2019 NFL Season Previews

Updated 5/18/19

 

These season previews will be posted throughout the summer and provide a foundation for my season picks (60% against the spread in 2018).

These previews will be very similar to past year’s previews with a couple exceptions.

Interior and edge defenders will be graded separately rather than a total defensive line grade. In the past, I’ve graded 3-4 edge defenders as part of linebackers and 4-3 edge defenders as part of the defensive line. Now edge defenders in both schemes are graded as their own unit, separate from off ball linebackers and interior defenders.

Scores for offense, defense, and the overall team will be included. Scores are based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100). Win total projections will still be posted at the end of all previews after I simulate each team’s schedule, but team scores give an idea of how these teams rank relative to each other in the meantime.

Entire divisions will be posted at once, ranked by team score. Approximate completion dates are included for unfinished divisions.

 

NFC West: Posted 5/18/19

1. Los Angeles Rams

Record: TBD

Team Score: 76.33 (78.12 offense, 74.53 defense)

2. San Francisco 49ers

Record: TBD

Team Score: 74.54 (76.03 offense, 72.04 defense)

3. Seattle Seahawks

Record: TBD

Team Score: 73.76 (75.80 offense, 71.71 defense)

4. Arizona Cardinals

Record: TBD

Team Score: 72.49 (70.89 offense, 74.08 defense)

AFC East: Posting date approximately 5/25/19

NFC East: Posting date approximately 6/3/19

AFC North: Posting date approximately 6/16/19

NFC North: Posting date approximately 6/29/19

AFC South: Posting date approximately 7/7/19

NFC South: Posting date approximately 7/20/19

NFC West: Posting date approximately 8/2/19

Arizona Cardinals 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

Last off-season, the Cardinals were essentially forced into hitting the reset button, following a 8-8 season in 2017. Head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer both announced their retirement, leaving them without a head coach and without a single quarterback under contract at the start of the off-season. The Cardinals hired ex-Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and added a pair of starting quarterback options, signing veteran Sam Bradford to a 2-year, 40 million dollar deal with a 15 million guaranteed and trading up to draft UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen with the 10th overall pick. However, the results were far from what they expected. Bradford struggled mightily before being benched 3 games in the season and Rosen wasn’t much better, as the Cardinals plummeted to league worst 3-13.

That’s not quite as big of a drop off as records suggest, as the Cardinals had a -66 point differential in 2017 (24th in the NFL) and needed to go 6-2 in one score games just to get to 8-8, but by most measures the Cardinals were the worst team in the league in 2018. In addition to their record, they also ranked dead last in point differential at -200 and in first down rate differential at -8.68%. Quarterback play and coaching were not the whole problem, but the Cardinals decided to hit the reset button again this off-season.

Wilks was let go after one year and replaced with former Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, which was an unorthodox hire to say the least. Not only does Kingsbury not have any NFL coaching experience whatsoever, but he also went just 35-40 as a college head coach and was fired by Texas Tech this past fall. Kingsbury spent 3 seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback, so he does have some familiarity with the league, he’s young (40 in August), and he’s regarded as an excellent quarterback whisperer, working with both Pat Mahomes and Baker Mayfield in college, but the move to hire Kingsbury seems like taking copycatting too far.

The trend right now in the NFL is to hire young offensive minds, ever since the Rams turned their franchise around seemingly overnight by hiring Sean McVay to develop struggling young quarterback Jared Goff, but the Cardinals might have been better off zigging when everyone else zags. By far the most qualified candidate available this off-season was Vic Fangio, who has a whopping 19 years of experience as an NFL defensive coordinator, continually getting passed over for head coach jobs because of his defensive background, despite consistently getting good results out of his units. He eventually was hired by the Denver Broncos, one of two (out of eight) head coaching hires this off-season to come from a defensive background.

Quarterback is obviously the most important position on the field, so it’s understandable what the Cardinals are trying to do, but Kingsbury’s track record from college suggests his ability to coach a full roster is underwhelming. The Cardinals did wisely pair Kingsbury with defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who is not only a talented defensive play caller, but he also just spent two years as the head coach of the Broncos, so he’ll provide some needed experience in the coaching room.

The one big difference between the Rams hiring McVay and the Cardinals hiring Kingsbury is that, while McVay came in and turned around Jared Goff’s career, Kingsbury pushed hard for the Cardinals to draft Heisman winner Kyler Murray #1 overall and trade Josh Rosen, which they ultimately ended up doing. The Cardinals were likely expecting Kingsbury to try to get the most out of Rosen when they hired him, but that was back when most expected Murray to stick with baseball. When Murray committed to football, Kingsbury decided he had to have the prospect that he had been recruiting since he was a sophomore in high school 7 years ago and the Cardinals let their new coach have his man, becoming just the 2nd team in the last 50 seasons to take a quarterback in the first round in back-to-back years.

Rosen was sent to the Dolphins for the 62nd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and a 2020 5th round pick, a decent return for a player everyone knew was available, but obviously much less than they paid to acquire him (15th, 79th, and 152nd overall picks in the 2018 NFL Draft). The Cardinals also ended up paying most of his rookie contract because of the way these contracts are structured. In total, Rosen’s rookie year was a 4-year, 17.6 million dollar deal with a 5th year option, but 11.36 million of that was paid in the first year.

Rosen struggled mightily as a rookie, completing 55.2% of his passes for an average of 5.80 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions and finishing 38th out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, but his supporting cast gave him no help and he certainly wouldn’t be the first quarterback to struggle mightily as a rookie and go on to have strong careers (Jared Goff and Peyton Manning come to mind).

It’s obviously a risky decision and one that will undoubtedly tie the two quarterbacks together in debate for the foreseeable future. If Murray pans out in Arizona, it’s unlikely fans will be too upset, but if Rosen has an equally good career, the Cardinals’ decision is going to look a bit foolish. If they had kept Rosen, they could have used the #1 overall selection on a defensive stud like Quinnen Williams or Nick Bosa or they could have traded down and gotten a king’s ransom from another team that wanted Murray. Instead, all they got back was a late second round pick for Rosen.

Murray himself comes with a lot of risk. A lot has been made about his height (5-10) and, while I don’t think that’s the kiss of death for a quarterback, it’s not irrelevant either. There’s a reason there haven’t been more successful quarterbacks under 6 feet tall. It can be overcome, especially by a quarterback as athletic as Murray (Russell Wilson is the obvious best case scenario), but it’s an obvious weakness for him.

Perhaps more concerning is his lack of experience, making just 17 collegiate starts. He played at a high level in those 17 starts, especially in his 14 starts in 2018, earning top marks for his passing and rushing from PFF, prompting them to call him the best dual threat quarterback prospect they’ve ever scouted, and he wouldn’t be the first quarterback to succeed in the NFL despite limited college experience (Cam Newton and his 14 collegiate starts come to mind), but we have a pretty limited sample size with Murray and most quarterbacks who go in the top-10 have put at least 25 collegiate starts on tape. In my opinion, that’s more of a concern than his height.

Without a clear other option on the roster, Murray will undoubtedly be the week 1 starter, barring something incredibly unexpected. The Cardinals have comically talked up Brett Hundley as a potential week 1 starter, but it’s hard to believe that’s anything more than coachspeak. Signed as a free agent this off-season for just 1.875 million over 1 year, Hundley has completed just 59.5% of his passes for an average of 5.68 YPA, 9 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 4 seasons between the Packers and Seahawks. Murray will be starting week 1. How well he can perform right away remains to be seen.

Grade: B-

Offensive Line

The bigger problem for this team is their supporting cast around Murray. Rosen was put in a very difficult situation as a rookie quarterback who had no help around him and Murray could easily struggle in a similar situation this season. The Cardinals’ offensive line was probably their weakest unit last season. They allowed 52 sacks on the season, 5th most in the NFL, and Rosen was pressured on 40.4% of his dropbacks, also 5th most in the NFL. On those pressured dropbacks, Rosen threw 6 interceptions to 1 touchdown and had a league worst 38.1 QB rating (just behind fellow 2018 first round pick Sam Darnold, who was at 39.7). Murray’s mobility should help him avoid sacks and pressure, but the Cardinals didn’t do much to upgrade their offensive line this off-season, so he could easily be under fire frequently.

Injuries were part of the problem last season, as they led the league in adjusted games lost to injury on the offensive line. Center Mason Cole made all 16 starts, but the Cardinals used 12 different starters at guard and tackle and even Cole was supposed to be a backup originally, until AQ Shipley went down for the season with a torn ACL before the season even started. By the end of the season the Cardinals had placed all 5 of their original starting offensive linemen on injured reserve. They should be healthier this season, but only one of the 13 players that made a start on the offensive line last season earned an above average grade from PFF, so better health might not make a huge difference.

That one player with an above average grade was left tackle DJ Humphries, who finished as Pro Football Focus’ 41st ranked offensive tackle in 9 starts, before knee injuries ended his season. A first round pick in 2015, Humphries has always had plenty of talent, but he hasn’t been able to put it together consistently and injuries have been a big part of that, with knee injuries ending his last two seasons. Between injuries and the fact that he spent his whole rookie year as a healthy scratch, Humphries has made just 27 starts in 4 seasons in the league. Still only 25, Humphries still has upside if he can make it through a full season, so the Cardinals opted to bring him back at a 9.625 million dollar salary on his 5th year option, but he could easily miss time again.

The one key addition the Cardinals did make upfront this off-season is right tackle Marcus Gilbert, who was acquired from the Steelers. He’s an experienced veteran and should be locked in as the starter opposite Humphries, but he’s been increasingly injury prone as well and, going into his age 31 season, he could be breaking down. He’s earned average or better grades from PFF in all 8 seasons in the league and was acquired for only a 6th round pick and has just a 4.915 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so he could prove to be a smart addition, but he’s played just 12 games in the past 2 seasons, so he’s no guarantee to make an impact. If either Humphries or Gilbert gets hurt, either Korey Cunningham or Will Holden, who both struggled last season, would be forced back into action.

On the interior of the offensive line, right guard Justin Pugh, center AQ Shipley, and left guard Mike Iupati all ended up on injured reserve last season. Pugh is the only one locked into a starting job, with Iupati signing in Seattle this off-season and Shipley possibly returning as a backup behind Mason Cole. Pugh has bounce back potential and was once one of the better guards in the league, finishing 17th among guards on PFF in 2015 and 15th in 2016, but injuries have started to pile up for him.

He hasn’t played all 16 games since his rookie season in 2013 and he’s missed 26 games total in the 5 seasons since with a various of injuries, including back, hand, and knee injuries just in the past two seasons. He’s missed a total of 17 games with those ailments and they have coincided with two years of subpar play, including a 2018 season in which he finished 69th out of 86 qualifying guards on PFF. Still only going into his age 29 season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him stay healthy and bounce back, but he’s best days might be behind him. After giving a 10 million dollar signing bonus as a free agent last off-season, the Cardinals are obviously hoping he bounces back, but they can move on from his 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary for 2020 next off-season if he doesn’t.

Shipley is a much lower upside player, going into his age 33 season, coming off of a torn ACL, but he’s experienced (54 career starts) and has been a solid player in the past, so he could push Mason Cole for the starting job. The Cardinals drafted Cole in the 3rd round in 2018 to be the long-term successor to Shipley, but he was underwhelming when forced into action as a rookie, finishing 35th among 39 qualifying centers on PFF. He could be better in his 2nd year in the league, but it’s nice for the Cardinals to have Shipley as insurance.

With Iupati leaving as a free agent, the Cardinals signed veteran JR Sweezy to replace him. Sweezy is experienced (78 career starts), but has always struggled in pass protection and hasn’t been as good of a run blocker over the past 2 seasons either, finishing last season as PFF’s 82nd ranked guard overall out of 88 qualifying. I thought the Cardinals would add competition for him through the draft, but they strangely didn’t use a draft pick on an offensive lineman until the 6th round, so Sweezy is probably locked into a starting job. Their only other options are Jeremy Vujnovich and Colby Gossett, both of whom struggled mightily last season. This offensive line should be better by default this season, but this is still an underwhelming unit and they have several injury prone players whose absence would make this offensive line resemble last season’s very quickly.

Grade: C

Receiving Corps

While the Cardinals didn’t do much to upgrade their offensive line in the draft, they clearly made upgrading their receiving corps a priority, adding a wideout in the 2nd round (Andy Isabella), 4th round (Hakeem Butler), and 6th round (KeeSean Johnson). Going into the draft, the Cardinals really lacked depth behind Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, their only two wide receivers to top 210 yards in 2018, and Kliff Kingsbury wants to spread the field with 3-5 receivers frequently.

Fitzgerald is also getting up there in age, going into his age 36 season, although the future Hall-of-Famer was still their leading receiver in 2018 with a 69/734/6 slash line. A 15-year NFL veteran (all in Arizona), Fitzgerald ranks 3rd all-time in catches (1,303), 2nd all-time in receiving yards (16,279), and 6th all-time in receiving touchdowns (116), despite spending most of his career with poor quarterback play. He earned an above average grade from PFF for the 13th straight season in 2018, but at this point in his career he’s year-to-year. He could easily see his abilities drop off significantly in 2019, which could end up being his final season in the league either way. With a deeper receiving corps, he likely won’t have as big of a role as the 112 targets (24th in the NFL) that he had in 2018.

While Fitzgerald is nearing the end of his career, Christian Kirk is just getting started on what looks like a promising career. The 2018 2nd round pick had a 43/590/3 slash line on just 68 targets as a rookie, despite missing 4 games with a broken foot and dealing with poor quarterback play. His 1.72 yards per route run ranked 41st in the NFL and led the team (Fitzgerald ranked 63rd with 1.38). His deep threat ability makes him a better fit with Murray than underneath route runner Larry Fitzgerald and we could see a passing of the torch of sorts in the Cardinals’ receiving corps this season. Kirk could easily have a breakout 2nd season in the league.

With last year’s 3rd and 4th receivers Chad Williams and Trent Sherfield struggling, 2nd round rookie Andy Isabella (selected 62nd overall with the pick from the Rosen trade) is likely the favorite for the #3 receiver job, which could be close to an every down role in this offense. Isabella didn’t consistently face tough competition at the University of Massachusetts, but he led the Division 1 with 1,698 receiving yards (more than 200 more than anyone else) and had 219 yards against Georgia, so he can clearly get it done against top level competition. He earned a borderline first round grade from Pro Football Focus and could prove to be a steal at the end of the 2nd round. He’s undersized at 5-9 188, but he’s every bit as fast as his 4.31 40 time and is a great fit for this offense.

Other than Isabella, they don’t really have another good option for the 3rd receiver job, so they’ll need him to make a rookie year impact. Both Hakeem Butler and KeeSean Johnson were ranked higher on PFF’s draft board (42nd and 173th respectively) than where they were drafted, but both enter the league pretty raw. Meanwhile, neither Chad Williams nor Trent Sherfield have ever shown much and neither are locks for the final roster.

The Cardinals signed Kevin White from the Bears in free agency, but he’s nothing more than a flyer. The 7th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, White played just 5 games in his first 3 seasons in the league due to injury and then, even though he was healthy, he managed just 4 catches in 2018 and played just 66 snaps in the final 9 weeks of the season. Only going into his age 27 season, White theoretically still has upside, but is not a lock to even make the final roster.

The Cardinals don’t nearly have as much talent at tight end as they have at wide receiver, but Kingsbury has never used tight ends much in the passing game, opting instead to spread the defense with wide receivers. Ricky Seals-Jones, a converted college receiver, was the primary pass catching tight end last season, but he had just a 34/343/1 slash line on 366 routes run, an average of 0.94 yards per route run, 35th out of 40 qualifying tight ends. It may help him in this offense that he used to play wide receiver, but I wouldn’t expect him to have a big role. Even if their quarterback play is better, he probably won’t produce much more than last season.

Blocking tight end Jermaine Gresham (9 catches) was let go this off-season and replaced with veteran Charles Clay. Clay was once a solid starter, but he’s had chronic knee problems for years and they finally seem to be catching up with him, now going into his age 33 season. He is coming off of career worst a 21/184/0 slash line and isn’t a particularly good blocker either. He might not have much of a role as the #2 tight end and could be pushed for snaps by fellow free agent signing Maxx Williams. Williams also has serious knee issues, but he’s a former 2nd round pick who is still only going into his age 25 season, so he has more upside than Clay. He showed that upside with 32 catches as a rookie, but injuries have limited him to 31 catches in the three seasons since. The Cardinals will need some young wide receivers to step up to compensate for not having a receiving threat at tight end.

Grade: C+

Running Backs

Running back David Johnson is also expected to be a big part of the passing game, as he’s one of the better pass catching running backs in the league. Johnson “only” had a 50/446/3 slash line as a receiver in 2018, but that still was good for 3rd on the team and he had a 80/879/4 slash line on a better offense in 2016. On top of that, he had a 36/457/4 slash line as a rookie in 2015, despite only being a part-time player (2017 was a lost season due to injury). With a more creative offensive staff and no other truly dynamic weapons on this offense, expect Johnson to get the ball in his hands in space out of the backfield more this season.

Johnson isn’t quite as dynamic as a runner and in fact only averaged 3.64 yards per carry on 258 carries last season, but that was largely the result of the lack of offensive talent around him. In 2015-2016, he averaged 4.35 yards per carry and scored 24 times on 418 carries. His supporting cast isn’t much better this season, particularly on the offensive line, but he should have a higher YPC average, even if only by default, and the Cardinals should run more plays than the 902 they ran in 2018 (2nd fewest in the NFL), which will lead to more carries as well (355 carries in 2018, 28th in the NFL).

Johnson is still the clear feature back, with backup Chase Edmonds carrying the ball just 60 times to Johnson’s 258 last season. A 4th round pick in 2018, Edmonds didn’t show much as a rookie, rushing for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns on 60 carries (3.47 YPC) and adding 103 yards on 20 catches through the air, but the Cardinals did not add any competition for him, so he should remain in his same role. Johnson has played all 16 games in every season except for his lost 2017 season and the Cardinals will obviously hope that continues as Edmonds would likely be a big drop off, especially in the passing game.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

While the Cardinals’ offense was the bigger issue (ranking dead last in first down rate at 29.16%), their defense wasn’t much better, ranking 23th in first down rate allowed at 37.84%. That was a big drop off from 2017, when they finished 6th in that metric. The Cardinals’ defensive personnel didn’t change that much from 2017 to 2018, but several players did not play as well last season as they did the year before.

The most prominent player to regress was edge defender Chandler Jones, who was an All-Pro in 2017. Jones still had 13 sacks in 2018, but his peripheral pass rush stats were not as good, as he managed just 4 quarterback hits and 25 quarterback hurries on 526 pass rush snaps, a pressure rate of 8.0%. That’s not horrible, but when you compare it to 2017, when he had 17 sacks, 18 hits, and 41 hurries on 610 pass rush snaps (12.5%), it was a big step backward.

Jones is no one-year wonder, totaling 77 sacks, 73 hits, and 237 hurries on 3,649 career pass rush snaps (10.6% pressure rate), and even at his worst he’s still an above average player, but the Cardinals will obviously be hoping he bounces back to his All-Pro form. Not over the hill yet, going into his age 29 season, it’s possible a change in defensive coordinator from first time play caller Al Holcomb to the more experienced Vance Joseph will be a big help for him. The Cardinals will also be transitioning back to a 3-4 base defense, which they ran in 2016 and 2017.

Jones was still the only Cardinal that consistently got to the quarterback in 2018, with no one else on the team topping 4.5 sacks. The Cardinals hope to change that with the addition of veteran Terrell Suggs. After spending the first 16 years of his career in Baltimore, the future Hall-of-Fame edge defender and Arizona State product decided to return home for his age 37 season this off-season, signing a one-year deal worth a guaranteed 7 million.

Suggs’ age is a concern, but he’s been one of the best edge rushers of his generation (his 132.5 career sacks are most by an active player) and he still played at a high level in 2018, finishing 40th among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus and totaling 7 sacks, 8 hits, and 39 hurries on 443 pass rush snaps (12.2%). Sometimes players his age lose it quickly, so he’s not a sure thing, but he should have a significant role opposite Jones and it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade.

Given Suggs’ age, I expected them to add a young edge defender through the draft, but they didn’t, leaving veteran free agent signee Brooks Reed as their primary reserve. Reed is capable early down run stuffer, but doesn’t get much pass rush anymore and is now going into his age 32 season. In his last 4 seasons in Atlanta, he averaged 411 snaps per season and the Cardinals shouldn’t want him playing much more than that.

They may have to though, as they lack another capable reserve. Cameron Malveaux is currently penciled into the #4 edge defender job and the 2017 undrafted free agent has played just 281 snaps in 2 seasons in the league with the Dolphins and Falcons. He may not even make the final roster. The Cardinals’ depth at the edge defender position is an issue, but Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs could be a strong starting pair if the latter can continue fighting off Father Time.

Grade: B+

Interior Defenders

With the Cardinals moving back to a base 3-4 defense, Corey Peters will be moving back to nose tackle. The 6-3 335 pounder isn’t much of a pass rusher, with 14.5 sacks in 113 career games, but he’s a strong run stuffer who has earned an above average run stuffing grade from Pro Football Focus in 5 straight seasons, so he’s a much better fit for a 3-4 than a 4-3. He played a career high 735 snaps last season, but the Cardinals probably won’t him to play more of a part-time role this season, in his age 31 season. He pressured the quarterback on just 4.0% of his pass rush snaps last season and should be limited to a base package role.

To take some of the pressure off of Peters, the Cardinals brought in Darius Philon through free agency and Zach Allen through the draft (65th overall) to compete for roles on the interior. Philon is likely penciled in to a starting role, as he’s developed into a starting caliber player in the past couple years. A 6th round pick in 2015, Philon struggled in limited action in the first two seasons of his career, but took a step forward from year 2 to year 3 and last season earned an average grade from PFF on 607 snaps. This is his first time in a base 3-4 defense, but he should see a similar role in his first season in Arizona. Still only going into his age 25 season, it’s possible he continues improving, so he was a smart signing on a 2-year, 10 million dollar deal.

Allen’s role is a little bit more up in the air, but even though he fell to the 3rd round he could easily have a rookie year impact. PFF ranked him as their 40th ranked draft prospect and he’s a prototypical 3-4 defensive end at 6-4 281. His strength throughout his collegiate career was his run stopping ability, but he took a big step forward as a pass rusher in his final season and has the upside to become an every down player in the NFL.

Holdovers Rodney Gunter and Robert Nkemdiche are also in the mix for roles. Gunter is likely the favorite for the 3rd starting job on this defensive line in base packages with Peters and Philon. He might not play quite as many snaps on a deeper defensive line as he did in 2018, when he played 641, but the 2015 4th round pick has developed into a capable starter. The Cardinals brought him back on a bargain one-year deal this off-season, worth just 1.75 million, and he should exceed that value.

Nkemdiche, on the other hand, was a first round pick in 2015, but he hasn’t developed into much of anything. Injuries have been part of the problem, as he’s missed 21 of 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, but he hasn’t shown much even when healthy. He played just 425 snaps last season and could easily have an even smaller role on a deeper line in 2019, which could also be his final year with the team, after they unsurprisingly turned down his 5th year option this off-season. This is a decent defensive interior overall, but it lacks a clear difference maker that defenses have to gameplan for.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Despite having a good amount of cap space, the Cardinals struggled to sign marquee free agents this off-season, as players aren’t too keen on going to last place teams. The one big free agent they added was middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, who comes over from the Eagles on a 4-year, 34 million dollar deal to be an every down player in the middle of this defense. Hicks comes with some injury risk, missing 21 of 64 career games, but he’s finished in the top-14 among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in 3 of 4 seasons in the league and his presence is noticeably missed when he’s not on the field. Considering he signed with one of the worst teams in the league on a deal that only makes him the 12th highest paid middle linebacker in the league, it’s unclear why the Eagles didn’t try harder to bring him back, but their loss is the Cardinals’ gain. He’ll be a difference maker for this team when on the field.

Third year linebacker Haason Reddick is expected to be the other starter at middle linebacker. A first round pick in 2017, Reddick is an interesting player. A college defensive end, Reddick lacks ideal size at 6-1 235, but was still tried as an edge defender in the Cardinals’ 3-4 defense as a rookie. He struggled on 444 snaps, especially as a pass rusher (2.5 sacks, 5 hits and 9 hurries on 218 pass rush snaps) and was converted to an off ball outside linebacker when the Cardinals transitioned to a 4-3 last off-season.

He barely played the first four weeks of the season before playing close to every down as a starter for the final twelve weeks. Reddick wasn’t bad overall, but his best grade from PFF was actually his pass rush grade, as he had 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 10 hurries on 111 pass rush snaps (64 out of 111 snaps as a blitzer). He’s still a work in progress both against the run and in coverage, earning below average grades from PFF in those aspects. This year he will be a middle linebacker in the Cardinals 3-4 and they will obviously be hoping he takes a step forward and shows himself to be something more than an above average blitzer.

He may also see some work as a 3-4 outside linebacker, given their lack of depth at the position, but he’s proven to be too small to hold up outside every down and the Cardinals’ depth at middle linebacker isn’t good either. Career backup Joe Walker, who has played 98 snaps in 3 seasons in the league, would likely be the next man up. They’ll need Hicks to stay healthy and Reddick to take a step forward.

Grade: B

Secondary

Note: This was written before the announcement of Patrick Peterson’s 6-game suspension. I have included an update in the conclusion.

The Cardinals might not be much of a threat in 2019, but this team interestingly does have a few future Hall of Famers on it. I’ve already mentioned Terrell Suggs and Larry Fitzgerald, who are both in the twilight of their careers, but they also have cornerback Patrick Peterson, who is still in his prime. Normally it’s premature to call someone a future Hall of Famer before their 30th birthday, but Peterson has made the Pro Bowl in all 8 seasons he’s been in the league and just 5 of the 42 players with 8 Pro Bowls and Hall of Fame eligibility have not been inducted. Even if Peterson never makes another Pro-Bowl, it’s going to be hard to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

Peterson hasn’t always played at a Pro-Bowl level, but he’s been a top-19 cornerback on Pro Football Focus in 5 of 8 seasons and finished 10th at the position in 2018. Perhaps most impressively, he’s made 128 all starts in 8 seasons in the league, playing through several ailments that have coincided with down years, including undiagnosed diabetes in 2014. Only going into his age 29 season, there’s no reason to believe he will have any sort of drop off this season.

The only real concern with Peterson is his dissatisfaction with his contract. The Cardinals wisely locked up Peterson on an extension as early as they could, giving him a 5-year, 70.05 million dollar extension after 3 years in the league that was essentially a 7-year, 83.2 million dollar total contract when you include the final two years of his rookie deal. That contract has allowed the Cardinals to keep Peterson at a below market value for his prime, but now with 2 years and 23.8 million left on his contract, Peterson feels underpaid and wants another top of the market extension before it’s too late (his current contract has him hitting free agency at 31, which isn’t ideal).

This situation hasn’t become a big problem yet and it’s possible the Cardinals acquise his demands, but he’s so far skipped voluntary workouts and could skip mandatory minicamp to make a statement. His name has also been involved in trade rumors, though it’s likely he would have been moved before the draft if that was what the Cardinals wanted to do. For now, assume Peterson will remain in his usually spot as this team’s top cornerback, but this is a situation to monitor.

The other outside cornerback spot opposite Peterson has been a weak point for years, however, and last year was no different, with both Bene Benwikere and Jamar Taylor struggling in that role. Neither player is still with the team and the Cardinals added help at cornerback this off-season, signing veteran Robert Alford to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal and using the 33rd overall pick on Byron Murphy. Despite Alford’s contract, Murphy could be the better player, even as a rookie. Murphy was PFF’s top ranked cornerback prospect and 7th overall prospect, after holding opponents to a 47.7% completion percentage in 2018.

Alford, meanwhile, used to be a solid starter, but he was PFF’s 114th ranked cornerback out of 131 qualifying in 2018 and is now going into his age 31 season. He earned an above average grade from PFF as recently as 2017, so the Cardinals are banking on his 2018 being a fluke, but it seems like his best days are behind him. The Falcons released him rather than paying him a 8.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, so it’s shocking the Cardinals were willing to guarantee him 9 million in the first year of his contract. He and Murphy will compete for the #2 cornerback job, but Alford’s salary suggests they view him as the starter. The Cardinals also added veteran Tramaine Brock in free agency, but he’s a declining veteran going into his age 31 season. He has starting experience (45 career starts), but hasn’t played well in the past 2 seasons and would be best as the 4th cornerback.

Budda Baker was their slot cornerback in 2018, but with more depth at cornerback, he’s expected to move back to safety this season. The 2017 2nd round pick was primarily a safety as a rookie, but he has the versatility to line up in multiple different spots, including slot cornerback and linebacker. He’s also earned above average grades from PFF in both seasons and could easily take another step forward in his 3rd season in the league, only his age 23 season. He’s a young building block for this defense regardless of where he lines up, but given their lack of depth at safety, that’s likely where he’ll play the most.

Last year’s starting safeties Tre Boston and Antoine Bethea are no longer with the team, but the Cardinals did add DJ Swearinger and he will start at the other safety spot. Swearinger was actually acquired at the end of last season, after being kicked off the team in Washington for criticizing the coaching staff. Swearinger has had issues with coaches in the past, but he’s also a very talented player, making 43 of 48 starts in the past 3 seasons and finishing in the top-32 among safeties in all 3 seasons, including a 14th ranked finish in 2018. It’s telling that Swearinger was claimed on waivers by the first team that could have claimed him, despite a 4.5 million dollar salary for 2019. Swearinger should continue his strong play, now in his 2nd stint in Arizona (2015-2016).

Rudy Ford is the top reserve and could see some action in 3 safety sets, given Baker’s versatility to play other positions, but the 2017 6th round pick has played just 65 snaps in his career and is a projection to a larger role. Even with the Cardinals losing both starting safeties this off-season, the Cardinals could easily have a better secondary with the additions of Byron Murphy and DJ Swearinger. They’ve done a nice job patching holes around Patrick Peterson and the promising Budda Baker.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Cardinals should take a step forward in 2019, but that could be largely by default, as this team still has a long way to go to reach the post-season. They had trouble adding impact players in free agency and lack difference makers, especially on offense. Of course, the most important thing for this franchise is that Kyler Murray goes on and becomes a better quarterback than Josh Rosen, who the Cardinals traded for much less than gave up to acquire him just last off-season, in order to draft Kyler Murray #1 overall.

Rosen adds to a trend for recent Arizona first round picks, as just two of the Cardinals’ 7 first round picks from 2012-2018 are projected starters and neither player (DJ Humphries and Haason Reddick) has developed into the player they were expected to be when drafted. That’s a big part of why this team was where they were last season and it’s going to take more than one off-season to fix it. Even if Kyler Murray has a Rookie of the Year type season, this team probably won’t win many games. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Update: Patrick Peterson has been suspended six games for performance enhancing drugs. While that probably won’t affect whether or not he ultimately makes the Hall of Fame (when’s the last time you heard someone argue that Antonio Gates shouldn’t be a Hall of Fame because he tested positive for a banned substance), it will hurt the Cardinals for the first 6 weeks of the season, as Tramaine Brock is the next man up to replace Peterson.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Team Score: 72.49*

Offensive Score: 70.89

Defensive Score: 74.08

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

San Francisco 49ers 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

After going 7-25 in a two-year stretch from 2015-2016, the 49ers hit the reset button during the 2017 off-season, bringing in Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch to be their head coach and GM respectively. Shanahan was arguably the hottest coaching candidate of his class, as the son of former Super Bowl winning head coach Mike Shanahan was fresh off coordinating a Falcons offense that came painfully close to winning the Super Bowl. Shanahan’s expertise working with quarterbacks was likely one of the reasons the 49ers were interested in him and, taking over a roster without an obvious quarterback of the future (2016 starting quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert weren’t under contract for 2017), Shanahan had the opportunity to pick his own long-term guy under center.

Shanahan evidently did not find a quarterback to his liking in the 2017 off-season, using a 3rd round pick on unheralded Iowa quarterback CJ Beathard and signing journeyman Brian Hoyer, rather than making a splash move for a quarterback. With Hoyer and Beathard both struggling, the start of Shanahan/Lynch era in San Francisco looked similar to the previous two seasons, with the 49ers losing each of their first 9 games of the season.

That changed when the 49ers got a call from Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots at the trade deadline. With Tom Brady still playing at a high level and Jimmy Garoppolo set to hit unrestricted free agency in the 2018 off-season, suddenly the quarterback the 49ers were told was not available the previous off-season became very available. The 49ers were able to poach Garoppolo from the Patriots for a 2018 2nd round pick and Shanahan got the quarterback he had his eye on since he was the Browns’ offensive coordinator during the 2014 NFL Draft (they went with Johnny Manziel instead because the owner demanded it).

The 49ers gave Garoppolo about a month to learn the playbook before putting him into action, but once on the field Garoppolo wasted no time in making this look like a completely different football team, as the 49ers won all 5 of Garoppolo’s starts, after winning just 1 of their first 11 games. After picking up first downs at a 30.75% rate in the first 11 games of the season, the 49ers picked up first downs at a 38.39% rate in Garoppolo’s 5 starts. Garoppolo completed 67.4% of his passes for an average of 8.76 YPA, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and was Pro Football Focus’ 2nd ranked quarterback during the final 5 weeks of the season.

Garoppolo was still unproven, with only 7 career starts and 272 career pass attempts under his belt heading into free agency last off-season, but he won all 7 of those games and had a 99.7 QB rating on those 272 attempts. Especially after they had just surrendered a 2nd round pick to acquire him, the 49ers had no choice but to pay up to keep Garoppolo (137.5 million over 5 years), but the 49ers seemed more than happy to do it. They had found their quarterback of the future and a team that had been sitting in the basement of the NFC West for about two and a half years suddenly had a lot of hope for the future.

Unfortunately for the 49ers, that hope was quickly put on hold when the 2018 season started. Not only did the 49ers lose 2 of their first 3 games, but they also lost Garoppolo to a torn ACL late in their week 3 loss in Kansas City. Despite the team’s underwhelming record, Garoppolo was still playing well before going down, averaging 8.07 yards per attempt and leading an offense that picked up first downs at a 41.30% rate.

With Garoppolo out, the 49ers were forced to turn back to CJ Beathard and subsequently lost each of their next 5 games. Not only did their first down rate drop to 35.17% in those 5 games, but Beathard turned the ball over 10 times by himself. A hand injury forced Beathard out of their week 9 Thursday night game against the Raiders, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise as former 3rd string quarterback Nick Mullens led the 49ers to victory against the Raiders and kept the starting job the rest of the way.

In Mullens’ 8 starts, the 49ers picked up first downs at a 37.80% rate and Mullens turned the ball over 10 times, the same amount of turnovers as Beathard had in almost half the amount of starts. That first down rate would have been most equivalent to the Seahawks, who finished 12th in first down rate. The 49ers still went just 3-5 in those 8 games, but that wasn’t really Mullens’ fault. Aside from those 10 turnovers, Mullens had 13 touchdowns and averaged 8.31 yards per attempt on 274 attempts.

The problem was the defense, which not only allowed opponents to move the chains at a 37.60% rate in those 8 games, but also collected just 2 takeaways (and a record low 7 takeaways on the season). The 49ers made significant moves this off-season to improve their defense (more on those later), but even if they hadn’t the 49ers would likely have more takeaways this season, just because of the randomness of takeaways. The 49ers didn’t have a particularly good defense in 2017 either, but still managed almost three times as many takeaways (20). That’s not that many takeaways (would have ranked 16th in the NFL in 2018) and if the 49ers can get that to that number in 2019 that alone should translate to a couple more wins for a team that lost 6 games by 8 points or fewer in 2018.

Add in the fact that Garoppolo should be ready for training camp and it’s not hard to see how the 49ers could make a big leap in wins in 2019, after going 4-12 in 2018. Not only did Mullens prove himself to be a capable long-term backup behind Garoppolo, but their offensive performance in his starts suggests that there’s a good deal of talent around the quarterback as well. Garoppolo is still pretty unproven, with just 10 career starts in 5 seasons in the league, and might not be 100% immediately in his return from injury, but there’s plenty of potential for this offense in 2019.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

The most talented player the 49ers have around Garoppolo is tight end George Kittle, who not only led the team in receiving yards with 1,377, but finished 8th in the league overall and set the record for most receiving yards ever in a season by a tight end, despite inconsistent quarterback play. Quarterbacks had a 101.3 QB rating on 136 targets thrown to Kittle, as opposed to 83.2 to other targets. An adequate blocker as well, Kittle finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #1 ranked tight end overall and is very much in the debate for top tight end in the league.

The 2017 5th round pick is a one-year wonder in terms of being a high level producer in the receiving game, but he showed a nice rapport with Jimmy Garoppolo down the stretch in 2017, finishing his rookie year with 15 catches for 224 yards and a touchdown in his final 5 games, which extrapolates to a 48/717/3 slash line over 16 games. With Garoppolo returning from injury, Kittle seems likely to produce at a high level again in 2018. He’ll be backed up by blocking specialist Garrett Celek, who caught just 5 passes on 277 snaps in 2018. Barring an injury to Kittle, Celek should serve in a similar role in 2019.

The 49ers will need more out of their wide receivers in 2019, after none of them topped 487 yards receiving last season. Kendrick Bourne led the way, but largely by default, as the 2017 undrafted free agent was their only wide receiver to play all 16 games and to run more than 300 routes. His 1.23 yards per route run average was underwhelming and he’s received borderline grades from PFF in each of his first two seasons in the league. He could continue playing a role in an unsettled receiving corps, but the 49ers used 2nd and 3rd round picks on wide receivers in the draft, taking South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel and Baylor’s Jalen Hurd, so Bourne also isn’t a lock for the final roster.

Second year receiver Dante Pettis has the best chance to lead this wide receiver group. He struggled with injuries early in his rookie year, but finished strong with 20 catches for 355 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 5 games, 64/1136/13 extrapolated over 16 games. The 44th overall pick in 2018, Pettis has obvious upside and could easily make a second year leap. He’s the closest thing the 49ers have to a #1 wide receiver right now.

The 49ers are also hoping for a healthier season from veteran Marquise Goodwin, who led them in receiving with a 56/962/2 slash line in 2017, but was limited to 23/395/4 in 11 games in 2018. Goodwin showed great chemistry with Jimmy Garoppolo down the stretch in 2017, catching 29 passes for 384 yards and a touchdown in 5 games, but he’s a one-year wonder in terms of producing at the level he did in 2017 (his 2nd highest receiving total in 6 years in the league is 431) and he’s been plagued by injuries for much of his career. He has some bounce back potential, but also could get lost in a more crowded receiving corps.

Goodwin will compete for playing time with Bourne and the two rookies, who both are pretty raw entering the league. Also in the mix is slot specialist Trent Taylor, who had a 43/430/2 slash line as a 5th round rookie in 2017, but struggled to earn playing time in 2018 and finished at 26/215/1, and veteran journeyman Jordan Matthews, who averaged 891 yards per season from 2014-2016, but has caught just 45 passes in 2 seasons since due to injury. Like Bourne, Taylor and Matthews are not locks for the final roster. It’s a much deeper receiving corps, but they lack a clear #1 wideout and will continue relying heavily on tight end George Kittle.

Grade: B

Running Backs

Another skill position player who made a big impact on offense for the 49ers last season is running back Matt Breida. Breida was expected to be the 49ers’ 3rd running back at best last season, but lead back Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL on the last play of training camp and Breida earned the lead back job by significantly outperforming veteran backup running back Alfred Morris, who averaged just 3.86 yards per carry on the season in 111 carries and had just 34 carries in the final 8 weeks of the season. For comparison, Breida averaged a whopping 5.32 yards per carry on his 153 carries, 2nd in the NFL among running backs with at least 150 carries. That’s despite the fact he spent most of the year dealing with leg injuries, which limited him to 14 games and prevented the coaching staff from giving him more than 17 carries in a game.

Even if Breida is healthier in 2019, he’s unlikely to average the same average per carry. Not only is it very tough to average 5+ yards per carry in back-to-back seasons (63 of the last 69 running backs to top 5 yards per carry on 150+ carries did not repeat the feat the following season), but a lot of Breida’s yardage came on long runs. He had 42.5% of his rushing yards on 14 carries of 15 yards or more and averaged just 3.32 yards per carry on his other 141 carries. In terms of carry success rate, he ranked just 30th out of 47 qualifying running backs. Something similar to the 4.43 YPC average he had in 2017, when he didn’t have a single of his 105 carries go for more than 33 yards, is more likely.

Fortunately, the 49ers shouldn’t have to rely on Breida as the lead back in 2019. Not only do they get Jerick McKinnon back, but the 49ers also signed veteran running back Tevin Coleman away from Kyle Shanahan’s former team the Atlanta Falcons this season. Coleman also had an impressive YPC average last season, averaging 4.79 yards per carry on 167 carries, but, like Breida, much of his yardage came on a few carries. He had 48.5% of his yards on his 15 longest carries and averaged just 2.71 yards per carry on his other carries, while ranking 37th out of 47 qualifying in carry success rate. Coleman has averaged 4.43 yards per carry on 132 carries per season in 4 years in the league, primarily as a backup to Devonta Freeman, but it’s concerning he wasn’t able to run away with the lead back job in Atlanta last season, despite an injury to Freeman that left the Falcons without another capable runner.

McKinnon, meanwhile, has averaged just 4.05 yards per carry in his career and is coming off of a major injury, but he ran behind a poor offensive line in Minnesota before coming to San Francisco and the 49ers clearly valued him highly last off-season, signing him to a 4-year, 30 million dollar deal that guaranteed him 12.5 million in the first year. His biggest value to the 49ers will be on passing downs. McKinnon had 51 catches as a part-time player in his last healthy season in Minnesota and the 49ers probably had visions of increasing that number in 2018 had he stayed healthy.

Matt Breida caught 27 passes last season and Tevin Coleman had a 31/421/3 receiving slash line in 2016 with Shanahan in Atlanta, but McKinnon is a different caliber player in the passing game. He should play the majority of passing snaps, with the running snaps likely being split between McKinnon, Breida, and Coleman based on performance. Unproven backs Jeff Wilson and Raheem Mostert, who flashed with 66 carries for 266 yards and 34 carries for 261 yards respectively in limited action in 2018, will also compete for a roster spot and 3rd round wide receiver Jalen Hurd, who is a former running back, could also see some carries in a Cordarrelle Patterson role. The 49ers have plenty of options, but lack a clear lead back. If Brieda and Coleman don’t have as many big carries as they had last season, the 49ers may struggle to average the 4.40 yards per carry (12th in the NFL) that they averaged last season.

Grade: B

Offensive Line

Part of the reason why the 49ers had success on the ground last season was their strong run blocking. They were not as good in pass protection, allowing 48 sacks (9th in the NFL), though that was partially the result of quarterbacks holding the ball too long. The 49ers return all 5 starters on the offensive line, so they could easily have similar play in 2019, but their depth might be tested a little bit more, after their starting 5 upfront missed a combined 1 game in last season.

One player who could take a leap forward in 2019 is right tackle Mike McGlinchey. The 9th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the 49ers traded Trent Brown for almost nothing to clear room for McGlinchey, which could have easily backfired, but McGlinchey played well enough as a rookie to make people forget about Brown. He was only adequate in pass protection, but was a strong run blocker and finished as Pro Football Focus’ 24th ranked offensive tackle in 2018. McGlinchey has Pro-Bowl upside and could easily take another step forward in 2019, though that’s obviously not a guarantee.

McGlinchey could end up at left tackle eventually, but for now veteran Joe Staley remains locked in on the blindside. Though he’s going into his age 35 season, Staley is still playing at a high level, finishing 6th among offensive tackles on PFF in 2018, his 7th straight season in the top-17 among offensive tackles on PFF (including 5 seasons in the top-6). His age is obviously becoming a concern and sometimes players lose it quickly, but he could easily have another strong season.

The 49ers are not quite as strong at guard as they are at tackle, but they have a pair of solid starters there as well. Left guard Laken Tomlinson was a bust as a first round pick of the Lions in 2015, struggling in 24 starts in 2 seasons in Detroit before the 28th overall pick was sent to the 49ers for a 2019 5th round pick during the 2017 off-season, but he has proven to be a late bloomer in San Francisco, making 31 of 32 starts and earning average grades from PFF in both seasons. The 49ers locked him up on a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his rookie contract last off-season and he should continue providing solid play at left guard.

At right guard, the 49ers were hoping Josh Garnett would prove to be a similar late bloomer, but the 2016 28th overall pick failed to lock down the starting job in training camp and ended up playing just 59 snaps on the season, while journeyman Mike Person made all 16 starts. Person was not bad, earning an average grade from PFF, but he’s started just 34 games in 8 seasons in the league and is now going into his age 31 season, so it’s possible 2018 will end up being the best season of his career. Still, he should be considered the heavy favorite to start over Garnett, who has not made a start since struggling through 11 starts as a rookie in 2016, when he finished 70th among 85 qualifying guards on PFF. Garnett missed all of 2017 with a knee injury and also dealt with foot injuries that caused him to be inactive for several games in 2018. With his 1.7 million dollar salary non-guaranteed, he’s not a lock for the final roster.

The weak point upfront for the 49ers last season was center, where Weston Richburg was a major disappointment. Signed to a 5-year, 47.5 million contract with 16.5 million guaranteed in the first year last off-season to solidify the center position, Richburg had the worst season of his 5-year career, finishing 33rd among 39 qualifying centers on PFF. Injuries were likely the culprit, as he had surgery on his knee and thigh this off-season. Richburg ranked 1st among centers on PFF in 2015 and 8th in 2016, so he has obvious bounce back potential, only in his age 28 season, but the injuries are starting to pile up for him. In addition to the knee injury that limited him in 2018, he was limited to 4 games by a concussion in 2017 and dealt with a hand injury for much of the 2016 season. It’s possible his best days are behind him, but he should be better in 2019 in 2018. This should remain a solid offensive line with all 5 starters returning. With Jimmy Garoppolo returning under center, this could easily be a top-10 offense in 2019.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

As mentioned earlier, the bigger problem for the 49ers for most of last season was their defense. Not only did they finish 21st in first down rate allowed, they somehow managed just 7 takeaways all season, fewest ever in a full length NFL season. That combined with CJ Beathard’s propensity to turn the ball over in his limited action led to the 49ers finished dead last in turnover margin at -25. The good news for them is turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a year-to-year basis. In fact, the past 10 teams with a turnover margin of -20 or worse, on average, had a turnover margin of +5 the following season.

The 49ers would likely force more takeaways in 2019 even without a boost of talent on defense (in 2017, they ranked 26th in first down rate allowed, but still managed a league average 20 takeaways), but the 49ers also spent significant resources on upgrading their defensive talent this off-season, armed with among the most cap space in the league and the #2 overall pick in the draft. They used that #2 overall pick on Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, who could have a big immediate impact on this pass rush, but he wasn’t even the biggest addition they made at the defensive end position this off-season.

The 49ers also sent a 2020 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for franchise tagged defensive end Dee Ford, who they then locked up on a 5-year, 85.5 million dollar extension. The Chiefs did not think Ford was a great fit for their new defensive scheme and did not want to give him a long-term extension, but he’s a worthwhile addition for a 49ers team that still has the 3rd most cap space in the league (about 35 million) as of this writing. His contract is also relatively low risk, with only 19.5 million total guaranteed in the first year, so the 49ers could move on him from next off-season if he regresses significantly.

Ford was one of the most productive edge rushers in the league last season, with 13 sacks, 19 hits, and 46 hurries on 563 pass rush snaps (13.9% pressure rate). He’s not nearly as good of a player against the run and has a concerning injury history, missing most of the 2017 season with a back injury, but the 49ers could play him off the ball as an outside linebacker in obvious running situations and he’s not a one-year wonder, totaling 10 sacks, 8 hits, and 35 hurries in 2016 as well.

Ford and Bosa are obvious upgrades on the edge for a team that had just 17 sacks off the edge in 2019. Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair led the way with 5.5 sacks each off the edge, but the former left as a free agent this off-season, while the latter profiles best as a rotational end. The 49ers used first round picks on defensive ends in 2015 and 2017, taking Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas respectively, but they combined for just 4 sacks in 2018 and have 9 sacks and 4 sacks respectively in their careers.

Armstead is a strong run stuffer at 6-7 292 and should continue seeing a significant role in base packages, but Thomas is reportedly on the trade block after the addition of Ford and Bosa. Thomas is still only going into his age 24 season and still has obvious upside, going 3rd overall just two years ago, but he doesn’t have a clear role on this defense right now. Like Armstead, Thomas is a bigger end at 6-3 280, so the 49ers could try him more frequently as an interior rusher to see if that jumpstarts his career. They are much deeper at defensive end this season than last season.

Grade: A-

Interior Defenders

Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is another former first round pick on this defensive line, going 7th overall in 2016, but unlike Armstead and Thomas, he has panned out. He had 12 of the team’s 37 sacks (22nd in the NFL) by himself last season and also added 10 hits and 31 hurries on 544 pass rush snaps, an 9.7% pressure rate, impressive for a player who lined up on the interior for almost all of his pass rush snaps. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 26th ranked qualifying interior defensive lineman overall and is no one-year wonder either, finishing 20th at his position in his 2nd season in the league in 2017 as well. Still only going into his age 25 season, his best days could easily still be ahead of him.

The other defensive tackle position next to Buckner is still unsettled. Earl Mitchell was nominally the starter last season, but he played just 363 mediocre snaps in 13 games and is no longer on the team. DJ Jones and Sheldon Day remain on the team, but they were equally mediocre snaps on 239 snaps and 275 snaps respectively and both have never played more than a rotational role in their career.

Veteran Cedric Thornton unretired this off-season and could play a role as well. He was once a strong run stuffer, but he struggled mightily in his final 2 seasons in the league before retiring last off-season. Now going into his age 31 season, it’s unclear if he can still contribute. The other defensive tackle spot next to Buckner figures to be handled by committee once again (with Solomon Thomas and Arik Armstead likely seeing snaps inside as well) and should remain a position of weakness.

Grade: B

Linebackers

The 49ers also made a big addition at linebacker this off-season, signing ex-Buccaneer linebacker Kwon Alexander to a 4-year, 54 million dollar deal that was the highest ever for an off ball linebacker until it was surpassed by CJ Mosley’s deal a few days later. Unlike the additions of Ford and Bosa, this signing is a bit head scratching. Not only was Alexander coming off of a torn ACL, but he’s never performed at the level the 49ers are paying him at, maxing out as Pro Football Focus’ 34th ranked off ball linebacker in 2016. He’s a great athlete and holds up well in coverage, but he misses far too many tackles, missing 70 in 3 seasons before last year’s lost year due to injury.

Alexander is still young, only going into his age 25 season, and obviously the 49ers believe his best days are ahead of him, but it’s unclear who the 49ers were bidding against that also would have paid Alexander over 13.5 million annually. The one good thing about his contract is that only 14.5 million is guaranteed in the first year, so if he struggles off of injury the 49ers can let him go next off-season and cut their losses.

That being said, Alexander should by default be an upgrade over the different players they tried at the middle linebacker position last season. Outside linebacker Fred Warner was their only every down linebacker last season and he should continue playing the vast majority of the snaps, staying on the field with Alexander in nickel packages. Warner was more of a snap eater than an impact player, playing 1060 of the 49ers’ 1073 defensive players snaps, but only earning an average grade from PFF overall. Warner was only a 3rd round rookie though and could easily get better going forward. He might not play quite as many snaps this season, with Alexander likely to stay on the field over him in dime packages, but he could easily play at a higher level.

Malcolm Smith is currently penciled in as the 3rd linebacker. Smith has been a disappointment since signing a 5-year, 26.5 million dollar contract with the 49ers two off-seasons ago though and is not a lock for the role, after being forced to take a pay cut down to 1.2 million to keep his roster spot. Smith showed promise in limited action earlier in his career in Seattle, even becoming the most unlikely of Super Bowl MVPs in a game in which he didn’t even play half the snaps, but he has always struggled in a larger role and that’s unlikely to change, now going into his age 30 season. 3rd linebackers come off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages and rarely play more than half the snaps anymore, so that could work to his benefit, but I would be surprised if he made much of an impact this season.

Other options that the 49ers have for the 3rd linebacker role including using Dee Ford as an off ball linebacker in base packages or starting 2017 7th round pick Elijah Lee, who was underwhelming on 476 snaps last season. With Alexander coming in as an every down linebacker, this linebacking corps is upgrade by default, but they will lack an impact player unless Alexander becomes the player they expect or Warner takes a big leap forward in his 2nd season in the league.

Grade: C+

Secondary

The secondary is the one area the 49ers did not address this off-season. They were widely expected to sign a starting safety in a deep safety class in free agency, but they didn’t end up signing anyone and did not address the secondary in the draft until the 6th round. Jaquiski Tartt is locked into one safety spot and he’s developed into an above average starter, after the 2015 2nd round pick struggled in his first 2 seasons in the league, but his durability is a concern, as he’s missed 15 of 32 games over the past 2 seasons with injury.

Without a starter being added in free agency, the starting job at the other safety spot is totally up for grabs. Marcell Harris, DJ Reed, Adrian Colbert, Tyvis Powell, Antone Exum, and Jimmie Ward all made starts last season and all except Powell are still on the roster, but none of them played particularly well, hence why they cycled through so many players. Ward has the most experience of the group, with 31 career starts, but he’s also injury prone (missing 29 of 80 games in his career) and the 49ers value his versatility more than his talent. In 5 seasons in the league, he’s received below average grades from PFF in 3 seasons, including 2017 and 2018. He may play some safety, but he can also play both outside cornerback and slot cornerback as well.

Adrian Colbert is probably the favorite for the other starting safety job, if only because he started the first 6 games of the season last year before missing the rest of the season with an ankle injury. Colbert struggled mightily in those 6 games, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ worst ranked safety, but he showed more promise as a rookie, when the 2017 7th round pick earned an above average grade on 320 snaps. Assuming he’s healthy, he has bounce back potential, but he’s no lock to keep his job if his struggles continue in training camp.

There have been rumors that the 49ers are going to move aging cornerback Richard Sherman to safety at some point in the future, rumors that Sherman basically confirmed himself, but at least for this season he seems likely to remain at cornerback, in his age 31 season. Sherman isn’t the player he was in his prime anymore, when he was arguably the top cornerback in the NFL, but he was still easily the 49ers’ top cornerback in 2018 and earned an above average grade from PFF for the 8th straight season. That’s despite the fact that he was coming off of a torn achilles and was never 100% all season, dealing with lingering leg issues. His durability is a serious question at this point, but if he’s healthier in 2019 that should be noticeable on the field.

At the other outside cornerback spot, starter Ahkello Witherspoon struggled mightily last season, finishing 128th among 131 qualifying cornerbacks on PFF. The 2017 3rd round pick was better as a rookie, finishing 41st among cornerbacks on 660 snaps, and has bounce back potential, but he’s not a lock to keep his starting job. Even with the 49ers not adding a top tier cornerback prospect in the draft, Witherspoon should still face competition from free agent acquisition Jason Verrett and 2018 3rd round pick Tarvarius Moore.

Verrett was only signed to a one-year deal that guaranteed him just 1 million (max value of 3.6 million), but he comes with a lot of upside. A first round pick in 2014, Verrett looked like one of the most promising young cornerbacks in the league at one point, finishing the 2015 season as PFF’s #2 ranked cornerback, but injuries have limited him to just 5 games in the 3 seasons since. Durability has always been a significant concern for him (even in 2015 he played just 14 games), as he’s played just 25 of a possible 80 games in 5 seasons in the league, thanks to multiple shoulder surgeries, multiple knee surgeries, and a torn achilles that cost him all of 2018.

Verrett is a worthwhile flyer, but he could easily just get hurt again and it’s unclear if he’ll ever regain his old form, now going on 28 years old and 4 years removed from that strong 2015 season. Moore also has upside, but managed to get on the field for just 232 snaps as a rookie. Perhaps he’ll make a leap from year 1 to year 2, but that’s hardly a given. Jimmie Ward is also probably in the mix for the other outside cornerback job, but he doesn’t have the same upside as Moore, Verrett, or Witherspoon.

Ward could be in the mix at slot cornerback as well, but K’Waun Williams is a solid slot specialist, earning above average grades from PFF in all 4 healthy seasons he’s been in the league (he missed 2016 after ankle surgery). The 49ers didn’t do much to address the secondary this off-season, but they have some bounce back candidates and they have players with upside.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

The 49ers should be significantly better on both sides of the ball this year, with Jimmy Garoppolo coming back from injury and talent being added on defense. The 49ers should also have a significantly better turnover margin, which is very significant for a team that actually finished last season 19th in first down rate differential, despite everything that went wrong (4th most adjusted games lost to injury in the league). Whether it’ll be enough to take the 49ers from 4 wins to the post-season is still a question, but they should be very much in the mix for a playoff spot.

It helps them that they are in a relatively weak division. The Seahawks continue to shed talent, while the Cardinals would likely need an All-Pro effort from rookie quarterback Kyler Murray to mask their other issues enough to make the post-season. Even the two time reigning NFC West champion Rams look vulnerable compared to a year ago, with Todd Gurley’s knee concerns and several off-season losses on both sides of the ball (including 2 starters on the offensive line). I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Team Score: 74.54*

Offensive Score: 76.03

Defensive Score: 73.04

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Los Angeles Rams 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

In two years since hiring Sean McVay as head coach, the Rams have gone from perennial cellar dwellers to NFC Champions. In McVay’s first ypear, he took this offense from the worst in the league (dead last in first down rate in both 2015 and 2016) to one of the best (9th in first down rate in 2017) and in the process helped turn Jared Goff from a shell-shocked rookie with a 63.6 QB rating to Pro Bowler who looks deserving of having been the #1 overall pick in 2016.

In 2018, Goff made the Pro Bowl again and the Rams were able to make a deeper playoff run after being eliminated in the first round in 2017, going all the way to the Super Bowl before falling short. In total, Goff has completed 63.6% of his passes for an average of 8.18 YPA, 60 touchdowns, and 19 interceptions in 31 starts over the past two seasons, while finishing 15th and 8th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He’ll be backed up by free agent signing Blake Bortles, who was a bust as the 3rd overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft by the Jaguars, completing just 59.3% of his passes for an average of 6.70 YPA, 103 touchdowns, and 75 interceptions in 73 starts (24-49), but still has the upside to be a capable backup, especially in McVay’s quarterback friendly system.

The one problem with Goff is his contract status. Now going into the 4th year of his rookie deal, this is the last year the Rams will have Goff at a significantly below market value price. His 5th year option for 2020 is worth 22.783 million and the Rams undoubtedly would have to pay even more than that annually to keep him long-term on an extension. The Rams have been aggressive adding talent in the short window they have Goff under contract inexpensively, even trading away premium draft picks in a few cases.

Last off-season, they sent a 2nd round pick to the Chiefs for cornerback Marcus Peters and a 1st round pick to the Patriots for wide receiver Brandin Cooks to replace free agent departure Sammy Watkins, who they gave up a 2nd round pick for the previous off-season. Peters hasn’t even been extended long-term yet and the Rams still already have 6 players under contract making 11 million or more annually.

It’s a smart strategy if pays off with a Super Bowl in the short window they can keep all this talent together, but in the long-term after Goff gets paid it causes a couple problems. Not only will they need to let some players go, the Rams also don’t have premium draft picks on cost controlled rookie deals coming in behind them. Between their trades for veterans and the aggressive move they had to make to get Goff #1 overall in the first place, the Rams have made just one other pick in the top-60 in their past 4 drafts. Trades down have allowed them to pick 33 times total in those drafts, but 24 of those picks have come in the 4th round or later, so they’re really banking on their scouting department’s ability to find diamonds in the rough and their coaching staff’s ability to coach them up. It might be a worthwhile strategy, but 2019 could be their last great shot at a Super Bowl for a few years.

Grade: B+

Offensive Line

The Rams have already had to let some players leave for financial reasons, as they return just three of five starters on the offensive line. Center John Sullivan was released ahead of a 5.25 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and left guard Rodger Saffold signed a 4-year, 44 million dollar deal with the Titans that the Rams simply did not have the financial flexibility to match. Sullivan is still available as a free agent, but his age is a major concern and he struggled more than he’s used to in 2018, so the Rams seem ready to turn the position over to 2018 4th round pick Brian Allen, who played just 37 snaps as a rookie. Allen could have growing pains in his first season as the starter, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to have a comparable season to Sullivan, who finished 34th among 39 qualifying centers in 2018.

Saffold is going to be the bigger loss, as he’s been a top-8 guard on Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons, excelling in pass protection, where he’s allowed just 4 sacks and 9 hits total in 31 starts. Like Sullivan, he’s expected to be replaced by a 2nd year player, 2018 3rd round pick Joe Noteboom (79 snaps as a rookie), but unlike Sullivan it’s hard to imagine Noteboom effectively replacing Saffold in his first season as a starter.

This is especially a concern because Jared Goff has seen his effectiveness drop significantly when pressured in his career. His completion percentage with a clean pocket ranked 9th in 2017 and 13th in 2018, but he fell to 35th out of 42 qualifying and 33rd out of 39 qualifying respectively when pressured. Goff has enjoyed good pass protection in each of the past two years, but he will probably be under fire more in 2019 and that could easily be noticeable in his completion percentage.

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth returns, but this could be his final season with the Rams and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he saw his play drop off. Signed to a 3-year, 33.75 million dollar deal two off-seasons ago, Whitworth has been a big part of the reason for the Rams’ offensive turnaround, finishing as PFF’s 7th and 4th ranked offensive tackle in 2017 and 2018 respectively, but he’s going into an age 38 contract year. Given that he was considering retirement this off-season, this is very possibly his last season in the NFL. The Rams planned for the future this off-season by drafting tackles in the 3rd round (Oklahoma’s Bobby Evans) and 5th round (Wisconsin’s David Edwards), but Whitworth will still be missed when he’s gone and if his play drops off this season it would have a noticeable effect on this offense.

The right side of the offensive line should be more stable, with both right guard Austin Blythe and right tackle Rob Havenstein returning after making all 16 starts in 2018. Blythe originally got an opportunity because Jamon Brown, their regular starter, was suspended for the first two games of the season, but Blythe played so well that he kept the job permanently, while Brown was eventually waived and ended up with the Giants. Blythe finished the season as PFF’s 12th ranked guard, so he was quietly one of the better interior offensive linemen in the league. The 2016 7th round pick is a one-year wonder, making just 2 starts in his first 2 seasons in the league, but he could easily have another strong season in 2019. If that’s the case, he may be too expensive for the Rams to keep next off-season as an unrestricted free agent.

Havenstein is already locked up long-term, as the Rams gave him a very fair 4-year, 32.5 million dollar extension last off-season, ahead of the final year of his rookie deal, and unlike Blythe he’s proven himself more than once. He’s made 59 of 64 starts in 4 seasons in the league and has earned an above average grade on PFF in all 4 seasons, including a career best #3 finish in 2018. Only going into his age 27 season. He’s the most dependable offensive lineman on a line that lost a pair of starters, has a one-year wonder at right guard, and a left tackle in his late 30s. This offensive line is also unlikely to not lose a single start due to injury, something they benefited from in 2019. If this offense isn’t quite as effective in 2019, it will likely be because their offensive line play declined.

Grade: B+

Running Backs

Another concern on this offense is the long-term durability of running back Todd Gurley’s knees. Gurley has been arguably the best all-purpose running back in the NFL over the past 2 seasons, totaling 2,556 rushing yards on 535 carries (4.78 yards per carry), 1,368 receiving yards on 123 catches (11.12 yards per catch), and 40 total touchdowns in 29 games. However, he has a history of knee issues dating back to college and had his usage cut drastically in the post-season, after missing a couple games with knee problems late in the season.

The Rams publicly don’t express concern about the long-term condition of Gurley’s knee, which is reportedly arthritic, but their off-season moves suggest they at least want good insurance in case he goes down again. They matched restricted free agent Malcolm Brown’s 2-year, 3.3 million dollar offer sheet from the Detroit Lions and then used a 3rd round pick on Memphis running back Darrell Henderson. Those two players could lessen Gurley’s workload, in an effort to keep him healthy later in the season.

An undrafted free agent in 2015, Brown has seen limited action in his career, averaging 4.02 yards per carry on just 128 carries in 4 seasons in the league and missing a golden opportunity to establish himself in Gurley’s absence last season because he was dealing with an injury of his own, but the Rams like him enough to keep him at an above minimum salary. He may ultimately end up being their 3rd running back this season, as Darrell Henderson is a great fit for this offense and can immediately serve in a change of pace role. The 5-8 208 pounder is faster even than his 4.49 40 time and was a dominant runner on outside zone runs (10.73 YPC the past 2 seasons), which the Rams run more than anyone. He and Brown would likely split carries if Gurley went down, but I expect Henderson to open the season the primary backup. This is a deep backfield, but Gurley’s injury concerns can’t be ignored.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

The unit with the least concern on this offense is this receiving corps, which could actually be better this season, with Cooper Kupp returning from a torn ACL. After a promising rookie year in which the 2017 3rd round pick put up a 62/869/5 slash line, Kupp looked on his way to a breakout 2nd season in the league with 30 catches for 438 yards and 5 touchdowns in his first 5 games (96/1402/16 over 16 games), before suffering his first knee injury against the Broncos. He returned a few weeks later, but was not the same and ultimately ended up suffering a season ender in week 10.

His absence was felt, as the Rams had a 48.58% first down rate in those first 5 games, as opposed to 39.07% the rest of the way. That’s still a good number, but they went from being most equivalent to the #1 ranked Kansas City Chiefs with him healthy to being most equivalent to the #9 ranked Atlanta Falcons when he got hurt. Kupp has also been Jared Goff’s most dependable target over the past 2 seasons, as he’s completed 68.0% of his 150 targets to Kupp for 1,435 yards, 11 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a 117.5 QB rating (98.0 QB rating to other targets).

Kupp is technically the Rams’ #3 receiver, but when he’s healthy the Rams use 3 receivers on almost every play, which is clearly their most effective package. The Rams’ receiving corps could be even better in 2019 if all three of their receivers are healthy, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Injuries are part of the game and the Rams did not have an extraordinary amount of injuries last season by any measure, finishing with the 4th fewest adjusted games lost to injury overall.

Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods are nominally their #1 and #2 receivers and both topped 1000 yards in 2018, putting up slash lines of 80/1204/5 and 86/1219/6 respectively. They were also both involved on end arounds, totaling 68 yards on 10 carries and 157 yards on 19 carries respectively. Cooks has now put up 1000+ receiving yards in each of the past 4 seasons and, while 2018 was Woods’ first 1000+ yard year, he’s shown signs of being this kind of player in the past, as he was on a 1000+ yard pace in 2017 before missing the final 4 games with injury and he had a 51/613/1 slash line in 13 games in 2016 on a very run heavy Bills offense.

With Cooks and Woods going into their age 26 and age 27 seasons respectively, both should continue playing at a high level. They might see their receiving stats dip a little bit, with Kupp coming back into the mix and shakier play on the offensive line forcing more incompletions, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three of the Rams’ wide receivers top 1000 yards if they can stay healthy enough. When everyone is healthy, the Rams like to run 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) on basically every snap, rather than changing things up by scenario, so all three receivers are every down players.

When one of their receivers is hurt, like Kupp was last year, they run more 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). The Rams’ #4 receiver Josh Reynolds was not an every down player as Kupp’s replacement, while #2 tight end Gerald Everett saw his snap count increase from 15.9 per game to 31.6 per game in the 8 games Kupp missed completely. That makes sense, as the 6-3 240 pound Everett is their primary pass catching tight end (262 routes run on 380 snaps), while the 6-6 255 Tyler Higbee is primarily a blocker (544 blocking snaps on 789 snaps) whose role didn’t change much with Kupp out.

Everett didn’t do much with the extra playing time though, managing just 20 catches for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns in those 8 games, as opposed to 13 catches for 144 yards and 1 touchdown in their other 8 games. On the season, he barely outproduced Higbee, who had a 24/292/2 slash line. Everett was the 44th overall pick in 2017, their only other top-60 pick besides Goff from their past 4 drafts, so the Rams are obviously hoping for a 3rd year leap from him. Even if he does make a leap, he’s still unlikely to be that productive because of his role.

With Kupp returning from injury, Everett will go back to a smaller role, as the lone tight end in obvious passing situations, while Higbee will be the lone tight end the rest of the time. Higbee is relatively young too, going in the 4th round in 2016, but he doesn’t have the same receiving upside as Everett because of his limited athleticism and will probably max out as a strong blocker, which is all the Rams really need him to be. Reynolds, meanwhile, is nothing more than a reserve when all three receivers are healthy, which is for the best as he’s an obvious drop off from their other three receivers. This is arguably the most talented receiving corps in the NFL.

Grade: A

Interior Defenders

In addition to the Rams’ losses on defense, they also lost a couple key players on defense, including defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh. Suh isn’t the player he was in his prime, but he still finished as Pro Football Focus’ 31st ranked interior defender and played 887 snaps, so he won’t be easy to replace. Suh is still available as of this writing, but the Rams have just about 6 million left in cap space and Suh is holding out for good money, so it’s unlikely they’ll be able to work out something to bring him back.

Assuming Suh does not return, the Rams will likely be replacing him with several players, as they didn’t add a replacement this off-season and don’t have an obvious one-to-one replacement on the roster. In base packages, he will likely be replaced by one of Tanzel Smart, Sebastian Joseph-Day, or Greg Gaines, who will compete for the nose tackle job in the Rams’ 3-4 defense. All three players have good size (6-1 300, 6-4 310, and 6-1 312 respectively), but they barely have any experience. Smart, a 6th round pick in 2017, is the only one with NFL experience and he’s played just 312 mediocre snaps. Joseph-Day was also a 6th round pick, but he didn’t play a snap as a rookie in 2018. Gaines, meanwhile, is a 4th round rookie. All three are complete projections to a larger role.

In sub packages, the Rams could give more playing time to Ethan Westbrooks (180 snaps in 2018) and could also use edge rusher John Franklin-Myers as an interior rusher more frequently. Westbrooks has been a rotational lineman for the Rams for 5 years, averaging 287 snaps per season, while John Franklin-Myers is a 2018 4th round pick who played 301 snaps as a rookie, primarily as an edge rusher, but has the size (6-4 288) to move inside. Neither player is particularly good, but Franklin-Myers at least has some upside.

Michael Brockers could also have a bigger role, but he already played 679 snaps last season and isn’t much of a pass rusher, so that’s not a great option. Brockers is a strong run stuffer, dominant at times, but he has a career 5.2% pressure rate in 7 seasons in the league and had just 1 sack, 2 hits, and 16 hurries on 370 pass rush snaps in 2018 (5.1%). For lack of a better option, the Rams will have to continue giving him significant pass rush snaps in 2019.

Fortunately, the Rams also have a back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year on the interior of their defensive front, which obviously elevates this whole group significantly. Aaron Donald has had some dominant years in the past, but he took that to a new level in 2018, totaling 20.5 sacks, 20 hits, and 65 hurries on 584 pass rush snaps, a ridiculous 18.2% pressure rate that not only led all interior defenders, but led all defenders across the board. He’s been PFF’s top ranked interior defender in each of the past 4 seasons, putting up a 16.3% pressure rate across those 4 seasons and also playing the run well. He took the title of the league’s best defensive player from JJ Watt a few years back and, still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, having never missed a game with injury, he could keep that title for another couple seasons at least. He’ll make everyone around him better by commanding frequent double teams, but this defensive line will still feel the absence of Ndamukong Suh.

Grade: A-

Edge Defenders

One free agent the Rams did bring back this off-season was Dante Fowler. With the Rams desperate for edge rush help, they sent a 2019 3rd round pick and a 2020 5th round pick to the Jaguars to acquire Fowler, a former high draft pick who had gotten buried on the depth chart in Jacksonville. Drafted 3rd overall in 2015, Fowler missed his entire rookie year with a torn ACL and made just one start in two and a half seasons before the Jaguars sent him to the Rams. He also served a one-game suspension at the start of the 2018 season for an off-the-field incident.

He showed enough as a pass rusher in limited action in Jacksonville (14 sacks, 11 hits, and 67 hurries on 868 pass rush snaps, a 10.6% pressure rate) that the Rams decided to take a chance on him, but he didn’t make much of an impact once he arrived, with 3.5 sacks, 6 hits, and 20 hurries on 363 pass rush snaps (8.2% pressure rate), including playoffs. One of those hits was a key play in the NFC Championship, but for evaluative purposes one snap doesn’t trump all other snaps. Despite his overall underwhelming play, the Rams decided to keep him this off-season, but they overpaid on a one-year deal, giving him 12 million.

Even if we assume Fowler, who is only going into his age 25 season, still has a lot of untapped potential, there isn’t much upside to this deal, as it’s only a one-year deal and, if he breaks out, they’d undoubtedly need to give him a higher average annual value on his next contract if they are going to keep him beyond 2019. There’s also plenty of downside with this deal, as Fowler is not worth a 12 million dollar salary if he continues playing like he’s played thus far in his career. It would be one thing if they gave him a 3-year deal that guaranteed him 12 million in the first year and gave the Rams a couple team options for 2020 and 2021 at a similar salary if he breaks out, but this is a bit of a head scratching deal.

Samson Ebukam remains as the other starter opposite Dante Fowler. A 4th round pick in 2017, Ebukam played 351 nondescript snaps as a rookie, before moving into a starting role in 2018 and playing 692 snaps. He wasn’t much better than his rookie year though, with just 3 sacks, 3 hits, and 26 hurries on 304 pass rush snaps. The Rams are hoping he can keep developing, but he doesn’t have a huge upside and will likely max out as a solid starter at best.

The Rams also added veteran Clay Matthews to the mix in free agency, signing the ex-Packer to a 2-year deal worth up to 9.25 million. Matthews was once one of the better edge defenders in the league, but his age (33 in May) and a variety of injuries have sapped his abilities. He played all 16 games in 2018, but was more or less a replacement level player and had just 3.5 sacks, 7 hits, and 19 hurries on 376 pass rush snaps (8.0% pressure rate)

It’s not a surprise that the Packers, his team for 10 seasons, weren’t that interested in bringing him back this off-season, opting instead to get younger at the position. He’ll play a rotational role with the Rams and is unlikely to match the 756 snaps he played last season. His addition pushes John Franklin-Myers to the 4th edge defender spot and could free him up to play more snaps inside as an interior rusher in sub packages. The Rams have a decent trio of edge defenders, but lack an obvious difference maker.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Rams also lost starting middle linebacker Mark Barron this off-season, but he was only worth a fraction of his 8 million dollar non-guaranteed salary and struggled mightily last season, finishing 85th out of 96 qualifying off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus. The Rams don’t have an obvious replacement for him though. 2018 5th round pick Micah Kiser is penciled in as the starter, but he played just one defensive snap as a rookie, so he’s a projection to a larger role.

Their only other real option is Bryce Hager, but the 2015 7th round pick has primarily been a special teams player to this point in his career, starting just 1 of 64 games on defense in 4 seasons in the league. This is an obvious position of weakness. Fortunately, the Rams like to use 3 safeties in sub packages, playing one closer to the line of scrimmage essentially as a linebacker. That’s something they could do even more of in 2019 with Barron gone.

Cory Littleton remains as an every down player at the other middle linebacker spot, following a mini-breakout year in 2018. Originally undrafted in 2016, Littleton made all 16 starts in 2018 after playing sparingly in his first 2 seasons in the league and earned an above average grade from PFF. He’s better in coverage than against the run, which he still has issues with, but, unless he proves to be a one-year wonder, he should be a useful part of this defense. He’s another player that the Rams will have to give a pay raise to keep beyond 2019, as he’s scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency next off-season. For now, he’s the best player in a thin linebacking corps.

Grade: C

Secondary

Even though the Rams went 13-3 last season, their defense struggled for most of the regular season and actually finished the regular season 26th in first down rate allowed. They were better when they had starting cornerback Aqib Talib healthy though, including in the post-season. In the 8 games he missed with an ankle injury, the Rams allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 43.29% rate, most equivalent to the worst ranked Kansas City Chiefs, as opposed to 33.18% in his 11 healthy games, most equivalent to the 5th ranked Jacksonville Jaguars, a really significant swing. Talib earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus for the 5th straight season, finishing 21st overall at his position, but his age is getting to be a concern, going into his age 33 season. Lacking a better option, the Rams will have to hope his abilities don’t have a sudden drop off, which is a possibility at his age.

Talib’s injury also coincided with an injury to fellow starting cornerback Marcus Peters, which is part of why they struggled so much in the games Talib didn’t play. Peters didn’t miss a game with injury, but played through a leg injury that was supposed to cost him 4-6 weeks and struggled mightily for about two months after sustaining the injury. Peters claims the injury is not to blame for his struggles, but it’s hard to believe that’s actually the case.

Peters was PFF’s 16th ranked cornerback in 2016 and their 14th ranked cornerback in 2017, but fell all the way to 100th out of 131 qualifying in 2018. He’s an obvious bounce back candidate and has all the motivation in the world to have a strong season, going into the final year of his rookie deal. If he can prove 2018 was a fluke, Peters will likely get paid among the top cornerbacks in the league by someone next off-season. The Rams are reportedly interested in locking him up long-term, but may need him to take a little bit of discount to keep him long-term, given their other financial commitments. Even after a down year, he may not give them a discount.

Nickell Robey-Coleman remains as the slot cornerback. The diminutive 5-8 180 pounder has struggled whenever he’s been counted on to play outside, but he’s one of the best pure slot cornerbacks in the NFL, earning above average grades from PFF in 3 straight seasons, including a 2018 season in which he was PFF’s 9th ranked cornerback on 556 snaps. He also had the 3rd fewest yards per coverage snap allowed on the slot among qualifying cornerbacks in 2018, allowing 0.71 yards per route run on 358 slot coverage snaps. He should continue excelling on the slot in 2019.

Reserve cornerbacks Sam Shields and Troy Hill both struggled mightily in Talib’s absence in 2018, but, while Hill is still on the roster, the Rams did use a 3rd round pick on Michigan cornerback David Long and he could easily be the 4th cornerback if he has a strong post-season. Considered a borderline first round pick by PFF, Long was a dominant cover cornerback in college and could prove to be a steal. With both Talib and Peters hitting free agency next off-season, he could easily become a starter in 2020 and, in the short-term, he gives them better insurance in case Talib or Peters miss time again.

At safety, the Rams lost LaMarcus Joyner, PFF’s 27th ranked safety in 2018, when he signed a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal with the Oakland Raiders, but the Rams did a good job of replacing him with Eric Weddle on a 2-year, 10.5 million dollar deal. Not only is that a much less expensive deal, but it doesn’t mess up the Rams’ compensatory pick formula because Weddle was released by his previous team. Weddle’s age is a concern (he turned 34 in January) and he reportedly considered retirement this off-season, but he actually played slightly better than Joyner last season, finishing as PFF’s 20th ranked safety with the Ravens.

Weddle’s best days are behind him and he could continue declining in 2019, but in his prime he was one of the best safeties in the NFL. A 12-year veteran, Weddle has earned an average or better grade from PFF in every season he’s been in the league, including 7 seasons in the top-5 at his position. He’s not the biggest name, but purely from a performance standpoint he deserves Hall of Fame consideration when all is said and done. The Rams are hoping he can continue to beat Father Time for another season.

Third year safety John Johnson remains the starter at the other safety spot and he looks like a budding star. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Johnson didn’t play much for the first few weeks of his career, but he’s made 27 straight starts and has finished 11th and 8th among safeties in the past 2 seasons respectively. Not even 24 until December, it’s possible his best football is still ahead of him and he could take another leap forward in 2019.

The Rams liked running three safety looks in obvious passing situations last season, to cover up for their lack of depth at linebacker, and that should remain the case again in 2019. Marqui Christian was their 3rd safety last year, but the Rams used a 2nd round pick on Washington safety Taylor Rapp and he figures to serve in that role this season. Rapp was a borderline first round talent, but concerns about his hip injury dropped him to the Rams at 61.

Assuming he’s healthy, he’ll fit perfectly as a 3rd safety behind Johnson and Weddle immediately and he’s likely viewed as Weddle’s eventual successor in the starting lineup. All three of the Rams’ safeties are versatile and can play in different spots (slot cornerback, linebacker), so we could see this trio on the field frequently in 2019. This secondary has the potential to be strong if their cornerbacks stay healthy, aging veterans like Aqib Talib and Eric Weddle continue playing well, and rookie Taylor Rapp’s hip injury turns out to be a non-issue. There’s some downside here, but this could be a much improved unit.

Grade: A-

Conclusion

The Rams should be Super Bowl contenders once again, but they are starting to leak talent, as they couldn’t afford to keep some key performers this off-season. They’ll have some big decisions to make next off-season, but for now they have enough talent to compete, even if they aren’t quite as good as 2018 on paper. They have a great coaching staff led by Sean McVay and legendary defensive coordinator Wade Phillips and if they continue to draft and develop like they have in recent years and some unproven players surprise, they could be better than they look on paper. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Team Score: 76.33*

Offensive Score: 78.12

Defensive Score: 74.53

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

Seattle Seahawks 2019 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

When the Seahawks were making Super Bowls, they were able to have as much talent as they had because they had a cheap quarterback on a rookie deal, with Russell Wilson making just 526k and 662k respectively in their two Super Bowl appearance seasons. Wilson eventually got a 4-year, 87.6 million dollar extension and that started to affect the rest of the roster. It’s not the only reason why the Seahawks haven’t been true contenders in recent years, as their drafts have not nearly been as good and they’ve had bad injury luck, but they haven’t had a ton of financial flexibility to add outside talent to plug holes. They made the playoffs last season, but were the worst ranked playoff qualifier in first down rate differential at -0.04% (18th in the NFL) and lost in their first game against the Cowboys.

Heading into the final year of that extension this off-season, Wilson signed a record 4-year, 140 million dollar extension with a 65 million dollar signing bonus and that has already started to have an effect on this roster, which has continued to shed talent this off-season. I’ll go more in detail on the players they’ve lost later, but all of this being said, it’s hard to argue Wilson doesn’t deserve to get paid this much if he wants to. The Seahawks didn’t have much of a choice but to keep their most important player, as Wilson is the biggest reason why this team has at least been contending for playoff spots in recent years. Letting him go next off-season was not a real option, as it would have meant totally resetting the team.

In 7 years in the league since the Seahawks got a steal in the 3rd round in the 2012 NFL Draft, Wilson has completed 64.2% of his passes for an average of 7.86 YPA, 196 touchdowns, and 63 interceptions, while rushing for 3,651 yards and 16 touchdowns on 645 carries (5.66 YPC). He’s earned an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in all 7 seasons, including 5 seasons in the top-8 and a 7th place finish in 2018. He’s also made all 112 starts over that time period and, still only going into his age 31 season, I see no reason to expect any sort of drop off from him in 2019.

The Seahawks will need him to continue to stay healthy because their backup quarterback situation is one of the worst in the league, with Paxton Lynch and Geno Smith, a pair of former high draft picks who have busted, competing for the backup job. Lynch, the 26th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Broncos, is one of the bigger quarterback busts in recent memory. Despite his high draft status, he had trouble getting on the field over the likes of Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler. When he actually got on the field, he showed why Siemian and Osweiler were playing over him, completing just 79 of 128 (61.7%) for 792 yards (6.19 YPA), 4 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions in just 4 starts, before the Broncos let him go last off-season, after just two seasons in Denver.

Lynch actually spent 2018 out of the league, taking a few tryout visits that never materialized into anything. Lynch is still only going into his age 25 season, but at this point even just winning the backup quarterback job in Seattle seems like a longshot. Geno Smith isn’t a great quarterback or anything, with a career 72.7 QB rating, but he’s at least experienced (31 career starts) and is good enough to be a backup somewhere. I would expect him to be the favorite for the job unless Lynch unexpectedly takes a big step forward. Either way, the Seahawks will be hoping Wilson can play all 16 games again.

Grade: A

Running Backs

Russell Wilson may be deserving of his massive salary based on pure talent, but given Wilson’s usage in this offense, it’s at least a little bit surprising they’d be willing to give him such a big contract. The Seahawks were one of the run heaviest team in the league last season, with their 534 run attempts being 2nd only to the Lamar Jackson led Ravens. Part of that is Wilson taking off, but even Wilson’s rushing attempts were down last year, as his 67 carries were a career low. After averaging 610 combined drop backs and carries in his first 6 seasons in the league, Wilson saw that number drop to 545 in 2018, lowest since his rookie season in 2012.

The Seahawks’ running game was effective in 2018, as they ranked 5th in the NFL in yards per carry at 4.79, so they will probably continue running this ultra-conservative offense in 2019, but it’s a bit of a strange move to pay someone 35 million dollars per year to be involved on only about half of the offensive snaps, especially given Wilson’s dual threat ability as a runner and a passer. It’s kind of like spending six figures on a nice car that you drive down the street to the store once a week.

In 2017, when the Seahawks struggled to run the ball, Wilson carried this offense, setting a career high with 691 combined drop backs and carries and accounting for 4,569 of the Seahawks’ 5,608 yards from scrimmage, a whopping 81.5%, easily the most in the NFL. That’s not an advisable strategy either, especially with the Seahawks now having more running back talent, but Wilson has proven time and time again he can handle anything you ask of him.

The Seahawks used a first round pick on San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny last year, expecting him to help turn around their running game, but he actually finished 3rd on the team in carries by a running back with 85. Instead, second year running back Chris Carson ended up making the biggest impact, rushing for 1,151 yards and 9 touchdowns on 247 carries (4.66 YPC), while finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 5th ranked running back overall.

A 7th round pick in 2017, Carson showed flashes of being this kind of running back as a rookie, rushing for 208 yards on 49 carries (4.24 YPC) in 4 games, before breaking his leg and going down for the season, but his breakout 2018 was still a pleasant surprise for this team. Injuries have been a concern for Carson since college, part of why he fell in the draft, and he missed another 2 games in 2018, so durability will likely continue being an issue for him going forward, but if he stays healthy he could easily have another strong season.

Mike Davis was actually 2nd on the team in carries, rushing for 514 yards and 4 touchdowns on 112 carries (4.59 YPC), but he signed with the Bears this off-season, opening the door for Penny to become the clear #2 back. Penny also ran well last season, rushing for 419 yards and 2 touchdowns on 85 carries (4.93 YPC), and the Seahawks clearly like his talent, using a premium draft pick on him, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if Penny earned his way into a more even timeshare with Carson. There will be plenty of carries to go around for both backs.

The one concern in this backfield is they lack an obvious passing down back. Mike Davis served in that role last season, catching 34 passes, while Carson and Penny managed just 20 and 9 respectively. Neither did much as a receiver in college either, so neither is a good fit for that role. The Seahawks have a few candidates, but JD McKissic is a converted wide receiver with just 86 career touches, CJ Prosise is a former 3rd round pick, but has played just 16 games in 3 seasons in the league, mostly due to injury, and 6th round rookie Travis Homer is too raw in pass protection to trust in passing situations as a rookie. None of those three backs are locks for the final roster. This will remain a run heavy team though, so the lack of a good passing down back isn’t as big of a deal.

Grade: A-

Receiving Corps

One key player the Seahawks lost this off-season was wide receiver Doug Baldwin. Baldwin was not let go for financial reasons though, as the 8-year veteran unfortunately could not continue his career due to a variety of injuries and retired ahead of his age 31 season. In an injury plagued 2018 season, Baldwin was not as productive (50/618/5 slash line in 13 games) as he was in his prime (78/1003/8 average slash line from 2014-2017), but he’ll still be missed and the Seahawks don’t have an obvious replacement.

Last year’s #3 receiver David Moore is a situational deep threat who caught less than 50% of his targets in 2018 and was a mere 7th round pick two years ago. The Seahawks were aggressive in adding receivers through this year’s draft, taking Mississippi’s DK Metcalf in the 2nd, West Virginia’s Gary Jennings in the 4th, and Hawaii’s John Ursua in the 7th round, but it’s unclear how much any of them will be able to contribute year 1.

Metcalf has the best chance to make a rookie year impact and he’s an athletic freak, but he’s not nearly as good moving laterally, which will likely limit his ability to run a full route tree. He’s a boom or bust prospect, so it wasn’t a huge surprise to see him slip to the end of the 2nd round. The Seahawks love having open competitions, so all three rookies will compete for jobs in 2 and 3 wide receiver sets with Moore and veteran career reserve Jaron Brown. That competition might not produce any particularly useful players in 2019 though.

Tyler Lockett is locked in as the clear #1 option and will likely see a higher target share, as well as more coverage, with Baldwin gone. Lockett was about as efficient as a pass catcher can be last season, catching 57 of 70 targets for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns. When you include the fact that none of those targets were intercepted, Wilson had a perfect 158.3 QB rating when throwing to Lockett last season, the only quarterback/receiver combo in the league to do so.

His overall receiving totals aren’t that impressive, but they came on just 459 routes run on one of the most conservative offenses in the league and he ranked 18th among qualifying wide receivers in yards per route run at 2.10. He also added another 69 yards on 13 end around carries, as the Seahawks like to make use of his speed in any way possible. The Seahawks locked him up on a 3-year, 30.75 million dollar extension last off-season that seemed like an overpay at the time because he hadn’t proven himself at that level yet, but it’s hard to argue it’s an overpay in hindsight, especially with the Seahawks losing Baldwin.

A 2015 3rd round pick, Lockett showed signs of being the kind of player he was last season in the past, but he dealt with injury issues and never put it together consistently before 2018, when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 23rd ranked wide receiver. He’s a perfect fit for Russell Wilson and this offense, as the goal of this offense is to run the ball and then throw deep off play action. Wilson had the 3rd highest QB rating in the league last season off play action (126.0) and Lockett was a big part of that. In the prime of his career in his age 27 season, Lockett could easily have another strong season in 2019, though he probably won’t be as efficient without Doug Baldwin drawing coverage opposite him. He’s now by far the biggest receiving threat that defenses need to worry about.

The Seahawks don’t have any real receiving threats at tight end either. Third year tight end Nick Vannett led the way with a 29/269/3 slash line and played 528 snaps in 15 games, while veteran Ed Dickson had just a 12/143/3 slash line and played 364 snaps in 10 games. Vannett was a third round pick in 2016, but he’s never shown himself to be much of a receiving threat, while Dickson has averaged just 21 catches per season in 9 years in the league and is now going into his age 32 season.

Last year’s 4th round pick Will Dissly is expected to return from injury and he had a 8/156/2 slash line in 4 games last season before getting hurt, but 66 of those yards came on one play and he wasn’t a receiving threat in college, getting drafted primarily for his blocking ability at 6-4 265. He wouldn’t be the first tight end to become a better receiver in the NFL, but he had limited athleticism (4.87 40) even before suffering a brutal torn patellar tendon last season. He’s the wild card of the group, but I wouldn’t expect much from him as a pass catcher. This is a limited receiving corps with Baldwin retiring.

Grade: C

Offensive Line

Seattle’s offensive line is also a problem, as it has been for years. They’re better in run blocking than they are in pass protection, so the switch to a run heavier offense helped this unit, but they still allowed 51 sacks, 8th in the NFL, and Russell Wilson was pressured on 39.7% of his drop backs, 6th among qualifying quarterbacks. They are still better than they’ve been in recent years though and they had a lot more consistency upfront, with 4 offensive linemen making at least 15 of 16 regular season starts. They also return 4 of 5 starters upfront in 2019.

Only one of those starters (left tackle Duane Brown) earned an above average grade from PFF in 2018 though. Brown was acquired by the Seahawks in the middle of the 2017 season, with the Seahawks sending a 2018 3rd round pick and a 2019 2nd round pick to the Texans for Brown and a 2018 5th round pick. The Seahawks also gave Brown a 3-year, 34.5 million dollar extension last off-season to keep him long-term, but he’s been worth it so far, immediately stabilizing the left tackle position and then finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked offensive tackle overall in 2018. His age (34 this season) is becoming a concern, but he’s finished in the top-17 at his position on PFF in 8 of the last 9 seasons and could easily have another couple solid seasons left in the tank.

He’ll likely start next to the lone newcomer on this offensive line, free agent addition Mike Iupati, who is expected to replace free agent departure JR Sweezy at left guard. Sweezy was PFF’s 82nd ranked guard out of 88 qualifying last season, so it wouldn’t be hard for Iupati to be an upgrade, but he’ll need to stay healthy, which has been an issue for him in recent years. He hasn’t played all 16 games since 2012 and has missed 30 games with injury in 6 seasons since, including 6 games missed last season with back and knee problems. Now going into his age 32 with a long injury history, his best days are almost definitely behind him, but he’s a good fit for this offense if he’s healthy because his strength has always been blocking. In his prime, he was one of the best run blockers in the league, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked run blocking guard as recently as 2015.

If Iupati gets hurt again, the Seahawks would likely turn to Ethan Pocic. Pocic was a 2nd round pick in 2017, but struggled mightily in 11 rookie year starts (83rd out of 92 qualifying guards on PFF) and was limited to 4 very underwhelming spot starts as an injury replacement in his 2nd season in the league in 2018. Only going into his age 24 season, Pocic theoretically has untapped potential, but the Seahawks seem to prefer him as a swing reserve. He has the ability to play both guard spots and center (and he played some tackle in college), but doesn’t play any of those positions particularly well.

Pocic could be an option at right guard, where veteran DJ Fluker is a mediocre starter, but Fluker seems like the heavy favorite for now. Despite finishing as PFF’s 72nd ranked guard out of 88 qualifying last season, the Seahawks re-signed him to a 2-year, 6 million contract this off-season as a free agent. He’s experienced, with 74 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, but he’s never been more than an average starter and that’s unlikely to change in 2018. Justin Britt is locked in at center, so Pocic isn’t an option there, but Britt hasn’t been quite as good since his breakout 2016, when he finished 12th among centers on PFF. The Seahawks gave him a 3-year, 27 million dollar extension after that season, but he’s finished below average in both seasons since, including 29th out of 39 qualifying centers in 2018.

Right tackle Germain Ifedi rounds out this offensive line. A first round pick in 2016, Ifedi has made 44 of 48 starts in 3 seasons in the league, but he has struggled and has only kept his starting job for lack of a better option, finishing in the bottom-10 at his position in all 3 seasons in the league. Not only has he struggled as a blocker, but he’s also committed 39 penalties in 3 seasons, including a ridiculous 19 penalties in 2017. The Seahawks declined his 5th year option for 2020, even though it was guaranteed for injury only, and while he’ll likely remain a starter in 2019, this could easily be his last season in Seattle.

The Seahawks also use 6 man offensive lines somewhat frequently, bringing swing tackle George Fant in as a blocking tight end. They almost always run out of this formation, running the ball on 202 of 215 plays with Fant at tight end, but he did catch one pass for nine yard on one of the 13 pass plays. Fant is a former blocking tight end that the Seahawks converted into an offensive lineman. He struggled in the first 10 starts of his career in 2016 (all at left tackle), finishing 83rd out of 86 qualifying offensive tackle on PFF, before missing all of 2017 with injury and moving into his new role as a 6th offensive lineman in 2018.

Fant did make a couple starts at right tackle down the stretch in 2018 due to injury and held his own, so perhaps he’ll push Ifedi for his starting job at right tackle in training camp. Blocking tight end is probably his best role though and he still gets plenty of action in that role in this offense. Like the rest of this offensive line, Fant can push guys around as a run blocker, but they should continue struggling mightily in pass protection.

Grade: C+

Edge Defenders

The Seahawks had solid offensive play in 2018, finishing 12th in first down rate at 37.45%, but this defense has fallen pretty significantly from their dominant units a few years, finishing last season 19th in first down rate allowed at 37.49%. Overall, they were 18th in first down rate differential at -0.04%. They were able to make the playoffs because of a league best +15 turnover margin, but turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a year-to-year.

Russell Wilson isn’t suddenly going to start throwing a bunch of interceptions, but they were only +5 in interceptions, as opposed to +10 in fumbles. That’s in large part because of a 63.64% fumble recovery rate, 2nd in the NFL. They only lost 4 fumbles all season, despite running the ball on 534 snaps, but they fumbled 18 times total. They are unlikely to have that good of luck again and should commit more turnovers as a result. A lack of turnovers was a big part of why their defense played the 3rd fewest snaps in the league (behind Carolina and Detroit), which made their defense look better than it was.

The Seahawks also lost some key contributors on defense this off-season, most notably defensive end Frank Clark. Clark was one of the better edge defenders in the league in 2018, finishing as Pro Football Focus’ 21st ranked edge defender and totaling 14 sacks, 12 hits, and 38 hurries on 463 pass rush snaps (13.8% pressure rate). He’s not a one-year wonder either, but the Seahawks probably wouldn’t have been able to keep him and still extend Russell Wilson and a couple other starters on this defense, like defensive tackle Jarran Reed and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, so they franchise tagged him and traded him to the Chiefs for a good haul, including a 2019 first round pick (29th overall) and a 2020 2nd round pick.

They may have gotten a good return, but he will definitely be missed in the short-term. The Seahawks didn’t have another edge defender with more than 3 sacks last season. Quinton Jefferson started opposite Clark last season, playing 558 snaps total, but he was underwhelming, particularly as a pass rusher. The 6-4 291 pounder is also not a true edge defender, seeing snaps both inside and outside last season. Last year was the first significant action of the 2016 5th round pick’s career and I don’t expect much more from him in 2019. He should play a similar role as a base package end and a versatile rotational piece on this defensive line.

Second year defensive end Rasheem Green should have a bigger role in Clark’s absence, but he struggled mightily on 201 snaps as a rookie, finishing as one of PFF’s lowest ranked edge defenders. He had just 1 sack and 6 hurries all season on 120 pass rush snaps. The 2018 3rd round pick still has upside and could take a step forward in his 2nd season in the league, but his career is not off to a good start and he certainly wouldn’t be the first 3rd round pick who didn’t develop into a long-term starter.

The Seahawks also added a trio of edge defenders this off-season, in an attempt to replace Clark. They used the first round pick they got from the Chiefs on TCU defensive end LJ Collier and also added veterans Ezekiel Ansah and Cassius Marsh in free agency. Collier was not widely considered a first round prospect, but he wasn’t a huge reach either and could have a rookie year impact. Marsh, meanwhile, is a rotational player at best, who set a career high with 550 snaps last season, but finished 93rd out of 113 qualifying edge defenders on PFF.

Ansah has the best shot to replace Clark in the short-term. That would require him getting healthy and staying healthy though, which is far from a guarantee. Ansah was a productive pass rusher from 2014-2017, totaling 36 sacks, 67 hits, and 114 hurries on 1,561 pass rush snaps (13.9%), while earning an above average grade from PFF in all 4 seasons. The Lions franchise tagged him last off-season, but concerns about his long-term durability, after he missed 5 games from 2016-2017 and was limited in others, led the Lions to not extend him long-term, which proved to be wise.

Ansah played just 146 snaps in 2018 due to shoulder problems and is not expected to be back until training camp at the earliest after off-season surgery, which is why he didn’t sign anywhere until May and got just 6 million guaranteed on a deal worth up to 9 million, just a year after being given a 17.143 million dollar franchise tag. He has bounce back potential, but he’s also going into his age 30 season and could be starting to fall apart. He’s worth the risk for a team that desperately needs a difference maker off the edge, but there’s no guarantee the risk pays off. The Lions will try to replace Clark by committee and will likely have a weaker group of edge defenders as a result, unless a couple young players breakout and Ezekiel Ansah stays healthy and turns back the clock.

Grade: B-

Interior Defenders

With Frank Clark gone, defensive tackle Jarran Reed is now their top defensive lineman and, going into the final year of his rookie deal, the Seahawks will likely give him a big extension this off-season. Reed had a strong 2018 season, totaling 10.5 sacks, 13 hits, and 26 hurries, a very impressive 10.3% pressure rate from the interior, but he wasn’t as good against the run and the 2016 2nd round pick is a one-year wonder, earning middling overall grades from Pro Football Focus in his first two seasons in the league, while combining for just 3 sacks, 9 hits, and 22 hurries on 546 pass rush snaps (6.2%). The Seahawks are banking on him continuing his strong play and not proving to be a one-year wonder, but the contract they ultimately give him may be a little bit much for a player who hasn’t proven it consistently yet.

Shamar Stephen was the other starting defensive tackle last season, but he’s no longer with the team. He struggled for most of the season, but the Seahawks lack a clear replacement. Third year player Nazair Jones is expected to get the first shot at the starting job and the Seahawks will obviously be hoping the 2017 3rd round pick takes a step forward in 2019. He hasn’t shown much in two seasons in the league though, playing just 416 mediocre snaps combined across the two seasons.

Jones is more of a pass rusher than a run stuffer, so he’ll probably split snaps even if he does win the starting job. Poona Ford and Al Woods are candidates to see snaps in base packages as a run stuffer. Despite going undrafted, Ford showed a lot of promise as a run stuffer in limited action (231 snaps) as a rookie and is deserving of a larger role in 2019. Woods, meanwhile, has been a solid run stuffer for years, but is now going into his 32 season and could be nearing the end. Neither player offers much as a pass rusher. It’s very possible all three players split snaps inside next to Reed. Barring a breakout season from Ford or Jones, the other defensive tackle spot inside next to Jarran Reed should continue being a weak point.

Grade: B

Linebackers

Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is also expected to be extended at some point this off-season now that the Seahawks have moved on from Clark. Wagner has been arguably the best off ball linebacker in the NFL in recent years, finishing in the top-6 at his position on Pro Football Focus in all 3 straight seasons, including back-to-back seasons as their highest ranked off ball linebacker, and he’s still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season, so the Seahawks can’t afford to lose him.

To keep Wagner, the Seahawks will likely have to top the 5-year, 85 million dollar deal CJ Mosley received from the Jets in free agency this off-season. Wagner is a few years older, but he’s a much more dynamic player, as Mosley has his struggles in coverage. Outside of Russell Wilson, Wagner might be their most important player on the roster. He’s one of just a few players still remaining from their Super Bowl defenses and he’s easily the best.

Fellow linebacker KJ Wright is also still on the roster from those dominant defenses, though he had a lost 2018 season due to a knee injury that limited him to 223 snaps in 5 games. Wright was a top-30 off ball linebacker on PFF for 5 straight seasons prior to 2018, maxing out at #5 in 2015, so he has bounce back potential, but he’s also going into his age 30, so he could be slowing down. The Seahawks brought back him on a 2-year, 14 million dollar contract as a free agent this off-season, but they also might have drafted his long-term replacement in the 3rd round, when they took Utah’s Cody Barton.

For now, Barton will provide insurance behind Wright and compete for the other outside linebacker role, which plays less than half the snaps and comes off the field for a 5th defensive back in sub packages. Barkevious Mingo played the 2nd most snaps by a Seattle linebacker in Wright’s absence in 2018 and will compete for the 3rd linebacker job, but he struggled last season and has been a mediocre player throughout his career, so he’d be an underwhelming option, even in a pure base package role. Owed 4.2 million non-guaranteed plus incentives, Mingo will likely be let go if he can’t lock down a starting job, as his salary is too rich for a backup.

The Seahawks are hoping Mychal Kendricks can play this season and he’ll likely be the 3rd linebacker if he can, but he faces an uncertain legal future. Kendricks pled guilty to insider trading last summer and, while he’s already served his 8-game suspension from the NFL, he has yet to be sentenced and could get multiple years in prison, which would obviously make him unavailable for the 2019 season.

The Seahawks gave him a 1-year, 4.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but none of it is guaranteed, so they can move on without penalty if he can’t play. Kendricks is an experienced veteran with 77 career starts who is theoretically still in the prime of his career in his age 29 season and he’s more than qualified for a base package role (he’s always played best against the run), but none of that will matter if he’s in prison. With Wright returning and depth added through the draft, this should be an improved linebacking corps even if Kendricks can’t play.

Grade: A-

Secondary

No unit on this roster has seen more changes in recent years than the secondary. The last remaining member of the Legion of Boom, Earl Thomas, signed with the Ravens this off-season, with the Seahawks unwilling to meet his financial demands. Cornerback Richard Sherman was shown the door last off-season, coming off of a torn achilles and owed 11 million non-guaranteed, while Kam Chancellor was forced into retirement last off-season by a serious neck injury.

Thomas missed most of last season with a broken leg though and the Seahawks had solid safety play in his absence, so the loss that could affect this team more in 2019 is the loss of slot cornerback Justin Coleman, who signed a 4-year, 36 million dollar deal with the Detroit Lions this off-season. Coleman isn’t nearly as big of name as the former Legion of Boom players, but he’s been one of the better slot cornerbacks in the league over the past 2 seasons, finishing 32nd on Pro Football Focus in overall coverage grade in 2017 and then 19th in that measure in 2018.

The Seahawks don’t have an obvious replacement on the roster, but they did use a 2nd round pick on Utah safety Marquise Blair, who can also cover the slot. Starters Bradley McDougald and Tedric Thompson are probably locked into their jobs, but the Seahawks could use 3 safety looks frequently to mask their lack of depth at cornerback, so Blair could still have a big rookie year role. Free agent acquisition Jamar Taylor is currently penciled in as the 3rd cornerback, but he’s struggled throughout his 6-year career, with the exception of a solid 2016 season, so he’s an underwhelming option and may not even be a roster lock, only guaranteed 25k at signing.

McDougald is their best safety, finishing a career best 32nd among safeties on PFF in 2018. A 6-year veteran with 61 career starts, McDougald has played better every season in the league and is still very much in the prime of his career in his age 29 season. He should continue giving them above average safety play and is a steal on the 3-year, 13.5 million dollar deal the Seahawks gave him last off-season. Thompson, meanwhile, is a 2017 4th round pick that got his first starting action in Thomas’ absence last season. He wasn’t great, but he played well enough for the Seahawks to continue starting him and he could keep developing, only in his 3rd year in the league. He might have to compete with Blair for the starting job, but all three safeties should see significant action.

Shaq Griffin and Tre Flowers are locked in as the starting outside cornerbacks, after starting 16 games and 15 games respectively in 2018. A 3rd round pick in 2017, Griffin showed a lot of promise as a rookie, but took a step back in his 2nd season in the league, finishing below average on PFF. Flowers, meanwhile, went in the 5th round in 2018. The 6-3 203 converted safety has the size the Seahawks love in a cornerback and he did a great job against the run, but was also inconsistent in coverage. Both players could take a step forward in coverage in 2019, but that’s not a guarantee. This is far from the Seahawks’ once dominant secondary and this defense as a whole has gotten much worse in recent years as well.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

The Seahawks made the post-season in 2018, but they needed a league best +15 turnover margin to do so and turnover margins are incredibly inconsistent on a year-to-year basis. If the Seahawks hadn’t had such great luck recovering their own fumbles, they could have easily been about an 8-8 team last season. Add in some key defensive losses and the loss of wide receiver Doug Baldwin and this is a team that isn’t even as talented as last year’s squad. Pete Carroll is one of the better head coaches in the league and his team could overachieve their talent level once again, but even if they do that it might not be enough for them to qualify for the post-season again. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in NFC West

Team Score: 73.76*

Offensive Score: 75.80

Defensive Score: 71.71

*team score is based on a weighted average of individual player grades (certain positions valued higher than others, score out of 100)

2019 2nd round NFL Re-Mock

  1. Arizona Cardinals – OT Cody Ford (Oklahoma)

 

Cody Ford was expected to go off the board on day 1. He would make sense for the Cardinals, who need to protect Kyler Murray better than they protected Josh Rosen. Teams that take a quarterback in the first round unsurprisingly usually use their next pick on another offensive player.

 

  1. Indianapolis Colts – WR AJ Brown (Mississippi)

 

I had the Colts taking AJ Brown at 26 in my mock yesterday. They moved out of that pick, but could still target Brown at 34. He’ll fill a big need for them as a long-term complement to TY Hilton.

 

  1. Oakland Raiders – TE Irv Smith (Alabama)

 

The Raiders have next to nothing at the tight end position. I thought they might address this position with one of their three first rounders, but they can still do so at 35 with Irv Smith, who many expected to go in the first.

 

  1. San Francisco 49ers – CB Byron Murphy (Washington)

 

The 49ers need cornerback help and could have their pick of three cornerbacks (Byron Murphy, Greedy Williams, and Rock Ya-Sin) who many expected to go in the first round. DeAndre Baker was the only first round cornerback this year, but some preferred Murphy as the top cornerback in the draft.

 

  1. Seattle Seahawks – CB Greedy Williams (LSU)

 

The Seahawks are another team with a cornerback need that could address it in the early second round. I had the Seahawks taking Greedy Williams at 21 in my mock draft yesterday and he continues to make sense for them.

 

  1. Jacksonville Jaguars – OT Jawaan Taylor (Florida)

 

The Jaguars were linked to Jawaan Taylor with the 7th pick, but Josh Allen fell to them and Taylor ended up falling out of the first round entirely, due to injury concerns. He may not last long on day 2 though and the Jaguars fill a big need by drafting him.

 

  1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – OLB Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech)

 

The Buccaneers could use more edge rush depth, with both Carl Nassib and Shaq Barrett set to hit free agency next off-season. Jaylon Ferguson is a player the Buccaneers have shown a lot of interest in and he should come off the board sometime in the 2nd round.

 

  1. Buffalo Bills – CB Rock Ya-Sin (Temple)

 

Rock Ya-Sin is another cornerback who easily could have gone in the first round. The Bills took fliers on Kevin Johnson and EJ Gaines in free agency as potential starters opposite Tre’Davious White at cornerback, but both players are injury prone and on one-year deals. Rock Ya-Sin can be a long-term starter.

 

  1. Denver Broncos – QB Drew Lock (Missouri)

 

The Broncos clearly weren’t eager to address the quarterback position in the first round, but if they really like Drew Lock as has been rumored they might still be able to him in the 2nd round. The Broncos have talked up Joe Flacco since acquiring him, but they didn’t give much up to get him and it’ll be hard to justify paying him 44.5 million between 2020-2021 when the Broncos could take a development quarterback to start long-term instead.

 

  1. Cincinnati Bengals – MLB Mack Wilson (Alabama)

 

Everyone knew the Bengals wanted to take Devin Bush at 11 in the first round, which is why the Steelers moved up to 10 to take him instead. The Bengals can address their linebacker need on day 2 with a lesser prospect.

 

  1. Detroit Lions – CB Lonnie Johnson (Kentucky)
  2. Green Bay Packers – WR DK Metcalf (Mississippi)
  3. Los Angeles Rams – C Erik McCoy (Texas A&M)
  4. Indianapolis Colts – DT Dre’Mont Jones (Ohio State)
  5. Carolina Panthers – S Juan Thornhill (Virginia)
  6. Miami Dolphins – C Elgton Jenkins (Mississippi State)
  7. Cleveland Browns – CB Sean Bunting (Western Michigan)
  8. Minnesota Vikings – CB Trayvon Mullen (Clemson)
  9. Tennessee Titans – OLB Jachai Polite (Florida)
  10. Denver Broncos – WR Deebo Samuel (South Carolina)
  11. Philadelphia Eagles – WR Parris Campbell (Ohio State)
  12. Houston Texans – CB JoeJuan Williams (Vanderbilt)
  13. Houston Texans – RB Damien Harris (Alabama)
  14. New England Patriots – QB Will Grier (West Virginia)
  15. Philadelphia Eagles – RB Darrell Henderson (Memphis)
  16. Dallas Cowboys – TE Dawson Knox (Mississippi)
  17. Indianapolis Colts – MLB Te’Von Coney (Notre Dame)
  18. Los Angeles Chargers – OT Greg Little (Mississippi)
  19. Kansas City Chiefs – CB Julian Love (Notre Dame)
  20. New Orleans Saints – WR JJ Arcega-Whiteside (Stanford)
  21. Kansas City Chiefs – S Kacey Gardner-Johnson (Florida)
  22. New England Patriots – DT Isaiah Buggs (Alabama)

2019 NFL Mock Draft

Updated 4/25/19

 

1. Arizona Cardinals – QB Kyler Murray (Oklahoma)*

I can’t remember a draft with this kind of uncertainty. I don’t just mean the #1 pick either, which I’ll get to later. No one knows where any of the quarterbacks as going and only Kyler Murray, seemingly a top-4 lock at the very least, has any sort of clear range. You have to figure the quarterbacks will go earlier rather than later, as teams get desperate and trade up, but all quarterbacks have obvious warts, even Kyler Murray, the 5-10 one-year college starter (and Heisman winner).

Defensive players figure to fly off the board early, especially defensive linemen, but a pair of defensive linemen, Rashan Gary and Montez Sweat have serious injury concerns, that also might not be injury concerns at all. Rashan Gary’s shoulder reportedly has been flagged by some teams, who believe he may need shoulder surgery that would likely wipe out his rookie season in the NFL. Other teams seem to think he can play through the injury and get the operation after the season. Montez Sweat, meanwhile, had his heart flagged at the combine and seemed likely to fall out of the first round, but a draft day report broke earlier today that Sweat’s enlarged heart may have been misdiagnosed and that some teams don’t believe it’s an issue at all.

On to the #1 pick, we are less than an hour away from the start and we don’t even have confirmation on who is going number one. The Cardinals are playing their cards very close to the vest, even reportedly reaching out to the representation for all three of Kyler Murray, Nick Bosa, and Quinnen Williams as recently as today. It’s unlikely they’re actually uncertain who they are picking at this point, but they clearly see the value in trying to get a team to give them a monster offer to trade up to #1.

Barring that trade coming through, I still think Kyler Murray is the most likely option (and if the trade were to come through, Murray would likely be taken #1 by whoever moves up). There have been some reports in the past week that they aren’t as sold on Murray as people believe, but at this point in the process I’m much more inclined to go with what has been the consensus for the past 2 months, rather than believing a few contrarian reports that come out the week before the draft, when many reports are fake.

Taking a quarterback in the first round for the second straight year would make them just the 2nd team to do so in the last 50 years, with the only other instance being when the Colts drafted and subsequently were forced to trade John Elway after losing their previous first round pick Art Schlichter to a gambling suspension. Prior to that, most instances of taking quarterbacks in back-to-back first rounds came in the 60s, when the NFL had to compete with the AFL for collegiate talent.

The Cardinals taking Murray a year after trading up to draft Josh Rosen in the first round would be an unprecedented move in the modern era, but the Cardinals have shown they are willing to make unorthodox moves, with their hiring of Kliff Kingsbury, who they hired after sticking with Steve Wilks for just a year, and Kingsbury is known to be in love with Kyler Murray as a prospect. Josh Rosen can likely be flipped on day 2, allowing the Cardinals to recoup some of the draft picks they used to acquire him.

2. San Francisco 49ers – DE Nick Bosa (Ohio State)*

Even if Murray goes #1, there’s still a lot of uncertainty at 2. The 49ers don’t need a quarterback and have their choice of the top-two defensive players in the draft in Nick Bosa and Quinnen Williams. I’ve had Quinnen Williams here in the past and he’s certainly still a possibility if he’s higher on their board than Bosa, but rumors that the 49ers are looking to trade Solomon Thomas suggest that the 49ers are locked on to Bosa as their long-term complement to Dee Ford, who was acquired in a sign and trade this off-season.

3. Green Bay Packers (TRADE) – DE Quinnen Williams (Alabama)

This is another spot with a ton of uncertainty. The Jets need an edge rusher badly, probably two edge rushers, but are reportedly not in love with Josh Allen (the #2 edge rusher behind Nick Bosa) and want to move down to recoup the 2nd round pick they gave up in their trade up for Sam Darnold last year. A team could trade up here for a quarterback, especially if Kyler Murray somehow falls here, but the Jets could also get a lot of interest from teams that want either Bosa or Williams, who ever the 49ers don’t take.

We’ve heard the Bills tied to this pick in a trade up scenario, but often times it’s the teams you don’t hear anything about that end up making the splash moves. The Packers have an extra first rounder from their trade down with the Saints last year and could package together 12, 30, and 44 to move up into the top-3 for a blue chip prospect like Quinnen Williams. The Packers did a good job of addressing their big needs in free agency and can afford to go all in on a player like Williams, who will probably be at the very top of many draft boards across the league. He’d give them a loaded 3-man defensive lineman with Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark.

4. Oakland Raiders – DE Josh Allen (Kentucky)*

The Raiders made headlines last week when they dismissed their entire scouting staff before the draft for fear of leaks. The Raiders have a new GM and would likely have cleaned house in the scouting department after the draft anyway, but it was still an unusual move. On top of that, a report came out this week that they have a surprise pick that they want to keep a complete secret. I would be skeptical about that report though. It’s possible they have a surprise pick in mind, but wanting secrecy is not proof that they’re going to do something shocking. Both head coach Jon Gruden and GM Mike Mayock spent years in TV before their current jobs and know this game as well as anyone. They could have easily leaked the report about a surprise pick to an old media buddy.

Given that, I would expect Quinnen Williams to be the pick if he falls here, as he’s arguably the top player in the entire draft. With the Packers moving up ahead of them for Williams, this pick becomes a little murkier, but they’ve worked out Josh Allen privately and Oakland makes a lot of sense as the destination for the draft class’ #2 edge rusher. The Raiders had a pathetic 13 sacks in 2018, in a year where every other team had at least 30, and, as many needs as they have, none is bigger than edge rusher.

This could also be Ed Oliver or Devin White, neither of whom I would consider a “surprise” pick, even though neither fills as big of a need as Allen does. I would be surprised if they took Dwayne Haskins however, despite reports tying him to them. Those could easily be fake reports planted by the Raiders in an effort to try to get a team to move up for Haskins so they can have their choice of Nick Bosa or Quinnen Williams. Gruden has always preferred experience at the quarterback position and is unlikely to want to turn his franchise over to a quarterback with one year of college starting experience.

5. Washington Redskins (TRADE) – QB Dwayne Haskins (Ohio State)*

The Redskins are in an interesting situation and it’s hard to predict what they’ll do because of the uncertainty of Alex Smith’s long-term future. If the Redskins believe Smith can recover for the 2020 season, they probably won’t want to move up for a quarterback, instead sticking with Case Keenum and Colt McCoy as one-year stopgaps. With 22 million owed to Keenum, McCoy, and Smith combined in 2019, and another 16 million guaranteed committed to Smith in 2020, the Redskins already have a lot of resources tied up in the quarterback position and have other pressing needs. Picking at 15, the Redskins would likely have to surrender at least a future first round pick to move up into the top-5 to take a quarterback, which is a steep price.

The Redskins have never been known for being patient, so I’m going to predict this trade up. There are reports that owner Dan Snyder wants to move up for Haskins, even against the advice of his front office, which sounds about right. The Buccaneers have their pick of some blue chip defenders if they stay put, so the Redskins will have to pay a premium to move up, but their 2nd rounder and a 2020 1st round pick should be enough to get the job done.

6. New York Giants – DE Ed Oliver (Houston)*

The Redskins move up ahead of the Giants to take Dwayne Haskins, but it’s unclear if the Giants would even take Haskins at 6 if he was available. Part of the reasoning behind the Odell Beckham trade was that it didn’t make sense for a team that wants to build around defense and running the football to be paying that much money to a wide receiver. Given that, they might be hesitant to use a high first round pick on a quarterback with Eli Manning already making 17 million in 2019.

GM Dave Gettleman has said he likes the approach that the Chiefs took, taking a quarterback (Patrick Mahomes) to sit for a year behind a veteran, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the conservative Gettleman has his eyes on someone with the 6th pick and at the very least I think it’s unlikely they’ll give up multiple picks to move up and take a quarterback in the top-5. With the Redskins moving up for Haskins, the decision is made for the Giants and they take a defensive player instead. Ed Oliver would give them an instant difference maker on the defensive line.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars – OT Jawaan Taylor (Florida)*

The Jaguars will probably have better injury luck on the offensive line in 2019 (at one point all 5 week 1 starters were out with injury), but they still need to add talent upfront. Jawaan Taylor would give them a long-term bookend for Cam Robinson and allow 2018 4th round pick Will Richardson to serve in a swing role or potentially move inside to guard, where right guard AJ Cann is an underwhelming starter. The Jaguars could also take a defensive player here if they like the value better. They’re far better on defense than offense, but they have some expensive, aging players on the defensive line.

8. Detroit Lions – MLB Devin White (LSU)

If the Lions hadn’t just given a huge contract to Trey Flowers, a defensive end like Clelin Ferrell or Montez Sweat would probably be the pick here. They still would make some sense, but Devin White fills a much bigger need at linebacker. The Lions used a 2017 first round pick on middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, but he played much better at outside linebacker in 2018 and they need a linebacker to pair with him long-term.

9. Buffalo Bills – TE TJ Hockenson (Iowa)

The Bills added some pass catchers in free agency, signing Cole Beasley, John Brown, and Tyler Kroft, but they could still add another one at 9 as they try to give Josh Allen everything he needs to succeed. This is too early for a wide receiver, which is not a pressing need for the Bills anyway, but TJ Hockenson is a potential top-10 pick and would pair well with Kroft at tight end. Kroft was signed to a deal worth 18.75 million over 3 years, but he’s never topped 42 catches in a season and adding Hockenson would allow them to run two tight end sets much more frequently.

10. Denver Broncos – QB Drew Lock (Missouri)*

The Broncos traded for Joe Flacco, but they only gave up a 4th rounder for him, so his addition won’t preclude the Broncos from taking a quarterback in the draft. The remaining 63 million over 3 years left on Flacco’s contract is all non-guaranteed, so the Broncos can get out of his contract whenever they want. John Elway is known to be a big fan of Lock, who can sit a year behind Flacco with an eye on him being the starter in 2020, which would save the Broncos significant cap space. Flacco would otherwise be owed 20.25 million in 2020 if they stick with him.

11. Cincinnati Bengals – MLB Devin Bush (Michigan)*

The Bengals re-signed Preston Brown to a 3-year, 16.5 million dollar deal in free agency, rather than shooting higher at the middle linebacker position, but Brown could still be moved to fill a need at outside linebacker. That would open up a spot for a rookie linebacker to play every down in the middle. Devin Bush has a far greater upside and is preferred by some over Devin White. The Bengals, who have worked him out privately, could be one of those teams, but even if they aren’t he may be the best player left on their board. White would be an option here as well if he happens to fall.

12. New York Jets (TRADE) – DE Rashan Gary (Michigan)*

With the Jets trading down and picking up three top-50 picks, they can afford to take a risk like this. Rashan Gary has the upside to be the best player out of this draft, but in addition to his injury concerns he was never a highly productive player in college, possibly due to his shoulder injury. For the Jets, he fills a massive need for a pass rusher. He’s not a pure edge rusher, but the Jets need pass rush anywhere they can get it and Gary has the versatility to fit the multiple defensive schemes that Gregg Williams wants to run. They’ll remain a base 3-4 team for now, but that has never been Williams’ specialty and they figure to be in the nickel a lot of the time anyway.

13. Miami Dolphins – OT Jonah Williams (Alabama)

The Dolphins’ plan seems to be to stockpile future draft picks, shed salary, and rebuild, with an eye on taking a quarterback with an early draft pick in a better quarterback class in 2020. That makes more sense than giving away future picks to move up and get a quarterback in the top-5 or top-10, even with only Ryan Fitzpatrick and unproven backups on the roster. They could still take a quarterback in the middle rounds or trade for Josh Rosen, but in the first round I expect them to address another need. As many needs as they have, it’s hard to imagine a bigger need than offensive line, which was a weakness even before they lost right tackle Ja’Wuan James to the Broncos in free agency. Williams could be his replacement or could kick inside to guard, which has been a huge problem position for the Dolphins for years.

14. Atlanta Falcons – DT Christian Wilkins (Clemson)

Christian Wilkins could easily go in the top-10 based on talent, but this is a strong defensive line class, so he could slip. The Falcons wouldn’t complain, as they have a massive need at defensive tackle next to Grady Jarrett, who still isn’t signed long-term on the franchise tag. If Wilkins can develop into a high level player and Jarrett signs long-term, they’d be one of the best defensive tackle duos in the league.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TRADE) – OT Cody Ford (Oklahoma)*

The Buccaneers obviously need help on defense, but after moving down and accumulating more picks they can afford to take the best available player who fits a need. That could be Cody Ford, who would give them an instant upgrade at right guard and a long-term option at right tackle, where Demar Dotson is going into his age 34 contract year. The Buccaneers have worked him out privately even though he’s not an option in the top-5, so he would make sense if they were to move down.

16. Carolina Panthers – DE Clelin Ferrell (Clemson)*

Defensive end is one of the Panthers’ biggest needs and if Clelin Ferrell, a potential top-10 pick, slips to them at 16 they will probably be thrilled. Starting defensive ends Mario Addison and Bruce Irvin are both going into their age 32 seasons, with Irvin only on a one-year contract, and they lack proven depth behind them. Ferrell could immediately compete for a starting role and could push to lead the team in sacks as a rookie (Addison led them with 9 in 2018).

17. New York Giants – QB Daniel Jones (Duke)*

The Giants might not take a quarterback at 6 and it’s even less likely they move up into the top-5 for a quarterback, but I would surprised if they didn’t come away with a long-term quarterback option out of this draft, probably in the top-40 picks somewhere. In my last mock draft, I had the Giants moving back up into the end of the first round to take Daniel Jones, who they are known to like, but if they want him they will probably have to take him at 17, especially if Drew Lock comes off the board early too. It’s just too risky to let him get any further than this if he’s their guy. He’s far from a polished prospect, but would benefit from sitting behind Eli Manning for a year before taking over as the starter in 2020.

18. Minnesota Vikings – OT Andre Dillard (Washington State)*

The Vikings have had major problems on the offensive line the past few seasons and Kirk Cousins is not nearly as adept at playing under pressure as Case Keenum was, so they’ll need to get help upfront. The Vikings have talked about moving Riley Reiff inside to guard, after struggling at left tackle in his first 2 seasons in Minnesota. In order to do that, they would need a new left tackle. Andre Dillard is a rising prospect and could easily be the pick here at 18 if he’s still on the board.

19. Tennessee Titans – OLB Brian Burns (Florida State)*

Even with the addition of Cameron Wake, edge rusher is still a need for the Titans. Wake is not a long-term solution, going into his age 37 season, and they lack a long-term starter opposite 2018 2nd round pick Harold Landry. Burns is pretty raw, but has a huge upside. He could start as a rotational player, before developing into an every down player, as he continues to grow into his frame. He had a dominant combine that would have gotten a lot more attention if it wasn’t for Montez Sweat’s otherworldly performance.

20. Pittsburgh Steelers – WR Marquise Brown (Oklahoma)

Trading Antonio Brown obviously left a big hole at wide receiver. The Steelers have JuJu Smith-Schuster to step into the #1 role in his 3rd season in the league and they also added veteran Donte Moncrief to go with last year’s 2nd round pick James Washington, but Moncrief is not a long-term solution on only a two-year deal and Washington struggled mightily as a rookie, often spending gameday as a healthy scratch. Now possessing 4 picks in the first 3 rounds, I expect them to use at least one on a wide receiver. Marquise Brown is expected to go in the first round, after receiving good news about his injured foot. He’s the best fit for the Steelers of any of the first round wideouts and they could definitely make him the first wide receiver off the board. He’s expected to be ready for training camp.

21. Seattle Seahawks – CB Greedy Williams (LSU)

With two picks in the first round and just 3 in the rest of the draft, the Seahawks will likely look to trade out of one or both of their first round picks, as they have several times in recent years. I didn’t want to predict too many trades though and there isn’t an obvious player to move up for at this juncture anyway. If the Seahawks stay put, Greedy Williams would make a lot of sense, as the 6-2 185 pounder has the size and length that the Seahawks love in a cornerback. In the past, they’ve waited until the mid-to-late rounds to take developmental defensive backs to start a year or two down the road, but the Seahawks need someone who can contribute now. With only 2018 5th round pick Tre Flowers, who struggled as a rookie, of note behind Shaq Griffin on the depth chart, cornerback is a pressing need for the Seahawks going into the draft.

22. Baltimore Ravens – WR DK Metcalf (Mississippi)*

I know the Ravens are a run first team, but Lamar Jackson needs to succeed as a passer for this offense to play at a high level. He’s not going to be able to carry the ball 15-20 times per game for the rest of his career and hold up. Right now, Jackson has next to nothing to work with in the receiving corps, with Willie Snead penciled in as the #1 receiver and no proven talent behind him on the depth chart. That’s a big problem for a quarterback with accuracy issues.

23. Houston Texans – G Garrett Bradbury (NC State)

The Texans desperately need offensive line help and have been linked with each of the top-4 offensive tackles in this class (Taylor, Williams, Ford, and Dillard). They are rumored to be interested in moving up to secure one of them, but they are unable to in this scenario and miss out on all 4. They could address another part of the team, but they have needs on the interior of their offensive line as well and Garrett Bradbury is not a bad consolation prize. He has the versatility to play all 3 interior line positions and is expected to come off the board in the first round.

24. Oakland Raiders – DE Montez Sweat (Mississippi State)*

It’s anyone’s guess where Montez Sweat is going to end up, given the uncertainty around his enlarged heart and how it will affect his professional career. With four picks in the top-35, the Raiders can afford to take this kind of risk. Sweat is a top-10 talent and if he and Josh Allen pan out the Raiders’ pass rush will get a lot better very quickly, after an NFL worst 13 sacks in 2018.

25. Philadelphia Eagles – G Chris Lindstrom (Boston College)

The Eagles’ offensive line was a big strength during their Super Bowl run, but took a big step back in 2018. The Eagles don’t have many pressing needs, but given Carson Wentz’s injury history they will want to do everything they can to keep him on the field. Lindstrom is a plug and play week 1 starter at left guard and an immediate upgrade over any other option on their roster.

26. Indianapolis Colts – WR AJ Brown (Mississippi)

The Colts’ offense was very impressive down the stretch in 2018, despite lacking a clear #2 receiver. They signed Devin Funchess in free agency, but he signed just a one-year deal and they lack depth behind him and #1 receiver TY Hilton. AJ Brown gives them a long-term option opposite TY Hilton and his size (6-0 226) would complement the smaller, speedier Hilton well.

27. Oakland Raiders – TE Noah Fant (Iowa)

Tight end Jared Cook was the Raiders’ leading receiver in 2018 and with him gone as a free agent the Raiders have next to nothing at the tight end position. With four picks in the first 35 in a strong tight end class, expect them to find an upgrade through the draft. Fant is one of three possible first round tight ends that the Raiders could plug and play at the tight end spot in 2019. He’s rawer than the other two tight ends, but is a freak athlete with a massive upside.

28. Los Angeles Chargers – DT Dexter Lawrence (Clemson)

Defensive tackle was a weakness for the Chargers in 2018 and things got even worse when they lost their top player at the position Darius Philon in free agency and didn’t replace him. Right now, the only three defensive tackles on the roster are 2018 3rd round pick Justin Jones, who had a rough rookie year, declining veteran Brandon Mebane, and bottom of the roster type TY McGill. Dexter Lawrence would have a big rookie year role.

29. Seattle Seahawks – DT Jeffery Simmons (Mississippi State)*

This is one of the picks the Seahawks got in the Frank Clark trade. With a pair of first rounders, the Seahawks can afford to take a risk like this. Jeffery Simmons is a top-5 talent, but domestic violence history and a torn ACL that may sideline him for all of 2019 could drop him out of the first round. The Seahawks could trade down and target Simmons early in the second, but then they wouldn’t have a 5th year option on his contract and if he misses all of 2019 the Seahawks would only have him for 3 years before free agency. His off-the-field issues complicate matters further, but the Seahawks drafted Frank Clark despite domestic violence history. Even if he doesn’t play until 2020, Simmons could give the Seahawks a dominant interior defensive lineman. They’ll likely lock up Jarran Reed long-term now that Clark has been traded, but they need a long-term starter inside next to him.

30. New York Jets (TRADE) – CB Byron Murphy (Washington)

The Jets upgraded the slot cornerback spot this off-season by swapping Buster Skrine for Brian Poole, but have a big hole at the other outside spot opposite Trumaine Johnson. Morris Claiborne started for them last year, but he remains unsigned in free agency, so the Jets are clearly shooting higher at the position. Cornerback isn’t a position they would address at 3 and they wouldn’t have a 2nd rounder if they don’t trade down, but in this scenario, after trading down and picking up a couple additional picks in the top-50, the Jets would likely target cornerbacks. Murphy is a good value late in the first round.

31. Los Angeles Rams – C Erik McCoy (Texas A&M)*

The Rams have lost a pair of starters on the offensive line this off-season and Jared Goff has had a big statistical drop off in his career when under pressure, so offensive line will likely be a priority for the Rams in the draft. Last year’s 3rd and 4th round picks Joseph Noteboom and Brian Allen are penciled in as the starters at left guard and center respectively, but they need competition for them and Noteboom’s long-term future may be at left tackle anyway, with Andrew Whitworth going into his age 38 contract season. McCoy gives them more options, with the ability to play both center and guard himself. They could start him at center as a rookie with Allen and Noteboom competing at left guard.

32. New England Patriots – TE Irv Smith (Alabama)

Tight end obviously becomes a huge need for the Patriots with Rob Gronkowski retiring, leaving Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Matt LaCosse, Jacob Hollister, Stephen Anderson, Jakob Johnson, and Ryan Izzo as the only tight ends on the roster. Fortunately, this is a good tight end class and they could easily find a starting caliber tight end at the end of the first round, with 3 tight ends expected to go in the top-40 picks or so. Irv Smith could have a big rookie year role for them. He’s more pro ready than Fant and his superior blocking ability makes him a much better fit for the Patriots’ balanced offense.