Okwara will face competition for snaps from fellow backups Kerry Wynn and Owamagbe Odighizuwa, as well as 5th round rookie Avery Moss. Odighizuwa is the most talented of the bunch, but, like many of the Giants’ recent 3rd round picks, he has done nothing so far in the NFL. In 2 seasons in the league, he has played just 299 snaps and struggled mightily. He briefly left the team this off-season and considered retirement, but returned to the team and will be given a chance to compete for a role out of pure necessity. He’s far from a lock to even make the final roster. Wynn, meanwhile, has graded out below average in all 3 seasons in the league, after going undrafted in 2014, and, like Okwara, he is a better run stuffer than pass rusher. Perhaps they will give Okwara and Wynn a shot inside at defensive tackle in sub packages and keep JPP and Vernon as the edge rushers. Anyway you look at it, the Giants have a major depth problem on the defensive line, but they also have arguably the best starting defensive line in football, even with Hankins gone.

Grade: A

Linebackers

The Giants will need their defensive line to play at a high level again to mask their issues in the linebacking corps. Even as good as their defense was as a whole last season, they got pretty poor play from their linebackers. Outside linebacker Devon Kennard was the best of the bunch, finishing 30th among linebackers on Pro Football Focus. That’s pretty par for the course for him, as the 2014 5th round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons in the league, but the big 6-3 251 pounder doesn’t do well in coverage and hasn’t been anything more than a pure base package player in his career. The 533 snaps he played last season were a career high. He should play a similar role in 2016.

Middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard also only played in base packages last season, making 11 starts in 16 games, but only playing 453 snaps. He is no longer with the team and won’t be missed, after finishing 82nd among 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Keenan Robinson, who came in for Sheppard in sub packages and played 780 snaps overall, is a candidate to take over for Sheppard and play every down inside, but he’s not much better of a player than Sheppard. He’s experienced, with 27 starts over the past 3 seasons, but he’s struggled mightily in all 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 78th out of 87 eligible linebackers and especially struggled against the run. Instead, it’ll likely be 2nd year player BJ Goodson playing every down at middle linebacker, but the 2016 4th round pick played just 13 snaps as a rookie and is a major projection to a starting role. The Giants seem to like him though.

Robinson is probably more of a candidate to start at the other outside linebacker position than he is to start at middle linebacker over Goodson. At outside linebacker, Robinson will compete with fellow veteran and incumbent starter Jonathan Casillas. Casillas is probably the better option, but neither option is good. Primarily a special teamer early in his career, Casillas has made 28 starts in the past 3 seasons, after just 12 starts in his first 5 seasons in the league, but has struggled in all 3 seasons and finished last season 57th out of 87 eligible linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Going into his age 30 season, he’s best as a reserve and a special teamer, but the Giants might not have a choice. Unless Goodson can have a surprising breakout year, this linebacking corps should be one of the worst in the league again.

Grade: D

Secondary

One thing the Giants could do to bolster their linebacking corps is move safety Landon Collins to linebacker in sub packages the way the Packers do with Morgan Burnett, the Patriots do with Patrick Chung, and the Redskins do with Su’a Cravens. Bigger than all 3 of those players at 6-0 225, Collins certainly has the size to play linebacker in sub packages and his run stopping ability is his best attribute, as he was Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked safety in run stopping grade in 2016. The drawback with that move is it would take Collins out of the Giants’ backend in passing situations and Collins fared well in coverage too.

After a disappointing rookie year in which the 2015 2nd round pick finished 78th out of 89 eligible safeties, Collins was arguably the most improved defensive player in the league in 2016, finishing 2nd among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Along with all of their defensive free agent acquisitions, Collins’ breakout year was what turned the play of this defense around in a hurry. Wherever he lines up in 2017, he figures to be a force once again. He’s one of the few good young players the Giants have on a cheap rookie deal.

Another reason having Collins play more linebacker makes some sense is because they have more depth at safety than they do at linebacker. The Giants used a 3rd round pick in 2016 on Boise State safety Darian Thompson and planned on starting him at safety opposite Collins, but he went down for the season with a broken foot after 2 games. Fortunately, fill-in Andrew Adams, an undrafted rookie, played pretty well in his absence, making 13 starts and finishing above average (39th) among safeties on Pro Football Focus. Thompson will compete with Andrews for the starting job, but the Giants may look for ways to get both on the field at the same time. Playing Collins at linebacker part-time would allow them to do that and allow them to get their best athletes on the field in passing situations.

The Giants are also deep at the cornerback position too. Like fellow free agent acquisitions Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison, ex-Ram Janoris Jenkins was a big success in his first season in New York, finishing 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in the first year of a 5-year, 62.5 million dollar deal. The deal seemed like an overpay, considering he graded out below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 3 seasons in the league in 2012-2014 and only maxed out at 26th in the final year of his rookie deal in 2015. An inconsistent player who misses too many tackles and gets burned deep too often, Jenkins might not be as good this season as he was last season. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of being a top level cornerback and he’s already going into his age 29 season, so it’s not like he’s just entering his prime.

The Giants also have Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, another talented veteran cornerback opposite him. DRC also struggled early in his career, but he’s proven himself in 4 straight seasons, finishing in the top-19 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 years (61 starts). He’s going into his age 31 season, so his best years might be behind him, but the Giants are obviously hoping he can continue playing at a high level for another couple years. Last year was one of his best, as he finished 5th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus.

The 3rd cornerback will be Eli Apple, the 10th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Apple wasn’t great as a rookie, grading out below average overall, but was regarded as raw coming out of the draft and didn’t even turn 21 until last August. He still has a sky high ceiling and could have a breakout year in 2017. Apple is probably the long-term replacement for Rodgers-Cromartie, whose contract runs out after 2018, but, for now, the Giants have potentially three really good cornerbacks on their roster. It’s a talented secondary.

Grade: A

Conclusion

The Giants have one of the top heaviest cap distributions in the league, with 7 players taking up more than half of their cap space. As a result of the Giants’ inability to draft good young players on cheap rookie deals, the Giants have had to pay big money for free agents to fill holes, which has left them thin on key parts of the roster. While the first couple rounds have given them players like Odell Beckham, Landon Collins, Weston Richburg, and Justin Pugh (who is no longer on a cheap rookie deal), they haven’t drafted a single proven starter in the 3rd round or later of the draft since Mario Manningham way back in 2008 and he is long gone. Many of their later round picks have been complete washouts who never developed into even valuable depth players. Getting good players in the first couple rounds is important, but getting good players after the first couple rounds is necessary for a team to consistently be good and the Giants have struggled mightily in that aspect in recent years. That shows when looking at their roster.

All that being said, they have done a great job of adding good talent in free agency and have several top level players on both sides of the ball, which is why they are coming off of an 11-win season and a playoff appearance. Given that most of their top level players are veterans and that they had very few major injuries last season, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if this team took a step backwards in 2017, particularly with Eli Manning seemingly going into the twilight of his career, but this team should still be in the mix for a playoff spot because they have obvious strengths, particularly on defense.  I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD

Green Bay Packers 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Packers started last season a very disappointing 4-6, leading to Aaron Rodgers famously saying after their 6th loss that he thought they could run the table. Rodgers wasn’t quite right, but they gave it a good run, winning their next 8 games, including 2 playoff games, before falling short in the NFC Championship game in Atlanta. Rodgers himself was a huge part of the turnaround, completing a ridiculous 71.0% of his passes for an average of 8.34 yards per attempt, 15 touchdowns, and no interceptions in the Packers’ final 6 regular season games.

That came after he completed an uncharacteristic 63.2% of his passes for an average of 6.73 yards per attempt, 25 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions over the Packers’ first 10 games. As a result, the Packers moved the chains at a 40.60% rate over those final 6 games, as opposed to 37.91% in their first 10 games. There are a lot of reasons why Rodgers and this offense started clicking down the stretch, but a big one had to be wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who looked a little sluggish to start the season in his return from a torn ACL, but returned to form down the stretch. Nelson caught 44 passes for 594 yards and 5 touchdowns in his final 6 games, after 53 catches for 663 yards and 9 touchdowns in his first 10 games.

Rodgers’ worst season as a starter came in 2015 when he was without Jordy Nelson, as he completed just 60.7% of his passes for an average of 6.68 yards per attempt, 31 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. Both his completion percentage and YPA were career lows. When Nelson returned and Rodgers was still disappointing by his standards, some started to question if he was losing it a little bit as he was getting into his mid 30s, but he proved down the stretch that those questions were premature.

He finished last season 3rd among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, his 6th top-5 finish in the last 8 seasons and his 8th top-8 finish in 9 seasons as a starter (135 starts). Even in his worst season in 2015, he still finished 12th at his position. Now going into his age 34 season, it’s always possible he could start to decline, but we’ve seen plenty of examples of quarterbacks playing at a high level into their mid 30s in recent years, so he should remain one of the top quarterbacks in the league for at least another couple seasons, even if he does decline a little bit. The Packers are obviously in great hands with him as their signal caller.

Grade: A

Receiving Corps

I already mentioned how important #1 receiver Jordy Nelson is to this offense. He “only” finished 14th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus last season, but he was their 2nd ranked wide receiver in both 2013 and 2014, before missing all of 2015 with injury. Now in his 30s, there was some concern that he’d never be the same player again, but he showed he had a lot left in the tank down the stretch last season and should have another couple strong seasons left in him. Even if he declines a little bit, going into his age 32 season, he’ll still be one of the better wide receivers in the league.

At one point, Nelson and fellow receiver Randall Cobb were arguably the best receiving duo in the league. In 2014, they combined for 2,806 receiving yards, most in the league by any two teammates, with Cobb going for 91/1287/12. After that season, the Packers locked Cobb up long-term on a 4-year, 40 million dollar deal as a free agent, but he hasn’t been the same since. He’s still finished above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 2 seasons, but he hasn’t come close to his #9 rank from 2014 and he averaged just a 70/720/5 slash line. He’s only missed 3 total games with injury, but has been limited in many others. Still only going into his age 27 season, there’s some bounce back potential for him if he can stay healthy, as he’s been a top-12 wide receiver in his last 2 healthy seasons, but those seasons were back in 2012 and 2014, so injuries are definitely a major concern for him going forward.

Last season, Cobb actually fell to 3rd on the depth chart, with Jordy Nelson (1015) and Davante Adams (915) both playing significantly more snaps than Cobb (681). The Packers use 3-wide receiver sets with regularity, so there will still be plenty of opportunity for Cobb to play if he opens the season as the #3 receiver, but Adams is probably ahead of him on the depth chart for now. Adams’ leap up the depth chart was pretty surprising, considering he was not considered a lock to even be the 3rd receiver at this time last year, after back-to-back abysmal seasons to start his career in 2014 and 2015.

Adams finished the 2014 season 99th among 110 eligible wide receivers on 738 snaps and then ended the 2015 season 109th out of 121 eligible on 763 snaps. In 2016, he leaped up to 49th among wide receivers, slightly above average, and caught 75 passes for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns as the de facto #2 receiver. He’s only a one-year wonder and could regress in 2017, but it’s also possible the former second round pick has turned a corner and will continue developing into a solid receiver going forward. Not 25 until December, Adams definitely has youth on his side. In his final year of his rookie deal, Adams could command a big salary in free agency next off-season if he has another good year, which could make the Packers have to choose between him and Cobb (9.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary in 2018) next off-season.

In addition to three talented pass catchers at wide receiver, the Packers also signed a talented pass catcher at tight end in Martellus Bennett in free agency this off-season, bringing him in on a 3-year, 21 million deal. He’ll replace free agent departure Jared Cook, who was a valuable weapon for Rodgers down the stretch, but missed most of the season with injury. Bennett is also a huge upgrade over Cook as a run blocker. The big 6-6 275 pounder moves well for his size and has graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in all 9 seasons in the league, including three top-10 finishes in the past 5 seasons. Going into his age 30 season, Bennett’s best days might be behind him at this point, but he’s still coming off a 10th place finish among tight ends in 2016 and should be a valuable player for them for another couple years.

In addition, the Packers signed another veteran tight end in free agency too, bringing in ex-Ram Lance Kendricks on a 2-year, 4 million. Kendricks is plenty experienced, with 79 starts in 93 games in 6 seasons in the league since going in the 2nd round in 2011, but isn’t a very good player, grading out above average on Pro Football Focus just once in those 6 seasons and never recording more than 50 catches in a season. That career high in catches came last season, when he turned them into just 499 yards and 2 touchdowns. A mediocre run blocker as well, Kendricks finished 54th out of 63 eligible tight ends on Pro Football Focus on 830 snaps last season.

In Green Bay, he’ll play a much smaller role and will compete with incumbent Richard Rodgers for the #2 tight end job. Rodgers also has experience, with 23 starts in 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, but has also graded out below average in 2 of 3 seasons, including 53rd out of 63 eligible tight ends on 604 snaps last season. Even though neither player is great, both are solid depth behind Bennett and the Packers might have the most experienced tight end group in the league. Rodgers should have plenty of options again in 2017.

Grade: A

Running Backs

The Packers averaged an impressive 4.55 yards per carry average last season, 7th best in the league, but didn’t have a consistent runner all year after Eddie Lacy got hurt after 5 games. In fact, the 71 carries Lacy had in those 5 games were just less than the 77 carries that Ty Montgomery led the team with, and he began the year as a wide receiver. As a result, the Packers ran the ball just 374 times, 4th fewest in the league, and 67 of those carries were quarterback runs by Aaron Rodgers. Including quarterbacks runs and sacks, the Packers ran 725 plays for Rodgers last year, as opposed to 304 carries by running backs or wide receivers, which made them much more one-dimensional than they would have liked. Also, much of their success on the ground on a per carry basis came from the fact that teams were expecting the pass and didn’t put a lot of guys in the box.

Given all that and that Eddie Lacy signed with the Seahawks this off-season, running back was a major position of need for the Packers this off-season. They didn’t add a running back in free agency or use a high pick on a back, but they did take 3 backs late in the draft, with the highest drafted one coming off the board in the 4th round. Fourth round pick Jamaal Williams probably has the best shot at a big rookie year role, but, with Lacy, James Starks, Don Jackson, and Christine Michael all no longer with the team, Ty Montgomery and fullback Aaron Ripkowski are the only backs on the team with any career carries, so 5th round pick Aaron Jones and 7th round pick Devante Mays both have a shot at playing time in 2017 too.

Williams is a powerful runner who runs bigger than his listed 6-0 212, but doesn’t have great burst and doesn’t contribute in the passing game. There’s a reason he fell to the 4th round, but he could end up being a solid two-down back for them long-term. He’ll complement converted receiver Ty Montgomery well. A 2015 3rd round pick, Montgomery impressed in limited action as a runner last season, rushing for 457 yards and 3 touchdowns on 77 carries (5.94 YPC), and also added 44 catches for 348 yards. He ranked 18th among running backs on Pro Football Focus on 392 snaps.

Built more like a running back than a wide receiver at 6-0 216, Montgomery played both positions in college at Stanford and is transitioning to running back full time this season. The rookie Williams could lead this team in carries, but Montgomery will probably have more touches because he has a good chance to catch 50-60 balls. Running back is still a weakness for this team, but Montgomery and Williams both have potential and complement each other well, so there’s definitely upside here.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

The Packers used to have arguably the best guard duo in the NFL in TJ Lang and Josh Sitton, but they have lost both of them over the past 2 off-seasons. First, there was their strange decision to release Sitton, one of the best interior linemen in the league, at final cuts, ahead of the final year of his contract, to save 6.85 million last off-season. Then this off-season they allowed Lang to walk as a free agent, even though he was signed to a pretty reasonable 3-year, 28.5 million dollar deal. Not only did they lose both of those talented players, but now both are with division rivals, as Sitton signed with the Bears close to immediately after being released last year, while Lang is now with the Lions.

Former backup Lane Taylor took over for Sitton last season and did a decent job, considering he went undrafted in 2013 and had made just 2 career starts in 3 seasons prior to last season. He wasn’t great, finishing 41st out of 72 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus, and he was certainly a downgrade from Sitton, who finished 10th with the Bears last season, but he was serviceable and made all 16 starts. With Lang now gone too, Taylor is locked into a starting role going forward.

Lang, meanwhile, was Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked guard last season, so he too will be very tough to replace. The Packers signed 11-year veteran Jahri Evans as a potential stopgap starter this off-season and he will compete with utilityman backup Don Barclay and 2016 2nd round pick Jason Spriggs. Evans is a 4-time All-Pro with 169 career starts, but is going into his age 35 season and well past his prime. He did make all 16 starts and finish 36th among guards in 2016, so he could be serviceable for another year, but that’s far from a guarantee.

Evans is probably a better option than Barclay though, as Barclay has struggled whenever he’s been counted on in 5 seasons in the league. His only season as a starter came in 2013, when he made 14 starts at right tackle. He finished that season 57th out of 76 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. Barclay is versatile and can play anywhere on the offensive line, but he’s not a starting caliber player. Spriggs, meanwhile, was a high pick, but played tackle in college and might not be the best fit at guard. He made 2 spot starts at right guard last season, but was pretty underwhelming. He’s probably their most talented option if they feel he can make the switch, but I think it’s more likely he starts the year as the swing tackle again.

Lang and Sitton are not the only offensive linemen that the Packers have lost as they also lost center JC Tretter on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal to the Browns in free agency this off-season. Tretter isn’t as big of a loss as the other two, but he’s a versatile, starting caliber player who could have replaced Lang at right guard if they had kept him. Tretter made 7 starts at center last year for the Packers and finished 9th at his position on Pro Football Focus, before going down for the season with a knee injury.

Fortunately, his injury coincided with the return of regular center Corey Linsley from injury and Linsley played well in the final 9 starts of the season, finishing 12th among centers. A mere 5th round pick in 2014, Linsley has played well through 3 seasons in the league, finishing in the top-12 among centers in all 3 seasons, but injuries have been an issue for him in the past 2 seasons, as he’s missed a combined 10 games. They will need him to stay healthy and play at a high level in 2017 to offset the losses of Lang and Tretter. If he can’t, the Packers don’t have another good option on the roster.

While they lost Sitton, Lang, and Tretter, the Packers did keep one offensive lineman whose contract was set to expire during the 2017 off-season, locking up left tackle David Bakhtiari on a 4-year, 48 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal. Despite being a mere 4th round pick, Bakhtiari was a rare rookie that started at left tackle week 1 and he has made 62 of a possible 64 starts in 4 seasons since, missing just 2 games due to injury.

He struggled as a rookie, but has improved in every season since, going from 62nd, to 53rd, to 26th, to 4th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in the last 4 seasons respectively and is still only going into his age 26 season. Only the 5th highest paid offensive tackle in the league in terms of average annual salary, the extension the Packers gave him was money well spent, especially considering significantly inferior players like Eric Fisher, Matt Kalil, and Russell Okung have all gotten contracts worth 11+ million annually in the past calendar year.

Rounding out the offensive line is right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who made 16 starts for the first time in his career in 2016 and had one of his better seasons, finishing 15th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. A 2010 1st round pick, Bulaga has made 76 starts in 6 healthy seasons in the league (he missed all of 2013 with a torn ACL) and has finished above average 4 times in 6 seasons. Health has always been a concern for him though and, with Spriggs waiting in the wings behind him, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Packers let him go after the season, rather than paying him the 13.5 million he’ll be owed in 2018 and 2019. If he plays like he did last season again though, it’ll be hard to let him go. The Packers are pretty set at both tackle and center, but are much weaker at guard than they are used to.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

While the Packers’ offense was much improved over their final 6 games of the regular season, their defense actually allowed the exact same first down rate (37.69%) in their final 6 games as they did in their first 10 games. On the season, they finished 26th in first down rate allowed. They forced more turnovers in the final 6 games (15 vs. 10), but, outside of takeaways, they still had a major problem getting off the field and, unfortunately for them, turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. They are going to need the defense to force more punts this season if they are going to continue to win like they did down the stretch in 2016.

It wasn’t all bad on defense for the Packers in 2016 though, as defensive lineman Mike Daniels remains one of the best players in the league at his position. A steal in the 4th round in 2012, Daniels took over as a starter and has been a top-8 player at the 3-4 defensive end position in all 4 seasons, including back-to-back #3 ranks in 2015 and 2016. Only going into his age 28 season, I see no reason why his strong play couldn’t continue into 2017. He also hasn’t missed a single game with injury since his rookie year. He’s their most valuable defensive player.

The Packers also have 2016 1st round pick Kenny Clark, who figures to have a bigger role in his 2nd year in the league in 2017, after flashing on 335 snaps as a rookie. Clark is big enough to play nose tackle in base packages at 6-2 314, but also moves well enough to play in sub packages. They used a high pick on him, so they will probably use him in more of an every down role, especially since they don’t have another every down defensive lineman outside of Daniels. Last season, they frequently rushed outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones from the interior in sub packages because they had the size to do it, but both players are no longer with the team, which frees up snaps for Clark. About 500-600 snaps for Clark seems likely (Daniels played 664 snaps last season). Not 22 until October, Clark has a monstrous upside and is a breakout candidate for 2017.

Clark isn’t the only 2nd year defensive lineman who should have a bigger role in 2017, as 2016 4th round Dean Lowry flashed on 158 snaps as a rookie and will probably see more playing time in his 2nd year in the league as a result. The 6-6 296 pound Lowry is a better pass rusher than run stopper, but showed a little bit of both last season. He’ll probably play a rotational role and rush the passer from the interior in sub packages with some regularity. The Packers like to rotate defensive linemen, so there’s definitely going to be playing time for Lowry. We’ll see how his play translates to a larger role.

In base packages, veteran journeyman Ricky Jean-Francois will compete with 3rd round rookie Montravius Adams and veteran holdover Letroy Guion for the 3rd defensive lineman role. Jean-Francois, signed from the Redskins this off-season, is probably the favorite. He’s best as a rotational player, but has 36 career starts in 109 career games and has graded out above average in 3 straight seasons. He only played 385 snaps in 2015 and 442 snaps in 2016 and he’s going into his age 31 season, but he should be an upgrade over Guion, who finished below average on 449 snaps last season.

Guion is still with the team, but is suspended for the first 4 games of the season and is no guarantee to make the final roster. He’s graded out below average in 7 of 9 seasons in the league and is going into his age 30 season now. Adams, meanwhile, was regarded as raw coming out of Auburn and may have to have essentially a rookie redshirt year. He has the upside to develop into an every down player though. With second year players Kenny Clark and Noah Lowry likely taking a step forward, this is an improved defensive line and one with solid depth.

Grade: B+

Linebackers

As I mentioned, the Packers lost outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones in free agency. They played 587 and 548 snaps respectively last season, so, even though they both rushed the passer from the interior regularly, their departures leave them pretty thin at the outside linebacker position. Fortunately, the Packers did re-sign one of their outside linebackers this off-season, bringing back Nick Perry on a 5-year, 59.925 million deal. Perry led all Packer outside linebackers in snaps with 606 last season and also led the team with 11 sacks, so he was obviously important to keep. He finished last season 8th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus.

The amount the Packers had to pay to keep him is not ideal though, considering he’s a one-year wonder. Prior to 2016, he had just 12.5 career sacks in 4 seasons in the league and had never played more than 374 snaps in a season. He was a first round pick in 2012, so he has always had talent, and he did flash on occasion in limited action prior to 2016, but he missed 18 games with injury and was never anything more than a rotational player when healthy. Certainly, he never did anything like he did in 2016.

It’s possible he’s turned the corner as a player and will have more seasons like 2016 ahead of him, but it’s a very risky signing considering his history. Although only his 18.5 million dollar signing bonus was guarantee, he will make 20.725 million in the first year, 27.925 million over the first 2 years, and 38.925 million over the first 3 years, so it would be very tough for the Packers to get out of this deal anytime soon if they wanted to do so, without incurring a major cap hit. If they were to cut him after 2 years, they would only free up about 3.6 million in cap space.

The Packers are obviously hoping Nick Perry can repeat his 2016 season and they are also obviously hoping Clay Matthews can be healthier and have a bounce back season at the other outside linebacker spot. Like with Perry, that’s far from a guarantee. Matthews was at one point one of the best defensive players in the league, finishing in the top-6 among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus in each of the first 4 seasons in his career from 2009-2012, after going in the first round in 2009.

However, his play has steadily declined in recent years, culminating with the worst season of his career in 2016, when he was limited to a career low 479 snaps in 12 games and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 7th worst ranked 3-4 outside linebacker. He should be better by default in 2017, but his best days seem long behind him. He has missed 13 games with injury in the past 5 seasons and played through serious injuries in countless other games and is now going into his age 31 season. Matthews is as tough as they come, but he seems to be breaking down. Owed a non-guaranteed 11.4 million in the final year of his contract in 2018, this could be Matthews’ final season in Green Bay unless he shows his old form.

With Peppers and Jones gone, Perry and Matthews will be relied on heavily in 2017 and, barring injury, will probably play more snaps than they did last season. However, since neither player is particularly reliable or durable, the Packers’ depth at the position is critical. Many thought the Packers would address the outside linebacker position early in the draft, but didn’t use a pick on the position until they took Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel with the first pick in the 4th round. Biegel is currently dealing with a foot injury that could cost him a big chunk of the off-season, which would put him very much behind the 8-ball as a rookie.

When healthy, Biegel will compete with 2016 3rd round pick Kyler Fackrell and 2014 undrafted free agent Jayrone Elliott for playing time behind Matthews and Perry. Elliott has never played more than 174 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, playing primarily special teams, and has never shown much potential either, but will probably have a larger role in 2017 out of necessity. Fackrell, meanwhile, flashed on 161 snaps last season and will probably be the 3rd outside linebacker. He has upside and could be a future starter, but he’s obviously unproven.

At middle linebacker, the Packers have three young players who will compete for 2 starting spots, 2015 4th round pick Jake Ryan, 2016 4th round pick Blake Martinez, and 2014 undrafted free agent Joe Thomas. Ryan was the best of the three in 2016, grading out just below average, while Martinez and Thomas finished 65th and 68th respectively among 87 linebackers on Pro Football Focus. Ryan is a one-year wonder who struggled on 260 snaps as a rookie, but he seemed to take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league in 2016, playing well both in coverage and against the run. He’s likely locked into one of the two starting jobs.

That leaves Martinez and Thomas to compete for the other job, though the other job is probably a two-down job. The Packers like to drop safety Morgan Burnett (6-1 209) down to linebacker in sub packages and used a 2nd round pick on safety Josh Jones, so they definitely have the safety depth to do it. Given that it’s a two-down job, Martinez is probably the favorite because, while he looked lost in coverage last season, he played the run pretty well, while Thomas struggled both in coverage and against the run. That leaves Thomas in a backup role, where he belongs. Prior to 2016, he had never made a start in 2 seasons in the league. It’s overall a pretty underwhelming linebacker group.

Grade: C

Secondary

While Morgan Burnett will play a lot of linebacker in sub packages, in base packages he will form one of the best safety duos in the league with fellow starting safety HaHa Clinton-Dix. In 2015, Burnett and Clinton-Dix finished 4th and 8th respectively among safeties on Pro Football Focus and, in 2016, they “fell” to 15th and 20th respectively. Burnett is a veteran, going into his 8th season in the league, but has last 2 seasons have been his best and he’s finished above average on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 6 seasons as a starter (86 starts).

Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, is going into just his 4th season in the league, after getting drafted in the first round in 2014. Clinton-Dix showed himself to be a capable starter in 10 starts as a rookie, but has taken his game to the next level in the past 2 seasons and has made all 32 starts over that time period. Only going into his age 25 season, Clinton-Dix is one of the best young safeties in the league. Also, as I mentioned, the Packers used a 2nd round pick on North Carolina State’s Josh Jones, who will be the 3rd safety and play in sub packages when Burnett moves to linebacker. Jones has good upside and great athleticism, but missed 13 tackles in his final season in college, so he’s far from a sure thing.

Jones was not the only defensive back the Packers used a 2nd round pick on, as they took Washington cornerback Kevin King 33rd overall, the first pick of the second round, after moving down from 29 with the Browns. The 6-3 King has great size and length and fills a big need at cornerback. Despite using a first and a second round pick on cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in 2015, the Packers still had major depth issues in 2016 with Randall missing 6 games, Rollins missing 3, and Sam Shields missing 15. As a result, the Packers were led in snaps played at cornerback by Ladarius Gunter (867 snaps) and Micah Hyde (827 snaps).

The problem got even worse this off-season with Hyde signing with the Bills in free agency and Shields being released because of lingering concussion symptoms. The Packers signed veteran Davon House in free agency, but King has a good chance to beat him out for the #3 job and could also push both Randall and Rollins for starting jobs. House has been a capable player throughout his career and has started 34 games in 6 seasons in the league, but is coming off of a season in which he struggled on just 272 snaps with the Jaguars. It’s a homecoming for House, who spent the first 4 seasons of his career in Green Bay (2011-2014), but King is a much more talented player who should be considered the favorite for the job.

Randall and Rollins are also talented players, but both are coming off of bad years, finishing 108th and 84th respectively among 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Both were better as a rookie, especially Rollins, who finished 20th among cornerbacks on 323 snaps, but both will have a lot to prove in their 3rd year in the league this season. They are not locks for starting jobs. Cornerback is not nearly as solid of a position as safety for the Packers, but the Packers’ talented safeties should mask their issues at cornerback somewhat.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

As long as the Packers have Aaron Rodgers playing like he does, they are always going to be a Super Bowl threat. Whether or not they have the talent around him to actually make a deep run remains to be seen. They should be better in the secondary and on the defensive line than they were last season, but they still have major issues in the linebacking corps and at running back and they lost top interior offensive lineman TJ Lang in free agency, which can’t be overlooked. Overall, they should play better than they did last season, but last season was their worst regular season in years, so that’s not saying a ton. They are going to be a Super Bowl contender once again, but there are at least 4-5 teams that I think have better shots than them. I will have an exact win total after I finish every team’s season previews.

Prediction: TBD